Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Dawnbringer: Nucleus (2010)


A week ago today, I got the new issue of Decibel which included their picks for the 40 best albums of the year. A few of them I hated, others I kind of liked, and a handful were ones that I loved. The list as a whole is pretty hit-and-miss, probably because they simply want to generate controversy rather than agreement. But of the top five, I had already given perfect scores to four of them--so it seems I agree with them more often than I thought. The fifth, Dawnbringer's Nucleus, I had listened to for the first time that day. Can Decibel go five for five?

Nucleus finds the American band Dawnbringer performing pure heavy metal. It opens on "So Much for Sleep", which brings to bear an excellent and memorable riff, along with two guitar solos before the vocals even join the fray. Guitar chords before vocal chords--How much more metal can you get?

Many of the riffs are extremely memorable, like on "You Know Me". And the band changes things up often enough to keep it interesting. The ballad "Cataract" has a folksy intro and plenty of emotion without losing its metallic qualities, "Old Wizard" is total doom, and closer "Pendulum" has lots of atonal acoustic guitar melodies that recall the end to Opeth's "Burden", paired with a simple bassline.

The only real downside to the album is the lackluster vocals. They are in a slightly gruff but almost completely natural voice, and the delivery echoes Blake Judd's monotone and tempo (without the harshness). Other than when he tries to drive the song with a vocal melody (as on "Like an Earthquake") it doesn't really hurt the music, but it never does anything spectacular to help it out, either.

There are some truly great standout tracks on here, like "So Much for Sleep", "You Know Me", and "Old Wizard". But "The Devil" gets silly in the middle, and "Like an Earthquake" and "All I See" seem unfinished or imperfect. Still, you won't regret getting it.

The Verdict: Despite an uninteresting vocal performance, there are plenty of memorable riffs and hooks, and enough variety, to keep Nucleus interesting. I give it 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Cheesy Bites Pizza

Well, as I'm sure you've seen the commercials, Pizza Hut has brought back the Cheesy Bites pizza from 4 years ago. You can read my original thoughts on the subject at this post. In short, "I see through their cheese injection schemes."

Aborym: Psychogrotesque (2010)


Aborym is an Italian industrial black metal band who have been combining the two styles longer than just about anybody else. Even after 18 years, they haven't had very many copycats, as it's not easy to combine black metal's signature tremolo riffing with the staccato rhythms usually associated with industrial. But Aborym clearly knows how it's done.

The tracks (ten of them, plus a hidden track) are simply given a Roman numeral for a title. Sometimes, they're almost purely industrial metal, as on "VIII" the guitars are somewhat in the background of the rhythm section while a synth melody and industrial drumming are at the forefront. Other times, they blend black metal and industrial together expertly. "II" is built on a thrashy black metal riff with a synth melody interwoven, but then moves into simple tremolo riffing with industrial atmosphere. "III" starts on an industrial rhythm but moves into blast beats.

Most of it is fast-paced, but there are times when it moves slower. "X", for instance, starts thrashy and moves into a thrash-style solo before slowing down to a simple discordant riff and weird strings providing atmosphere. The vocals tend toward black metal rasping, but there are some clean vocals and spoken word styles.

You would think combining industrial and black metal would make them unique enough, but Aborym don't limit themselves to the normal tools of the trade, employing saxophone, female operatic singing, very strangely played strings, and a creepy "Over the Rainbow" music box.

OK, so that sounds like a lot of elements that shouldn't fit together. But it does, because everything seems to stay in its place. As a rule, the synths provide the melodies, while the guitars provide the aggression, and the other odd elements are brought in for atmosphere. They don't try to wedge the sax into a section with blast beats, or throw the thrashy riffs over industrial rhythms. And it's all held together by a kind of paranoid feeling that matches the album art.

Some of it (like the industrial atmosphere tracks) is more or less filler, and a couple tracks are forgettable, but there are some definitely memorable highlights ("II", "V", and "X").

