Saturday, February 28, 2015

Chapel of Disease - The Mysterious Ways of Repetitive Art [2015]

Great album covers is always a major attraction for me, and are an equally good source of attraction for death and black metal bands who crave sounds of occult, doomed subterranean antiquity, but it's a shame half of the albums with great visual distinction merely gloss over the allure of their content. Chapel of Disease's 2012 debut ''Summoning Black Gods'' was fun exercise in old school death metal which went by the trajectory of Death, Pestilence, Sinister and some Autopsy, but was no real highlight in a year already stocked with excellent, creepy death metal offerings that ranged from Necrovation to Putrevore. It's a shame that most bands don't catch the gist of it in the first place. So you can bet I was a tad morose that the new album by the Germans wasn't much of a switch in color palettes, or equally ludicrous as the album title, but merely a minor readjustment of settings that prompts something of a psychedelic 70's feel into lurching old school death metal monotony.

Well, it isn't necessarily a monotony, because the Germans still do fairly good job at keeping some constancy and excitement throughout songs which go on for 6+ minutes, with insultingly enjoyable death/thrashing mania and accessibly searing guitar tones reaching back to early Pestilence. There's no denying that a sizable portion of this record dials all the way back to 1988, taking a huge slice of ''Malleus Maleficarum'' alongside it, with the rest channeling 1989-1993 at random and scraping off the 'old school' off everything from ''Human'' era Death, early Demolition Hammer to Morbid Angel, and this was one record which I felt the thrash was expressively more dominant than the death influence, particularly the fluid and blistering track ''Life is But a Burning Being'' which basically sounds like what Morbid Saint would have recorded on ''A Spectrum of Death'' if they'd been living under a stronger Teutonic influence with perhaps a dosage of Pink Floyd. Seriously, if there is any major step forward here from the debut, it's the odd psychedelia and melodic sentimentality interposed between the harsh, abrogating speed/thrash barrage and standardized old school death metal tremolos. There is a strong death/doom feel to the album that reverberates quite strongly as well, but while it makes for some good atmosphere the slower sections didn't always gel with the frantic death/thrash incursions. Despite that, the vocals, great as before, bark out like hell hounds in the night, leaving you dazed with a devilish take on Martin van Drunnen's legendary inflection.

The record is almost in conjunction with Horrendous' latest, ''Ecdysis'', which was a tour de force in the school of skin shedding and revitalization, albeit to a much larger degree than this one. The Germans are also embracing a veritable appreciation for oriental melodies, lead riffs and arbitrarily placed acoustic guitar sequences, which, though still inchoate, suggest a nice structural change which should be even  more pronounced on their third record. The ending track ''... of Repetitive Art'' is a ripping wall of semi-technical thrash riffs with haunting intro put in front of it, and resonates surprisingly well for a 10-minute monster. Again, aside from certain sequences, this album didn't made me raise my eyebrows. The drudging ''The Mysterious Ways...'' was all too boring and could as well have been replaced by an ambient sound of occult magicians high on some demoniac drug for all I care. So forget all that I said about good album covers and bad music. This is definitely a great album cover, and the music is solid, too. Maybe lacking in the visceral or aural pomp which I would seek for in 21st century old school death metal revival scheme perhaps, but nonetheless a highly listenable effort that could burgeon into something far more enthralling in the future.

Symbolic Realms
Life is But A Burning Life
The Dreaming of the Flame

Rating: 72,5%

Scanner - The Judgement [2015]

''Hypertrace'' was a record which garnered a huge amount of plaudits for probably as long as it was around, especially by the turn of the 20th century, when the lack of classic 80's power metal niches really began to felt by mainstream audiences, and although it's never been a record which I've held near and  dear to my heart I can't deny its sort-of-cult appeal, nor the iterative listening value of songs like ''Across the Universe'' or ''Warp 7''. In any case, it placed Scanner on the map, and has frankly been the only Scanner record which I've bothered to deal with. Evidently, ''The Judgement'' wasn't destined to be a second ''Hypertrace'', or a highly worthy entrant into the modern power metal field with a scene already saturated with anything from Angra to German contemporaries such as Primal Fear or Blind Guardian, and the nerdy, lackluster cover art only confirmed that I had to keep my expectations a little low on this. Even those Teutonic legends had stopped spewing forth career highlights about a decade ago, - give or take a few years - so how the hell is Axel Julius fresh lineup going to end up better?

