Thursday, June 22, 2017

Damnation - Coronation EP (1997)

Keeping themselves busy through the latter half of the 90s, Poland's Damnation capitalized on their very solid sophomore Rebel Souls with a four-track EP that sounds a lot like it looks, which is to say that it's blasphemous, savage occult death metal with a Baphomet cover image nearly indistinguishable from many others in its class. That's not to pass judgement too heavily on the music, but it does not seem that the band was aesthetically interested at the moment on building up further momentum from the prior album, which had shown a good degree of growth from their 1995 debut. I suppose I can give it a pass here, but only because they saw fit to record a tune called "Spell Master", and because the material itself does exhibit the ferocity and fortitude of Rebel Souls.

The mix is set at about the same level of epic murk as its predecessor, with the roiling guitars that just seethe along beneath the broader, guttural growls that crown the experience. The drums are tinny and on the lower side of the audibility range here, but it comes together like decent underground Euro death from its day and age, and one can't expect so much more. As for the riff structures, they are generally fast-paced and give off a similar Morbid Angel vibe that they'd done on the full-lengths, only some of the chord progressions used on these tunes most remind me of the Altars of Madness era, which happens to be my favorite from Trey and company. Atmospherics are still used with some sparse use of organ-like synth tones ("Spell Master") or a turbulent ambiance (intro to the title cut), so in that way they keep in line with their vision on the earlier records, and I also found that the lead work and melodic accompaniment here was kept at just the right ratio to keep the material from growing dull, because honestly not a lot of these riffs are that amazing to begin with.

The compositions do feel a fraction cluttered, especially (and sadly) on "Spell Master", but I feel that there's enough going on through the tracks, enough of a vibrant, hellish energy that it doesn't mar the quality terribly. Also, there's a big contrast between the business of the guitars and the vocals, which are almost all delivered with those broader phrasings. The bass tone has a good distortion on it but still seems to bury itself once the writhing guitars are on full thrust, and ultimately I think this EP exhibits the consistency of Rebel Souls, while slightly suffering from the clamor of Reborn... I also can't say I'd listen to it over either of those albums, but like the debut it does a moderate job of putting you into that 90s headspace, before production values were heavily polished and when death metal still maintained a natural, evil vibe to it that wasn't nostalgia-borne, but carried the genuine, black pulse of that formative age. Damnation is no Vader, but they'll do in a pinch if you want to dance on tombstones while you're sloshing your brain with vodka.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Bereft - Lands (2017)

Prosthetic Records is a label I generally equate with the popular or trendy strains of metal, having championed a lot of metalcore or melodic death or technical death thrash, often to some great results, and often to some forgettable ones. But in truth, they do cultivate a pretty wide variety of artists, so when I saw that they'd picked up an act going for a more atmospheric sound, I thought it'd be cool to check out for myself what had piqued their interest. Add to that the really awesome cover here, with a skull split by an axe and a rune against what seems to be a half-felled forest, and I figured I might be in for a treat here. I know I had heard another Bereft record in passing, and forgotten about it, but I think that might have been from another band out of the L.A. area.

I've seen Lands described as a mix of doom and melodic post-metal, and I think that's a somewhat accurate brand, though the 'black metal' aesthetics I've also heard seem restricted solely to a vocal style that is no longer exclusively found in that category, and an occasional blast sequence which reminded me a little of something Goatwhore might throw into a tune. They use broad, gnarly snarls, but with a lot of sustain to them, and often doubling up the voice with one that's deeper and louder in the mix. The rhythm guitars are enormous and crushing, but with a seat of groove to them that helps them set up the more dynamic melodies which earn all the credit for making this sophomore album catchier than it might otherwise feel. The fundamental riffs here are all extremely simple, panning out over a wide span of influences including both their sludge contemporaries and the grandiose Gothic doom style pioneered out of England, rarely anything more than predictable, but how the band builds upon them or doesn't rely on them exclusively is what makes this ultimately listenable, with a lot of cascading, higher pitched guitars, often with some effects to give them a more lamentable or bluesy vibe.

