Thursday, September 30, 2010

Metal Briefs: BombWorks Records

Almost a year ago, I got Lo-Ruhamah's The Glory of God, and it quickly became one of my all-time favorite albums. So, I recently decided to check out more artists on BombWorks Records, a small Christian metal label.

Darkness Before Dawn: King's to You (2009)

Kings to You The Encyclopedia Metallum entry for Darkness Before Dawn lists them as melodic death metal. But they are Arizona-based, and if you take that plus their band picture--well, the math adds up to deathcore. And deathcore they are, sometimes taking the breakdowns way too far ("Shattered" or "The Slain Reunion"). At times everything comes together, like the title track, "Symbiosis", and "Prophetic Heresy". At other times they don't seem to play very tight, as if they were rushed to get out of the studio before they were happy with it (or they were too lazy to work to get it right). The keyboards could use some work; most of the time they are appropriately atmospheric, but other times (like the opener) they are way too distracting. The sound is pretty good, though, with some quality (if uninventive) vocals and a mostly-heavy approach to things. I give it 2 out of 5 stars.

My Silent Wake: A Garland of Tears (2008)

A Garland of Tears My Silent Wake is part of a growing trend of bands of ambiguous Christianity (along with more well known acts As I Lay Dying and Shai Hulud). I'm not sure why this is happening, but there it is. In any case, between their name and the fact that they're from the UK, you might guess they sound a lot like My Dying Bride. And your guess would be right: This is definitely formed in the gothic death/doom mold cast by those other Brits. There are differences, though. The death growls are better here, but the clean singing isn't as strong. My Silent Wake throws in some female vocals here and there ("By My Own Hand" or "Cruel Grey Skies"), but when they really shine is when they bring some progressive tendencies to the table ("Wilderness of Thorns" or "Fall of the Flightless"). They even throw in some psychedelic sounds on opener "Tunnels". The album suffers a bit from lack of focus, with a folk interlude seemingly recorded onto the wrong album, and inconsistent songwriting. If they would run with the progressive/psychedelic gothic death/doom (let's call it psychprogothic death/doom) they could make something really great. I give it 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Holy Blood: The Patriot (2008)

Patriot Finally, we have Holy Blood, a Ukrainian folk metal band. They have obvious influences from black metal and death metal, and a sound which bears resemblance to both Amorphis and Orphaned Land. The most obvious folk elements are flute (a bit restrictive compared to strings) and synthesizers (a bit artificial). It works pretty well, though, when they have a more upbeat or epic medieval feel, with highlights like "War of the Human Soul" and "Ipytannaya Faith" the best examples. But when they stray out of their comfort zone and try to get too raw or dark, it doesn't seem to fit together--"Blood of Christ" and "Wind Death" are perfect examples. Since they only do one thing very well, it doesn't have much engaging variety, but it's not bad. I give it 3 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Enslaved: Axioma Ethica Odini (2010)


Like all the other big names of the second-wave Norwegian black metal scene, Enslaved have evolved into something much more than simple black metal. Since 2003's Below the Lights, they've taken a decidedly progressive direction, positioning themselves as Norway's answer to Sweden's Opeth. But besides Opeth, can any band reliably put forth album after album of mind-blowingly great material, and continue to evolve twenty years into their career?

Yes. Axioma Ethica Odini does not disappoint.

Any worries about the band going "soft" with all the clean vocals on Vertebrae are quickly swept away by opener "Ethica Odini". It's serious black metal, but with a memorable melody. The clean vocals come in a bit later, but they serve as a counterpoint, emphasizing the ugliness rather than relieving it. The rhythm of "Raidho" keeps it going strong and metal, so that by the time "The Beacon" ends, you need the slight atmospheric reprieve of "Axioma". "Singular" is another highlight along the way, with a riff that reminds me of Dimmu Borgir at their best, and closing out the album is "The Lightening"--easily one of the best songs I've heard all year.

No, nothing about this album disappoints. It's got all the ugly metal, and just a touch of pretty melodies to make it seem all that much uglier. The songs are memorable and all the chords hit the right emotional notes. And after nearly two decades, Enslaved just keeps getting better.

The Verdict: With this album, Enslaved has solidified its position as one of the premier metal bands of today, with reliably excellent albums and music that remains relevant no matter what year it is. I give Axioma Ethica Odini 5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Whitechapel: A New Era of Corruption (2010)


Tennessee's Whitechapel has been hard to ignore in the metal universe lately. Professional reviews on both sides of the Atlantic have this message to old school metallers: Like it or not, this is the direction death metal is going, and this band is as good as it gets.

