Friday, April 30, 2010

Finntroll: Nifelvind (2010) Review

Finally, a band which bridges the gap between what I listen to and what my great-grandmother used to listen to.

If you're familiar with Finntroll, you know they are one of the best folk metal outfits around. They combine black metal with Finnish humppa music (like German oompah music, and not too far from my great-grandmother's polka). I already had their 2007 release, Ur Jordens Djup, and I really liked it. But I had no idea how good Nifelvind would be.

Except for the mellow "Galgasång," and the bonus track "Under Dvärgens Fot," these Finns do not let up. The album is blisteringly aggressive. Yet it's extremely bouncy and accessible due to the two-beat writing style dictated by humppa tradition. Several tracks also include a complete orchestra, giving them a highly dramatic element. Throw in the drinking song "Under Bergets Rot" and the aforementioned "Galgasång," and you've got a well-balanced, highly listenable, aggressive, and entertaining album, which runs the gamut from mellow, to drinking song, to fighting song, to epic.

The Verdict: While many in the US may still think folk metal is a curiosity, a gimmick, or a fad, people in Scandinavia (and other Germanic countries) and Finland are not joking. Finntroll has set out to prove their seriousness. They've catapulted themselves past their countrymen Korpiklaani (who seem too focused on drinking songs) and the Swiss Eluveitie (who failed to experiment on their last album) to firmly establish themselves at the top of the folk metal game. I give it 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Poisonblack: Of Rust and Bones (2010) Review

Poisonblack's latest, Of Rust and Bones, is definitely gothic metal. Sometimes it's good to have something you can easily categorize.

This Finnish group sounds a lot like a less progressive version of Lake of Tears, musically as well as vocally. Like that Swedish group, they have opted for a male singer only, but their gothic metal style is infused with blues-rock rather than psychedelic rock (particularly on "Down the Drain"). I've always liked blues-rock, and I've always liked Lake of Tears, so this makes it sound very promising.

Sometimes the formula works very well. "Alone," "The Last Song," and "Casket Case" are all good examples. Other times, it doesn't work so well. A few of the songs come off as teenage angst rather than gothic metal; nowhere is this more evident than on "Invisible." The biggest problem, though, is that the songs "Leech" and "My World" are the second and third songs on the album. They both tread dangerously close to angst, and they are two consecutive 4-minute songs that sound a lot alike. They really should have been arranged into one song.

The Verdict: The album definitely has some high points, but it's plagued by weaknesses as well. It would have been better if they had dropped tracks 2 through 5 and released it as an EP. I give it 2 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Rating Scale

I have decided to lay out a new rating scale. It still uses a 5 star system (well, Death Star system), but instead of the lowest score being 1, the lowest score is now 0. These are now what the scores mean:

5 Stars: This is an absolute masterpiece, worthy of consideration for a hall of fame or a list of "The Top X of All Time."

4 Stars: I love it. For music, it means I will make it part of my regular rotation. For books, it means I would strongly recommend it to others. For movies, it means I would watch it again.

3 Stars: I like it. I'm glad I spent my money and time on it.

2 Stars: It's OK, but if I could go back I would probably spend my money and time on something else.

1 Star: I don't like it, but it has some redeeming qualities.

0 Stars: It has no redeeming qualities whatsoever, and I would go out of my way to warn others about it.

I have adopted this scale because I realized that my old 3 star ratings covered a lot of ground, and I might like one of them a lot more than another. This new scale corrects that, and also helps me to be consistent.

The descriptions are illustrative, and apply well to music, movies, and books. When I review other things in the future (as I plan to do), you may have to use your imagination to figure out how the scale applies to them.

This rating scale is effective retroactive to November 2009 (when I really started resurrecting this blog), so a few of the past ratings have been adjusted to conform.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Metal Briefs: Power Metal

For the second installment of my Metal Briefs series, I thought I'd take a look at one of my less favorite metal genres: power metal. Most of the time it doesn't really speak to me, but there are other times--very rarely--that it works well for me.

Cellador: Enter Deception (2006)

Enter Deception I picked up this album because Cellador is from my home state of Nebraska. I'm not aware of any other metal bands from the state, so this seemed like a good enough reason to me to get it. They're signed to the legendary Metal Blade, so that's another thing in its favor. Also on the plus side, the guitar solos are great. On the other hand, there are some very important negatives: Even though everything seems to be done skillfully enough--drums, vocals, etc.--the album is still kind of dull, outside of the solos, owing to such ill-defined criteria as lack of chemistry and uninspired songwriting.

I give it 2 out of 5 stars.

Divinefire: Hero (2005)

Hero Divinefire (of Sweden and Finland), on the other hand, shows much more chemistry in their sound. This Christian band has an approach which sounds a lot like one of my favorite power metal bands, Brainstorm, only with symphonic elements overlaid. These guys play with skill and conviction, and the orchestral parts merely add to the high drama; they're definitely worth a listen. And did I mention the amazing cover of Queen's "The Show Must Go On"?

I give it 3 out of 5 stars.