''The Judgement'' was a somewhat different experience than I'd anticipated, but all the paths led to the same doorway in the end. The 80's speed/power aesthetics meet with a softer hard rock mentality and immediately Scanner tears through the walls of space and time with laser-gun riffing redolent of, well... Scanner. This is clearly a meatier and better produced effort than Scanner's 80's catalog, thanks to the benefits of modern audio technology, but there's also something of modern power/thrash modulus peppered on the riffs, as well a grating, metallic tone that should hold instantaneous, if ephemeral, appeal to any expecting listener. I've come to compare this record a lot to Attackers's latest, especially since the chuggy, percussive thrashing is very prominent, although the Attacker record was a busier, more exciting avenue of great, genuinely original riffcraft, while this album just swaggers with a fast, fairly busy compendium of samey riffs, mostly recycled from the 80's. The leads and swerving harmonies are the sheer selling points of the record, with enough melodic hooks to keep you buckled and grappled on your spaceship's seat to sift through the record with relative ease for the first 1-2 spins.

The vocals equally hearken back to the school of Germanic banshee screaming, with plenty of Rob Halford-esque inflections pelting the concussive riffs, like on the verse of ''Warlord''. The drumming was also fairly efficient, and for the most time I was definitely on board with the vocal lines. The problem with ''The Judgement'' is nearly all the songs are devoid of some constant audibility (''Warlord'' and ''Known Better'' were the two memorable pieces on this record, with the former having a excellent, gaunt chorus and the latter stockpiled with bright guitar work that somehow exceeded the overall performance of the album) and the album almost never tries to break through the boundaries of the box, not to mention the fact that songs which should have been cropped to a nifty 3-4 minutes hang around for lofty 5-6 minutes, (don't even get me started on the outrageous ''Poseidon'') making spacial trip all too jaded with space lag. This is not a bad album, but there's a fundamental dilemma on whether staying on course with traditional or modern power/thrash metal, and there's certainly too much reliance on cheap hooks and choral sections to be called anything extremely worthwhile. Still, if you're that in the need for semi-frilled, catchy power metal that blazes with a searing 80's feel, this is one record you could give a shot, though I doubt that it'll circulate through many end-of-the-year lists.

The Judgement
Known Better

Rating: 63%

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Insepulto - The Necrodex [2015]

Latin death and thrash metal has always been a thing of intrigue for me. Though I've been tempted to plunge into the depths of a humble scene filled with top notch old school outfits like Korzus, Mortem, Atomic Aggressor, Krisiun and of course Sepultura, I never felt fully committed to a proper scrutiny of the scene in particular. With each band member having years' worth of experience with other, equally obscure acts, Insepulto is one of those acts which surely has the potential to stamp the name of old school Latin death metal on the 21st century, and their debut, ''Morbid Spawn of Resurrection'' was in no shortage of skill and the savory aesthetics of death metal antiquity borrowed from some 20 years ago.

This is both clinical, punishing proto-brutal death metal and equally on par with creepier advocates of genre such as Obituary, Death, Autopsy, taut with precision and absolutely unflinching in delivery. In retrospect, it certainly feels adherent to the same textbook by which the debut played, but these guys do a good job of writing fairly varied and hooking riff work which falls somewhere between ''Bloodthirst'' ear Cannibal Corpse in terms of brutality and technicality and Autopsy circa 1989-91 in sheer ghastliness. The drums are just amazingly neat: they definitely stand out but don't feel as 'modern' as, say Hail of Bullets or Decapitated, and get some excellent, audible fills here and there, and not to mention the sheer thrumming pleasure the kicks give. The vocals are Deicide-esque in their mannerisms, ranging from guttural Craig Pillard lows to raspier growls where the rather comical broken English is more audible, justifying comparisons to early Sepultura, Mortem and other well-known Latinos.

