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
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
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
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
This relatively underground late 80's release offers some very raw Colombian black metal that draws influence from Parabellum, early Bathory & "In The Sign Of Evil" era Sodom. I seem to recall receiving this & fellow Colombians Parabellum's "Sacrilegio" E.P. on the same side of a cassette from a Peruvian tape trader way back in the day. Neither release did much for me if I'm honest but if pushed I'd suggest that I have a slight preference for the insanity-ridden Parabellum sound. Interestingly, Blasfemia share some band members with Parabellum & if you like "Sacrilegio" then you'll probably dig "Guerra total" as well.
Two of the four songs presented on "Guerra total" are really pretty good & those inevitably line up with the moments when the band can keep their shit together (see " Presagio" & "Más allá de la ignorancia"). The other two songs show promise but end up falling in a bit of a heap due to the band's technical & compositional limitations. The band can't play for shit obviously but that's par for the course with early South American extreme metal. I really love the Quorthon style vocals on three of the four tracks. They're evil as fuck & suit the primitive nature of the instrumentation beautifully. The other track "Postmortem" has more of a blackened thrash sound than the rest of the material which is pure black metal.
It's so easy to hear where a band like Mayhem may have pulled the pieces of their genre-defining second wave black metal sound from when you hear a release like this as all the ingredients are already there, only they're presented in a much cruder format. The hardcore influenced sections are invariably the most relevant & over the years I've built a strong opinion that hardcore punk was the critical element in the creation of the modern black metal sound. I don't think the South Americans get enough credit for the role they played in that regard to be honest but that doesn't immediately mean that I have to like their music.
Genres: Black Metal Thrash Metal
I quite enjoyed former S.O.D. front man Billy Milano's 1987 comeback album "U.S.A. For M.O.D.". It may have lacked the overall impact of S.O.D.'s legendary "Speak English Or Die" album but M.O.D. certainly offered enough quality New York crossover thrash to keep me interested at that point. The same unfortunately can't be said for Billy's follow-up release from the following year with the novelty E.P. "Surfin' M.O.D." not only showcasing an entirely new lineup but also being a complete piss-take which is not really what I look for in my metal.
"Surfin' M.O.D." is based around a surfing concept with the A-side taking the form of a single 23 minute piece referred to as "The Movie". This epic work compiles a collection of six genuine songs (three of them disappointing cover versions of 60's & 70's pop songs) interspersed with humorous samples from the surfing movie "Back To the Beach". The B-side simply isolates the six songs & adds an additional cover version so it's hardly worth listening to other than for the added cover version of Scream's "New Song" which is one of the best things about the release to be honest.
In fairness, the samples are legitimately quite funny & I do find myself with a smile on my face a lot of the time however it has to be said that most of the cover versions are nothing more than novelties & offer very little replay value. The clear highlight is the original piece "Surf's Up" which has a truck load of infectious punk rock energy about it & sees me singing along to the gang vocals in no time at all. The production is generally very good which makes the E.P. a lot easier on the ear than it could have been & the band seem to having an absolute ball throughout which certainly helps too. The last couple of cover versions are fairly dire though & this sees the "The Movie" petering out when it could have gone out on a high with the inclusion of the previously mentioned "New Song". Strangely though, I can't seem to draw a terrible score out of this release. It's got just enough quirky fun about it to border on the endearing & to avoid suffering any major humiliations here.
For fans of S.O.D., Carnivore & Scatterbrain.
Genres: Thrash Metal
This one-off album from Sydney thrash metallers Massive Appendage may well be the earliest proper release to come from the Australian extreme metal scene & when I first got into thrash in the late 1980's the band had earnt quite a local reputation, despite the fact that they'd been split up for at least a year by that stage. Nonetheless, I became pretty familiar with my dubbed cassette copy of "The Severed Erection" & had particular attraction to the work of lead guitarist Jed Starr who possessed some pretty significant chops for the time with some blazing guitar solos & three or four very effective acoustic guitar sections.
One look at the cover artwork, track titles & lyrics will leave you with very little doubt that Massive Appendage didn't take themselves too seriously & I'm not usually one for humour in my metal but I was only very young at the time & didn't know anything about sex so it all seemed pretty exciting. The production job is unfortunately awful & it's this element more than any other that held Massive Appendage back from the sort of success that could have been achieved with a capably performed thrash metal record at the absolute peak of the genre. Thankfully there's enough quality in the song-writing to cope with it & I still find myself getting quite a bit of enjoyment out of the album, even if there are a few duds here & there. Front man Big Bird's vocals sit somewhere in between Suicidal Tendencies main man Mike Muir & Wolfmother's Andrew Stockdale. He's not amazing from a technical perspective but the hooks are really fun & the energy of the band's delivery keeps me engaged the majority of the time. I can take or leave the silly lyrics these days but it's hard to deny the attraction that a chorus like the one from the band's self-titled song had for a young & impressionable teenage me ("Massive cocks gliding through the atmosphere. Oh my God... They'll shoot a load in your ear.")
Massive Appendage's sound could be described as being similar to the more melodic US thrash metal acts of the time like Testament, Metallica & Overkill with a fair chunk of classic heavy metal influence (Sabbath/Maiden/Priest) & a few punky moments here & there. To their credit though, Massive Appendage really didn't sound a lot like any one band & this gives them an edge over other obscure & mostly forgotten underground acts. It's not just nostalgia that drew me back for a revisit. There's something about these silly songs that I kinda dig & if you can look past the dodgy production then you may just find some enjoyment here too.
P.S. Members of Massive Appendage would go on to form another couple of legendary Sydney metal establishments in the Fester Fanatics & Killing Time. Stories for another time.
Genres: Thrash Metal
I first had my attention drawn to long-time New Jersey death metal stalwarts Incantation way back in 1992 when I was still a teenager & at the height of my obsession with the genre. Their debut album “Onward To Golgotha” made a significant impression on me & received lots of play time over the next year or so although it never quite reached classic status for me personally. It’s dank & deathly atmosphere was the very definition of what death metal aspired to be though & ever since I’ve come to regard Incantation’s discography as some of the purest death metal you’ll find. I mean if you only have a passing interest in death metal then you may find a band like Incantation to be a bit of a challenge as they favour atmosphere & darkness over precise execution & memorable hooks. In fact, that approach was both “Onward To Golgotha”s strength & weakness if you know what I mean. I find that I’m always enjoying myself but the individual songs lacked the variety & definition to allow them to rise to the top tier of the death metal elite. I found just as much appeal in Incantation’s even murkier & sludgier follow-up “Mortal Throne Of Nazarene” & even invested in the alternative mix of the album known as “Upon The Throne Of Apocalypse”, both of which I found to really float my boat without ever threatening to tip me over the edge into genuine classic territory. So by that stage Incantation was still firmly entrenched as a high quality & consistent second tier death metal act; the sort of band I’d always check out but would rarely find myself gushing over for years to come. 1998’s third proper studio album “Diabolical Conquest” would see the band finally starting to meet their enormous potential though. Not by doing anything noticeably different to before (which is interesting in itself given that they only had one band member remaining from their debut by that stage), but through some intelligent fine-tuning & the sharpening of some already fairly deadly instruments.
Upon first listen it’s easy to discard “Diabolical Conquest” as just another Incantation record. I mean it’s nothing you haven’t heard before, right? The intentionally sludgy & mossy production, the gorgeously muddy guitar tone, the monstrous bass tone, the loose-ish performances that ooze of underground credibility, the ultra-deep & repetitive vocals (courtesy of The Chasm bassist Daniel Corchado in his only appearance with Incantation)... This is Incantation doing what they do best & being completely unapologetic for it but repeat listens will see the full weight of this album’s arsenal slowly becoming apparent. The band have taken the opposing extremes of their sound & pushed them further to give themselves a greater dynamic range while also returning with their biggest & best production to date which offers greater clarity without ever losing its filthy grip on the underground. I’d suggest that this is a more brutal record than Incantation’s earlier releases with a little more emphasis being placed on blast beats. There’s no time for guitar solos here. Incantation intend to bludgeon you into submission & I’ll be fucked if they don’t succeed. But then they also accentuate & take full advantage of the slow, dirge-like doom/death sections that highlighted “Mortal Throne Of Nazarene”, leaving the listener to wade through the mire whilst being almost overcome by the sheer dread of what lurks beneath. Personally, I’ve always felt that Incantation were at their best when they dropped the tempo as I feel their sound is better suited to the greater definition the additional space allows for so this element of the record was most welcome.
The tracklisting is extremely consistent with no single track coming close to being subpar or even dropping the quality level below the “high” marker for more than a few moments. “Diabolical Conquest” is very much the embodiment of a band that knows their craft well. If I’m being overly picky I could suggest that (very much like the band’s first couple of albums) there’s not all that much to differentiate five or six of the shorter tracks which tend to take a very similar approach, particularly the more blasting numbers. But if I’m honest, this album falls into unique company in that its acclaim is mainly drawn from its more substantial inclusions & rightfully so too. The clear highlight is the closing sixteen minute epic known as “Unto Infinite Twilight/Majesty Of Infernal Damnation” which sees Incantation fully embracing their doom/death side & producing one of the great works of the subgenre in the process. It possesses a very different feel to the rest of the album & leaves the listener wanting much much more. In fact, it may well be the crowning achievement of Incantation’s career to date &, given that its lengthy run time takes up a third of the album’s total duration, its impact on my overall impression of this release cannot be understated. The other genuine classic amongst the eight tracks is “Desecration (Of The Heavenly Graceful)” which once again sees the band working with more moderate tempos & accentuating their best elements. This is premium, peak-time death metal that will have your purists frothing at the mouth.
“Diabolical Conquest” may not offer a lot in the way of experimentation or originality but it never claimed to. It always wanted to be a death metal record & it subsequently achieves it in emphatic fashion by presenting one of the truest amalgamations of the death metal aesthetic you’ll find. I mean I literally find myself envisaging corpses climbing out of their tombs in the graveyard at midnight when I listen to this record & isn’t that what good old-school death metal is all about? Sure its fanfare is heavily reliant on its highlights but you could just as easily say that it’s the strength of the filler material that enables someone like me to score it so highly. I don’t think it’s worth over-thinking things when it comes to a band like Incantation though. They clearly do what they do for the love of it & there is rarely a fuck given about what’s trending right now or for what anyone else thinks. At my core I’m a death metal obsessive over any other subgenre & this album makes no attempt to hide the fact that it’s a death metal record for lovers of death metal. Is this Incantations’ crowning achievement? Quite possibly. I’ve swapped & changed my opinion on that a few times over the years but I’m gonna go with it for the time being given that I recently revisited “Onward To Golgotha” & couldn’t get above a very solid 4/5 rating. Perhaps it’s only taken me this long to come to my senses due to the fact that, unlike Incantation’s earlier releases, I didn’t get onboard the “Diabolical Conquest” train until a good eleven years after its release due to my wandering musical eye having taken me further afield by that point in time. Regardless, this is peak time, premium level death metal of the highest order, complete with a timeless authenticity & a deathly atmosphere. There will always be an audience for this sort of thing & it isn’t limited to one particular age group. Those with an ear for the underground will forever rejoice in such an uncompromising & punishing display of blasphemy.
For fans of Immolation, Disma & Autopsy.
Genres: Death Metal
My experience with long-standing German power metal heavy-weights Gamma Ray has been limited over the years. I make no secret about the fact that I usually struggle with the European brand of power metal & my only previous attempt at initiating a relationship with Gamma Ray (through their most highly celebrated 1995 album “Land Of The Free”) had seen me failing to breach their melodic shell. The decades that have followed have seen me giving several of the other senior power metal players a chance to convert me but success has been rare so my enthusiasm when going into Gamma Ray’s re-recorded compilation double album “Blast From The Past” was very much kept in check by a healthy layer of scepticism.
When I originally selected “Blast From The Past” as the December 2020 feature release for our The Guardians clan I really had no idea of what I was getting myself into. I hadn’t done enough research to understand the sheer girth of this release (which clocks in at a massive 121 minutes in duration) &, for someone that finds power metal to be a significant challenge at the best of times, this would see my newly instated commitment to reviewing all nine of our monthly feature releases standing like an insurmountable wall in front of me with no option available to me other than to start climbing & hope for the best. A brief preliminary Google search would see me coming to the realisation that “Blast From The Past” was essentially a collection of a few tracks from each of Gamma Ray’s six studio albums to the time with the material from the first three records having been re-recorded with guitarist/vocalist Kai Hansen behind the microphone following the departure of former front man Ralf Scheepers in 1994. The later Hansen-fronted material has apparently been remastered.
My initial impressions of “Blast From The Past” were as predictable as they were inevitable with the first three tracks very much confirming that my initial scepticism was justified. All of the characteristics that marred my previous experience with most European power metal are plainly evident during the start of the album with a heavy emphasis being placed on cheesy melody, particularly during the intro track “Welcome” & the extremely poppy “Heaven Can Wait”. But things take a drastic turn for the better from track four when I was pleasantly surprised by a more ambitious & progressive fifteen minute epic that utilizes a more traditional heavy metal sound. This kicked off a string of eight tracks in a row that I find to be very enjoyable indeed, including a couple of genuine classics in “Changes” & “Dream Healer”. This was very surprising on first listen but it quickly became apparent as to why I found this material to be so damn appealing. There’s a greatly reduced reliance on the Helloween/Blind Guardian model of speed metal-infused & overly-melodic power metal in favour of a more palatable heavy metal approach that draws significant influence from classic Judas Priest. In fact, the Priest worship is so obvious that it actually borders on plagiarism at times however the pristine execution & my general feeling of comfort & nostalgia in that sound see me really digging most of this material & I have to wonder whether the albums these tracks are taken from might be something that I should explore further. Kai’s vocal delivery left me in a state of shock too because I found his performances on the first two Helloween releases to be considerably below par but here he delivers a drastically different & remarkably improved display which often leaves me questioning whether I’m really listening to Judas Priest front man Rob Halford in his prime. I honestly can’t believe it’s the same dude to tell you the truth. He must have sold his soul to the devil since his time in Helloween. Unfortunately the back end of the album sees Gamma Ray placing additional pressure on the accelerator again which sees them pulling away from my comfort zone quite often but it’s not all doom & gloom with three or four enjoyable numbers scattered across the B-side in between the less appealing songs like “The Silence” & “Valley of The Kings”.
The production job of Hansen & fellow axe-slinger Dirk Schlachter is outstanding with all of these songs possessing a crisp clarity & each instrument achieving good separation in the mix. In fact, some may argue that the production is TOO clean but I don’t buy into that way of thinking. Good power metal is generally benefitted by a glossy, modern production job & that’s certainly the case here as it helps to highlight some brilliant instrumental performances, particularly that of the twin guitar attack who shred like their lives depend on it. In classic European fashion, most tracks do include those cheesy & simplistic guitar harmonies at some stage but the rest of the lead work is a real strength. As is the metal-as-fuck rhythm guitar tone & the plethora of outstanding classic metal riffs, not to mention the pounding, machine-gun double-kick of drummer Dan Zimmermann. These guys really know their craft & when you combine that prowess with a sublime higher register vocal performance from Hansen you get a release that offers enormous appeal for fans of the subgenre.
Look…. I still can’t say that German power metal is ever going to be my bag with any sort of consistency & there were certainly a fair few negatives for me to overcome here (see the schlocky keyboards on the cheesier tracks) but there’s also more than enough material that falls inside of my personal taste palate to keep me interested. The more Gamma Ray lift the velocity, the more my interest seems to drift as those cheesy harmonies seem to become more pronounced during the speed metal focused stuff but the more moderately paced inclusions are usually very entertaining & I even find it hard not to like a few of the cheesier examples. I guess I’ve always been a sucker for a high quality metal production combined with excellent instrumental performances & a talented vocal delivery & “Blast From The Past” delivers these elements in spades. Its highlights see me overcoming my fears & giving in to the cheese gods for a release that is definitely one of the stronger examples of its type. My mid-range scoring is only reflective of my musical preferences.
For fans of Helloween, Blind Guardian & Judas Priest.
Genres: Power Metal
In many ways I was spared the discomfort of having to experience the nu metal revolution in the second half of the 1990’s & early 2000’s. I wasn’t even aware of it during the height of my mid-90’s extreme metal obsession as I was stuck in a bubble of brutality that didn’t allow me to see much of the outside world & by the end of the decade I’d eschewed metal as a whole in favour of exciting new horizons within the realms of electronic music. It wasn’t until I returned to metal in 2009 that I even became aware of Deftones & even then I was hesitant given my limited experience with nu metal on the radio & Deftones’ obviously misguided choice of band names. But given the consistently positive critical opinion on many of Deftones releases I finally decided to give them a crack around 2010 & was very pleasantly surprised by what I found. “Diamond Eyes” wasn’t half bad & it encouraged me to progressively investigate the band’s back catalogue, an exercise that saw me quickly reaching the realization that Deftones links to nu metal were really only realistic when referring to their heavily overrated 1995 debut album “Adrenaline”. The rest of their discography offered me a much more sophisticated take on alternative metal that I found plenty of appeal in, particularly the enigmatic classic that is 2000’s “White Pony” which I regard as a shining beacon of creativity & one of the most essential releases from the subgenre overall. Some of Deftones’ other albums were presented in very similar formats in that you would find them to sound quite familiar upon first listen however the class of the execution & the strength of their hooks would generally shine through & you’d ultimately end up feeling that each album possessed its own unique personality, despite sounding definitively like Deftones. Strangely, I haven’t kept track of the band’s last couple of albums as I seem to have retreated into another bubble over the last decade (let’s just call it Metal Academy, shall we?) so I was pretty keen to see what sort of trouble Chino & the boys had gotten themselves into since we last locked horns.
