Saturday, 21 December 2013

#320 Heavy Load - Death or Glory

Yes, that is a Norseman fighting with a polar bear, and that, my friends, is what heavy metal is all about. I haven't delved much into the early Swedish metal world - such scenes are the kind which I usually suddenly get an incentive to discover, as opposed to gradually coming to know. However, a friend of mine put some Heavy Load on last night, and since that point, I've had the feeling that I probably should, with all due haste, do some discovering. As well as being a part of the early Swedish scene, Heavy Load can safely be said to be my main incentive to discover more about said scene. 

Instead of a detailed, intricate description of the nuances of early 1980s traditional metal, I think I can roughly summarise it in one phrase; this is metal from the days in which metal was very excited about itself. Death or Glory is no exception, bursting with energy, ferociously catchy and memorable, and filled to the brim with that lovely, buttery lead guitar style which bands just don't seem to make any more, for the most part. If this was made today, it would perhaps be considered exceptionally over the top, almost to a farcical degree in the wrong hands, particularly the epic sections and solos with a sense of grandiosity. However, the spirit of the time is thoroughly soaked into the very fabric of this record, in such a way as to reassure the listener that this is all right; this is from 1982, don't panic. Records like this are every bit as solid as the more renowned albums of their time, and indeed, there is every reason to consider Death or Glory itself to be a classic - it certainly has that spark, that special magic - heavy metal magic. I've occasionally remarked that the best kind of album is a mixture of the unknown and the familiar; you can just about follow where the songs are going, but they likewise surprise you. The best kinds of album, indeed, introduces you to new expectations, and new ideas about what sort of melodies, sections and riffs really make metal, or any genre, what it is - working not within a style, but with a style, to cover new ground - for its time, we can all be damn certain that Death or Glory did just that, and rather a lot of it, at that.

I've been listening to a lot of extreme metal lately, and when you're in that position, it's often far too easy to forget just how good the oldest of the old-school is; as soon as the first riff of this record kicks in, you really feel the heavy metal energy flowing through you - past your eyes flash images of roaring guitars, screaming crowds, fast cars, denim, leather, long hair - precisely the things which rock n' roll, and by extension, heavy metal, always have been about, and always will be. It's rough, uncouth, and probably ought to wash it's hair slightly more often, but by God it sounds great - every chorus is worth singing along to, and every riff makes you nod your head, not only to the rhythm, but in agreement to an unspoken question. Is this good? Damn right it is. The production certainly has the feeling of a time-capsule; transporting the listener back to '82, but not in such a way as to make the record feel outdated. When a connoisseur drinks a fine wine of such an age, they do not consider it to be a wine which is dated, the instead consider it to be a fine vintage, and I can safely say, and I dare say without any opposition, that Heavy Load create an album of a very fine vintage indeed on this one - there has never been a time when Death or Glory did not sound great - then, now, or in decades to come. It is what was right with heavy metal, and what will always be right about it, encapsulated in about forty minutes.

I now have a strong urge to find something denim and sporadically play guitar, but I shall conclude by stating that that sort of outcome is what a record like Death or Glory is supposed to have and, quite frankly, if you don't find an album like this one exceptionally fun, exciting and inspiring, then heavy metal might not be for you.

This is a 8.5/10.

Heavy Load on Facebook
Heavy Load on Metal Archives

Saturday, 14 December 2013

#319 Sarcofago - I.N.R.I.

If you are a false don't entry. The nuclear drums will crush your brain, because you'll be burned and died. 

If you're unfamiliar with Sarcofago's work, the chances are you'll still have heard this phrase batted around enthusiastically throughout the metal community. The landmark album I.N.R.I, however, is where it all began for those infamous words, and, perhaps more importantly, where one of the mighty cornerstones of extreme music in the 1980s. 1987 was a year in which Mayhem gave us Deathcrush, Bathory gave us Under the Sign of the Black Mark, and chronologically sandwiched somewhere between the two, came I.N.R.I. All in all, I can imagine it may well have been quite a good summer.

Sarcofago have an admirably down-to-earth formula when it comes to I.N.R.I; they simply push the blasphemous and extreme edges of thrash as far towards its natural limits as possible, and for my money, do and damn good job of it. The album is both for it's time, and to this day one of the most venomous, chaotic and vitriolic records out there, with a crudeness and rawness which set the scene for a vast amount of nasty music to come. Perhaps representing the middle-ground of the mighty first-wave-black-metal records of 1987 (if indeed it can be considered part of that), I.N.R.I. lacks the huge grandiosity of Bathory, while remaining less murky, and considerably more competently played than Mayhem's work of that year. As opposed to being an album explained in terms of what it lacks, however, it is very much one which brings it's own evil to the table - I.N.R.I is filthy and vile, and not even a little bit sorry about it; riffs which sound like Hellhammer dipped in something corrosive are accompanied by frantic but neat blasting and the pounding of nuclear drums. The vocals, too, epitomise the aspiring extremity to which metal was headed at the time - rasping, aggressive and at times augmented by backing vocals so demonic and rumbling that if you were to take this album to church and have it confiscated, the preacher would probably exorcise it before he threw it away.

