Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Playlist: November 2016

Rotting Christ - Restoration of the Infernal Kingdom (1989): Kicking into November's playlist with something of a deep-cut, "Restoration of the Infernal Kingdom" from Rotting Christ's "Satanas Tedeum" demo is a crude and embryonic part of the band's legacy. Rough, and vastly less complex than their classic material, the track nonetheless bristles with vigour and visceral malice.

Opium Lord - Heroin Swirls (2013): Opium Lord combat the very real risk of doom-metal becoming too cheerful with a bleak, sludgy and skin-crawling slog through muck and misery. Brooding and harrowing in its threatening lower-end and addled discordance, "Heroin Swirls" reminds the listener that while you may love doom metal, doom metal hates you.

Lizzy Borden - Me Against the World (1987): Marking a massive mood-swing in the playlist, Lizzy Borden's "Me Against the World" is a familiarly catchy eighties foot-stomper that remains ingrained in the mind for about a decade after listening to it. Delivering everything that an eighties-metal hit should, the track romps through five minutes of sleazy but accomplished excellence.

Eyehategod - Methamphetamine (1996): What goes up, they say, must come down. "Methamphetamine" is a comedown indeed, albeit with the gnarly swagger that Eyehategod consistently do best. Animated and frantic, the music manages to be both deeply bleak and yet cathartic. As a friend once said to me, Eyehategod certainly know their way around a riff.

Tank - When All Hell Freezes Over (1984): As befits any Tank song, "When All Hell Freezes Over" is a raucous and memorable affair, met half-way by the gritty and ballsy sound that the band achieved consistently through the early eighties. The gravelly and distinct vocals of Algy Ward make for a great sing-along with nothing too pretty in sight. 

Benediction - I Bow to None (1993): Leaning more on the straight-up punchy side of Benediction's sound, "I Bow to None" is one of the fiercer tracks on their classic "Transcend the Rubicon" - a glimpse into British old-school death metal approaching its very best. Striving not for technicality or profundity, but simply for groove and forcefulness. 

Motörhead - Walk A Crooked Mile (2002): Underrated to an extent by the casual fan, later-era Motörhead is, in fact, typically very good material. Not a classic, perhaps, but each album holds gems. Hammered is no exception - indeed, a particularly strong record, with tracks like "Walk a Crooked Mile" being testimony to Lemmy's consistently good songwriting chops.

Oz - Turn the Cross Upside Down (1984): Although considered to be somewhat inconsistent, Oz do have a menagerie of solid tracks under their belts; not least the rough-around-the-edges profane belter "Turn the Cross Upside Down", a ragged but enjoyable bit of blasphemy with a deeply vintage and flamboyant heavy metal sound.

Gorgoroth - (Under) the Pagan Megalith (1994): For my money, the best track Gorgoroth ever made, and even one of the best black-metal tracks in general. (Under) The Pagan Megalith is absolutely soaked in black-metal majesty, with a roaring and biting tone and some of the most malicious and evil sounding riffs I've ever heard.  

Frostmoon - Vikingmakt (1998): Soundwise, Frostmoon are roughly what you'd expect given the artwork of the Tordenkrig EP from which "Vikingmakt" comes. Intense drumming propels a raw Nordic soundscape; folky, but for the most part avoiding being overly merry sounding, aside from a few non-disruptive sections.

Barrow Wight - No Sleep 'Til Gondor (2016): It's absolutely no slight on Barrow Wight to say that their rough-edged musicianship serves them well in recapturing the sound of Venom at their very peak; the crunchy riffs, snarled vocals and raucous abandon are all present in force, and "No Sleep 'Til Gondor" is all the more absurdly fun for it. 

Setherial - In the Still of a Northern Fullmoon (1996): There's no denying that the worlds of black-metal pre-and-post "In the Nightside Eclipse" were rather different places. Of the grandiose and soaring style, few bands do it better than Setherial did on their first record. "In the Still of a Northern Fullmoon" is a majestic blizzard of a track throughout its entire twelve-minute run-time. As far as I'm concerned... better than Emperor. 

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Warning - Watching from a Distance (2006)

It feels like I've been meaning to listen to Warning forever; and upon doing so, some of their music entered my sleepless four-in-the-morning listening cycle in a way that suggests I should have started listening to them forever ago. In many ways, the music of Warning is very much akin to the doom metal which I first discovered, years ago, thriving on the melancholic and subdued leanings of works such as Solstice' underrated first album. It comes as no surprise that the two bands; Warning and Solstice, have toured together in the past. Of the two Warning records, I have chosen "Watching from a Distance", the band's final and better-known record, to discuss - although I have every intention of listening more fully to the others too, and the work of their successor, 40 Watt Sun, likewise.

To call "Watching from a Distance" a classic might be contentious to some, although the record has retained plentiful acclaim and recognition in the ten years since its release. As first impressions go, it can often be considered a mark of quality, to some extent, when the relative recency of an album's release comes as a surprise. I had the album down, subconsciously, as being from some time in the nineties, until I investigated further. Regardless, the record is one of quite a reputation; primarily for being thoroughly and unfathomably miserable - and that, indeed, it certainly is. Akin to its burden-carrying aesthetic representation in the artwork, the album is drenched in a cold, miasmic fuzz, moody and gloomy without being so frigid as to scathe - rather, it cocoons. The riffs plod forth, funereal and downtrodden, the drums restrained; echoing. While no single aspect of the album can be said to bear the majority of its merit above the others in their synergy, it is safe to say that for a lot of people, the vocals probably strike the greatest chord. Further redoubling the sorrow with which the entire record is replete, Patrick Walker's vocals are immediately distinct. The inconsolable wail carries a sincerity and theatrical cadence reminiscent of the most tragic of folk-music; the ballads of disasters, heartbreak and misery - and here too are they such; soaring and cathartic and yet steeped fully in despair and introspective sorrow; raw, tender and laden with feeling, at times more-so than elegance.

In its coalescence, the soundscape of the record is a large place indeed; communicating intimate sorrows whilst emphasising isolation and loneliness through this vastness. Of course, plenty of doom bands succeed in doing such; but Warning does possess its own flavour, more than sufficient to set it apart. On paper, the record offers forth just about everything one could hope for from tear-stained and tragic doom-metal. Ultimately, it is the intimacy of these sorrows, however, which make the music challenging, or more bluntly, simply difficult. You need to be in a particular mood for it. This is true of most sorrowful music, so why bring it up? Because beyond that, it requires that a particular strain of sorrow must weigh upon you, so specific are the record's themes. In the wrong mood, the record is a heavier burden to bear, with much of its merit locked up in its thematic resonance with the listener. To listen to it with different sorrows than those of the creators is faintly alienating, with the record failing to live up to its own on-paper quality on an emotional level. This is no musical flaw, it must be said, but stands as a hefty pre-requisite to experience the record on a fully fleshed-out level. For this reason, "Footprints" is the stand-out track for me personally; owing to its vagueness, it has a far greater chance to resonate with me on that basis, whatever my sorrows may be. Couple this with its musical neatness and more eloquent lyricism, and it rises above the other tracks noticeably.

What we're left with, then, is a record which it's actually quite difficult to make a final verdict about - as if grading records numerically out of ten wasn't a ridiculous process to begin with. Watching from a Distance is itself difficult; the beauty and sheer catharsis of the album is plain to see; it has many virtues and merits in its sorrow-drenched running time, but likewise, while its virtues are plain to see, they are at times tougher to feel. It's like a delicate piece of equipment; when deployed absolutely correctly it is magnificent, I'm sure - but when the time and place are even more difficult to find than for sorrowful records in general, it's a hard stone to split, although, I'm certain, worthwhile.

This is a solid 7.5/10.

Warning on Metal Archives

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Queensrÿche - Operation Mindcrime (1988)

As so often is the case, over the last decade or so Queensrÿche have perhaps been subject to more discussion regarding their internal fallings-out and legal issues than discussion of the quality or lack-thereof of their musical output itself. However, as much as the band - for a time - may have been in a bit of a rough-way, it's always better to focus on more positive things; and few are more positive than "Operation Mindcrime" - one of the records which cemented the band onto the map in 1988, and indeed an album which is considered by many - my sources tell me - to be one of the greatest concept-albums in metal. 