Now, when I say it's listenable, I'm not saying it's great, just that it doesn't become too boring, a danger when you've got only four tracks in 45 minutes. There's nothing here that really sticks or stands out on the mind, but I was able to process through the entire record numerous times just because of how it manages its valleys and summits. The production on the thing is just so huge that it feels like you're listening through it in some canyon space, and I like the fattened subtext of the bass guitars and the pairing of the rhythmic drudgery with the ascending, sorrowful melodies. Vocals do work better then they form their own grisly fusion, or rare harmony. The percussion on the whole disc is like balanced thunder, with fills that feel like a tribal war is about to break out, yet a lot of more subtle, crashing symbols and thudding, effortlessly shifts into blasts for the scarcer fast material. I'd say that this was a very well put-together record which just lacks nuance in its riffing schematics, if these Wisconsiners can dial that quality up then they'll be a bonafide beast. As it stands, they already sound like one is forming in some abominable sonic womb, but hasn't fully gestated into a distinct form.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Hädanfärd - Evil-Minded (2012)

Sir N. is a rather prolific figure buried in the Swedish black metal underground, who might be recognized by some for other projects like Grav, Svartrit and Grifteskymfning, but in general seems to be settled into an interesting niche in which a traditional old school songwriting style is affixed with a fraction more atmosphere than you might be accustomed to by all your garden variety Mayhem, Hellhammer and Darkthrone adherents. This manifests quite prominently even on this earlier compilation, Evil-Minded, which collects materials from the first few years of Hädanfärd's activity, well before he would release the debut Smutsiga sinnen and its several subsequent EP recordings.

Now, where a lot of demo or rehearsal or 'early days' style collections get by on little more than the novelty of hearing a band's roughshod roots, Evil-Minded is actually quite consistent and possibly even worthy of being considered a debut album in of itself, at least in terms of the material. The production values seem to bounce around between the metal cuts and the more ambient pieces, on both ends of the album, but I think despite this tonal disparity the tracks work in lockstep and present an appropriately mournful, dismal sound which lives up to the translation of the band name, which would be either 'departed' or 'passing from life'. Sir N. excels in crafting very simplistic peaks and valleys of driving, primal, grooving black metal via some of the bands I mentioned above, and these ominous or melancholic instrumental segues which focus a lot on haunted synth tones plus a little bit of percussion and guitar (listen to the close of "Vanhelga ljustes gestalt" to hear a good example).

Rather than an impish rasp, he uses a broader, more tortured growl which adds a weight of suffering to some lighter, more melodic elements in the chords ("Ohelighetens helgonbild"). In addition, while the percussion here is very tinny, it's satisfying, and his bass lines are just thick enough to matter rather than get drowned out by the rawness of the mix. There's also a tendency towards these hazy, shimmering guitar passages which fit snugly into the mold of blackgaze, or post-black metal, as if Hädanfärd was dipping its toes into that style but grounding it in the Scandinavian conventions of the black metal medium. It makes for a listening experience that holds its value through 35 minutes, with almost all the tracks held down to 3-4 minute experiences which don't overstay their welcome. The one issue I had is that some of them seem to cut out or end too abruptly, not necessarily by mistake, but also not in a very satisfying way. Ultimately, though, like a number of Sir N.'s works over various bands, this is a relatively immersive and underappreciated album which will appeal to those who use the genre for introspection and soul-searching more than emotional church-burning.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Kâhld - No Fertile Ground for Seeds (2017)

Kâhld might have a slightly difficult time standing out against the swollen hordes of European black metal, which are ever increasing and rarely culled. I say that because I feel like it's somewhat of a crime, for while this German outfit is hardly bringing much to the table by way of novelty, they do a fairly thorough job of crafting a varied and interesting debut album with a lot of the strengths we associate with the genre's fundamentals. To be fair, the chord set carved out over the course of No Fertile Ground for Seeds is one that the ardent listener of the medium will find mildly redundant, but it's how they incorporate these floods of dissonant, feverish aggression into the strong bedrock of percussion, slower, sure footed tempos interspersed with the blasting, that lends this album a sense of well-rounded, well-honed songwriting, which the first time through was hardly the most predictable thing I've heard lately in this or any other genre.