The Verdict: Aborym stay near the edge of extreme metal and mix it up, but they seem to have an innate sense for knowing when and how to break the rules. It's not a perfect album by any means, but it's entirely unique. I give it 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

New Poll: Are You Going to Get the Upcoming Motörhead Album?

World Is YoursWell, my polls haven't gotten much response lately, but let's try another. I personally own ten Motörhead albums spanning from 1979's Overkill through 2004's Inferno. I haven't gotten the last two, but I feel like it may be just about time to get another. Even if they are all pretty much the same album. What are your thoughts? Do you plan to get The Wörld Is Yours?

Celtic Frost: Cold Lake (1988)

Motion for Reconsideration

Cold Lake is widely considered to be the only bad album released by the highly-influential Celtic Frost, called a sellout by many and denounced even by frontman Tom Warrior. But does it deserve such a bad reputation?

Prior to this point, the band had huge influence as a proto-black metal outfit, with a couple of amazing EPs and To Mega Therion as the perfect examples. They followed these up with 1987's experimental Into the Pandemonium, which also included industrial elements. These were well-received by serious metal fans, not the fans of Van Halen or Def Leppard.

Then everyone left the band, except for Warrior. New members were lined up, and guitarist Amberg took over much of the writing. Warrior had this to say about the situation:
I was too eager to simply have a good time, I was too happy to have new musicians who actually wanted to write and who didn't leave me with the immense burden of writing and producing the entire album (as it had been for the first three Celtic Frost albums). I therefore loosened control (of material and quality) too much. And I was too glad to let the darkness go – right down to the band’s image.

The original concept for Cold Lake as outlined was now taking on its own dynamics and our focus became totally out of control. What was going to be a far more melodic (commercial) album by the original line-up became an overblown steam release valve for past frustrations, recorded by new musicians who didn’t yet understand the legacy of Celtic Frost.

Tony Platt’s faulty production and the hefty disagreements he had with us contributed to this. The mistakes are countless. Just two here: we didn’t let go of Tony because we wanted a major name attached to the album – after all, that was what Celtic Frost always requested from Noise Records and had never gotten. Now it was possible. And Celtic Frost’s traditional complete ignorance of what was appropriate now backfired when we did Cold Lake in this totally inappropriate way.
But what about the results?

(I should clarify that I was not able to get a copy of the album, but I did manage to find every song online and listen to them in order.)

The album definitely does NOT sound like previous Celtic Frost albums. It is, sadly, very much in the vein of Mötley Crüe. Even if they were good at it, that would have been an utter failure, but they weren't good at it. Warrior's voice is ill-suited to the irreverent, fun-loving style.

The intro gives it an inauspicious, proto-rap-rock beginning, but the album isn't a total waste. "(Once) They Were Eagles" and "Downtown Hanoi" are decent, and closer "Roses with Thorns" sounds almost like true Celtic Frost except for the lead guitars. "Cherry Orchards", the highlight of the album, even includes female vocals, although they are now sexy instead of eerie.

But the rest of the album does deserve the bad reputation the album gets. "Seduce Me Tonight" and "Blood on Kisses" are probably the worst of the bunch.

The Verdict: This album might not be quite as bad as its reputation, but it's damn close, and I give it 1 out of 5 stars. Of course, for completists and collectors it would be an excellent find, with CD copies running around $80, cassettes about $20, and vinyl anywhere in that range.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Abigail Williams: In the Absence of Light (2010)

American black metallers Abigail Williams's second full-length, In the Absence of Light, shows the band changing their style yet again. They started out in a melodic black/deathcore sound, and changed to symphonic metal on their first LP. This album finds them in a more stripped-down black metal style, with the symphonic elements barely noticeable. In the end, that change seems like a bad decision.