While songs like ''Cremated Alive'' or ''The Morbid Spawn of Resurrection'' are penalizing in any way a brute neanderthal would want, fell of twisted yet fleshy guitar riffs and morbid melodies, there are lengthier tracks here like ''Ars Magna in Evisceratus'' that weigh double in creepiness and death/doom dementia, moving along mid-paced rhythms with a heavier focus on atmosphere. I couldn't fully appreciate these compositions however, because these guys are evidently better at fast, chug-filled tempos and crushing tremolos than anything, even though I was had considerable fun in pretty much every song. There isn't a huge refinement in terms of originality when compared to the debut album, so certain moments lacked the horrific shock value of it which made about half of the songs here slightly underwhelming. Overall, it can't be denied that the Costa Ricans have their own nifty brand of death metal by fusing melodic elements with some of the classical components of Floridian brutality, even with rare hints of the Swedish faculty (''Grand Black Messiah'' is a great example of all these influences melding together) and it's hard not to enjoy the majority of this record if you're a fan of early 90's death metal, even if it doesn't emerge as great as the debut. And, assuming  that Lovecraftian metal is your bag, (why shouldn't it be?) there's no point in not adding ''The Necrodex'' to your playlist.

Grand Black Messiah
The Return of the Impious 
The Morbid Spawn of resurrection
Cremated Alive (Together we will)

Rating: 75%

Friday, February 20, 2015

Trial - Vessel [2015]

Trial's criminally underrated debut offering ''The Primordial Temple'' became one of my favorite records of 2012, being merely a few slivers away from perfection, yet raging against widespread indifference the album is also one of the prime products of what traditional heavy metal dichotomy has brought upon the 21st century. While the split between NWOBHM- and King Diamond/Mercyful Fate-worship appears to be very blunt, forming the essential compounds of traditional metal revisited, Trial's sophomore effort took as such a versatile and off-bouncing record that it feels like an almost immediate departure from the occult, doom-laden fanaticism of the debut: it's clear that the band is pulling off an In Solitude here - who grabbed traditionalists by the throat and bludgeoned them to aesthetic submission with ''Sister'' in 2013 - or, to move away from one genre, basically what newish, cult death metal bands Morbus Chron and Tribulation are doing. And the fact that this weird new trend of tarnishing customs is confined mostly to Sweden doesn't surprise me one bit...

Long story short, ''Vessel'' is a vastly different experience than the marvelous debut. The 2013 ''Malicious Arts'' Ep was merely a taste of things to come, as even that couldn't fully prepare me for the technical heavy metal extravaganza of this laborious titan. To be sure, ''Vessel'' was not an easy album for me to get into, especially when I realized most of the swerving, melodious double-guitar leads and accessible choruses were swapped for intricate chord patterns and full on emotional catharsis. From the moment the album commences with the huge looming tides of mournful melody and the ebbing chord dispersion on the brief title track, ''Vessel'' is narrated with brooding assemblage and desolate earthen pipes running through the marrows of a haunted human. The guitars have an unmistakable black metal feel to them, occasionally churning with dark lead tremolo segments redolent of early Fates Warning. The amount of diversity the they retain is immense, even if not necessarily 100% of them are compelling, blending the realms of speed, heavy, thrash, progressive and black metal almost seamlessly, moving back and forth through emotional discharge. Quite obviously, the new sonic realization is still nothing too south of King Diamond and Mercyful Fate (although it certainly does deny any craving of Maiden, Priest, Angel Witch and the like) but the compositions feel fresh enough to suck any avid guitar nerd within seconds.

At which point, I must agree, that the riffing does not equate to the blatantly harmony hooks of the debut. Trial's atmospheric cognizance unfortunately drowns some of the rather cheap, catchy thrill of simplistic yet furious riffing. ''Ecstasy Waltz'' is a monolithic tune that scales both the upper and lower ends of the frets with freakish progressive melodicism and grandiose, mid-paced choral sequences, even with an odd interlude of spacey bass lines entailing the finale, but it doesn't necessarily feel like the song you'd blast out on your stereo. That said, Linus Johansson's translucent vocals easily forefront the guitars when they're around (it's hard to be on constant display with most of the songs ranging at 6-8 minutes) but far from being a cheap Bruce Dickinson trill he literally stretches the sonic size of the record. Songs like ''To New Ends'' or ''A Ruined World'' are glazing gems thanks to his soaring lines; indeed, the dude sounds like a howling occult priest delivering his sermons by a smoldering pyre, more often than not.