Now, I don't have anything in particular against deathcore. I am a death metaller at heart, so there is something slightly off-putting about the genre, but I'm willing to give it another chance.

Whitechapel is unusual in that they have three guitarists. That's not something real noticeable in their sound, but it does make them heavy. Technically, the band is precise and proficient, but their songwriting is a bit uneven. Vocalist Phil Bozeman is awful: He sounds like he's doing a bad parody of death grunts. (And the production cranks up the vocals way too high even for a good vocalist.)

When all they try to do is go for unfocused brutality the music is forgettable. The breakdowns are probably cool at a live show, but on a recording it isn't. On the other hand, they sometimes try some unique rhythms to very positive results (see "Breeding Violence" or "Unnerving"). I hate to say it, but these rhythms are distinctly hip hop influenced. So, when they sound good they are--brace yourself--kind of like "brutal nu metal".

The Verdict: Whitechapel has a lot going for them, and there are some good moments on the new album. If they would get rid of their vocalist and (I know this sounds weird) listen to a lot of early Korn, they could be something much better than they are now. I give it 3 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Black Sabbath: Technical Ecstasy (1976)

Motion for Reconsideration

Technical Ecstasy is often considered the first really bad album in Black Sabbath's catalog. With all the legendary things that band did up to that point, it's worthy of reconsideration.

To understand it, you have to see how the band got to this point. They had released four consecutive mind-blowingly amazing albums in a span of three years: 1970's Black Sabbath and Paranoid, 1971's Master of Reality, and 1972's Black Sabbath Vol. 4. Every one of these albums is an amazing classic. To record even one album that good is reserved for the very best musicians around. To record two of them is extremely rare, and usually requires more than a couple months in between. To do four, in three years, is absolutely astounding.

So, it's easy to understand why they chose to go for more experimentation on the following year's Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. And the experimentation paid off. Many would even put that album on par with the previous four. After that, they took more time off, waiting until 1975 to release Sabotage. That album continued the experimentation, and in many ways it was still paying off. But with both of these, they still maintained the core, heavy Sabbath sound.

By 1976, the band must have been exhausted from this insane touring and release schedule. They played around and experimented even further on Technical Ecstasy.

It starts with "Back Street Kids", which is essentially a far less interesting version of "Children of the Grave". The follow-up, "You Won't Change Me", is a criminally forgotten classic by the band. It's sort of psychedelic gothic doom metal replete with organ. In a sense, it's recent Cathedral, only three decades earlier.

Then it would appear the label put some other band's song on the album. "It's Alright" is a boring piano ballad with Bill Ward providing vocals. It is completely out of place on a Sabbath album, but here it is nonetheless.

"Gypsy" starts out as fairly standard Sabbath (in the more upbeat parts of that sound) before going into a story told by Osbourne in spoken word with ridiculous piano in the background. That part derails the song, making it hard to appreciate the rest of the song, which is actually quite good once Iommi takes center stage.

What should have been outtakes follow on the next couple tracks. "All Moving Parts (Stand Still)" is driven by an unimaginative vocal melody from Osbourne, and "Rock 'N' Roll Doctor" sounds more like a Lynyrd Skynyrd reject than anything related to metal.

"She's Gone", featuring an understated acoustic riff and strings, is what "Changes" should have been, and actually isn't that bad. But after that comes "Dirty Women". Why they buried this classic tune at the end of the album I'll never understand. It has a killer heavy riff, great bassline, good use of organ, badass drumming, and a catchy vocal hook--everything you could possibly want.

The Verdict: Technical Ecstasy should never have been a proper studio album. Other than "Back Street Kids", "You Won't Change Me", and "Dirty Women", it comes off as a collection of rarities and B-sides. But it's easy to understand how they got to this point, and it should have been obvious the original lineup wouldn't last long after this point. I give the album 1.5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

150,000 Visits!

The blog had its 150,000th visitor today! It was someone from Norcross, Georgia, who stumbled on my post on Teutonic thrash while searching for "agent orange".

Metal Briefs: Teutonic Thrash

Most anyone who knows anything about metal is familiar with the Bay Area thrash metal scene of southern California: Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, and the rest.* Far fewer know about the important German thrash scene, often called Teutonic thrash metal.

* I think it must have been Anthrax's manager who came up with "The Big Four". It's the only explanation for putting them on the same level with those three greats.