The sound now reminds me a great deal of Watain's slower moments, or even a bit of Dark Fortress, although the vocals are in a screechier, Norwegian style. There are plenty of incredible riffs on this album, notably on album standout "The Mysteries That Bind the Flesh", or a "Bark at the Moon" sound-alike on "What Hells Await Me".

And I mean really good riffs--some of the best I've heard this year. So, what's the problem?

Well, the performance is lacking an indefinable spark. This type of stripped-down, riff-oriented black metal needs to be played with complete reckless abandon, but AW sounds like their hearts aren't in it, or they're lacking confidence, or band cohesion. Something. Maybe they didn't rehearse enough, or maybe they just don't care. A hint of that kind of energy and attitude can be found in the intros to the two songs I mentioned above, but not anywhere else.

If they had the same problem on In the Shadow of a Thousand Suns, I didn't notice it. There's a good chance all the symphonic stuff covered it up. Hence, I think toning that down was a bad choice.

There are a couple other problems. The wolf howls are way overdone on the intro track, and there are a couple of awkward transitions. But those could have been forgiven if this wasn't such a phoned-in performance.

The Verdict: With excellent riff-writing, this could have been a fantastic album. But it's not, thanks to the performance. There's a good chance these songs could slay live, but In the Absence of Light gets 2 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Agalloch: Marrow of the Spirit (2010)


The difficult-to-classify Oregonian band Agalloch just released their fourth full-length, Marrow of the Spirit. Upon first listen, it's easy to see why it takes them four years to release an album, as there is a lot going on and every note is obviously given careful consideration.

If you're unfamiliar with the band, it's tough to explain their unique approach. There are elements of folk metal and black metal in here, and it's all depressing music, similar in a lot of ways to an understated version of Primordial. But none of their influences are too obvious. It's also clearly a sound derived from spending time in a lonely forest: They've incorporated nature into the music (including night insects and stream sounds), which sounds like a corny idea until you hear how convincingly it's done.

The tracks are appropriately long, because musically, they cover a lot of ground. A case could be made that they're a progressive metal band. Several tracks include some relatively straight-forward black metal, but it always comes off as depressing rather than aggressive, and it never lasts too long. Often, a minimal, distorted rhythm section provides the backdrop for interesting leads, provided by electric or acoustic guitar, or maybe even cello or piano. Vocals can be whispered, rasped, or clean.

Other times, the bass provides the melody, or there's some synthesizer weirdness taking over the whole song, or sustained discordant notes could be played over ominous drumming. And that's just "Black Lake Nidstång".

But despite the variety within the songs, they each have a melodic theme holding them together, usually a high-pitched clean melody repeated in different ways throughout. Sometimes (like on "Into the Painted Grey") there are two melodies going at the same time, to startlingly powerful effect.

Marrow of the Spirit provides the rare marriage of atmosphere and memorable music. Every track is emotionally powerful, and makes you feel as if you're the one sitting in the woods, dealing with unbearable grief. But the melodies will stick with you just as much as the mood, giving it a lasting impact.

The Verdict: Agalloch have proven once again how much they deserve critical acclaim. Obviously, this isn't for thrash maniacs, but if you keep an open mind, and allow yourself to be taken in, you won't regret taking this journey. I give it 5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Ramesses: Take the Curse (2010)


Ramesses is a doom metal band from the UK, and their second full-length, Take the Curse, finds them exploring every subset of the larger doom universe in a very kvlt way.

Their sound is built on a solid foundation of stoner/sludge doom in the vein of Electric Wizard and Sleep, with hints of Zoroaster. It's got that ultra-dirty sludge sound and extremely heavy riffs, gruff vocals, and drugged-out sections that you would expect from the style. The opening track is the perfect example, and it's built on one hell of a badass Electric Wizard-like riff. But Ramesses never let themselves get pinned down to one genre, exploring death/doom, drone/doom, funeral doom, and even black doom, borrowing writing styles and vocals from each of these genres. Usually, they mix several styles within a single track.

