Sunday, July 16, 2017

Below - Upon a Pale Horse [2017]

Doom takes some skill to do right. So much of what goes around my ears traverses fledgling attempts at sucking the listener's emotional valves through sustained, meandering, heavy music for the sake of being heavy and morose, that I'm not surprised that the genre is so often berated for being 'slow'. Especially past a certain classic era which ended somewhere in the 90's, I find it difficult to counteract these enduring doom myths, but thankfully bands like Atlantean Kodex, Grand Magus and Crypt Sermon have proven to be persuasive arbiters of the best which their genre has to offer, combining the groove-laden moods of Candlemass, Count Raven or Pentagram which juicy, unbarred traditional heavy metal riffcraft, creating a riveting fusion of pace, melody and earthly sensation. Both the artwork and thematic plateau of Below's Upon a Pale Horse suggests something more in line with a King Diamond disc, but the assured quality and content is rather on a par with the aforementioned masters, something which only serves to further boost Sweden's retinue for streaming such excellent old-school metal from its bloodline.

To be frank, Below's effort here does not stack up an exceeding height to a body of already impressive recent heavy/doom offerings from bands I've already laid out, chiefly memorable among which I would cite the dazzling Crypt Sermon debut. The band gets the 'epic doom' tag from Metallum, a curious intimation with the original specters of the sub-genre, such as Candlemass, and one that I can't entirely agree with. The opener ''Disappearing into Nothing'' showcases a strong tact for tasteful riffing and harmonious, atmospheric choruses that explode with moving momentum; similarly, much of the rest of the songs follow such a course, whereby the sheer and dark Candlemass-esque pulsations are curtailed with a more pronounced proclivity for melancholy, injected through occasional arpeggios and low-ebb verses. All this, however, is not at all to detract from the band's capacity to churn out strong crafts of melody and musical narrative. There is also a fair bit variety in the pacing. ''Suffer in Silence'', my favorite from the album, begins with a harried diminished chord attack, and come chorus unveils with another killer, moving chorus the band seems to have such a knack for. ''The Coven'' could certainly have been a cover for Mercyful Fate, with its somber leads and Gothic vibe. Despite the evident comparisons, Below doesn't have the same saturnine weight as the Swedish legends Candlemass, because the compositions sail more elegant, albeit still convincingly poignant, waters, and the augmented fleshes of melody and harmony certainly serve as ear-catchers on the mast of the ship.

Vocalist Zeb is no virtuoso, but he does a fine job in reconstructing the Bruce Dickinson timber, sometimes sporting this grainy haughteur that's more reminiscent of some of Bruce's creepier moments, with the early Maiden records or as on some of his solo records, and the choruses and chants are nothing if not vibrant and memorable. Production is close to perfect: the drums cling on loosely but patiently in the background like sleepwalking candle-bearers in an abandoned attic, witnessing a sacrificial ceremony, the guitars, both while clean and distorted, hover with organic, if slightly sinister precision above the dim lights, - here's where the Candlemass comparisons really get their due - and the vocals, all told, are sufficiently resplendent to carry out the emotional wave of the record forward. The riffs never offer a copious endless variety of funereal meatiness, but as far as I'm concerned they're groovy and crushing enough to elude the caveat of 'bored metal' for the good +45 minute duration of the album. Tip to toe, I'm happy to say this is an accessible record, a fairly delectable 21st century yarn for Candlemass fans like myself, perhaps not the most forward thinking piece of music you're likely to hear in 2017, and certainly not an impregnable morass of lugubrious horror a la Esoteric or Skepticism, but a highly listenable, inspiring gauze of melodic doom nonetheless. Retro and maudlin, a luminous contender in a sea of colorless mourning.

Suffer in Silence
Disappearing into Nothing
The Coven

Rating: 77%

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Cream of the Crop: Arthalos Picks His Best of 2016

This year I managed to expand my cream of the crop to 25 pickings, as a lot of great but not absolutely riveting works tend to get dismissed when lists are severely downsized. If anything, I thought 2016 offered an even more motley platter of goods when you look at the overall span of the records I enjoyed, but their year-on-year qualities are roughly on a par, which is a definitely a positive when I look back to 2013 and 2014. The latter two were not 'bad' by any means - not by a mile - but I think the surge of quality has been upped by a healthy pinch with the last two years. Moving on.

As always, my top crop is a shapeless mesh of different genres and tastes. Since some of my favorite avantgarde artists had released records last year (Arcturus, Sigh, Solefald, DHG) this year was somewhat devoid of their clownish, gonzo black metal expressionism, but to cover up there was a fairly large plate of progressive-tagged servings. I am not the biggest progressive metal devotee (Dream Theater and Opeth do get unabashed ticks in my book but that's a good given for many metalheads) so it seems strange that six out of my top ten have overt 'progressive' tendencies, be it Ihsahn's idiosyncratic mold of Emperor-isms and amplified 70's prog rock, Stam1na's unique brand of proggy groove/thrash, or Votum's 'chugressive' (see here for reference). It's simply loaded. Nevertheless, every album here occupies a distinct sector of sound within metal. No two are even relatively similar.