It's with records like I.N.R.I. that you really begin to see black-metal being born as a style; you can feel from the onset that the album is, simply put, moving beyond the edges of the map with regards to thrash, and, like similar artists of the day, the part of the strange, uncharted land they landed on was the embryonic ooze from which later black-metal would emerge, along with black-thrash, and all sorts of other evil denizens of the underground. To this day, countless bands forsake the more "refined" Scandinavian black-metal sound in order to pay homage to the predecessors of that sound - bands like Sarcofago. I digress from the album in question, but hopefully the exposition is welcome, as opposed to tedious. Either way, I.N.R.I. is, I think it can safely be said, one of the most significant extreme metal albums of the eighties - perhaps not genre-pioneering in a strict sense, but hugely important. If you've ever watched a film which has become iconic in terms of the sheer number of quotes and references which float around discourse, all the while realising "oh, that's where that is from", you may well experience a similar feeling when first experiencing I.N.R.I. As someone who came upon Sarcofago having listened to quite a lot of extreme metal first, I expect a lot of the monumental impact of the record is splattered against the shield of desensitization to extremity which most metalheads build up, but nonetheless, the record truly does feel adventurous - if I'd been into metal in 1987... if I'd been alive in 1987, you can be damn sure that I.N.R.I would be the record which I hid under the floorboards in case my parents saw it, and only listened to very quietly while everyone was asleep. There's something special about metal which puts you in that mindset, and I can promise you that Sarcofago deliver that feeling by the truckload.

Are Sarcofago overlooked? I'm not certain - I expect fewer copies of I.N.R.I. are in existence than, say, Deathcrush or the seminal works of Bathory, Celtic Frost or perhaps even Hellhammer, but as soon as the music on the record explodes forth from wherever it's playing from, it comes with the assurance that Sarcofago are every bit as deadly, every bit as wild, and perhaps every bit as significant. Those who appreciate at all, appreciate Sarcofago.

If you are false, don't entry. 9/10.

Sarcofago on Metal Archives

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

#318 Mgla - With Hearts Toward None

I've been in the mood for black metal for the last few months, and judging by how cold it is outside, it's probably the perfect time of year for it. Today's listening specifically is the relatively underground work of Polish band Mgla. I can't remember how I originally came to hear of the band, but for a long time they were on my mental list of "I should listen to them at some point". As with many such entries on the list, when I properly investigated the band a few days ago, they moved from that list right onto the "I should have listened to them a lot sooner" list. Let me tell you why...

Black metal varies wildly in legitimacy - perhaps as much as the very multitude of forms and mantles black metal takes upon itself these days. Granted, all music is made to be heard, but in such a way, all cigarette lighters are made to light cigarettes - but there is a vast gulf between the well-maintained Zippo and the disposable plastic lighter you found on the stairs, and as much as both serve a purpose, there are many reasons to prefer the former for it's sheer legitimacy.When it comes to legitimacy, Mgla seem to set at the very high end of the spectrum; from the first tremolo of the record right through to the conclusion, you get the feeling that your sonically contending with the real deal, for want of a better phrase. For me, at least, I can testify to the band really managing to capture and induce in me that excitement which you feel when you first discover black-metal, and hear that first Mayhem or Burzum song, which has you running around the room with excitement about this new, dark and almost secret thing you've stumbled upon. The atmosphere on With Hearts Toward None is thick, dark and almost luxuriantly scathing; layers of tremolo, generously placed, and a thick, velvet fuzz cocooning but not muffling the whole affair, while the drums below are vicious and crisp, propelling along this fuzz-laden shadow of sound like a cruel coach-master driving satanic horses. The result is something epic, flowing and with black-metal's most desirable vast scale.

The combination of elements which Mgla's music possesses is a very rewarding and pleasent one to listen to; the rich atmosphere combines superbly with the tremolos which stand perfectly astride the bridge between hypnotic and dynamic, resulting in something which has in equal measure the ability to draw you into the music, out of yourself, and at the same time impress you with delicious and unique tremolo structures which really set the band apart from other artists of the same type. The whole record carries an incredible, sermon-like majesty, not only in terms of the snowy, regal atmosphere, but also the vocals, which carry an incredible, echoing presence - victorious, proud, sinister and deeply atmospheric; the whole record feels drenched - steeped - in the occult, in darkness, and in a layer of unforgiving frost. There was a word which I heard once or twice in regards to Mgla's music, and that word was "ritualistic". It was an apt description indeed, and one which summarises the record well; there is a feeling of crescendo, otherness and liminality throughout the whole work - a feverish enthralment and juxtaposition; the vastness of the cosmos, and the darkness of men's souls, entwined in a shimmering, shining maelstrom of wide-eyed fascination. It might be an old cliché, and often something which every black metal band proclaims about their work, but With Hearts Toward None truly does feel like a ritual.