Upon my first listen to Deftones’ ninth album “Ohms” one thing became immediately evident. The return of producer Terry Date for his first collaboration with the band since 2003’s self-titled album was a master stroke. On a purely sonic level, “Ohms” has a vibrancy & vitality that artists outside of the top tier rarely achieve. Stephen Carpenter’s 7, 8 & 9 string guitars possess a crushing weight that wouldn’t seem out of place on a doom metal or djent release while the strummier open string parts ooze of energy & electricity. Carpenter & front man Chino Moreno have been fighting for the creative upper hand for their entire careers with Carpenter wanting to stay heavier & Moreno wanting to experiment with lighter textures however Carpenter seems to have won the battle on this occasion because “Ohms” is a very heavy record. The atmospheric & textural extravagances of “White Pony” are still clearly visible only they’re used more sparingly & by the end of the record you’re left with no doubts as to the metal credentials of Deftones’ latest outing. The shoegaze & dream pop influences of the past are not as relevant here, mainly because Date has given Moreno’s vocals a dirtier & more abrasive tone across a lot of this material & it suits the modern Deftones sound beautifully. Traditionally I’ve always found Chino’s style to remind me very much of Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan & My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields. He’s definitely maintained the similarities to Corgan but I’m not feeling the My Bloody Valentine vibe as strongly these days. Do we really want to imagine this 47 year-old man looking down at his feet with his fringe hanging over his face while he weeps into his microphone in 2020 though with rock music having suffered such injustice over the last couple of decades? On the evidence of my last live Deftones experience I’d suggest that Chino’s voice is probably not up to a consistently cleaner approach these days anyway.
Does “Ohms” fall into the trap of sounding like every other Deftones record? Well, yeah it definitely DOES sound exactly like Deftones doing what they do best & you’re not likely to mistake them for anyone else but if you look at it closely you’ll find that “Ohms” provides a really good summary of their career to date (with the possible exception of their ordinary debut). It takes inspiration from the best elements of the band’s previous works & presents itself as the sum of an impressively long career by showcasing everything that Deftones have learnt in their 25 years of recording music. It does it in fine style too with the band’s inimitable talent for creating genuinely memorable hooks being as evident as it’s ever been. Repeat listens see these tracks developing their own unique personalities very quickly & by the time your third spin is done you can very easily differentiate each of the tracks in your mind as you browse through the tracklisting with many of the catchy pre-choruses & choruses digging their teeth into your brain as if their lives depended on it. The heavier material appeals to me the most with the opening one-two punch of “Genesis” & “Ceremony” leaving me salivating for more & the stunning four-track sequence from “The Spell Of Mathematics” through to “Radiant City” taking full toll on my weakened state. The closing title track was selected as the first single from the album & I have to admit that I find that to be a strange decision because, although I really enjoy it, it’s possibly the least impressive of the ten tracks & it’s structure isn’t exactly reflective of what you can expect from the rest of the album. The more visceral & abrasive “This Link Is Dead” would have been a better option in my opinion as it would have thrown the cat well & truly amongst the pigeons with its incredible live energy.
“Ohms” is a triumphant flexing of Deftones’ creative muscles. It compiles all of the things that have seen me drawn to the band over the years & represents a clear statement that Deftones are far from a dinosauric dad rock band in 2020. It doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel. It simply polishes the wheel, cleans the barings & puts some that black shit on the tyre so that the wheel looks really great & functions beautifully. Not only is “Ohms” relevant in a modern post-COVID world but it possesses a danger that few radio-friendly rock/metal bands have managed to achieve over the last few decades. The balance of hooks & heaviness is spot on & I’ll be very surprised if “Ohms” doesn’t go on to earn the same sort of notoriety as Deftones’ more highly regarded releases over the coming decade.
Genres: Alternative Metal
My first encounter with Californian thrash metallers Testament was way back in 1989 when I picked up their “Practice What You Preach” album shortly after release. I’d only recently been converted to thrash metal the previous year through The Big Four & had heard that Testament sounded a lot like Metallica & had a brilliant lead guitarist so I decided to throw caution to the wind by purchasing the CD blind. That risk certainly paid off as I found that not only were the reports I’d heard accurate but that Testament were a genuine force to be reckoned with in their own right & this may well have been the moment that saw my interest in extreme metal leaving my more traditional metal interests in the dust as I’d finally seen that there was more to thrash than just the Big Four. All of a sudden there was a whole new world available to me that quickly escalated to death & black metal in just a matter of months & saw me leaving Testament behind in favour of more extreme bands like Morbid Angel, Bathory & Pestilence. My fellow Metal Academic administrator & younger brother Ben perhaps took even more strongly to the Bay Area thrash of “Practice What You Preach” & subsequently purchased both of Testament’s earlier albums in 1988’s “The New Order” & their highly celebrated 1987 debut “The Legacy”, both of which I jumped all over.
Testament’s debut (which took the band’s previous moniker for its title) stands out from its older brethren in that it’s a little rawer & thrashier & it seems to be held on somewhat of a pedestal as a result. Is it warranted? Well… yes & no. The production is the first of my concerns as the rhythm guitar sound isn’t what I would hope. It’s weaker & muddier than the premier thrash releases of the time &, while this is nothing terribly unusual for a mid-80’s thrash debut, it does nullify one of the albums major strengths to an extent. That’s right! You’ve guessed it! The rhythm guitar performance is exceptional & features a higher level of complexity & precision that 90% of Testament’s peers. James Hetfield & Dave Mustaine would have been proud of what their disciples had accomplished here (well James would have been anyway) as their influence is obvious in the high speed staccato rhythms & it’s a real shame that the production didn’t emphasize these like it did for a band like Exodus on their respective debut. On top of the underlying aggression though, we find a layer of melody that keeps Testament sounding a touch more accessible than bands like Slayer or Exodus. There’s a clear pedigree in traditional heavy metal in the guitar harmonies with Iron Maiden obviously having made an early impact on the band. Joe Satriani student Alex Skolnick’s guitar solos certainly live up to the hype as they walk the listener through an expansive array of melodic sub-themes that often hint at the neoclassical techniques of legendary Swedish guitar virtuoso Yngwie Malmsteen. Does it all work? Well… to be honest I think that Skolnick sometimes pushes his focus on melody a little too far & it results in a few cheesier moments that tend to detract from the aggressive thrash atmosphere. I don’t recall Testament’s follow-up album “The New Order” suffering from similar issues so perhaps Alex learnt from his first-up effort.
Front man Chuck Billy has become somewhat of an enigma within thrash circles. He’s a huge unit of a man with a massively powerful voice that commands the listener’s attention but I have to admit that I’ve never rated him quite as highly as some. His performance on “The Legacy” certainly has its moments but I think he was perhaps a touch ambitious in his attempts at creating some catchy singalong choruses as I’m not sure his skill sets were developed enough to pull them off just yet. This is one of the things that prevents me from reaching for the higher scores actually as many of these tracks build up to the chorus hooks beautifully but when you finally get there you sometimes find that they don’t quite deliver as much as you’d hoped. For this reason I find that I really enjoy all of the tracks on the impressively consistent tracklisting but I rarely see my sweet spot being pushed on for long enough to consider reaching for my “classic” stamp. Final track “Apocalyptic City” is the exception to the rule as it manages to steer clear of the previously mentioned attempts at catchy hooks & delivers an emphatic statement to close out the album. In fact, it could be argued that the best two tracks on offer are actually the last two & that leaves me with the feeling that Testament may have been better served by an alternative arrangement of the tracklisting. Regardless, there are no weak tracks here. The melodic Maiden-ish verses of “Burnt Offerings” are probably the low point but even then I find it to be reasonably enjoyable.
“The Legacy” offers a high quality & distinctly Californian brand of thrash metal that competes well with the finer debuts of the genre. In fact, while it may not challenge Exodus’ “Bonded By Blood” for the crown, I’d go so far as to say that I prefer “The Legacy” over some of the more high profile debuts like “Kill ‘Em All” & “Killing Is My Business… & Business Is Good!”. The professionalism & maturity of this record is almost unheard of in thrash circles & it was very clear that Testament were on a path to the top of their chosen craft. 1988’s “The New Order” has always been my preferred Testament record but “The Legacy” gives it a good run for its money & should be respected as a statement of intent from a talented group of musicians who were really going places.
Genres: Thrash Metal
I came into "Alien" fresh as the only Strapping Young Lad release I'd experienced previously was "City" (which I really enjoyed) but over the last couple of days I've found that I marginally prefer "Alien" & was blown away by just how heavy this record is. It takes no prisoners whatsoever & very few fucks are given along the way. I can understand how it might seem like one huge barrage of aggressive to some listeners but I feel that I'm well equipped to handle that sort of thing due to my extreme metal background. I definitely noticed a Napalm Death influence to many of the more intense riffs which isn't surprising given that Devin's been a long-time fan of the band going way back to his contribution to Steve Vai's "Sex & Religion" album in 1993. The timing makes sense because I was continually reminded of 1992's "Utopia Banished" album.
Devin puts sssoooo much into his vocal performance here. I really enjoy the crazed lunatic vibe on some of this material (see "Shitstorm" for example) & feel it's when he's at his best. His more melodic moments are also high quality though with the chorus of "Love?" actually reminding me a lot of Deftones. Gene Hoglan is an absolute enigma & proves that his feet should be insured for a very hefty sum as he's more machine than human. What a performance! And the production job couldn't have been better suited to the product to be honest. Every track sounds enormously epic here with the listener being virtually assaulted with sound which I would imagine was exactly the outcome that Devin was hoping for. The subtle use of keyboards at key moments is used to great effect & fills out the sound beautifully.
The lone ballad "Two Weeks" is clearly the least effective song on the tracklisting even though I still have time for it's sweeter take on an 80's Pink Floyd vibe as the listener is definitely in need of a short break by that stage. Closing twelve minute industrial noise piece "Info Dump" was certainly a challenge at first though with my initial thoughts being "Oh no, he's decided to give us the impression that the album is longer than it actually is by filling in time with pointless noise" but I'm very pleased to say that it develops over time & ends up leaving the listener with a unique & disturbing atmosphere that I really enjoy. But it's the heavier tracks that really float my boat, particularly when they're matched with some of Devin's more intense screams. Brief opener "Imperial" is nothing short of devastating with the gradual buildup & crescendo of "Thalamus" being a close second. The triple play of "Shitstorm" through to "Shine" is also spectacular!
Despite the fact that most of the highlights reside on the A side for me, I find "Alien" to be a very consistent release overall. In truth, some of Devin's more progressive & melodic moments take me a touch outside of my comfort zone & this (along with the first five minutes of "Info Dump") prevent me from going with a slightly higher rating but the quality here is undeniable. It's an outstanding effort from a highly capable & significantly battle-hardened group of musicians. Whoever selected this album for feature release inclusion really knows his shit & should be heaped with praise for eternity.
For fans of Fear Factory, Ministry & Nailbomb.
Genres: Industrial Metal
The 1987 sophomore album from New Jersey thrash metal establishment Overkill represents my entry point for the band way back around 1989 when I was in my early teenage years & completely obsessed with extreme metal (kinda like now really). I have to admit that, whilst I've always found it to be relatively enjoyable, it's never really convinced me that the band were a tier one act & my feelings haven't changed in that respect. "Taking Over" certainly featured some improvements on their 1985 debut album "Feel The Fire" with more appealing production, performances & song-writing but some of the riffs & arrangements still seem so basic & generic that it sounded a little dated even back then in my opinion. It's not a total thrash-fest either as almost half of the album falls into speed metal or traditional heavy metal territory.
I think the reason that "Taking Over" has remained so popular over the years is due to the tight execution & its uncluttered accessibility. It's like the band understood their limitations a bit better than they did previously & worked within them to create an appealing & marketable product. The other reason is likely the melodic vocal approach of front man Bobby Blitz who hadn't opted for the grindier approach he'd take on later material just yet & contributes some much needed pizzazz to some otherwise fairly uneventful pieces of music. There's definitely a little bit of Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson about his performance here & if you listen closely you can hear that he was giving everything he had as far as charisma & effort go. It's certainly paid off as there's only really "Fatal If Swallowed" that fails to leave the desired impact as far as hooks go. In saying that, Bobby's performance still wasn't enough to make any of this material a genuine thrash classic in my opinion so I don't think I can justify the high regard that "Taking Over" is generally held in amongst thrash purists even though it was the band's best release to the time.
Genres: Thrash Metal
I hadn't revisited 2007's "V - Halmstad (Niklas Angående Niklas)" album from Swedish depressive black metal outfit Shining for more than a decade but once I returned to it last week I quickly remembered why I initially found it to be such an interesting listen. It really asks questions of your average DSBM fan as it goes against the grain in many ways. Firstly, the production is crystal clear which is directly opposed to the lo-fi approach that most of Shining's peers take when attempting to create atmosphere & I think it works beautifully here. Perhaps it's due to the fact that it highlights the exceptional level of musicianship & a much more diverse & progressive musical palate than you'd generally expect from a black metal outfit. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that it's debatable as to whether "V - Halmstad" is even black metal in the traditional sense of the term. Despite the fact that Shining utilize traditional black metal tools fairly consistently throughout the album, the production, musicianship, experimentation in style & unusual vocal techniques never allow them to sound like a black metal band in the purest sense. (I feel similarly about Primordial's classic releases actually.) Post-black metal is perhaps a more accurate tag for "V - Halmstad" than anything else but it still doesn't fit all that comfortably.
Regardless of what most reviews say, I actually don't find "V - Halmstad" to sound all that depressive in a musical sense either. I think people are mainly led down that path by the samples, cover art & lyrics (which are in Swedish) as well as the insane & overthetop vocal delivery & stage antics of Kvarforth but it's also possible that I simply can't relate to these sort of feelings & therefore aren't able to connect with the music in the same way. Kvarforth's vocals are a bit of a struggle for me at times to be honest. At his best his blood-curdling howls & croaks remind me of Mayhem/Aborym/Tormentor/Sunn O))) front man Attila Csihar but at his worst he sounds pretty similar to Zed from the Police Academy movies. Some of the suicidal & depressive movie samples are very effective but I do think they go too far with pushing these themes at times as there are one or two sections that are simply too miserable to make for enjoyable listening, instead making the listener feel significantly uneasy. The first two tracks are spectacular & I always feel like I'm heading towards a very high scoring result early on but, even though there are no weak tracks on offer, the middle of the album sees a decline in overall impact before taking an upwards turn & finishing with a couple of very solid & effective pieces.
Overall, this is a high quality & ambitious piece of work that should appeal to fans of Silencer, Forgotten Tomb & Bethlehem.
Genres: Black Metal
Occasionally during my journey through a lifetime of metal exploration I’ll come across a release that puts me well & truly outside of my comfort zone but is simply done so well that I can’t help but let my defences down & the 2004 debut album from German progressive metal outfit Disillusion is one such record. You’ll rarely find such an ambitious & fully realised debut effort & could be forgiven for mistaking it for the culmination of a decade or more of studio experience so I wasn’t surprised to discover that Disillusion had been around in one form or another for a full decade by this stage in their evolution.
I first encountered “Back To Times Of Splendor” in 2009 & recall being seriously impressed however I haven’t felt the need to return to it until now & are very pleased to find that my feelings haven’t changed over the years. It’s charms are built on a foundation of melodic death metal & you’ll easily be able to pick up the influence of bands like At The Gates however the lengthy track durations & more expansive arrangements see the album residing firmly in the progressive metal camp with Opeth being the main point of reference. The consistent use of synthesizers really fills out Disillusion’s sound & gives it a more epic feel although I do think the album could have done with a touch more dynamic range as a result. The execution & performances are quite brilliant while the production is more than suitable for a progressive metal release with its clarity & power providing the material with the full scope to dig its teeth in. This isn’t the most technical of progressive metal releases but there’s an intelligence & professionalism to the song structures that again hints at a seasoned veteran of the scene.
The vocal delivery of front man Vurtox isn’t the most stunningly charismatic you’ll hear with his hooks being more subtle & veering away from your typically light-weight melodeath cheese towards a warmer & more rewarding outcome that may not knock you for six but is memorable enough to prick your ears up. His style seems to be a hybrid of the quirky ADD-fueled rants of System Of A Down’s Serj Tankian & the clean gothic musings of My Dying Bride’s Aaron Stainthorpe with the odd death metal outburst giving the album the required level of underground appeal. The vocals aren’t the main focal point of Disillusion’s sound though in my opinion. Their appeal seems to be centred more around building a big sonic soundscape full of classy arrangements & pristine execution & if that was their ambition then they’ve succeeded in no uncertain terms.
“Back To Times Of Splendor” is an imposing way to start a career & it’s easy to see why it had such an impact on the unsuspecting underground. It’s very well thought out & full of substance with an attention to detail that never allows it to overstep the mark in regards to melodic extravagance & this is one of the main reasons that it appeals to me when so many melodeath-based releases do not. I’m surprised that we haven’t seen Disillusion go on to bigger & better things in the subsequent years however if this release ends up being the band’s crowning glory then they’ve achieved heights that most budding young prog-heads will never be in a position to boast about.
For fans of Opeth, At The Gates & In Mourning.
Genres: Progressive Metal
It really is pretty amazing that Brazilian thrash metal masters Sepultura didn't kick-off their period of global domination until 1989's "Beneath The Remains" because their earlier releases were exceptionally impressive in the context of what was going on around them. I've always been a big fan of their first two death/thrash outings & think they're heavily underrated however things escalated dramatically for the band following the recruitment of lead guitarist Andreas Kisser who gave them an additional level of sophistication & professionalism. Sepultura seemed to discover melody all of a sudden with Kisser's trademark solos adding a whole new element to the band's repertoire. This was accentuated by a significantly cleaner production job which would better harness the power of the band member's rapidly improving technical skills. Max's vocals are still a bit gruffer & more inaccessible than they would become but I find them to be very enjoyable as they ooze of that underground quality that makes Brazilian extreme metal so appealing. Igor's drumming has improved dramatically although his double kick work was still a little rough around the edges.
You can easily hear the sound that made Sepultura so huge just a couple of years later here as it's already well & truly in effect. The exciting & incisive guitar tone which is perfectly suited to thrash metal, the constant changes in riff & beat, the attention to detail in the transitions, the fast & exciting tempos, the precision execution & performances.... I think the only thing missing is the consistency within each track. Every song is at a very high quality when taken holistically & all include amazing parts but almost all of them also sport a couple of less ambitious & more generic thrash riffs. They're beautifully executed of course but these minor blemishes do stop me from reaching for the higher scores. These moments generally occur during the chuggier mid-range sections & I think Sepultura would have been better served by leaving their pedal to the metal for the most part. Igor would learn how to better accentuate these sections over the next year or so too.
As with all of Sepultura's early works, you'll probably pick up a fair few sections that sound remarkably like parts of "Beneath The Remains" or "Arise". The band had a tendency to rework their older material in the hope that no one would notice. I do but I don't hold it against them because I don't think it detracts from the experience at all. Overall, "Schizophrenia" is a high quality release from a band that was clearly going places. It put the competition on clear notice that they'd better look over their shoulders because the Brazilians were coming for them.
For fans of Slayer, Kreator & Sodom.
Genres: Thrash Metal
Let's just get this out of the way early & say don't go into "Lesions Of A Different Kind" expecting something fresh or new because you'll be sorely disappointed. This is pure old school death metal worship with Incantation & Immolation being the two names that immediately spring to mind. "Lesions Of A Different Kind" is a dark, dank, swampy, swarming mass of disgust with those definitively deep vocals that the style has built its reputation on & a bassy guitar sound that's tuned down so far you can feel the strings vibrating in your gut. In fact, you won't be able to distinguish the vocal delivery from that of the band's I've just mentioned & the guitar tone has got a similar feel to Morbid Angel's 7-string efforts on "Covenant" & "Domination" only it's less precise in its execution. I also pick up a bit of 1989-91 Carcass influence at various times & the drumming is certainly influenced by Cannibal Corpse's Paul Mazurkiewicz.
In terms of quality, this is mostly all good shit for an old school death metal fan like myself. I think the opening track "Suitably Hacked to Gore" was a poor choice to kick off proceedings though as it's the only track that I don't have time for. I'd be lying if I said the "heard-it-all-before" nature of this album doesn''t limit its scoring potential but for the most part it's done almost as well as the records that influenced it so don't let that put you off. I think Undeath are at their best when they're at the lower end of the tempo range (particularly when utilizing double-time ride-cymbal work) & when they start to think up-tempo their appeal wanes just a touch. Overall "Lesions Of A Different Kind" is a very solid if unashamedly meat-&-potatoes death metal release that should appeal to most fans of the genre.
Genres: Death Metal
OK so I’m gonna have to thank saxy profusely for leading me down this path because “Eons” has quite simply left me with my jaw lying on the ground over the last few days & has single-handedly proven the validity of the push to include some more modern feature releases. It’s an indescribably beautiful & gloriously intimidating 128-minute triple album that truly defies categorization. The most common labels attributed to it seem to be avant-garde jazz & drone metal but neither is a terribly good fit in my opinion. It’s easy enough to see why people want to go down those paths but this is a long way from a jazz release even though it consistently draws upon shared tools. It’s also not a metal release when taken holistically but a good portion of the material seems to borrow from that niche subgenre’s intimidating grandeur & there are certainly a few tracks that are a good fit for that tag. I’d throw in ritual ambient & traditional drone as equally strong components of Neptunian Maximalism's sound though, particularly due to the consistent pulse that binds their noise-laden soundscapes & the extensive layering of Eastern-influenced sounds on offer, both of which see me often being reminded of Dead Can Dance although the link is more in the aesthetic than the overall sound. There are hints at krautrock in the celebration of experimentation here too. The more drone metal inspired works on the third record are where things come together in their purest & most gripping realization & I’d suggest that the four tracks it contains are very close to perfect. The more jazz inspired pieces don’t have quite the same effect but are just as intriguing from an artistic point of view.
"Eons" is a dark, brooding, cerebral & spiritually enlightening experience that seems to have been custom-made for someone like me that likes to be challenged both artistically & emotionally by my music. It's interesting that the cover art is a pretty good graphical indication of what you can expect to find contained within actually. You’ll rarely find an album that more successfully takes the listener outside of their comfort zone & into an entirely new world. Just don’t expect that world to be as immediately welcoming as you might hope because the sheer breadth of this musical undertaking is not for the faint of heart. Neptunian Maximalism have conjured up a release that sounds very much like the soundtrack to a ritualistic human sacrifice. It will undoubtedly have you questioning whether you want to watch such an atrocity however you’ll struggle to look away as the process seems to hint at a spiritual transcendence that only exists in our dreams & fantasies.
Genres: Drone Metal
I was only a very young chap when I first encountered seminal Brazilian black metal outfit Sarcófago back in the early 1990's. I'd begun tape trading with a South American kid who possessed a comprehensive list of his local product & I subsequently received a long procession of underground stuff from him in the mail over short period. Amongst that lot was a whole bunch of Sarcófago material & I can distinctly remember having my mind blown by just how raw metal music could get. It was very much a novelty for me at the time & it's understandable as to why I felt that way when I return to their debut full-length "I.N.R.I." in more modern times. Sarcófago took influence from several of the most extreme forms of music of the time & ramped them all up to eleven, all while still learning to play their instruments. But any experienced fan of South American extreme metal will tell you that these technical inadequacies & the general naivety of the song-writing are a big part of the attraction with this style of music & that's never been more evident than it is with "I.N.R.I.". It's full of out-of-time blast beats, silly monster noises & incompetent guitar solos but I'll be fucked if these "qualities" do anything to tarnish the album's appeal. It's simply a really fun listen & shouldn't be taken as seriously as many kvlt black metallers seem to.
Thankfully the production is clear enough so that you can easily make out all of the instruments. The snare drum is ridiculously loud but that has always been a common trait of South American releases. The influence of hardcore punk on Sarcófago's sound is obvious & it gives them a formidable energy that borders on being infectious. I do really enjoy the aggressive vocals which give the album a darker feel & helps it to overcome the fact that the instrumentalists are struggling to hold everything together beneath them. You'll often see people tossing around the thrash metal tag with "I.N.R.I." but there's very little legitimate thrash on offer if you look closely. This is pure black metal bordering on the more modern war metal movement that Sarcófago were such an key influence on. Early Sodom & Hellhammer are the most obvious influences in my opinion but the early Brazilian releases from Sepultura & Vulcano are also good points of reference, not to forget the hardcore & early grindcore elements.
This all amounts to a consistently enjoyable listen that never borders on being life-changing but is ultimately fit for purpose when searching for the ultra-kvlt & super-raw release that defines what it meant to be underground in the mid-to-late 1980's. I undoubtedly have a bit of an emotional attachment to Sarcófago given my history with them at a very impressionable time in my life but if I try my best to put those feelings aside I still can't seem to shift the adrenaline rush they give me. There's a purity to the primitive packaging & delivery that seems to transcend the technical deficiencies & this was the flame that the early black metal scene found so attractive. If you're into modern black metal then you owe it to yourself to at least have an understanding of what "I.N.R.I." was about & the impression it left of the metal underground. I can't say it'll ever sit amongst my all-time favourites but I never regret my occasional revisit.
Genres: Black Metal Thrash Metal
The 1987 debut album from Los Angeles five-piece Holy Terror (entitled "Terror & Submission") offers a raw brand of distinctly 1980's metal that skates along the edges of several different subgenres & kinda summarizes the sound of that decade in many ways. To my ears the major influence here is Iron Maiden & much of this material sounds like Holy Terror have simply upped the tempo on the NWOBHM legend's trademark melodic gallop but I also pick up a bit of Manilla Road & Venom in the mix too. It's interesting that I haven't mentioned any thrash bands there & that's significant because, although "Terror & Submission" is generally regarded as a thrash release, I actually don't think that's an entirely accurate description because more than half of the tracklisting sits more comfortably under the speed metal banner in my opinion with another one & a half tracks taking a more traditional heavy metal direction. Even some of the thrashier tracks include elements of classic metal like melodic guitar harmonies that you wouldn't normally expect from a thrash band. There are even a couple of choruses that remind me very much of power metal which was something I wasn't expecting. Keith Deen's vocals kinda remind me of the gruffer moments of Manilla Road's Mark Shelton crossed with Megadeth's Dave Mustaine.
The production is pretty raw & dirty which provides further weight for my case for the speed metal tag while about a third of the material sounds a bit half-baked to me. I get the distinct feeling that Holy Terror weren't quite the finished product at this stage but when they get things right they can be an exciting prospect, particularly during the extended dual guitar solo sections which are a real highlight. This isn't a bad debut by any means but I don't think it stands out from the pack as much as the popular consensus would seem to indicate. Perhaps I'm simply not as much of a speed metal fan as I am a thrash one & my opinions on the individual tracks would seem to indicate that this is true with the thrashier tracks like "Tomorrow's End" & the title track being the highlights for me. Speed metal aficionados should definitely give "Terror & Submission" a few spins though.
For fans of Agent Steel, Hallows Eve & early Living Death.
Genres: Thrash Metal
The second & final album from this New York crossover thrash outfit is generally regarded as one of the pinnacles of the subgenre but I have to admit that I've always struggled to find much appeal in Carnivore's music. It's certainly true that I've never been one to be particularly interested in the concept of humour being integrated into my metal (particularly when it borders of being racist at times for pure shock value) but (with the obvious exception of an intro track that's essentially the sound of someone vomiting) that's not the reason I don't dig a record like "Retaliation". It's more around the constant changing of styles (even throughout the individual tracks) which sees the album lacking in cohesion. I'm also not such a big fan of future Type O Negative front man Peter Steel's angry yet spasmatic vocal delivery here. He sounds like he's trying too hard to sound unhinged & psychotic to me.
Musically, it's quite hard to pin down Carnivore's sound. For example, I never regarded their self-titled debut as a crossover release as it actually included very little that I'd actually class as crossover. "Retaliation", on the other hand, has much stronger credentials as it's much faster & thrashier with a significantly stronger hardcore component so I'm comfortable that it's the senior subgenre here with New York hardcore, traditional heavy metal & stoner metal (think Black Sabbath's "Vol 4") all playing a strong role at various points. The instrumental track "Five Billion Dead" even seems to draw on Rush! There are some decent tracks included & you can hear the obvious influence that the album had on a diverse array of bands from Crowbar to Morbid Angel but it's the lack of consistency that gets to me in the end & this is the deciding factor in me never really feeling the urge to pull out a Carnivore record when I feel like thrashing around my car or loungeroom. I agree that "Retaliation" is Carnivore's best work but unfortunately it's still not really for me.
For fans of S.O.D., Cro-Mags & D.R.I.
Genres: Thrash Metal
Every now & then we’ll see a metal band exploding onto the global market in a major way &, in the process of doing so, managing to highlight the strength of their local scene to the extent that several of the associated bands & labels see themselves being taken along for the rid. We saw it with Darkthrone & the Norwegian black metal scene. We saw it with Entombed & the Swedish death metal scene. And we saw it with Sepultura & South American thrash metal. I haven’t really read anyone else making similar claims but I’m pretty sure that virtually no one had ever heard of Brazil’s Ratos de Porão before Sepultura’s “Beneath The Remains” blew up big time, but I distinctly remember their name popping up all over the place very quickly after the Sep’s were on their way to global domination & it was more than just a quick cash-grab.
The story of Ratos de Porão (Portuguese for “basement rats”) actually began in Sao Paulo all the way back to 1981 when they began life as a purely hardcore/crust punk act in the tradition of G.B.H. & Discharge. They were quite controversial in the early days of their existence as they were not only the most extreme punk band in Brazil but also one of the first local artists to openly criticize Brazilian society which was a very bold move in what was (& still is) a very dangerous political environment. Ratos de Porão’s 1984 debut album “Crucificados pelo sistema” would represent the very first Brazilian hardcore punk album & would also make a significant impact on the global hardcore scene. At around this time the increasingly intimidating threat of ongoing gang violence would see much of the Sao Paulo hardcore scene disintegrating & Ratos de Porão were not immune to the decay. They would disband for a short time before band leader & drummer Jão decided to put together a new version of the band which would see him dropping the drum sticks & picking up a guitar. Jão had become enamored with the thriving thrash metal sound that was taking the world by storm & he wanted to see his new lineup taking on a fresh new sound. 1986’s album would be the first Ratos de Porão release to offer hints at a hybrid punk/metal sound but it was still predominantly a hardcore release. Unfortunately, many of the local punks would not be terribly open to the dilution of the band’s original hardcore sound with many abandoning them & as a result “Descanse em paz” would not be as successful as “Crucificados pelo sistema”.
After the release of their sophomore album, Ratos de Porão’s increasing interest in metal would see them spending a lot more time socializing with local thrash metal bands like Sepultura & Korzus & this would eventually lead to them becoming associated with legendary Sao Paulo extreme metal label Cogumelo Records. It was still early days for Cogumelo but they were quickly building a rabid underground fanbase following the release of the Sepultura/Overdose split, Sepultura’s “Morbid Visions” album & the “Warfare Noise” compilation with several other promising acts like Mutilator, Chakal, Sarcófago & Holocausto already on their books as well. With a renewed focus, Jão & the boys would head back into the studio to record their third album, only this time with a significantly renovated sound. It seemed that Ratos de Porão were not the only punks that had developed a strong metal fetish as they’d been hearing other hardcore acts like DRI, Cro-Mags, Agnostic Front, English Dogs & Suicidal Tendencies starting to move in somewhat of a hybrid direction & they wanted in on the act. The result would be 1987’s “Cada dia mais sujo e agressivo” album (translated as “every day more dirty & aggressive”) which would be released through Cogumelo Records. It would become the earliest Brazilian crossover thrash release of any note & would also see the band taking the throne as the undisputed kings of Brazilian crossover thrash; a title they've maintained pretty comfortably to the current day.
“Cada dia mais sujo e agressivo” would be recorded at J.G. Studios in Belo Horizonte in 1987 with Marcos Gaugin behind the desk. Marcos seems to have had a close affiliation with Cogumelo & Brazilian metal in general as he would record a number of important metal releases during this period including Chakal’s “Abominable anno domini”, Sarcofago’s “I.N.R.I.” & Sepultura’s “Schizophrenia” albums. The result that Marcos was able to draw from the sessions with Ratos de Porão though could be described as serviceable without being outstanding. It’s a raw & dirty sounding record which is certainly appropriate for a hardcore-driven band but the rhythm guitars do sound a little muffled & lacking in brightness & tend to blend in with the bass guitar which gives the record a muddy feel that’s not necessarily a major problem once you get used to it. The guitars are presented right up front in the mix which is great for this style of metal with the drums sitting mainly towards the back with only the snare drum cutting through. The rest of the kit sounds fairly thin & clicky behind the wall of guitars but Jão’s vocals receive good separation which allows him to tower over the instrumentalists in an imposing show of strength. The guitar solos tend to be a wall of high-end which masks their lack of technical proficiency a little bit. Overall, I don’t think I can complain too much given the band’s style & the tools at their disposal.
The cover art for “Cada dia mais sujo e agressivo” would seem to be a visual representation of the band’s moniker as it shows a poorly drawn image of a huge rat standing on its hind legs & carrying a large wrench in its left hand. He has a very determined look on his face too & I can imagine that the band would have seen themselves in this image given their renewed focus on becoming the originators of the Brazilian crossover thrash subgenre. It’s unfortunate that the artwork looks so immature & childish though because it definitely cheapens the product & the initial impressions that prospective fans might have had when first encountering it. This was nothing new for Brazilian thrash though it has to be said & certainly not for Cogumelo who would release a procession of records with similarly poor cover art. A lot of those releases offered a much poorer level of musicianship than we would get with Ratos de Porão though & I think that this actually gave the cheap artwork more of an endearing attraction than we get with “Cada dia mais sujo e agressivo” where it seems inappropriate for the task at hand.
Musically, “Cada dia mais sujo e agressivo” is pretty much the definitive hardcore/metal hybrid. There’s only really one or two tracks that favour the hardcore element a little more prominently than the metal one but in general we get roughly a 50/50 prospect that fits the genre tag beautifully. Jão’s vocal approach comes very much from the hardcore side of the equation & he represents one of the best components of the Ratos de Porão sound here. There’s a bus-load of aggression in his delivery & the limitations of the Portuguese lyrical approach become pretty much irrelevant given the power & attitude he manages to harness. The guitars are where most of the thrash component stems from though & Ratos de Porão are definitely at their best when they’re placing their feet firmly down on the pedal as the faster material is certainly their strongest. In saying that though, there really isn’t a lot of slow or mid-paced material here & there is a case for claiming a lack of variety although the short duration of the album probably negates it a little. The more mid-paced thrash riffs that we do get tend to be fairly generic & I get the feeling that Jão was still more comfortable in the realm of your more up-tempo hardcore riff assault. There are a few solos included although they’re generally pretty incompetently performed & don’t add a lot to the music. But the real weak point of the album is found in Spaghetti’s d-beat influenced drumming (yes that’s his name apparently, possibly due to his sloppiness? – God I’m funny sometimes). I’m never able to overcome the feeling that he’s struggling to maintain the intensity & his timing is always just that tiny bit out which frustrates me a little given the obvious potential of this band. I can easily imagine just how much more appealing “Cada dia mais sujo e agressivo” might be with Charlie Benante behind the kit for example. Oh well.. it wasn’t to be I guess. Jão’s timing isn’t wonderful either to be honest but this is not as significant a factor in holding the band together.
The quality of the song-writing is generally pretty good with only a couple of weaker tracks popping up in quick succession on the B-side (see “Peste sexual” & “Sentir ódio e nada mais”) before the band pick things up at the end with closing track “V.C.D.M.S.A.” being the album’s most extreme. The A-side is quite strong though & kicks off with the album highlight in the very thrashy “Tatoo Maniax”. As you can see, I definitely enjoy the more intense material & (as is generally the case for me) the punkier tracks offer a little less appeal. There’s a lot of potential in some of the better songs but they don’t ever quite manage to produce the hooks required to see me elevating them up into classic status so the appeal of the album tends to be more to do with the raw hardcore aggression & general commitment to speed. That’s the difference between your tier ones & your runners up though, isn’t it really? The ability to not only produce vicious & nasty thrash metal but to still maintain an elite level of accessibility through high quality song-writing & I feel that this was one of the reasons that (with the obvious exception of Sepultura who were masters of this technique) the South Americans never quite managed to step up to similar levels of acclaim as the Germans.
