Wednesday, 26 February 2014

#331 Windhand - Soma

It's been a little while since I ventured to review a doom album, although the reasons for this escape me, as I have been listening to a fairly plentiful stream of doom recently. If I had to pick one record which has served as the flagship to my listening in that area so far this year, it would be Windhand's late 2013 record Soma. That being the case, now seems to be the time to review the aforesaid hour-and-a-quarter of riffs, having finally let it's rumbling, stoner-doom goodness seep slowly but surely into my brain thoroughly enough to be able to describe it in sentences.

Soma is a fairly interesting collection of ingredients, and while it might, prima facie come across as a fairly predictable stoner-doom album, it very quickly unravels your preconceptions and proves that it is, in fact, an extremely interesting record. Peeking out from the crushing riffs are glimpses of an atmosphere which few bands manage to truly capture - less gratuitously narcotic, but easily as psychedelic as any other doom record you can bring to mind, Soma has a strange but enthralling beauty to it - the soaring vocals of Dorthia Cottrell blend into the crushing tone of the album to create a sound which feels tender and bruised, but also soothing. There is an element of pain in the album, sorrow too, but all carried on a tide of uplifting intensity... I try not to conflate how the album makes me in particular feel, with how the album sounds, but in a sense, those two things need never be separate in how one indulges in music. The vocal lines are, at all times, very definite; precise, measured and truly correct to the backing rhythm to which they conjoin - the immediate effect is to render the whole album one which is truly loaded with memorable sections, for the most part firmly absorbed by the listener within a couple of listens. Perhaps not in the sense that there are particular sections which you look forward to above others in the record, but certainly, when the album is enjoyed as a single piece, as only feels right, the whole thing feels like a familiar cocoon extremely quickly, and is all the more rewarding for it.

The album is around 75 minutes in length, which serves as a testament to how absorbing it can be; I could have sworn it was only about an hour, perhaps less, in length. Indeed, it's definitely the sort of album which makes you lose track of time, and in a relatively good way. It is for this reason that I find the record to be best enjoyed as a single serving; it seamlessly carries itself for it's entire length, from its first stirring of life, right through to its unhurried fade into nothingness at the close of the mammoth closing track. The entire record is slow, steady and  in no hurry to get anywhere; it's not the sort of record which bestows you with a particularly keen awareness of where you are, in it - instead, it's the sort of record which you are, throughout, content simply with the fact that it is happening to you - it truly envelopes the listener. Gratuitous heaviness isn't Windhand's game, although the tone is truly speaker-vanquishing, and for the most part a present elephant-like stampede of lower-end and fuzz throughout the album. The atmosphere which is conjured hand in hand with this heaviness, however, is truly the pinnacle of what the record does. I can safely say that Soma is one of the most atmospheric - or, at the very least, possesses among the strongest atmosphere of it's sort - within just about all of the stone doom I have laid ear to. It feels far more than superficially stoned and whacky - transcending beyond to a more heartfelt realm, the heaviness trapping your senses, and the vocal lines and piercing, psychedelic solos calling out to you, dreamlike.

Soma is the sort of record which, if you're a fan of the genre in general, it's quite difficult to find problems with; sure, it's long as heck, but it's not remotely ponderous, and easily justifies - even disguises - how long it runs for. As for the music itself, I can personally attest that it's some of the best stoner-doom I've listened to. Granted, the album embodies many of the norms of the style, but it is, simultaneously, far too interesting to be considered run-of-the-mill. It is, without question, equipped with its own identity.

This is an 8.5/10.

Windhand on Facebook
Windhand on Bandcamp
Windhand on Metal Archives

Friday, 21 February 2014

#330 Suffocation - Effigy of the Forgotten

I suppose I should have listened to Suffocation quite some time ago, considering that, as far as I'm told, the way most modern death-metal sounds is, depending on your perspective, either the Suffocation's legacy, or Suffocation's fault. Personally, until a few days ago, I had never made the step towards actually listening to the band themselves, but recently, I was suddenly hit by how gosh-darn badass their artwork is, and decided, on that basis, to see what all the fuss was about.