The sound here is best compared to Swedish and Norse acts ala Dark Funeral, Marduk and 1349, but where Kâhld deviates is in their unwillingness to commit too seriously to convention alone. For instance, the track "Existence - Environment - Experience" segues into a strange bridge of organ tones, percussion exploding everywhere, feedback and sparser broken riffs and bass lines that are quite unusual given the rest of the song's context. You'll find this happens often, as in the intro to "The Step Outside" which also grafts those shimmering, evil, dissonant chords to some rumbling and potent fills before escalating into a real black/thrashing head jerker. While the Germans can easily just launch into a blast beat where it serves them, the way they put tracks like this together gives the material a more curious, urban, post-industrial feel to it, especially when they incorporate those deeper clean vocals to create an atonal chanting effect, another component they have in common with a lot of what the Scandinavian bands evolved into for the 21st century. This isn't all wolves, moons and serene, cold woodlands, but staring at cracks in the pavement of civilization, gaps that if left too open swallow cultures whole.

No Fertile Ground for Seeds also sounds pretty damn clear, perhaps not the most neutered or polished production in its field, but extremely fulfilling, with both the bass guitars and the incredible drums making their mark against the rhythm guitar and rasped, angry barking. It's an album just unique enough to create a particular mood beyond the necro newspaper-print baseline of its genre, and I think for that reason that it lives up pretty well to the recent, more outward branching records by bands like Enthroned, Merrimack or Marduk who have attempted to evolve their sounds, if ever so minimally, into something studied, semi-intellectual and borderline esoteric rather than just endlessly recycle their roots. As such, this was a fairly compulsive introduction to a band with some degree of potential, perhaps not the strangest or catchiest in their niche, but certainly one that can go the considerable distance of an hour of black metal and keep my interest level in the black. Another promising entry into that newish German wave of darkness which also features Entartung, Sarkrista, Dysangelium, etc.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Hats Barn - N.A.H.A.S.H. (2017)

These Frenchmen are one of those unfortunate bands who have chosen a name that, within the proper cultural context, actually sounds pretty cool, but OUTSIDE of that, for us ignorant English speakers, actually sounds quite funny, like a discount clothing outfitter. Having said that, there is nothing quite so comical about what Hats Barn are playing on this fifth full-length album, a strain of straightforward, orthodox black metal which hearkens directly back to the genre's emergence in the 90s and doesn't even border or attempting to broaden or refine those parameters whatsoever. This is both a positive and negative, because while these guys do attain a sense of cult hostility through the production and rasped vocals, the riff set is just not that interesting...

We've heard these streams of chords, with only slight gradations, tens of thousands of times at this point and the material on N.A.H.A.S.H. does little but entertain the most predictable patterns, even if they are delivered with a genuine frenzy and ferocity that might still please some diehards who have just mentally never left that space for fear of abandoning its purism. I don't personally have an issue with the most primal and conventional black metal, provided its simpler note progressions clench on to a sense of timeless cruelty, a harsh catchiness which betrays the ages, but here I just felt like the selections were so lacking, affixed to the clamorous, often clumsy beatings of the drums which felt like a soulless charge for 50% of the record. Don't mistake me, this is one unrelenting duo and they don't perform at a level far below most of their peers, and once in awhile the chords become a flood of jarring aggression that makes its point despite its crudeness, but apart from the occasional segue into something more atmospheric and vague, like the cleaner guitar in "Fallen Angels from the Sky", it's altogether too obsessed with setting and sticking to its Satanic status quo.

I'm not in love with the production here, either, which sounds fine for the rhythm guitar and the vocal but doesn't score many points elsewhere. The drums have a very forward, crashy, thudding jam room feel to them which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but betrays the potential atmosphere they might lend the rhythm guitars if they had been more distant and echoing. Bass guitar is buried somewhere in this, but it's just never creating any interesting lines, and is suborning to the guitars and adding little other than ballast. Most will find the mix here more up front and approachable than on prior albums like Primitive Humans Desecration or A Necessary Dehumanization, and surely this has a more robust, less dry feel to it, but I think I rather preferred the more level, cold and sinister feel on their 2012 effort Voices of the Ultimate Possession. Ultimately, where my tastes in French black metal tend more towards the esoteric and outside thinking bands like Peste Noire, DSO, Blut Aus Nord and Merrimack, I didn't get much from this, but it's not a bad record if you're seeking a stock, savage 1992-1996 black metal sound with little nuance or nonsense.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Tankard - One Foot in the Grave (2017)

