Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Black and...Green?

It's common parlance among metalheads to talk about "waves" of black metal. The "first wave" is bands in the 80s like Venom, Bathory, and Celtic Frost who laid down the foundations of the black metal sound. In some ways, this stage can be referred to as "proto-black-metal." The "second wave" runs from about 1990 to 1996, with bands like Mayhem, Darkthrone, Burzum, and Enslaved. Many of these bands still perform today, although their styles have changed enough since that time (some a little, like Darkthrone, and some an incredible amount, like Enslaved) that the second wave can be considered over. After that time, the third wave begins (much to the disgust of Darkthrone's Fenriz), with black metal evolving its sound to be both more diverse and more popular, with the rise of bands like Emperor, Dimmu Borgir, and Satyricon achieving prominence.

Since that time, however, the black metal scene has diversified so much that it is no longer helpful to think of the genre in terms of waves. Rather, specific sub-styles have developed within the (already obscure) genre, often associated with a specific geographical area. French black metal tends to be the most cerebral, with bands like Blut Aus Nord and Deathspell Omega producing some of the most mind-boggling music this side of John Cage, while German black metal tends to be straightforward and raw. In recent years, one particular style of black metal has risen to my attention; one that originated in the Pacific Northwest. This particular brand of black metal has been called "natural black metal" and "tree-loving-hippy metal" (okay, maybe not that), because instead of the typical frozen landscapes that traditional black metal evokes, the tremolo-intense riffs of this style of metal calls to mind the rain-drenched forests of Oregon and Washington. These musicians are more likely to sing about Mother Nature than Father Satan, and although they still are interested in the pagan, it's more for their connection to the world around them than for their blood sacrifices to devils.

These three bands fall roughly into this style of metal. One of them is actually one of the founding voices of this style, and although the other two are not strictly Northwest American black metal (one band is from Ireland, and the other Brooklyn), they share more in common with each other than with Darkthrone and Bathory, although they surely owe them a debt.

Krallice - Diotima
Art: 5/5
Krallice is far and away the most pretentious band I've heard all year. It has been said that Krallice does not play black metal, but rather what NYC hipsters think black metal sounds like. Which is true, but over simplistic, since these particular hipsters actually happen to be correct in their assessment of black metal. All that means is that this is an album produced to a form—not a cookie cutter mold that produces an easily digestible product, but a structure, like the rules for a sonnet. That form involves copious tremolo picking and blast beats. In fact, nearly every guitar note on Diotima is tremolo picked, leaving you to wonder how on earth guitarists Colin Marston and Mick Barr ever manage to play a live show. Even in the studio, the task is ferocious, for the average track length is a nice 12 minutes. The result is a swirling hypnotic mass of sound. Diotima is a culmination of the sound exploration Krallice has been doing for the past three years, bringing everything into one bleak, tortured soundscape. This is an album meant to be spun on vinyl while wearing tight jeans and a keffiyeh, sipping on a PBR. With lyrics like "Inside every man is a beast, a perfect animal of
Self-advancement/Unthethered by conscience," Krallice has constructed a nihilistic cultural statement made concrete through the blasting of drums and the swirl of guitars—a musical expression of the OWS generation. There's no pretty nature here—just the roaring of the wind

Grip: 4/5
Here is where Krallice stretches itself. