I must admit that, despite having a knowledge of the existence of Finnish doom metal trio Dolorian for many years now, I’d never gotten around to checking them out until my brother Ben nominated them for The Fallen clan feature release status a couple of weeks ago. From what I’d observed, the band were always referred to as a quality artist with their most recent outing (2006’s third album “Voidwards”) having been touted by many as a genuine classic so I came into this experience with considerable optimism, particularly given their high praise from my brother whose taste in metal I generally trust (with the obvious exception of Summoning who suck hard). I’d soon find though that Dolorian offered a lot more than I’d bargained for because their self-titled 2001 album is unlike anything I’ve ever heard before & that’s despite displaying a few obvious influences on their sleeves for the duration.
Firstly, I’d like to say straight up front that I feel that the tagging of “Dolorian” as a doom metal release is deceptive. Yes, Dolorian utilize slow, doomy riffs as a key ingredient in their sound however I’m not sure that it’s the protagonist here. There are many disparate influences being thrown around but to my ears this is predominantly a gothic metal release because the key ingredient that makes Dolorian so special is the consistently outstanding use of clean gothic rock & post-punk inspired melodic guitar work. These lines perpetuate not only the heavier doom sections but they also work to highlight the lengthy atmospheric excursions the band like to take with many of these seeing them hinting at psychedelia & even the post-metal of a band like Isis. The vocal delivery is very unusual for a metal band too with front man Anti Ittna Haapapuro opting for a whispered approach that sees him sitting predominantly in the background while the instrumentation takes the spotlight. In fact, Anti’s vocal contribution sees him taking on more of a supporting role while his ethereal guitar melodies maintain the listeners attention & this is one of the most significant talking points of the album. It really works if you ask me & it gives Dolorian a truly unique atmosphere. As does the repeated use of tribal drumming; a tool that I’ve historically found myself to have a very strong affiliation with as it tends to provoke a ritualistic & more primal feel.
The album kicks off with a beautifully dark three minute introductory piece called “Grey Rain” which I was delighted to find sounds exactly like Italian gothic darkwave exponents MonumentuM. I’m a HHUUGGEE fan of MonumentuM’s 1995 album “In Absentia Christi” & have never heard anything like it since so the hints at their sound that are scattered across “Dolorian” have nothing short of delighted me. “Grey Rain” is followed up by the first proper metal track “Blue Unknown” & it immediately tweaked my interest as it reminds me very much of “Wildhoney” era Tiamat. This is interesting because I’d find myself returning to that reference a number of times throughout the record but I’ve never seen Dolorian being linked with Tiamat before. Perhaps this link is why I have such a strong tendency to want to label the album as a gothic metal release but, to be fair though, the beautifully sombre clean guitar lines that dominate these pieces could have been pulled straight from an old record from The Cure or Joy Division & there simply aren’t enough tracks that offer that true doom metal atmosphere. The vibe we get here is surely dark & the tempos are inevitably slow but the everything feels much more gothic than it does doomy so I can’t even see myself being convinced to go with a both ways bet on the gothic doom metal tag here. Also, I’ve seen quite a lot of references to dark ambient being made online. Of the album’s nine tracks, three of them are short & particularly well executed ambient pieces but don’t expect them to fall into the dark ambient category. There’s nothing that sneaks outside of the more conventional ambient space here for mine but all of these tracks work beautifully within the context of the music around them. In fact, the two minutes of bliss that makes up “Ambiguous Ambivalence” may be the highlight of the entire record for me personally.
I find that my many years of DJing have left me with a bit of a knack for picking up the perfect setting to experience a record. With this one I knew straight up that I needed to listen to it through headphones while lying in isolation in a dark room &, as it turns out, it was only then that I managed to truly understand its ethereal majesty which enabled me to be completely swept up in it. The consistency of the tracklisting is nothing short of exceptional. There’s not a single track that doesn’t impress me in one way or another with the last four tracks representing a particularly spectacular run of high-quality art. You’ll notice that I chose the word art there & I did that intentionally because this is one of those records that feels like you’re experiencing genuine art rather than the regurgitating of some similar influences because, despite sporting some familiar elements, the sum of “Dolorian” simply doesn’t sound like anyone else & this makes this record a particularly worthy selection for a feature release. Dolorian” comes highly recommended from this ol’ metalhead as you won’t hear too many records like it. Just be prepared to give it your full & undivided attention & a good few listens to allow its charms to open up.
For fans of MonumentuM, Katatonia & “Wildhoney”-era Tiamat.
Genres: Doom Metal
Los Angeles groove metal outfit Grip Inc. are an artist that I’ve been acutely aware of since their inception back in 1993 but I’m going to have to admit that I’ve probably been guilty of making assumptions about their sound based on a subgenre box-ticking mentality to be honest. Dave Lombardo-era Slayer is undoubtedly the absolute peak of music (if not our overall human existence on this planet) as far as I’m concerned however I’ve simply refused to have his legacy tainted by his subsequent foray into a subgenre that (with the exception of its godfathers Pantera) I’ve always found to be predominantly underwhelming. That underlying fear has kept me from ever allowing myself to experience a Grip Inc. record in full to this very day & after going through the process of having my misconceptions removed & royally stuffed up my closed-minded & inherently stubborn backside over the last couple of days I’m feeling a little ashamed of myself. I’m also feeling particularly proud of my younger brother Ben who has once again nominated an incredibly underrated release for Metal Academy feature status. Most of you probably don’t know this but Ben is completely deaf in his left ear & knows very little about musical theory or technique but time & time again the dude has proven himself to have a greater level of discretion in that single ear than most packed metal venues do & refuses to let the masses influence his judgement too. The fact that Grip Inc’s 1997 sophomore album “Nemesis” has been such a wonderful surprise to me is simply further testament to that fact.
Unfortunately for Lombardo & co., my initial impressions of “Nemesis” were somewhat clouded by having listened to it directly after our The Guardians feature release in Grand Magus’ “Hammer Of The North” which sports a superbly thick & heavy production & this resulted in the feeling that the “Nemesis” production job was noticeably lacking. It’s certainly true that it feels a lot thinner in comparison with a lot more high end, significantly less bottom end & the drums & guitars not having anywhere near the same sort of weight but once I’d given myself a day to let it sink in & returned to it with fresh ears (this time through quality headphones) I was able to reach a happy place where those comparisons faded away very quickly. The other early talking point for me was about just how little generic groove metal I heard. I mean, I was expecting something similar to Pantera, Machine Head & “Chaos AD” era Sepultura but found myself struggling to make the link very often during my first listen. I heard a lot more thrash than I did groove metal to tell you the truth &, as a result, I made a point of giving that notion a strong focus on subsequent listens.
Given my life-long passion for classic Slayer, I often find myself scoring releases that manage to successfully harness that sound a little higher than your average punter & you can count “Nemesis” amongst those that do it exceptionally well so Slayer fans will be feeling quite emotional (if not violently so) from the word go with this record. Opening number “Pathetic Liar” is a sensational example of a band that’s taken that Slayer blueprint & used it to create a piece that may sound familiar but also rips you a new arsehole in no uncertain terms. The influence of Lombardo has no doubt played a big role in this however there’s a lot more to Grip Inc. than that as both Kerry King & Jeff Hannemann would have been over the moon if they had created some of these riffs. Vocalist Gus Chambers sports a wonderful voice for aggressive metal music too. It’s gruff enough to punish you during the more aggressive parts & his screams are used beautifully in highlighting the climaxes however he’s also got more than enough substance to handle the more atmospheric sections of the album so I actually think he’s a big part of the appeal of Grip Inc.
After pummelling you with those first couple of thrash-fests, we see the album settling down a little & taking you to more expansive & ambitious places than your average thrash or groove metal outfit are capable of. In fact, by the end of the record you’ll be left wondering how you’ve managed to take such an interesting journey without the slightest sign of any jarring transitions or sudden u-turns. I actually think this may be the best attribute of “Nemesis” to tell you the truth. It’s simply so much more than what it’s touted to be & I’m tempted to say that it hasn’t been done any favours by its having been pigeon-holed with the likes of Soulfly & Machine Head. There’s an amazingly well-defined use of texture & atmosphere here that is much more in line with post-metal than anything else with Lombardo consistently utilizing tribal drumming techniques to build tension & create drama. At first I thought he may be borrowing the technique from Sepultura who had been so successful in integrating their local heritage into their sound on a record like “Chaos AD” however the result is much more in line with the likes of Neurosis which is a big compliment if you know how much I adore that band. Guitarist Waldemar Sorychta often opts for dissonant open-string guitar work that would feel a lot more at home on an industrial metal record than a groove metal one &, when combined with the intelligent use of repetition, we see the tension building until an immense Devin Townsend-esque scream from Chambers will lead the band into a huge climax or a drum roll from Lomabardo will see the band ripping back into a chunky groove metal riff or a rip-snorting thrash beat. Wow! This is a group of musicians who well & truly know what they’re doing & are not to be over-awed by the presence of thrash royalty.
The tracklisting on “Nemesis” is extremely consistent as there’s not a weak moment across the entire duration but there are also more than enough highlights to see me reaching for the higher scores. Whether it’s the afore-mentioned opener “Pathetic Liar”, the tension-building tribal interlude “Descending Darkness”, the up-tempo thrash-fest “War Between One”, the “Seasons In The Abyss” feel of personal favourite “Rusty Nail” or the maturity & class of “Myth Or Man”, “Nemesis” offers tier one quality in everything it touches. It’s also worth mentioning that, when taken in holistically, it doesn’t really sound like anyone in particular & is subsequently fairly hard to categorize. I mean, I don’t think I’ve heard a thrash/groove metal act taking this more atmospheric approach before &, after sitting through this wonderful album, I have to wonder why not because it adds an additional element that increased my emotional & intellectual engagement. As a result, I also find myself wondering why I haven’t heard more about “Nemesis” over the years. There can be no denying that it’s horribly underrated & I can only speculate that the cheap cover art might have something to do with it as it really is a long way from acceptable. Please make sure that you don’t let that flaw taint your musical experience because Grip Inc. have the ability to satisfy a lot more than just your violent urges.
For fans of Slayer, Exhorder & Sepultura.
Genres: Groove Metal Thrash Metal
The Swiss black metal scene has always been more about quality over quantity. I mean despite providing the world with one of its earliest & most revered blackened thrash metal icons in short-lived Zurich trio Hellhammer in the early 1980’s, the Swiss failed to develop any other significant contributors for the remainder of the decade. The early 1990’s would see the arrival of Samael as a considerable underground force, just in time for the Norwegians to take the metal world by storm & make the genre into a household name with metal fans across the globe. But by the time the mid-90’s had arrived Samael had jumped ship & headed away from their black metal roots to take up an admittedly classy industrial metal direction & in doing so left a gaping hole in the Swiss black metal world with no suitable replacements in sight. I have to admit that I’ve always questioned Samael’s timing given that they’d just released their finest black metal album in 1994’s “Ceremony Of Opposites” & the buzz around black metal was at an all-time high off the back of our old mates Varg & Euronymous. Perhaps they didn’t get the memo or found it to be illegible due to excessive blood-soaking. Interestingly though, unlike the rest of Scandinavia, Switzerland had no real intention of cashing in on extreme metal’s newest fad. They were patiently waiting for a hero. A hero that would lead them through the next twenty-odd years of black metal history.
The Second Wave of Black Metal didn’t take long to branch out artistically. Just eighteen months after Darkthrone took the world by storm with their “A Blaze In The Northern Sky” album, Varg Vikernes & his Burzum project would begin hinting at a more atmospheric form of black metal based on trance-like repetition & textured lo-fi production. The next few years would see him not only developing but also completely mastering the sound which would peak with his 1996 post-incarceration masterpiece “Filosofem”. Other Europeans quickly took note with artists like Ulver, In The Woods…, Blut aus Nord & Summoning all releasing significant recordings between 1994 & 1997.
This didn’t go unnoticed by 19 year-old Swiss multi-instrumentalist Tobias Mockl who would develop a major fascination with Burzum’s music & would subsequently put together a solo project with the sole intension of replicating his idol. He called this project Paysage d’Hiver (which is French for “winter landscape”) & 1998 would see Tobias (or “Wintherr” as he would call himself moving forwards) releasing the first in a long series of demo tapes based around the theme of winter. The series would continue for 15 years with Wintherr apparently determined not to have his image & vision tainted by commercialism. For this reason, he was very strict about keeping each release officially labelled as a demo rather than a proper album release. Each demo would also see him telling different parts of the one epic story & not always in chronological order.
Wintherr would quickly become the leader that Swiss black metal been waiting for & his influence would see the local scene producing a number of noteworthy exponents of this more atmospheric black metal sound over the next two decades. The most celebrated of which would be his collaborative project Darkspace & the solo work of his Darkspace band mate Zhaaral which went by the name of Sun Of The Blind but artists like Vinterriket, Tardigrada, Rorcal, Can Bardd & Nordlicht are also worth mentioning. I wasn’t fortunate enough to come into contact with Paysage d’Hiver until 2009 when I investigated his self-titled 1999 release after being recommended it by Ben & seeing it receiving genuine classic status on a number of online resources. I was suitably impressed but perhaps wasn’t drawn into the fanatical sort of response I saw it commanding of others. My subsequent experiences with Paysage d’Hiver have certainly wet my appetite for what is supposedly the project’s first legitimate album release though & a 120 minutes marathon it is too. It’s been a full seven years since the last Paysage d’Hiver record so perhaps he’s making up for lost time. Let’s see what “Im Wald” is all about, shall we?
“Im Wald” is to be released through Wintherr’s own label Kunsthall Produktionen which he runs with Nimosh of the band Nordlicht. This is no real surprise as all of the Paysage d’Hiver releases have been through Kunsthall thus far. Apparently the version of that I’ve been listening to is a rip of one of the copies supplied on USB sticks to those lucky enough to have been in attendance at the pre-release listening party on 25th January 2020. The proper release date is slated for 26th June 2020 which means that we’re well ahead of the game here. “Im Wald” is German for “In The Forest” which is a pretty generic title for a black metal release it has to be said however Paysage d’Hiver have a stronger claim to it than most. The attractive cover art is certainly reflective of the title & it delivers a suitable amount of dark & foreboding atmosphere to the table straight up.
There’s not been any reference to a third-party producer being responsible for overseeing the production of “Im Wald” that I’m aware of so one would assume that it’s another self-produced effort. Given the attention to detail that Wintherr has shown with his art over the years, it probably wasn’t ever an option to involve anyone else in the recording process. Particularly given that the drums & synths are programmed rather than being performed live in a studio & also the lo-fi recording qualities that Paysage d’Hiver has built their reputation on. And that lo-fi element is certainly still here on “Im Wald” however there’s a clarity to this material that wasn’t there on previous releases. The riffs & instrumentation are more decipherable than we’re used to from Wintherr. He’s always used the intentional blurring of the instrumental tracks as a tool for creating a cold atmosphere & he’s certainly still approached his craft in the same way here only he’s allowed just enough definition to give these tracks some additional melodic context which was a master stroke in my opinion. You can still expect the noisy guitar tracks to come at you in sweeping waves with the vocals held back in the mix so that they sound almost like a tortured animal crying out in agony in the background though. Also, much like on the self-titled release, you can expect to hear some of those strange alternate instruments layered over the top of the traditional black metal that don’t seem to fit in with the rest of the track. This is by no means a deal breaker but I just don’t feel that he’s ever quite worked out how to fully integrate those elements & they often sound misplaced to my ears.
“Im Wald” takes the form of thirteen tracks totaling a full two hours. Four or five of those tracks are made up of shorter interludes that are invariably drenched in field recordings of bitterly cold ice winds blowing through the trees of the darkest forests but are each unique in their musical direction. A couple of them ooze of “Filosofem”-period Burzum whilst “Eulengesang” is pure Aphex Twin & “Verweilen” reminds me heavily of “Satellite Serenade” by Japanese electronic producer Keiichi Suzuki. I’ve gotta say, the dude has taste! Those are some high quality & impressively diverse influences & every one of these interludes is unique & of a very high standard. In fact, they really help to break up what is essentially a very long album for extreme metal & I’d actually suggest that the interludes & atmospheric tracks may be the highlights of the first hour rather than the genuine black metal numbers. The black metal tracks also offer a fair bit of variety with each piece possessing its own unique personality. So much so that “Im Wald” can sound a little more like a compilation of different material than a cohesive album during the first half of the album. Thankfully things come together much more tightly through the back end though.
The tempo is quite hectic for an atmospheric black metal release & certainly seems faster than I can remember from my previous experiences with Paysage d’Hiver. In fact, when you take into account the clearer production & the more intense style it does see me reaching for your more traditional black metal tag quite regularly. This is a noticeably more metal-oriented release than we’ve heard from Paysage d’Hiver’s more recent works & it’s chock full of your classic Norwegian tremolo riffs delivered in a similarly repetitive vein to 90’s Darkthrone . These can often be trance-inducing only the drum programming has been beautifully composed to highlight the changes & keep the tracks building. The guitars come in the form of a truly ominous & ever swarming mass that’s full of darkness & forboding. It’s interesting that the guitar performances aren’t perfectly in time with the programmed drumming on some tracks (particularly during the first hour) however this somehow seems appropriate with a raw & lo-fi black metal release like this one. In direct contrast to the up-front guitars is the use of synthesizers which are employed very subtly & are a major ingredient in the impressive tension & huge climaxes that Wintherr has orchestrated, particularly during the back half of the album where the synths seem to creep up on you very slowly until they're lifting the tracks to greater heights than you realized possible earlier on in the piece.
There are no weak tracks included here although the first hour is not nearly as strong as the second which is as close to perfect as you’ll find in extreme metal. Almost every track possesses traces of pure genius but the ones that fail to truly fulfill their potential tend to suffer from some inappropriate melodic or artistic decisions. “Stimmen in wald” is a good example of this with its consistent use of slightly cheesy “Hammerheart”-era Bathory style choirs managing to partially nullify some strong instrumentation while opener “Im Winterwald” sees some excellent groundwork being somewhat tainted by an ill-advised progressive electronic melody midway through the track. “Alt” suffers a similar affliction with what sounds like an apparently unrelated acoustic guitar arpeggio being layered over some blasting black metal. I made similar comments about the “Paysage d’Hiver” album from twenty years earlier so it would seem that Wintherr is a slow learner in this regard. He’s simply much more effective when he concentrates on the main black metal tools.
Whereas a lot of Paysage d’Hiver’s discography relies heavily on mid-90’s Burzum for inspiration, “Im Wald” sees Wintherr drawing on a wider range of classic extreme metal influences with traces of Emperor being found in the huge atmospheres & back-of-the-mix vocal approach while certain tracks sound almost like tributes to “Monotheist” period Celtic Frost (“Weiter, immer weiter”), Primordial’s “To The Nameless Dead” album (“Le Reve Lucide”) & “Transilvanian Hunger”-era Darkthrone (“Kalteschauer”). All of those tracks are spectacularly successful in these undertakings though it has to be said & are at least as effective as their sources of inspiration. Burzum’s underlying menace is still visible throughout, even if it can be slightly offset by some of those imperfect melodic decisions in hour one. There’s a rare majesty to this music when Wintherr gets things just right. He possesses the rare ability to create music that represents the truest embodiment of a snow-filled winter & his years of making this style of music have seen him mastering the art of building tension; the releases of which usually come through incredibly well timed & executed changes in drum beat.
Wintherr’s vocal performance is worth discussing as it’s noticeably more effective than it was on an album like the self-titled. He’s always used his voice more as an additional instrument than as a focal point & intentionally blends it into the instrumentation rather than pushing it out to the front of the mix. His shrieking screams often bring to mind “Under The Sign Of The Black Mark” era Bathory in tone here however their positioning in the mix gives them a slightly different but no less frightening timbre. Nowhere is this better highlighted than in the second hour of “Im Wald” which needs to be discussed in a bit more detail because it’s essentially the best thing I’ve heard come out of the black metal scene in many years, if not decades! Wintherr uses quality riffs & repetition along with subtle rhythmic changes to build the tracks subtly over long periods before gradually bringing in synthesizers & additional guitar tracks for huge & cripplingly dark crescendos that can only be described as black metal mastery. Wintherr has an incredible understanding of what it is that makes the black metal classics so great. That quality seems to have been lost over the years & I’m thrilled to hear that we still have artists that appreciate & understand these key elements & characteristics & don’t feel the need to hide behind disparate genre-crossing or dilution of the black metal model but instead bask in the glory of a more pure approach to black metal. You will simply not find a better example of this than the epic 19 minute closer “So hallt es wider”. It completely releases the shackles & drives home everything that is so great about elite level black metal. In fact, I wouldn’t hesitate to label it as one of the most sinister & genuinely intimidating pieces of music ever written. It almost defies belief that we’re hearing this in 2020. It’s the truest musical embodiment of Scandinavian winter you’re ever likely to find; Varg included. In fact, it may just be the best black metal track ever recorded & the previously mentioned “Kalteschauer” isn’t all that far behind it either to be fair.
“Im Wald” is an absolutely massive undertaking & one gets the feeling that Wintherr has been honing & refining this material over a very long period with the specific intension of making his first proper album a release of extreme magnitude. If that was the case, then he’s achieved his goal in no uncertain terms. This is certainly not a perfect record but I think there’s a case for it being labelled as a classic one given the consistent quality & the sheer quantity of tracks that are at that elite level. To keep the listener completely engaged across an entire two hours of extreme metal is an achievement in itself & I wouldn’t be surprised if Wintherr has intentionally loaded the back end with the best material in order to ensure that his audience don’t lose interest over time. I have to say, despite any negative statements I made earlier, the first hour is of a very solid standard that’s not too far from Paysage d’Hiver’s self-titled release in terms of overall quality but I’m disappointed that he hasn’t trimmed off the fat & released a one hour album here. If that had happened then I may just be claiming it as one of the top few metal releases ever recorded & I don’t say that lightly at all. This is absolutely essential listening for all fans of the black metal genre.
For fans of: Burzum, Darkspace, Darkthrone
Genres: Black Metal
Most death metal fans know the story. 18 year-old drummer Chris Reifert joins seminal death metal legends Death in San Francisco in 1986 before taking part in the recording of one of the most important records in the creation of the death metal genre in 1987’s “Scream Bloody Gore”. Death band leader Chuck Schuldiner then decides to move back to Florida & gives Chris the option to relocate. Chris elects to stay in San Francisco & forms another one of the classic old-school death metal bands in Autopsy in August 1987. 1988’s “Critical Madness” demo sees the band signing with UK crust punk label Peaceville Records for the recording of their seminal 1989 debut album “Severed Survival” & the world rejoices. It’s somewhat of a fairytale for a number of reasons really. I mean for every band that goes on to critical & commercial success you’ll find a slew of failed musicians that fell by the wayside never to be heard from again & it’s actually quite rare to see this sort of success story (although there are definite parallels to the Dave Mustaine one with Metallica & Megadeth). And for Peaceville, it would be a change of musical direction that would quickly lead to the creation of a viable full-time business & one that is still going strong a full three decades later. But is “Severed Survival” all that it’s cracked up to be? Let’s find out.
The recording of Autopsy’s debut full-length would be a joint effort with Peaceville bringing in Metal Church guitarist John Marshall to co-produce the record at Starlight Sound Studios in California in January 1989. Marshall had previously produced not only Metal Church’s “Blessing In Disguise” record but also Sadus’ 1988 debut full-length “Illusions” so when Autopsy bassist Ken Sorvari made himself unavailable for the recording of the album for personal reasons, the now legendary Sadus bass virtuoso Steve DiGiorgio was drafted in to complete the recordings as a hired gun. I think it’s probably fair to say that Steve had no idea of just how prominent a role he would play in the way that Autopsy’s album would sound at the time.
The “Severed Survival” album would be released on 24th April 1989 & would sport some grisly cover artwork that depicted an image of some poor soul being torn limb from limb by a number of metallic hooks. Autopsy’s moniker would be displayed in what looked like raw meat which would be a further indication of the depraved sounds you were likely to hear within. It’s a fairly cheap looking effort it has to be said & later re-releases would see it replaced with a much more impressive illustration of some zombified surgeons peering down into the eyes of some unfortunate patient. I greatly prefer the look & feel of the re-release as it looks much more glossy & professional which would see it competing quite well in the extreme metal market environment of the time which saw every band & their dog coming up with increasingly attractive images of pure darkness.
The sound that was captured for the “Severed Survival” album was unlike anything the underground metal scene had heard before & it would go on to become a signature sound for Autopsy throughout their career. It was much sludgier & substantially less precise than most 80’s metal with a huge emphasis being placed on creating a genuinely disturbing atmosphere of death & torture that’s not too dissimilar to the image shown on the original release of the album. In fact, "Severed Survival" legitimately sounds like you’re inside the twisted mind of a serial killer in that it exudes an unsettling feeling of impending doom throughout. In order to achieve this, Marshall & the band have opted for a much sloppier & looser feel than most metal bands of the time were going for & in hindsight it was a stroke of genius. The drums were tuned quite loosely to give the toms & kick drum a deep tub-thumpin’ sound while DiGiorgio’s bass guitar would be elevated right to the front of the mix to provide additional emphasis to Autopsy’s already crushing riffs which were presented with a very distinctive & fuzzy rhythm guitar sound. The guitar solos of Eric Cutler & Danny Coralles seer over the top of the rhythm tracks thanks to a heavily filtered tone that was likely achieved with a stationary wah pedal if I’m not mistaken. Truth be told, it’s a really great sound for death metal & I don’t doubt that it was one of the primary reasons that “Severed Survival” would go on to be so successful for Autopsy.
Musically, Autopsy also offered the death metal community something a little different. The basis of their style was built on the “Scream Bloody Gore” model of old-school death metal that Reifert had played such a strong part in creating only Autopsy were a lot less sophisticated than peers like Morbid Angel, Pestilence or Death. There’s a much punkier vibe going on here than anything we’d hear from those bands & I put a lot of that down to Reifert’s drumming. I probably should have mentioned it earlier but Chris is one of the rare metal drummers that also handles the lead vocal duties & I’d suggest that his signature style is the logical outcome of that arrangement as it’s fairly simple. His best work invariably occurs when he goes for a more tribal feel during Autopsy’s doomier moments but I have to admit that his more up-beat & punk-driven beats are a bit of a let-down for me personally. They’re just not my thing particularly. I much prefer Autopsy’s strong use of slow dirge-like doom metal riffs with bands like Black Sabbath & Trouble clearly having made a substantial impression on the band. In fact, it can easily be argued that “Severed Survival” is the true birthplace of the doom/death subgenre as it’s such a major component of what makes Autopsy so appealing. I absolutely love the crushingly heavy & suffocating darkness in these parts & it’s the uneasiness it leaves the listener feeling that makes it so appropriate for a band whose lyrical themes are so heavily centred around serial killers. When you stick in the occasional off-beat arrangement with clever transitions & some very twisted lead harmonies you’re left with one beast of a death metal sound.
The performance of Steve DiGiorgio isn’t one of his most challenging & experimental but he certainly adds an additional layer to Autopsy’s already disturbing sound. His bass work is truly punishing & I particularly enjoy his use of bass chords at key moments which makes for something a little different. I’d highly recommend that you make sure you have a decent set of speakers before giving “Severed Survival” a spin though as you could be in for a rude shock otherwise. Cutler & Coralles show off some decent chops during their solos however I do think that there’s a little bit of a lack of ambition in their faster solos which tend go for a huge flurry of notes without really saying all that much. Their slower lead work is much more interesting as their note-selection can be quite unnerving at times.
Reifert’s vocals were always going to be a talking point because there’s been very little restraint shown in his approach. I wouldn’t say that he goes for your classic death metal grunt. His performance here sounds more like the crazed bellows & barks of an emotionally tortured & psychologically twisted serial killer. It’s almost like he’s too embarrassed for people to decipher the storylines he’s subjecting us to because I’ll be damned if he isn’t intentionally trying to make his language less intelligible. I have to admit that I don’t love his delivery & I’ve often wondered what Autopsy could have achieved with a full-time front man but it’s definitely worth dwelling on Chris’ sick, gore-soaked lyrical content for a minute because “Severed Survival” would be the record that would kick off a generation of subsequent death metal bands working predominantly with a palate of disgusting & offensive filth…. in a good way of course! Some may say that we’re better off for not being able to understand what Reifert’s saying & one look at the lyrics should tell you very quickly which side of the fence you fall on.
Ultimately I’m always left with mixed feelings about “Severed Survival” & it’s been that way since I first encountered it back in 1989/90. I love Autopsy’s swampy sound & the authentic atmosphere of pure death it pervades. They really did create something very original there & their talent for writing the eeriest doom metal riffs imaginable leaves me wishing that they would have taken that direction in more of a full-time capacity just the once so that I could see what it might have amounted to. Unfortunately, I just don’t find their bouncier up-tempo material even half as appealing & almost every track sees some glorious doom material being tarnished by one or two lethargic & unintimidating punk-driven beats. The overall result is that whilst I enjoy almost every track on “Severed Survival”, I very rarely LOVE any of these tracks. It’s only really “Charred Remains” & “Ridden With Disease” that manage to overcome this issue & for this reason I find this release to be the very epitome of a 3.5/5 release by my rating system. I’m not sure I’d say that “Severed Survival” is overrated. The influence it's so clearly had on a band like Carcass is undeniable so I think it's more just a matter of it not quite fitting in with my comfort zone despite being a generally rewarding listen.
For fans of: Asphyx, Abscess, Pungent Stench.
Genres: Death Metal
The funeral doom metal subgenre & I have a long & rewarding history as it’s a movement that I got involved with very early in its evolutionary timeline back in the early 1990’s. I really bought into the feeling of isolation it promotes & felt that it was just what I’d been looking for at the time. Over time though, I tended to find that it wasn’t the type of thing that I could listen to all that often without becoming restless & also that there weren’t nearly enough bands that were doing anything particularly different with the original prototype so these days I opt for an occasional return to key bands & releases that I find to be genuinely rewarding. After the last couple of days though, I’ll be adding French four-piece Monolithe to my list of agreeable options.
Single-track albums haven’t been something that I’ve had a particular interest in over the years. I rarely see the point in extending a single piece to those levels of excess with only very rare examples of releases that genuinely manage to captivate me by taking me on a cohesive journey that’s worthy of my undivided attention. Green Carnation’s “Light Of Day, Day Of Darkness” & Meshuggah’s “Catch Thirtythree” immediately spring to mind however for every win there are several examples that fall by the wayside. In order for a single track of that length to achieve a consistent level of intrigue it must take the listener through a number of rewarding movements that are easily differentiated from each other but still work together as a fluently flowing piece in its own right. Does the fifty minute “Monolithe II” work in this capacity? Well yes & no. Unlike Edge Of Sanity’s “Crimson”, this is definitely one long piece rather than sounding like a bunch of different parts pasted together & whether that’s something that you have the patience for is up to the individual really. “Monolithe II” certainly doesn’t stray too far from the theme it begins with but, at the same time, it’s not all that hard to identify highlight sections of the album such as the significantly more intense & climactic period that appears at around the 25-30 minute mark. It just takes a fair amount of building to get to that point with the atmosphere tending to sneak up on you so that when the peak finally arrives you’re not all that sure how you got there.
Monolithe champion a melodic brand of funeral doom metal that’s not unlike that of many of their peers however they do offer a point of difference in the consistent use of accordion as a melodic centrepiece along with the strong use of keyboards for atmospherics. There’s a conscious sense of grandeur about this album. It isn’t the most desolate example of the subgenre as the tempos don’t get as ploddy as some of their contemporaries & the overall concentration on melody gives it a lighter feel. For this reason, I often find myself reaching for comparisons with the death doom metal subgenre as there are some easy comparisons to be made with the simple melodic guitar themes of bands like My Dying Bride & Paradise Lost here. The death-growled vocals of Richard Loudin aren’t the most original you’ve ever heard either but they’re certainly serviceable. I do feel that he could have opted for a little more variation though as he doesn’t really command the listeners attention all that often, instead tending to compliment whatever melodic concept the instrumentalists are exploring at the time in order to accentuate the big atmosphere that Monolithe are trying to create.
Ultimately, “Monolithe II” is a very strong example of the funeral doom metal sound & I can understand other members awarding it some of their higher scores. For me personally though, there are a couple of things that will always keep it grounded in the upper realms of the also-rans. Whilst the use of accordion certainly creates an interesting point of differentiation, I can’t say that I think it fits the funeral doom format all that well as I find it to sound a little bit cheesy at times. In fact, I regularly find myself thinking that it might sound more at home on a Summoning record which isn’t a positive thing if you know my feelings on that particular artist. I’d also like to see Monolithe making a greater effort to change things up a bit. A stronger focus on light & shade might have made the 50 minute run time seem a lot less arduous in my opinion. Regardless of these minor blemishes though, “Monolithe II” definitely possesses enough atmosphere to successfully maintain my interest for its duration. It just doesn't peak in intensity enough to command my higher ratings. It’s an impressive accomplishment from a classy outfit but it’s not as emotionally engaging as the premier releases in the funeral doom subgenre.
For fans of Ea, The Howling Void & Remembrance.
Genres: Doom Metal
Oh…. My…. Fucking…. God… !!!!! It’s amazing how extreme music continues to surprise me after all these years. Just when you think that all of the good stuff has already been done, an underground release comes along & obliterates all of the walls that you’ve so carefully constructed to protect the eras you’ve placed on the highest pedestals. 2015’s “The Dreaming I” sophomore album from Colorado-based black metal duo Akhlys is one such release for me. I’ve always had an enormously strong passion for the darkest & most brutal end of extreme metal & my chosen brand of black metal is no exception. I like my drums blasting, my lyrics blasphemous & my vocals searing with an atmosphere that’s as cold & suffocating as a séance in an arctic snow storm. It seems that I’ve found a couple of kindred spirits here in Naas Alcameth & Ain too because this record couldn’t be more up my alley if they’d set out with the sole intention of satisfying my evil fantasies.
I have to admit that I had a little bit of a head-start on “The Dreaming I” as I gave it my first spin in late July after seeing Vinny name it as his all-time favourite black metal release. I got to know Vinny a bit on other metal-focused internet forums for a number of years before Metal Academy became a thing & over the extended period of time that we've been connected I’ve realised that we share some pretty similar tastes when it comes to black metal so my interest was immediately tweaked upon noticing that he held a release that I’d never heard in such high regard. The amazing cover artwork was also a major drawcard but I didn’t even manage to get halfway through the opening song before realising that I was experiencing something pretty special. In fact, the only reason that I haven’t mentioned it up until now is because my feelings were so strong that I had to get my head around just how much praise I could deem to be appropriate for a release that I was still so new to & the answer to that question has been… well…. all of it really!! Every bit of praise I can muster.
I’ve noticed “The Dreaming I” being labelled as atmospheric black metal which is interesting. Sure, there can be no doubting the all-encompassing power of the atmosphere of sheer darkness however this is much too brutal & the riffs are too upfront for that tag in my opinion. I’m much more comfortable with the conventional black metal one. Perhaps these links are encouraged by the dark ambient sections, the densely layered wall of guitars & the slow pace of the longest piece “Consummation” but they seem a little unnecessary to me. In saying that though, I can certainly see the irony in the fact that my brain wants to link Akhlys to other bands that receive the same sort of comparisons.
This 45 minute album contains just the five tracks & begins with a couple of absolute blast-fests. I’m a total sucker for insanely overthetop extreme metal drumming & you won’t find too many better examples of it than this one. I was actually wondering whether I was listening to a real drummer at times, such was the precision intensity on display & I’m still not entirely sure to tell you the truth. I suspect not though given the tone & timbre of the drum kit which has impressed the pants off me. Then we get a 17 minute epic piece that sports a slower tempo & gradually builds through a cacophony of intentionally warped melodic ideas & eventually culminating in one of the truest realizations of pure evil I’ve ever encountered. The dark ambient component is executed outstandingly well at various times throughout the tracklisting which is another key element of the album &, as someone that’s spent a lot of time with that particular niche subgenre, I was blown away by how well Akhlys understand the intricacies of ambient music. The use of twisted higher register melodic motifs is another important element of their sound & it’s unnerving to hear just how dark these can come across at times. The screaming vocals of Naas Alcameth are quite brilliant too as he works his evil magic & engulfs the listener in unholy contempt.
I’m completely unable & unprepared to find fault with “The Dreaming I” to tell you the truth. It’s as perfect a representation of the modern black metal sound as I’ve heard in many years &, after giving it the time to really sink in over the last couple of weeks, I’ve decided that it’s a top three black metal release of all time for me. In fact, it’s easily forced its way into my all-time top ten for metal in general & I don’t take a statement like that lightly at all after all these years of obsessive musical exploration. Akhlys have managed to truly capture every last inch of me with this record. I’m fully invested & it’s actually left me wondering if I should reverse my decision to leave The North given that I so clearly hold such a strong passion for black metal.
For fans of Blut aus Nord, Darkspace & Leviathan.
Genres: Black Metal
I was a little late to discover the wonders of Norwegian progressive metal high-achievers Leprous to be honest. When I returned to metal in 2009 I was simply too focused on making up for lost time in the extreme metal space & it seems that “Tall Poppy Syndrome” may have floated by right in front of my face without me ever bothering to look up. It wasn’t until 2013 that their “Coal” album saw me getting onboard the Leprous train & the experience impressed me enough to entice me into checking them out on their first Australian tour three years later when they co-headlined with Perth’s Voyager at the Factory Theatre here in Sydney. Leprous were really solid in a live environment too but didn’t play anything further back than 2011’s “Bilateral” & that may well have contributed to me never having felt the urge to venture any further back into their back-catalogue which, as it tuns out, is a real shame given the results of the last couple of day’s listening sessions.
“Tall Poppy Syndrome” certainly gave me a solid nudge but I wouldn’t say that it knocked me off my feet on first impression. I was undoubtedly struck by the overall class of this record however I didn’t find myself reaching for elite level comparisons until subsequent listens & I think that has a bit to do with the fact that it relies so heavily on a few highlight pieces. The 63-minute, eight-song tracklisting is extremely consistent with the shortest & most laidback inclusion “Fate” representing the least impressive of the eight tracks but still being quite enjoyable. It’s interesting that Leprous have opted to hold back on drawing from their best material until a good fifteen minutes into the album though & I think that’s one of the reasons that it took me a couple of listens to see my feelings reaching their fullest realisation as I found that my initial impressions were already set by the time I got to those tracks the first time around & I needed time to let it all settle in my brain before being open to the finer nuances that became more evident with a great level of exposure. The first two tracks are both highly professional & are really very strong in their own right however they simply don't prepare me for the wonderfully constructed & more obviously hook-laden pieces from a little later in the tracklisting with “Dare You”, the title track or “Not Even A Name” all being superb pieces of progressive metal that saw my score rising into the stratosphere.
You won’t see the wheel being reinvented here by any means & the tendency for people to want to toss around terms like “avant-garde” are completely misguided, as are the references to progressive rock as there’s not a single track here that branches outside of the metal spectrum. “Tall Poppy Syndrome” is simply a very high-quality progressive metal record that presents its influences fairly openly for all to see but manages to match its more widely celebrated peers pretty comfortably in the process. It’s not hard to identify the sort of Dream Theater-isms that have been essential ingredients in virtually every clean-sung progressive metal release since the early 90’s but there are also moments when Leprous flirt with the more extreme territories that the band’s Norwegian homeland has built its reputation on. Opeth is clearly the biggest influence on “Tall Poppy Syndrome” though & it’s the moments where they drift closest to their Swedish idols’ sound that I get the most excited about to be honest. The title track is a great example & I often caught myself wondering whether a good half of its huge appeal is due to a sense of comfort built on familiarity or nostalgia.
I’m not sure that Einar Solberg’s vocal hooks are as consistently potent as they would become in later years (particularly on their classic “Live At Rockefeller Music Hall” double album which is my all-time favourite progressive metal release these days) & this would see me holding back from fully engaged worship for a period. However once Solberg starts to nail those melodies I find myself getting dragged in pretty quickly & it was really hard not to let those few genuine highlight tracks guide my rating to be honest, particularly given that the rest of the material is so blemish-free & invariably displays an undeniable class in its execution. Eventually I just gave in as it was clear that my subconscious had strong enough feelings to warrant it. Above all else, it’s important to note that Leprous never forget about the importance of song-writing & composition within a progressive structure. In fact, they get the balance of technique & accessibility just right on this occasion & in doing so create a stunning piece of art that will stay with me for some time yet.
For fans of Opeth, Haken & Ihsahn.
Genres: Progressive Metal
Well what do you know!? I do actually like a Savatage record after all! It turns out that if you drag the microphone away from Jon Oliva & his overly theatrical banshee shrieking & then strip back some of the symphonic schmaltz in the arrangements that you're left with a more than decent heavy metal album, particularly when you insert the very capable Zachary Stevens & his more traditionally impressive hard rock voice. The influence of Jon Oliva isn't completely removed here as his voluntary step back from the band in order to concentrate on overcoming his demons didn't see him being able to completely separate himself from his lifelong passion & here we see him making a good fist of the song-writing, production & keyboard duties. I was genuinely surprised to find that the consistent use of Jon's piano within the context of a heavy metal record has actually worked to add colour rather than diminishing the impact of the heavy guitars.
Guitar virtuoso Criss Oliva is unsurprisingly in fine form & "Edge Of Thorns" would prove to be a fitting swan song for him with his untimely death in a car accident only just around the corner. The arrangements may not be as complex as they were on the previous couple of albums but there's more of a progressive edge to this material than we'd heard from a Savatage record in the past, so much so in fact that I'd be tempted to give "Edge Of Thorns" a dual subgenre tag. Tracks like "Labyrinths", "Degrees Of Sanity", Conversation Piece" & "Miles Away" have a glistening shine to them that would see them fitting more than comfortably on a Queensryche record. On the other hand, Savatage haven't completely been able to let go of their penchant for commercial hard rock & there are a few moments that remind me a fair bit of Skid Row which isn't as bad as it might sound as I don't mind a bit of Sebastian Bach & co. at times.
Unfortunately though, "Edge of Thorns" has left a bit of its potential in the tank due to the inclusion of a couple of very cheesy ballads, the worst of which (the God-awful "All That I Bleed") sees my score dropping by a half star which is disappointing given the impressive strength of highlights like the title track, "Degrees Of Sanity" & my personal favourite "Conversation Piece". Still.... credit where it's due & this is easily the best Savatage record I've heard to date.
For fans of Queensryche, Virgin Steele & Crimson Glory.
Genres: Heavy Metal
Music is such an amazing part of the world in that it can play so many different roles & satisfy so many urges depending on your mood & environment. Sometimes you just want something to throw on in the background in order to fill the space & create an atmosphere while at others you want to fully immerse yourself in the ambition & artistry of the composer by sitting in a dark room with headphones on or attending a live performance. There are times when you want to hear something familiar that doesn’t challenge you too much while the next day you may want to be opened up to something completely foreign. Well trust me when I say that Melbourne-based progressive metal outfit Lucid Planet’s 2020 sophomore effort (simply entitled “Lucid Planet II”) offers so much compositional complexity & musical ambition that you’ll be doing yourself a disservice by not giving it your full focus.
I’d never heard of Lucid Planet before one of our most highly regarded & valued Metal Academy members Xephyr nominated it for The Infinite feature release status a week or so back which is unusual for a band from my homeland & particularly for one of this quality. There hasn’t been a huge amount of buzz in the metal scene around the release of “Lucid Planet II” as far as I’m aware so I had absolutely no idea of what to expect going into it other than the general connections to Tool that seem to be a commonly used reference point. But having now sat through the entire 68 minute duration of the album in full a few times I can honestly say that I’ve been left dumbfounded as to why this artist is not a household name in the world of progressive music in general. Perhaps I’m just still too stuck in my extreme metal bubble to notice but I don’t think that’s the case & it’s left me a little saddened that a record like this one can slip through the cracks as easily as it could have if it hadn’t been brought to my attention by the wonder that is the Metal Academy website (see what I did there? I saw an opening & I took it.) This is a very real reflection of the impatient & unappreciative music market we now have in the age of internet streaming in my opinion although it's hard to deny that the internet has made up for it by drawing me to this release in the end anyway.
While looking at the album cover before pressing play for the first time, I was intrigued as to what image & identity it was trying to portray because it combines a number of disparate elements that shouldn’t really work together but somehow do. You’ve got the eye of “Lateralus”-era Tool, a band name that’s very much aligned with an ethno-ambient aesthetic & a highly complex & psychedelic image of a tunnel into a world that’s simultaneously both organic & alien. It seemed very strange for a metal release at first but after sitting through the album a couple of times it all seemed to come together beautifully & now I look at the same image in amazement at just how perfectly it has sums up the musical experience the album has in store for you.
You see, although “Lucid Planet II” is generally referred to as a progressive metal record, metal is only a piece of a much larger puzzle. Sure, it forms the basis for Lucid Planet to build their expansive array of ideas around but you certainly don’t have to be a metal fan to enjoy this record. In fact, I’d suggest that ANY fan of high quality, cerebral music & art in general should find interest in it, regardless of taste or demographic. It offers a superbly devised concept that’s been stunningly executed with the result seeing the listener taken on a journey through numerous fascinating & exotic landscapes without ever feeling unfocused or self-indulgent. It’s really fucking impressive that a relatively unknown band from Melbourne have been able to pull this off actually & I’ve been well impressed to say the least.
As I suggested earlier, the basis of the Lucid Planet sound is built around the rhythmically complex riffage of Tool & you won’t struggle to hear their trademark alternative metal crunch at numerous times across the tracklisting. But unlike most Tool copy-cats, it’s worth noting that Lucid Planet also have a good understanding of the art of tension & release & this sees them being able to build atmospheres slowly over time before reaching well-timed crescendos of significant weight. But at the same time, almost all of the eight tracks on “Lucid Planet II” incorporate a diverse palate of influences. The sounds of the natural world clearly hold a strong place in the hearts of the band because there’s a noticeably organic feel to most of this material with the tribal ambience of artists like Dead Can Dance & Steve Roach popping up time & time again, particularly on “Entrancement” which is made up almost entirely of this sound. The production style is super crisp & bright which may not highlight the heavier aspects of Lucid Planet’s sound but it certainly accentuates the psychedelic elements at play & often reminds me of artists from the electronic music scene. Just check out the second half of “Organic Hard Drive” for example where Lucid Planet don’t even try to hide their passion for psychedelic psytrance artists like Atmos & Andromeda. But the amazing thing about this is that they’ve managed to match their influences in terms of quality while also integrating the influence into their sound so beautifully that it not only sounds entirely natural (despite having likely never been attempted before) but becomes a highlight of the piece in general. “Digital Ritual” is another example of this as it wouldn’t sound out of place on an album from psybient artists like Carbon Based Lifeforms or Shpongle but also sounds quite natural when presented in the context of a tracklisting that includes melodic prog rock tunes like “Offer” which sounds more like Porcupine Tree than it does Tool but still manages to take a brief dalliance with the sort of dub that Leftfield liked to experiment with on their classic “Leftism” album. It’s astounding that Lucid Planet have been able to achieve this really, particularly given that they’re a band from my country that I’ve never even heard of & one that’s only on their second album. The ambition & musicianship here is nothing short of astonishing.
The vocal skills of front man Luke Turner probably aren’t anything truly special when viewed in isolation if I’m being honest & that could be viewed as a weakness but I think that would be a harsh assessment. Not everyone can possess a truly captivating voice as that requires a level of x-factor that really doesn’t have all that much to do with the ability to sing in key. But even though Luke may not reside in the elite tier of prog vocalists, Lucid Planet have managed to accentuate & enhance his contribution through some incredibly precise doubling & harmonizing in the studio & this proves to be somewhat of a master stroke. In fact, when combined with the addition of the gorgeous backup vocals of Jade Alice it becomes very easy to forget those initial feelings of skepticism & by the end of my second listen I was already finding Luke’s vocals to be a lot more endearing.
Overall, I simply can’t fault “Lucid Planet II”. It’s a complete musical experience that’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. The tracklisting is very consistent & it’s only the fact that the couple of the more ambient works (see “Entrancement” & “Digital Ritual”) probably don’t tick my boxes quite as much as the more substantial & heavier tracks that stops me from awarding full marks but trust me when I say that it was definitely something I considered & I don’t say that lightly. Epic pieces like “Anamnesis”, “On The Way” & “Zenith” represent perfect examples of heavy progressive music in my opinion & I challenge any member of our The Infinite clan to find a way not to love this album after giving it the repeat listens required in order to fully understand its unique charms.
For fans of Tool, Karnivool & Soen.
Genres: Progressive Metal
Back when the Metal Academy website first went live a few years ago now, I had the opportunity to choose my clans of choice & honestly thought it would be a complete no-brainer. I’ve always been an extreme metal fan first & foremost so the option of allocating myself The Pit, The Horde, The Fallen & The North was an obvious one. But over time I began to realise that my preferences within The North weren’t as broad as they were for the other three clans & I opted to drop back to three clans. High quality black metal still clearly sat amongst the most elite genres for me however the scope of the black metal sound had expanded significantly since the 1990’s & I found that the modern scene included a whole plethora of different variations or sub-subgenres that often offered me very little appeal. Sometimes I’d even find it hard to understand the appeal in an artist that was generally well-regarded by the audience for your more conventional black metal & 2019’s sophomore album from US multi-instrumentalist Funereal Presence is a pretty good example of this.
“Achatius” is made up of four lengthy pieces that all exceed the ten minute mark with lone member Bestial Devotion (also the drummer for fellow US black metallers Negative Plane) producing a package that offers considerable structural variation & always keeps the listener on their toes through consistent changes-ups. The Funereal Presence sound is certainly built on the old-school mentality of classic black metal bands like Darkthrone & Bathory however there’s a greater level of complexity in the use of melody here, at times even bordering on the melodic black metal subgenre. It’s this use of melody that gives Funereal Presence their own unique sound as it often feels a little unusual or avant-garde, despite the fact that there’s nothing all that obscure happening when you examine things closely. The use of non-traditional instruments like church bells also contributes to this & is a noteworthy feature of the album as a whole.
The production job is clear & accessible without ever moving away from the lo-fi black metal aesthetic & I think it does the material justice. It’s interesting that the performances are often pretty dodgy though, particularly the drumming which sounds very much like poor Bestial is pushing himself a little further than his technical limitations should really allow for & the same can be said for some of the guitar work which struggles for timing (check out the clean section in “Wherein Seven Celestial Beasts Are Revealed To Him” for example – yuck!), a flaw that was perhaps accentuated by to the inconsistencies in the drumming. For this reason, I definitely think that “Achatius” had the potential to be more than what we’ve received. The inclusion of some more highly skilled & instrument-specific third parties could have taken this material to another level however you would usually have thought that a one-man band would be very tight given that its conforming to just the one overarching vision. That’s certainly not the case here & I find myself struggling a little bit as a result. Perhaps Bestial Devotion simply found it tough to get his tracks down tightly without the backing of other instrumentalists during the recording of each track? It’s certainly possible from my experience in the studio.
The other thing I struggle with is the more melodic material which I find to not only take me outside of my comfort zone further than I’m comfortable with but also to sound pretty sickly at times. Bestial Devotion’s decision to utilize cow bell at various points across the tracklisting was never a good idea either. I’ve always been a strong detractor of that particular rhythmic instrument’s metal credentials & would actually go so far as to suggest that it should be banned altogether. It probably won’t come as any sort of surprise that the more extreme sections of the album offer me the most appeal though with second track “Wherein A Messenger Of The Devil Appears” being my clear highlight. The other three tracks simply fall short of the mark for me, particularly the two tracks that close out the album which were a clear step down from the A-side.
I don’t think too many black metal fans will have trouble with the vocals which sit comfortably within the safe confines of the genre however they’re also not particularly engaging & don’t really serve as the focal point at any stage in my opinion. If you’re going to buy into “Achatius” then it’s likely for the melodic complexity in the guitar work rather than the extreme nature of the vocals though. The occasional rough-shod yet psychotic Quorthon-esque guitar solo is a nice touch which probably could have been explored a little further although Bestial Devotion’s limited capabilities in this area are probably a large part of the reason for this & that kinda sums up my issues with the album to be honest. I don’t mind a black metal album that’s low on technical skill but caters for it with pure darkness & evil. “Achatius” aims significantly higher than that though & doesn’t stick within its technical limitations which leads to this ol’ metal musician sporting a fair few cringes throughout the 49 minute run time. There’s enjoyment to be had when Funeral Presence keep it simpler & more aggressive but I struggle with his more ambitious moments & this has led to an underwhelming overall impression of the album.
For fans of Negative Plane, Cultes des Ghoules & Darkthrone.
Genres: Black Metal
My knowledge of Liverpool-based metalcore outfit Loathe was pretty limited leading into my first sitting with their sophomore album “I Let It In & It Took Everything”. I’d seen their name tossed around the traps for a few years & had definitely noticed the attention that this record had drawn from the metal press however I’d never felt the urge to check them out before. Unlike many of my old-school peers though, I’ve always had a soft spot for high quality metalcore & the idea of cross-pollination with a Deftones-influenced alternative metal sound certainly sounded appealing as I’ve slowly become a big fan of Deftones over the last decade or so.
My first impressions of “I Let It In & It Took Everything” were very good. This was clearly a quality record that had been produced by an imaginative & ambitious group of capable musicians. Even the opening ambient piece “Theme” gave a strong indication that Loathe meant business. In fact, all three of the short ambient pieces scattered across the tracklisting offer deep & full synthesized tones that attest to a strong pedigree in atmospheric music & I found them to be a really nice contribution. Then once the proper songs kicked off I was surprised by just how intense Loathe can be. Up until that point I’d been expecting the more accessible Deftones-influenced alternative metal material to represent the stronger side of the equation based on the vast majority of the reviews I’d read however this was definitely not the case in practise. Loathe’s metalcore sound is not only well produced but it’s also as abrasive as fuck with front man Kadeem France absolutely screaming his lungs out &, in doing so, topping most of his metalcore contemporaries for sheer electricity & aggression. Then, when you throw in his ability to sing in a sweet Chino Moreno style you get a captivating & exhilarating performance.
In saying that, I can’t say that Loathe manage to match Chino’s classic material with Deftones. The hooks simply aren’t as strong & I find myself looking forward to the more abrasive metalcore material like the classic duo of B-side monsters “Gored” & album highlight “Heavy Is The Head That Falls With the Weight Of A Thousand Thoughts” which even features an intro section that sounds uncannily like Deafheaven style blackgaze. These two seem to press a lot harder on my musical sweet spot & remind me very much of a less complex Dillinger Escape Plan. As far as percentages go though, “I Let It In & It Took Everything” is unquestionably a combination of the two sounds with the alternative stuff often characterized by those signature down-strummed shoegaze chords & the more intense material regularly employing a simpler version of the rhythmic riff structures of Meshuggah’s djent sound. The way that Loathe combine their variety of different influences into the one glistening package isn’t always fluent & collaborative however it’s always of a high quality & never fails to lose my attention.
Overall, I find Loathe’s second full-length to be a very solid release that’s completely free of duds & has been particularly well produced, particularly the powerful bass guitar sound which drives much of this material. Loathe clearly possessed a broad palate of musical ideas by this point in their careers & I really enjoy their artistic vision for such a new band. I’ve noticed that the album also comes in an instrumental version & I have to question the merit of such a release when Kadeem France’s vocal delivery is such an integral component of the band’s makeup however it’s hard to deny that Loathe is capable of pulling it off from a purely instrumental point of view. “I Let It In & It Took Everything” is a high quality alternative metalcore record that represents the best example of that particular combination that I’ve experienced to date.
For fans of 36 Crazyfists, early Issues & the last couple of Northlane albums.
Genres: Alternative Metal Metalcore
Sometimes a release comes along that leaves you wondering what rock you’ve been hiding under. A release whose qualities are so profound that it immediately adjusts the way you think about the world & has you considering new directions that you previously didn’t know existed. I usually find these sort of recordings to be those that question the musical status quo by taking on our stereotypes & showing us that we don’t necessarily know everything just yet & the fifth album from Finland’s Oranssi Pazuzu certainly does that.
I’ve been aware of Oranssi Pazuzu since their 2009 debut album “Muukalainen puhuu” but haven’t really given them much time until now to be perfectly honest. I guess my experiences with other supposed “psychedelic black metal” outfits haven’t been all that positive over the years which is unusual given my huge fascination with psychedelic rock & its incorporation into other subgenres like doom metal, sludge metal, post-metal, stoner metal & drone metal. But the overwhelmingly positive critical response to “Mestarin kynsi” has tweaked my interest & its unusual subgenre tagging has finally convinced me that it would be an interesting discussion topic for Metal Academy so I’ve finally bitten the bullet & awarded it feature releases status for The Infinite off the back of its “avant-garde metal” tagging on other sites.
Sometimes releases that challenge the listener’s existing understanding of what extreme metal can be can taken a few listens to fully grasp & can be real growers but “Mestarin kynsi” hit me from the word go, so much so that I immediately started wondering if I might have to rethink my album of the year nomination with only a couple of weeks left in the year. The sounds coming from my speakers were like nothing I’d heard before but also felt so fully realised that I never felt uneasy or required any sort of adjustment period & that’s the sign of a next level artist. The other thing that sprang to mind fairly early on was just how little justice the genre-tagging on other prominent internet sites has been giving Oranssi Pazuzu as they really seem to be clutching at straws. Psychedelic rock? Really? Can you see fans of The Doors or Jimi Hendrix going nuts over this release? They’d likely run for the hills in terror. Avant-garde metal? Well, yes it is avant-garde by the very definition of the term but that tag is usually reserved for releases that sound inherently weird & that require time & familiarity to get comfortable with. The combination of disparate genres you’ll hear on “Mestrin kynsi” is so well executed that you almost feel like you’ve been listening to this stuff your whole life & I found myself instantly comfortable so I don’t regard that tag as being particularly relevant either. And then there’s the black metal thing. There is absolutely no doubt that the vocals of front man Jun-His fall firmly into the black metal camp. In fact, I’d argue that they’re some of the most definitive & powerful in all of black metal & I think that’s a strong enough statement to warrant the album being lumped in with the darkest of metal genres but I hear very little else that hints at genuine black metal from an instrumental point of view to be honest. Interestingly, the subgenre that I feel has the strongest claim on “Mestarin kynsi” is post-metal & it baffles me that this element isn’t more readily referred to. The lengthy periods of repeated motifs while other elements gradually build around it, the huge crescendos, the use of atmospheric ambience, the fact that the music utilises the signature tools that of metal but has you questioning whether it’s metal at all… all of that is in line with the classic post-metal model & if you replaced Jun-His’ vocals with some sludge/hardcore ones I think you’d find that the public perception would change dramatically, particularly as there are various riffs utilised across the album that sound pretty similar in style to the leading players from the atmospheric sludge metal movement. The psychedelic component is worth mentioning but I don’t actually feel like it’s too strong for the post-metal tag to cover & the same can be said for the electronic element which beautifully colours the music in various different ways but never comes across as sounding overly quirky or forced.
Back to those vocals, one thing that I find truly amazing is that Jun-His can get away with growling & screaming like a demon over this music which doesn’t often hint at black metal’s darkness. The instrumentation has an ethereal beauty about it that I would generally have thought would have been in conflict with your more blasphemic of vocalists (think Deathspell Omega) but here they seem to work perfectly & I put that down to Oranssi Pazuzu having complete clarity of what they’re trying to achieve & total confidence in their abilities to make it stick. I’ve rarely heard a more imposing front man & he really does make this album a lot more appealing than it may have been with your standard black metal fodder. The way the instrumentation builds gradually in subtle ways underneath his unrestrained brutality is a talent that the band milk for all it’s worth with each track obtaining the required crescendo in different but equally abrasive & intense ways. It’s kinda their thing. Sure there are a few jerky transitions included here & there where it sounds like the band have attempted to paste two disparate sections together but those individual sections are simply so compelling that it’s very hard to argue a case against them residing in the same piece. The three tracks that make up the A-side are nothing short of audio perfection & you’ll rarely find a more gripping & transcendent side of metal. The quality does taper of just a touch at the start of the B-side with “Oikeamielisten Sali” being the clear low point of the album but even then it’s a very high quality piece of work & this only leads into further glories over the last couple of tracks with the final climax of long & repetitive closer “Taivaan portti” representing the most violent yet euphoric end to an incrediblly creative album.
“Mestarin kynsi” brings together a large quantity of influences that should have no place together in theory but in practice come across as pure genius. The jangly noise rock guitars, the Massive Attack style filtered electronic bass lines, the krautrock experimentation…. there's even a question around whether a lot of this stuff is even metal but it all works wonderfully well & has left me feeling somewhat embarrassed that I’m only just coming to this release now when it is so clearly something that I should have invested the time in earlier. Oranssi Pazuzu are an absolute breath of fresh air in a scene that’s so chock full of pretenders who are simply trying to emulate their idols. They’re not only ground-breaking but have also presented their unusual sound with such fluency that they still achieve a greater level of accessibility than most extreme metal outfits & this is the key behind their surprising success. I can’t stress enough what a magical experience “Mestarin kynsi” is for a music tragic like myself & I’m genuinely grateful that I’ve discovered it. Better late than never as they say. And yes, this is my album of the year. No one will catch it at this late stage & I’m not sure I’d want them to anyway. It’s a fitting & deserved champion in my opinion.
For fans of A Forest Of Stars, Hail Spirit Noir & Sólstafir.
Genres: Avant-Garde Metal Black Metal
The classic doom/death sound has always been something that I’ve been heavily attracted to as it combines two of my favourite sounds for a result that generally equals or transcends the sum of its parts. In fact, it could be argued that I wasn’t all that big on your more traditional doom metal sound until the more significant doom/death exponents appeared in the early 1990s with England’s My Dying Bride sitting amongst the most important & influential in my musical journey. It took exactly one song to leave me hooked with the title track from 1992’s “Symphonaire Infernus Et Spera Empyrium” E.P. leaving me completely soul-destroyed & begging for more, a task which they willingly proceeded to fulfill with aplomb over the next four years. My Dying Bride’s best work was not only gripping enough to play a significant role in the greatest period of musical discovery & exploration in my life to date but, so profound was their impact on me, that they also assisted in my emotional development as a young man. By the late 90’s however, the doom/death explosion had reached its peak & begun its descent & my interest in metal as a whole was starting to wane which would see me spending most of the 2000’s immersing myself in the world of electronic music. When I finally returned to metal in 2009 I had some catching up to do so I quickly turned to my beloved My Dying Bride for guidance. I would soon find that 2001’s “The Dreadful Hours” album was held up in the highest esteem by fans & critics alike so my hopes were lifted at the prospect of another life-changing musical highlight from the leaders of the game.
“The Dreadful Hours” can be regarded as an album that’s very much representative of what your average My Dying Bride fan was wanting to hear from them at the time & it depends on where you stand in regards to that statement as to whether you’ll be overjoyed or underwhelmed by it. When I first reviewed it back in November 2010 I found that I fell comfortably into the latter camp. I certainly saw some appeal in what I was hearing but felt that the band was simply revising past glories in a less-inspired manner, an opinion that was provided additional weight by the fact that more than 20% of the album was taken up by a re-recorded version of a past classic. It all sounded like a band going through the motions & trying to force out the album their fans were all wanting & the seemingly unanimous praise the album seemed to draw from the global metal community has left me confused ever since. My confusion reached a new peak recently when I discovered that “The Dreadful Hours” was My Dying Bride’s top ranking release on another prominent music ratings website, sitting clear of bona fide classics like “Turn Loose The Swans” & “The Angel & The Dark River”. I immediately raised my wretched face to the heavens & muttered “What is this madness?!” It was a clear indication that the time was right to reassess my position.
I once again found myself struggling a bit during my first listen to be honest. The production is excellent as you would expect but I wasn’t really able to connect all that well with the song-writing & delivery. It certainly sounded like My Dying Bride but…. there was something missing. That was until the stunning re-enactment of the epic fourteen minute “The Return Of The Beautiful” from their 1992 debut full-length “As The Flower Withers” (this time renamed “The Return TO The Beautiful”) which not only represents the clear highlight of the album but also sits up there with the greatest pieces of work for the subgenre as a whole. Yyyeessss….. there it is. That’s what I’ve been missing. I quickly returned to the start of the album to see if I’d just overlooked the quality in the other material & my second listen saw me starting to identify & come to terms with my qualms.
One of the most magnificent features of the classic MDB material was the inclusion of the violin which added a truly majestic aura & an overall beauty to the music. "The Dreadful Hours" is really missing that aspect. The band have attempted to replace it through the use of keyboards which generally work quite well but are rarely as emotionally engaging. There’s also not as much consistency in the quality of the riffs as there was during their classic period with some of them sounding a touch generic & this element sees most tracks falling a little short of their potential. I think "Black Heart Romance" definitely achieves the classic MDB sound best of the new material & after several listens I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a classic in its own right however the fact that "The Return To The Beautiful" clearly takes another step up from there shows that My Dying Bride aren’t quite what they were, despite leaving clear proof that they’re still a tier one player.
Probably my major gripe with latter day My Dying Bride is with Aaron’s clean vocal delivery though. On “The Dreadful Hours” we see him alternating between his powerful death growls & his more melodic & gothic-tinged clean singing & my feelings on the two are like chalk & cheese. Where his growls bring the more sombre material a genuine sense of desolation, his clean stuff comes across as very limited & repetitive. His phrasing is always the same & I feel like he’s about to cry a lot of the time. Now that may appeal to a lot of people but I’ve always found that sort of thing to be overly melodramatic & emasculating. Label me as the classic cold-hearted male that’s detached from his emotional side if you like but I don’t like to hear grown men whimpering & whinging all that much, particularly in my extreme metal. Aaron does a lot of rehashing of old material here too. The phrasing in "My Hope, The Destroyer" is simply too close to earlier material for example & the lyrics also make me want to kick him in the nuts & tell him to harden the fuck up. "The Deepest Of All Hearts" is a fine example of this too & the up-front position the vocals take in the mix doesn’t help much to be fair. Why do so many of the lines have to end with “me” & “you”?? It’s all a bit annoying as the death growls inevitably see my ears pricking up & my general attitude soaring but I have to admit that repeat listens have seen me able to look past Aaron’s performance a lot more than I used to.
Having had my whinge, this is musically a pretty heavy record. The instrumental performances are all very tight & chunky & there’s only the one track that I don’t enjoy in the dreary nine-minute "Le Figile della Tempesta" which sees Aaron at his worst over a repeated lead guitar motif that’s been pulled straight from their classic “The Cry Of Mankind”. I can easily see how “The Dreadful Hours” offers a fairly universal appeal & I do enjoy it more than I did previously, mainly because I’ve had time to get over my qualms a little bit & just take in the positives a bit more. I mean there is still a lot of the classic My Dying Bride sound here. It’s just that I’m left with a numbing feeling that cries out "you’ve heard it all before". I guess I just think that it’s a bit overrated rather than harboring any doubts about it being a strong record in its own right. It’s a high quality doom release & is deserving of a higher rating than I gave it previously but it doesn’t entice me to listen to it over their past classics & its closing masterpiece serves as a reminder of the real depth & magnificence that My Dying Bride are capable of at their very best.
Genres: Doom Metal Gothic Metal
The industrial metal sound was essentially invented by two fairly different but no less forward-thinking artists on opposite sides of the globe during the late 1980’s. On the one side you had former Napalm Death guitarist Justin Broadrick’s Godflesh project coming out of Birmingham, England which was potentially the first to combine a genuine metal sound with industrial music. And on the other side of the globe you had Chicago four-piece Ministry who had slowly integrated a metal component into their sound over many years after beginning life as something entirely different. Both have maintained their presence in the scene for the more than three decades that have since passed &, as is so often the case in music, the originators have not only retained their relevance but are still the benchmark with which all industrial metal is judged. I love them both but it’s interesting that the emotions they are each capable of drawing from me are quite different &, despite utilizing similar tool sets, I wouldn’t say that they sound particularly alike either.
Ministry actually predate Godflesh by many years, having first formed as a synthpop act way back in 1981. The band is centred around the musical genius of multi-instrumentalist Al Jourgensen who is a complex & constantly evolving human being, not only from a musical sense but also from a personal one. It’s interesting that he’s given drastically contrasting accounts of how his extreme change in musical direction took place. At one point Al had downplayed his early stylistic approach & he was quoted as saying that his original record label Arista Records had assumed total creative control over the product that Ministry were producing & that the musical direction was the result of Arista having engaged external writers & producers. During another interview he changed his story slightly by stating that Arista had pressured him into adopting a sound that was more likely to be commercially successful in the market of the day. Then thirdly, there are various accounts of Al simply saying that his discovery of hardcore punk in the mid-1980’s had led to him consciously making the decision to change his style which would indicate that he had actually never had any ambitions towards a heavier sound during the early 80’s. The third option sounds the most likely to me & also seems to be backed up by his ex-wife Patty Marsh. Regardless of which story is true though, Ministry’s transition to a new label in the Warner Brothers affiliated Sire Records would see the new wave synthpop of their 1983 debut album “With Sympathy” being converted into a noticeably more industrial, electro-tinged sound for 1986’s sophomore album “Twitch” with the influence of his co-producer Adrian Sherwood & some recent touring with EBM masters Front 242 having a significant impact on the result. It would see Al becoming progressively more open to aggressive & abrasive sounds over the coming years with 1988’s “Land Of Rape & Honey” testing the waters with a significant metal component before 1989’s “The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste” album took things to their next logical extreme with Ministry finally committing to a fully integrated industrial metal sound.
My first experiences with Ministry came through the singles that were taken from “The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste” with both “Burning Inside” & “So What” getting regular plays on late-night metal radio during the early 1990’s. I liked what I heard too. It all sounded so fresh & exciting although I have to admit that I was absolutely enraptured with the extreme metal scene at the time so I don’t think I ever sought out the full album until my brother Ben picked it & “The Land Of Rape & Honey” up shortly after becoming obsessed with Ministry’s 1992 album “Psalm 69”. Both of these records were very strong & important releases that played a huge part in the creation of a steadily growing US industrial metal scene that saw the likes of New Jersey’s Old & Boston’s Skin Chamber competing head to head with English industrialists Godflesh & Pitch Shifter.
So this brings us to the before-mentioned “Psalm 69: The Way To Succeed & The Way To Suck Eggs” album; a release that would see Ministry taking further steps into the commercial stratosphere & one that is generally regarded as Jourgenson’s finest hour. It would also be Ministry’s last full-length with Sire Records as its subsequent success would see them being promoted by Warner Brothers with their next couple of albums receiving major label backing. “Psalm 69” would be produced by Al Jourgensen in conjunction with full-time collaborator & bass player Paul Barker with recordings taking place in both Chicago & Lake Geneva over more than a year from March 1991 to May 1992. The album was originally intended to be titled “The Tapes Of Wrath” however this would change over time with Al eventually opting to go with a title derived from the 69th chapter of Aleister Crowley’s 1913 text “The Book Of Lies” which is essentially a reference to the 69 sexual position.
The cover artwork for “Psalm 69” was created by photographer Paul Elledge who had hit it off with Jourgensen after being employed to shoot the band on their tour for “The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste”. The two men had stayed up all night partying & this eventually led to a long-term business arrangement that saw Elledge providing the artwork for several Ministry releases over the coming years. Jourgensen gave Elledge a copy of the album recordings & Crowley’s book as reference points & the piece that eventually made the front cover was a triple exposure that Elledge felt best represented the imagery he’d uncovered in Ministry’s music & concept. It’s quite a striking image & I’m not sure it really suits the sound of the album as a whole but it certainly suits the dark majesty of some of the more easy-paced tracks like “Scare Crow” & particularly the title track. The image of the alien-esque angel has an uncomfortable quality to it that I find to be quite similar to David Lynch’s seminal “Eraserhead” film. It’s interesting that Godflesh mastermind Justin Broadrick has been quoted as saying that his classic 1989 industrial metal album “Streetcleaner” was the result of late-night “Eraserhead” viewing sessions whilst under the influence of LSD so the film seems to be in some way linked to the development of the industrial metal subgenre. It was a huge film for me personally too so perhaps that’s why I feel such an attraction to this sort of record given that the more industrial material almost mimics the tension & uneasiness of the film, although admittedly not as closely as Broadrick’s vision would. The front cover wouldn’t feature any reference to the band name or album title & I have to admit that I always question the sense in this practice as it seems to me to be a little self-indulgent.
As with all good industrial metal, the production job that Al & Paul achieved for “Psalm 69” is almost as important as the music itself & is a magnificent example of its type. Warner Brothers had given Ministry a huge budget to work with as they’d been anticipating a major breakthrough hit following the underground buzz around the band’s previous album. Jourgensen, his wife Patty & guitarist Mike Scaccia apparently proceeded to blow most of the budget by purchasing around $1,000 worth of drugs a day but it doesn’t seem to have had a negative effect on the result. The guitar tone they achieved is absolutely superb & it gives songs like “Just One Fix”, “Jesus Built My Hotrod” & the title track an electricity & power that is impossible to ignore. It really does announce the band in no uncertain terms & then proceeds to grab your head & stuff it down your neck. Paul’s bass tone only accentuates this effect as it possesses fantastic weight & ties in beautifully with the album’s industrial themes. Bill Rieflin’s drum kit sounds suitably mechanical but if there’s one weakness to this overall production I’d suggest that it’s Bill’s snare sound which stands out in the mix very obviously. I’d describe it as a tinny slap &, although this sound would be repeated on dozens of industrial releases over the years, I can’t help but feel that Ministry might have been better served to go with something a little more bottom heavy. But fear not… the wealth of professionally layered & processed samples are nothing short of astonishing & the use of doubled & heavily effected vocals is also a major selling point that adds substantially to the unhinged & drug-addled atmosphere of “Psalm 69”. The overall package is a huge feather in Jourgensen & Barker’s caps & it shows the advantages of having a diverse array of experience to draw upon across several disparate genres. I’m honestly not sure that the album would have been quite as successful had it not been presented in such a professional & cutting-edge manner. On a side note, I'm not sure if it's just the Spotify version of the album I've been revisiting this week or not but there's a noticeable difference in volume between the various tracks & this isn't something I remember from the CD copy I'd grown up with so perhaps it's just a quirk in the streamed rip.
Musically, this was definitely the fastest & most exciting sounding Ministry record to date with the metal component having been turned up to ten on the majority of the tracklisting. In many ways it represents the most perfect union of Jourgensen’s industrial & metal influences with both components playing an equal role in the success of the record. The drum tracks have been tailor made to provide a consistent (& at times hypnotic) pulse that gives the simple yet extremely high-quality metal riffs plenty of room to inflict maximum damage. I can only imagine that the increased involvement of Scaccia in the recording process has had an impact on the riff-heavy style of many of these tracks because there’s been a noticeable step up in this department, particularly in the repeated references to thrash metal in some of the tremolo-picked bottom-string chug riffs on songs like “Just One Fix” & “Jesus Built My Hotrod”. A couple of the slower & more lumbering riff sections strangely remind me very much of early 90’s Bathory which can only be a compliment & the level of variety that’s been achieved without ever feeling like they’ve sacrificed on focus is a real highlight.
Jourgensen & Barker were masters of tension & release & you can easily see that in their layering of the lead guitar parts which are used more as a textural tool than a melodic one most of the time. I can pick up more than the odd nod towards dance music in the band’s command of the dancefloor whilst never losing sight of their underground metal appeal. The transitions are a brilliant example of this with well-timed single-bar adjustments being used to introduce a switch back to the main theme in a similar way to that employed by techno producers. In fact, several of the big hits from “Psalm 69” would go on to become dancefloor anthems at goth & alternative clubs for decades to come given their strong beats & danceable tempos. The samples showcase a very well-defined theme with the whole record having a dark & ominous atmosphere but also dripping with a drug-crazed insanity that reminds me of a Rob Zombie horror flick. This would be an element that would be borrowed by not only Zombie himself but also by hundreds of industrial metal wannabes over the years. The slower material like the epic doom monster “Scare Crow” very effectively draws me back to my drug-fueled nights spent in Sydney goth clubs during the mid-90’s with Jourgensen seemingly tapping into the cerebral power of that sort of environment. He really is the clear ring-leader of this psychotic circus & there’s a unquestionable genius in his madness.
It’s interesting that the album gets more industrial as it goes on & culminates with the last couple of tracks being completely industrial-focused & offering very little in the way of metal. In fact, “Corrosion” is very similar to the intense & noisy industrial techno I used to play whilst DJIng in dark underground clubs during the 2000’s. Both of these tracks were produced by Paul Barker in isolation amidst stories of a significant divide between Jourgensen & Scaccia & the rest of the band with Al claiming that the two groups recorded their parts completely separately & that he & Scaccia erased 80% of the material the other three members had recorded. Given this information, you’d have to think that it was a minor miracle that anything of value was achieved, let alone a genre-defining classic like this one. Perhaps it was simply through weight of numbers given the lengthy duration of the recording sessions & the fact that we only end up with nine of the thirty tracks that would eventuate.
Personally, I find “Psalm 69” to be a very consistent & extremely high-quality metal record that doesn’t require flashy musicianship or an over-the-top image to make its point. There is a slight lull after the first couple of mind-blowing tracks with the short & gimmicky blast-beat driven “TV II” & the simple & thrash speed metal tune “Hero” both representing some mildly enjoyable filler, however the rest of the album is as classy, adventurous & breath-taking as you’ll find in this form of metal. For this reason, I feel that “Psalm 69” is worthy of its elite status amongst not only the industrial metal crowd but for metal music in general. It’s easily Ministry’s finest work with only Godflesh’s classic “Streetcleaner” album standing in front of it for the genre overall.
For fans of: White Zombie, Nailbomb, Strapping Young Lad
Genres: Industrial Metal
The 1991 sophomore album from Swedish death metal godfathers Entombed is a release that I’ve been looking forward to dissecting for some time now & much of my excitement is due to the fact that the development & subsequent success of the local Swedish scene was something that practically took place in front of my young teenage eyes. In the early 1990’s, my life almost entirely revolved around the underground tape trading scene &, as a result, I feel very well equipped to tackle this record within the context of what was going on around it. Things were happening so quickly & it would only be a period of four years that would see Sweden’s earliest forays with the death metal sound being transformed into a globally recognized sound that was being copied by hundreds (if not thousands) of bands globally.
For anyone that hasn’t already read Daniel Ekeroth’s excellent historical book “Swedish Death Metal” (& I highly recommend that you do), it’s probably worth noting that whilst Entombed are generally regarded as the originators of the Swedish death metal scene, that’s not entirely accurate. The true root of the scene was arguably fellow Stockholmers Morbid; a blackened death metal outfit whose reputation is mainly built on their association with their legendary front man Dead. Morbid’s 1987 demo tape “December Moon” would achieve somewhat of a cult status in underground metal circles however many people probably aren’t aware that it also featured future Entombed members Ulf Cederlund (guitar) & LG Petrov (drums), possibly because they took on the silly pseudonyms of Napolean Puke & Drutten (Swedish for “one who tumbles down”) respectively. Morbid would eventually peter out following Dead’s defection to Norway to join Mayhem with Cederlund & Petrov staying onboard for 1988’s “The Last Supper” demo before leaving to join Nihilist (i.e. the famous precursor to Entombed) a short time later.
Nihilist was formed in 1987 by drummer Nicke Andersson, guitarist Alex Hellid & bassist Leif Cuzner with the “Premature Autopsy” demo tape being released the following year. 1989 would see it followed up with the “Only Shreds Remain” cassette with Cuzner exiting the fold shortly afterwards, but not before he had achieved a significant milestone in death metal history for it was Cuzner that had invented the infamous guitar tone that that the Swedish death metal community would make its signature for many decades afterwards. This had been accidently achieved by maxing out all of the nobs on a Boss HM-s Heavy Metal pedal which I’m sure every guitarist that owned one must have tried at some stage (me included). Clearly none had looked at it as a legitimate possibility before though. Interestingly, Leif would be replaced by Jonny Hedlund for 1989’s “Drowned” demo before Andersson decided to disband Nihilist altogether as a way of easily removing Hedlund from the group. Hedlund would subsequently form Unleashed while the other band members would adopt the Entombed moniker & record the “But Life Goes On” demo before the year was out.
“But Life Goes On” would see Entombed signing a recording contract with English death metal & grindcore label Earache Records who had risen from relative obscurity to become the leader in their field over the previous couple of years. After unearthing the UK grindcore scene through albums from Unseen Terror, Napalm Death, Carcass & O.L.D. in 1987/88, label head Digby Pearson had then cottoned on to the steadily growing death metal obsession that was simmering away in the underground tape trading community. 1989 would see him releasing a string of important records from bands like Morbid Angel, Terrorizer, Bolt Thrower, Carcass & Godflesh; all of which would have a significant impact on the global extreme metal scene & would see fans flocking to every subsequent Earache release as if their very lives depended on it. The death metal bubble was expanding ever further & it was this environment that would see the Swedish death metal scene exploding onto the scene in 1990.
Entombed’s “Left Hand Path” album is certainly known as the most significant point in that story. It really did pave the way for other Swedish bands to follow in Entombed’s foot-steps with many taking on similar attributes to give Stockholm its signature death metal sound. Many of these attributes would become attached to the work of producer Tomas Skogsberg & his Sunlight Studios in Stockholm with Grotesque’s “Incantation”, Carnage’s “Dark Recollections” & Tiamat’s “Sumerian Cry” releases all being products of Sunlight recordings at around that time. Things would further escalate for the Swedes in 1991 with Tiamat’s second album “The Astral Sleep” seeing the light of day along with a whole slew of debut releases from exciting new bands such as Unleashed, Grace, At The Gates, Carbonized, Megaslaughter, Sorcery, Therion, Authorize, Edge Of Sanity &, most notably, Dismember who were born from the ashes of Carnage & were close associates of Entombed. Dismember’s “Like An Ever Flowing Stream” album would gain them worldwide acclaim & would kick off a running argument in the death metal community as to whose debut was the best example of the Swedish sound for decades to come. It was in this creative environment that Entombed would not only need to continue making quality death metal but would also need to find another gear if they were going to hold on to their title as the premier Swedish death metal exponent.
Unfortunately for Entombed, drummer & band leader Nicke Andersson & front man LG Petrov were not seeing eye to eye at the time which culminated in Petrov being fired at an inopportune moment. Earache were keen to get some new material into the market to capitalize on the buzz around the Swedish scene though so Andersson employed Nirvana 2002 vocalist Orvar Säfström for the recording of the “Crawl” E.P. in April 1991. The union would prove to be short-lived however with the release receiving only a luke-warm reception & by the time band re-entered Sunlight Studios for the recording of “Clandestine” later in the year with Carbonized bassist Lars Rosenberg, Andersson had decided to take on the microphone duties himself.
It’s worth mentioning that my initial experience with Entombed was through a late-night metal radio program in 1990. “Left Hand Path” was somewhat of a favourite with the DJs who ran the show that I recorded each week so I was aware of the band quite early in the piece. I have to say that, while I generally enjoyed what I was hearing, Entombed’s debut never connected with me in the way that it seemed to with the rest of the death metal audience &, for this reason, it was one of the few Earache releases that I didn’t hurry out to buy. Instead, I would pick it up through tape trading & give it a few spins before moving on to sounds that were more in line with my taste at the time. The same can be said for Dismember’s debut actually. I put this down to my ears being far more interested in the more polished & proficient US strain of death metal being championed by bands like Morbid Angel, Death, Obituary & Deicide & the dirtier, punkier feel of the Swedish model didn’t interest me quite as much. When “Crawl” was released I gave it a passing glance but it also didn’t get past the cursory few spins.
“Clandestine” would be released in November 1991 & would make an immediate impact on the death metal market. The buzz around the record & the attractive cover art of Dan Seagrave would see me reconsidering my position with the band & it would become the first Entombed record that I’d purchase on release. Interestingly, my initial listens would prove that I’d timed my run very well too as this was a different beast to the ugly, stinking one that had assaulted our ear drums only the previous year. There is much more polish & precision about the production job on “Clandestine” with Skogsberg having achieved a more glossy & accessible sound by refining & improving the signature Entombed guitar tone & adding additional weight to the rhythm section. Although your ears immediately associate the guitar tone with the Sunlight Studios sound, playing “Left Hand Path” & “Clandestine” back to back shows a remarkable difference between the two. The “Clandestine” tone is noticeably cleaner & has much more definition. There’s less of a bottom end push & a greater dynamic range has been achieved through a stronger mid-range component as opposed to the noisier “Left Hand Path” sound which possessed more high end. The two sounds are equally powerful however I definitely prefer the fuller “Clandestine” one which seems to have more purity of sound. It engulfs the listener in a wall of distorted fuzz which I’m not all that comfortable to remove myself from.
Skogsberg had also employed a number of other production improvements too though. The drum sound on “Clandestine” is nothing short of phenomenal & is arguably the major selling point for the record. Andersson’s toms possess enormous depth & the whole kit is beautifully balanced while Rosenberg’s bass guitar sound is full & powerful & combines beautifully with the guitars & drums during the crunch moments to really accentuate the enormous heaviness of Entombed’s sound. Andersson’s vocals have received a lot of attention in the mixing phase too with individual phrases having been layered over the top of each other & coming from different positions in the stereo spectrum which is very effective indeed. As is the use of keyboards & movie samples to add additional atmosphere to the mix; an attribute that this record possesses in spades. To summarize, Skogsberg has dusted off a bit of the dirt from Entombed’s exterior, sanded off some of the rough edges, polished it up & given it a new coat of paint which has given “Clandestine” a lot more nuance. It not only sounds more polished than the other early Swedish albums of the time but It enabled Entombed to start competing with the Americans for overall professionalism & accessibility. I’d suggest that it really does depend on personal preference as to which model you’ll prefer but there’s very little doubt as to the one that floats my boat more & I think the production is one of the key factors in what makes “Clandestine” such a great & important death metal record.
A lot is made of the musical direction Entombed chose to take with “Clandestine”. Particularly from detractors who favour the debut. But in truth, the differences are much more subtle than we saw with the band’s subsequent leap into death ‘n’ roll territory with 1993’s “Wolverine Blues” album. In hindsight, I think it’s fair to say that we could see the early signs of that transformation here if you look closely enough. That cleaner production, the more accessible & melodic song-writing, the added groove in some of the riffs & the increased use of more controlled tempos were all elements that Entombed would draw on significantly in the coming years. But in saying that, there is really very little doubt that “Clandestine” is still a death metal record in the classic sense of the term. It’s just that some people see it as a dilution of “Left Hand Path” while others view it as an expansion on the foundations it had built. The punky back bone is still clearly visible with numerous examples of d-beat drum patterns being utilized across the tracklisting although there’s less of a reliance on it this time which can only be a positive for someone like myself that isn’t terribly interested in hardcore. Instead, Entombed have gone for a lot more variety in tempo & atmosphere which makes for a much more interesting listen in my opinion. I particularly dig the increase in doomier breakdowns with Autopsy having clearly been a big influence on the band. Some of those sections are crushingly heavy & are dripping with blood-soaked death metal pedigree. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the slower tempos work better with the signature Entombed guitar tone as the crunch is unbelievable. That’s not to say that the faster material has lost any of its potency though & I think it’s the two extreme ends of the spectrum that give Entombed the most bang for buck as far as tempo goes. Just check out the re-recorded version of the old Nihilist track “Severe Burns” for an example of just how much this band kills when they let the shackles fall to the ground & put the pedal to the metal.
“Left Hand Path” was relatively simple as far as song-writing & structure went but “Clandestine” sees Entombed lifting their game significantly in this regard with a noticeable increase in compositional complexity enabling the band to reach new heights of professionalism. Unlike the debut which was more of a collaborative affair, Anderrson was responsible for writing the entire album this time & I believe that this is significant. Nicke has often been quoted as saying that he had a strong fascination with US technical death metal masters Atheist at the time &, although you won’t hear anything particularly technical here, you can see the influence in the more expansive composition. He & Skogsberg really threw the sink at the arrangements with a whole range of frills & finer details being explored, particularly in the drumming. The album was already a total riff-fest but this extra attention to detail has really helped to maximise the impact of the transitions. The riffs themselves are generally still quite simple when viewed in isolation however they’re much more measured & deliberate in their attack & this is further highlighted by the quality of the production & performances. Even at their most brutal though, Entombed seem to have captured the perfect balance between melody & savagery here. The melodies are better constructed &, as a result, are more memorable. There are even some examples of riffs included that strongly indicate that the early Swedish melodic death metal bands like At The Gates may have borrowed a fair bit from “Clandestine”.
The vocal performance has always been a talking point when discussing this record & it seems to have been quite a divisive topic for many metal fans. There are certainly those that can’t stand Nicke Andersson’s more erratic delivery. Possibly because, despite the fact that he achieves a suitable amount of aggression, what he delivers isn’t technically a death growl. To my ears, Nicke meanders somewhere near the border of hardcore punk & death metal without ever really committing to either side. It’s interesting that Earache decided to try to fool people into believing that former Carnage bassist Johnny Dordevic was behind the microphone by showing him in the band photograph included on the album sleeve. It was true that Johnny had been performing live with the band but he wasn’t responsible for the vocals on the album. Perhaps this is an indication that Earache could see that the vocal delivery might not go down all that well with some fans & they wanted to shield Nicke a little bit? I dunno but I actually love Andersson’s vocal contribution to tell you the truth. I don’t think the difference between his & Petrov’s tones is as striking as many people seem to want to make out & I actually didn’t realise it wasn’t Petrov until I read it in a magazine some time after release. There’s a lot more variety in Nicke’s approach & he definitely brings a fresh vibe & accessibility to the table that saw Entombed becoming somewhat of a gateway band for potential new death metal fans at the time. I honestly have no idea why people get stuck into him as the vocals on a track like “Crawl” are miles better than the E.P. version with Säfström’s effort sounding weak & thin in comparison over the murkier production.
The value that Entombed placed on execution & technique seems to have increased dramatically since “Left Hand Path” too as this is a much tighter band than we’d heard previously with a substantially stronger focus being given to precision. The transitions have been expertly engineered to crush the cranium of anyone in the vicinity & the breakdowns show a true understanding of the death metal atmosphere at its most empowering & disgusting. Check out album highlight “Sinners Bleed” for example, with its “Raining Blood” style drum beat signaling the coming of something truly ominous. Entombed’s prime objective was no longer to out-violence the violent. It was to create an oozing atmosphere of pure death, in much the same way as their heroes Autopsy, only with a little more polish, class & finesse. The lead guitar work has been improved since the debut which was probably helped by the more musical platform they had to work over. They’re still not all that technically proficient but they overcome that by employing a stronger song-writing aesthetic in their composition & through the clever use of filtering in their tone. Rosenberg’s bass work is rock solid & plays a big part in driving the band’s sound to its heaviest possible extreme but it’s Andersson’s drumming that’s the real star here. This really is his record to be honest & his performance is nothing short of sensational! He brings Entombed so much of their energy & magic & it’s a credit to his technique that so many of his best moments go by without much fanfare due to his skillful compositional skills & pin-point execution. I’m certain that it was he that brought many of the interesting production additions to the table too. Some of which were a little risky like the outro section of “Crawl” which fades in gradually over the main track only isn’t exactly in key or in time, despite ultimately proving to be really effective.
So, given everything that you’ve just read, why isn’t “Clandestine” is no-brainer for full marks. Well in truth, it’s more of a decision based on taste than on quality. The remnants of Entombed’s hardcore-influenced roots still pop up just enough to prevent me from reaching complete musical euphoria which isn’t a major criticism as I still regard it as the pinnacle of the Swedish death metal sound & a good couple of steps up from its older sibling or Dismember’s debut for that matter. Where “Left Hand Path” had defined the Swedish death metal sound, “Clandestine” showed the world what it was possible to do with it. It’s a genuine classic that all death metal fans should own.
For fans of: Dismember, Grave & Carnage
Genres: Death Metal
1987 was a very active year for minor league Californian extreme metal label New Renaissance Records. The business was owned & run by Hellion front woman Ann Boleyn who had created the brand a couple of years earlier but commercial success would initially prove to be challenge with New Renaissance’s early releases generally passing the metal public by with little to no fanfare. 1987 would see things starting to take shape though with the label now having noteworthy releases from At War, Indestroy, Dream Death, Kublai Khan, Necrophagia & Blood Feast on their books. None of these were overnight sensations or made their artists into household names mind you but the more obsessive thrash & death metal fans out there were now starting to become aware of these names & the sounds they were pushing & amongst them would be a young Portland-based crossover thrashcore outfit by the name of Wehrmacht.
Wehrmacht were only 17 or 18 years old when their debut album “Shark Attack” hit the shelves & with a moniker like theirs you would think that there would have been a little bit of implied pressure on them to bring the violence & aggression. After all, “wehrmacht” (pronounced “vair-mahkt”) is German for “armed forces” so one would naturally expect to hear something suitably attacking. The cover artwork certainly fit the mould with “Shark Attack” sporting a cartoonish image of a zombified warrior waterskiing on the backs of two huge sharks. It’s not a high budget effort by any stretch of the imagination however it does have that authentic 80’s underground metal vibe going on & I think it kinda suits this sort of release & the market it was targeting. Interestingly, the wall behind this scene has the words “Spazztic Blur” written across it in red paint in reference to vocalist Tito Matos & guitarist Marco Zorich’s other band of that name.
“Shark Attack” would be a self-produced affair which would seem like a very strange way to go for a debut album. Especially when you consider the age & recording experience of the various band memebrs. One would have to think that there must simply have been no budget for a producer & it’s actually a bit of a shame because I think the album possesses a fair bit of untapped potential. New Renaissance releases weren’t known for their flashy big budget production jobs & this one would have to sit amongst the furthest away from that concept. What you can expect is one of the rawest & noisiest sounding records you’ve heard in quite a while but in its defense, do we really want ultra-aggressive thrashcore to be presented in a polished & clean package? I don’t think so. We just want to be able to make out all of the riffs but that’s not always the case here with all of the instrumentalists making an almighty racket & fighting over who could make the most noise. Tito’s vocals often find themselves struggling to stay afloat above the raucous cacophony that’s surrounding them & I can’t help but think that “Shark Attack” could have made a significantly bigger impact under the guidance of a decent producer.
Wehrmacht may only have been young but they certainly knew what they what they wanted to achieve & that was to be the fastest band that’s ever existed. And fuck me if they haven’t achieved that goal here because I can’t think of a single release to rival it for sheer, unbridled velocity. These chaps go absolutely flat-chat with their pedals to the metal pretty much 100% of the time so I wouldn’t go into “Shark Attack” expecting too much nuance or variation. In truth, they do lose a bit of the musicality in their song-writing in the process but every subgenre of metal has its time & place & the crossover thrash & thrashcore subgenres were never created for in-depth analysis & drawn-out emotional exploration. They’re about getting drunk, having a few laughs & thrashing out like a bastard & Wehrmacht certainly achieve that.
Musically, there are a couple of different sides to Wehrmacht's sound with thrash metal & hardcore punk continually playing off against each other. The thrashier side of the band sounds a great deal like “Darkness Descends”-era Dark Angel with front man Tito coming across a lot like Dark Angel singer Don Doty. I quite like his style but he can tail off a little bit during those times when he starts to get drowned out by the instrumentalists. The rest of the band concentrate all of their energy on playing as fast as is humanly possible & this comes at the expense of precision. The performances here are pretty sloppy for the most part & it sounds a lot like a live-in-the-studio affair. This is another area where a good producer could have made a major difference in my opinion. I mean the guitars aren’t even completely in tune with each other during some of the key melodic moments.
Wehrmacht’s riffs are played with an unbelievable amount of urgency & ferocity with inspiration being drawn from bands like Cryptic Slaughter & DRI as far as pure speed goes. The twin guitar attack even trade high intensity Slayer-style solos which are some of the highlights of the album in my opinion. Drummer Brian Lehfeldt (who later went on to play with Cryptic Slaughter & commercially successful alternative rockers Everclear) must have been one tired dude after these sessions because he absolutely fucking destroys his kit. He was very fast for the time & his consistent use of blast beats makes for a particularly brutal listening experience. It is worth noting that if you listen closely you can hear the guitarists struggling to keep in time with him on more than the odd occasion though. In fact, there are various stages where things start to go to mush but somehow the raw energy in Wehrmacht’s delivery seems to make this significantly less important than it might be with a more sophisticated thrash outfit.
The opening title track is an absolute belter in the vein of Dark Angel & is the clear album highlight. It’s sheer attitude & outrageous speed manage to overcome a humorous attempt at emulating the theme from Jaws in guitar form which ends up creating a build-up that reminds me of the beginning of the Bathory classic “Equimanthorn”. Weeelll…. a poor man’s version to be fair. Unfortunately this is not the only attempt at humour on the album though. Wehrmacht never take themselves too seriously & there are a few intrusive melodic concepts explored that see the band heading in strange directions with unusual circus-style melodies sometimes appearing, presumably for pure comic value. I can’t say that I’m too keen on this sort of humour in my metal & I’m especially not a fan of hearing a recording of dude throwing up in front of his overly enthusiastic mates which is what we’re subjected to at the end of “United Shoe Brothers” (which also seems to rip off the chorus phrasing from Overkill’s “Rotten To The Core” just quietly).
Overall though, it’s hard not to like “Shark Attack”. Sure there are four or five duds included & the production isn’t wonderful but the youthful enthusiasm & incredibly high velocities that drive this music offer quite a bit of appeal for an audience that’s not looking for a long-term fix & are much more inclined towards a quick-fire solution to their drunken party needs. And besides…. If you can find me a faster metal record than this one I’ll be very damn impressed.
For fans of: Cryptic Slaughter, DRI, “Darkness Descends”-era Dark Angel.
Genres: Thrash Metal
By the mid-to-late 1980's, the Brazilian city of Belo Horizante had become a small hub of activity for young bands with an appetite for increasingly extreme music; presumably being encouraged by 1985’s split album from local heroes Sepultura & Overdose as well as Sepultura’s 1986 full-length debut “Morbid Visions”. This would see 1987 becoming an important year in the development of the local scene with the next wave of bands graduating to full release status in quick succession. Amongst the pack were several key performers in Sarcofago, Mutilator, Chakal, Exterminator & the subject of today’s review, Holocausto.
So ya know the old phrase that says that you can’t judge a book by its cover? Well it’s fucking lucky that this is generally accepted to be the case because I don’t imagine the cover art for Holocausto’s debut studio album “Campo de exterminio” would instill too much confidence within the context of a modern metal marketplace now, would it? I mean deciding you’ll go with that sort of moniker & then calling your record “Extermination Camp” & putting a picture of a Nazi soldier setting a vicious dog onto a naked & clearly emaciated civilian isn’t exactly something that people would commonly accept these days now, is it? Not to mention the two-minute intro track which samples historical Nazi recordings. But in a way it was a fine representation of just how few fucks Brazil’s extreme metal underground gave back in the 80’s. There didn’t seem to be any rules whatsoever & that is very well illustrated by the music this sleeve contains within too.
Now any Brazilian extreme metal release simply MUST possess a couple of key attributes & the first is a production job that sounds like it was recorded with a handheld Dictaphone & this is certainly true with “Campo de exterminio” but perhaps not to the extent that people seem to make out. Maybe it’s just that I’m revisiting this release through the digitally remastered version that’s available on Spotify (which also includes the bonus track “Massacre” which seems to be a precursor for the war metal subgenre) but I can’t say that I find it terribly easy to match up the online consensus that this is amongst the worst of the worst with the product that’s reached my ears this week. Sure, it’s raw as hell & sounds like a cheap demo tape but it’s not unlistenable by any stretch of the imagination. As is quite often the case with Brazilian death/thrash, the guitars are mixed too low & the drums do their very best to drown out the rest of the instruments but I find that I can make out the riffs most of the time & that’s no mean feat given the messy guitar sound. I mean if there’s one element that gives “Campe de exterminio” its necro feel it’s that ultra-ugly guitar tone which ensures that it’s pretty much impossible for single axeman Valério "Exterminator" to present the results of his toil in anything close to a tidy fashion. If you’ve already conquered the guitar tone on the early Hellhammer & Sodom recordings & are looking for your next challenge then perhaps this might be just the sort of thing you’re looking for i.e. a rhythm guitar tone that would see even the most skilled champions of their instrument struggling to lay down even the slightest hint at complexity.
The second key characteristic of any underground Brazilian death/thrash metal release is a very basic level of musicianship & once again “Campo de exterminio” is often highlighted as being on the more extreme end of the spectrum in this regard. Look I’m not saying that it’s not warranted but perhaps not for the same reasons as most people seem to think. I mean unlike Belo Horizante locals Exterminator, Holocausto do have the physical skills to perform at a reasonable level but this is often obscured by the fact that they appear to have received absolutely no theoretical training. To elaborate a bit on that point, the drum beats employed by Armando "Nuclear Soldier" are reasonably performed & are generally quite powerful however the riffs that they’re accompanying often have no correlation to them whatsoever so you’ll regularly find yourself wondering how the band members ever thought they’d work together. There’s probably not a song on the tracklisting that doesn’t include a riff that makes no sense from a rhythmic point of view & despite coming up with some pretty brutal riffs at times, it's very clear that Valério has never been taught how to count his beats through in his head. It’s actually a miracle that the whole thing doesn’t fall into complete mush a lot more than it does & it’s often up to front man Rodrigo "Führer" to help keep the rhythm of the riffs together through the use of his phrasing. In fact, I’m not even sure how he manages to stay in time himself to be honest so it’s a significant problem that’s been majorly impacted on by the muddy guitar tone which makes it almost impossible to produce a precise performance. Valério’s incompetent use of palm-muting is also a contributing factor though it must be said & it’s left up to Armando to try to hide his deficiencies.
“Campo de exterminio” is generally regarded as sitting somewhere between thrash metal & death metal however I’d argue that this is a legitimate death metal release with Holocausto’s sound being an amalgamation of Sarcofago, early Sepultura & the first couple of Sodom releases. Despite what you may read, there’s not many references to black metal included although the slower sections were almost certainly inspired by Hellhammer & there’s a noticeable hardcore punk streak to a lot of the more brutal tracks included. I think there’s really only one track where I find Holocausto working from a predominantly thrash metal palate (see “Vietna”) with the rest of the tracklisting sporting blast beats, death grunts & frantic tremolo-picked solos. The grim death metal atmosphere is definitely there & that’s the main source of appeal for an old school death metal fanatic like myself. In fact, it makes me really try hard to like this record even when the obstacles are blaringly obvious. Armando’s vocal delivery is a definite positive though & I really enjoy what was a particularly brutal performance for the time with the obvious reference point being the early efforts of Sepultura’s Max Cavalera. Armando’s holocaust-related lyrical themes are not exactly your standard grisly gore-ridden death metal fodder however they’re delivered in Portuguese so I don’t understand them &, given the subject matter, perhaps it’s better that way anyway.
To be honest, I can’t help but be a little disappointed that I haven’t been able to get myself over the line with “Campo de exterminio”. Given my background, I would have thought I was as likely as anyone to be able to get into this ultra-raw & super-primitive South American stuff but the lack of structure & cohesion in the riffs has proven to be too great an obstacle for me so I only end up enjoying about half of the tracklisting. Still… I’d take this record over the Exterminator, Vulcano & Chakal’s releases from the same period so it isn’t the worst example of Brazilian extreme metal I’ve ever heard but my lack of enthusiasm for it has meant that I’ve never considered checking out Holocausto’s other albums & that’s unlikely to change any time soon.
For fans of: Sarcofago, Vulcano & the first couple of Sepultura releases.
Genres: Death Metal Thrash Metal
I got on the Pig Destroyer train a little bit late to be honest. The Washington grindcore outfit began their recording career at a time when I was starting to temporarily lose interest in the metal scene & it wasn’t until 2009 that this delightful piece of blasting insanity would grace my ears but it made an immediate & lasting impression. Grindcore & I have had our moments over the years to be honest. I tend to find that for every energized burst of pure aggression comes a generic & artistically unambitious release of little consequence but when I hit on a gooden I get a great deal of enjoyment out of it & “Terrifyer” fits into this category very confortably.
For me, it’s always important that regardless of how brutal a band might be or how raw a sound they might be aiming for production-wise, I still want to be able to make out the nuances in order to give myself the chance to become physically involved with the riffs. And Pig Destroyer have done a fantastic job at achieving that here with the guitars & drums seemingly leaping out of the speakers, grabbing you by the hair & bludgeoning your cranium with a force somewhat akin to a sledgehammer. The rhythm guitars are right in your face & have an abrasive yet vibrant tone that’s chock full of life. They also possess enough weight to remove the need for a bass guitar. That’s right! Upon first listen I remember trying really hard to identify the bass lines but found that I couldn’t pick them up for the life of me. It wasn’t until I did a little bit of googling that I realized that Pig Destroyer don’t actually have a bass player at all. On the evidence of this record though, I can see why they didn’t bother with one as it’s simply not required. The layering of Scott Hull’s guitar crunch & the sheer athleticism of drummer Brian Harvey seems to fill out the sound adequately enough. I really love Brian’s drum sound actually. There’s so much electricity on his cymbal work & the blast beats are commanding & authoritative without ever becoming overly dominating. This is what a grindcore record should sound like in my opinion. It’s brutal for sure… but there’s an overall professionalism about it too.
Some of that is undoubtedly due to the impressive musicianship of the two instrumentalists. Agoraphobic Nosebleed mastermind & former Anal Cunt guitarist Hull was clearly a well-seasoned veteran by this stage in his career & it’s very evident in his execution. The benefits of having a single rhythm guitarist performing multiple layers of tracks is clear as day on “Terrifyer” as it results in a very tight & focused delivery of the riffs. And wow! There are some serious riffs on offer here. Scott doesn’t ever dwell on the one thing for two long & despite the short duration of most of these pieces you’ll find that they contain as many riffs as most traditional metal bands can fit into a track that’s two or three times as long. The constant changing is a major contributor to the feeling of urgency that Pig Destroyer achieve & this wouldn’t have been possible without a class drummer of the caliber of Harvey. In fact, despite Hull’s riff-fest, Brian’s actually the best thing about “Terrifyer”. I find myself spending a lot of the album immersing myself in his interesting drum fills & precision blast beats. You won’t find too many better grindcore drummers to be honest. At least not for this particular band.
Stylistically, you’ll be left with little doubt that Pig Destroyer are a grindcore band but that’s not to say that “Terrifyer” swims only in that particular pool. Hull’s riffs showcase a variety of influences & I often find myself imagining that he’s been taking a peak at Machine Head’s groove metal playbook or is trying to emulate Cannibal Corpse’s techy half-time death metal assault. Often in the same one minute song too! And it’s ultimately the quality of these riffs that makes “Terrifyer” so appealing. There’s a genuine groove that the band locks into very regularly with the musical visions of Hull & Harvey seemingly being completely in tune & while these moments may seem fleeting at the time, it’s never long until you’re back there once again. Sure there are some more generic & less ambitious thrash & hardcore style riffs employed here & there but they never stay around for too long & are usually replaced by something a lot more exciting so I couldn’t say that there’s a single track included in the 21 of offer that doesn’t give me some sort of enjoyment. The short 32 minute album run time doesn’t leave any room for boredom either.
If there’s a weakness in Pig Destroyer’s sound, it’s the fairly monotonous shrieking of former Agoraphobic Nosebleed vocalist J.R. Hayes. Most grindcore bands go for a more varied vocal delivery than J.R. delivers here & you can see why too. Hayes spends the entire album screaming his fucking head off & I’m gonna have to give him an A for effort but it would have been good to get a few more attempts at variety. Fans of metalcore certainly won’t find themselves feeling alienated as Hayes would sound right at home on a Converge record but I can’t say that this really fits into my musical comfort zone if I’m honest. In fact, if I look at my score here, there’s a reasonable chance that I may have scored “Terrifyer” slightly higher had the vocals slanted a little closer to my preferred taste palate but that’s not to say that I find myself cringing or anything so this is just an observation more than a major criticism.
Overall, I think Pig Destroyer have delivered a top class grindcore record here. It’s blasting yet classy, abrasive yet professional, complex yet accessible. Grindcore may not be high on my list of extreme metal subgenres but “Terrifyer” may just sit at the top of the pile these days. Perhaps even usurping my beloved Terrorizer in the process. One thing’s for sure… if you’re a fan of the genre then you’re gonna love this shit. Play it very loud & only when you’re doing something physical. Otherwise you may just make a dick of yourself on the train or at church.
For fans of: Napalm Death, Brutal Truth, Nails
2007's final release from Georgia-based US drone metallers The Angelic Process has always been a challenge for me. Whilst "Weighing Souls With Sand" has been universally claimed as a classic by the rest of the world, it's never sat completely comfortably with me for a number of reasons. Some of its defining characteristics represent significant obstacles for me & it's taken me just over a decade to be able to reach a level of acceptance.
For starters, The Angelic Process' material is based around several common elements with each track offering lush ambient sections interspersed with dinosauric walls of abrasive noise that seem hell bent on averting the listeners attention from some apparently sweet melodic content. Tracks often start & finish with a gorgeous sweeping ambience that reminds me of German ambient techno maestro Gas before the heavy guitars kick in & the musical soundscape changes extremely rapidly into one that sees the listeners head being continually belted with an unparalleled sonic barrage. There are moments when I fear that my eardrums simply can't tolerate any more noise & I find myself literally cringing to protect myself. But at the same time there's this unusual beauty sitting in the background that seems to be being intentionally masked by layers of analog fuzz.
The vocals of Monica Henson leap between innocent but soaring melodies & the sort of screams that cause me to wonder if she'll ever speak again. It's really pretty hard to tell if that's being achieved mainly by production trickery or not but I suspect it is. The riffs of her partner in crime Kris Angylus are very simplistic but the brutal & at times overwhelming production job sees them packing a punch that is sure to induce migraines in many listeners. If I'm honest I don't really enjoy the ultra-fuzzy guitar sound. It's not my bag at all. But it's the quality of the melodies that lurk beneath the surface of this abomination that draw The Angelic Process' audience deep into the hazy mist of their sound with the end result being that many people get lost & never want to return home again. The drums sound like they're programmed to my ears & I feel that this was an area that could have been improved as they sound a little bit artificial when the rest of the music around them is trying so hard to portray a warm analogue feel.
"Weighing Souls With Sand" is most commonly referred to as drone metal. I can see why but it's never seemed to me to be a very accurate label to be honest. There's a lot more going on here than there is in your average drone metal release. Particularly from a melodic point of view. The noisy analogue hiss that shrouds most tracks reminds me a lot of the noisier works of ambient artist Tim Hecker while the huge crescendos indicate a love for post-rock artists such as Sigur Ros. There is most definitely a shoegaze element at play here too with a lot of these tracks seeing Kris strumming open downstrokes repeatedly in a melancholic fashion that reeks of My Bloody Valentine's classic "Loveless" album. The droning bass notes take my mind more towards the ambient variety of drone only more from a textural point of view than a stylistic one. Overall I find that the post-metal tag is the more appropriate way to label the album & I'd feel much more comfortable if "Weighing Soulds With Sand" was separated from the drone metal charts as it inevitably fairs quite well but doesn't sound anything like the records scattered around it.
It's taken a very long time & many revisits to achieve but I'm only just now starting to see the value in The Angelic Process' piece de resistance. It nicely portrays its theme of the death of a partner with the instrumentation always possessing a melancholic grandeur that seems both sad & enlightened at the same time. It's simply heart-breaking to think that Kris made the storyline into a self-fulfilling prophecy when he took his own life the following year after falling into a deep depression following a severe hand injury that prevented him from playing guitar any more. Unlike my initial attempts with this album, I actually think I get some enjoyment out of every track now whereas I struggled to sit through it a few years back. I'm glad I've finally come round but there's still a limit to how much "Weighing Souls With Sand" ever has the potential to captivate me. I think I respect what it's trying to do more than I actually enjoy the result. It's certainly an experience that you won't forget in a hurry but it's also a very repetitive one with the same tools being used in every song. The Angelic Process are indeed a one-trick pony. It's just that no one else has even tried to perform that trick before. That's the appeal of a record like this one. You'll be sitting so far outside of your comfort zone that it's easy to forget you even had one.
Genres: Drone Metal Post-Metal
The thrash metal movement was fairly quick to plant its roots in Canada following its explosion onto the scene in 1983. Voivod & Razor would burst out of the blocks the following year but in truth the first couple of releases from both bands sported a sound that had much more in common with speed metal than it did with genuine thrash. Fans of a more pure thrash sound would have to wait until 1985 when a small underground scene would develop in the city of Toronto; one that would see crossover bands like Slaughter & Sudden Impact & speed metal merchants like PileDriver competing in the race for the highest velocities yet achieved by a Canadian metal band. And it was this environment that would spawn the debut studio album from five-piece thrash outfit Sacrifice; a record that would take a more focused approach to the subgenre than we’d heard from the Canadians previously & one that had much more in common with the more aggressive US bands of the time than it did with the bands that surrounded them.
The first thing you’ll notice about 1985’s “Torment In Fire” album is the awful production. It’s extremely noisy with the guitars sounding very messy & the cymbals receiving an undue amount of high end which leaves the overall result sounding very crashy indeed. Thankfully though, the style of music this record pushes on its audience isn’t all that bothered by such aesthetic trivialities with the band showing very little care for subtlety & producing a raw & energized beast of an album that makes up for any lack of nuance through fire & brimstone. Any nu-school metalheads out there beware though. If you’re not already accustomed to the sound of underground extreme metal from the mid-80’s then you might struggle with this one.
Instrumentally, Sacrifice aren’t the most talented bunch of musicians you’ve ever heard in your life but they don’t let that hold them back from achieving their desired result; a result that would appear to be to produce a reasonably high quality emulation of their idols if I’m not completely mistaken. I mean these guys were only in their late teenage years at this stage but they’d clearly been extremely diligent in their analysis of what it takes to produce compelling thrash metal because they make a very good fist of it here. There is certainly a case for claiming the regular use of plagiarism but in this case it fits into the category of helping you to revisit some of the great metal experiences of your lifetime rather than tarnishing anyone’s legacy. Slayer are clearly the most obvious recipient of Sacrifice’s worship as almost every song on the tracklisting is overflowing with elements that span the entire course of the Slayer back catalogue. Even the lead guitar tone & performances are decent emulations of Kerry King & Jeff Hannemann at their most chaotic while the drumming of Gus Pynn is filled to the brim with Dave Lombardo-isms. There are even a couple of particularly violent sub-two minute hardcore punk numbers towards the end of the record that wouldn’t have sounded out of place alongside Slayer’s more brief excursions (like “Necrophobic” for example). Given that Slayer are my all-time favourite metal band, I was always destined to find the positive in all of this rather than sulking about how Sacrifice were ripping off my idols. I mean I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t crave more of that classic Slayer sound in my life even after all these years.
The vocals of guitar-slinging front man Rob Urbinati are a real focal point for the band too. Rob does a great job in delivering a performance that sees him comfortably sitting in both the traditional grunty thrash camp as well as the more extreme & overthetop proto-death metal one that housed the likes of Possessed & the Teutonic thrash bands. His screams are particularly searing & there’s rarely a moment where Rob holds anything back. This attribute was clearly never going to allow Sacrifice to become a household name but I find that adds a little extra appeal if I’m honest. The metal-as-fuck attitude is a real drawcard for me.
The tracklisting isn’t without its blemishes however. The opening intro track “The Awakening” does a pretty poor job of trying to sound scary. There’s a definite lack of maturity in its execution & it ends up sounding like something some pre-pubescent boys threw together on a late-night sleepover. The simple & slightly out of tune mid-paced chugging of “Homicidal Breath” is also lacking in class & falls a little flat but apart from those two duds the rest of the record is generally pretty consistent with the B-side being particularly strong. In actual fact, I think there could have been one or two genuine thrash anthems here if not for the previously mentioned production issues which definitely limits the level of appeal “Torment In Fire” is able to offer. For this reason, it’s hard to pick out any obvious standout tracks from this lot. Instead we get a bunch of tunes that are generally very enjoyable but never quite reach the tipping point to become genuinely great.
I’m a big fan of “Torment In Fire” overall. It’s the sort of underground metal album that old tape traders like myself can really relate to & that we see far too rarely these days. At least not with the same level of authenticity that we see here. Don’t expect anything too original but fans of Slayer, Kreator & “Beyond The Gates”-era Possessed should really dig this.
Genres: Thrash Metal
1984 was a huge year for Slayer fans. Not only did we receive the classic "Haunting The Chapel" E.P., but Metal Blade Records also felt the need to put a live release out to showcase the sheer violence & electricity of a live Slayer show. It would be recorded in New York City but as with Warlord’s “And The Cannons Of Destruction Have Begun…” live album they'd released only a month earlier, Metal Blade had unusual ideas on how it would come together, not feeling any necessity for the record to reflect a truly live club show. The Warlord record was advertised as having been recorded in an empty theatre & was billed as the very first Warlord live show which ended up being completely inaccurate as it eventually came out that the whole thing was put together in a recording studio & was poorly mimed for the accompanying video that came with the album. Well the circumstances around the recording of Slayer’s “Live Undead” E.P. have a few more unknowns about them & it’s really up to the listener as to how much they let these effect their overall enjoyment of the record.
For starters, we know that this isn’t a legitimate live show. The band’s management have been open for many years about the fact that it was recorded in a studio with 50 friends of the band in attendance to add the audience noise. But what’s not 100% clear is whether that audience was in the same room at the same time that Slayer performed this material or whether they were simply screaming their heads off for the fun of it & inserted at a later stage. From the hints that producer Bill Metoyer has given in interviews it sounds like he wants us to believe that the crowd were in the room with the band but the audience noise didn’t get picked up well enough in the recording so it was re-recorded & pasted over the top of the band. This makes sense to me on the evidence on display on the recording so I’m gonna go with that story & I’d imagine that our audience will be a little divided about whether they can accept this as a genuinely live recording under those circumstances or not.
The other major talking point is the necessity to put out a live release at all given that Slayer had such a small amount of material at the time. I mean the original release of “Live Undead” featured six songs; five of which appeared on their debut full-length “Show No Mercy” from the previous year & the other one having seen the light of day only two months earlier with the “Haunting The Chapel” EP. And when you take into account the fact that these arrangements are all very similar to the originals & recorded in a studio it begs the question on what the point of the whole exercise was. Apparently the six songs that made it to the record were selected from 19 that were recorded in total across three sets that included a maximum of nine different songs with the tracklisting being completely out of order from their usual live sets.
Well……. now that we’ve got that all out of the way, it’s lucky for me that I’m able to see past all of those topics pretty easily & I subsequently find “Live Undead” to possess some unique characteristics that make it an essential part of any Slayer fanatics collection. One of the bigs pluses is that the production is excellent for a "live" release. It really showcases the electric energy of a live Slayer with all of the instruments being well defined. The two guitarists sit at either side of the stereo spectrum & achieve tones that are both raw & chaotic & searing & modern at the same time, with the solos being presented in emphatic fashion. Tom’s bass guitar can actually be heard which is more than I can say for many Slayer studio outings & he sounds thick of warm here. And Dave Lombardo’s drum kit sounds more powerful than we’ve heard from him to date with a kick drum sound that went a long way to defining the path forwards for extreme metal. There’s more click to it than we'd heard previously which makes it more defined & gives the rhythms more precision. In fact, Lombardo’s performance is a big differentiator for “Live Undead”. His ability behind the kit at this stage in the game is simply light-years ahead of where it was for “Show No Mercy” & this gives these songs more life than they had previously. Particularly due to the drastically improved double kick work which is a real highlight & gives the songs a lot more urgency than they had previously.
The only “Haunting The Chapel” track included is “Captor Of Sin” & it benefits greatly from the cleaner production afforded over the original recording. Tom’s vocals are harsher & more evil sounding than they were on “Show No Mercy” & you would honestly never know that this wasn’t a real live club gig on the evidence of his performance as he genuinely seems to be interacting with the crowd. I actually think this performance places him way ahead of the rest of the thrash front men metal fans had experienced to the time. His ability to balance sheer aggression with melody is unparalleled & his between-song banter is totally bad-ass & would definitely leave a live crowd riled up & ready to attack each other. The sound of the audience certainly leaves you feeling like they actually do too. These dudes sound like complete psychos throughout the recording & that’s pretty much in line with what my teenage self always imagined from a Slayer club crowd. If you want to hear what Hell sounds like then this is as close as you’re gonna get with the audience being mixed a little louder than you’d usually expect for a live release which seems to be a bit of bug-bear for some listeners but personally I really enjoy it & think it gives the E.P. a unique character.
Perhaps the fact that I was introduced to “Live Undead” before I’d ever heard “Show No Mercy” or “Haunting The Chapel” has had an impact on my overall feelings on this release but I have to say that I fucking love it. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it just slightly eclipses “Haunting The Chapel” for my favourite Slayer release to the time. I honestly couldn’t give a fuck about how the recording came to be. I didn’t have any idea of those circumstances when I first became acquainted with “Live Undead” & I’m not sure it would have made a difference anyway. I just base my judgements on the music coming from those speakers & the way it makes me feel & on that basis alone it’s hard to deny that “Live Undead” is a showcase for the elite thrash metal of one of the greats of the genre when they were just hitting their straps. I’ll never get the opportunity to see them at this early stage of their career but this E.P. serves as a very nice insight into what a live Slayer experience might have been like at that point in time.
Genres: Thrash Metal
Motorhead’s “The Golden Years: Live” E.P. is a relatively unknown four-track live E.P. featuring recordings from their 1980 European tour. It includes renditions of the old Motown track “Leaving Here” which they’d previously covered on their initial studio album “On Parole”, “Stone Dead Forever” & “Dead Men Tell No Tales” from their classic “Bomber” record & the heavily underrated “Too Late Too Late”; an exceptionally strong B-side from the “Overkill” single which had been criminally overlooked for album inclusion. This release paints the perfect picture of Motorhead in all their glory, warts & all. Lemmy sounds grindier & nastier than ever before with a performance that highlights his abilities as a master showman. His vocals are a little soft on “Leaving Here” but this issue is rectified for the remaining tracks. That dirty yet powerful bass sound makes it perfectly obvious as to why Motorhead don’t need a second guitarist as Lemmy doesn’t need any assistance in filling out the sound beneath Eddie’s impressive guitar solos. In fact, the guitars are huge on this recording & take songs like “Leaving Here” & “Too Late Too Late” (my personal favourite) to another level from their studio counterparts. I really enjoy this E.P. & would thoroughly recommend it to any Motorhead fans out there.
Genres: Heavy Metal
I came into "The Work Which Transforms God" having never heard Blut Aus Nord before. My brother & I made a deal that he would review an album of my choice if I did one of his & this was what he chose. I had no idea of what to expect although I'd seen plenty written about the originality & weirdness of this band. But after giving it a few listens I am really glad I gave this a go because most of it is nothing short of genius.
The album opens with one of three dark ambient tracks spread across the album ("End", "The Fall" & "Devil Essence"). These are really effective & fit in nicely with the overall feel of the album. If anything they enhance the already crushingly dark atmosphere & I could see these pieces sitting comfortably on a "Silent Hill" video game soundtrack.
"The Choir Of The Dead" opens the flood gates & the intensity pours out. I haven't experienced a truly evil black metal atmosphere like this in quite a while. I would describe it as combining the cold, primitive majesty of "Det Som Engang Var"-period Burzum with the experimental beauty of Ved Buens Ende. One of the many highlights, it ends with some chilling church bells. "Axis" continues the black metal onslaught in fine fashion with some serious blastbeats & loads of twisted riffs. It leads into "Metamorphosis" which settles into a more progressive Ved Buens Ende-style sound that is both truly beautiful & very heavy at the same time.
Unfortunately "The Supreme Abstract" is the only real let-down of the album. It is just too twisted, dissonant & messy for my taste. Vocally it sounds like they've gone for an Attila Csihar (Mayhem) moany groany sort of thing but it hasn't worked & doesn't suit the blasting music behind it in my opinion. It just doesn't gel like the rest of the album & it's probably the only thing stopping a five star rating. "Our Blessed Frozen Cells" hits straight back though with a slower, deeper atmosphere that again brings to mind Burzum & also introduces a more industrial Godflesh-like drum style which can be heard on & off throughout "The Work Which Transforms God". After a dark ambient interlude mid-track it sweeps into atmospheric sludge/doom territory with soaring guitar melodies that are quite uplifting.
The intro riff from "The Howling Of God" strongly reminds me of "Transylvanian Hunger"-period Darkthrone which can never be a bad thing in my opinion. There are lots more industrial elements on show here too which are both dissonant & unsettling as well as captivating. Godflesh again comes to mind in the drum loops. "Inner Mental Cage" is truly bizarre & amazing. There is a definite druggy, psychadelic feel & a wall of sound that engulfs the listener as they descend slowly into Hell. It is probably the highlight of the album & will continue to intrigue me for some time yet. Truly original & beautiful! Finally the album ends with a gargantuan mammoth of a doom/sludge epic in "Procession Of The Dead Clowns" with effects-drenched guitar melodies demanding your attention. Immeasurably powerful stuff & a marvelous way to close out the album!
Overall I was blown away by the focus & depth of "The Work Which Transforms God". There is plenty of variety & the album flows surprisingly well when you consider the amount of territory it covers. There is also plenty of variation in the vocaleft me wanting more. I totally recommend this to all open-minded metalheads who don't mind a shudderingly dark atmosphere & a head-fuck or two.
Genres: Black Metal
Rage Against The Machine’s sophomore album “Evil Empire” was a bit of a disappointment for me. Their self-titled debut had been an impressive release from a band with a fresh, well-defined sound. A band that obviously had a lot to say & presented their message with an in-your-face delivery that was hard to ignore. Unfortunately the follow-up failed to capitalize on the solid platform they’d built for themselves. It was lacking a bit of bottom end in the production & the song-writing was pretty inconsistent. They’d tried a few things to add some variation to their sound but these experiments had some mixed results & the best parts of the album ended up being the tracks where they just concentrated on doing what they do best. Before giving it my first listen I was thinking to myself that RATM’s third album “The Battle of Los Angeles” could go two ways. They could either put out a safe album in the style of the debut or they could try some more variation & hope for some more successful results.
Shortly after pressing play it becomes obvious that the production is significantly better than that of “Evil Empire”. In fact “The Battle of Los Angeles” sounds very much like the debut. This gives the rhythm section a lot more clout & makes for a generally heavier experience. Secondly, the style of the song-writing sits very much within their comfort zone. There isn’t as much variety as there was on “Evil Empire”. The riffs & structures here are very familiar, Tom Morello is still taking his guitar “solos” to the weirdest places he can possibly come up with & Zack de la Rocha is spitting out his lyrics in his typical aggressive fashion. But this is not necessarily such a bad thing. If you liked the debut album then you should also get some enjoyment out of this one as they follow very similar paths.
If you look at the individual tracks on offer here you can’t see any obviously weaker songs. In fact I’d go so far as to say that this is Rage Against The Machine’s most consistent record. “Born Of A Broken Man” is clearly the high point of the album in my opinion. It’s a real monster of a track & is amongst the best couple of songs the band ever wrote for mine. “Calm Like A Bomb” is also a standout. The rest of the tracks are generally solid & engaging. They’re quite heavy & possess plenty of energy. It’s just that by the end of the record they’re all starting to sound a little samey & for this reason “The Battle Of Los Angeles” can feel a bit longer than it actually is. It definitely doesn’t have as many highlights as the debut album either.
I quite like this record & think it’s a pretty good comeback after the disappointment of “Evil Empire”. If you look at it on an individual track-by-track basis it’s actually not too far behind the debut album in terms of overall quality but the fact that it loses a bit of momentum late in the album due to a lack of variation causes me to rate it a little lower. Still… I’m much happier with RATM going with what they do best rather than throwing in outside influences that only end up diluting the aspects of their sound that make them great. It was probably a wise decision for them to leave on this note. Another similar release would definitely have been overkill.
Genres: Alternative Metal
I ventured back to this old favourite from my youth over the last couple of days & found that it still hits the spot. I was majorly into the more brutal end of death metal at the time & the early rise of Suffocation had made a major impact on me so I was actively seeking out anything that could remotely rival the masters of brutal death metal. I found Cannibal Corpse's 1990 debut album "Eaten Back To Life" to be pretty fun without ever really commanding repeat listens but "Butchered At Birth" saw them upping the ante on the brutality significantly by dropping some of their early thrash influences, removing any semblance of melody & drawing forth the deepest & most imposing death metal vocals we'd heard to the time, not to mention one of the most grisly & iconic album covers & some seriously sickening lyrical content. It all added up to a welcome death metal feast for a rebellious teenager like myself.
"Butchered At Birth" is the first essential Cannibal Corpse album in my opinion. It starts off with one of the first genuine hits of the extreme death metal scene in "Meathook Sodomy" which still tears me a new one every time I sit through the swamp of sickening whammy bar noise that makes up the intro. The rest of the tracklisting is very consistent with no weak tracks although the second half of the album definitely sees the quality dropping off a little. It's pretty obvious that the earlier tracks are made up of the band's newer material as they're generally more sophisticated & you easily see that this was a band that was still developing its sound.
The instrumentation certainly isn't quite the finished product yet. The drumming is very repetitive & basic, the rhythm guitar performances can be pretty sloppy at times & the solos aren't exactly theoretically correct but there's an undeniable atmosphere of pure death about "Butchered At Birth" that just resonated with so many of the true death metal fans of the time. Unlike Suffocation's early works from the same year, this isn't a brutal death metal record per se. It's a classic old school death metal album with some seriously brutal vocals & if I'm being honest I think those vocals will ultimately dictate whether this release is a winner or a loser with you. They're the highlight of the record for me personally as I absolutely love their monstrous tone. Despite their indecipherable nature which was completely devoid of melody, Chris Barnes strangely managed to pull off some really catchy phrasing & the excessive violence & gore still rocks my boat to this day. It's just so extreme which is something that I crave in my life.
Cannibal Corpse would create better albums in the coming years but they'd rarely show this level of youthful exuberance. Over the subsequent decades they've become one of death metal's most recognizable, reliable & marketable forces but if you really want to know what they're about then this is the record you should investigate. "Butchered At Birth" changed many people's perceptions on what extreme metal could be, would massively influence the new brutal death metal movement I was about to become a part of & became a gateway for so many pimple-faced teenagers who are now life-long death metal fanatics.
For fans of Deicide, Cannabis Corpse & Monstrosity.
Genres: Death Metal
I think it's fair to say that "Kentucky" was never going to be something that I'd claim to be right up my alley but that's not to say that it's a bad record by any measure. I actually quite liked it in the end but there are a few things that hold me back from getting too excited about this coal-mining themed one-man black metal experiment. It's not a very dark black metal record with some of the more melodic sections possessing an atmosphere that glistens with a positivity that wouldn't feel out of place on a blackgaze release while the mining themes don't really seem to fit all that well within the context of such a cold, primitive & raw style of extreme music if you ask me. The other major obstacle I discovered is that the first few tracks do very little for me so the album doesn't really get going until track four in my opinion. That poor start meant that my first listen was a bit of a write-off as I was already pretty disappointed by track four & subsequently didn't allow the remainder of the record a decent chance of recovery. A couple of revisits have since seen me overcoming that issue & I've found that I actually get a fair bit of enjoyment out of tracks 4 through 9, particularly "Black Soot & Red Blood", "Killing the Giants As They Sleep" & "Black Waters" which are all very solid pieces of work in their own right.
In saying that though, I'm definitely not onboard with the few sections that see an instrument that sounds very much like a pan-flute or a recorder being poorly amalgamated within an extreme metal framework. That shit just doesn't sit all that well with this old metalhead but thankfully those parts are generally short-lived & are often followed by some of the better sections of the album. There's a strong post-rock influence scattered across the tracklisting too & those sections clearly sit amongst the most impressive parts of the record for me as I'm quite partial to an introspective interlude or two in my extreme metal. The vocal shrieks aren't amazing & some of the instrumentation isn't as polished as some but there's a good energy to a lot of the more brutal sections & the solemn bluegrass pieces are well executed & generally offer a depth, authenticity & integrity that allows them to feel more substantial than anything you'd find on your run-of-the-mill folk metal release. In fact, the consistent inclusion of folk music on this album initially left me confused as to why "Kentucky" is rarely labelled as Pagan Black Metal but I've since realized that it's the subject matter that's the roadblock there.
I think it's fair to say that I found "Kentucky" to be an intriguing if not all that enticing prospect on paper but hindsight has seen me admitting that it's over-achieved on its promise in practice. I'm not sure it's the type of thing that I'll be returning to all that regularly which mostly comes down to taste but it certainly has some artistic merit & deserves points for effort & ambition as much as anything else.
For fans of Saor, Wolves In The Throne Room & Skagos.
Genres: Black Metal
"Extreme Aggression" was the release that introduced me to Kreator shortly after release & I frankly fell in love it right from the offset. To be more accurate, it was really the video clip for "Betrayer" that first brought them to my attention & it's still one of the greatest thrash metal tracks ever recorded in my opinion. I gave the album a right royal thrashing during the subsequent years & it held the prestigious position of my favourite Kreator record for an extended period there too. That being said though, it's been many years since I revisited it & after reacquainting myself with its wonderful follow-up record "Coma Of Souls" recently I thought it was time to see where "Extreme Aggression" sits in grand scheme of classic period Kreator after all these years.
"Extreme Aggression" is a very similar record to "Coma Of Souls" in many respects. It's an absolute riff-fest & a total thrash-a-thon! In fact, you'll rarely hear a record that better defines what late 80's European thrash was all about in my opinion as there's an nasty edge to the vocals, guitar tone & riff structures that makes Kreator infinitely cooler than the vast majority of their competition. The band had gotten significantly tighter by this stage too, particularly in the rhythm guitar & drumming departments. The guitar solos still spend a bit of time in off-key territory however it all sounds very cool indeed, even more so to an early teenage me.
The musical evolution that Kreator had started with 1987's "Terrible Certainty" has been further developed here with the band showing an increasing maturity in the song-writing department. Mille's newly acquired real-life lyrical approach would branch further away from the death-laden horror of Kreator's early works & I have mixed feelings on that. It's not a major concern but I do think his voice in best suited to sheer violence & blasphemy but he certainly makes a pretty good fist of the vocal hooks on offer here. The band show a great pedigree in not only thrash but also traditional heavy metal at times with an increased focus on guitar harmonies that reminds me just as much of Iron Maiden as it does of Metallica. Drummer Ventor can be seen to show a little more restraint than we were used to from his mid-80's efforts. Here we see him placing a lot more emphasis on the song-writing by picking his moments more selectively. He'd further refine that technique (not to mention his technical skills) before the recording of "Coma Of Souls".
There are no weak songs included. "Don't Trust" is clearly the weakest link however it's still quite enjoyable thanks to the previously-mentioned quality of the riffs. The rest of the album is absolutely top notch though with four of the nine tracks reaching genuine classic status for me. The one-two punch of "No Reason To Exist" & "Love Us Or Hate Us" pretty much rewrites the manual on how to write a great thrash riff while the two-track run of "Some Pain Will Last" into "Betrayer" is as devastating as any in the band's discography. "Some Pain Will Last" is the slowest inclusion of the nine & features an atmosphere that reminds me a lot of the down-tempo pieces from Slayer's "South of Heaven" & "Seasons In The Abyss" albums while the light-speed electricity of "Betrayer" is bursting at the seams with vitriol & spite.
"Extreme Aggression" isn't a perfect record but it was a noticeable step back up into the big league after the solid "Terrible Certainty" & is an undeniable classic that made a huge impact on my life from a very young age. It may not sound as extreme as it did back in the day but it's certainly lost none of its appeal. Interestingly though, after 30 years of listening to these two records I think that "Coma Of Souls" may have just pipped "Extreme Aggression" in my esteem for the very first time. I'm not sure how I feel about the fact that I now rate this record behind three other Kreator releases (i.e. "Pleasure To Kill", "Flag Of Hate" & Coma Of Souls") because I can't escape the feeling that it deserves more respect than that given the important role it played in my both my childhood & my musical development. Perhaps it's just a clear sign that Kreator were miles ahead of the rest of the Teutonic pack during their hey day.
For fans of Sodom, Slayer & Destruction.
Genres: Thrash Metal
I wasn’t what you’d call an early adopter of Ukrainian atmospheric black metal exponents Drudkh as I didn't become aware of them until my return to metal in 2009 & by that stage they’d already released six or seven full-length albums. I seem to remember 2004’s “Autumn Aurora” being the first of their releases to grace my ears but it wouldn’t be long before I’d venture forward to their highly celebrated 2006 record “Blood In Our Wells”. I remember it leaving me quite impressed at the time & it subsequently got a fair few revisits over the coming weeks however I don’t think I’ve returned to it since so its finer details are a little bit hazy now to be honest. Hence this overdue revisit I guess so let’s see how it’s faired more than a decade later, shall we?
A well-executed ambient piece opens proceedings before the first waves of lush, sweeping black metal hit your ears & “Furrow Of Gods” begins very strongly, ably assisted by a clear, immersive wall-of-sound production job. Some well-placed keyboards provide further emphasis to a dreamy atmosphere that relies much more heavily on melody than it does on intimidation & blasphemy. Unusually for black metal, dualling guitar solos enter the fray & show the musicians responsible to be more than capable in that area. Unfortunately, the closing stages of the nine minute piece take a direction that I’m not terribly comfortable with as we see Drudkh experimenting with folk melodies within the context of their metal framework. I immediately put my guard up but thankfully the damage had already been done earlier in the piece & that kinda sums up my feelings on the album to an extent. There are definitely flaws here that I find a little off-putting but the overall package is impressive enough to overcome them. “When The Flame Turns To Ashes” is another example of this as it once again starts out very strongly but loses momentum towards the end of its eleven minute run time through the use of some melodic guitar work that could have shown more attention to detail given that the top strings are slightly out of tune. It’s by no means a bad track. It just doesn’t quite live up to its potential.
On the positive side though, “Blood In Our Wells” finishes very confidently indeed, firstly with the most surprising inclusion on the tracklisting in “Eternity” which sports a rockier first few minutes that seem to have been inspired by gothic rock artists like Sisters Of Mercy before returning to more serious territory in the back end. I found that opening section to be a little off-putting on first listen however subsequent revisits have found me giving in to its infectious & more up-beat nature. As is not unusual for me though, it’s the least popular of the metal tunes that has made the biggest impact on me with closing instrumental “Ukrainian Insurgent Army” dishing up some truly spine-chilling guitar arpeggios that owe a great deal of debt to Burzum. It was a great way to finish a very consistent tracklisting that offered no genuinely weak inclusions.
The blackened vocals of Thurios aren’t the most compelling you’ll find in the subgenre. They’re more serviceable than they are gripping but they get the job done well enough. I often find myself reaching for Rotting Christ as a point of reference across the course of the album & I think it might be Thurios’ vocal style that’s the main similarity. Vlad takes a restrained approach behind the kit so as to give the melodic guitar work as much room to breathe as possible & it works pretty well. I do enjoy his ride cymbal work but I don’t think it’ll surprise too many of you to read that I prefer a more exciting brand of extreme metal drumming than this. I guess I’m just taken outside of my comfort zone on a number of fronts really but Drudkh have still managed to win me over through sheer focus & quality of execution. I mean the folkier moments certainly detract from the overall experience for me a touch but they’re really not all that prominent or regular so the Pagan black metal tag is bit of a stretch. I've never been much of an advocate of flashy solos in my black metal either but they seem far more tolerable within the context of Drudkh's less aggressive & abrasive tone.
There's little doubt that I prefer a darker atmosphere than the one Drudkh are pushing here which almost hints at a dreamy positivity I’d usually associate with the blackgaze movement but somehow it all seems to hit close enough to the spot to still command a very solid 4/5 rating. At the end of the day I just think “Blood In Our Wells” is a quality extreme metal record. I don’t subscribe to the claims that it’s any sort of classic. It’s clearly a couple of steps down from the best work of the Burzums & Wolves In The Throne Rooms but it’s still a damn enjoyable experience that has a reasonable amount of success in creating a distinctly Ukrainian black metal sound built around melody & atmosphere.
For fans of Ygg, Winterfylleth & Wodensthrone.
Genres: Black Metal
Florida tech death/thrash legends Atheist's 1990 debut album "Piece Of Time" made a significant impact on me & was high on my rotation list at the time but as soon as their follow-up "Unquestionable Presence" was released I kinda forgot about it as the band's sophomore effort was a clear step up from the debut & an undeniable classic. It's been interesting to rediscover the point that Atheist were at in their creative & artistic journey with "Piece Of Time" this week as it's generally regarded as somewhat of a classic too.