“Cada dia mais sujo e agressivo” is a pretty strong example of crossover thrash that will offer appeal to any fan of the subgenre but is unlikely to convert too many newcomers. It’s importance to the Brazilian scene is substantial though as it opened both the punk & metal audiences up to a new direction & represents one of the elite local examples of the style still to this day. It’s a record that I generally enjoy but rarely love & it’s a shame that we didn’t get the opportunity to hear it with a high-quality production & with a more skilled time-keeper. In saying that though, I’ve recently read that there’s a re-release that features a better sound quality & English lyrics so it’s possible that at least one of those issues I've mentioned may already have been rectified over the years. I may have to investigate that some time soon.
For fans of: DRI, SOD, Suicidal Tendencies
Genres: Thrash Metal
By 1987, the German metal scene had already built itself a very strong reputation for raw & exciting thrash that favoured aggression & violence over technique & musical theory. Many fans would have you believe that the Americans had single-handedly created the genre through hard-hitting trailblazers like Metallica & Slayer but if you do your research you’ll find that the Germans were right there alongside them. In fact, the earliest Teutonic demos from the likes of Sodom & Holy Moses were already aligning themselves with our mighty Lord Satan as far back as 1982 which puts them in direct competition with Metallica’s “No Life ‘til Leather” demo as far as historical timelines go. But unlike the Americans who would seize the opportunity with both hands, the Germans would have to wait a couple more years to see their first commercially released thrash records starting to hit the shelves. It would initially be the Big Three of Teutonic Thrash that would take up the charge with Destruction, Sodom & Kreator all making significant claims to the German thrash throne during the 1984/85 period. The next couple of years would see Kreator & Sodom edging ahead with the first legitimately classic German thrash releases & this would prove to be somewhat of a global announcement to the world with a flood of new players like Exumer, Angel Dust, Assassin, Deathrow, Tankard, Necronomicon, Violent Force, Accuser, Paradox, Holy Moses, Living Death, Mekong Delta & Vendetta all exploding onto the market at around the same time to create a healthy, thriving & self-perpetuating scene. It was amongst this hive of creative activity that Essen five-piece Darkness were learning the ropes & firming up their plans for world domination.
Darkness were actually one of the earlier German thrash bands having formed back in 1985 while the Teutonic scene was still relatively young. They’d go through various incarnations during their early years with their lineup being an ever-changing beast that morphed between three, four & five piece arrangements on a number of occasions. The young band would record five demo tapes in total over the first two years of their existence before finally seeing their lineup solidifying & gaining the interest of Peter Garattoni & Gunter Marek who decided that the product Darkness were pushing was worthy of investment. Peter & Gunter would form a label known as Tales Of Thrash Records which would provide the band with an avenue for releasing their debut album “Death Squad” in 1987.
I haven’t been able to find any information on who may have produced the “Death Squad” album so it was presumably a self-produced effort which would make sense given the low budget that was afforded to most young thrash bands of the time. But if that’s the case then the band have done a stellar job because “Death Squad” offers exactly what you’d want from a mid-80’s Teutonic thrash release. It’s raw, dirty & metal as fuck but also possesses an uncommon clarity that allows all of the individual instruments to be clearly identified & enjoyed in their own right. The rhythm guitar sound is dripping with molten metal & is a clear selling point for the album. It reminds me very much of the searing tone that Kreator would achieve on their early classics only it’s a touch dirtier & the guitar solos are just as blazing which is a major plus in my book. The unfortunately named Raper receives a bouncy, clean & powerful bass tone which accentuates the driving energy in Darkness’ music while long-time drummer Lacky is afforded lots of bass & depth in his kick drum & toms along with that signature German snare drum sound that cuts through the mix in a constant & merciless attack on your cranium. The band must have been very happy with the result because it represents Darkness’ sound in a very positive light by highlighting their obvious strengths.
“Death Squad” would come with some reasonably attractive artwork all thing considered. It was based around a very simple concept with five long-haired & leather-clad members of the undead (the five band members presumably) preparing themselves to take on the town under a full moon. One of the crew is carrying what looks to be a machine gun &, given the title of the album, I’d hazard to guess that Essen might be in for an eventful evening. It’s interesting to note that the album title isn’t displayed on the front cover so for all intents & purposes it looks like a self-titled release. Also, when you examine the band’s logo closely you can see clear elements that have been borrowed from Kreator, particularly in the shaping of the letters. I’ll give you the tip though, this won’t be the only time we’ll be referencing Kreator in the next few minutes either. Overall though, I think this is a pretty good album cover for a young thrash band. It’s easy on the eye, suits the band’s image & is a reasonable representation of what you can expect to hear inside.
Upon dropping the needle onto the platter for the first time, the listener will find themselves confronted with quite a pretty two-minute acoustic guitar introduction piece known as “Invasion Sector 12”. I’d actually go so far as to say that it’s TOO pretty to introduce a violent thrash record like this one but that wasn’t all that uncommon for the time (see Kreator’s “Choir Of The Damned” or Metallica’s “Fight Fire With Fire” for example) & I nonetheless find it to be a reasonably enjoyable experience. But the action doesn’t really start until the first proper song kicks in with the face-melting thrash-fest known as “Critical Threshold” laying all of Darkness’ cards on the table immediately & ensuring that an appropriate level of uncontrolled chaos ensues. This is a Teutonic thrash record in the purest sense of the term & there has been absolutely no attempt to hide the band’s influences or renovate the house that has been built by the three heavy-weights of German thrash. In fact, on first impression I found it hard to think of “Death Squad” as anything other than a Kreator clone given just how familiar it sounds. Most of Darkness’ most ripping riffs are variations on Kreator’s 1985-87 material & the guitar solos could almost have been lifted straight off those records too. Not to mention the raspy Germanic-accented vocals of front man Olli which sound EXACTLY like Mille Petrozza with the occasional moment also recalling the efforts of Kreator drummer Ventor to top things off. Don’t get me wrong though. I’m a fucking Kreator tragic from way back so I don’t say any of that in a derogatory way. A band that sounds exactly like classic Kreator is a very attractive prospect for me personally.
Subsequent listens would show that there are actually a few additional elements at play on top of the obvious Kreator worship but none that are terribly surprising. The most pronounced one is the influence of Destruction in the use of lead runs to add complexity to some of the riffs but you can also hear a bit of early Sodom in some of the more basic melodic runs. Plus, some of the slower tracks include lead guitar melodies that remind me a lot of your classic NWOBHM brand of traditional heavy metal (Iron Maiden in particular) & I have to say that I could definitely do without those. The beginning of the instrumental track “Tarsman Of Ghor” (named after John Norman’s “Tarnsman Of Gor” fantasy novel) is a prime example with the use of neoclassical melodies sounding both distracting & out of place. I honestly think that Darkness would have been better served by giving them a miss altogether as they dilute the nasty atmosphere significantly.
Despite being a little raw, the performances are all very good for a Teutonic debut & you can tell that the band already had a little bit of recording experience under their belts by this stage. You won’t find any of the obvious timing issues you’d generally expect from the earlier German thrash releases other than the odd moment when the kick drum drifts a bit but in fairness Lacky’s skill sets were already superior to many of his peers. I particularly enjoy the off-the-hook approach to the solos which sees the twin guitar attack of Arnd & Pierre going absolutely mental with little concern afforded to irrelevant topics like key or theory & I find this component to represent the highlight of the album. There’s a lot of passion in the DIY feel of the faster material & many of the riff structures indicate that German speed metal may have played a fairly significant role in the band’s musical development.
There are a couple of slower tracks included however I don’t think they’re as effective as the more flat-out material like “Critical Threshold”, “Death Squad”, “Iron Force” & “Phantasmagoria”. The more restrained tempos tend to highlight the band’s limitations more obviously as the lack of creativity becomes more evident & there’s simply more room for error. Unfortunately, the album also suffers from a significant quality hole in the middle of the tracklisting with “Staatsfeind”, “Tarsman Of Ghor” & “Faded Pictures” all failing to build on a very promising start. Thankfully Darkness manage to recover things quite well during the back end but the most critical element that’s missing here, & the one that’s likely prevented “Death Squad” from competing with the big boys of Teutonic thrash, is the lack of decent choruses. Despite the energy & enthusiasm of this music, Darkness never quite manage to put together those couple of obvious anthems that are required to take a solid record to the next level & this is possibly even more important when you’ve completely sacrificed on any sort of originality because it’s just so easy to make unfavourable comparisons. All things considered though, “Death Squad” is still an enjoyable record for an old school thrasher like myself who is always on the hunt for records to fill the void that was left by the demise of the raw electricity & naivety that was so prevalent in the 1980’s. But I can’t help but think that Darkness could have amounted to more than this given what they’ve been able to achieve by simply borrowing the tools of their more highly regarded countrymen. Oh well… Did I really need another German thrash heavy-weight in my life anyway? Possibly not but “Death Squad” does a pretty good job of reminding me of why I fell in love with Teutonic thrash in the first place.
For fans of: Kreator, Destruction & Necronomicon.
Genres: Thrash Metal
Poland boasts a very strong pedigree in black metal which dates back to the height of the second wave explosion in the mid-1990’s with the likes of Christ Agony, Graveland, Behemoth, Arkona, Sacrilegium & Lux Occulta all ensuring that Polish metalheads would have a local hero to support while they worshipped at the altar of the Norwegians. However, I think it’s fair to say though that the Poles would not manage to elevate themselves to anything greater than a support act during that period & would have to wait until the mid-2000’s to compete at the elite level of extreme metal’s darkest subgenre. That gap would eventually be filled by the earliest works of a mysterious duo from Krakow known as Mgła & they would provide Poland’s extreme metal fanbase with its first black metal superstar; a title they’ve retained relatively comfortably ever since.
The Mgła story (pronounced “m-gwa” which is Polish for “fog”) would begin in 2000 when 19 year-old multi-instrumentalist Mikołaj “M” Żentara (the son of a well-known Polish actor) & drummer Dariusz "Daren" Piper decided to collaborate on a purely studio-oriented black metal project. Mikołaj’s previous experience amounted to just a couple of minor solo projects under the Arca Funebris & Leichenhalle monikers; efforts that only resulted in crude demo recordings with both following more of an industrial-tinged ambient direction than a metal one. Daren, on the other hand, had a fair bit more experience under his belt following stints with unheralded underground black metal acts like Blade Of The Sword, Holy Death & Aragon throughout the 1990’s. The pair would record two crude demo tapes during the 2000/01 period (both of which remain unreleased to this day) before deciding to collaborate with Daren’s Holy Death band mate Necronosferatus on a new black metal project going by the name of Kriegsmaschine which would see Mgła’s productivity stifled for the next couple of years. M would continue to juggle Mgła & Kriegsmachine right up to the current day but Mgła’s first noteworthy achievement would come through their involvement in Finnish black metal label Northern Heritage Records’ 2005 “Crushing The Holy Trinity” split album (which also included France’s Deathspell Omega & Finland’s Stabat Mater, Musta Surma, Clandestine Blaze & Exordium) with Mgła’s involvement with the label having been consistent ever since.
2006 would be another major year for Mgła as it would see the release of two well received EPs, the second one “Mdłości” becoming Poland’s first genuinely classic black metal record. Mgła’s music careers were now well & truly on the up & up but a change was afoot with Daren opting to leave both Mgła & Kriegmaschine in quick succession. It’s unclear as to what the reason for his departure was but one would assume that he & M must have had a major falling out for him to take such a drastic action. Regardless though, it would not see Mgła’s newly found bubble bursting with talented skinsman Maciej Kowalski (also known as “Darkside”) being quickly drafted into both bands & the rest is history really. M & Darkside would proceed to put out high quality black metal under both monikers at sporadic intervals ever since but it would be Mgła’s celebrated 2012 album “With Hearts Towards None” that would take the band to the international stage & would signal the arrival of Mgła as a live performer. It would also be my initiation to the band & to be completely honest, I have to admit that I found it a little underwhelming at the time. It was certainly an enjoyable listen but it didn’t seem to offer much that the great second wave releases of the 1990’s hadn’t already mastered & it hasn’t been a release that I’ve returned to often over the eight years since.
But this brings us to 2015’s “Exercises In Futility” record which would see Mgła reaching even greater commercial heights & would overtake “With Hearts Towards None” as the elite example of Polish black metal. As with Mgła’s first two full-lengths, it would again be released through Northern Heritage Records; the label having now built a very solid reputation through 16 years of high quality black metal releases from the likes of Clandestine Blaze, Deathspell Omega, Satanic Warmaster, Ildjarn-Nidhogg, Baptism, Inferi, Ride For Revenge, Peste Noire & Stabat Mater. M’s growing experience behind the mixing desk saw him handling the mixing & production duties once again & the result would be a fully developed, stunningly professional & crystal clear realization of his art that may be at least partially responsible for the significant backlash that Mgła have experienced from certain parts of the black metal audience who are still craving ever more lo-fi production qualities. These parties have very little basis for their qualms in my opinion as the quality of sound we receive with “Exercises In Futility” is beyond criticism in my opinion. No, it’s not in any way lo-fi but that hasn’t seen any trade-offs being made in regard to atmosphere. It’s quite simply the perfect platform for Mgła’s sweeping & melodic brand of black metal as it highlights the real strengths in the band’s sound. M’s gorgeous riffs sound thick, pure & precise which helps them to gain maximum value from the often repetitive & trance-like arrangements. It’s interesting that the bass lines are not all that easy to pick out which isn’t terribly important when your rhythm guitar tone has enough natural bass to give the music its imposing menace. Darkside’s cymbals have been afforded an uncommon brightness & vibrancy in order to showcase his impressive skill sets with the rest of his kit having been mixed a little lower in classic black metal fashion. This was presumably intentional & makes a lot of sense in the grand scheme of things. There is no reliance on artificial bells & whistles to maintain engagement here with the occasional use of keyboards being employed very subtly & with impeccable timing to enhance the atmospheric peaks. This is definitely not your most abrasive & inaccessible black metal release & it unashamedly thumbs its nose at its competition in that it achieves oodles of atmosphere without ever resorting to gimmicks or self-sabotage as a tool.
The cover artwork for “Exercises In Futility” has been borrowed from deceased French engraver Marcel Roux with this particular piece from 1908 being known as “L'aveugle” (translation: “The Blind”). It’s a disturbing image & is a fine accompaniment for the overarching lyrical concept which is completely focused on the pointlessness of life, the realization that it doesn’t really matter what you do, think or feel, the ultimate futility of our existence on this earth. It’s an incredibly depressing ideology but not one that’s terribly uncommon for black metal. It’s just that Mgła’s lyrical & musical artistry is so beautifully developed & executed that its themes become a more major part of the experience & by the end of your second listen you’ll likely find yourself genuinely questioning whether things really ARE as futile as they’re suggested to be.
Similarly, the music Mgła are pushing here is nothing new for the genre. This is an unashamedly black metal release with the band seemingly celebrating the genre’s second wave glory days with a confidence & maturity that’s rarely seen in this game. Mgła really REALLY know their sound & fans of the band’s previous material will not see any major surprising surfacing here although almost every element has been more finely honed & refined with every nuance having a defined purpose. There’s not a lot of variation across the tracklisting but there doesn’t need to be when your execution is this precise & you keep your run time to such a palatable duration. The basis for Mgła’s sound sits predominantly with classic raw Scandinavian black metal however you never lose the feeling that they should be in some way associated with the more melodic approach of Dissection because their reliance on melody is such an important component of their sound. But in saying that, Mgła never take things too far in that regard by losing the overarching menace of the rawer style of black metal so I’d never actually label them as a melodic black metal band despite the shared tools. Perhaps the clean production is responsible for further pushing the claims of that more melodic subgenre? Quite possibly & the lack of reliance on blast beats is probably another factor given the endless fascination that most modern black metal bands seem to have with them. Darkside’s semi-regular use of more open, restrained & rocky beats is certainly something you’d usually associate more with your meloblack crowd too & it’s the obvious weak point of the album for me personally.
Being the huge old-school Burzum fan that I am, I was very pleased to hear the regular influence of Varg’s more atmospheric brand of black metal on Mgła’s music here too. There are plenty of moments where I can clearly identify particular Burzum tracks as the source of inspiration however I wouldn’t say that Mgła ever really flirt with the atmospheric black metal subgenre for too long. It’s just that the riffs often have a similarly trance-inducing quality to them. “Exercises in Futility V” is probably the best example of this with its opening section owing much to the opening track “Dunkelheit” from Burzum's classic 1996 album “Filosofem”. Most tracks also contain sweeping melodic riffs that often remind me a fair bit of English black metallers Winterfylleth. There’s a majestic beauty to their construction & execution that defies the negative connotations of the lyrical themes & enhances the timelessness of the music which is a strong indicator of the significance of the release. I’d almost go so far as to use the word soothing for some of the more blasting riffs which just goes to show how Mgła manage to maintain the listeners interest through the use of subtle changes in atmosphere regardless of the fact that they generally stick to their musical guns throughout.
The musicianship on display from the two contributors is nothing short of astounding for a black metal act. The duo very clearly click as musicians with the clinical nature of the performances making it all sound so easy. I don’t think there’s any doubt that they stay well within themselves most of the time though. You get the very distinct feeling that they both have at least another couple of gears up their sleeve & leave a fair bit in the tank by the end of the album. Perhaps this is one of the things that makes “Exercises In Futility” so damn appealing to such a wide audience. They don’t over-complicate things & Darkside knows when to leave space which accentuates the transitions back into the more intense & blasting sections really well. You can easily see how Mgła would offer a greater appeal to the female audience than other black metal artists might & that’s not in any way a criticism. They’ve somehow managed to achieve a suitable level of intimidation without ever completely sacrificing on accessibility.