So it clearly the ante is upped. ''Vessel'' is bizarrely complex, with more emotional depth than a pocketful of samey traditional heavy metal lookalikes hooked on the same recycled riffs from the heydays of the genre. It's certainly a lot to take in: the mercurial riffs, the vocals lines, the thundering drums which haven't fallen one snippet short of brilliance,  and even the bass lines which I usually don't care much for - they're all spot fucking on. My one big gripe was that I felt utterly alienated during my first spins, because the songs were simply too long for casual listens, and certain instances still haven't grown legs on me. Despite the fantastic variation, there can be dull moments within, when they're too involved with the 'black metal effort' to be actually producing something more memorable; naturally, I usually opted for some of the shorter songs when it came to revaluation, but even so every song here is uniquely enjoyable. The riffs are a compendium where you'll lose yourself as though in a maze. It didn't resonate with me as much as ''The Primordial Temple'' but so what? It's so much better than a potential 'Temple Vol.II' and has earned its accolades, and easily destroys anything released by In Solitude, Portrait or any other advocate of the occult heavy metal niche, except ''Sister''. We owe it to guys like these. Defenders of the faith. Thinking man's heavy metal. The cross is burning for your acquisition.

Where Man Becomes All
A Ruined World
To New Ends

Rating: 88%

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Blind Guardian - Beyond the Red Mirror [2015]

More than being just a beloved paragon of Teutonic epic power metal, the way I've perceived Blind Guardian over the years has evolved from a visualization as a steadfast German act to a wonderful explosive tumult of symphonic music, power metal and just unabashed Lord of the Rings nerdery, which I can't help but relate to. Parading forth from their humble speed metal initiation during the late 80's to what most people (including me) probably see their peak with the subsequent records of 1995-1997, the band has scarcely disappointed, though admittedly mellowed in stride after ''A Night at the Opera''. My humble obsession for the band and their surprisingly serious antics stemmed from my ecstatic discovery of ''Nightfall in Middle-Earth'', which (a big fuck you to all the sleazy haters) was so impeccable, so fucking peerless that it just swooped my heart away in a flock of marauding orcs and glazing elves throwing down Silmarillion style. After so many disappointments in the last decade my expectations naturally plummeted, so it was clear from the start that the Germans' latest wasn't going to be another perfect herald of Tolkien-esque epic power metal, but that said, I've found that ''Beyond the Red Mirror'' resonated with me with more singular power than one would expect...

If I had to summarize me feelings for this album from the beginning, honestly, if you can skip the rather painful ''The Ninth Wave'', there is little to be disregarded and even less to be disliked, granted you're a fairly long running fan of the band. If you can skip that tumescent electronic garbage, and see through the 'wave', Blind Guardian immediately opens up the gates of heaven with a shredding, if pretentiously titled, vigorous tune (''Twilight of the Gods'') and then proceeds to kick ass from there onward. The arrangement and overall sound delivered in ''Beyond the Red Mirror'' carved up such an instantaneous passion in me particularly because it felt as though the band was just scraping off the old footprints of their 1995-2002 outings in varying degrees, sometimes molding into furious power/thrash eruptions (''Sacred Mind'') or a jumpier, gyrating miracle of folksy power progressive metal guitars (''Twilight of the Gods''), and sometimes just reaching out in a mellower and emotional level with ballad-ish tracks (''Miracle Miracle''); but nearly every form they take, the Germans seem well-nigh faultless at their task, even though they are mostly rehashing some of the irreplaceable material they put out two decades ago.

But being a four-year long effort, ''Beyond the Red Mirror'' is cemented in a bombast of irresistible orchestral performances that feel somewhat Wagnerian in their scope or just like something straight out of Disney musical in their epic playfulness (songs like ''Grand Parade'' take the front here). At any rate, the operatic details of the record are not just beautiful but feel larger and crucial to the general formula than, most of their recordings. The focal - and vocal - point of the record is Hansi's vocals which range accordingly to the frenetic volleys of guitar riffs and orchestral arrangements. The man - possible because he's still only 48 - doesn't seem to have lost his touch one bit, unlike one Bruce Dickinson whose voxing on ''The Final Frontier'' swelled a little too tiredly to be on par with a ''Powerslave'', and the almost psychopathic chorus flings that burst arbitrarily seem just fresh and jovial as they were twenty years ago. As if I hadn't praised them before, the guitars are pretty much excellent: not just loaded to the stocks with melodious and totally Blind Guardian-esque riffs that the group must have borrowed from a set of riffs which they wrote in 1997 but never integrated, but also from their sheer functionality. Seriously, none of the riffs here feel out of place. Sure, some prove to be tedious and bloated after 65 minutes of maniacal orchestral and sonic repercussions, but individually all are likable.