Tankard has long since hit a benchmark where they could fairly effortlessly equip the nasty brand of alcoholic thrash (which put them on the map) with more epic songwriting endeavors and a lot more of a traditional metal feel, resulting in some of their better 'modern' efforts like The Beauty and the Beer or A Girl Called Cerveza. I think a lot of that strategy of taking their roots and rendering them into a more glorious form is quite dominant here on their 17th full-length as well. And yes, I'm fucking grinning ear to ear that a band like the mighty Tankard is on it's SEVENTEENTH album, and has never really taken much of a break!!! Good things CAN still happen in this divisive and confused world, and the fact I can still look forward to new records by Gerre and crew is one of those, even if they don't always ultimately end up in the eternal hard-on I've got for classics like Zombie Attack or The Morning After.

Perhaps not so surprising that One Foot in the Grave functions best when it IS trying to define a little more of a melodic sound, as in the intros to "Pay to Pray" or the title track, which seem like really excellent setups for some great, memorable tracks. Alas, once we get to the actual pounding and thrashing of the tunes, they become a little more indistinct, and suffer from a sameness to the band's prior material which I've honestly been feeling on and off since this 'modern era' of Tankard had started with Kings of Beer when Andy Gutjahr joined on guitar. Now, don't get me wrong, I think Andy's a fucking ace riffer and a hero, and I credit his tenacity for a lot of the long-term relevance of survival of this band against the trendier nu-thrash landscape. But it might just be the band's very consistency itself that causes its own problem, because very rarely do I get super excited about the riffset being used through the verses or even into the chorus parts. Leads are well done, and there are some points where I feel that intensity and excitement, but it just doesn't completely scorch me.

Not a deal breaker, of course, because elsewhere, Tankard still sounds so amazing. Gerre's venomous voice works equally well with its more sustained phrasings over the more melodic, almost power metal feel of a lot of the riffs. The bass can't compete with the rich rhythm guitars, but it does sound fat and formidable where it can pop its presence out into the mix. The drums also sound extremely potent and, really, the production of One Foot in the Grave in general is just so excellent and well-balanced that it sounds perfect coming out of my speakers at any level. Lyrically this one doesn't focus too much on the pub crawling, but more on current events, which again is nothing new for this band, since they've always been about 25% getting smashed, 25% utter goofiness and another 50% singing to the choir about things that actually might matter in the world. To sum it up, this is yet another 'good' record from the Germans, just not necessarily great. Nearly on par with its predecessor R.I.B., but no cigar. A lot of the core riffing could benefit from a little more risk and unpredictability, but the stuff just sounds so pure and professional that it compensates a little for not having the most ear-sticking verses or choruses.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Time Lurker - Time Lurker (2017)

A lot of the albums I've listened through and covered from Les Acteurs de l'Ombre Productions excel within the atmospheric fold. That's not to say that I've enjoyed them all equally, but this is an area which the label clearly has good ears for, and consistently signs and releases acts which adhered to that virtue perhaps more than serving as riff machines alone. Time Lurker, a one-man French act, is perhaps the best representative of that trait which I have yet heard from this particular stable, and the eponymous full-length debut is an effort likely to satiate a large cross-space of extreme metal listeners who fancy both the sludgier side of the black metal spectrum or its blackgaze constituents.

This is a spacious, assured album swollen with memorable moments that are created merely by the shifting of note progressions, and just slams you with walls of emotional, dramatic atmosphere that aren't the product of too many gimmicks within the instrumentation...only its presentation. The vast, painful rasped vocals serve as just another icing atop the cosmic, drifting currents manifest through the guitars alone, often just tremolo picked with a natural ebullience, or plotted out in simpler chord structures that carry the lower end, nigh-on-droning weight. It's another of those albums in which the objective might seem strictly darkness, but those lighter, pervasive, 'warmer' elements of the songwriting narrative are what provide its most catchy components. This contrast works even where the album takes an instrumental turn, as on "Reborn", which is naught but shimmering guitars hitting a crescendo that takes them straight into the evening stratosphere. Sonic override, and you can even hear little hints of New Age guru Vangelis in the backing synthesized tones near its climax!