M’s execution of the riffs is so tight that he almost sounds mechanical at times but this is an indication of just how on top of his sound he is. You get the feeling that he has complete creative control over Mgła’s sound & deservedly so too. I’m a big fan of everything he does here. He’s clearly well versed in all of the greats of the various black metal subgenres & has only borrowed from the absolute elite which makes “Exercises In Futility” somewhat of a celebration of the genre. There’s really only the one flirtation with a clean guitar sound included with the intro to “Exercises in Futility VI” sounding very much like Anathema. M’s gravel-throated vocals remind me quite a bit of Satyr from Satyricon & are extremely effective. The fact that you can easily make out the depressive poetry of his lyrics provides further enhancement for the thematic content & gives the album’s artistic claims a further boost while his tone is evil enough to spread fear & dread throughout many a kindgom. Darkside’s drumming is even more impressive though. Especially his cymbal work which showcases both his incredible skill & a ridiculous level of attention to detail. His continued use of cymbal rolls is very unusual & I find it to be a real joy to listen to. At times it almost sounds too pretty & intricate for this style of black metal but there’s little doubt that he’s amongst the best drummers in the genre. I genuinely feel that the album wouldn’t have offered the same sort of appeal with another drummer as the simplicity of the riff structures may not have been as well received if not for the ambition & extravagance that Darkside offers us here.
It’s really pretty hard to understand the backlash that Mgła have experienced over the years. It seems very much like tall poppy syndrome to me as this is a classy flexing of the creative muscles of a band that was clearly at the peak of their powers. Sure it’s a little more melodic than I’m usually able to cope with at times, there are a few rocky beats that I’m at odds with & it essentially takes a similar direction to hundreds of black metal releases you’ve likely heard before but few artists have been as successful in their execution or offered as balanced a result. “Exercises In Futility” is a celebration of black metal as an art form & a bold statement of intent &, as such, it represents not only the pinnacle of Mgła’s career but also of Polish black metal as a whole.
For fans of: Uada, Kriegsmaschine & Plaga
Genres: Black Metal
The English thrash scene of the 1980’s was always a bit different to that of the more celebrated Americans & Germans. It was more about quality over quantity with far less options for consumers to choose from & perhaps this contributed to the comparative lack of fanfare that the Brits received. It’s hard to say but one thing’s for sure & that’s that Birmingham thrashers Sacrilege played a very important role in the development & subsequent growth of English thrash metal in the mid-to-late 80’s. They may not have been the very first UK thrash band. That honour would likely sit with Bristol’s Onslaught whose initial demo tapes saw the light of day way back in 1983 when Metallica & Slayer were only just beginning to make waves off the back of their classic debut albums. But 1984 would see Sacrilege taking their own tentative first steps out into the thrash wilderness & by the time 1985 rolled around we’d see a small English scene being formed with several debut albums being released in quick succession.
When you examine the early English forays into thrash-oriented realms, it’s hard to miss the important role that hardcore & crust punk played in the development of the local scene. Unlike the majority of their American counterparts, the early British thrash releases universally included a strong punk component, at times even being significant enough to compete on an equal footing with the metal one. Perhaps the strength of the local NWOBHM scene of the early-to-mid 80’s was responsible for keeping metalheads from jumping ship & heading over to thrashier waters but the punks seemed to be genuinely excited by the more aggressive & extreme sounds coming out of the early thrash scene. The 1985 debut albums from Onslaught, Sacrilege, Concrete Sox & English Dogs all show the outcome of punks exploring their newly found interest in metal.
Sacrilege began life as a crust punk band in Birmingham, England in 1984. Guitarist Damian Thompson & drummer Andrew Baker had played in d-beat bands Warwound & The Varukers together before Thompson had left to start Sacrilege with vocalist Lynda “Tam” Simpson, a move which saw his former band mate following shortly afterwards. The influence of the early US thrash scene would soon have a major impact on the band’s sound which saw even their earliest demo recordings catering to both audiences. By the time Sacrilege entered Rich Bitch studios in Birmingham to record their debut album “Behind The Realms Of Madness” in July 1985 they were very much a hybrid act. The album would be released through small independent Bristol label Children Of The Revolution Records & not only would it be the release that best signaled the coming of the English thrash metal assault but it also become a major historical landmark as one of the first releases to incorporate a combined crust punk & thrash metal sound. Sacrilege’s lyrical content showed clear signs of the band’s origins too as they took a much more politically charged approach than any thrash metal band had attempted previously which would be a major influence on the early UK grindcore scene. “Behind The Realms Of Madness” would be my first experience with Sacrilege back in the early 1990’s & I have to say that I found it to be more interesting than anything else. I found it very hard to categorize with the unusual production & regular stylistic jumps being initially a little off-putting with subsequent revisits seeing the album gaining more & more traction as I became accustomed to its unique quirks. These days, I perhaps don’t rate it quite as highly as many other thrash fans seem to but I certainly find it to be an enjoyable listen.
So this brings us to the topic of discussion in Sacrilege’s sophomore album “Within The Prophecy” which would be released through London-based label Under One Flag Records in 1987. Under One Flag were a subsidiary label of Music for Nations who had a very strong pedigree in quality metal stretching back to 1983 & by the time “Within The Prophecy” was released Under One Flag had already been responsible for releasing several noteworthy metal albums such as English Dogs “Where Legend Began”, Onslaught’s “The Force” & Possessed’s “Beyond The Gates”. Despite it’s unusual sound, Sacrilege’s new label must have been fairly happy with the result of the “Behind The Realms Of Madness” recording sessions because “Within The Prophecy” would once again be recorded at Rich Bitch Studios with Mike Ivory returning to share the production duties with the band. Bass player Tony May would not participate in the recording with guitarist Thompson handling the bass duties in his absence. Tony had always struggled with the pressures of the recording process & by that stage it had all simply gotten too much for him & he’d leave the band shortly afterwards.
As with the debut, the production job that resulted from the “Within The Prophecy” sessions would be a major talking point & would prove to be somewhat of a love-it-or-hate-it prospect for many fans. “Behind The Realms Of Madness” had commanded a similar response with it’s thick but somewhat muffled guitar tone gaining a cult following amongst underground metal & punk fans alike. It seems like the band had wanted to maintain that sound moving forwards as there are no signs of additional clarity being sought for the follow-up. On the contrary, “Within The Prophecy” offers an even more overwhelmingly filthy guitar tone that is thrust out to the front of the mix & reminds me very much of the early grindcore scene that was just around the corner. The distorted bass tone blends in with the wall of guitars while drummer Andy Baker struggles to compete on a sonic level with a booming snare drum sound being his main defensive weapon. It’s a very noisy sound to be honest, however it has a lot more life to it than the debut with the additional brightness contributing to the overall energy levels & the pure distortion only adding to Sacrilege’s metal credentials despite the lack of definition. In its defense, I don’t think the lack of clarity ever diminishes my ability to make out the riffs & it seems to have been a conscious decision to take more of a mid-tempo approach with this album in order to ensure that the band gained maximum impact from this guitar tone as faster material may have resulted in a messier outcome. The positive of this approach is that “Within The Prophecy” sounds much more extreme than it actually is. The guitar tone masks the simplicity of some of the riffs & it’s doubtful that they would have been as effective with a cleaner production. On the other side of the coin, this style of over-the-top production job does make the album sound a bit samey which can’t be said of its predecessor which included noticeably more stylistic variation. Underneath the noise is a band that clearly isn’t pushing the top tier bands but knows their sound & niche quite well & doesn’t stray outside of their creative comfort zone too much.
“Within The Prophecy” came with some very different cover art to the debut which sported the suitably dark & nasty image of a grim reaper type character stalking a graveyard. This time they went for a photograph of a woman standing by a couple of stone pillars which seem to mark an entrance of some sort & she is being greeted by a murder of crows. It’s a fairly drastic stylistic departure from the debut it has to be said & is nowhere near as effective in my opinion. The image seems far more appropriate for a gothic rock or darkwave release than a thrash metal one & is not done any favours by the colour scheme that’s been employed for both the band’s logo & the album title. The bubbly Sacrilege logo offers very little menace when presented in glistening pale blue & white while whoever opted to go with a purpley pink for the album title should surely have been sacked immediately.
After the initial shock of the production settled, the first thing that most fans noticed about “Within The Prophecy” was the reduction in the crust punk component of Sacrilege’s sound & this was the cause for some concern amongst the band’s more punk oriented fans. It’s a much more metal focused release than “Behind The Realms Of Madness” was although it tends to stick mainly with mid-paced tempos which isn’t something you’d usually associate with a thrash metal release. The record also offers hints at the doom metal sound the band would employ for 1989’s “Turn Back Trilobite” record & as such it marks somewhat of a transitional release for Sacrilege. In saying that though, I feel that the doom metal component of “Within The Prophecy” is generally overstated. Sure, Sacrilege is from Birmingham. But do we really hear all that much Black Sabbath in their sound? I don’t think Sabbath’s influence is as obvious as some reviewers seem to think. It’s more in the structure of some of the groovier down-tempo riffs which often provide a sneaky little hint at the groove metal sound that would be developed in the USA in the coming years.
I have to admit that I’ve always struggled with the idea of Sacrilege as a genuine thrash metal band &, even though “Within The Prophecy” was arguably their thrashiest release, it’s also a very good example of why. Sacrilege’s riffs are rarely something you’d immediately associate with thrash. They’re not often all that fast & rarely employ tremolo picking. In fact, if you really examine them you’ll often find that they’re closer to traditional heavy metal in structure however it’s the guitar tone that makes it almost impossible to make that association as the resulting rawness & atmosphere has a lot more in common with thrash & (in much the same way as the debut) represents the deciding vote in the genrificiation debate with thrash being the victor simply because it’s closer to the truth than the alternatives. I actually read someone referring to the sound of “Within The Prophecy” as “sludge-thrash” the other day & that’s not all that bad a description really. Although the crust punk component has been reduced, extreme metal fans will very easily be able to identify links to grindcore in the groovier mid-paced riffs, particularly during the B-side. It’s really very clear that Sacrilege was a major influence on the early grindcore movement which shouldn’t be all that surprising when you consider the links to early grindcore exponents Unseen Terror through former Sacrilege guitarist Mitch Dickinson (Unseen Terror also including future Napalm Death member Shane Embury). Upon revisiting the album for the first time in years this week, I was actually surprised at just how many riffs reminded me of Terrorizer & Napalm Death.
There are a couple of really cool little keyboard intros & interludes included which definitely add to the atmosphere & the track durations are quite lengthy for a thrash release with just the seven tracks including the epic eleven minute closer “Search Eternal” which beautifully sums up the various elements at play across the previous six songs. It’s interesting that the band have opted not to go with traditional song structures with very few (if any) of these tracks utilizing choruses & I feel that this has contributed to the saminess I mentioned earlier. The faster material at the start of the A-side has a noticeable Dark Angel vibe to it with the lengthy introduction to the opening track “Sight Of The Wise” positively reeking of Slayer’s “Hell Awaits”. In fact, that song is a total trash-fest which probably goes a long way to firming up the album’s thrash credentials. There’s not a trace of punk or doom about the early stages of the record in all honesty. Those elements become far more prevalent as the record progresses.
The musicianship on display is generally pretty basic but is clearly not intended to be a focal point. The use of guitar harmonies is a real strength as they provide a pleasant contrast to the over-the-top rhythm guitar tone & add to the overall atmosphere. I wouldn’t say that Thompson is a particularly talented lead guitarist as his solos are fairly generic but he certainly has a knack for melody when he puts his mind to it. His rhythm playing is pretty sloppy for the most part but this is not really a significant hinderance due to it being partially disguised by the noisy production & also the inherent crust punk street cred that is attached to the band. The drumming of Andy Baker is the clear weakness of the album in my opinion though. A lot of his beats incorporate a swing that may owe a lot to Black Sabbath’s Bill Ward but are often quite bouncy at the same time. Although that may sound good on paper & is certainly a differentiator of sorts, in reality it takes away from the intensity of the music at times & limits the album’s potential to an extent.
As with any female-fronted metal band, Tam’s vocal performance tends to receive a lot more attention than it might otherwise have drawn. In actual fact, her vocal contributions are kept a little bit more minimal than you’ll generally be accustomed to with thrash bands & (perhaps surprisingly) I don’t tend to think of her as one of the more important elements of the album, at least not from a purely sonic point of view. The debut saw her going with an aggressive & punky delivery that offered a little more extremity than we get here where she’s presented in a cleaner fashion. There’s more femininity about her performance here & I wouldn’t say that it’s overly aggressive. She doesn’t exactly “sing” & her limitations are more obvious than they were on the debut as she’s definitely a little more exposed but she does a reasonable job without ever taking the reins as the focal point of the band. She’s definitely a point of difference but Sacrilege tends to rely on the production to give them their x-factor rather than the riffs which aren’t exactly a drawcard when viewed in isolation.
When you take a look at “Within The Prophecy” holistically, my last statement sums up the record pretty well actually. None of the elements of Sacrilege’s sound are taken from the top tier of the thrash metal spectrum however the sum of their parts amounts to significantly more than the individual elements might suggest. One of Sacrilege’s most important attributes is that they know what they do well & make every effort to gain maximum value out of those key components so it’s very hard to be critical. On the contrary, I actually find myself feeling an attraction to “Within The Prophecy” that defies much of the content of my review thus far. There’s a quality to the song-writing that seems to thumb its nose at the lack of vocal hooks & general variation & I never find myself losing engagement. Despite what some critics may think, I find that there’s something to be said for bands that have their own sound & focus purely on what they do well without ever stepping too far outside their comfort zones & the overall consistency of the tracklisting here is testament that this approach works. So much so that I can’t help but rate “Within The Prophecy” ahead of its more highly regarded older sibling. It’s definitely more in line with my personal taste given the reduced punk component which was always going to be an advantage but I think that its more focused approach has had a positive impact on the appeal it offers me too. Overall, it’s a very strong release that’s often overlooked in favour of “Behind The Realms Of Madness” however I think that most thrash fans will enjoy it, regardless of which side of the genre tag debate you might fall on. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that “Within The Prophecy” is my favourite English thrash release to the time.
For fans of: Détente, Onslaught & English Dogs
Genres: Thrash Metal
Sometimes in metal you can uncover an artist that possessed enormous talent & vision but somehow managed to slip through the cracks & miss the boat completely. An artist that was perhaps so far ahead of their time that they simply drifted under the radar without ever drawing the level of attention that they so rightfully deserved. These occurrences seem to be a lot more common these days in an online market that’s completely flooded with bedroom wannabes but it’s much rarer for your more experienced old-school metal fanatic to identify a band from the first couple of decades of metal that is not only regarded as a tier one player in their field but who have also never crossed their radar in any capacity. But that was the scenario I was presented with when I returned to metal following a decade in the musical wilderness in 2009. It seemed quite strange to see an unfamiliar name that was apparently involved in the NWOBHM movement sitting right up near the top of the doom metal charts on several recognized (but inferior) online metal resources as I thought I knew everything there was to know about pre-1998 metal. I'd soon discover that the reason for my ignorance was largely because mysterious London doom metallers Pagan Altar’s legendary self-titled release was in fact recorded as a demo & only saw a proper release in 1998 i.e. the very year my interest in metal had begun to wane. Once I gave the self-titled Pagan Altar release a few listens, I came to the realization that whilst I found it to be a generally enjoyable listen, there were a few elements to it that saw me unable to rate it as highly as most doom fans seem to want to do. The vocals tended to grate on me over time with Terry Jones repeating the same phrasing over & over again. I also found it frustrating that there were portions of very high quality doom metal on display right across the tracklisting but there wasn’t really a song that didn’t see the band diluting it with more upbeat & less effective material at some point. And lastly, the DIY production was always going to be a limiting factor when rating a supposedly classic doom release.
So this brings me to “The Time Lord” EP; an archival release that covers Pagan Altar’s earliest previously unreleased recordings. The band were first formed in 1978 by father & son team Terry & Alan Jones which impressively makes them one of the earliest players in the NWOBHM story; a fact made even more impressive by the clear metal credentials of most of this material. Pagan Altar clearly didn’t waste any time & weren’t short of inspiration as all of the material included on “The Time Lord” comes from the 1978/79 period which pushes Pagan Altar into uncharted territory for the traditional doom metal subgenre which is generally regarded as having kicked off around 1982 through bands like Witchfinder General. I don’t think this can be understated because what we have here is five tracks that are already fully formed & developed rather than yet another 70’s proto-doom exponent whose doom credentials were tenuous at best. In historical context, this could indeed have made “The Time Lord” the first true doom metal record if a) it had seen an actual release & b) you discount Black Sabbath & Pentagram’s 70’s works (which I do). That’s really pretty surprising given that I’d never even heard of Pagan Altar up until 2009.
“The Time Lord” would eventually see the light of day through Swedish label I Hate Records in 2004. It was clearly a good move for I Hate as they hadn’t really released anything of significance up until that point & it would enable them to cash in on the underground buzz that had been steadily building around the reissues of Pagan Altar’s self-titled demo during the mid-to-late 1990’s. I have no idea how the label came across these recordings. Presumably through the band themselves you would think as they reformed the same year as this record came out after discovering that their self-titled release was selling for insane prices online. Nonetheless, the purpose of the original demos is unclear. Given their quality, I would have to guess that they weren’t given an appropriate level of marketing as I can’t understand how a legitimate record deal wouldn’t have eventuated from them to be honest. It’s one of metal’s greatest shames really as there was so much promise in this band right from the very beginning so it would have been interesting to have seen what they could have become had they managed to get their debut album onto the shelves during the height of the NWOBHM in 1980. Unfortunately, it was not to be & we’d be destined to ponder over what might have been for decades to come.
“The Time Lord” E.P. includes just five tracks but spans a full half hour in duration due to the lengthy run times of most of the songs. The first couple of tracks were recorded at a studio in New Cross, London while the other three were laid down at Pagan Altar’s own studio with the band presumably handling production themselves. Despite having been remastered in recent times, the sound quality is of demo tape quality & also gives the impression of having been recorded pretty much live. The self-titled release may well have been a demo recording too but it certainly had a heavier overall sound than what we get here. I would think that some of that can be put down to the time it was produced though as there were very different expectations when it came to recording heavy music in the 70’s with things changing pretty quickly during the early 80’s. Being a doom metal release, the rhythm guitar sound can definitely do with more weight as it comes across as pretty thin, even though it does possess a distinctively 70’s quality that adds to the mystique to a degree. That’s a characteristic that’s shared by the entire release really. There’s an authenticity to "The Time Lord"s sound that makes it a little more endearing than it might otherwise have been. It has depth, substance & meaning. You can really get involved with it on an emotional level. It’s not a quick fix & is not as obvious as what the majority of early 80’s metal would become & that’s an attractive prospect for me personally.