It has to be said, the recipe which Suffocation lay down in this record; Effigy of the Forgotten, is almost exactly the same recipe that countless bands still utilize to the letter to this day, over twenty years later. The main point to take away from that fact is that not only were Suffocation making this style of death metal first, they were also, for my money, making it better; The chef who created the recipe is, almost certainly, going to make a better dish than the people at the other end reading the recipe book, and good lord it shows. The record manages to incorporate all of the trimmings one might expect from the pioneers of the style; slams, extremely low gutturals, and a beady eye for technicality, all rolled into about forty minutes of impeccably produced churning. Simultaneously however, this record doesn't lose sight of itself; nothing about it is gratuitous, which is something most modern brutal death bands need to bear in mind - for all of its slamming, skull-crunching and stop-start song structures, the record still soars and trundles along smoothly; songs feel like songs, and riffs still feel like riffs. The album is self-propelling and sturdy - memorable, too, and finds a superb compromise between flow and technicality, reminding us that a band can be technical - adeptly technical, without stooping to sounding like a piano falling down an escalator. 

Perhaps part of the secret to the records fantastic flavour is the sense the band exhibit in keeping a good number of slightly more old-school death-metal parts, something which tends to be either entirely done, or not done at all, by the two sides of the recent death-metal coin. Here, however, the balance is struck very well indeed, and while Suffocation is by no stretch the sort of punk-steeped, Entombed loving death metal which I usually consume, it certainly doesn't embody the silly side of death metal which I'm occasionally known to indulge in, either. That's where the greatness of the album is - in managing at the same time to have the fun elements of brutality, but without sacrificing the feeling of being quite proper. Indeed, the record really has its own feel, and the artwork evokes this; it's a mechanized, cold form of death metal, but not in the sense that it's soulless, merely different; it's not the warm, zombies-and-evisceration style death metal of the late eighties, but truly something fit for a new decade, bringing a new atmosphere with it, like a cold nuclear dawn, after a late-eighties party in a crypt - the production's cleanliness, giving the record the feeling of a precise, stainless-steel surgical tool very much emphasizes this impression. Sure, lyrically, the band deal with many of the familiar themes of gore, death and the like, but equally, the direction feels different, and interesting indeed. It's only on rare, lucky occasions that you get to hear a band with slams and d-beats, after all. 

It's been quite a long road, my discovery of death-metal; more inaccessible to me than black-metal, and vastly more than thrash, I still don't consider myself to know the genre especially well, but, nonetheless, I consider myself to recognize a classic when I hear it. I can, indeed, finally say that I've heard the true originators of a style within the genre, and, for my money, they still do it better than any of the bands they've inspired over the years. Fantastic.

This is a 9/10.


Monday, 17 February 2014

#329 Conjuro Nuclear - Luna llena y Radiación

Conjuro Nuclear's first full length album is one which I was asked to review quite a while ago now. Sadly, I've been more busy than usual so far this year, and it is only now, a few months late, that I find myself with the opportunity to sit down and properly listen to the record. Having now done so, a couple of times, it feels about time to get a review of some sort written down for the cold, minimalistic black-metal which came out to meet me.

Luna llena y Radiación is an exceptionally minimalist black-metal record. Reminiscent of Burzum's early work, and the entire school of black metal which has long existed in that vein, it brings together riffs with the feel of driven snow (or perhaps more appropriately nuclear ash) with simplistic, crisp drumming and scathing, frigid vocals. The record as a whole is deeply steeped in ambient sound, at times subtly, and at others utterly, both sides of that particular coin being effectively deployed. The coming together of sawtooth, fluid guitar tone, with single notes driving the music forward, and deep, rich synth work with a primitive but effective feel creates an album which is extremely atmospheric - a property which defines it above all others. For it's simplicity, the atmosphere which is conjured is very engrossing and captivating - a whispering, cold feeling blankets the whole album with a mixture of sorrow and wonder, evoked beautifully by the subtle synth which is seldom truly silent, but avoids being clumsy and invasive. The sound of the record as a whole is surprisingly difficult to attach a date to - and it feels as easily part of 1993 than the truth, twenty years on, in it's identity as a 2013 album. A consequence of this ambience is to render the record quite mellow and gentle, and while it is an undoubtedly harsh record musically, it is far from savage, instead fully siding with atmosphere over the intensity which many would traditionally have opted for.