Take "Baptism of the Walking Dead", for instance. It starts out as death/doom, with death growls, goes into a drugged out stoner doom phase, and finally ends on funeral doom with black metal rasps.

Some tracks incorporate keyboards or spoken word samples, and normally I hate samples but they're well-used here. Others have simple but very dirty-sounding backdrops to let some relatively clean guitar solos shine over the top. Because they never stay on one thing for too long, you're not likely to get bored at any point on the album. And somehow, it all seems cohesive.

On the downside, none of the riffs stand up to the one on opener "Iron Crow" (the title track is the next-best thing), leaving you wanting more great riffage, and the drums are not spectacular.

The Verdict: This is extremely dirty, inventive doom metal that works despite its eclecticism. The only thing it's missing is more great and memorable riffs. I give Take the Curse 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Black Sabbath: Born Again (1983)

Motion for Reconsideration

Born Again has the reputation for being the worst album by Black Sabbath, in competition with only Technical Ecstasy and Never Say Die. But does it deserve such a bad rap?

The album's character probably owes a lot to the personnel on board with Iommi. Keyboardist Geoff Nicholls was still around, and Bill Ward returned to the throne. More important, though, was the vocalist position.

The album was the follow-up to the successful Mob Rules (and Live Evil, which came after). Iommi has said the band fired Ronnie James Dio after those albums. I don't think most people have ever made a mistake quite so big. The replacement was Ian Gillan (ex-Deep Purple and Jesus).

The album starts out terribly. Opener "Trashed" sounds like a failed attempt to sound like Van Halen, a band which was extremely popular at the time. (Even a successful attempt would have been a failure.) The second track is "Stonehenge", an atmospheric track placed way too early in the album. But things start to look up with "Disturbing the Priest", which has an inventive riff. This proves Iommi still had chops.

The album continues to build with atmospheric intro "The Dark" and "Zero the Hero". "Zero" has a classic Sabbathian riff with lots of scary atmosphere, and an extended guitar solo. It seems to be an early stoner doom track.

But then things take a turn for the worse again. "Digital Bitch", reportedly about Sharon Arden (Osbourne), sounds like another Van Halen wannabe. The title track could have been great, with its mellow stoner metal sound, but the vocals don't fit. "Hot Line", featuring a good vocal hook, is one of the few moments when Gillan really shines, but the riff is forgettable. And closer "Keep It Warm" somehow manages to be both disjointed and repetitive, so it's a terrible mess.

I can't really end this without mentioning the famous album cover. Here's what Wikipedia says:
The album's cover was designed by Steve 'Krusher' Joule. Some consider the cover to be similar to the cover of Depeche Mode's single "New Life". Martin Popoff described the creature on the cover as a "garish red devil-baby". Bill Ward has said that he personally hated the album's cover and according to him, Ian Gillan told the press that he vomited when he first saw the cover. However, Tony Iommi approved the album cover. The cover has been considered one of the worst album covers ever. Ben Mitchell of Blender called the cover "awful". The British magazine, Kerrang!, ranked the cover in second place behind only, the Scorpions' Lovedrive, on their list of "10 Worst Album Sleeves In Metal/Hard Rock". The list was based on votes from the magazine's readers. NME included the sleeve on their list of the "29 sickest album covers ever".

The Verdict: It's really no wonder Gillan didn't last long in the band. Some elements of it have been highly influential, like the riff to "Disturbing the Priest" and the drugged-out doomy feel of the title track. Because of these, the album is somewhat of a cult favorite. But "Zero the Hero" is the only track on here that really works, so I have to give it 1 out of 5 stars.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Melechesh: The Epigenesis (2010)


"Mesopotamian" black metal band Melechesh blew a lot of minds with 2006's Emissaries, so it's no wonder its follow-up The Epigenesis has been so widely anticipated after a four year wait.