To an extent, Operation Mindcrime is something of a template for the metal concept-album going forward; a template which is often imitated, but seldom replicated. Making a concept album certainly seems to be a difficult affair, considering how many bands try their hand at it, and then don't come out of it well. Many a time, the ambition is there, but the musical quality to back it up is not - concept albums can be good, but are very seldom great. Operation Mindcrime, however, is a sure-fire contender for greatness. The making of a concept-album is a game of balance, and in this case, it is rather well struck; enough narrative and well-distributed flavour-material to tell the story that the band intended to tell, but likewise a record replete with songs which are tastefully independent and well-formed. Operation Mindcrime avoids the trappings, for the most part, of having tracks which exist solely to further the narrative as opposed to bringing musical quality and integrity; avoiding, in short, an unnecessary saturation of contrived ostentatiousness. There are, through the whole hour-or-so, few throwaway moments. The majority, indeed, the vast majority, of the flamboyant and slick splendour of the album speaks for itself with or without the relevant background knowledge of the story, but also weaves together neatly; it's the sort of situation in which you can almost infer that it's a concept album without outright knowing so, or even attending to the lyrics. The aforementioned balance is crucial; there are enough motifs and running themes throughout to bind the record into a narrative entity, but without forcing that same entity to be grey, dull and homogeneous through sheer determination to unify it. It is, in other words, a rewarding concept album when you want it to be, but it won't suffer when you'd rather listen without that in mind.

Musically, the entire album consistently presents me with the sort of things I enjoy; running the gamut from massive synth-steeped long-runners like "Suite Sister Mary" which deliver the most narrative aspects, to the leaner "Electric Eye" style dystopian Judas Priest romp of "Spreading the Disease". The record combines the flair and pomp of quintessential 80s metal with an inventive and progressive streak a mile wide, resulting in an album which is flawlessly intricate; awash with subtle technicality and swishes of the musically unexpected, as well as in many places being exceedingly catchy. "Revolution Calling", "The Needle Lies" and the anthemic closing swansong "Eyes of a Stranger" all likewise stand as exceptional specimens of good heavy-metal, alone or in context, with the whole record running through a spectrum of a dozen approaches to heavy-metal in order to tell its tale successfully. The musicianship really brings these intentions to life; with a flawless vocal performance by Geoff Tate - purportedly unheard-of these days - and masterfully played and produced musicianship by the rest of the band, entwining the record with itself magnificently; sleek and restrained, even for all of its many flourishes. It is often understated just how effective good musicianship can be, with albums sometimes being seen as somehow separate from their creators, but here the quality and skill of the musicians involved is a gleaming jewel in the records crown, bringing as much enjoyment as any other element - beyond the on-paper idea itself, the execution of the record is marvellous; in many respects it is good because the musicianship is good.  

"Operation Mindcrime" was, this year, one of a select few albums which, upon encountering them for the first time (and late indeed it is, to first listen to Queensrÿche), I took great pleasure in listening to on multiple occasions right off the bat. It is perhaps indicative of both the records enjoyability as a whole and the stand-alone ability of numerous tracks that this enjoyment involved both listening to the entire album on numerous occasions, and also my designating "Spreading the Disease" as my go-to song to listen to with headphones on my way to the shop, for many months. The record is a true meeting of vision, ambition and delivery of the finished product; a well-crafted and at times provocative exploration of the insidious below-board goings-on of modernity, perhaps as relevant now as it's ever been, and well deserving of a place among metals finer records.

This is a certain 9/10.

Queensrÿche Official Site
Queensrÿche on Facebook
Queensrÿche on Metal Archives

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Playlist: October 2016

Fear not, when you see the shape of the SCM-player ominously hugging the bottom of your screen when you visit! I have no intention of becoming one of those people, hell-bent on creating web-pages which make noises without being asked first. The bane of every reasonable existence, we might, hyperbolically, say. Indeed, if you find that the page is playing music without your bidding it do so, let me know - it isn't supposed to.

However, starting this month, I've decided to assemble a monthly-playlist for the blog. It's something I've wanted to do for a while, but haven't been sure how to implement - until now. Ideally, I'd love to present the reader - if I still have any - with an hour or so of actual music; a motley assortment of classics, deep-cuts and miscellaneous material that I've encountered over the course of my love for metal. This offers me a new conduit through which to recommend music, beyond merely writing reviews - and so, I hope some of these twelve tracks which I shall introduce hereafter will be of interest... and if not?.. Well, I'll be changing the playlist monthly, so I hope you find some value in my throwing music at the wall and seeing if any sticks. Onwards!

01. Artch - The Promised Land (1988)

Opening up our debut playlist is a tasty track from Norway's Artch, something of a one-hit-wonder by many standards, the record "Another Return" features many-a foot-stomping, catchy, English-as-a-second-language heavy-metal track, and "The Promised Land" is no exception.

02. Nirvana 2002 - Mourning (1991)

Originally from the classic "Protections of a Stained Mind" compilation alongside bands like Entombed, Mayhem and Merciless, "Mourning" by Nirvana 2002 stirs up the primordial-soup of the Swedeath scene in fithy HM-2 wielding fashion.

03. Pentagram - When the Screams Come (1987) 

One of the more melodious tracks from "Day of Reckoning", "When the Screams Come" winds its twisted way through hazy doom soundscapes with a deeply eerie vibe, truly illustrating Pentagram as the grinning warlock at the side of the wizard that is Black Sabbath.

04. Evil Blood - Midnight in Sodom (1988)

A frenetic and bare-bones thrash track from Croatia's Evil Blood, Midnight in Sodom is as crude and evil as its name might imply; a blackened tirade for fans of the turbulent and gnarly days of early, primitive thrash. Dark and utterly unpolished.

05. Chapel of Disease - Symbolic Realms (2015)

"Symbolic Realms" captures the more adventurous and ambitious sound of Chapel of Disease's second record; a complex soundscape combining uncompromising thrashy old-school death metal with the vibrant flourish of a rocking, soaring undercurrent

06. Ixion - Ghost in the Shell (2015)

Another track from 2015, Ixion's brand of "space doom" is truly otherworldly, issuing an effervescent majesty and cold, unfathomably vast atmosphere. Cosmic vocals and mystifying guitar work combine with futuristic synthesisers to create something genuinely unique.

07. Spite - Trapped in the Pentagram (2015)

Vintage black-metal from New York, "Trapped in the Pentagram" is the A-side of Spite's 2015 EP. Energetic and tremolo-driven, the track is an excellent take on the old-school, belching forth evil and malice whilst also being an extremely fun listen. 

08. Bathory - Sacrifice (1984)

Any version of Sacrifice is an uproarious slice of evil, but the version from Scandinavian Metal Attack might by my very favourite version. The lower tempo may make it less rabid, but likewise imbues it with a grinning and devilish Motörhead-like swagger, and makes the opening-riff heavy-as-hell.

09. Mayhem - Chimera (2004)

An underrated track from Mayhem's decidedly lopsided catalogue, Chimera is an exceptionally twisted machination of the Maniac-era of the band. The track itself is an infectiously memorable testament to the fact that while the band have received mixed reviews over the years, they're always creative.

10. Hangman's Chair - Flashback (2015)

Lurking on a ven-diagram somewhere between Alice in Chains and Eyehategod, Parisians "Hangman's Chair" specialise in dealing out misery. "Flashback" from their latest record is every bit as drug-addled, cold, shivering and downtrodden as anything in their body of work.

11. Hellhammer -  Massacra (1984)

A hellish classic, the primitive and instrument-mangling pinnacle of Hellhammer's discography, Apocalyptic Raids, offers us tracks such as "Massacre" - a pounding summary of the ooze from which would later emerge Celtic Frost, followed shortly thereafter by everything else.

A gargantuan exercise in build-and-climax, "Rows" is one of the strongest tracks on offer from two-piece funeral-doom outfit Bell Witch; a desolate and mysterious soundscape builds slowly to a liminal, cathartic crescendo which solidifies the entire song as a magnificent and almost monastic-sounding musical journey.


Monday, 26 September 2016

Bones - Sons of Sleaze (2013)

In a time where a sizeable cohort of the contemporary death metal scene presents itself as an intellectual, artistic, and complex endeavour, Chicago's Bones offer a refreshingly puerile and un-trendy blast of gleefully subversive B-movie-esque evil. Instead of classical-woodcut style macabre scenes or the seemingly endless beige creations of Paulo Girardi industries, "Sons of Sleaze" instead greets you with a skeletal figure wielding a huge mace, and with a large serpent for a knob. If that's not a seal of quality, I have no earthly idea what is. Indeed, with such a pure aesthetic illustration of how the record sounds, following up such an observation with an actual review is almost surplus to anyone's requirements - but nonetheless, write one I shall.

