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I always feel like I'm unnecessarily lenient with progressive metal. I mean, it is my favorite genre, and I like to try and hold it to a high standard as much as I can...but damn, I hear those prog melodies and get those nice time changes and I'm just like "mmmmm...yes".
BUT, sometimes I just have to pull back the veil of mindless enjoyment and look at some of these works critically. This brings me to the debut of German progressive metal act Dreamscape, a band that I've enjoyed songs from here and there in the past, but never got around to actually listening to a full album. And me being me, when I'm really interested in a band I feel the need to go through every album chronologically. In my journeys through many of these discographies, I've found that it actually seems to have been a pretty common thing for 90s prog rock and metal bands that their debuts are one of the weaker efforts in their catalogues. They're trying to set themselves apart and show what they do, but their writing is a bit rough around the edges and they so often seem to start out sounding like so many other bands before or around them.
Dreamscape is no different in this regard. Trance-Like State comes off very much like a hodge-podge of various other acts from the genre. Usually it's reminiscent of contemporary names such as Conception, Threshold, 90s Fates Warning, or the proggier moments of early Kamelot. Other times, though, it sounds as if they've ripped pages straight out of the Queensrÿche/Crimson Glory progressive heavy metal songbook. In fact, vocalist Tobi Zoltan here often sounds very much like a cross-breed of Midnight and Roy Khan. His performance on this album isn't half-bad, but it never goes beyond simply good. He does an adequate job carrying the music and nothing more...although there are times in which he hits his lower registers softly and you can barely hear him buried underneath the instruments.
Speaking of the music, it's honestly the biggest flaw here. Now there are some great moments all throughout just about every track, with "Fateful Silence" being the biggest standout here (although "Streets" comes damn close for the first half), but so many of the songs fall short of their potential. Only a few of the tracks here have actually significantly weak musical ideas in of themselves; the issue lies in the half-baked and sloppy song structures. If a song isn't hopping around between passages that feel rather unrelated, glued together regardless, it's meandering along with a decent idea that gets a lot of the life and interest sucked out of it as it keeps going.
The two things that save it all are 1) the diversity of the music, which goes between solid moments of traditional prog metal, power metal, 80s-influenced progressive heavy metal, and occasional melodic prog rock, and 2) the quality of the musical passages themselves. Most of the music here is really quite good! The band has an ear for great melodies and an eclectic enough style, and can even create great atmospheric material as a lot of the more ballad-y songs show; it's just the sloppy song structuring that mostly brings it down, and the vocal performance that, as stated above, is at its absolute best just adequate.
All-in-all it's a really quality debut effort that just suffers from being largely poorly put together. The musicianship is fantastic and the potential for greatness is there, it's just in need of some serious refining.
I was only a very young chap when I first encountered seminal Brazilian black metal outfit Sarcófago back in the early 1990's. I'd begun tape trading with a South American kid who possessed a comprehensive list of his local product & I subsequently received a long procession of underground stuff from him in the mail over short period. Amongst that lot was a whole bunch of Sarcófago material & I can distinctly remember having my mind blown by just how raw metal music could get. It was very much a novelty for me at the time & it's understandable as to why I felt that way when I return to their debut full-length "I.N.R.I." in more modern times. Sarcófago took influence from several of the most extreme forms of music of the time & ramped them all up to eleven, all while still learning to play their instruments. But any experienced fan of South American extreme metal will tell you that these technical inadequacies & the general naivety of the song-writing are a big part of the attraction with this style of music & that's never been more evident than it is with "I.N.R.I.". It's full of out-of-time blast beats, silly monster noises & incompetent guitar solos but I'll be fucked if these "qualities" do anything to tarnish the album's appeal. It's simply a really fun listen & shouldn't be taken as seriously as many kvlt black metallers seem to.
Thankfully the production is clear enough so that you can easily make out all of the instruments. The snare drum is ridiculously loud but that has always been a common trait of South American releases. The influence of hardcore punk on Sarcófago's sound is obvious & it gives them a formidable energy that borders on being infectious. I do really enjoy the aggressive vocals which give the album a darker feel & helps it to overcome the fact that the instrumentalists are struggling to hold everything together beneath them. You'll often see people tossing around the thrash metal tag with "I.N.R.I." but there's very little legitimate thrash on offer if you look closely. This is pure black metal bordering on the more modern war metal movement that Sarcófago were such an key influence on. Early Sodom & Hellhammer are the most obvious influences in my opinion but the early Brazilian releases from Sepultura & Vulcano are also good points of reference, not to forget the hardcore & early grindcore elements.
This all amounts to a consistently enjoyable listen that never borders on being life-changing but is ultimately fit for purpose when searching for the ultra-kvlt & super-raw release that defines what it meant to be underground in the mid-to-late 1980's. I undoubtedly have a bit of an emotional attachment to Sarcófago given my history with them at a very impressionable time in my life but if I try my best to put those feelings aside I still can't seem to shift the adrenaline rush they give me. There's a purity to the primitive packaging & delivery that seems to transcend the technical deficiencies & this was the flame that the early black metal scene found so attractive. If you're into modern black metal then you owe it to yourself to at least have an understanding of what "I.N.R.I." was about & the impression it left of the metal underground. I can't say it'll ever sit amongst my all-time favourites but I never regret my occasional revisit.