The original I Hate Records pressing of the E.P. came armed with a cover that showed a photograph of a stone bench that was draped in long grass, shrubbery & sunlight. To me this image doesn’t do the doomier side of Pagan Altar's sound justice as it doesn’t accurately reflect the darkness of some of the material, even though it does have an organic 70’s hippy vibe to it that isn’t necessarily without context within the band's noticeably psychedelic sound. The subsequent reissues however, come with the noticeably darker & more mysterious image of a foggy cemetery in front of a spooky stone building with the face of a bearded man (presumably the Time Lord himself) looking down on the scene. It’s a much more suitable accompaniment for the music contained within in my opinion so I’m glad to see that all re-releases have continued with it.
The early music of Pagan Altar isn’t really all that different to that of the infamous self-titled 1982 release in all honesty. In fact, three of the five tracks were re-recorded for that release & in much the same format too. There’s a fair bit of variation in style evident across the tracklisting which keeps you on your toes without ever sounding jarring. Of the five tracks on offer here, I’d suggest that four of them fall very obviously into the traditional doom metal category with Black Sabbath’s 1970’s material being the obvious inspiration. But there’s a much stronger psychedelic influence to this material than Sabbath ever incorporated with the expansive lead guitar work being very much the result of having crossed Tony Iommi with Hawkwind. I’d suggest that Pentagram’s more psychedelic 70’s material is not a bad point of reference with the lengthy title track following more of a psychedelic rock route than a metal one. In fact, it kinda sounds like a more psychedelic version of the rockier material that Black Sabbath were producing at the time (see 1978’s “Never Say Die!” album) which probably shouldn’t be a surprise given Pagan Altar’s obvious affiliation with their idols. It’s interesting that the atmosphere of almost all of this material seems to keep at least a few toes planted firmly on the rock side of the fence even during the most metal moments which has a fair bit to do with the production &, surprisingly, I find this to provide an extra layer of appeal. I honestly wouldn’t have guessed I’d view it as a positive if you had of suggested it to me beforehand but it’s hard to deny the attraction of an authentic 70’s rock sound for a music tragic like myself.
The musicianship on display is excellent throughout. Particularly from lead guitarist Alan Jones & bassist Glenn Robinson. As highlighted on the self-titled release, Jones is the best thing about “The Time Lord” & it’s his generous contribution that gives Pagan Altar their psychedelic edge. Alan was already a very skilled campaigner with his long melodic solos always being well constructed & full of meaning & intent. Glenn Robinson has quite clearly spent a great deal of time studying at the Geezer Butler School Of Heavy Metal Bass Guitar as he seems to possess a similar understanding of how to run his own race whilst never losing sight of his overall role in the band. His performance here is really interesting & I enjoy it for much the same reasons as I’ve always loved Butler’s contributions to Sabbath. A couple of different drummers have contributed to the different sessions but there’s not a noticeable difference between the two & both have formed a more than reasonable combination with Robinson, with the interaction between the instrumentalists being one of the real strengths of the EP. Interestingly, none of the three contributors to the rhythm section would be around for the recording of the self-titled release in 1982 & neither would rhythm guitarist Les Moody who features on the first couple of tracks which is a very strong indication of the level of ownership the Jones brothers had over Pagan Altar.
As I mentioned earlier, one of my major gripes with the self-titled release was the repetitive nature of Terry Jones’ vocal phrasing but thankfully that doesn’t seem to be an issue with “The Time Lord”. I was actually looking out for it given the shared tracklisting but I couldn’t identify any real problems to speak of. Terry’s delivery is very distinctive but changes a little bit between the tracks with a opener “Highway Cavalier” seeing him employing a gnarlier & significantly gruffer style for example. I didn’t notice it as much on later releases but Terry sounds very much like Manilla Road front man Mark Shelton most of the time & when you take into account the significant psychedelic elements in both band’s early works it creates strong parallels between the two. I think Terry’s voice is well suited to the 70’s psychedelic rock feel of “The Time Lord” & he brings the doomier material a similar haunting quality to Black Sabbath’s Ozzy Osbourne. “The Black Mass” is a fine example of this as it’s pure Sabbath worship for the most part while the outstanding vocal hooks in “Judgement Of The Dead” represent the high point of the EP. It’s interesting that I struggled a bit with lengthy closer “Reincarnation” on the self-titled release but here I find it to be a more enjoyable experience. Perhaps the repetition in the vocal phrasing had eventually caught up with me by the time that song graced my ears & the song structure admittedly still lacks direction here but for some reason it seems more attractive despite not being all that different. It could be that the 70’s vibe is more becoming for that particular track with its hippy-ish feel.
Overall, “The Time Lord” is a very consistent release with no weak material included. Occasionally the band will throw in a simpler riff that sounds a touch more basic than I'd like however the vocals & song-writing are generally strong which helps to overcome this issue. The lack of sonic weight in the primitive production job is certainly an inhibitor & there’s no doubt that it prevents me from reaching for the higher scores but I enjoy the classic 70’s hard rock feel of the instrumentation & arrangements which has a timeless quality to it & the fact that the traditional doom metal atmosphere is already in full effect is impressive for such early recordings. I don’t think too many doom fans will be disappointed with “The Time Lord” but the limitations of its format & tracklisting probably make it a little less essential than it might otherwise have been. Still... I have to admit that I slightly favour it over its more celebrated 80's counterpart so there's no denying that it's a pretty decent listen all round.
For fans of: Ozzy-period Black Sabbath, 70’s Pentagram, Manilla Road
Genres: Doom Metal Heavy Metal
I can still vividly remember my first Cryptic Slaughter experience. I was 13 years old & had just jumped onboard the exciting late 80’s thrash metal juggernaut. I’d developed a strong friendship with another boy in my class & we hung out after school most days. He was a very talented guitarist for his age & he began to teach me how to play. In fact, he even loaned me one of his electric guitars so that I could practice at home & we’d often jam around with his older cousin who was an Alex Van Halen & Charlie Benante obsessed drummer with his own place. One day we were listening to Anthrax’s back catalogue in his disgustingly filthy lounge room when I made a comment about how fast a certain passage was & this seemed to trigger a healthy dosage of scoffing from the two cousins. When I asked what they were laughing about they simply told me to strap myself in before placing a copy of Cryptic Slaughter’s 1986 debut album “Convicted” onto the platter. Needless to say that my mind was well & truly blown by the sheer velocity that was emitted from the cheap ghetto blaster speakers & I quickly realized that I had a lot to learn about metal. I’d end up quite liking the “Convicted” album & those feelings have been maintained over the years which has seen me awarding it a positive rating upon revisiting it earlier this year. It was arguably the fastest thing that had ever been released to the time & is worth exploring for that reason alone but there’s always been somewhat of a running debate in crossover thrash circles over which of the first two Cryptic Slaughter albums is actually the best. I always favoured the debut but it’s been decades since I last gave their sophomore album “Money Talks” a few spins so I thought it might be time to re-evalute that position.
Cryptic Slaughter first formed in 1984 when they were still in their mid-teens. They all attended the same Santa Monica high school & their mutual passions for Slayer, Venom, Motorhead & GBH would provide the catalyst for the recording of a demo tape entitled “Life In Grave” the following year. This would see them attracting the interest of Metal Blade Records head Brian Slagel who would include the track “Reich Of Torture” on his “Metal Massacre VII” compilation in 1986. It was at this time that the Californian crossover thrash scene was starting to take shape following the release of DRI’s seminal 1985 album “Dealing With It”. DRI had relocated from Houston to San Francisco in 1983 & are generally regarded as the first band to successfully combine thrash metal with hardcore punk. Their fresh new sound would have a major impact on the thriving San Francisco thrash scene & would influence bands like Attitude Adjustment to follow their lead with their own debut album “American Paranoia” hitting the shelves in 1986. The other Californian crossover hot spot could be found in Venice with Suicidal Tendencies front man Mike Muir being the central figure in an exciting new scene that would spawn albums from not only his main band but also his Suicidal Records label signings Excel & No Mercy (Muir’s other band) in 1987. It was amongst this exciting new Californian music landscape that Cryptic Slaughter’s debut album “Convicted” would be created with Metal Blade house engineer Bill Metoyer in 1986 & it would prove to be arguably the fastest & most savage of the early crossover thrash records released globally. The band members may only have been very young but they made up for their lack of technical skills & experience with a raw energy & enthusiasm which would give “Convicted” an appeal that would draw in fans from both metal & hardcore punk audiences. In fact, it would also prove to be a major influence on the early UK grindcore scene with Cryptic Slaughter’s use of blast beats in particular being a major influence on grind acts like Unseen Terror & Napalm Death. The band would subsequently become known as one of the originators of that technique along with artists like S.O.D. & Repulsion.
I wasn’t much of a hardcore fan at the time but the violence & electricity in Cryptic Slaughter’s music was able to draw me in & I'd find a fair bit of enjoyment in “Convicted”, despite it never threatening to usurp the Slayer’s & Kreator’s at the very heart of my thrash-obsessed teenage esteem. For this reason, I would chase down the band’s second album “Money Talks” through my high school’s black market tape trading network with the older skaters in the year above me generally being my source for securing quality crossover thrash releases. “Money Talks” would once again be released through Metal Blade who were nothing short of a US metal institution by this stage, having been responsible for releasing a whole slew of classic albums since their inception in 1982; Warlord’s “Deliver Us” & “And The Cannons Of Destruction Have Begun…”, Slayer’s “Show No Mercy”, “Haunting The Chapel” & “Hell Awaits”, Trouble’s “Psalm 9”, Omen’s “Battle Cry” & Fates Warning’s “Awaken The Guardian” being just some of the high quality output Metal Blade had been responsible for in the mid 1980’s. As was generally the case, Bill Metoyer would once again be responsible for taking the reins & he would be credited as co-producing the album with the band members themselves. Unfortunately the results would prove to be a little inconsistent in my opinion. “Money Talks” may possess more clarity than “Convicted” but it lacks the energy of the debut. It simply sounds less unified & focused & comes across as a little messy. Scott Peterson’s drum kit certainly sounds bigger & there’s good separation between the instruments with Rob Nicholson’s bass lines being easily discernable throughout however the main problem is with the guitars as they sound weak & thin & have much more of a sloppy punk feel to them than they did on the debut. This is one of the major weaknesses of “Money Talks” in my opinion & I find it strange that many people don’t seem to see it as an obstacle.
The cover art for “Money Talks” was a definite improvement over the cheap school boy drawing we got with “Convicted” though with Jeff Harp from Long Beach hardcore punk outfit Final Conflict being responsible for the politically-charged image that shows Ronald & Nancy Reagan leading a money-driven campaign of lies & deceit over the American people. This DIY style of image would again provide the influence for a whole slew of similar record covers from UK grindcore bands over the coming years & it’s very much in line with Cryptic Slaughter’s lyrical approach which would touch on some very serious subject matter for a group of teenage boys. The huge influence that the local punk scene had played on this approach is very obvious.
Where “Convicted” saw Cryptic Slaughter seemingly stamping their feet on the accelerator without ever even considering the option of easing it up, “Money Talks” sees the band adding a little more variety to their approach instead of trying to blast the listeners into submission from start to finish. There’s a stronger use of melody in this material which is highlighted by the employment of slower & noticeably groovy breakdowns within most tracks. Despite the fact that this sounds good on paper, the result isn’t quite as positive because when Cryptic Slaughter aren’t brutalizing their audience into submission they tend to leave their technical failings more exposed to criticism. Personally, I find the breakdowns to be very generic & I don’t think they add much value. I’d much rather see the band sticking to the higher velocity delivery of the debut to be honest & when we do see them dropping their shackles & going for broke they possess the same impressive levels of intensity. There’s a noticeable post punk influence to some of the more laidback bass lines which is interesting though & I find this to be a welcome inclusion.
The performances of the various band members are very hit & miss & it seems to me that the blasting material tends to hide a lot of the deficiencies in the techniques of the young band members. There are regular timing issues here with drummer Scott Peterson seeming to struggle with the more mid-paced material. In fact, the band sounds like a runaway train a lot of the time with guitarist les Evans also contributing a very sloppy performance. It’s only the raw aggression of front man Bill Crooks that manages to pull the band out of the fire a lot of the time & he represents the clear highlight of the album for mine. He sounds nothing short of psychotic at times with his take-no-prisoners approach being just what the doctor ordered for a metal & punk audience that was now craving ever more extreme feats of human exertion.
Despite the fact that “Money Talks” is generally regarded as a crossover thrash release, I have to admit that there’s really very little thrash metal included here (or metal for that matter). To my ears, it’s much more focused on a straight-edged hardcore punk sound in combination with the regular use of blast beats so I think the thrashcore tag is a more accurate description of the sound you can expect the hear. There’s no doubt that this contributes to me not rating the album as highly as the debut but the top heavy tracklisting has also played a part. All of the best material is laid on the table within the first four tracks & I find my interest tends to wander through the back end with the last few tracks seeming to peter out significantly. There are no real shockers included but I find it very difficult not to let the production & performance issues taint my listening experience &, for that reason, “Money Talks” has never offered me much appeal.
For fans of: DRI, Attitude Adjustment & Wehrmacht
Genres: Thrash Metal
Different bands have very different stories. Some will seemingly go from zero to hero in a matter of a year by getting signed almost immediately & laying down their debut album before they’ve even had time to fully develop while others are much more of a slow burn with a number of false starts along the way. New Jersey thrash metallers Hades fall firmly into the latter category with the band’s story having already spanned a full decade by the time their debut full-length hit the shelves in 1987. In fact, the very first incarnation of Hades was formed way back in January 1978 which would have made them arguably the earliest thrash band in existence if they had in fact been a thrash band at the time. This wasn’t the case however. They were still playing radio-friendly hard rock covers & learning to play their instruments but their dynasty had already begun with guitarist Dan Lorenzo having already selected the band’s moniker in a ninth grade mythology class.
As with so many high school bands, not a lot would happen for a full four years until Hades would find themselves opening for the raw & exciting Twisted Sister who were showcasing their debut “Ruff Cutts” E.P. at the time. This show would prove to be the catalyst for Hades to get more serious with their debut single “Deliver Us From Evil” seeing the light of day shortly afterwards. It was a pretty lackluster affair in my opinion which saw the band pushing more of a traditional heavy metal sound. Live shows would start to flow more regularly at this point however & a couple of cheap demo tapes would soon lead to appearances on the “Metal Massacre VI” & “Born To Metalize” compilations. Vocalist Alan Tecchio, second guitarist Scott LePage & bassist Jimmy Schulman would join the fold in 1985 & another single entitled “The Cross” would follow shortly afterwards in 1986.
It was around this mid-80’s period that Hades would become more interested in the burgeoning thrash metal movement that was taking the world by storm than your reliable old Maiden’s & Priest’s. Main song-writer Dan Lorenzo would become infatuated with Slayer & Exodus’ debut album “Bonded By Blood” & it would see Hades making a significant change in musical direction. The New Jersey thrash scene had a reasonably strong pedigree in the early years of the subgenre with Overkill & Whiplash being amongst the earliest exponents of the sound but Hades would become a part of a second wave of New Jersey thrash bands that included the more extreme Blood Feast & Blessed Death who had recently abandoned their speed metal roots.
Things were heating up for Hades with 1987 proving to be the most important year in the band's story thus far. The interest in their second single had led to them signing a recording contract with US label Torrid Records who had made a name for themselves through Exodus’ legendary 1985 debut album “Bonded By Blood”. Torrid co-founders Ken Adams & Todd Gordon would bring in producer David Blake who had previously worked with Hades on “The Cross” single & the three of them would produce the “Resisting Success” album in collaboration with the band themselves. Adams & Gordon had been enormously successful with their involvement in the production of “Bonded By Blood” so this arrangement boded very well for Hades but I have to admit that the result was a little bit of an anticlimax given just how strong, influential & enduring the production job on Exodus’ debut was, particularly that iconic rhythm guitar tone. “Resisting Success” sounds very much like the third tier underground thrash release that it is & that’s mostly due to a tinny guitar tone that doesn’t manage to fully highlight the strength & energy in the riffs & melodies. The rhythm section sound much better however. Particularly the bass guitar which has received a lot of emphasis in the mix & for good reason. I recently read that Jimmy Schulman asked the engineer to give him a similar sound to Chris Squire from legendary London progressive rockers Yes which makes a lot of sense when you hear the result. Drummer Tom “Agh” Coombs’ kick drum has been allocated a fair amount of high end which gives it a noticeable click but it’s nothing too extreme & the drums are generally well presented. This sort of raw but reasonably adequate production job was par for the course for mid-80’s thrash debuts so I don’t want to be too harsh but I just get the feeling that Hades had a little bit more to offer than is shown to us here.
The cover art for “Resisting Success” is fairly interesting although it’s not exactly in a style the screams of thrash. The medieval looking logo & borders, the Illuminati-style pyramid with the levitating peak, the more subtle album title…. it all seems a little bit more progressive to me & I wouldn’t have been surprised if the music it contained sounded kinda like 70’s prog rock. In fact, there are strong stylistic similarities to the cover art used for the 1979 self-titled debut album from US progressive metal outfit Legend to tell you the truth. Hades music does have a fair bit of sophistication about it at times though & the last couple of tracks offer more than a hint at a progressive influence. Particularly the 9+ minute closer “Masque Of The Red Death” which is a fully fledged progressive metal affair. There’s actually a fair bit of ambition shown for a thrash debut with good complexity throughout the entire tracklisting so I literally felt a penny drop inside my brain when I discovered that Hades had already been around for a decade by this stage. You very rarely see a band having to wait that long to hit the shelves but (in much the same way as the before-mentioned Twisted Sister who formed in 1972) the added experience they’d gained along the way shows pretty obviously here.