Bones are, as best I can tell without having done exhaustive research, something of an offshoot of stalwart black-thrash outfit "Usurper", with all three Bones members having either been in - or still being in - that band. Whilst Usurper offers up a rampaging first-wave style black-thrash attack, flailing like a drunken elephant with an enormous Celtic Frost tattoo, Bones themselves go down a filthier road. As befits the record's title, "Sons of Sleaze" is a work which does precisely what it says on the tin; vomiting out a thirty-something minute tidal-wave of sleaze-ridden nastiness. The short punchy songs are as energetic - and energizing - as they are vile, never outstaying their welcome whilst weaving excellently through the entire gamut of rocking and rolling atrocity. Bone-cracking d-beats riffs fry your brain and leave you as a succulent snack for the circling extreme-metal vultures; namely the crazed blast-beats and pulverising double-kick drumming which blows your face off, from the moment the record commences. Simultaneously, the frenetic and leering solos and hooks, along with the stomping slower sections lend the entire record a grinning grind-house swagger akin to bands like Detroit's Shitfucker, albeit, with no offence to the latter, offering a greater display of musical tightness - a sure demonstration that a record of this sort can be filthy, and can have buckets of character without being sloppy. Indeed, "Sons of Sleaze" impressed me on a pure-musicianship level more than one might expect from its aesthetics and generally rough, raw direction.

To say that the record is eclectic is something of an understatement, with a hefty sleeve of influences on show from Motörhead, Celtic Frost, and perhaps a little Autopsy thrown in along the way, especially in the slightly doomy sections which arise like the lethargic dead from their tombs. Alongside these, dozens of other old-school inspirations are on show, and all of it conducted in the best possible way, resulting in an album which for all of its diverse musical landscapes, is both cohesive and distinctive. "Sons..." is possessed with definite direction and a unity of spirit, through the full-range of truly unhinged extremity, punk-as-fuck vitriol and irresponsible rock n' roll sleaze. The entire album belongs together - no haphazardness here, despite its incredibly dynamic variation. Nor, equally importantly, is the record a cliched pastiche, as one might fear; instead, it is decidedly and uncompromisingly its own beast - a clone of nothing, and symptomatic of musicians with just as much imagination and vision as they have musicianship - showing off a love of the old-school, not a contrived desire to sound exactly like it. Its strong sense of character leaves the listener relishing it all the more. Furthermore, the production of the record really succeeds in bringing into flesh this entire evil vision, conjoining everything into a wonderfully cacophonous package with brain-melting lower end and a ton of bite in the guitars. The gnarliness carries on with the drums, recorded in such a way as to allow the listener to appreciate the physicality of the player and the kit itself; not some sterile isolation of drumming, with no context. In short, as with the album in general, you can saliently imagine it being played, and this gives it a real meaty organic appeal.

"Sons of Sleaze" is one of the most enjoyable death-metal records I've listened to in quite some time. Granted, it differs greatly from the archetypical works of the genre, but in so doing it offers forth such an inebriating and effective concoction of styles that it may be of interest to fans of just about any extreme subgenre. I'd certainly recommend it to just about any extreme metal fan, that much is certain. The record is an ugly and ragged parade of everything to love about the filthy side of metal, and you can't help but listen to it with a grin and feel stimulated by the sheer crudeness of it. All in all, I wish I'd heard of the band sooner.

A real highlight of recent death metal... or recent anything, for that matter. 9/10.

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Bones on Metal Archives

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Cirith Ungol - Paradise Lost (1991)

Cirith Ungol are a band whose evolution is a very salient one to observe. 1981s "Frost and Fire" sees our underrated underground heroes make their full-length debut; a catchy and rocking adventure through around thirty minutes of ballsy and attitude-filled heavy metal, in an era where extremity was but a rumour perpetuated by some noisy men from Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Three years later, 1984s "King of the Dead" carried the flag onwards to greater heights of ambition and grandiosity with longer-running and more epically inclined material, while also becoming a little more heavy. The elapsing of a further two years brought forth 1986s "One Foot in Hell"; a snappier, punchier and more to-the-point record shaped and mutated by a musical environment now brimming with thrash, and thrash-fans. Scientists have speculated that there is also a mysterious fourth album somewhere beyond these first three, lurking in the outer-reaches of the band's discography... but neither the band, nor many of the fans, appear to particularly enjoy talking about it. So I will. Devils-advocate and tedious contrarian that I am, I'm going to take a moment of your time to make the case for 1991s maligned final Cirith Ungol record, "Paradise Lost".

I've got a soft-spot for records which get slightly overlooked. I am, to some extent, the guy who'll try to sell people on the merits of Candlemass' "Chapter VI", or Venom's "Prime Evil". Meritorious these records indeed are. I even had a go at being an apologist for Bathory's "Octagon" once, but even I know when to stop. When it comes to Cirith Ungol, I stuck un-adventurously to the classics for quite a long time; namely Frost and Fire, and King of the Dead. Enthused more recently by thoroughly enjoying the slightly less spoken-of "One Foot in Hell", my attention was ultimately drawn to the darkest sheep of the discography, ignored and rejected to an extent both by the fan-base and by the band themselves. "Paradise Lost" is, indeed, something of the quintessential early-90s metal record; plagued by all of the various issues of the music industry at the time. The album doesn't have that "instant classic" sheen that the band's earlier body of work does, but perhaps expecting that would be foolish. Instead, the record faces something of an identity crisis; slathered liberally with heavy production, it is a far-cry from the rock n' roll warmth of the bands earlier work. This is, one might speculate, one of the many insistences of producers and so-forth which the band were inundated with at the time. Likewise, the record can be a little meandering; there are pockets of filler here and there, which are liable to form a thick soup of homogeneity through whole sections of the record if you don't give it your full attention; plodding on at a fairly uniform tempo in a way which here and there screams "deadline". The album is less memorable, and certainly less stacked in terms of quality than its predecessors - you can't pretend otherwise.

Criticisms aside, however, Paradise Lost is far, far from being abominable. While guilty, perhaps, of blowing its load immediately by opening with its standout track - the almost malevolently catchy "Join the Legion" - many of the things which set the record apart from the rest of Cirith Ungol's work - and no doubt stand as negatives in the view of some people - also stand to give the album a character all of its own. Evidently, especially in tracks such as the aforementioned, it is more prone to simplicity than earlier records - in many ways the natural progression from "One Foot In Hell". The record has a straight-forward approach reminiscent of the works of Manilla Road in the later stages of their original run. In other words, Paradise Lost tends to be extremely riff-based, relying on its chiefly mid-tempo meatiness to deliver, as opposed to whimsy or flare, although it certainly bares mentioning that tracks such as the title-track succeed in being as epic and ambitious as one could desire. The anachronistic but effective combination of the band's heavy metal approach with the clanking and hefty production of the post-extreme-metal paradigm give the riffs dosage of grit which, combined with the prominent vocals, themselves extremely gritty - perhaps the most so in the bands career - gives the record a sense of weight and toughness akin to the equally and rebelliously anachronistic early works of bands like Iced Earth, who were coming to the fore at the beginning of that decade. Cirith Ungol's final-stand is the product of a similar environment; a decade in which, if you planned on making traditional sounding heavy metal, you had to run the gauntlet of nobody having a clue what to do with you.

Odds are, when my initial hype for "Paradise Lost" dies down a little, it won't be my favourite Cirith Ungol record,  if you made me rank them. But why rank them? When faced with any such dichotomy my answer is the same: I'm lucky enough to live in a world where I can listen to them all - and indeed, I would recommend Paradise Lost as being an essential listen for someone who enjoys the band more than merely casually, and indeed, with a re-release of the out-of-print record imminent on Metal Blade, there's no excuse not to. Making a slightly sub-par traditional-metal record in 1991 was hardly an exceptional occurrence, and compared to a lot of the questionable releases of that period, it certainly appears to me that Cirith Ungol actually fared rather well. While the record may have been a little cursed, and the band split up relatively soon after releasing it, the music itself makes for a stronger record than even the band themselves are willing to credit it for.  

Yeah c'moooon, join the legiooooon! 8/10. 