That brings me to a rather predictable snag: the album is just too long. This is evidently not the band's best outing, and even though the run time runs parallel to its aesthetic siblings (data check: Imaginations, Nightfall and A Night have lengths of 49, 65 and 67 minutes respectively) the amount of time they spend going through oldish ideas takes too much time. There's time enough on the record to give a detailed account of Middle-Earth lore even if you clip away the unnecessary fat, and even though songs as uplifting as ''At the Edge of Time'' pass the minutes away like melting butter, one can have serious gripes about the length in general. The production, too, on the ground that the guitars and bass were crafty but not paunchy enough, proves to be a bit of a thorn in the album's side. In the end, however, it's safe to assume that ''Beyond of the Red Mirror'' puts the Germans back on the map. At least to a more respectable point. It demonstrates that these ageing nerd/musicians are still sharp on their wit. All told, it reuses previous footings all too frequently to be creating some majestic gateway between this era and another, some dramatic experiment gone slightly wrong, but teetering on the edge of evolutionary greatness, but rather an album playing it safe. It's awesome for what it is, and I'm the rampaging (and shameless) fanboy who loves if precisely for that. The lyrical content alone is good enough for you to get interested. Don't be a fucking tool and buy it.

Sacred Mind
Twilight of the Gods
The Holy Grail
At the Edge of Time

Rating: 85%

Friday, February 13, 2015

Gouge - Beyond Death [2015]

Gouge received the honor of being crowned 'band of the week' by Darkthrone's Fenriz back in 2012 when I was reviewing their debut EP ''Doomed to Death'', and with their anchor moored in Hell's Headbangers harbor, one of the best labels that breed the kind of gnarly and devilish concoctions of fields of death, thrash, black and grindcore, the Norse come with full force with ''Beyond Death''. The album hits the listener immediately as an insignificant stylistic departure from EP in its bare-bones, fleshed tirade of death, thrash with a sprinkling of grindcore by the laws of gods such as Repulsion and Terrorizer, but that's not to say it's not fun.  Indeed, these guys now how to impress, and weren't nominated by the esteemed metal god for good no reason...

Gouge improves upon the quality of the production and some of the intensity, and not much else really. In a savage nudge to fans of this kind of old school metal circa 1988-1992, there's actually a ton of nostalgia to be felt, ranging from ''Hell Awaits'' era Slayer to ''Horrified'', from early Death to Autopsy - the Norseman know how to synthesize influential (though by this time more generic than one might like) proto-death/thrash sounds into a combustive modern mix with the visceral attitude of deranged undertaker hacking and pummeling carcasses with rusted chisels and hammers where he should actually be set on his deplorable task. Gouge falls into that marginally spurious territory or gruesomeness and sheer wreck-it fun, with slew after after slew of ceaseless tremolos, razor sharp chord diatribes or just bloody fucking chug fests that go about nicely with tracks like ''Morbid Curse''. The drums similarly generate nice, clear blast beats in rapid succession with great ecstasy, but fail to keep up in terms of variation. Yet even punk and hardcore earn their place in the surprisingly straightforward sound they eschew - surprising particularly because you'd expect a greater temperance towards an album like ''Mental Funeral'' from a band whose song titles and sonic texture literally scream 'Autopsy'. Even so, the Autopsy influence seeps somewhere down there, most prominently in the vocalists' raucous howls, or during some of the sludgier chainsaw banters like on ''Chaos and Horror''.

In the end, scarcely a riff here is re-engineered to be held a candle to some of the peerless classics of primordial gore mentioned above, and you're bound to forget nearly the entire album just seconds after you've stopped listening to it, but the consistency and peppy courting with crackled skulls and age-old speed metal aesthetics makes this somehow worthwhile, and certainly a lot more entertaining than feeling your scalp get torn down by a hacksaw. The tracks here typically get barred behind the 3-minute mark, making them rather excellent pieces if you're in the mood for some frenzied incision, with only the title track reaching close to 5 minutes; and at less than half an hour in total the album's about as long a round of poker... among other things. So there's really no sense in complaining about its length. What would really have made my day would have been a veritable revaluation of the music in all its ghastly components, even though it is definitely far from subpar and sounds fresher than a whole bunch of other bands playing in the same medium. That said, I won't be so generous the next time the samey sanguinary formula and random mesh of horror flicks arrive on my dinner plate in the form of splattered brains and skull bits.