Musically, this is definitely a thrash metal album. Sure, Hades may flirt with other subgenres on occasion but their overall sound sees those moments always sounding like a thrash band that’s trying something different. A lot of that has to do with the crunchy guitar tone & chuggy mid-paced riffs which are distinctively thrash oriented but there are a few old demo & single tracks included that give you a very graphic view of the transition that Hades had taken over time. The more emotionally-charged acoustic-led “The Cross” is probably the most obvious example & it’s the only track that I’d describe as fitting better under the classic heavy metal banner than a thrash one although “Sweet Revenge” (another old single track) is somewhat of a hybrid. That’s not to say that the rest of the material is always flat-out however as Hades aren’t afraid to slow things down for the occasional Sabbath-inspired groove riff. In fact, when they’re at their slowest I can hear distinct similarities to Swedish doom masters Candlemass which is probably emphasized by the operatic vocal delivery. I’ve often seen “Resisting Success” linked with speed metal too but apart from the odd riff in opening track “The Leaders?” I don’t really see it. There's certainly fast stuff included here but Hades tend to traverse a wide array of tempos.
The quality of the musicianship is outstanding for a debut album & this is a real strength for the band. Hades make great use of the twin guitar attack with the lead work all proving to be more than capable. I really dig a band that can use guitar harmonies without ever approaching the cheese line but it’s the rhythm section that impresses me most. Tom Coombs’ drumming is always interesting with his array of fills & cymbal work giving Hades’ sound additional freshness. Bassist Jimmy Schulman is the best thing about “Resisting Success” though as he approaches metal bass playing from a far more progressive direction, regularly employing bass chords as well some quite complex licks & solos. He’s a really talented musician in his own right so I’m not overly surprised that the producers have opted to highlight that in the mix.
The other major talking point is the contribution of front man Alan Tecchio whose higher register delivery may not be all that common in thrash circles but proves that this approach can be more than effective when it’s done right. His voice occupies a similar space to Agent Steel’s John Cyriis & Anthrax’s Joey Belladonna a lot of the time &, although he’s not always on the money, he usually manages to get by on charisma alone. Alan is definitely at his best when he gets right up there though & I find those sections to be the most satisfying on the record. See album highlight “Legal Tender” for a great example of that as his soaring screams beautifully compliment some exhilarating riff work that reminds me very much of Megadeth’s “Loved To Death”. My only complaint with Alan is that he does occasionally try to force too many words into his phrasing & it ends up sounding a little bit clunky.
Overall, “Resisting Success” is a pretty good way to kick off a recording career. There are no weak tracks included & there’s an air of professionalism about everything even if the production perhaps doesn’t reflect that as well as it might have. The one negative is that there probably aren’t quite enough highlights to warrant the higher scores. All of this material is of a good quality but it’s rarely great. In saying that though, I;m gonna throw out a big call by saying that I think it was the best thrash debut to come out of New Jersey to the time & that includes Overkill’s “Feel The Fire”. If ythe idea of a sophisticated mid-80's thrash record with higher register clean vocals sounds interesting to you then you could do a lot worse than this.
For fans of Lååz Rockit, "Spreading The Disease"-era Anthrax & mid-80's Overkill.
Genres: Thrash Metal
The US power metal scene was kind of America’s response to the NWOBHM movement. In much the same way as the British term was employed, the label isn't overly specific. It’s used more as a catch-all for American bands that played a style of heavy metal that was structured in much the same way as the NWOBHM elite but had shunned its hard rock influence in favour of a renewed level of aggression derived from the early US thrash metal movement. Amongst its most celebrated exponents was a Florida outfit known as Savatage who were built around the skill sets of two brothers in Jon & Criss Oliva; Jon the enigmatic front man with the powerful voice & Criss the enormously talented guitar slinger with the gift from God. For just over a decade, Savatage would play a major role in the growth of the still relatively new US heavy metal scene, most notably through a string of four successive classic albums that stretched from 1987 to 1993. However, tragedy would strike in October 1993 when the vehicle Criss & his wife were travelling in was struck by an out of control drunk driver. Criss was killed instantly. Jon Oliva would continue to push forwards with Savatage as a tribute to his brother on & off for many years however the project now seems to have reached its final resting place with no activity since 2015.
In 1995, German label SPV would announce the release of a tribute album to honour the career of Criss Oliva. SPV had been around for more than a decade by that stage but wasn’t exactly a haven for quality metal with German thrashers Holy Moses’ 1990 album “World Chaos” being their only noteworthy metal record to the time. The release would take the form of a live album that collected recordings from a number of shows spanning the course of a four year period from 1987 through to 1990. Long-time Savatage producer Paul O’Neill would oversee the project, his metal credentials having been predominantly built around his production work on all of the band’s albums since 1987’s “Hall Of The Mountain King” as well as Omen’s “Escape To Nowhere” & Metal Church’s “Hanging In The Balance” records. But it’s very safe to say that Paul knew how to get the best out of Savatage & he was just the man to handle this particular project.
The release would be known as “Ghost In The Ruins” (a title that Savatage had been considering for their classic 1991 record “Streets: A Rock Opera”) with the sub-text “A Tribute To Criss Oliva”. The album cover would show a simple photograph of Criss playing live on stage with a bright orange light beaming down from behind which left him shrouded in shadow, so the project was very clearly centered around honouring Savatage’s lost hero. It was also very clear that the concept had been borrowed from Ozzy Osbourne’s 1987 live album “Tribute” which was created to honour legendary guitar hero Randy Rhoads who had died in a light airplane crash. The structure of the album is very similar with the inclusion of several short shred sections, one track being an unaccompanied guitar solo & an acoustic rehearsal recording closing out proceedings. I’m honestly not too sure that Criss would have been happy with closer “Post Script”. Sure it’s a beautiful piece but Criss’ performance on that track isn’t exactly clinical as he duffs more than a few notes. I’m certain that he would have liked another crack at it.
I’m not sure how he’s managed it but Paul O’Neill has done a stellar job at producing “Ghost In The Ruins”. The task of pulling together material recorded at various different venues across a three year period & making it all sound like a single show with a consistent sound production must have been enormous but he’s achieved it amazingly well here. All of the instruments sound great with Jon’s voice being presented with both power & clarity. This is the very epitome of a well-balanced live recording with the guitars being presented at the front of the mix but never overpowering the other elements. In truth, I wasn’t the biggest fan of the rhythm guitar tone on a couple of Savatage’s early releases but songs like “Sirens”, “City Beneath The Surface” & “The Dungeons Are Calling” have never sounded better now that they no longer have to contend with the overly-dry sound their studio versions suffered from. So essentially everything is in place for another undisputed heavy metal classic, right?
But here’s the thing…. I’ve just never been able to understand the appeal of Savatage. Whilst I’m seriously enamored with Criss’ lead work & find him to be one of the most underrated shredders in metal history, I just can’t get into the albums as a whole. Fans seem to place Jon Oliva up on a pedestal alongside many of the great heavy metal front men of all time but I simply don’t see it. His voice sounds a lot like Udo Dirkschneider trying to do a Rob Halford impression & failing dismally a lot of the time here & it seems to me that he’s been massively overrated over the years. Plus, the song-writing has never presented me with strong enough hooks to lure me back again & again. The only reason I DO find myself returning for semi-regular revisits is to see if I’ve finally reached a stage in life where I can appreciate the quality that everyone else in the metal scene seems to find in Savatage’s music.
Stylistically, Savatage are often associated with the power metal or progressive metal camps but in truth they’re just a straight down the line heavy metal band who doesn’t mind a bit of theatricality. I guess I’m not exactly the target audience for those sort of theatricalities to be honest as they come across as pretty cheesy most of the time. A song like the lengthy long power ballad “When The Crowds Are Gone” is a fine example of this as it sees me being reminded of KISS’ ultra-cheesy “God Gave Rock & Roll To You” from the “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey” soundtrack more often than is healthy for a metal band. In saying that though, it also shows that the more expansive material from an album like “Gutter Ballet” can be translated to the live environment better than I would have thought it might have however there’s not a lot that I would say is genuinely progressive here. Sure, there are some tracks that were built as part of an over-arching album concept & additional instrumentation has been included to add weight & interest but the orchestration & song structures aren’t consistently expansive or experimental enough to warrant being tagged as progressive.
With the exception of the previously mentioned acoustic number, Criss’ performance is nothing short of mind-blowing. He utilizes an exceptional technique to pull off light-speed runs with an ease that leaves old shredders like myself wanting to dump our guitars in a ditch by the side of the road. He really was an enormous talent & his lead work is both majestic & exhilarating here. Whilst many shredders were simply regurgitating the work of their idols, Criss would take the influence of guitar gods like Eddie Van Halen & Randy Rhoads & create something all of his own that was undoubtedly very technical yet never lost sight of the fact that a classic solo also needs to offer memorability to be most effective. It really is a shame that I can’t consistently enjoy the rest of Savatage’s sound because it seems like Criss’ talent is completely wasted on me. The half time arena-style ride bell use that drummer Steve Wacholz seems to favour so much does a great job at nullifying any interest that might have been building for me. I’ve always wanted more metal drumming from Savatage but it seems that they’ve never quite been able to let go of their commercial aspirations so are more comfortable for the engine room to simply play a supporting role.
So why am I even reviewing “Ghost In the Ruins” when I know full well that I haven’t liked any of the Savatage records I’ve reviewed previously? Well, there have always been one-off songs that I’ve quite liked & the idea of a live best-of left me hopeful that once all of the filler was removed it would leave me with an album that offered me a more consistent level of appeal. And to be honest, I was actually feeling pretty positive about the chances of that happening after the first three tracks too as they’re all very enjoyable (particularly “24 Hours Ago” which is the best of the proper songs included in my opinion). But things take a sharp downward curve towards the middle of the record with four of the next five songs leaving me frustrated & bored. They pick things up again in the back end with a solid procession of enjoyable tracks & Criss’ brilliant unaccompanied guitar solo closing out the album well but the damage had already been done during that mid-section I’m afraid. Songs like “Strange Wings”, “Gutter Ballet” & “When The Crowds Are Gone” simply have too much of a hard rock radio flavour for my liking & would sound much more appropriate in a huge arena than a down & dirty metal venue. That’s really the element that I struggle with the most here & the fact that Jon’s voice doesn’t connect with me like it seems to with Savatage’s rabid fanbase sees me destined to never quite understand their immense popularity in heavy metal circles. “Ghost In the Ruins” may be the best Savatage release I’ve heard to date & long-time fans will unquestionably find themselves in raptures of enthusiasm over it but this band simply isn’t for me.
For fans of: Metal Church, Virgin Steele, Queensryche
Genres: Heavy Metal
Crossover thrash… it’s always been more of a niche subgenre really. In fact, when most metalheads hear that term mentioned there’s usually only a short list of bands that pop into their minds & almost all of them are American with California being one of the more notorious breeding grounds for these hybrid groups (along with New York of course). Historians investigating the roots of the Californian scene will almost certainly begin by looking at two key occurrences. One would be the relocation of D.R.I. from Houston to San Francisco in 1983 with D.R.I. going on to become a huge influence on the early crossover scene. Their 1985 debut album “Dealing With It” represents arguably the first genuine crossover record to be released globally & it would provide the basic building blocks for other East Coast bands like fellow San Franciscans Attitude Adjustment & Santa Monica’s Cryptic Slaughter to launch their careers off with 1986 seeing full-length releases from both acts.
Now, you may be waiting for me to announce the second key moment as Suicidal Tendencies’ self-titled debut album from 1983 but that’s not exactly where I’m going with this. Suicidal’s debut was indeed a very important & influential record for the local scene but it wasn’t technically a crossover thrash release in my opinion. The band were still closer to a standard hardcore outfit at that point. Sure, they may have incorporated some flashy, chorus-effected guitar solos into their repertoire which was generally discouraged in the punk scene but there wasn’t a major metal influence on the riffs & song structures just yet. That element of the band’s sound wouldn’t be fully developed until talented guitarist Rocky George replaced Jon Nelson in their lineup the following year; a lineup change that would prove to be more significant than the any of the band members probably realized at the time as it would subsequently alter the course of Californian crossover history.
Suicidal Tendencies’ sophomore album wouldn’t be released until 1987 which was a full four years after their debut had taken the underground by storm. By that stage the crossover thrash sound had been fully formed & defined by bands like D.R.I., S.O.D. & Corrosion Of Conformity, so why are Suicidal so often referenced as being one of the innovators? Well for starters, the band was first formed in the Venice beach area way back in 1980 which predates almost all of the other key players & secondly, they always had small elements of metal in their sound & had been an influence on the early thrash metal bands like Anthrax, Megadeth, Metallica & Slayer with their 1983 hit single “Institutionalized” building a sizable cult following after introducing the MTV audience to hardcore. But it was arguably the involvement of Suicidal front man Mike Muir in building the Venice crossover scene that was the most important factor. A year after Rocky had joined the band, Muir would put together his own label known as Suicidal Records, intended primarily to give local hardcore & crossover bands an avenue for releasing their music. The label’s first release would be a compilation record entitled “Welcome To Venice” which included the Suicidal track “Look Up… (The Boys Are Back)”; a song that would see Suicidal pushing further out into more metal-infused waters than ever before. Interestingly, the record would also include material from Muir’s other two bands, Los Cycos (also featuring Suicidal bassist Louiche Mayorga & former guitarist Grant Estes) & No Mercy (with guitarist Mike Clark who would join Suicidal in 1987), along with fellow Venice locals Beowulf & Excel. All of these acts would become the basis for the Venice crossover scene in the years to follow with Beowulf, No Mercy & Excel all releasing their debut albums in 1986/87 which made “Welcome To Venice” quite significant in the grand scheme of things.
The success of the debut would see Suicidal signing with Caroline Records (i.e. the New York sub-label of Richard Branson’s London-based Virgin Records) for the follow-up “Join The Army”. Caroline hadn’t made all that big an impact with their previous undertakings but “Join The Army” would prove to be their first release to gain any genuine success with Suicidal reaching number 100 on the Billboard charts, most likely off the back of the popularity of “Institutionalized” as well as their strong following in the skateboarding scene. The cover artwork would be quite distinctive & I feel that this has played a part in the success of the album. The picture of a muscular solider making an obvious call to arms seems to be quite an ingenious play really. It’s not the most professional of images however it’s done well enough to satisfy the DIY punk rock & skateboarding philosophies but also draw in a new audience of fans who were looking to be a part of something fresh & underground. For this reason, the album cover has gone on to gain somewhat of a cult status in metal circles & is still instantly recognizable to this day.
The band would co-produce the album with Primus bassist Lester Claypool whose only previous production experience with a metal-related release came through the 1984 live album “Live Sentence – No Parole From Rock ‘n’ Roll” from Graham Bonnet-fronted LA hard rockers Alcatrazz which would be followed up by engineering credits on the first two solo albums from super-talented young Alcatrazz guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen. The result was probably not quite what the band would have hoped for as “Join The Army” certainly doesn’t sound as punchy & energetic as it’s more highly regarded older sibling. This is mainly due to a very tinny rhythm guitar tone that had much stronger ties to the hardcore scene than it did with metal. The guitars were also left too far back in the mix & there are some noticeable variations in both volume & balance across the tracklisting. The rhythm section sound much better & are able to overpower the guitars fairly comfortably with Louiche Mayorga’s bass guitar tone being the driving force behind the album.
Despite being touted as the most important release in the growth of the crossover thrash subgenre by many, I have to say that “Join The Army” isn’t the most thrashy or metal sounding record. In fact, I’d suggest that the “crossover thrash” tag isn’t entirely accurate because this is definitely more of a transitional release that sees Suicidal still in the process of diluting their early hardcore sound. There’s really only a couple of genuine crossover thrash tracks included to be honest (see opener “Suicidal Maniac” & album highlight “I Feel Your Pain… & I Survive”) although there are further hints across some of the other tracks as well. The major component of the band’s sound was still hardcore punk in my opinion with more than half of the tracklisting sitting fairly comfortably under that banner. Perhaps this is contributed to by the guitar sound I mentioned earlier because it’s not particularly conducive to metal. There’s a reasonably strong influence from traditional heavy bands like Black Sabbath & Motorhead here too though with songs like the title track & “A Little Each Day” seeing Suicidal incorporating chuggy, mid-paced metal riffs just as often as they do your fast-paced & thrashy tremolo-picked ones. The skate punk links tend to be more of an aesthetic thing rather than anything attached to the band’s sound & I’d hazard to suggest that it’s really just the video clip for skater anthem “Possessed To Skate” that’s mainly responsible for that.
One of the big differentiators from most of Suicidal’s peers in the 80’s hardcore & crossover scenes was the technical skill of the band as Suicidal show off a lot more talent than most of their competition were capable of at the time. They really were a very tight unit with each of the musicians sounding like they're in total control of their instruments. The performance of bassist Louiche Mayorga is of particular note as I’m really impressed with his contribution. There’s a lot of energy about his playing & he & drummer R.J. Herrera clearly have a very strong background in the punk scene. It’s interesting that Rocky George played in a hardcore punk side project band called Pap Smear from 1984-86 alongside Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman & drummer Dave Lombardo & I have to wonder whether that was where he picked up his interest in thrash. Rocky George is clearly a very talented shredder in his own right & is one of the real drawcards of Suicidal’s classic period releases for me personally. By his own admission, Rocky had an obsession with the elite musicians from all genres & you can hear that in just how confident & capable both his rhythm & lead work are. Suicidal always incorporated guitar solos (much the chagrin of punk purists) however Rocky was able to take things to another level &, in doing so, played the major role in gaining the attention & approval of a metal audience.
One of the other major talking points of the “Join The Army” album is the change in direction from band leader & front man Mike Muir. The debut had seen him taking a more traditional hardcore approach to delivering his lyrics but here were see him moving in a couple of different directions. At times we find him toning back his aggression for a cleaner & more melodic delivery which often highlights his technical deficiencies. In fact, he can be quite pitchy during these moments & I find them to be pretty tough going for the most part. Then at other times he seems to be attempting to hit on a more gruff & muscular metal-oriented tone that’s equally ineffective. He really does annoy me here & I don’t think he was quite up to the task at this point in his career which actually results in him being the major contributor to me not really getting a lot of enjoyment out of the album overall. I honestly don’t think there are too many problems with the music from an instrumental point of view. It’s really just the Mike’s dodgy performance & the weaker production that put me off a bit along with the continual use of hardcore style gang vocals.