Monday, 27 June 2016

#394 Havohej - Dethrone the Son of God (1993)

For some reason, I encountered the works of New York's Havohej disproportionately early on in my exploration of metal, inevitably resulting in a "what the fuck is this?" style reaction. At the time, the music felt quite inscrutable and unappealing; a bit much for me, lacking much of what I was looking for. Times change. Perhaps I was not equipped, then, with the ear to enjoy it, or alternatively, my taste has since, itself, changed to incorporate it; pick an interpretation congruent on one's understanding of how taste works... The point being built up to remains; that much more recently, I have revisited the "Dethrone the Son of God" album, and upon a second listen - and many subsequent listens after that, it has revealed itself to be a very enjoyable work of American black-metal, an achievement which, in the eyes of some, is a rare thing indeed. 

There are times when background-knowledge can greatly change the experience of listening to a piece or collection of music; not always changing one's perception of the sound itself outright, necessarily, but certainly holding the potential to enrich the experience. Having already listened to "Dethrone the Son of God" a couple of times, I proceeded to read-up on Havohej some more, as I tend to find such an activity to do precisely the above; to enrich the mere listening. On thing which comes to light almost immediately is the position in which Havohej stand in relation to the grander scheme of extreme-metal. At first I had assumed the project was relatively isolated in terms of its integration into any sort of scene; located far, for instance, from the day's embryonic second-wave of black metal in Norway. It emerges, however, that "Dethrone the Son of God" is an album comprised largely of unused Profanatica material. Who are Profanatica, you (and I) ask? Profanatica are a band comprised of ex-members of Incantation - leaving Havohej very few degrees of separation from all sorts of interesting things which I had become enthusiastic about between first hearing Havohej and revisiting the music so much more recently. While it can be granted granted that I could have written a review of this album without knowing that, instead focusing entirely on the music, having discovered the context in which Havohej exists puts an interesting spin on the listening experience. Not least highlighting the project as being very much among the many profane and murky dark offerings vomited forth by the USA's Eastern Seaboard at the time, as opposed to an outlier.

Indeed, this influence, once the seeds are planted in the mind, shows through on the record itself. The crushingly sluggish sections and the perturbing and hellish swagger of the record's locomotion reeks of the occult death metal style which remains so popular. In tandem, the record carries with it a scathing and treble-heavy scythe of blackened filth; raw and flaying, coated in spiderwebs of high-tremolo and an at times frosty distortion. These factors conspire to give it a liberal steeping in the very tar of black-metal, beyond all doubt enough to happily consider that to be its main genre, whilst nonetheless allowing for a record possessed of great distinctiveness; for its rawness, profanity, its relative minimalism, and its inventiveness. It is a record decidedly and enjoyably amid its genre, but by no means generic in respect to it; quite like - and quite unlike - its peers. It is an unusual and chimerical beast; intense and grim but also purposefully jarring and at times extremely rhythmically interesting; squirming and writhing as the bass takes a relatively prominent position throughout the album, warbling with an intricate and foreboding allure below the surface, less distorted than one might expect, particularly on the first half of the record - produced slightly differently from the second - but equally effective. The percussion, likewise, makes itself known by its distinct and at times deliciously unorthodox clattering; dreadfully clicky in places, to the point of almost breaking the spell, but its negatives are at least outweighed in that it serving to further enhance the album's bizarre and deliberately unpleasant aura, the percussive equivalent of an unpleasant metallic taste in the mouth.

"Dethroning the Son of God" is, of course, not meant to be an album of pleasantness. Instead, it is a record of profane filth and impurity; and in this role it wallows contented. It is a record which is primitive and ugly, casting the evil spells of black-metal with far greater legitimacy and non-contrived vitriolic hideousness than most; one of the few albums which truly captures the essence of the genre's darkness in earnest fashion. A certain mood is required to enjoy it, I found, but enjoy it, this time around, I certainly did.

This is a 8/10.

Havohej on Metal Archives

Monday, 13 June 2016

#393 Vektor - Terminal Redux (2016)

In so far as it has been some time since my fingers graced the keys, staring at the blank screen with a sense of vague cognitive unease, it could easily be said - without deploying too much hyperbole - that Vektor's new record defies the English language, at least for a while. Roughly half-an-hour, all things considered. Its ability to do so, I would opine, is not only a testament to its quality, but is likewise musically and thematically appropriate; Vektor are, and always have been, unearthly. Lost for words though it may have temporarily rendered me, "Terminal Redux" has conversely been one of the most discussed metal records of 2016. The album's predecessor "Outer Isolation" has received ten reviews on Metal Archives, over the span of around five years - a fairly generous quotient, might I add, a number befitting an album of its quality. "Terminal Redux" has received fourteen reviews over the span of a month, and thus far, all of them positive. If that's not motivation to find something to say about the record, then nothing is, and thus, I shall struggle on.

Vektor have always been musically fascinating; it's a fact that made them stand out from their peers, by light-years, during the hit and miss shenanigans of the mid-2000s "thrash-revival". Both "Black Future" and "Outer Isolation" were records that stood at times almost completely alone in a raging sea of radioactive beer and zombies. While some bands, for better or worse, insistently superglued themselves to the constraints of the retro - to the figurative rulebook of their genre - Vektor were different; possessed, almost from the very outset, with a penchant to mould and transmogrify the thrash genre, to repurpose and refit it for their own musical vision. Like many of the best-of-the-best, instead of pouring their music into the mould of a genre, Vektor use thrash as a conduit for their bizarre and sinister music to traverse, and ultimately manifest itself from. While they have always done this, and, without exception, to great effect, scanners suggest that this cosmic amalgam, like some science-defying futuristic substance, is present in even higher quantities within this specimen. Indeed, "Terminal Redux" further warps the limitations of genre, simpliciter, to the extent that I'd be almost reluctant to ascribe it one fully, in the act of, for instance, recommending the band to a friend. Thrash, perhaps - but to some extent nominally so; and perhaps not the best mode in which to listen to the music. In many respects it is from this that the record takes on its inscrutable and massively appealing air of musical otherworldliness; its complexity and musical quirkiness forces one to listen to it almost entirely on its own merits, and those merits are, suffice to say, substantial. 

Each Vektor album, including this one, has been the site of an unusually well-executed reconciliation; of the side consisting of the band's almost absurd musicianship, rapturous technicality and magnificent inventiveness, with the opposing side. That is, whilst Vektor are a truly blistering band to listen to; requiring attention, dedication and numerous re-listens, their albums, including this one, also boast an uncanny ability to still flawlessly deliver direct and appreciable metal energy. It is powerful, memorable and at times down right ballsy. The complexity is not committed to the detriment of such foundational pillars as good-riffs - really fucking good riffs - memorable songs, and so forth, and in that regard the album's ability to be understood exists in a logically-uncertain but undoubtedly magnificent juxtaposition and cohabitation with its resplendent and exciting complexity. "Terminal Redux" is far from an unappealing behemoth of convoluted and gratuitously complex proportions - that is to say, it is decidedly not the type of progressive metal record which keeps me awake at night trembling in fear. Instead every inch of complexity and technicality are created for a purpose, and used - and I hesitate to use an objective term in a business so seemingly subjective as music - correctly.

"Terminal Redux" showcases Vektor at their most complex, ambitious and mature yet; further expanding their nebulous galactic empire into new systems, new influences, new swathes of genre and technicality previously unexplored. Indeed, perhaps the most tangible way in which I can capture it in words is to explain to the reader just how little I have succeeded in conveying about the record, even in spite of my best efforts. The album was almost five years in the making, and has transpired to be worth every minute; Vektor are a band who have every right to take their time, when the music they produce is as good as this. The record is a standout of 2016, and, with time, will perhaps come to be remembered as one of the standout records in metal more generally. Superb.

This is a 9.5/10.


Sunday, 5 June 2016

#392 Conan - Revengeance (2016)

"Revengence"- which I suppose must mean the vengeance wrought upon those who avenged themselves upon you after the first time you had your revenge - marks the third full-length studio album by UK doom titans Conan. And titans, indeed, they are; one of the country's greatest current assets to the genre, and a band who have risen to a level that few do, especially given the time-span in question. The last five years or so has seen the band carving a place as a globally well-known name and a legitimate headliner wherever they choose to go, standing out from the burgeoning and crowded UK doom scene with an originality and uniqueness which often goes unnoticed to the inattentive listener. With their third album settling into its spot on the shelf nicely, no longer feeling like a bizarre extra limb, but rather a meaningful component of the Conan corpus, the time to review is upon us...