Breath of the Reaper
Butcher Attack
Morbid Curse

Rating: 73%

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Volahn - Aq'Ab'Al' [2015]

From the obscure label Crepusculo Negro comes the indefinite answer to the inquiry: what would it sound like if the Mayans or Aztecs played black metal? My response: pretty fucking cool. I'll go right at it that the album cover was the single initial selling point for me, a beautifully vivid and colorful depiction of a bunch of natives in leopard skins and queer bird feathers on their gigantic headpieces, working on their sacred task of priestly sacrifice. The mastermind behind the music - one Eduardo ''Volahn'' Ramirez - is in alignment with an impressive series of bands, most of them being his solo projects. Out of his characteristically USBM-styled side projects, Volahn retains something of a greater understanding of cultural identity and sounds which native South Americans would enjoy, perhaps stemming out from his moody American tribulations into something with greater uniqueness. Certainly, I would not have thought that I would have fallen for this album beyond the pretty cover art, but as it turns out ''Aq'Ab'Al'' is of the better black metal albums I've heard in recent times.

The guitars are fuzzy and crepuscular, ringing with far less distortion and far less echo than you'd expect. I love the fact that ''Aq'Ab'Al'' is a ''riff'' album, with plenty of fuzzy, if somewhat indistinct, chord lines guiding the harrowing vocal lines, upped by arrays of dizzying, gritty chords that should remind one the USBM act Odz Manouk, which in many other ways has a similar sound to Volahn. The essential philosophy here is to blast out these tangy chord progressions almost all the time, with enough variation, atmospheric ups and downs and vocal haunts to keep the listener going through tracks like the impressive 13-minute ''Najtir Ichik''. The melodious moments are perfect when rippling with the vocalists echoing howls, allowing for brief if sublime moments of unfrazed atmospheric excellence that have an Austere feel to it. But of course if the album merely stopped there and got stuck far its egocentric, Darkthrone/USBM worshiping ass, it wouldn't really be deserving of some accolades, would it? The one personal point which captivated me best was the looming, lo-fi synthesizers playing out in the background. You could relate the synths to anything - from Emperor to Samael to the more recent and obscure Australian outfit Naxzul - but songs like ''Bonampak'' employ synthesizers in a such a manner that they make their presence briefly noticed before fading back into the swirling mix.

Volahn isn't merely paying tribute to the Aztecs and Incas in concept here. While much of the aesthetics hold more appeal to the USBM and/or Norse Black metal listener, there is that laudatory arrangement of enchanting Spanish guitar interludes, tribal instruments in between songs, and a lot more straight, albeit technically imbued riffing going on than most other acts of this sort. Eduardo likes to play by the lower frets, so naturally much of the grandeur and mushy goodness of lower end guitar tones disappear, but one can certainly not complain when it's being executed in such a skillful manner. This stuff doesn't go to the level of, say, ''In the Nightside Eclipse'', mind you, but you're definitely going to have grisly kick out of them. That said, the slew of weird and twitchy melodies are hardly followed up by corresponding ambient effects or equally overwhelming keyboard upsurges, which might have been superb, but supposedly stress hot RAW the guy is.

If you can bear through riff-centric, rarely post-metalized, harrowing black metal, this is definitely the thing for you. As said, the incorporation of so many variants of black metal, including some Necromantia from the Greek scene who has enamored this petty reviewer with two sacred albums (which is probably why I came to like this album) in the early 90's, makes the music almost as rich as the cover which holds the entry to its ancient, prosaic gate, but the album is not still not intricate of emotionally gripping as it needs to make its nearly 60-minute run time entirely worthwhile. As is the prevailing problem with black metal, they could have winnowed some of the less impressive chord progressions and substituted them with suitably deeper breaks into consternation - or just leave trimmed like that. ''Quetzalcoatl'' was probably my favorite piece from this record: an 8-minute display of sheer harrowing finesse, memorable pace transitions, and swerving leads, but most of the tracks still held out in the end. Finally, my synthesizer fetish could have achieved greater satisfaction if they'd stuck out more prominently here, but I guess that's for another day. It's not everyday that you have a band of natives playing guitars and double-bass drums in your promo box, so whether your tastes lie in Darkthrone, Gris, Watain, USBM, or just plain sacrificial heart-eating frenzy, this one's for you. Dig in.