Destruction: Eternal Devastation (1986)

Destruction: Mad Butcher+Eternal Devastation (2 Albums) Destruction is one of the very first German thrash metal bands, and one of the most influential. On 1986's Eternal Devastation, they show some great riff-writing ability. The sound is crunchy and very Venom-influenced. Even the vocals betray a lot of Cronos, although there is some Tom Araya-style high-pitched work, too. It's generally a bit slower than the Bay Area thrash of the time, but they do faster sections as well, and they can really shred on the solos. Highlights include "Life Without Sense" and "United by Hatred". One problem, though, is every song starts with the same cymbal crashes to set the tempo--why they couldn't use hand signs on a few of them is beyond me. I give it 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Kreator: Terrible Certainty (1987)

Terrible Certainty Kreator is even more Slayer-influenced than Destruction. They keep a faster pace through most of Terrible Certainty, and every single solo could be one of Kerry King's best. Vocally as well as rhythmically, these guys are always knocking on black metal's door (especially on closer "Behind the Mirror"), but they never quite cross the threshold. Every now and again they throw in some gang shouts for emphasis, but it actually sounds cool. I give this one 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Sodom: Agent Orange (1989)

Agent Orange Think of Sodom as being a lot like Destruction and Kreator, but with a much more obvious influence from the predecessor of thrash, Motörhead. On Agent Orange, the riffs are extremely catchy, and even though their solos aren't as good as the above groups, this tends to be a more fluid and accessible listen. Everything seems cohesive, and it's well-produced. It does have a couple weak moments, especially the cover at the end, but highlights like the title track and the crushing "Baptism of Fire" more than make up for it. On top of all that, they throw in a huge nod to crossover thrash in "Ausgebombt". I give it 4 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Cephalic Carnage: Misled by Certainty (2010)


Misery Index, Cattle Decapitation, even Napalm Death: no other deathgrind band compares to Pig Destroyer. That is, until genre mainstays Cephalic Carnage released their crowning achievement.

Misled by Certainty boasts 14 tracks, three of which are about 30 seconds long (in the venerated grindcore tradition) and the rest are full-fledged deathgrind excellence. They range from the much more grind-oriented "When I Arrive" to the almost completely New York death metal "Raped by an Orb" (which has my favorite hilariously offensive track name so far this year). The instruments are played with surgical precision, and every single one is used. In fact, the bass really takes the forefront on album standouts "Abraxas of Filth" and "Ohrwurm" (which also feature organ-based atmospherics).

Saxophones also peek in on "Ohrwurm" and the true album standout: the 12 minute epic "Repangaea". That track incorporates some serious influence from new millenium giants Mastodon and Gojira, and it seems to fit perfectly into an album with otherwise very brief cuts. This track alone is worth the price of admission. The only low point of the album is "A King and a Thief", which features samples (a technique I am thoroughly tired of, and should only ever be used to open up an album unless your last name is Zombie).

The Verdict: I loved Xenosapien, but Misled by Certainty is a leaps-and-bounds improvement and evolution, even by a band that's been in the business for 18 years. I give it 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Grand Magus: Hammer of the North (2010)


In a lot of reviews, I discuss whether a band is death metal, black metal, sludge metal, power metal, doom, or whatever else. It's not too often I just get to say, "This is a heavy metal album." Grand Magus's Hammer of the North is just that, plain and simple.

Grand Magus is a Swedish three-piece, and this is their debut for Roadrunner. I may give the label a hard time, but however mainstream-oriented they are they still manage to sign and promote some great acts along with the bad ones.

Their sound is directly descended from Iron Maiden, Dio, circa-1981 Sabbath, and especially Judas Priest. It's not extreme metal, so it owes nothing to Venom like 9/10 of the albums I review here. And it also never goes over the top into power metal territory--not even a little--so you can listen to it without feeling like a complete dork.

It could just as easily have come out in 1980 as 2010.

It's just good heavy metal, with great songs, and a great feel. It's mostly high energy, like the title track, although it treads a bit into more ominous territory ("The Lord of Lies"). Especially check into the unforgettable "Northern Star"; the bridge is badass. The production is perfect too, as you might expect from a Roadrunner release, and the bass is integral to the sound (much like Maiden).

The Verdict: This is an excellent album, full of memorable songs built on a simple platform. Terrorizer's article in #198 suggests Grand Magus could be the new heavy metal standard-bearers, as the Dickinson and Halford camps age. If they keep releasing albums of this caliber, that will happen. I give it 4.5 out of 5 stars.