Two great experimental Greek black metal albums (Hail Spirit Noir and Aenaon) and a much-waited Virus record round up a small but addictive bastion of insanity and boiled freakishness that compensate for the larger lack of avantgarde; Lovecraftian old school death metal tribulations a la Chthe'ilist and Howls of Ebb carry the banner of appendage-laden antiquity for a genre that was starting to pale out in the last couple of years; retro heavy metal searching back into anything from Thin Lizzy to Iron Maiden and Manilla Road gets its due (Spell, Eternal Champion, Attacker); black metal shows in a myriad forms why it isn't even close to running out of season (Nordjevel, Winterhorde, Eldjudnir, Anaal Nathrakh, Khonsu, Oranssi Pazuzu); and even the sludge/doom niche, something I usually don't look forward to listening to, let alone push so high up among my preferences, gets some representation with the new Khemmis. The only travesty among this potpourri seems to be the Avenged Sevenfold record: an admittedly difficult choice for me, but trust me when I say I fervently listened to the shit out of The Stage, a fantastic transformation from an otherwise negligible outfit. And so high up, too? My conviction remains unchanged.

My pickings come full circle as the greatest diadem went to Terminal Redux. No other record felt so complete, so epic, from its magnificent lyrical narrative to its compendium of titillating technical thrash riffs, although the top 4-5 records did come close. It was sad hearing three of their four members departing after the tour.

I've also decided, for a change, to make a brief pool of records I haven't got around to listening yet, particularly those which received a lot of internet media buzz. Because I'm a terrible person and often prefer discovering obscure lumps of black metal via Mortuus instead of checking the freshest Metal Blade releases. So this is pretty much a list of albums I want to hear in the near future. Don't be surprised if you see some of the below names cropping up randomly on my top 100 list in the ensuing weeks.

The Dillinger Escape Plan - Dissociation
Wormed - Krishgu
Krypts - Remnants of Expansion
Lesbian - Hallucinogenesis
Zaum - Eidolon
Fates Warning - Theories of Flight
Schammasch - Triangle
Wildhunt - Descending
Insomnium - Winter's Gate
Messa - Belfry
Trap Them - Feral Crown
Ravencult - Force of Profanation

Bear in my mind also that my top 25 does NOT include EP's and demos, as I've reserved those for my larger, non-hierarchical grain storage of 100 metal on RYM, which you can access here. The list has brief commentaries on each entry in case you were curious why I thought those were among the best albums of the year.

YouTube links have been embedded in the list below.

Top 25 Metal Albums of 2016****

25) Eldjudnir - Eldjudnir (Independent)
24) Chthe'ilist - Le Dernier Crépuscule (Profound Lore)
23) Attacker - Sins of the World (Metal on Metal)
22) Anaal Nathrakh - The Whole of the Law (Metal Blade)
21) Khonsu - The Xun Protectorate (Jhator Recordings)
20) Oranssi Pazuzu - Värähtelijä (Svart)
19) Eternal Champion - The Armor of Ire (No Remorse)
18)  Virus - Memento Collider (Karisma)
17) Witherscape - The Northern Sanctuary (Century Media)
16) Winterhorde - Maestro (ViciSolum Productions)
15) Aenaon - Hypnosophy (Code666)
14) Khemmis - Hunted (20 Buck Spin)
13) Opeth - Sorceress (Moderbolaget)
12) Hammers of Misfortune - Dead Revolution (Metal Blade)
11) Dark Tranquility - Atoma (Century Media)
10) Mouth of the Architect - Path of Eight (Translation Loss)
09) Nordjevel - Nordjevel (Osmose Productions)
08) Howls of Ebb - Cursus Impasse: The Pendlomic Vows (I, Voidhanger)
07) Haken - Affinity (InsideOut Music)
06) Avenged Sevenfold - The Stage (Capitol)
05) Votum - :Ktonik: (Inner Wound Recordings)
04) Hail Spirit Noir - Mayhem in Blue (Dark Essence)
03) Stam1na - Elokuutio (Sakara)
02) Ihsahn - Arktis. (Candlelight)
01) Vektor - Terminal Redux (Earache)

Unlike last year, there won't be any feature length non-metal list, as I was able to find less time research other music when preoccupied with metal in general. From what little I did hear, however, new albums by White Lung, John Carpenter, Phantogram and David Bowie are all extremely worthwhile. I might add an extra splash of names to that list later on in 2017, but no promises.