Rating: 77%

Monday, February 9, 2015

Desolate Shrine - Heart of the Netherworld [2015]

One thing that's almost always welcome on cloudy day is a dose of rainy, atmospheric death metal that makes for the perfect winter tapestry. Finland's Desolate Shrine ups their game considerably from their previous megalith ''Sanctum of Human Darkness'' in terms of sheer song writing qualities and individuality, but remain mostly loyal to the same winter fever formula of accumulated dust, grime and blood flooding through a familiar sluice gate of impeccable 90's brutality intermingling with the likes of Blasphemy in a rush of pure desolation (pun unintended). As a competitor in a field that continues to earn its place in our hyper-modern metal market through the likes of Dark Descent Records and FDA Rekotz, it's hard to disagree with the fact that survival of the fittest is the harsh reality for these guys, especially in a scene saturated to the teats with carnal death and black metal outfits of the same retinue, yet the Fins have a more distinguished sound than most other entrants, making it their only indicator of visibility in a miasma of smoke and darkness...

This is primitive, bombastic death metal with a seriously atmospheric punch. The huge grooving guitars are absolutely enormous and resonant above all else, large enough induce a further backwash of atmospheric noise that proves to be crux of the record, just as it was with their previous two albums. Desolate Shrine's love for ambiance is irrefutable, even though the guitars, some unearthly combustion of early 90's Swedeath a la Grave, Entombed and Dismember and Incantation in all their heaving filthiness, bear the real weight of the album and there's no lack of riffs either. The sound is very much a Vasaeleth or Impetuous Ritual, but I was also glad to hear some of the band's Finnish forefathers such as Convulse and Demigod filtered somewhere in the mix, popping up on some of the more blatantly eerie section such as the creeping interludes on ''Desolate Shrine'', or equally, on the serpentine tremolos ascending and descending with the momentum of the record.

There's no denial that this is 'old school', complete with all its glorification of aural darkness and suffocating evil, but the sharpness of the drums and the overall professionalism of the sound suggests that there's slightly more to be had here than just bare bones and cartilages. These guys are definitely not stuck in 1993, they must have some sort of time machine that allows them to pace back and forth through the decades unlike most other groups enjoying this brand of gnarly death metal; nor are they confined to the realms of death metal. Some of the longer tunes like the title track or ''Desolate Shrine'' are not just ambitious in their lengths but also through the sheer incorporation of plain, candid black metal chords that shuffle through album like currents of primordial shock. Even the vocals comply with the archaic umbra, differing between guttural growls and raspier haunts that should bring Deicide to mind.

The overall aesthetic of ''Heart of the Netherworld'' is pitch-perfect for cave dwellers and neanderthals who have things lurking in the dark corners of their minds: the mood, the riffs and the atmosphere is invariably there. The album doesn't do much in terms of breaking mold and doesn't seem like a significant detachment from the two previous albums in any way aside from the added grit to the sonic impact; ultimately I would still vie for something like Antediluvian or Mitochondrion if I ever felt like gobbling up a spoonful of 21st century atmospheric death metal, but they still come close to these titans in their writing. There is an almost definite assurance that Desolate Shrine live up to their name as well as the title, even if allows for much blatant black/death chaos to be conjured, in their traverse into some dark, unknown territory, but the key problem, as has been with countless other bands is that it's not a particularly memorable experience to sit through 61 fucking minutes of this, as the band even has a 14-minute monolith of impenetrable death/doom sorrow crammed in there... Hell, you even have a few moments' worth of twitchy piano cuts, some clean guitars and whatnot before everything else erupts in a sulfuric tumult. It's good stuff, all told, and worth a spin or two if you can bear through it. Darkness is conveyed; don't forget to bring a flashlight.

Black Fires of God
Desolate Shrine

Rating: 70%

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Angra - The Secret Garden [2015]

Angra first caught my attention with their masterful ''Temple of Shadows''. It felt at the time (and still does) like such a fulgent tribute power metal in its marriage to progressive elements that Dream Theater would have been more than proud of, complete with wondrous symphonic sounds, that it immediately became one of my favorite metal albums, ever. That said, the band's fortunes went pretty downhill from there, with a streak of lackluster records which didn't even more close to the brilliance of their masterwork. The numerous band changes and internal problems threw them off balance and the result wasn't very pretty. The existence of Shaman also did something to split the band's skill, I suppose. However, with their best record in a decade, fronted by Fabio Lione, the Brazilians feel not only aplomb enough to restore amends but also retain some of that oomph which made them the star of 21st century power metal in the first place.