Ultimately, “Join The Army” is a representation of a band that was still in transition from a very successful & confident hardcore punk band into a metal/punk hybrid. As I suggested earlier, I think it will still appeal more to the open-minded hardcore fan than the Big Four obsessed thrasher but almost every song incorporates some sort of reference to metal. I guess the crossover thrash tag is probably used as more of a catch-all given that there wasn’t really any other genre tag that fit at the time but I have to seriously doubt the credibility of statements that link “Join The Army” with the birth of the crossover thrash subgenre. I mean there were literally dozens of other crossover releases around between 1985-87 & many were of a much higher standard & sported a much more defined hybrid sound than what we get here. Perhaps it’s just a matter of taste though as the most iconic songs here seem to be some of the ones that appeal to me the least (particularly the God-awful title track which sounds more like Kid Rock than it does S.O.D.). “Join The Army” is a fairly inessential release in the Suicidal Tendencies discography &, although it could be regarded as a necessary evil for the role that it played in the development of their sound, I’d suggest skipping it & moving on to their next few releases.
For fans of: DRI, Cro-Mags & “Animosity”-period Corrosion Of Conformity
Genres: Thrash Metal
Nashville, Tennessee…. it’s not exactly a location that immediately brings to mind vicious mosh pits or light-speed tremolo riff sessions now, is it? And for good reason too. But by the mid-to-late 1980’s, metal had made such a mark on popular culture that it wasn’t uncommon to read of bands like Intruder who were fighting against local stereotypes & producing their own brand of high intensity music, all in the name of replicating their metal idols. Intruder are generally regarded as a thrash metal act but the truth is that they’d yet to discover Slayer by the time they recorded their debut album “Live To Die” in 1987 & their sound was still more in line with speed metal; a subgenre that had thrived in the United States in the preceding few years with several of the major cities becoming hot beds for the sound. New York’s Anthrax & Original Sin, Chicago’s ZnöWhite & Damien Thorne, Los Angeles’ Savage Grace, Agent Steel & Abattoir, Atlanta’s Hallows Eve & New Jersey’s Blessed Death had all had a crack at appeasing the speed gods by this stage so these were exciting times for American speed metal fans.
Intruder first formed as a four-piece way back in 1984 but were still known as Transgresser in those days. They were pretty much a Black Sabbath covers band to begin with but gradually integrated some original material into their repertoire over time which would result in two demos being recorded in 1984 & 1986; the second of which would lead to a single album recording deal with Iron Works Records. Iron Works was a sub-label of Californian label Azra Records & had previously enjoyed some success with Jag Panzer’s debut album “Ample Destruction” & (to a lesser extent) Liege Lord’s first up effort “Freedom Rise”. It was a deal that would see the band making the difficult decision to change their moniker to one that better suited their sound due to many fans seeming to link the word Transgresser to Satanic black metal.
Intruder’s debut album “Live To Die” would be recorded locally at Treasure Isle Studios in Nashville in 1987 with producer Tom Harding who was mainly known for his work with country artists like Lyle Lovett & Marie Osmond. It would be one of the very first US metal releases to be recorded purely digitally after Manowar had tested the waters with their “Fighting The World” album earlier that year. Interestingly though, the record would come out sounding pretty good for an underground speed metal debut, despite the guitar tone varying a little between tracks. All of the instruments can be easily identified with the rhythm guitars managing to overcome a particularly loud & boomy snare sound that really cuts through the mix. The lead guitar tone is nice & shreddy & really highlights the obvious skills of talented axe-man Arthur Vinnett.
The cover artwork for “Live To Die” is worth mentioning as it doesn’t really represent the sound that Intruder were pushing at the time all that well. It’s a pretty disconsolate looking image that would be much more appropriate for a depressive funeral doom metal release than an up-tempo speed metal affair but at least it’s attractive to a metal audience, even if it might not be the specifically desired subsection.
Despite already having stated my opinion on the most suitable genre tag for “Live To Die” earlier on in the review, it’s not actually all that clean cut as there are also tracks that move predominantly in the thrash metal & heavy metal space even though there’s often a bit of cross-pollination going on. I’m guessing that this can mainly be put down to the fact that the band were still very much in transition from a more traditional heavy metal band into one that focused entirely on the relatively new thrash metal craze that had taken over the underground. This is evident in the way that many of the songs hit kind of a middle ground between two styles. For that reason, it’s not all that easy to pick out any obvious influences. One moment you’ll be hearing a bit of Whitesnake or Van Halen, then later in the same track you’ll find the likes of Anthrax springing to mind but Intruder never really sound all that intimidating for a supposed thrash band.
A lot of that is due to the more traditional & accessible performance from front man Jimmy Hamilton whose delivery sits comfortably on the more melodic side of the thrash/speed metal equation. Jimmy can really sing when he puts his mind to it & I’d describe his tone as sitting somewhere between former Riot front man Guy Speranza & Anthrax legend Joey Belladonna. The question of whether he’s an ideal fit for a speed metal band is worth asking though. I think he does a really good job here however I have to admit that I regularly find myself thinking that he would have made a great hard rock singer. The rest of the band are all well qualified for their tasks too & always have a great energy about them. There’s some good complexity to the arrangements without ever sounding like the band were trying to be overly showy. But the star of the show is definitely lone guitarist Vinnett who slays pretty much every solo here. He’s an extremely talented shredder & I actually find a few of his solos to be powerful enough to lift some of the flatter material to another level. I have to wonder how he sounded without the additional rhythm guitar tracks in a live environment though. The few acoustic guitar sections are a lovely touch but I can do without the semi-regular use of gang vocals to be honest.
It’s hard to fault a record like “Live To Die”. The tracklisting is generally very consistent with only slower heavy metal number “Cold-Blooded Killer” falling a little flat. I can really appreciate the quality of the musicianship & composition & find myself engaged throughout most of the album but I think Intruder were just lacking a bit in the hooks department at this point in their career. They also sound a little too light-weight to really drive their point home at times & perhaps that’s got something to do with the fact that they chose to record with a country music producer. This is compounded by the fact that the less intense numbers tend to be the weaker ones & (perhaps unsurprisingly) I tend to gravitate towards the thrashier songs like album highlight “Victory In Disguise”. There’s certainly some good metal here with more than enough energy to get most thrashers jumping around a mosh pit but Intruder weren’t threatening the Big Four at this stage.
For fans of: Lååz Rockit, ZnöWhite, Anthrax
Genres: Thrash Metal
We all know the story by now & probably have for more than 25 years. Two teenage brothers with a music producer for a father start a glam metal band & record a succession of arguably substandard albums in daddy’s studio before taking a drastic stylistic u-turn in which they’d manage to single-handedly invent the groove metal subgenre & become one of the biggest metal bands in the world. 1992’s “Vulgar Display Of Power” album would not only consolidate the concepts that had been presented on Pantera’s 1990 breakthrough album “Cowboys From Hell” but it would also see their new sound receiving further refinement & definition in a clear statement of intent. In doing so, it would become the benchmark for the groove metal subgenre for decades to come & would also influence the creation of a number of additional subgenres which would focus on different elements of the Pantera sound.
Despite the subsequent tragedy that would put any chance of a Pantera revival to rest, their story was somewhat of a fairytale which made them an easy target for people that were looking for a reason to question the merit of their seemingly overnight success. Tall poppy syndrome is rife in the global metal scene & they would have to deal with the ongoing backlash from former fans who would turn on them purely because they’d gained popularity. There were also those that would abandon their idols due to their distaste for their many copy-cats & the subgenres they’d pioneer. It’s all more of an image thing in my opinion & I can still remember feeling a bit of pressure to understate my passion for Pantera’s music with my schoolmates once they hit the big time & were the talk of the schoolyard. But the truth is that I had a strong connection with the band for several years. I’d picked up on “Cowboys From Hell” very early & had given it a good old thrashing prior to the release of “Vulgar Display Of Power” which would be a regular in my home stereo & Walkman along with the follow-up “Far Beyond Driven”. But strangely, at some point I must have lost touch with Pantera because it’s been decades since I last explored their highly regarded “Vulgar Display Of Power” record & I have to admit that I’m keen to see whether it still stands up today.
The album would be the band’s second for Atco Records which was a subsidiary company of the huge major label Atlantic Corporation. There’s little doubt that this major label support was a significant factor in both the exposure that Pantera would receive & also the quality of the product they were able to produce. Having said that though, I’ve never thought that the cover artwork for those first two breakthrough records was anything to write home about. Sure, Pantera’s music left many feeling like they’d received a swift & unexpected punch to the face but the image has always seemed kinda dumb to me personally & it’s for that reason that I never thought about purchasing a “Vulgar Display Of Power” t-shirt to tell you the truth. If you wanted to pin point the major negative connotation that people had with the band during their glory years it was that they were a bit of a yobbo band for unintelligent meatheads to get violent to & I honestly think that the album cover has contributed to that concept along with Phil Anselmo’s drunken chest-beating. The band’s logo looks like it was created on a Commodore 64 with a dot matrix printer too.
The recording of “Vulgar Display Of Power” would once again see renowned metal producer Terry Date overseeing the project in conjunction with drummer Vinny Paul. The band & label were obviously very happy with the result of the “Cowboys From Hell” sessions so it would seem to have been a bit of a no-brainer. Terry had already accumulated a strong metal resume by the time he became involved with Pantera with his list of credits including artists like Metal Church, Dream Theater, Overkill & Soundgarden, although his horizons had looked even brighter since with Overkill’s “Horrorscope”, Dark Angel’s “Time Does Not Heal” & Soundgarden’s “Badmotorfinger” having further propelled his reputation & ensured that he was in high demand by metal musicians for many years to come. And you can easily see why too because “Vulgar Display Of Power” offered everything you could want from a professional 90’s metal production. Everything sounds super crisp & full of life with a very guitar-heavy mix & a lot of depth in the drums. Vinny’s kit definitely has a fair amount of click to it but the toms sound like deep tubs of infinite weight & his kick drum combines beautifully with Rex’s warm bass sound. Dimebag’s guitar tone is crushingly thick & makes full use of the mid-range scoop technique that was so popular at the time with bands like Metallica & Overkill. Overall, it’s a very 90’s sounding record & is as polished as you could want from a major label release. I don’t doubt that the quality of the production has had a noticeable impact on the album’s success.
So if “Vulgar Display Of Power” is the record that truly defined the groove metal sound, what exactly did it do differently? Did they simply take the musical style of Exhorder’s two-track demo tape & run it through a major production budget with a name producer or give the early groove metal sound that White Zombie’s sophomore effort had pushed a bit of meat on its bones? Well I have to admit that I was possibly one of the first people to raise the Exhorder comparisons & I came to that conclusion without ever having heard or read about similar theories elsewhere. I didn’t just pluck the idea out of nowhere so it must have some merit to it but there’s a lot going on here that indicates that Pantera were the sum of many long-term influences & not simply cashing in on another band’s sound. I mean there are a lot of different elements at play here & when you actually lay them all out in front of you it becomes very clear as to why Pantera would become so successful during a period when the rest of the metal scene would be forced to evolve or fade into obscurity. Pantera simply seemed to have all bases covered. To elaborate a bit, the basis of the classic Pantera sound comes from a combination of three main elements in my opinion; all of which were as close to sure-fire winners as you’re likely to find in the early 90’s market. Firstly, you’ve got a very strong Black Sabbath influence that focuses heavily on the power of the riff. I’m mainly thinking about the “Master Of Reality” & “Vol 4” era Sabbath & Pantera has picked up a lot of their heaviness & groove there. Particularly in the way that they employ some of their melodic riffs whilst never sacrificing on overall heaviness. They often remind me of some of those classic stoner metal riffs that Sabbath started to employ across those albums, especially when combined with a wah pedal. Check out the bridge riff in “Live In A Hole” as a prime example. The other classic metal influence that’s pretty easily identified is that of Ozzy Osbourne’s Randy Rhoads period solo albums & not only in the lead guitar work. Some of Dimebag’s riffs are pretty clearly inspired by Randy’s more angular & melodic riff work with the verse riff from “Live In A Hole” being a prime example.
The second major component of Pantera’s makeup is the thrash metal one which is perhaps a little less prominent than it was on “Cowboys From Hell”. The band have always stated that they were heavily influenced by the likes of Metallica & Slayer. I don’t hear much Slayer in “Vulgar Display Of Power” but the Metallica influence is very obvious in both their faster, thrashier moments as well as the mellow first half of “Hollow” which reeks of your more commercial Metallica works like “Nothing Else Matters”. “Fucking Hostile” is pretty much entirely based on Metallica’s thrash sound with even the guitar solo sounding remarkably like it could have been lifted from “…And Justice For All” while the faster parts of “Rise” instigate similar feelings. The most brutal track on the tracklisting however (& unsurprisingly my clear favourite) is “By Demons Be Driven” which seems to lead the way for Fear Factory’s precision industrial metal assault later in the year but my point was that two of the three major components Pantera had built their sound on came from the most widely celebrated names in metal music in Black Sabbath & Metallica which was always going to be a good platform to work off.
The third component is just as important though. Particularly given the time that “Vulgar Display of Power” was released. The early 90’s had seen the grunge & alternative rock movement completely wiping out a lot of metal’s commercial aspirations with many of the big names electing to dilute their sound in a bid to stay relevant. Pantera took a slightly different but much more effective approach by sneakily finding ways to incorporate the best bits from many of the biggest alternative acts & it’s surprising just how much of this can be found on the album. I actually think that the seamless implementation of this element of their game enabled them to be embraced by the alternative scene at the time while a band like Anthrax or Motley Crue might not have been, despite similar endeavours, & I have to wonder how much Terry Date had to do with it given his history with bands like Soundgarden, Mother Love Bone & Screaming Treea. Take a listen to the clean verses from “This Love” for example & tell me they don’t sound like Alice In Chains. Or perhaps investigate “No Good (Attack The Radical)” whose verse takes a stab at a funky Faith No More groove before crossing over into a sound that seems far too similar to the one we’d hear from nu metal bands like Korn in the coming years. Yep… Pantera weren’t just trying to fit in with the alternative scene. They were influencing them back too.
Probably the biggest revolution that the band was responsible for was the use of the rhythmic bottom string chug riffs that would sprout a number of off-shoot subgenres. Nu metal is the obvious one but how about djent? I have absolutely no doubt that Meshuggah built their sound from the off-beat Rush-inspired chug riffs like the verse of “A New Level” or the chorus of “Live In A Hole”. How about the rap metal subgenre then? There are certainly some riffs included that share a similar quality to those that Rage Against The Machine would take to the top of the charts later on in 1992 & check out the solo in “By Demons Be Driven”. Sound much like something Tom Morello would use? What about metalcore? There’s no denying that chunky groove-oriented breakdowns & aggressive (but still somewhat) melodic hardcore style vocals became all the rage after this record blew up. And finally, where would the wealth of US groove metal bands like Machine Head be without riffs like the chorus of “A New Level”. In fact, come to think of it, if you chucked some guttural death metal vocals over that chorus it’d basically amount to genuine death metal.
BUT! Would any of this have even been possible if this was Pantera’s debut album? I don’t think so. I actually think that a major ingredient in the band’s success was the musical maturity they’d gained after almost a decade in the scene. I mean it’s extremely unlikely that a bunch of kids could pull all of those influences together & present them in such a well-developed package without the assistance of extensive composition & recording experience. After all, the performances here are absolutely fucking phenomenal. The rhythm section are super tight with the kick drum & bass guitar sounding like a single entity. Vinny’s beats are certainly ultra-heavy but they never lose that underlying groove that gave Pantera a touch more accessibility than their competition & he & Rex really set the perfect platform for the main attraction to do his work. To be honest, I think Dimebag Darrell was the most unique lead guitarist the world had seen since Randy Rhoads as he’d developed his own style in a completely self-taught, non-theoretical fashion without the rules that are generally followed by classically trained axe-men & for that reason he was able to develop skills that no one had even dared to attempt. To top it off, he had truly mastered his craft by this stage in his career. Randy’s influence is undeniable. As was Eddie Van Halen’s for that matter & all three possessed some sort of x-factor that left me feeling that you could simply point them out the way to the stage, stand back & watch the magic. A mark of just how talented this bloke was can be seen during the solos where he’s unaccompanied by any additional guitar tracks. Not many metal guitarists could get away with that & it certainly helps that he’s got such a killer rhythm section to back him up. I don’t think you can buy the sort of synchronicity that comes with growing up together whilst learning your instruments.
Vocally, we can see Phil Anselmo continuing a transformation that began on “Cowboys From Hell”. This time he’s dropped a bit of his more melodic side & has focused much more intently on raw anger & vitriol. I actually think Phil took the art of aggressive metal vocals & made it acceptable in a commercial sense with this record. He was able to achieve this by leveraging his louder-than-life attitude & in-your-face appearance which offered huge appeal for all of the battlers out there who now wanted working day heroes who rejoiced in their imperfections in a similar way to the grunge movement. It was just what people wanted after the glitz & ponce of the glam metal dominated 1980’s & his hardcore punk look & persona certainly helped him to gain further crossover appeal.
To be honest, “Vulgar Display Of Power” doesn’t exactly sit in my comfort zone from a stylistic point of view. I don’t mind the groove metal sound but it’s never been something that I’d actively go out of my way to chase down. Pantera is a bit different because, as I’ve shown here, there’s a fair bit more on offer both musically & technically. In saying that though, I’m actually surprised that I couldn’t get my rating up higher than I have given that the album contains riffs of the standard of the main riff in "Mouth For War" (which is one of the greatest in the history of recorded music in my opinion). Almost every track is of a very high quality with the possible exception of closer “Hollow” which suffers from a horribly cheesy first three minutes before making a good recovery in the back half thanks to a superb Dimebag metal riff. But I don’t think there’s quite enough genuine highlights to give me the consistent shivers I require for my higher marks. I guess the likes of "Walk" & "Fucking Hostile" have never quite hit me as hard as they did for most fans. It’s really a taste thing more than a quality one as it’s hard to complain about a record that’s so beautifully executed. Pantera had genuinely acquired “a new level of confidence & power” & it shows very clearly with an album that’s unlikely to disappoint many metal fans regardless of your genre preference.
For fans of: Exhorder, Lamb Of God, Machine Head
Genres: Groove Metal