The opening title track is an absolute belter & sounds exactly like the material from "Unquestionable Presence" which is a sure-fire indication that it was the most recently composed track included on the album. The other material sees them varying the amount of traditional thrash metal & more progressive elements & I'm willing to bet that I could piece together the exact order that the tracks were written because you can easily hear the band developing their sound over the course of the nine songs. For that reason, I've never found "Piece Of Time" to be quite the finished product however it undeniably represents a huge step up in ambition for the extreme metal movement. No one had attempted anything like this before & the more atmospheric & progressive parts of the album were a particular revelation that would be expanded upon significantly on later releases. Death, Cynic & Pestilence can all be found to be trying very similar things in the years that followed too & I don't think that's a coincidence.
The level of musicianship on display here is absolutely outstanding, particularly the shredding lead guitar work & Roger Patterson's super-interesting bass lines which take an up-front position in the mix. Kelly Shaefer's vocal delivery has never really struck me as being particularly "death metal" though & sounds more like a raspier thrash front man like Sadus' front man Darren Travis than it does Chuck Schuldiner. I probably would have preferred a little more extremity there to be honest but then again... that may have changed the feel of the album completely so it may be for the best.
Overall, "Piece Of Time" is a ground-breaking & highly influential debut that offers consistent quality & strong hints at the potential that was to be fulfilled in the coming years.
For fans of 90's Death, early Cynic & the more technical Pestilence albums.
Genres: Death Metal
When I first encountered the 2001 sophomore album "Light Of Day, Day Of Darkness" from Norwegian progressive metallers Green Carnation I was absolutely blown away. I simply hadn't heard an hour-long single-track album that not only kept me interested throughout but also flowed effortlessly through any number of different & equally impressive movements. In fact, it made such an impression on me that I saw myself reaching for full marks which is a very rare occurrence.
We're now a good twelve years down that track & I've finally gotten around to revisiting this progressive masterpiece & it's certainly an impressive release that oozes of class. I do have to say that it hasn't connected with me on the same level as it did before though, mainly due to the fact that when I consume it in one sitting I find several parts that don't appeal to me as much as others from a purely stylistic point of view but also because I don't connect with the vocals as much as I'd need to for this record to maintain its place in my Hall of Metal Glory. I do love the sheer ambition in taking on so many different musical styles in the one lengthy piece & it's quite astonishing that they've made it sound so natural & fluent.
"Light Of Day, Day Of Darkness" is a prime example of a release that only really needs the "progressive metal" tag because it celebrates the very essence of progressive music while not really fitting into any of your popular genres. Sure, you can definitely identify the influence of the Peaceville Three in the heavier & doomier riff work (particularly My Dying Bride) & there are even more smatterings of the gothic metal of Type O Negative however you're never left pondering as to what type of album this one is. Don't expect to be dazzled with obscure time signatures & technical gymnastics though. That's not the sort of progressive metal Green Carnation concern themselves with. They're far too busy creating wonderfully captivating soundscapes to worry about anything too showy & that approach has rewarded them with an timeless & enduring release that may not annihilate me like it did over a decade ago but still manages to have me nodding in appreciation of some fully realised potential.
For fans of In The Woods..., Novembre & Wolverine.
Genres: Progressive Metal
New York alternative metal four-piece Helmet first became known to me through late-night underground metal radio programs at around the time that their 1992 sophomore album “Meantime” was released & they were pretty hard to ignore to be honest. Helmet’s highly regarded 1990 debut album “Strap It On” had somehow managed to drift past without me even noticing however “Meantime” could not have come at a better time for the band as it was everything the grunge-obsessed rock market were wanting & they lapped it up big time. I kinda found myself watching from afar without ever making any genuine commitment but I developed a respect for Helmet that saw me regarding them as a talented & relevant band for the 90’s alternative generation. Interestingly though, I don’t think I’ve ever actively listened to one of their albums in full until now.
Given my fairly casual acquaintance with Helmet up until now, I was actually surprised to find that my familiarity with “Meantime” extended past the obvious couple of hits in “Unsung” & “In The Meantime”. I was also very familiar with “Give It” & “Turned Out” which turned out to be a big positive for the record's chances of gaining my interest early on. I wouldn’t say that there were any other genuine surprises in store for me though as Helmet had a very good grasp of their sound by this stage & I subsequently found “Meantime” to offer a consistent approach & level of quality throughout it’s relatively short 37-minute runtime. Although it’s been noted that the band seem to have two gears on this album with the more commercially focused & the tougher material being evenly spread, I have to admit that I feel that’s overstating things a touch. All of the ten tracks take a pretty similar direction as far as I can see with only the vocals taking a more accessible & slightly poppy direction on the tracks that are presumably being referred to. I think it’s a bit of a stretch to call that an obvious attempt at hit-writing to be honest as these songs are usually as hard-hitting as the rest of the album from an instrumental perspective.
Helmet’s base sound is very much based on the grungy tone of the time with the guitar sound reminding me a hell of a lot of Seattle-based grunge gods Soundgarden. There’s certainly a hardcore edge to things though with some of the riffs & vocal performances sporting a gnarliness that wouldn’t have seemed out of place on Nirvana’s rough-&-ready debut album “Bleach”. The big difference between Helmet & their peers though is how strongly they rely on precisely executed & often fairly complex groove-based syncopated rhythms within their riff structures. In fact, they remind me a fair bit of fellow New Yorkers Prong in this regard. What we have here is heavily riff-based music that sees all four band members honing in on the one idea & looking to maximise its value with the bass guitar lines of Henry Bogdan playing a major role in accentuating the band’s overall heaviness. If you’re familiar with English sludge metallers Fudge Tunnel then you’ll know what I mean although Helmet are admittedly more rhythmically ambitious. Despite the apparent complexity in some of the unusual time signatures though, this united focus on the riff does tend to make Helmet sound a little less sophisticated than it probably should as there’s not all that much to this album. Every song sports hard-hitting, groove-based riffs that are all beautifully executed but don’t offer a lot of in the way of emotional engagement & depth. The post-hardcore references that seem to gain traction with this album are pretty misguided as there’s nothing “post” about this material in my opinion. It’s as riff-based as you’ll find with little attempt being made to explore anything more atmospheric or textural.
Front man Page Hamilton is the clear focal point of the band & he opts for a shouty, hardcore-inspired delivery a lot of the time. He’s not the most talented of vocalists but often reminds me of a less tone-deaf version of Godflesh’s Justin Broadrick in that he’s more about attitude than he is technique. I have to say it works for him pretty well but I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight that a more obviously talented front man could have taken Helmet to another level. I mean the fact that I get so many Soundgarden vibes from Helmet’s instrumentation is enough to highlight the obvious gap in class between the two bands & a lot of that comes down to the chalk-&-cheese comparison between a vocal god like Chris Cornell or Alice In Chains’ Layne Stayley & the serviceable performance Page puts in here. I do like the noisy approach to the guitar solos though. It adds a layer of intensity to proceedings just when the song-writing is starting to sound a little too easy on the ear.
Look, despite my minor qualms “Meantime” is a really consistent record. You won’t find a weak track amongst the ten included here with the quality ranging from pretty decent to very solid. In fact, I was a bee’s dick away from upping my score to a 4/5 but eventually decided that I didn’t connect quite as much with Helmet’s sound as I’d like which prevented me from finding any single track to be an alternative metal classic. Songs like “In The Meantime”, “Give It” & “Turned Out” will always get me feeling a little nostalgic for a simpler time but I don’t think I can say that this album competes with the top tier of the genre. It’s a consistently enjoyable listen that delivers exactly what it promises from the first seconds of the opening track. I just would have liked to see Helmet experimenting with a more cerebral & visceral sound on occasion. They definitely had their own thing going on though & it’s actually pretty hard to think of anyone that sounded much like them at the time which is a point worthy of respect.
For fans of Prong, Fudge Tunnel & Soundgarden.
P.S. How obviously did Kansas-based grunge outfit Paw rip off the opening riff from “Unsung” on their 1993 hit “Jessie”?? They’re pretty much exactly the same & neither are all that far from the opening riff from Alice In Chains’ “Them Bones” which came out a few monthly after “Meantime” either.
Genres: Alternative Metal
I've had an up & down experience with French blackgaze outfit Alcest over the years. I've always liked the idea of what they represent more than the actual result but have certainly given them more than their fair share of chances. I think the long & short of it is that I simply prefer a more dark & imposing sound so I often find myself feeling a touch outside of my element while their ethereal & uplifting brand of post-metal washes over me & that's still very much the case with 2016's fifth full-length "Kodama" although I've definitely seen myself feeling more comfortable & accepting on this occasion. Perhaps I'm simply softening up in my old age but I suspect otherwise.
I can see why Xephyr has selected "Kodama" for feature release status because I consistently found myself asking an obvious question during each listen. Is this a metal release? It certainly seems to be universally regarded as one on other metal-related internet resources & RYM has this album tagged as Blackgaze (152-9), Shoegaze (126-27) & Post-Metal (62-20) primaries with Post-Rock (127-10) & Dream Pop (101-23) secondaries. Now, that's all well & good but I'm gonna throw a cat amongst the pigeons here by claiming that there's not more than a couple of minutes of actual metal on the whole album & even then it's borderline. The inclusion of the occasional black metal scream does not tie a record to metal in my opinion & that's about the extent of it here. The instrumentation is absolutely in line with the modern Post-Rock model with several of the tracks drawing on Shoegaze for inspiration too. I'd be happy with Post-Rock as the sole primary but can see the logic in a dual arrangement as well. I'm just not hearing where all of these people are picking up the metal thing from as there's not a sign of it here. In all honesty, "Kodama" sounds much closer to Coldplay than it does to Deafheaven & that's not meant as a criticism. If it was played straight after a Sigur Ros record you certainly wouldn't feel startled & likely wouldn't miss a beat.
Musically, this is every bit an Alcest release. It's dreamy & melodic with the primary focal point being the layers of jangly guitars & the soft & unintimidating male vocals which see the listener being transported to a warm & positive world that's very much in opposition to the one we generally associate with a clan like The North. The consistency of the tracklisting is excellent with no weak tracks included & I find the whole experience to be very rewarding even if I do inevitably feel the craving for something more savage afterwards. It's often nice to be taken outside of your musical comfort zone by a quality artist that knows their craft very well & executes their plans with precision & that's exactly what we have here. "Eclosion" sees me drawing comparisons with latter period Anathema while the final track "Onyx" sees Alcest continuing their trend of finishing their albums with something a little different from the rest of the tracklisting, this time a darker & beautifully textured instrumental piece that I find to be the highlight of the album.
"Kodama" is not the sort of thing that'll I'll find myself reaching for all that often however it'll no doubt provide me with ongoing rewards whenever I do stumble on it while looking for something more specific. In fact, it's left me wondering as to whether I may have been too harsh on Alcest over the years. Perhaps a revisit of some of their earlier releases is required as God knows my taste profile has never wider & been more diverse than it is now.
For fans of Old Silver Key, "Melting Sun"-period Lantlôs & the self-titled Amesoeurs album.
Genres: Black Metal Post-Metal
Ben & I came across Swiss outfit Samael very early on in their recording career through their early 90’s releases. Those records pushed a fairly raw, simplistic & primitive yet still quite dark & atmospheric brand of Celtic Frost-inspired black metal that took a similar approach to that explored by the Greek bands of the time like Rotting Christ & Varathron. 1991’s “Worship Him” & 1992’s “Blood Ritual” were both reasonably enjoyable releases however Samael wouldn’t really peak until their 1994 career highlight “Ceremony Of Opposites” album that saw them taking a step up in the black metal ranks & in doing so entitled them to a lot of repeat listens during the next year or so. 1996’s fourth full-length “Passage” would prove to be a very different prospect though as it would not only see Samael stepping away from their black metal roots but it would also see them creating a new sound that is still very hard to categorize today. We'd gained a taste of this new direction a year earlier with the band's stop-gap "Rebellion" E.P. seeing Samael dipping their toes in the water to see how people would react however "Passage" would see them cementing their new identity. It would be one that would stay with them for the remainder of their career too.
The shadow of RateYourMusic.com has always hung over the Metal Academy website. I mean I can’t deny that it was the inspiration for the initial concept for our site & it certainly stills holds a very dear place in my heart. But if recent months have shown us anything it’s that there are significant gaps in its audiences understanding of metal music with their genre-tagging arrangement proving to be consistently inaccurate & “Passage” is a prime example of this. On RYM we see “Passage” being tagged with both Industrial Metal & Symphonic Black Metal as primary subgenres however that’s simply not an accurate depiction of what you can expect to hear on this record. Sure, there are some industrial metal tracks included on "Passage" however there are more that don’t really show much of a trace of anything industrial. In truth there are just as many gothic metal tracks included but that subgenre doesn’t seem to get a mention despite some clear similarities with the likes of Moonspell & Tiamat at times. Plus, claiming “Passage” to be a black metal release is a big stretch. There are a few tracks that show glimpses of the symphonic black metal sound & Vorphalack’s vocals still maintain his extreme metal bite however this isn't enough for a primary vote & “Passage” would seem well out of place at the top of the release charts for The North in my opinion. The only consistent element here is the symphonic component which is clearly evident on every track & is a major driver for the album as a whole. For this reason I see the Symphonic Metal subgenre as being the logical home for “Passage” & it’s unfortunate that this doesn’t really align with our Metal Academy clan structure given that Symphonic Metal currently resides in The Guardians i.e. our traditional melodic heavy/power metal clan. Thems the breaks though I guess & I’d much rather have our releases tagged correctly than worry too much about whether someone might misguidedly select a Samael track for The Guardians playlist.
Given my statements on the correct gentrification for “Passage”, this brings us to the quality of the music & the impact Samael’s new sound had on my overall enjoyment. The production is excellent as it presents Samael’s trademark simplistic riff structures in a chunky & up-front fashion that accentuates their heaviness while the symphonics are positioned well in the mix & never overpower the guitars. It’s a really professional sounding package to tell you the truth & was a big fat feather in the band’s cap. The song-writing is also pretty strong although this is where personal taste comes into it. I’m not at all surprised to see someone like Andi jumping all over “Passage” as he’s more of a fan of symphonic metal & gothic metal than I’ll ever be & it’s important that you have a good grasp of those two elements if you’re to fully understand the charms of this record. I can’t say that I’m completely onboard with the symphonic component if I’m being honest & that’s been a sound that I’ve always battled with no matter what the basis of a band’s sound might be. It’s only been the absolute elite acts like Emperor that have managed to overcome that stigma to gain genuine classic status from me personally but for every one of those there are dozens of artists that I’ve cast aside along the way. Don’t get me wrong. Samael are a class act. There’s no question about that. It’s just that I can’t help but feel a level of disappointment that their musical direction on “Passage” doesn’t suit me quite as well as it did on its predecessor & for that reason “Passage” would see me getting off the Samael train & giving subsequent releases very little attention until I started putting together the monthly The Sphere playlist.
Despite the undoubted quality of the performances & execution on display here, there are a couple of failures included amongst the eleven tracks. I don’t have much interest in “Moonskin” or the straight-up gothic metal of “Shining Kingdom” which both sound pretty flat to me. The rest of this material offers me a pretty consistent level of appeal however the stylistic direction sees me unable to push for classic status on any of the individual tracks. The Slayer influenced opener “Rain” is probably the best of them along with the equally strong “Jupiterian Vibe” & “The Ones Who Came Before” but none of them manages to quite get me jumping out of my seat. Vorphalack’s blackened vocals are very well done but I don’t think there are any hooks that have me repeating them in my head for days afterwards. He shows his Swiss heritage pretty clearly as you can often hear elements of Tom G. Warrior (Hellhammer/Celtic Frost) & Ron Royce (Coroner) in his delivery, only with a bit more of a black metal edge.
Overall, I’d have to say that I have a lot of respect for “Passage” as an ambitious & original undertaking from a band that were looking to do something fresh & different. If that was their goal then they’ve certainly achieved it & the fact that I find it so difficult to pigeon-hole "Passage" into any clear subgenre is a testament to that. In saying that though, I can’t deny that it doesn’t fit in with my personal taste as well as “Ceremony Of Opposites” did & I don’t think I’ll ever regard it in the same terms as Ben or Andi do. That’s OK though. Those differences of opinion are a big part of the appeal of music & art in general, not to mention websites like this one.
For fans of The Kovenant, Godkiller & early …And Oceans.
Genres: Black Metal Industrial Metal
1997’s “Born Of The Cauldron” debut album from Atlanta-based US power metal outfit Cauldron Born is a very interesting inclusion in our September batch of feature releases as it doesn’t sit all that comfortably alongside its more traditional sounding heavy metal & power metals peers in The Guardians. In fact, it may well have been ostracized from the group & forced to sit & eat in the corner of the lunchroom in complete isolation. The main reason for this is its consciously technical approach that sees it fitting much more comfortably in our The Infinite clan. Fuck knows how it’s not already labelled as progressive metal because this record is about as progressive as you’ll find. I mean this fucker sounds like Yes got blind drunk & decided to become a US power metal band & I think it’s fair to say that the results are very mixed.
I really struggled with “Born Of The Cauldron” to be completely honest. With the exception of some of the ultra-underground & super-necro sounding extreme metal, my background as a musician sees me being quite picky when it comes to performance, execution & musicianship & these are clear weaknesses for Cauldron Born. Despite the fact that the song-writing & composition is extremely ambitious for a debut release, some of the band members aren’t even close to being up to the task at hand & it leaves a lot of this material sounding like a bit of a mess. The secret to writing captivating & impressive progressive metal is to present rhythmically & melodically technical instrumentation & vocal arrangements in a way that flows smoothly & still enables the song-writing to dig its hooks into the listener’s memory bank. In fact, your less technically inclined listener should almost not notice the technique on display & be able to enjoy the music for what it is i.e. actual music rather than a medium for showcasing someone’s talents. Unfortunately, Cauldron Born don’t seem to have any sort of understanding of this requirement & have subsequently presented us with some highly complex compositions that don’t flow & sound very jerky which leaves tracks like “The Sword's Lament” & “In Fate's Eye a King” sounding like a bit of a mess really. This may not have been such an obvious problem if drummer Bill Parsons could play in time however this is unfortunately not the case with his kick drum work being consistently behind the beat & guitarist Howie Bentley regularly struggling to keep in time with him. Howie has his own issues to be fair as he really wants to be a shredding guitar virtuoso but his chops aren’t even close to being able to pull off what he’s attempted here. Thankfully bassist Shawn Kascak is a bit of a star & manages to recover things slightly with his Chris Squire influenced bass lines constantly shifting through run after run of inventive melodic noodling.
Vocalist Danny White is your classic US power metal front man. His operatic style & clear higher register tone sound a lot like virtually every other vocalist from the movement but he has a much more challenging task in front of him than any of his contemporaries. Trying to layer a workable vocal hook over music this rhythmically complex was always going to be immensely challenging & he’s done a reasonable job of it, despite falling in a heap on several occasions due to the lack of fluency in the instrumental performances. And this really does highlight the problem with “Born of the Cauldron” because the best material is clearly aligned with the less complex tracks. Songs like “The Final Incantation / In the Dreaming City” & the doomy closer & album high point “Unholy Sanctuary” are a clear indicator of what could have been achieved if the instrumentalists had stayed within the confines of their technical limitations & focused on writing some strong riffs for Danny to work over. Sadly, there’s not enough of this & I found myself struggling to make much sense of “Born Of The Cauldron” for the most part. There’s no doubt that it’s a consistently interesting experience though & I was sitting on the fence between a 2.5/5 & a 3/5 rating for some time but at the end of the day I can’t deny that the moments when I can honestly say that I’m genuinely enjoying myself are too rare for me to go with the higher score.
For fans of Slauter Xstroyes, Deadly Blessing & mid-80’s Fates Warning.
Genres: Heavy Metal
I can still remember the circumstances around my earliest significant experience with Californian post-sludge metal masters Neurosis. My brutal death metal band Neuropath had been rehearsing for an upcoming gig in the mid-90's & a fan had dropped by to watch us play after having been impressed by what he saw at a recent show. He was a true diehard death metal fanatic & well & truly looked the part too. After we finished rehearsing, a few of us went back to his place for a few beers & at the end of that drinking session he traded our drummer a Neurosis “Enemy Of The Sun” t-shirt for his Gorefest one. I remember wondering why our drummer was willing to accept such a trade given that my understanding was that Neurosis weren’t even an extreme metal band (*insert gasps of horror here). It certainly tweaked my interest however many years would pass before I would truly give them the attention required to fully grasp the genius behind a band that has gone on to become one of my all-time greats over the last decade or so.
Listening to a Neurosis record can be a pretty imposing task, even for their most devoted fans. Their music isn’t pleasant on the ear. It’s dense, nihilistic & full of pessimism & you almost certainly won’t come out of the experience feeling better about the world than when you went in. However, the potential for music to take me to dark & foreign places is something that I find very attractive & “Enemy Of The Sun” certainly does that. It’s arguably one of Neurosis’ most inaccessible releases as it seems like the band had very few fucks to give at this point in their career. I mean they couldn’t have produced something with less commercial potential than this record. It’s almost devoid of melody, it’s instrumentation & arrangements are intentionally drawn out but are inherently chaotic & there’s even a 15+ minute tribal ambient piece tacking onto the end of the album which doesn’t offer much in the way of hooks or variation. Neurosis really couldn’t have repelled the try-hards more if their lives depended on it as the savagery & discomfort this album offers up is even a challenge for me & I regard myself as a diehard fan these days.
“Enemy Of The Sun” sees Neurosis expanding on the sound they’d developed with 1992’s classic “Souls At Zero” album which is my personal favourite of their entire back catalogue. As with that record, the band can be seen to be pushing out into a wide range of experimental & atmospheric directions but never lose their grip on a filthy brand of post-apocalyptic sludge metal. You can clearly hear the influence of industrial metal artists such as Godflesh & Ministry on the wonderful opening track “Lost” with its use of dark samples being a real highlight while there’s a trippy, almost psychedelic feel to the first half of the post-hardcore inspired “Cold Ascending”. There’s very little melody on offer most of the time. You’re far more likely to be engulfed by dark tribal atmosphere or dissonant noise with Neurosis’ hardcore pedigree still well & truly worn on their sleeves & it seems like the band have gone to great effort to avoid presenting the listener with anything remotely resembling a comfortable environment.
I’ve always been a hhhuuugggeee fan of the vocals on Neurosis records & “Enemy Of The Sun” is no exception although the mix perhaps doesn’t allow them quite as much power as we would get on subsequent releases. Don’t expect any sweet vocal hooks here. You don’t even get any of those more introspective & laid back folky sections that would pop up in later years. Here we see the multi-vocalist attack targeting your cranium with a sledgehammer for almost the entire duration of the album in a relentless barrage of hate & misanthropy which leaves the listener feeling noticeably drained at its completion. This mental & emotional exhaustion is definitely accentuated by the unusual inclusion of the lengthy “Cleanse” as the albums final destination. It’s intended to be hypnotic & it certainly succeeds at that however there’s possibly not quite enough substance to warrant such an extravagant run time. I’m a big fan of tribal ambient music however even I find it to be a little over-ambitious.
Ultimately, Neurosis’ biggest strength is also its biggest weakness when it comes to “Enemy Of The Sun”. There’s so much quality & maturity in these complex & downtrodden soundscapes however their perennial quest to pull the listener into their dark & intimidating world can backfire at times. The intentional chaos in the song-structures can sound a bit jerky at times with the transitions not flowing all that well while the consistent intensity of this music can leave the audience with very little to grab onto & can subsequently go over your head if you're not paying close attention. As with all of Neurosis’ back catalogue, “Enemy Of the Sun” definitely requires multiple listens to fully understand & even then it’ll continue to open up new doors with every revisit. I love it for what it stands for as much as what it achieves. It’s an uncompromising & downright depressive take on sludge metal & is completely beyond the capabilities of the rest of the metal scene. I admire Neurosis for celebrating their own monstrosity & delivering a record with such depth & ambition even if it doesn't sit amongst their finest work.