I've said and I'll say it again and again: Angra is among the few power/progressive acts out there I'd pay lip service to, ''The Secret Garden'' helps clear some of the tarnish on their formerly renowned title. ''The Secret Garden'' which nearly like an artistic epiphany because, more than discovering new ground for the band - which at this stage might have produced some egregious results - there's a penchant to go over the pastiches of the past with the same skill with which they weaved an entire discography, polished with quality levels of production. In retrospect ''Temple of Shadows'' never possessed the kind of chrome-metal production you see so often in modern metal, but it fitted the texture and riffing patterns nicely, with plenty of majestic albeit intricate gloss buttered on a slew of excellent riffs, but ''The Secret Garden'' feels less charitable in the realms of complexity on more on the verge of a simplistic memorability, with crazy bulky guitar hooks and crystal clear wisps of melody played out in a professional, controlled level. That's not to say this record is boring, obviously, but that it's simply not as good ''Temple of Shadows'' which is something of an impossible nut to crack anyhow.

Of course the best sequences of the album is where it hooks me perfectly with a combination of progressive metal alacrity and climactic orchestral elements upon beautiful leads: parts that mete out such a level of rainbow goodness that for a brief moment they make me feel inside my beloved ''Temple of Shadows''. Hell, there's so much similarity going on between this record and other that one may think Angra just found re-inserting the formula of their best record might as well be the way to go, which worked damned fine, considering their fall from grace in recent years. The title track, with its nose deep in an orgy orgastic symphonies and ecstatically moving violin lines, feels like a commemoration of ''No Pain for the Dead'', notwithstanding the inclusion of beautiful, harmonious female vocals. Even the jiving Spanish guitars and gyrating pianos make occasional appearances here, with tracks like ''Upper Levels'', which bolster their memorability on the grounds of heavy, percussive riffwork, and anthemic choruses guided by the kind of space-y keyboards which Norway's Pagan's Mind love. Angra may not be at their technical or artistic peak here, but this album is clearly strong on both the memorability and songwriting departments, with enough electric guitar wankery to keep the music nerds in place and enough head-hanging/goosebumps action going on to please the uneducated plebeians (no offense intended).

I'd like to think that Fabio Lione is a good vocalist, to say the least. Sure, who wouldn't have preferred Edu Falaschi on this? Still, the man fills in the shoes pretty aptly. He is not so high pitched as, say, Halford, but reminds me somewhat of the Attacker album that came out in 2013, with a little more melodious grace. A song like ''Crushing Room'' may leave the genuine power metal aficionado a bit disoriented due to its heavy incorporation of double vocals and its mournful, atmospheric paste, but with a set of outstanding leads from the band's two prevailing guitar masterminds it still becomes something of a guilty pleasure. In addition to that songs like ''Perfect Symmetry'' and ''Newborn Me'', with their furious speed, feel more like a late 80's prog/power record with flashier guitar acrobatics and a tank-like wall of production, maybe something out of a Crimson Glory record if you want to stretch things up a notch; in either case Fabio rocks his vox with unobtrusive clarity.

So evidently I ran short on things to dislike on this album, but there were still there. Namely, as a listener whose expectations of greatness never quite fell after the perfect ''Temple of Shadows'' (whose name I've already praised, what, more than half a dozen times?) the album seems to be lacking in depth and that colorful, irresistible pallet of instrumentation which I still think this ageing monarchs of power metal can conjure. At some point, despite the glossy attractiveness of it all songs like ''Silent Call'' seem too, well, ballad-y and... modern. I admire these guys' sense of melody and songwriting but I never vied for something that should get them all too intimate with the bloated crappiness of a commercial country song for fuck's sake... not that they run low as that - thank the heavens - but they do scrape the edges at times which frankly feels a tad discomforting, even on such a modern basis. Despite the clear strength of this album, too much time and sonic energy is spent on a random grab-bag of vocal duties and puffed chorus sections - they could have trimmed up a few bis, basically. But this is nonetheless a jumpy yet passionate revival that puts the Brazilians back on my map, one that makes me feel I'm actually listening to Angra, and one whose transformation I hope won't attenuate the voracity of their drive and lock them up in music school detention for another decade. Godspeed.

Newborn Me
Upper Levels 
Black Hearted Soul
Perfect Symmetry

Rating: 82%