In a time before the internet, album art was of paramount importance; or I've certainly always thought so. On one hand, an album must be eye-catching, visually compelling, especially in that record-store environment of old - you must, in short see the record sleeve, the CD front, the cassette, whichever medium it may take, and think to yourself, "I want to hear this.". Secondly, good cover-artwork stands as a statement of the integrity of the music contained therein - a woe indeed it is to see albums where the artwork does the music injustice. Visual aesthetics remain, to my mind, as important as ever; record-store shelves oft replaced by the recommended-videos section of YouTube, the feed of Facebook, and so forth - visual aesthetics did matter, and still matter. And, to finally get to the fucking point, Conan know this. "Revengeance" stands, visually and musically speaking, a proud extension of the band's body of work; the desolate landscapes and ochre-washed primordial brutality of the artwork immediately aiding its inclusion into the set of the bands records, promising -and delivering - stylistic continuity. It is continuity which is indeed seen to be the case upon listening to the music; the same unfathomably heavy and hostile sound; gargantuan pillars of noise gnashing slowly like geological teeth, in a way familiar to all fans of doom, but executed in a way quite unlike any other.

On that subject, I've seen Conan decried as generic - a view in which, as far as I can see, is misled, unless my knowledge is truly lacking. Zero Tolerance gave their second record, Blood Eagle a zero-score some years ago, which struck me as somewhat illustrative of whoever wrote it having completely missed to point. The primitive and minimalist arrangement of the bands music carries an atmosphere which almost no other bands are creating; a primordial mountainside of wailing, soaring and disembodied vocals, and riffs which - as I've mentioned in previous discussions of Conan - sound almost akin to music instinctively and viscerally created, pounded on taut animal-hides and stones in a bygone time, whilst evading predation by the enormous creatures no doubt stomping the face of the earth. That sound is a concoction every bit as much subverting the norms of the doom genre as invoking them, particularly with the bands relatively energetic and forceful choices of tempo. This trademark sound reappears on Revengeance. This isn't to say that the album is simply another carbon-copy brought forth from the same cauldron, however. The retention of the fiercely rhythmic potency of the music is met with the signs of a slow and self-aware evolution. Sure, Conan could probably make the same record repeatedly and a certain crowd would adore every single one, but the nuances and variations from previous tracks is a sign that, while not gratuitously reinventing themselves - and thank goodness for that - Conan are more than happy to continue to explore the boundaries musical lands they claim as their own.

"Revengeance" is a welcome addition to the bands discography; the accustomed heaviness and atmosphere taking the listener once again to that desolate place that the band has taken us before. It is a record liable, I expect, to be remembered in years to come as being among the bands classic works. The album mirrors the virtues of its predecessors, reprising everything which the band have grown to be known and enjoyed for, whilst evolving their sound sufficiently not to come across as stale. "Revengeance" is different. Just a little different, but there is enough change in the air - in the form of a well thought-out, logical progression - to capture the interest even more so than it would if it were simply a competent but identical continuation - and heck, I'd have already been happy with merely that. A slow evolution, it must be granted, but slow is an entirely understandable rate for a band who sound so very, very cyclopean.

This is an 8/10.

Conan Official Site
Conan on Facebook
Conan on Metal Archives

Friday, 1 April 2016

Live Review #15: North of the Wall Festival 2016

This years North of the Wall festival held promise from the moment acts began to be announced. My attention first began with mild interest, through to enthusiasm, culminating in outright hype and excitement. Granted, I would probably have gone anyway; North of the Wall is something I like to support - but nonetheless, this year, the line-up certainly helped matters. Things began with the trickle of announcements; more-than-solid examples of the UK underground scene - bands like Barshasketh, Vacivus, Coltsblood, and so forth - already bands well worth seeing with no further incentive required. But then the announcements continued to escalate, almost beyond all belief; rendering the festival entire degrees of magnitude bigger and more exciting than any of its previous incarnations.

By the time the line-up was beginning to take-on its final form, it was shaping up to be one of the strongest in living memory within the Scottish metal scene. Suffice to say, it sold-out, too - unsurprising perhaps, but likewise an extremely pleasing sign. I like seeing things do well. This year North of the Wall did well indeed, spread over three venues, holding host to sixteen bands over the course of about eight hours, and, if I recall correctly, something over five-hundred people. There was more than could possibly be seen in its totality by one person - a two-edged sword; both serving as a testament to the magnitude the festival has taken on in recent years... but also a sign that I was going to miss a band or two - sacrifices had to be made... Still, ten out of sixteen isn't too bad - and now, onto my thoughts about all of those ten...

The Heritage-core centric pre-show fell the day before, and managed to sell-out about a week before the festival-itself did; consequently, I attended the latter, but not the former. Fortunately I'd seen three of the four bands on previous occasions at least once - so I wasn't broken-hearted. By all accounts each act was roughly consistent with what one might expect given their previous exploits; Ashenspire no doubt solid, Winterfylleth likewise, and Saor somewhat underwhelming, or so I'm told. On the other hand, I've not seen Aloeswood before, so hopefully a chance will arise on another occasion - I certainly plan on finding out what they sound like, when I get the opportunity.

Kicking off the main festival were local doom quartet Atragon, playing in "Audio"; seemingly the smallest of the three venues - I'd always thought it was larger than it is - and performing a set largely consisting of Reverend Bizarre covers - by design, as opposed to by surprise, mind you. Atragon's set proved to be something of a godsend: Going straight into a line-up consisting almost entirely of underground black-metal and death metal within about two-and-a-half hours of getting out of bed would be like a pizza colliding with a brick-wall from the pizza's point of view. I'm standing right beside the P.A, and at this point have forgotten entirely to take any mental notes with an eye to reviewing the festival. Looking back, the first thing that strikes me is that the snare drum sounds really really good for some reason - indeed, the sound in general in "Audio" is great, mores the pity that I saw only two bands of the entire line-up there. The room is already packed, and the entirety of Atragon's set is a raucous and pleasantly haphazard affair, delivered with the infectious tongue-in-cheek cheer that can only come from a band who start this - and if I recall - several other - live appearances with the phrase "We're so sorry". I must confess, tentatively, that I don't actually know Reverent Bizarre very well, but I certainly do know "Doom over the World", which seems to go down well with everyone when played. Shortly thereafter I leave to get to Ivory Blacks to catch the next band in their entirety.

Ivory Blacks - just round the corner - isn't quite so busy yet. It's easy to get to the front to see Lunar Mantra, although fortunately the venue filled up as the show went on. I've been meaning to see Lunar Mantra for a long while - probably about as long as they've been playing live at all - and they're a band who have been building momentum both locally and internationally, picking up a signing to Invictus Productions along the way. Their performance is tight and enthralling; earnestly and excitingly occult and atmospheric, with all of the trimmings. There are glimmering candles and bowls of incense; one of those "flavours" that I can never seem to find in shops - and while one might be tempted to think that such things are cliche these days, that becomes a much harder conclusion to reach when they are used to such great effect as they were here. The bass tone comes across as a little warm in some places, perhaps, but generally the musicianship is splendid in just about every way, capturing much of the darkness so integral to the black-metal genre, combined with a distinct and memorable ritualistic flavour which Lunar Mantra can proudly call their own.

Lunar Mantra: Photography by T. Gonda

I stick around in Ivory Blacks to see what Crom Dubh sound like. They were called-in at the last minute to replace the newly split-up Wodensthrone (a band I had the pleasure of seeing twice in the past). While Crom Dubh play a  respectable style of black-metal; atmospheric and hypnotic - a style which sounds solid, indeed, downright great on record, might I add - I'm suffering at this point from a certain hypnosis of my own; an attention span radically shortened by drinking for the last hour and a half whilst having only eaten an overpriced railway-station sandwich on the way over. Consequently, Crom Dubh come across as... fine. The drums just don't seem to quite fit the riffs half of the time in the live setting, which is a shame, because on their "Heimweh" album they work perfectly well - I couldn't really tell if it was a musical issue or a sound issue - or a bit of both. Perhaps I'd have enjoyed their work more if I'd gotten more accustomed to it before seeing them live, but there just wasn't time. I leave about half-way through to get back to Audio for one of my most anticipated bands of the evening.