8+ minute tracks justify their duration by having just enough of these little tectonic, riveting shifts that you never grow too tired of them...even the staggering 11+ opening piece "Rupture", which sets the stage for a lot of what occurs afterwards tonally. Note phrasings don't always themselves seem so interesting or catchy, but it's how the musician (Mick) fashions them into the greater picture which makes it so impactful, and it even seems that the deeper into the track list you go, the better the album the cathartic and twisting "No Way Out from Mankind" which cultivates a more frenetic and black metallic presence but still segues into these tremolo picked, careening passages that help accent the thundering percussion beneath. Time Lurker might be a disc that requires a few spins to appreciate, since it's not gunning with genius riffs nor is it distinctly original, but once you mold yourself to its peaks, valleys, contours, it's a trip that becomes well worth taking repeatedly.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Satan Worship - I'm the Devil (2017)

The debut from this German/Brazilian collaboration could hardly ever be accused of not wearing its heart on its sleeve...a black, pulsing, just torn from the chest of a preacher heart. Satan Worship is the product of a couple guys you may know...Marc Reign, skin beater of the mighty Morgoth, laying down the bedrock for a couple of dudes from Sodomizer, whose mainstay's style more aptly fits the sounds of what you'll hear on I'm the Devil. Baseline punk/speed metal with a lot of mandatory nods to Hellhammer,  Motörhead and Venom, performed with a consistent, light-hearted enthusiasm that relies a lot on the character of the vocals to give it a more robust, menacing atmosphere than you might here on a lot of comparable albums...and there are countless of those to choose from.

To that effect, of course, it does possess some charm, as Leatherface's enormous, growling tone leadens down the procession like a gluttonous, obese daemon who emerged from his cave to find that the morning newspaper had already been incinerated on his lawn. Big, dumb, barking, raunchy and lovable gutturals belched out over a riff set that can't have taken more than 3-5 minutes at any point to conceive, hyped up by Reign's bombastic drumming. The tones here sound good, and I actually like that the vox are delivered with such a voluminous swell that lets its ugly sustain carry over the slightly less muscular rhythm tone. Bass is fat as fuck, just listen to that breakdown in "Azrael's Hand", but generally it just tags along with its brother instrument, but the mix of the drums and guitars really hits a shuffling sweet spot that will warmly remind you of a lot of your fave old school punk and hardcore discs given a more ironclad vision. Not every riff pattern on the whole disc is terribly generic, they'll occasionally throw me for a loop, and they also layer on some flimsy but atmospheric leads to round things out.

I won't lie, I had a lot of fun listening here, especially to a handful of tracks like "The Girls of Manson Family", where the vocals and thrust of the instruments concoct a genuine, headbanging elixir I kept putting on repeat...but that is the SOLE reason I'm giving it the positive. When it comes to nuance or genuine nastiness, it falls behind a great many other acts in its niche, so I wouldn't want to mislead anyone into thinking it's glorious for anything beyond its own primal, bloated absurdity. The lyrical subjects are all painfully obvious, few tracks strive for anything beyond a few riffs, and certainly there are tracks which blend into one another on the memory. But when I turn off my expectations, dig the cool logo and cover art, and just want an acceptable hell-blast of leather and spike-endowed excess, then I'm the Devil evoked more than a couple smiles from me and so on some level it's both amusing and successful.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Schattenthron - Der alte Thron, sichend im Schatten (2014)

The members of Germany's Schattenthron ('Shadow Throne') exist at a nexus of various other bands including Seelenfrost, Dystertid,  Ulfsdalir, Dauþuz, and Idhafels; most of which are fairly good, unsung acts amidst a massive underground which I don't think gets enough credit, likely because the Teutonic black metal just never had a distinct cultural 'sound' developing like its European counterparts in Greece, France or the various Scandinavian territories. I've spent countless hours mining the German obscurities and more often than not come away impressed, not by the level of nuance or innovation so much as the scene's ability to produce so many genuine, atmospheric works that leave me wrung out emotionally or longing from the wake of the 90s when this second wave style was still in its larval stage.