For fans of Isis, Cult Of Luna & Amenra.
Genres: Sludge Metal Post-Metal
English metal phenomenon Paradise Lost are one of those bands that I became aware of very early on in their recording career as their musical timeline closely matched up with own early extreme metal development. In truth though, I wasn’t exactly blown away by their 1990 debut album “Lost Paradise” as I was discovering so much amazing new metal music every week at the time. It wouldn’t be until the band’s sophomore album that I’d become convinced of their credentials as I found the atmosphere that 1991’s “Gothic” pervaded to be something very unique for the time. I’d subsequently follow up that positive experience by purchasing Paradise Lost’s third album “Shades Of God” on cassette the following year but would struggle a bit with the wishy washy production job. Regardless of this, my expectations for their “Icon” album were still pretty high when I picked up my CD copy around the time of release in 1993. It would represent the successful culmination of a transition that would see Paradise Lost finally moving away from their death metal roots & into a more accessible but no less effective gothic metal direction. It would also be one that would offer me even more appeal than their suitably titled “Gothic” album did too. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that “Icon” came as quite a shock on first listen though. Its vastly improved production job & crunchy guitar tone was a breath of fresh air however I wasn’t quite prepared for the James Hetfield style vocals & the stronger focus on song-writing. It would take me a week or two to adjust to the changes but over time I would grow to regard “Icon” as Paradise Lost’s most impressive release, even if I would stop short of placing it on the same lofty pedestal as Paradise Lost’s contemporaries My Dying Bride & Anathema’s best material. In truth I have always found Paradise Lost to sound a little simple in comparison but this brings us to 1995’s fifth album “Draconian Times” which is arguably Paradise Lost’s most celebrated release. I would pick up my cassette copy immediately upon release & would give it a few weeks of repeat listens to dig its teeth in, buoyed by my experiences with “Icon” which I’d found to be such a grower. The album cover immediately attracted me with its stunning use of colour giving me extra incentive to keep the album close at hand.
“Draconian Times” would see Paradise Lost returning with a new line-up for the first time following the departure of long-time drummer Matthew Archer. He would be replaced by Lee Morris from a relatively unknown Birmingham heavy metal band going by the name of Marshall Law & I’ve often wondered whether this had any impact on the result of the “Draconian Times” sessions given that this would be by far Paradise Lost’s most accessible release to the time. Although “Icon” was certainly a more palatable package for your average music fan, it still had an inherent darkness about it that I found particularly attractive. “Draconian Times” would see the band taking a similar approach but there’s little doubt that some of the material would offer an all-new level of accessibility that has a fair bit to do with the album’s generally obsessive fanfare. The band’s doom metal roots are still visible if you look hard enough however they’re presented with a stronger emphasis on melody & a distinct lack of riffs with the focus being pointed directly at the sort of catchy song-writing that the more traditional heavy metal genre had built its reputation on. The gothic component of the band’s sound isn’t as overt as on many gothic metal releases either although you can certainly hear the influence of artists like Sisters Of Mercy in the use of clean guitar melodies & deep male vocals. Perhaps the impact of those moments is just diluted a little by the rockier heavy metal influence that permeates some of the tracklisting.
There were parts of “Draconian Times” that had an immediate impact on me & repeat listens would see those track’s hooks digging their teeth in very deeply but there were certainly tracks that didn’t do much for me too. I tended to allow the strength of the highlights to guide my opinion though, seemingly ignoring my concerns around the rockier & more accessible inclusions in the hope that they’d eventually hit me in the same way as they seemed to everyone else. Front man Nick Holmes’ clean vocal style was initially a challenge for me on the “Icon” album but repeat listens would see me overcoming my initial hesitation & accepting his quest for new horizons. “Draconian Times” is a little different in this regard though & when I examine his performance closely in the modern day it’s pretty easy to see why. The darker direction of the “Icon” album would mask Nick’s failings a lot better than on some of the more commercially focused tracks on “Draconian Times” & this is one of the reasons that I struggle with those inclusions. “The Last Time”, “Yearn For Change” & particularly “Once Solemn” (which sounds like a pop punk stadium anthem to my ears) don’t do much for me at all & it was these songs that saw me reserving my adoration for quite some time before eventually committing to the album. Thankfully though, there are some seriously high-grade songs amongst the twelve on offer too though, only perhaps not the ones that most Paradise Lost fanboys will claim, mind you. And this is the crux of my “Draconian Times” quandary really. I absolutely adore some of the album but the fact that these moments are the ones that are generally regarded as the least impressive tracks by most fans is a sure sign that we’re looking for very different things. The A side is where the biggest ticket items can be found but I find the B side to be miles more impressive with “Elusive Cure”, “Jaded” & “Hands Of Reason” becoming huge anthems for me during the mid-90’s. There can be little doubt that these tracks are those that draw more heavily from Paradise Lost’s past which is a clear indication that I’m not quite onboard with the direction that the band (& the rest of the global metal scene) seemed to be travelling. Thankfully though, those stronger songs are so epic that I was able to allow them to cancel out the weaker ones & leave me with a positive overall impression.
Don’t get me wrong, “Draconian Times” is certainly a strong Paradise Lost album. Is it the pinnacle of their career though? Most underground metalheads will tell you that it’s not with “Icon” & “Gothic” tending to be the most common answers when I ask that question. “Draconian Times” is easily the most accessible of the band’s classic period albums though & it’s this easier listening quality that sees it being placed on a pedestal by the vastly increased fanbase it secured amongst an audience that was drawn into metal music via Metallica’s “Black Album” a few years earlier. There can be little doubt that I find it to be a bit of a mixed bag as far as overall quality goes & it’s hard to argue against it being a touch overrated however I can’t deny that it holds a strong position in the story of my youth as it contains a few epic masterpieces that will forever pull on my heart-strings & holds significantly more wins than it does losses.
For fans of Cemetery, Tiamat & late 90’s Katatonia.
Genres: Gothic Metal
I guess I fall into a unique category in that I’m one of the relatively few extreme metalheads that can actually stake a claim to having experienced Missouri-based death metal outfit Timeghoul’s early 90’s demo tapes in the format they were originally intended to be consumed & at a time when they were still relatively current. The tape trading scene saw me picking up literally hundreds of demo tapes like these which I’d progressively work my way through as I enthusiastically looked for the next big thing in extreme music. I can distinctly remember my first time listening to one of the two Timeghoul demos & it would be a mainstay in my Walkman for some time afterwards while the other tended to drift past without rewarding me with many longer-term memories.
The 2012 release of the very imaginatively titled “1992-1994 Discography” compilation saw Mississippi-based death metal label Dark Descent Records compiling the only two Timeghoul demo tapes (i.e. 1992’s “Tumultuous Travelings” & 1994’s “Panaramic Twilight”) into one six-track, 44 minute release that covers the entire recorded career of this much-heralded underground band & it showcases the development of the Timeghoul sound particularly well with the two releases possessing very different styles & production jobs. They also offer very different levels of appeal for me though it has to be said & the compilation served as a great reminder of why one of these tapes would have been so firmly etched in my memory bank while the other would have drifted away without having anywhere near the same sort of impact. Let’s take a look at the two individually.
“Tumultuous Travelings” is a four track affair that sports a much less appealing production job than its younger sibling but this can be easily forgiven as it was par for the course for first demos in the underground metal scene at the time. The track lengths are significantly shorter too, clocking in at an average length of around six minutes. You can easily hear that this was a transitional release as the band were clearly still finding their sound. Two of the four tracks are fairly traditional in nature & wouldn’t sound all that unusual to fans of the classic early 90’s US death metal sound while “The Siege” & “Infinity Coda” see Timeghoul experimenting with a more progressive sound & touching on similar territory to the likes of Atheist & Cynic at times. There are some doomier sections included here & there but these aren’t as frequent or as substantial as they would later become while the use of blast beats is also a little more prevalent. There’s a consistent quality to this material that sees me finding enjoyment in each of the four tracks however the weak production job unfortunately prevents it from having much replay value for me. The more progressive tracks are clearly the most interesting with the doomier “The Siege” being my pick of the bunch.
The highly regarded “Panaramic Twilight” demo sees Timeghoul returning as a much more ambitious & experimental artist than they’d first appeared & also donning a greatly improved production job. The expanded track durations provide an initial indication that the band had expanded on their earlier progressive leanings with the nineteen-minute run time made up of just the two lengthy tracks. Now we see Timeghoul fully incorporating the experimental sound they’d hinted at on “Tumultuous Travelings” & I’d actually go so far as to suggest that there’s an avant-garde edge to some of the more twisted sections. The use of clean vocals & atmospheric synthesizers adds an additional layer of interest while there’s a much stronger death/doom component with diSEMBOWELMENT & early My Dying Bride providing most of the influence. The song structures are still a little bit loose & I can’t help but feel a little disappointed that we never got the chance to see what Timeghoul might have done with a big name producer & a professional studio production job but there was certainly enough truly original extreme metal on offer to see me repeatedly devouring this demo for a couple of months afterwards. In fact, listening back to it now I’ve found myself unable to shake the feeling that I’m listening to an underground classic of sorts with the epic career highlight “Occurrence On Mimas” being a true underground gem.
When taken holistically, “1992-1994 Discography” really is a tale of two cities. It’s consistently enjoyable however the real meat of the release lies in the “Panaramic Twilight” demo with “Tumultuous Travelings” representing nothing more than an interesting precursor intended to showcase the huge potential that Timeghoul possessed even in their earliest configurations. Thankfully “Panaramic Twilight” presents the listener with an emphatic enough statement to make the whole compilation worthy of every death metal fans attention.
For fans of Blood Incantation, Demilich & Nucleus.
Genres: Death Metal
This might sound really strange but even though I’ve been familiar with Seattle’s Nevermore since the very beginning of their career & have generally regarded them as a class act, I’d never actually checked out their most celebrated release in 2000’s “Dead Heart In A Dead World” until now. In fact, it might just be the ONLY Nevermore album that I hadn’t checked out which is nothing short of mind-boggling. Don’t ask me why though because I have no idea. I guess circumstances have just conspired against me but better late than never. I didn’t get around to their amazing third album “Dreaming Neon Black” until a decade after it was released either but it totally blew me away & I still regard it as a genuine classic to this day so the idea of an even more highly praise-worthy follow-up was something that left me genuinely excited.
From the outset, there are a couple of things worth noting about 2000’s “Dead Heart In A Dead World”. Firstly, 1996’s “The Politics Of Ecstasy” & 1999’s “Dreaming Neon Black” were both dual guitar efforts however their fourth album would be the first Nevermore record since their self-titled debut where lead guitarist Jeff Loomis has been the sole axeman & this sees the band having never sounded more tight & focused. Jeff’s lead work is simply outstanding & is the clear highlight of the album with a lot of attention to detail having been shown in his note selection, tone, phrasing & the presentation of his lead work within the context of the production. It’s really paid off too although I struggle to see how this material would have been reproduced in a live environment without the assistance of a second guitarist. Perhaps they recruited one for the purpose. I’m not too sure.
The second thing worth mentioning is that “Dead Heart In A Dead World” would be the first Nevermore record to make use of seven-string guitars & this is important because not only has it changed the tone of the album but it’s also had a noticeable impact on the stylistic direction too. Don’t get me wrong. This is still pretty obviously a Nevermore release but the style of the riffs has moved away from the thrashier approach that was taken on previous works & has morphed into a heavily down-tuned & crushingly heavy groove metal monster that sounds a lot more like Pantera & Machine Head than it does Metallica or Slayer. It would seem pretty obvious to me that this is the result of Loomis having experimented with his new instrument & finding that a chuggier & more rhythmic bottom-string approach works a treat when trying to harness the additional lower register he now had available to him. Throw in a seriously tight & brilliantly executed rhythm section & present it with a vibrant & super-precise Andy Sneap production job & you’ve got a particularly potent metal arsenal on your hands. The only question is whether that particular sound appeals to you as much as Nevermore’s previous work. I think the answer to that is no for me personally. “Dead Heart In A Dead World” is certainly a high quality release in its own right & the tracklisting is not only extremely consistent but is also studded with genuine highlights. It’s just that those highlights rarely take me to the same stratospheric levels as the ones on its predecessor & I’d suggest that this is primarily a taste thing. Front man Warrel Dane does a great job at riding the wave of energy that the band were summoning but he can occasionally be over-shadowed by the ridiculous quality of the instrumentation going on around him. Drummer Van Williams has had an absolute blinder here & I particularly love his ride cymbal work. He really is a human metronome & Sneap has got the drum sound absolutely spot on for this type of music. In fact, the bass & drums are so tightly entwined & in sync that it’s hard to think of them as different instruments.
The end result of all of this is hard to categorize to be honest as it doesn’t seem to fit comfortably into any of the usual boxes. The common consensus seems to be that it sits somewhere between progressive metal & classic heavy metal though but I’d like to dispute that. If you put this album on next to Iron Maiden, Dio or Judas Priest then you’ll very quickly realise that they don’t have all that much in common. This music is much chunkier & heavier than 99% of the more conventional heavy metal bands you’ll find & the down-tuned tone & rhythmic approach to the riff structures sees it sitting much more comfortably under the groove metal tag. Is it progressive? Weeellll… not in the traditional sense of the term as it’s not particularly technical or spacey however I can’t deny that the clinical approach to the execution & the super-crisp production job give it a noticeably progressive feel & that’s enough for me to make a call on a progressive groove metal tag for this record. It reminds me of some of Devin Townsend’s records in many ways as I’ve often felt that his releases don’t sound particularly progressive but I fail to find any more suitable terms to describe them.
If you love impeccably produced & executed metal music then you’ll no doubt really enjoy “Dead Heart In A Dead World”. It’s a classy release from an extremely talented group of musicians who know exactly what they’re doing & go about flexing their creative muscles with an effortless charm. There are no weak tracks included but I can’t deny that there are a couple that don’t interest me as much as others (see “We Disintegrate” & “The Heart Collector”) which sees me stopping just short of reaching for my higher scores. The cover version of “The Sound Of Silence” was a real surprise though. I immediately assumed that I’d hate it given my general aversion for the original & similarly bad experiences with other attempts to tackle it however Nevermore's version takes an enormous amount of creative license in presenting itself as one of the heaviest inclusions on the tracklisting which results in it sitting just behind album highlight “Inside Four Walls” for my favourite track on a very strong & professionally put together release.
For fans of Communic, “Shadow Work”-period Warrel Dane & “The Year The Sun Died”-era Sanctuary.
Genres: Heavy Metal Progressive Metal
To be honest this is the first time that I've been tempted to listen to a full Danzig record. I've obviously been aware of their existence since way back in the day as I was hearing "Mother", "Twist Of Cain" & "Long Way Back From Hell" all over metal radio programs but their style didn't really match up with my taste profile at the time so I've ignored them until now. In the interest of completism though, I thought it was about time that I corrected that glaring gap in my metal knowledge.
Now, let's get one thing straight right from the get-go, "Danzig II - Lucifuge" isn't a metal record & I'll be submitting a Hall entry later on today to indicate this. It's far more accurate to describe this a hard rock release. There are certainly metal influences being drawn upon in a few songs (see the early Judas Priest influence in songs like "Snakes Of Christ" & "Tired Of Being Alive" for example) but closer "Pain In The World" is the only track that I consider to be a legitimate metal track. In saying that though, there's definitely a doomy aesthetic to a lot of the material which is why this record is so often linked to our beloved metal genre. My best description of "Danzig II - Lucifuge" is to say that it builds its sound off the hard rock crunch of Bon Scott-period AC/DC & "Wheels Of Steel"-era Saxon, adds a taste of classic Led Zeppelin, layers the atmosphere of Black Sabbath's debut & Judas Priest's "Sad Wings Of Destiny" over the top & then scatters hints of late 60's blues rock & The Doors sporadically across the tracklisting. Glenn Danzig's Elvis Presely meets Jim Morrison vocal style is certainly unique but I'd imagine can be quite polarizing. I don't have any particular issue with his contribution here but find the instrumentation to be much more appealing which is a strong indication that the album would have offered me a little more enjoyment with a more traditional singer. I love Glenn's more subdued Morrison-esque moments (see the start of "Devil's Playground" for example) but struggle to connect with the more obviously Elvis-inspired stuff.
Look, "Danzig II - Lucifuge" is a pretty strong record overall to tell you the truth but I will say that I think the straight up blues & blues rock tracks let it down a touch. I don't really get much out "Killer Wolf (which sounds like AC/DC playing one of their early blues tracks) or the stripped back Stevie Ray Vaughan style of "I'm The One" & greatly prefer the heavier material (big surprise, I know). The warm 70's-focused production does a lot to enhance the authenticity of the music & I really enjoy it. I just don't think a Glenn Danzig fronted band is gonna be able to get me reaching for the higher scores. It's really that simple although it is worth noting that Danzig save their best for last with the ultra-deep traditional doom metal sound of "Pain In The World" thoroughly floating my boat. That monster sounds very much like an early Black Sabbath's take on Led Zeppelin's "Dazed & Confused" which can't be a bad thing now, can it?
For fans of AC/DC, Led Zeppelin & early Black Sabbath.
Genres: Heavy Metal
I think it’s fair to say that my relationship with Dutch outfit the Gathering got off to a particularly rocky start. I was tape trading with a couple of metalheads that lived in the Blue Mountains region of NSW (i.e. a couple of hours drive from where I live) in the early 1990's & both were obsessed with the new doom/death hybrid that had taken shape over the previous couple of years so I was picking up almost every global release of any note from that particular subgenre. On this occasion I’d been sent a cassette with The Gathering’s debut album “Always…” on one side & the self-titled debut E.P. from Germany’s Pyogenesis on the other. My interest in the death doom metal sound had already been well entrenched through bands like Paradise Lost & Winter however I struggled with “Always…” & decided fairly quickly that The Gathering weren’t for me. The news that they had gone for more of a gothic metal sound for their sophomore album only provided me with additional encouragement to keep my distance so I watched casually from afar as 1993’s “Almost A Dance” album crashed & burned with the underground diehards. However, the following year would see a new & exciting front woman heralding a new dawn for the band & 1995’s third album “Mandylion” would quickly become an underground classic. I was certainly aware of it at the time however I couldn’t quite muster the courage to entertain the idea of experimenting with a gothic metal release amidst the height of my extreme metal indulgence so I didn't get to it till many years later.
Now this takes us into the latter half of the 1990’s, a period with which I’ve been very open about my personal struggles & a time when I temporarily became disillusioned with the metal scene in general. By 1998 I’d decided to take my leave of metal altogether while I experimented with not only new styles of music but also with a new lifestyle. It would be a process of rebuilding for me & it was during this time that my brother Ben brought The Gathering’s 1997 fourth album “Nighttime Birds” to my attention. I was mostly listening to progressive rock, jazz fusion & trip hop at the time but there was something about The Gathering’s new sound that really hit a tender spot within me & began to mend the heart strings that I’d had so brutally torn & twisted by my broken de facto relationship. It would subsequently go on to become one of a few key records that helped to get me through those years &, as a result, holds a very dear place in my heart to this day. In saying that though, it’s been many years since I’ve mustered the courage to want to return to it & ever since we revisited “Mandylion” as a recent feature release I’ve been wondering just how well it would hold up without the emotional baggage that I was carrying with me back in the day.
Despite what many critics & fans will tell you, “Mandylion” wasn’t a perfect record. If you look at it closely you’ll find that it had its flaws. I went back to find out what all the hype was about in the late 2000’s & found myself being a little underwhelmed, despite recognizing it to be a very solid release & the point at which The Gathering would begin to define a relevant & artistically challenging sound. It wasn’t an immediate record for me as the most appealing material was so clearly held in the last few tracks so it took me getting used to the overall tracklisting before I could find some of the adoration that others seemed to feel for it. But in saying that, it was generally the first half of the album that was held up on a pedestal & I still fail to achieve those feelings. It was the deeper & more complex tracks that close the album that saw the band getting me close to pulling out my higher scores & “Nighttime Birds” takes this idea a little further again which offers me a greater level of appeal.
From the first seconds of opening track “On Most Surfaces (Inuit)” it becomes immediately apparent that The Gathering had satisfied some of my minor qualms with “Mandylion”. The production job & performances are vastly superior to its older sibling & there’s a more consistent level of complexity to all of the material. “Mandylion” was unquestionably a darker & heavier record than “Nighttime Birds” however the band’s new sound possessed a sophistication & class that represented a clear step up on its predecessor. The more generic & chuggy metal riffs have been replaced by more melodically expansive & atmospheric passages of musical exploration that have a dreamier quality to them that reminds me of The 3rd & the Mortal’s finest works. In fact, The Gathering’s transition in style reminds me a lot of that band’s musical journey over their first few releases in that they traded in some of their metal street credibility for a more ambitious approach which offered greater substance & depth. The simple Paradise Lost influenced guitar melodies are still intact but the execution is significantly better & the backing instrumentation is more fully realized which only increases their impact.
It’s interesting that the gothic component of the Gathering’s supposed gothic metal sound isn’t all that strong on this occasion. You can easily hear the influence of early 80’s goth rock bands like The Cure but there’s a lot more going on than that which makes The Gathering’s sound hard to categorize. They certainly don’t go overboard with the gothic theatrics like some of their competition do & that’s got a lot to do with their appeal for me personally. They have a progressive element to their sound that brings to mind Anathema’s later material even if they don’t sound all that much alike in my opinion. The fact that it’s not easy to categorize The Gathering into any clear subgenre is a feather in their cap actually as it’s a clear sign that they’ve achieved their own sound.
And this brings me to one of the most important elements in the appeal of a record like “Nighttime Birds” i.e. the stunning vocals of front woman Anneke van Giersbergen. Her performance carried the weaker moments on “Mandylion” & was the clear highlight of the record however on “Nighttime Birds” we see her reaching a whole new level with the material seemingly having been written to highlight her skill sets. The melodies & harmonies she achieves here are amongst the best I’ve heard in all of metal & the angelic hooks are greater in both number & impact. In fact, this record is the primary reason why I regard Anneke as the greatest female metal singer of all time & I can’t overstate the quality of her contribution here. The dreamier instrumentation is the perfect foil for her unique & powerful voice & the startling improvement in the technical proficiency of the musicians has enabled her to free herself of any shackles she may have maintained previously so that she can soar like a bird.
Unlike “Mandylion”, “Nighttime Birds” kicks off with one of the best couple of tracks on the tracklisting & the highlights come more regularly & consistently from there. The closing two pieces in the title track & “Shrink” are more devastating than the two wonderful closers on “Mandylion” with hooks that simply refuse to leave my brain & firmly command that I return to the album over & over again. There are no weak tracks included either. The more commercially focused & rocky “Third Chance” is certainly the least impressive of the bunch but even then Anneke manages to give it the oomph to overcome its more accessible direction. Plus, the middle of the album sports another couple of gems in “The Earth Is My Witness” & “New Moon, Different Day” which would be worthy of album high point status on most other albums.
Look, I don’t doubt that there’s an element of emotional & nostalgic attachment to “Nighttime Birds” that gives it an advantage over most of its competition but I can’t think of a gothic metal record that’s had as big an impact on me so I’m gonna go out on a limb & say that this is now my favourite release from that particular genre. I regard it as a genuine classic that has the unique potential to crossover into more commercial circles without losing any of credibility in the process. The fact that “Mandylion” will likely always be regarded as The Gathering’s finest hour is hard to understand for me personally as this album is so clearly superior in every way in my opinion.
For fans of Tiamat, The 3rd & the Mortal & Theatre Of Tragedy.
Genres: Gothic Metal