Barshasketh are on great form. This is, I believe, their first show with a new drummer, and he's an impressive one, too. With Audio's solid sound that evening, and Barshasketh's prowess, their set is an absolute storm; a stern, impressive schooling in authentic, intense and evocative black-metal. It's precise, meticulous and savage, with a strong stage presence and look. Crisp and exuding what I can only describe as a dark, frostbitten musical-charisma which often serves to propel them leagues above some of their peers. At one time I would have referred to Barshasketh as up and comers, but I think performances of this calibre more than attest to the fact that the band have outright arrived. 

I then hurry back to Ivory Blacks for Scythian - one of the bands I was most looking forward to. Their "Hubris in Excelsis" record was one of my favourite albums of 2015; a record steeped in majesty and triumphant atmosphere, whilst also packing a fierce intensity. Most of the majesty seems to be somewhat absent live, which was a pity. The magic that the album has is just... missing, somehow; although to some extent it's understandable; a lot of the atmosphere on the album is simply not compatible with a live-setting, it seems. It's also understandable considering that half of Scythian's line-up are also in Crom Dubh, and I know fair well I'd be getting a bit knackered by the time a second set of the evening came along. Instead of atmosphere, Scythian emphasise the bare-bones heaviness and speed of their work in an adequate if slightly sloppy performance, but just didn't rise to my expectations. Give them another five years and I hope their live show becomes formidable, but they've already had twelve. Disappointing.

Cult of Fire: Photography by T. Gonda
Apparently Slaughter Messiah had fire-breathing and a Bathory cover. I wouldn't know, as I went to see Cult of Fire instead. They've filled the main-stage in The Classic Grand by the time I arrive, so I stand quite near the back - which I think might be to the detriment of my enjoyment. I can barely see the band on stage, and while I get the occasional peek at their unique and eye-catching stage-wear, I mostly have to work with their sound, of which I lack prior knowledge. It's melodious and captivating - probably quite beautiful if I was in the right mood, but with bands like this I tend to find that the music is at its most beautiful through headphones at about 4am, as opposed to at 6pm on a Saturday night as the guys involved are on stage playing it. On a more positive note, I get the feeling that if I was more familiar with their work, I would have enjoyed it immensely, as their atmosphere, theatrics and musicianship came across as top-notch; a real vibrant and rich spectacle that grows better and better in retrospect.

I leave The Classic Grand a little early to get back to Ivory Blacks for Cruciamentum. When I was first getting into metal - or proper metal, anyway, Cruciamentum's demos were one of the first truly-underground things that I encountered. At the time I didn't really understand what I was listening to, but with time has come appreciation. Their music - unforgiving and dark death-metal - is extremely well-captured in the live setting; tightly played and perfectly cavernous. I remark to someone standing nearby that they're one of the bands of the evening who "sound exactly as they should" - and I'm not exaggerating. They're a band I had wanted to see for a long time indeed, and they did not disappoint in the live setting - a monolithic performance.

I scurry back to The Classic Grand to see Necros Christos, a band I discovered on a whim a few years ago because their album artwork - "Doom of the Occult" - looked cool in the record-store. This time I make it into the main-body of the crowd, and get to witness another superb performance; the flow of the bands occult death-metal in a live-setting is excellent; unimpeded by their studio work's penchant for interludes. The mid-tempo thunderous churning and harrowing, malign lead-work of the band's material is well-executed indeed; particularly tight for a band who don't play live as often as some. Necros Christos succeed in bringing forth a cacophonous, tomb-dust covered rendition of their work, and its marvellous.

After Necros Christos, there's a little bit of spare time before Aura Noir. Some might argue - including me from the future - that I ought to have gone to see some of Possession, but instead I spent the time talking to a drunk man from Belfast who thought I was in Atragon. Having told him I wasn't, I went to the bar for a drink, returning only for him to have forgotten that I'm not in Atragon, and complimenting me for their set again. I can't be bothered to correct him again, so I just say thank-you for a while instead, before wondering towards the front to await Aura Noir.

Necros Christos: Photography by T. Gonda
Aura Noir's set is magnificent. A pit starts almost immediately; not usually my thing at all, but once in a while I'll indulge. Being quite heartily refreshed with beers, I fall down a couple of times, which is more or less par for the course. To my great pleasure, Aura Noir are an excellent live-band; the first in a while to be conspicuously fun as opposed to ritualistic or serious. The entire set is a glorious tirade of black-thrashing-filth, doing absolute justice to the bands studio work, and embellishing it even beyond its pre-existing mightiness. Energetic, ferocious, twisted and powerful, Aura Noir always offered one of the very best blends of black and thrash out there, and their live show is no exception, capturing both elements richly and deliciously. I missed seeing Aura Noir when they played Scotland in 2012 - a fact which makes me doubly glad to finally see a band which I'm more than happy to include among my favourites. Aura Noir are, and deservingly so, quite possibly the best band of the night, with an explosive set and unparalleled energy from band and audience alike. It's been a long time indeed since I was excited at the prospect of seeing a band days beforehand, and not merely hours.

Breaking my own heart slightly, I leave Aura Noir a little before the end so I stand a chance of getting from The Classic Grand to the (somewhat smaller) Ivory Blacks to see Destroyer 666 before the venue hits capacity and nobody can get in. It's already heaving with people by the time I arrive, but I manage to make it to the front regardless. I saw Destroyer in this very same venue in 2012, at a time before I knew any of their songs - it was a performance that started an interest which lead to them sitting among my very favourite metal bands, to this day. The band roar and writhe through a lengthy and varied set with their accustomed and insistently infectious energy. From the new album, they play several songs, most notably the belter; "Hounds at Ya Back", already an exceptional sing-along track among the crowd - no doubt a live-staple for years to come. They also dip liberally into their classics, including "The Eternal Glory of War", "Genesis to Genocide" "Black City, Black Fire" and "Australian and Anti-Christ", to name but a few, before covering Motörhead's "Iron Fist", with absolute gusto. I more or less murder my throat singing along to just about everything - a fact I would become acutely aware of on Sunday morning when I woke up with no voice, and limbs which didn't work - all well earned. It's a real testament to how damn good Destroyer 666 are, live and in studio, that their set-list contained relatively few of the songs I'd have personally picked, and yet was still fantastically enjoyable.

Performances like this are almost impossible to critique properly, such is the personal investment and enjoyment of the music - I have no idea if the sound in Ivory Blacks was good or not during their set. I have no idea if the band made any mistakes: I was too wrapped up in enjoying the music and, as I wondered off several hours and beers later for the bus home, it occurred to me that that's probably the most honest way to listen, and definitely the most honest thing to write. Ultimately, all that is left to say is that once again, North of the Wall out-do themselves. Long may it continue.

For those not present, it might interest you that the magnificent Eagledog Productions recorded numerous full sets by various bands throughout the evening;


Friday, 25 March 2016

#391 Voivod - War and Pain

Quebecois outfit Voivod are one of the most bizarre bands that ever flirted with the "thrash" label. Indeed, trying to label Voivod as anything may well be an unwise move, as much as it might be tempting. One need only take a gander at their string of classic records from 1984's "War and Pain" through to 1989's "Nothingface" - and beyond - to be presented with an illustration of a their unbelievably idiosyncratic and enjoyable penchant for variation. Voivod are, for my money, a band who underwent one of the most fascinating and meaningful evolutions in metal; throughout their classic era, every single record was such a change, and yet such a rational evolution, from the one before it. This review will take a look at the record with which the bizarre odyssey all began; "War and Pain".

1984 was an interesting time in thrash - a muddled and exciting world; a lawless wild-west of potential influences, in a genre which was only just starting to codify rules for itself. "War and Pain" certainly serves to render the year even stranger. An already shining example of Voivod's bizarre and unique aesthetic, the album succeeds in simultaneously being primitive, unpredictable, and uproariously enjoyable throughout. An expression of the band's long-running musical spirit, whilst remaining relatively unique even within their own discography. The record's sound owes as much to the precursory influences upon thrash as it does to any contemporary peer in the genre: The music reeks of the hardcore-punk influence of Discharge, the bulldozing snarl and frantic sound of Venom, and at times, even the chilling and gloomy styling of early Black Sabbath. All of these factors integrate into an album of many dimensions; not merely a primitive neck-cracker, nor merely a captivating exercise in the bizarre, but a diverse and multi-faceted amalgam; delivering a vicious energy which does not steal the spotlight entirely for itself - although the record could well be fully appreciated along that vector by some. Instead, the youthful piss-and-vinegar spirit of extremity hosted within early-thrash dances comfortably with an interspersion of twists-and-turns which make the music not only energising to listen to, but also exciting to analyse - to wonder at times out-loud "what happened there, musically?" as strange quirks begin to writhe out of the record's conventional shell.