On its surface, Der alte Thron, sichend im Schatten ('The old throne, in the shadows'?) doesn't seem particularly unique, being a more highly ambiance-focused work rather than one dependent on the strength of riffing patterns, but it benefits from sounding just like it looks, a grim woodland voyage against a sky whose moonlit shades vary between black and gray hues. The mix is very distant and windswept, with simplistic chord pattern and keyboard-enhanced motifs meant to be heard as if they were coming at you from the bleak hillside or rebounding off cold stone castle walls. The album consists of only three tracks, two of which are twice or more the length of the other, but thankfully this hugely atmospheric niche lends itself well to the swollen compositions, and it doesn't feel so barren or pretentious as it does a means to let its fell, glorious mood set in on the listener and thus manifest a more resonant effect. The drums are faint and weak in the mix, despite how the riffs will storm and surge, and bass guitar is practically a nonentity, I could only barely make the instrument out at all beneath the streaming tremolo picked riffs or the choir-like keys that carry the music.

The snarls are heavily sustained so that they feel like clouds grafted to the landscape rather than busier poetic pronouncements, and the entire album seems to feel like it's been channeled through a speaker or pipe so that it creates a faux-monotony. And that's really the charm here, the ability to craft material so simple that somehow leaves me with that majestic pit in my stomach that groups like Summoning have traditionally thrived at. Even where Schattenthron drops out the metal content at the end of the playtime, and just lets a few keyboard notes ring out as a mighty, melancholic mantra, I found myself transported to its universe, almost like a paean to the Dark Ages penned by exiles living in rustic retreats. An enjoyable time, despite the 33 minute length, and whilst I have no idea if this is just some one-off concoction in the brewery of bands/ideas that the band members are involved in, I hope for a little more in the future, though I can also heartily recommend the Idhafels debut.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Dom Dracul - Cold Grave (2016)

I've been probing the underground lately for 'roots' black metal done right, that is to say bands I might never have heard before putting a fresh spin on a genre I still enjoy to this day, despite it's clear level of over saturation. The hunt has turned up some really amazing results so far, like Swedes Bränd Jord, and another act I had set my curiosity on is a one-man project called Dom Dracul, whose covers give off a vibe of primary and purism akin to maybe Craft, Darkthrone or Black Witchery. Therramon, the individual responsible for this project, certainly does not betray the aesthetic on Cold Grave, a record that was released simultaneously with another in his catalog called Devil Dedication.

A really solid setup here, with eerie and tinny sounding guitar melodies set to the sounds of wailing, screaming and a slow, beating drum, but then he doesn't really knock it out of the park with the riff that launches "Mighty Winter", a fairly predictable chord pattern that is only given some levity by the mechanistic cold created by the beat patterns. The song takes a turn later with a more glorious and less evil bridge riff that gives off a more folksy, pagan impression, and this sort of creates a blueprint for how most of the tunes on the album proceed. Bold if standard black rasping over a sequence of 2-3 riffs that, while catchy enough to thrive in the record's dim, airy atmosphere, don't exactly thrill, nor do they sound unusual or off the cuff enough to really demand a listener's attention when they've been schooled in so much of the genre prior.

That's not to say I didn't occasionally enjoy a bridge or a breakdown here like the melodies of "Sons of the North United", or that evil lick in "Blackened Sight", but most of the tracks just needed a fraction more tweaking and ambition to stick in the brain. I'd also state that Therramon does create enough variety in the riff choices so the album doesn't become a dullard. Some won't like the drum presence that much, which reverts to a mere phantom against the backdrop to support the obvious focuses of vocals and riffs, but I felt more of a lack in the bass department. Some groovier, morbid lines that deviated from the rhythm guitar could have put a murkier, psychedelic twist on even these guitar progressions that would have left more of a mark. All told, though, even if Cold Grave is not an album I'm like to reach for over many others in its field, I did think it was a competent stab at the sort of 'back to basics' vibe I was seeking, and I dug the production overall.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]