The percussion on the record is a motley assortment of programmed and genuine drum-work, both in a relatively minimalistic capacity. As albums go, this one is certainly not a very percussive one, with the drums seemingly mainly keeping the time, and punctuating the music a little, as opposed to really pounding away, although they certainly feel a little more present in the tracks with a real drummer, which seems to suggest that that would be a good course of action for the band to take-up on a permanent basis, if possible. Whether or not this slightness of drumming is intentional or not, I am uncertain, but it seems to both add and subtract from the record. The open, ambient feeling of the record is certainly emphasised by the polite, background style percussion, but simultaneously, I certainly find myself curious to see how the record would sound with deep, booming percussion. No doubt as the band progresses, we shall see developments in this sound, and the general rough-around-the-edges feel of the album as a whole certainly leaves allowances for the occasional production shortcoming, of which there are some, but pleasingly few of any note other than the percussion. Other than that, the record is, while perhaps quite unrefined, an extremely enjoyable one, and very competently written.

Once again, I have encountered an album which I was requested to review which has exceeded my expectations - such albums are always pleasing, and, given the quality of this debut, I shall be keeping a keen eye on Conjuro Nuclear's future works. This debut is, easily, one of the better albums of its sort that I've heard in a while.

This is a 7/10.

Conjuro Nuclear on Bandcamp
Conjuro Nuclear on Metal Archives 

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

#328 Cultfinder - Hell's Teeth

Black thrash has, for a long time now, been solidified among my favorite sub-genres, for a variety of reasons; not only is is one of the genres which is most respectful to the vision of the earliest pioneers of extremity, but it also simultaneously manages to combine being fun without being silly, whilst at the same time being dark, visceral and ferocious - and at times deadly serious - without running the gauntlet of coming across as a bit up itself in the way that some black metal can seem in its endeavors to conjure the real, true, limited to cassette Satan. Another of the things I've always enjoyed about black-thrash is its ability to have a consistency and a seeming immunity to stagnation, which is about to be demonstrated by the record I'm about to review - the upcoming... EP (I think)... by English black-thrashers Cultfinder, who, as sure as a dog's a hairy beast, manage to tear the sound-waves apart with their music.

Cultfinder's brand of black-thrash is a vicious one indeed, Ferocious as a bear on crystal meth, and jagged as the contents of a bottle-bank which someone rolled down a hill, the first thing which hits you about the record is it's sheer abrasiveness; the production is truly gnarly - the guitars are rude, untamed and rough, and the drums are recorded in an enjoyably primitive manner, with very little in the way of post-production carry-on having been performed upon them. In short, they sound almost exactly as they sounded whilst in the process of being played. The entire record sounds very much the way that the artwork looks - gruesome, snaggletoothed and barbed - indeed, Cultfinder manage to sound truly hellish, which seems extremely appropriate to the record's name. That isn't to say, however, that the record isn't tight; the musicianship is legitimately top notch, and the songs carry themselves with a rabid energy which shines through on every song, capturing an intensity which a more-produced record might have lacked. The blend of elements deployed on the record are themselves reasonable eclectic, mixing the brain-splattering single-kick pedal assault which bands like Abigail, and indeed Hellhammer are renowned for, with a considerably blacker, blast-beat laden side which really drags the listener through the broken glass and barbed wire of hell, while combining it with a more tangible atmospheric element than either of the two bands mentioned above.

Indeed, the black metal sections manage to truly call upon the frozen, demonic elements of black-metal itself in their roaring, shrieking tremolos, and implement it seamlessly into what one might consider a difficult amount of d-beat laden, unapologetic punk elements to reconcile such atmosphere with. They also have d-beats, which, really, was all I ever needed to hear to be sold on the band immediately. On top of being, for want of a better word, mental, Hell's Teeth is also a deeply memorable record - the drum beats and snarled, spat vocals give the entire record a strongly percussive feel - the sort which rigorously drills the song structures into your brain, where they will remain for the rest of time - and all the better for it! As I mentioned in the introduction, one of the things which I often praise black-thrash for is its ability to retain a hefty element of fun, and this record is certainly one which you find yourself grinning whilst listening to it, and for all the right reasons, namely one of which being that it's the sort which can invoke the sort of "fucking hell" excitement which much of the best metal does. The record also has the appropriate magic to it - that is, when you listen to it, you get a taste of how outrageous the band would be in a live show, which is always a pleasure to hear from a record, and something which many bands lose sight of. A good recording, after all, should sound like a replication of the perfect live show, and not the other way round, as so many bands stray towards.

At the end of the day, I can safely say that Cultfinder is precisely the sort of vile filth which I will never, ever grow tired of hearing - and it's well executed at that. The UK as a whole doesn't have an especially rich crop of black-thrash, and newer bands like Cultfinder certainly cement in my mind a view that, hopefully, this shortage is about to change into an abundance.

This is an 8.5/10.