Svalbard are a hardcore band from the U.K. who have been making some very unique sounding punk music throughout the 2010s. The bands defining feature is their incorporation of black metal and shoegaze (blackgaze) elements into their music and has produced some very solid records over that time.
So I got to check out the newest record from the group and wow what an album! I never would have thought that this would be the album that I needed, but here we are. Svalbard are taking the best elements of mathcore, seemingly borrowing from their fellow countrymen, Rolo Tomassi, and the sweet sounds of the new wave of blackgaze from a band such as Astronoid and they are able to create a gorgeous atmosphere. The sound of this album is fantastic; the dual vocal work from Serena Cherry and Liam Phelan is used to help articulate some haunting environments. Meanwhile, the instrumentals are stunning. Guitars are mixed very well from the top down and the tremolo picking melodies are very smooth and precise. The bass and percussion play off each other with high efficiency.
The songwriting is very fluent and immensely captivating. I already mentioned the excellent guitar leads, but the way this album modulates from black metal, to shoegaze, to hardcore punk is exceptional, and when these are elements are all brought together, they create something just as promising. Transitions are top notch on longer tunes like “The Currency of Beauty” and “Listen to Someone”. The only real downside is the content, which is very adolescent. But I can let it slide because a lot of metal songwriting is either remarkably blunt, or in the case of Astronoid, so shrouded in secrecy due to fragmented stanzas. I imagine someone going into this as a metal record might be turned off, but Harakari for the Sky does much of the same thing.
It will be interesting to see how and if the album holds up as strongly in a few months from now. I have listened to a lot of sad hardcore music over the last serveral weeks (Movements and Touché Amoré most recently) so we will have to see what happens. As for right now, this blend of Hardcore/Black Metal/Emo is really intoxicating and I would not be surprised if it made it on my year end list for 2020. And very high no less.
A couple of months ago, I forced myself to listen to Entombed's album Wolverine Blues, an album that defines, for better or worse, the very niche subgenre of death 'n' roll. Needless to say I wasn't much of a fan. So this left me wondering where this crossover was with the Black Metal subgenre? Then I came to the realization that black 'n' roll has existed since the very beginning of black metal. The earliest "black metal" albums by Venom were heavily influenced by Hardcore Punk and had more accessible song structures and melodic songwriting. Black metal did not start with Darkthrone after all.
Now I already knew about Kvelertak as I have recently listened to and enjoyed their 2020 record, Splid. And while not much has changed in the decade since the self titled debut, the band are still pretty good songwriters and know how to put a hook together. Splitting the difference between hardcore punk and the most mainstream accessible metal that you can get. I mean the groove of "Nekrostop" sounds like it could have been taken directly from Metallica's Death Magnetic. The guitar melodies are very nice as if they are borrowed from the more post-hardcore side. The percussion and bass work is not too bad; the low end is booming throughout and while their is not that much independence from the rhythm guitar, it stands out.
One thing that I did make a note of right away before even beginning to listen to this record, was how similar this records album cover looked to that of the band Baroness. I did not think anything of it at first...until I started listening to the record and heard the production. Their is so much blown out distortion in the guitars and the bass drum on this record. It can become pretty infuriating once you hear it. I made the Baroness comparison because many of those records have the same problem. Yet for Baroness, those records are supposed to sound clean. This is a punk record first and foremost, and while I can let the messy production slide because of the almost sloppy nature of this sound, I can only let it go to a certain extent. This production does get muddy, which is never good on any record.
As a result, what could have been a great record is only a pretty good one. Kvelertak's self titled debut was a real eye opener at the time and revitalized a love for this genre's true roots. It has some great changes of pace throughout the record and doesn't let up for the entire album. It's a must listen for those looking to hear the 2010s expansion of this niche subgenre, even if I don't think it's the cream of the crop in the subgenre, let alone in Kvelertak's discography.
Horned Almighty are a Danish black/thrash metal four-piece formed in 2002 from the remains of black metal outfit Mareridt. I have been woefully ignorant of the band until this release (excuse: there's just so much black metal out there!) To Fathom the Master's Grand Design, their sixth album and first for six years, is blistering black metal with searing guitar riffs and throat-tearing, roaring vocals that is as enervating as it is exhilharating in it's nihilistic savagery. Some of the tracks, such as Devouring Armageddon and Swallowed by the Earth, feature slower-paced sections that occasionally hint at doom metal. This easing of the tempo however, only serves to intensify the feeling of impending annihilation that the band seems hell-bent on racing towards and is entirely in keeping with their lyrical theme of armageddon and destruction. At this point, a word must go to bassist Haxen and drummer Harm for their solid and vigorous rhythm section that helps propel the tracks along like NASA rocket fuel, despite the main event being Hellpig's incendiary riffing.
I know it's heresy to say so, but I sometimes struggle to appreciate some of the more technical, avant-garde examples of modern metal, but this kind of vicious, rough-sounding black metal with it's neck-breaking, blood-pumping rhythms and it's calling to the more primal parts of our psyche is right up my proverbial street.