The music is clearly the Israeli expats' unique brand of thrashy, Middle Eastern-inspired black metal from the get-go. Every single track has riffs inspired by the unusual combination, and it's still just as compelling as ever. There's also a great deal of traditional instrumentation, including two instrumentals which are all-traditional and several places where it's worked into metal songs.

It's also immediately apparent with the slow-paced opener that this is not the same album done over again. Where Emissaries was unrelenting, The Epigenesis is more varied and experimental. Most of the songs are slower, including the progressive title track at the end and opener "Ghouls of Nineveh", although some ("Defeating the Giants" or "Grand Gathas Of Baal Sin") are high-speed with plenty of blast beats. "The Magickan And The Drones" may be the most obviously black metal offering, with its dissonant counterpoints in the primary riff, but even it drops the blast beats and goes into a much slower section.

Ashmedi's black metal rasp is, if anything, improved from their last outing (and includes some much deeper growls here and there), and there are brief moments of clean-ish vocals as well as traditional-sounding chants.

Highlights include "Sacred Geometry" and "Grand Gathas Of Baal Sin", which shows everything the album offers in microcosm along with some bone-shattering bass drum (or possibly a larger traditional drum).

The Verdict: On the whole, the album isn't quite as good as its predecessor (the opening track is pretty boring, and a couple tracks might be longer than necessary), but it's very, very good anyway, and shows a band not content to sit back and play it safe. I give it 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Metal Briefs: Japan, Part 2

My very first installment of the Metal Briefs series was on Japan, and I thought it was about time to re-visit that source of strange metal. I didn't plan it this way, but all three of them are sludgy.

Boris: Akuma No Uta (2003)

Akuma No Uta Boris is a highly experimental band which has covered a lot of territory in its nearly two decade career. 2003's Akuma No Uta is considered to be a microcosm of their work to that point. It starts out with the 9 minute drone of "Intro", then moves into fast stoner rock for a couple tracks before the 12 minute bass-focused blues of "Naki Kyoku", and then finishes on two excellent sludge metal tracks. This isn't a very focused release, and most of it probably can't be considered metal. But somehow it all seems to fit together and it's enjoyable, bottom-heavy music centered around a stoner rock/metal feel. I give it 3 out of 5 stars.

Church of Misery: Houses of the Unholy (2009)

Houses of the Unholy Church of Misery is a stoner/sludge band with lyrics about famous murderers. There's nothing dark or evil sounding about the music--it's groovy, heavy, sludgy, fun, and dare I say funkadelic--and that makes the dark lyrical content all the more interesting. Hey, Louis Armstrong did the same thing with "Mack the Knife" all the way back in 1956, and it's just perfect for metal. Each song covers a different famous person, like child rapist/cannibal Albert Fish (the head-bobbing fun of "The Gray Man") or blood-drinking Richard Chase (the slow "Blood Sucking Freak"). My favorites are about spree killers instead of serial killers: "Shotgun Boogie", a fast one about James Oliver Huberty, and "Badlands", the groovy one about hometown favorites Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate (a perfectly nice old lady I've had the pleasure of meeting). I give this album 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Corrupted: El Mundo Frio (2005)

El Mundo Frio Corrupted are cited as pioneers of sludge/doom, but you could easily make the case for them as a post-doom band. In a country where image is often more important than music (even moreso than in America), Corrupted are extremely anti-image (they've never had promo photos taken) and anti-mainstream (they've never done an interview,often prefer splits and vinyl, and often do lyrics in Spanish instead of Japanese or English). On top of that, they tend to make full lengths with only one track on them. El Mundo Frio ("The Cold World") has a single track of 71 minutes, 39 seconds (for convenience, I split it into five files in my library). It has long sections of quiet, clean melodies (sometimes with harp), as well as ultra heavy sludge/almost-funeral doom, with spoken word and death growl vocals here and there. It's a daunting listen, and the long quiet sections at the beginning and the end seem superfluous (it could have been about 50-55 minutes), but the middle is excellent. The mood fits the title perfectly, and I give it 4 out of 5 stars.