Raintime: Flies & Lies (2007)

Flies & Lies I saved the best for last: Italian group Raintime, who incorporate elements of progressive and melodic death metal into their power metal. The vocals are definitely more interesting, since Claudio Coassin doesn't only sing, he also has a scary voice somewhere between a hardcore scream and a black metal rasp. Rather than a full symphony, they opted to go with keyboards, which are used to emphasize rather than confuse their songs. They're heavier than the above two groups, and their songwriting skills are on another level entirely.

They did also happen to do a cover song as well--one which is quite a bit improved from the original. I give this album 4 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Playlist: "Slaughter of the Soul"

I had another great Genius playlist the other night, this one based on "Slaughter of the Soul" from the legendary album of the same name. What did I say about "The Lotus Eater" being on every one of these?

Slaughter of the Soul - At the Gates
Runes To My Memory - Amon Amarth
Demigod - Behemoth
The Lotus Eater - Opeth
Monochromatic Stains - Dark Tranquility
Symbolic - Death
Suburban Me - In Flames
Combustion - Meshuggah
99 - The Haunted
Guardians of Asgaard - Amon Amarth
Reborn - Slayer
Triple Corpse Hammerblow - Children of Bodom
Blinded by Fear - At the Gates
Bleak - Opeth
Stabwound - Necrophagist
Mind Matters - Dark Tranquility
Reroute to Remain - In Flames
Future Breed Machine - Meshuggah
Valhall Awaits Me - Amon Amarth
Kings of the Carnival Creation - Dimmu Borgir
The Medication - The Haunted
Disciple - Slayer
From the Sky - Gojira
Under a Serpent Sun - At the Gates

Friday, April 23, 2010

Oranssi Pazuzu: Muukalainen Puhuu (2009) Review

I heard the Finnish "psychedelic" black metal band Oranssi Pazuzu recently on The Metalcast, and proceeded to buy their debut album Muukalainen Puhuu. The combination of black metal and what is essentially stoner metal intrigued me, because the usual ideologies of the two styles are so much at odds. According to the band, “Oranzzi Pazuzu makes music that lures all the arsonists and smokers to hold each others hands.”

"Oranssi" is Finnish for "orange," and Pazuzu is the king of the demons of the wind in Babylonian mythology. I suspect the name is simultaneously a reference to the demonic aspects of black metal and to the legendary stoner metal band Orange Goblin, so their name is definitely well-chosen. The cover art also fits the combined style, as you can see. I think the album title means "foreign language."

On the positive side, the music is very original, and the lyrics are all in Finnish, which is something I appreciate because I don't understand it. I find lyrics I can understand merely detract from the music. On the negative side, after I listened to it for a while, I realized the musical style is not entirely unique--Nachtmystium has been doing psychedelic black metal for the better part of a decade, and they do it with much songwriting that is more focused and polished. Oranssi Pazuzu sometimes follows an aimless psychedelic tangent, almost like they forgot where they were going--something which is quite possible given their avowed interests. Maybe they should write the whole thing before recording it, and maybe stay off the reefer while recording, too, and they could come away with something really amazing. The psychedelia should accent the black metal, not derail it.

Don't take my criticism too far, though: The album is quite good, though it obviously is not for everyone. If I hadn't already heard the amazing Nachtmystium to compare it to, I probably wouldn't have much negative to say. My favorite track is the album closer, "Kerettiläinen Vuohi," which I have embedded below for your convenience, but "Korppi," "Suuri Pää Taivaasta," and the mouthful "Myöhempien Aikojen Pyhien Teatterin Rukoilijasirkka" are all good songs.

The Verdict: If you like Nachtmystium, or you're intrigued by the unusual fusion of styles, you'll probably like Oranssi Pazuzu. Hopefully, they will show more musical maturity and polish on their next album, because they show a lot of promise that just isn't delivered quite as well as it should. Well, Nachtmystium didn't really get to where they are until their latest album either. I give Muukalainen Puhuu 3 of 5 stars. If I ever have to have surgery and get put on post-operative pain relievers, I may have to revisit it and come back with a different opinion, but I don't think that opinion will be quite so coherent.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Lair of the Minotaur: Evil Power (2010) Review

Lair of the Minotaur is equally a part of the thrash metal revival and the rise of sludge metal spurred by the success of Mastodon. Their new release, Evil Power, blends these two styles perfectly.

The sound is just as much early Mastodon as it is Exodus, combining the highly distorted, dense, feedback-laden sludge elements with the speed and ferocity of thrash.

Their attitude is definitely focused on metal purity, with violent lyrics based in a metal-idealized version of the past--sort of like Viking metal, but set in ancient Greece. But they don't go in the silly direction of singing about metal, as some do. They have hit on that lyrical sweet spot where everything they say is so over-the-top it could be hilarious, but it's delivered with absolute conviction. The upshot is you can take it whichever way you prefer. The heavy layering of profanity could be a turnoff for some, though.

The songs are short, some only about 1:30 and a couple clocking in just over 4 minutes. The good part is this keeps even the shortest attention spans happy, but the bad part is the whole album only measures half an hour long. All of the songs are interesting, and all are uncompromisingly metal (you will find no ballads here). The only low point, musically, is the first two minutes of "Death March of the Conquerors," which is basically a 300-inspired speech; it will please some because of its content, but it's kind of ridiculous to have a two minute intro to a two minute song, especially where the rest of the album is so focused and driving.