Cultfinder on Facebook
Cultfinder on Metal Archives

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

#327 Iced Earth - Plagues of Babylon

Iced Earth haven't necessarily maintained a perfect track-record over their long career, but I, for one, still feel a certain level of excitement when I hear news that they're making a new record. Particularly, it must be added, one which follows in the footsteps of Dystopia, which, if you've been keeping track, was their first record with new vocalist Stu Block, and, causation or correlation, was also quite good. It was with high hopes then, that I sat in my friends house somewhere around Christmas time as he streamed the record on Spotify. As the tracks came past, the record certainly left an impression - ambivalence, for the most part, but with subsequent further listens, I have attempted to soak myself thoroughly enough in the album to have a definite impression of it - which I shall now mash onto my screen with a keyboard, in the hope that someone, somewhere, reads the gibberish I so enthusiastically create.

Plagues of Babylon has great cover-art, and as far as I'm concerned, that's a strong start. I have more mixed feelings about the rest of the record, however - namely the sonic bit which most would consider of the utmost importance. Track-wise, there's a bit of a surplus, and as much as I love the cover of Highwayman (I have, in fact, listened to it the most, of the whole record), it could really be a bonus track. So too with "Spirit of the Times" which something of a re-working of one of Jon's Sons of Liberty tracks - it too, has a certain superfluous air which really makes the record drag a little. Indeed, the album comes to a bit of a grinding halt after about track eight. It's a shame in some regards, because a lot of the tracks before that point are rather good indeed - Democide has the galloping feel of a legitimately solid 90's Iced Earth track, with more than a subtle hint of the band's fantastic craft on the first three records shining through quite well. So too with tracks like The Culling, which, while at a lower tempo (as many, many tracks on this record seem to be) boasts the sort of massive chorus which becomes unrelentingly entangled within your brain. The issue of tempo is an odd one, as I feel like something of a dinosaur for preferring the very thrash-orientated, early Iced Earth sound to the mid-tempo approach they have had for considerably longer than the former sound, but it does feel especially prevalent on Plagues of Babylon, with many tracks having drums which feel like they want to be faster than they are; at many points there is the feeling of tempo, without the tasty sauce of speed itself - like painting the pavement to look like crazy-paving. Granted, there are plenty of speedy sections, but the mid-tempo material, of which there is more than plenty, is almost militantly mid-tempo.

I mention that the record has some massive choruses - it is indeed worth pointing out that the entire record feels extremely chorus-orientated; just about all of the songs cluster around the chorus as if it were a source of warmth on a freezing evening. Like the metaphorical radiators or bonfires in question, however, the choruses suffer a little bit from sounding rather similar to one another; there are better ones and worse ones - and granted, some of them are unapologetically great, there are a lot of instances where you listen to a song from the record and get the impression you could just stick any of the choruses available on the album in any of the chorus-slots. Indeed, the record has a bit of a kit-built feel, as if the songs were assembled from a collection of parts, as opposed to from scratch - it is, in fact, quite fortunate - perhaps also a testament to the band's competence as musicians, that such a build was as successful sonically as it is. I don't intend on being entirely doom-and-gloom about the record however, or the band; Iced Earth are a bit like that friend which everyone has - when you get used to their eccentricities, they're fairly tolerable. With Iced Earth, there are a few such eccentricities to watch out for, and they're all present on this record. Slightly confusing concept material about the Setians doing... something? Check. Something about the new world order taking away all of Jon Schaffer's guns? Check. That style of balled? Check. The vocalist either being and/or sounding like Matt Barlow? Check. Fortunately, despite all of these being true, the record is a thoroughly enjoyable one. In the last instance too, I must add that I find Stu Block to be doing great things for the band - sure he sounds not unlike their previous vocalists, but damn, he's good at it.

All in all, while the ups and downs of Iced Earth have certainly turned many away, and brought others in in equal measure, I still have something of a trust for the band; seldom will they produce a masterpiece - arguably never have the band had a magnum opus, but their ability to create a solid album is deserving of renown - Like a dogged delivery-man, they will get the package through your door, even if they broke the contents a bit sledgehammering it through the letterbox. There have been slips, of course - awful, awful Framing Armageddon flavored slips, but at the same time, when I want to hear something which just feels a bit... metal, with no frills, then most of Iced Earth's records are actually a very reasonable candidate for the task. This one is no exception.

This is a 7/10.

Iced Earth Official Site
Iced Earth on Facebook
Iced Earth on Metal Archives