The ferocious and dominating bass-tone grants the music a thickness, extremely hefty lower-end, and a crunching, bone-crushing snarl; a heaviness greatly in excess of most of the thrash contemporary to it, and adding additional power to the post-apocalyptic havoc that the music evokes; the imagery of twisted metal and angular retro-futuristic horror compliments the sound of the record perfectly. While perhaps embryonic in terms of Voivod's sound, the album is likewise one of their harshest and most unforgiving. The frenzied approach and ragged production, across the board, injects the entire record with a sneering punk-spirit, coupled with a musicianship which reveals itself to be more and more able with subsequent listens; the record is primitive, but far from inept - in retrospect a hugely foreshadowing factor in the increasingly progressive and bizarre music which the band would create in years to come. "War and Pain" may not be the archetypal Voivod record, but it is one crammed with musical merit nonetheless.

"War and Pain" is a great example of what can occur when a band arises quite some distance from the hub of a musical movement or scene. Doing so can frequently have extremely interesting consequences - and without a doubt this is the case here. War and Pain is one of the great outcasts of early thrash; challenging, bizarre, and extremely comfortable not to conform to any standard that was emerging at the time. The opening salvo of a career that stands among the most inventive and creative in the entirety of metal.

This is an 8/10.

Voivod Official Site
Voivod on Facebook
Voivod on Metal Archives

Saturday, 30 January 2016

#390 Ketzer - Starless

It's cold outside and cold inside. I'm drinking lukewarm coffee out of a stolen Starbucks mug. The mug, I can only presume, is disappointed by its decline from being a vessel of fine high-street coffee somewhere in the mid-2000s to being full of a grim, gravy-coloured instant-coffee with neither milk nor sugar, several years later. How the mighty have fallen, it might ruminate. Meanwhile, through the speakers comes "Starless" - Ketzer's third album and major-label debut, on Metal Blade Records. It is currently four tracks into its run, and has yet to feature a drum-beat which would be out of place in a fucking pop-punk album. Several re-listens later, it turns out that the entire album is that way, and I'm left identifying strongly with my coffee-mug. 

The boundaries of subjectivity and objectivity in aesthetics are less clear cut than would be convenient. The question of exactly which factors contribute to a works aesthetic merit - and whether such a merit itself is a metaphysically real phenomenon are, to put it bluntly, a real pain in the arse. The vectors of evaluation, are, then, fuzzy and indeterminate at best... and that makes my job a lot harder, because as much as I want to wax lyrical about how disappointed I am by "Starless", I'm having to take a comically enormous run-up to the actual act of specifying why, during which I'll be devoured alive by qualms about which of my evaluations and instincts are justified and unjustified, fair and unfair... Fortunately, my reviews aren't required to be too philosophically rigorous - but I digress. We've all had records in our lives which were like this - that felt doomed from the first teasers and singles. The contrived, catchy, tambourine-augmented jingle of the first released track - the title track - already rang out like an ill omen, swapping the bands furious tempo and flesh-slicing black-thrash musicianship for a hipster-friendly sound; moody, brooding and decidedly sluggish. The rest of the album carries on in much the same fashion, if not slower; never reaching a thrashy-tempo, never breaking a sweat; ploughing a furrow of at times saccharine, sensual darkness through its runtime. It's ambitious and complex, but I can't for the life of me manage to be pleased about its musical direction.

Now, it's worth emphasising, of course, that there's nothing intrinsically wrong with being hipster-friendly. Be as friendly to them as you please, they're people too, after all. Likewise, there's nothing intrinsically bad about the music on the record. Ketzer always had what it took to be an interesting band, whichever style they opted to play. Indeed, "Starless" has plenty of interesting bits - it's catchy, dark, and indulgent-sounding. As determined as I may have been not to enjoy the record for reasons I shall explain soon, it nonetheless has its fair share of cool moments, especially the eleven-minute "Shaman's Dance". I think I would have outright enjoyed a reasonable amount of it, if it wasn't Ketzer... but that's exactly the problem - it is Ketzer. It's made by the band who released "Satan's Boundaries Unchained" - one of the best black-thrash albums of its decade. It's made by a band with members who have stage names like "Infernal Destroyer" and "Necroculto". "Starless" does not sound like the product of such a band. And in many ways, for me, that's the definitive problem with the album. It casts so much of the band's sincerity into doubt, for them to so willingly spin on a dime and utterly abandon their previous style with little in the way of foreshadowing. I don't usually put much weight on the notion of "selling-out" in the pejorative sense, but at the same time, perhaps in this instance, that really is the source of my displeasure. For a band that I've followed since their debut album to so readily switch style, and presumably audience too, leaves me - and no doubt others - with the sad feeling of being left out in the cold while Ketzer hang-out with their new friends at the cool-kids table.

We live in a paradoxical world, especially when it comes to aesthetics. Bands can be criticised for crafting music for themselves, and they can be criticised every bit as much for crafting music for others. "Starless" is going to be a divisive record... and of course, we return to the many questions of aesthetics. Perhaps Ketzer deliberately made "Starless" inoffensive and accessible - is that a grounds for criticism? It that a sign of a lack of integrity? Is that even relevant to its quality, as a collection of music? Perhaps alternatively, Ketzer simply played a style that they enjoyed on this record, having grown bored of black-thrash... does that mean I'm not entitled to be disappointed in their change of direction? I don't think I could answer any of these questions confidently even after a much longer window of thought. Ultimately, it's a fools errant to attempt objectivity in a paradigm like this. All that it seems can be said is that the music I love Ketzer for is no longer the music that they're interested in making.

This is a 5.5/10.

Ketzer Official Site
Ketzer on Bandcamp
Ketzer on Facebook
Ketzer on Metal Archives

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

#389 Celtic Frost - Vanity Nemesis

For all that you might have heard about "Cold Lake", Celtic Frost's infamous voyage into glam, the fact remains that for better or worse, you probably have heard about it... suffice to say that Tom G Warrior would prefer that you hadn't. Often, however, having heard of it - or indeed heard it - is more than can be said of one of the band's almost universally neglected follow-up and sometimes-proclaimed return to form, "Vanity/Nemesis". A fair bit of that, perhaps, owes to the record's position; sandwiched awkwardly between what most people consider to be the very nadir of Celtic Frost's career on one flank, and by the band splitting up - for the first time - on the other. Relatively obscure and overlooked, then, "Vanity/Nemesis" is already dangerously close to being exactly the sort of thing I turn my attention towards when looking for things to review...

A week or two ago, I stumbled upon a hysterically pointless, broken-English review of Vanity/Nemesis which concerned itself mainly, if not almost exclusively, with how "homosexual" the record's artwork was. Aesthetic value-judgements differ, I guess... but the entirely unintentional point of that review remains; what can be said about Vanity/Nemesis? The thing is, it's quite an odd record. Not (just) in the artistic sense, that is, in the sense of it aiming at being avant-garde and grandiose in the way that Tom G Warrior has always striven towards, but also simply odd in terms of what it is. A return to form? The only answer that's really forthcoming is a non-committal well... sort of. The album has a return to intensity - starting fast, and picking up the tempo in numerous places throughout, giving a taste the speediness of the bands classic works, particularly during "A Kiss or a Whisper". It's also somewhat heavy, albeit lacking some of the filth and tonal richness of the bands earlier work; it certainly doesn't scream "first-wave black metal". The opening track, for instance, is an unexpectedly bouncy bay-area thrash style affair - creating an impression of the album as being quite a conventional one, which is, in some regards, true. It isn't until a bit later in the record that the signature weirdness inherent to a good Tom G Warrior riff begins to come back into the picture. That being said, the first vocal in the whole record is a reassuring "ugh", delivered like a relatively easy promise to be several degrees of magnitude better than "Cold Lake" - which, indeed, it is.