I can't find a video on Youtube for this album yet, but this NSFW video should give you an idea what they're about. (Warning: It looks like an ultra-gory History Channel reenactment, with scantily clad and nude vampire chicks thrown in for good measure.)

The Verdict: Evil Power shows that Lair of the Minotaur is dedicated to pure metal virtues, and they combine two mostly-American metal styles expertly. Nothing high-minded here, but instead they've recorded what could be 300: The Musical. I give it 4 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Metal Briefs: Japan

I listen to a lot of metal music, but I don't necessarily have a lot to say about every single album. So, I thought I'd start to write some posts with several short reviews. I plan to center each of these posts around a single theme.

The first theme for the Metal Briefs series is Japan. The country is not particularly well-known for its metal bands, aside from Sigh. But it is home to some unique and interesting groups.

Gallhammer: Ill Innocence (2007)

Ill Innocence Not only are Japanese metal bands a rarity, but so are metal bands which are entirely female. (Drain STH and Kittie are the only ones I can name.) Enter Tokyo's Gallhammer, a doom/black metal band which meets both rare criteria. This makes it sound promising, but the result is not very interesting. The songwriting is uninspired, and at times downright weird ("Blind My Eyes," for example, has some squeaky vocals in it which are stereotypical of Japanese women). I give it 1.5 out of 5 stars. Here is the video for one of the better songs:

Gonin-Ish: Gonin-Ish (2000)

Gonin-Ish is also from Tokyo. In Japanese, they're called 五人一首, just in case you were wondering. This is a truly interesting progressive metal outfit, using both male and female vocals (the latter remind me of the score to Ghost in the Shell) and a style which incorporates traditional Japanese influences. They display originality, creativity, and technical proficiency, and I look forward to getting their sophomore album sometime. It's definitely worth a listen if you like the stranger side of metal. I give it 4 of 5 stars. Here is a live video for my favorite track:

Girugamesh: Music (2008)

Music Finally, we have Chiba's Girugamesh--probably the newest nu metal band out there. I guess the Japanese didn't get the message that nu metal is dead. They sound like a Japanese version of Spineshank circa 2003 (the year Girugamesh formed, and probably the last year nu metal could be seen as a viable genre). It's got a lot of catchy riffs in that vein, as well as industrial elements. The similarity is so strong, however, that it seems almost like Girugamesh copied them without adding anything original--though they do a great job of it. Obviously, it's not for anyone who has such a narrow conception of what it means to be "metal," but for those who would like to see nu metal live on, Girugamesh is a great option. I give it 3 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Triptykon: Eparistera Daimones (2010) Review

Apparently, Triptykon's debut album Eparistera Daimones was the most anticipated new metal album of the year. I hadn't heard of it until Metallattorney did a post on it. In short: it deserves all the anticipation.

However strange it may be, I have never listened to a Celtic Frost album. That will change in the very near future, because Tom G. Warrior's new album has completely blown me away. I think my unfamiliarity with his previous work gives me an unclouded look at the virtues of this masterpiece.

Let's start with the cover art. H.R. Giger is always a great way to go for a metal band, and rarely has he connected his work with anything other than worthwhile projects. See Danzig's How the Gods Kill, for instance. But Triptykon is a much better match for the darkness of Giger's artwork. Interestingly, "Do You Wear the Mark" from that Danzig album references a "devil on the left," and eparistera daimones means "devils on the left."

Past the superficial, the music is stunning. Wikipedia currently lists it as avant-garde metal, black metal, gothic metal, and doom metal. In my opinion, it's doom metal, with some death metal passages (including the entire track "A Thousand Lies"). It is the heaviest album I have heard in a long time, and rarely have I heard so many dissonant chords from anyone besides Meshuggah. It's got to be difficult to write everything with dissonant chords, but it works incredibly well here. If this helps at all, it sounds a lot like Eryn Non Dae, except with more breathing room due to more minimalist arrangements.

They even take the dissonance one step further, with liberal use of string bends, giving it an eerie and extremely scary sound--the scariest I've ever heard. This has to be particularly hard on bass player Vanja Slajh. He must have a grip that could crush bones.

The vocals are great too. Warrior's style isn't particularly unique, but he is very skillful at blending a powerful growl with some rather fragile moments. An ethereal female voice also chimes in from time to time.

Another thing in its favor is that this sounds like a real album, not just a collection of songs. It has a beginning (tracks 1-3), a middle (tracks 4-7), and an end (tracks 8 and 9), each one equipped with an introduction, followed by some real meat, and ending with a satisfying conclusion. And "The Prolonging" is one of the best 20 minute tracks I've ever heard (along with "I" and "Black Rose Immortal"), but it could have been combined with "My Pain" to make a perfectly listenable 25 minute song.

The Verdict: This has quite handily defeated all other contenders for album of the year thus far. It's absolutely brilliant, and shockingly frightening music, and it fits together as an album perfectly. I give it 5 out of 5 stars.