It's been quite a while since I listened to a black metal album which left me feeling quite so spellbound and excited; after hearing With Hearts Toward None, I have stumbled upon a band who truly sent me back to the place of great anticipation and awe which the classics of the genre sometimes sent me to, and few albums can do that. This one is something special.

This is a 9/10.

Mgla Official Site
Mgla on Facebook
Mgla on Metal Archives

Thursday, 5 December 2013

#317 Hail of Bullets - III: The Rommel Chronicles

As far as I'm aware, Hail of Bullets don't really think of themselves as a "supergroup", and neither do they consider themselves a "side-project". In fact, they very much seem to like their work to be taken for what it is, and not compared to other bands, which is, frankly, only common courtesy on the part of the listener and reviewer. Fortunately for this point of view then, I discovered Hail of Bullets before any of the other bands which the members are involved in, and while my taste has broadened since that time, you can count on a new Hail of Bullets album to get me excited. What sits before me is precisely that - their 2013 record III: The Rommel Chronicles, and now, the time has come to see if I can say anything about it.

I've listened to the last two Hail of Bullets albums fairly thoroughly by this point, considering that "On Divine Winds" was literally the first death-metal record I bought. As always in such instances, when album number-three comes along, it always takes a little while to settle in and feel "part of the family" of the bands discography. Nonetheless, what the album itself offers is, straight away, as clear as day. It offers a third helping of the Hail of Bullets we know and love; old-school, intense and at times extremely evocative death metal. The band seem to have mined a very rich seam of creativity on this record, and it certainly has a little extra punch with regards to song-writing when compared to its predecessor, On Divine Winds. The tracks are a little bit more dynamic, with more inventive and distinctive twists and turns - more lead work, more atmosphere, and more well-deployed solos. Yes indeed, The Rommel Chronicles is a damn solid album. It doesn't always rush for the throat in the way that predominated a lot of the previous work, but it certainly doesn't refrain from doing so either; there is a good blend of churning, atmospheric mid-tempo and roaring, rushing death-metal glory, thundering like a division of armour at full-speed ahead. The drumming on this record feels a little more punchy and produced than the last two albums - or at least, more prominent in the mix - and it certainly helps to propel the songs along viciously through both the slower and faster parts. While usually I'd find such a drum sound a little bit too clinical, it seems to work reasonably well in this instance, as does the albums relatively modern production as a whole.

The crowning feature, perhaps, of the album is the aforesaid atmosphere which it brings; both Of Frost And War as well as On Divine Winds had an exceptional atmosphere, really representing the carnage and twisted metal of warfare, but this album takes similar elements; crushing tone and clever lead-work, to turn this same atmosphere up to eleven. Of the three, this album certainly feels the most steeped in feeling - the lead work on tracks like the opener - Swoop of the Falcon - really carry a tortured, warlike shriek in the lead guitars, and a savage rasp in the rhythm - for my money, the most course and grainy the band have sounded to date. The near-trademark Hail of Bullets tone is, clearly, undergoing a process of evolution - to my ear, with even more attention to detail when it comes to weaving an air of carnage and devastation to the music, but also sorrow and desolation, on top of the usual gunpowder and flaming debris. All of Hail of Bullets' albums so far are concept albums about the second world war, and this one is no exception in so far as it doesn't have an especially happy ending for anyone involved - to avoid a history lesson, I won't give an exposition of Rommell. On top of the atmosphere, the solos are fantastic - extremely agile and genuinely enjoyable on their own musical merit - some albums manage to pack solos which are legitimately fun to listen to, making you imagine the work which goes into making it happen, and appreciating their dexterity - and this album has a lot of those - proving concisely that anyone who thinks adept solos have no place in death metal is entirely wrong.

As you could no doubt tell, and should have expected in the first place, Hail of Bullets once again live up to their reputation as deliverers of fantastic old-school death metal, and in a world where a lot of death-metal has become generic, uninspired and unexciting, I can safely say I'm glad that there are bands out there flying the flag high, crushing the non-believers under iron tank-tracks. This is true death metal, ya bastards!

This is an 8.5/10.

Hail of Bullets Official Site
Hail of Bullets on Facebook
Hail of Bullets on Metal Archives