It's on tracks like "Wings of Solitude", with its quirky, bad-on-paper but awesome-in-practice backing vocals, that the character of the album really seems to show through. It's sturdy and, dare I say, unprecedentedly catchy in places. On the other hand, it's still a little infused by commercialism... nowhere near the extent that "Cold Lake" was, of course, but nonetheless notably accessible - a very similar approach, at least in my mind, to the early-nineties Megadeth records which would be coming around the bend in a few years time. In fact, one of my first instincts upon hearing the record was that it was "Celtic Frost meets Countdown to Extinction". Against my expectations, this dimension of the records sound somehow manages to work quite well. While Vanity/Nemesis isn't really "nasty" enough to be especially extreme, in the manner of the band's early work, it packs enough swaggering, misshapen punch to be a satisfying listen. While arguably one of the most conventional sounding Celtic Frost records, hearkening back to before "Cold Lake", as opposed to marching forward, it has easily enough of the bands usual idiosyncrasies and grandiose aspirations to be legitimately interesting to listen to nonetheless. A testament especially to Warrior's distinct playing style, being able to create and carry legitimately enjoyable music from a recipe which most bands could only derive something boring.

Imagine, for a moment, that Celtic Frost never reformed in 2001 (and in so doing, stuck around for long enough to create "Monotheist" - one of the best albums of their career, and, along with his later work with Triptykon, perhaps the closest Tom G Warrior has come thus far to realising his ambitious avant-garde vision). In such a world, Vanity/Nemesis would have been - and was for many years - considered the final statement by the band, creatively. And when it comes down to it, it wouldn't have been a bad last-word. A solid epitaph it would have been indeed - both as an apology for "Cold Lake", and as an album in its own right. I'm genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed the record, and I recommend investigating it yourselves.

A 7.5/10, I think.

Celtic Frost Official Site
Celtic Frost on Metal Archives

Monday, 11 January 2016

Possessed by the Wasteland: Exploring Venom's 1985-1992 Output

As long as it takes to get around to - and that's usually quite a while - I tend to do my best to gradually explore even the ostensibly "non-vital" portions of a bands career, particularly when bands have sprawling discographies with dark corners. I've always been something of a completionist, or, at least, curious enough to occasionally bother to listen to the odds-and-ends; the albums less-trodden, so to speak. Sometimes, perhaps more often than not, mediocrity ensues - but on other occasions, hidden gems emerge - or most often of all, it's a story of both. There's only one way to find out. A month or two ago, I finally took the plunge into listening to Venom's little-spoken-of middle era.

In terms of having whole segments of back-catalogue dismissed as irrelevant or ignored, Venom tends to be unexplored territory even in comparison to other bands who experienced a comparable rough-run mid-career. For my purposes - although your mileage may vary - Venom's "obscure" era encompasses a time sandwiched between the bona fide explosive classics of the bands early years, and the various impermanent reunions, comeback-esque escapades and eventual consistent run of new material that occurred from around 1997's "Cast In Stone" onward. But what of those forgotten albums? As we'll see, it's... a motley assortment indeed.

Possessed (1985): Possessed is, arguably, part of the classic-run of Venom albums. Arguably. Returning to fast, short songs after the hugely ambitious "At War With Satan", Possessed should - or could - in theory have had the strength of the bands earlier work, or at least a comparable kick to the short and snappy b-side tracks of its predecessor. Indeed, throughout the record, a segment here and there certainly whispers of such potential. Sadly, whilst offering some undeniably fun moments, Possessed is very content to flirt with mediocrity, borderline self-parody and extremely poor-production. It's a bit of a sad farewell-record by the classic line-up. That said, the record has something of the youthful vitriol and tomfoolery to it, and exudes enough charm to be listenable. Songs like "Moonshine" do a good enough job of rattling the classic Venom tropes, even if, overall, the record it is wont to blend into a single mass, robbed of power by its incredibly understated production, and comparative lack of hooks when stood next to its monstrously prestigious predecessors.

Calm Before The Storm (1987): After some substantial line-up changes, Venom moved on to release Calm Before the Storm, a record which saw the departure of Mantas. Guitar duties were taken up by a duel guitar line-up consisting of Mike Hickey and Jimmy Clare, both of whom would later go on to work with Cronos on his immanent solo-albums, which followed a similar style. "Calm..." is an album which, for my money, is genuinely quite underrated. Filler? certainly, there are several songs not worth your time, but, perhaps more surprisingly, a lot of the record is very solid indeed. Much more melodic than a lot of what the band had done before, "Calm..." is something of an anomaly, as least as far as Cronos-fronted Venom is concerned. Tracks like "Fire" bring the intensity, certainly, and this time backed up with enjoyable production, far better than "Possessed". Other tracks delve into a much more catchy, sing-along nature which I, for one, found surprisingly enjoyable. Jarring, perhaps, for someone hoping for a "Welcome to Hell" or a "Black Metal", the album nonetheless has a vigour and feeling of intent that lacked in the "let's make more of the same" offering that was Possessed. Diverging from what fans expected, and perhaps wanted, sure, but a solid - if really rather silly - record nonetheless. Even opening with a fucking Christmas Song can be overlooked in the right mood.

Prime Evil (1989): Following more line-up changes, seeing the departure of Cronos and both guitarists, Prime Evil saw Mantas return to the band, alongside War Machine, who had played guitar on Mantas' solo-album of the previous year. Vocal duties were taken up by Tony "Demolition Man" Dolan of fellow Newcastle act Atomkraft. Musically, Prime Evil marks one of the most refined and crisp Venom records to date, forsaking the bands accustomed evil and raucous delivery and instead being content to create a sharp-edged, cutting and precise dark-tinted speed metal record, belting along like a blackened Metal Church, both caustic and accomplished. "Prime Evil" showcases both Mantas and Abaddon at the height of their musical prowess. Gone completely is the amateurish charm, replaced by an equally rewarding-to-listen-to meticulousness, resulting in a well produced work that is, like the record before it, underrated, but in every other respect, is utterly different from it. Prime Evil would have gone-down as a thrash classic had it been released earlier - as it is, it remains the fare only of those curious enough to come looking for it... and that's something well worth doing. As far as I'm concerned, this might well be the best "non-classic" Venom album. 

Temples of Ice (1991): The first Venom record in a quite a while not to be prefaced by some kind of line-up change, "Temples of Ice" was the bands first offering of the notoriously metal-unfriendly 90s. Perhaps ironically, considering the title, the record is much warmer in style and production in comparison to "Prime Evil", and tones down the thrash and indeed the darkness. In its stead, the band bring in bucket-loads of NWOBHM, speed-metal, and rock sensibilities whilst retaining a good degree of swagger and at times swiftness, especially when the record really picks-up-the-pace and grows teeth during the second half. It doesn't quite stand as tall as its predecessor, sure, but it still makes for a fun listen, even if it at times feels questionable whether it has anything intrinsically "Venom" about it, so far removed is it from the bands original sound. Regardless, it's a fun album, and perhaps all the braver for not consciously trying to sound like the records which came before. Had I not known, I doubt I would have realised it was Venom, had I heard it in the wild... but on the other hand, I would have enjoyed it anyway, and I suppose that's really the point.

The Waste Lands (1992): The final Venom record to feature War Machine and Demolition Man, "The Waste Lands" once again carries on in the style of it's predecessor, with an amalgam of mid-tempo striding and thrashy-sections, once again not quite hitting the heights of "Prime Evil", but nonetheless delivering a solid, if somewhat non-essential work. "The Waste Lands" carries something of an experimental spirit, by Venom's standards, with attempts - many successful - at being quirky, diverse and atmospheric showing through throughout the album, including the ambitious opening track, "Cursed". On the more conventional end of the spectrum, many of the songs feature the now accustomed rigid, rhyming vocal-patterns and somewhat predictable riffs - possessing enough merit, certainly, but not on first impressions overly mind-blowing, which is in many ways entirely expected. 

In many ways, "The Waste Lands" marks the final Venom album to attempt to consciously do something new with the bands sound. Soon after, the band would split, bringing to an end a more-or-less continuous thread of activity, under various line-ups, from 1979 to 1993. A few years later, the original line-up would come together with their sights firmly set on doing what they knew best on "Cast in Stone", before that line-up once again imploded, ushering in our current paradigm; that of Cronos weaving a string of consistently reasonable records from 2000's "Resurrection" onwards. Perhaps it's a story which could, ultimately, have been told without delving very deeply into Venom's more obscure years at all - but for the number of solid songs - and whole albums - encountered, some very solid indeed, it feels like a worthwhile journey to have undertaken.

Venom Official Site
Venom on Metal Archives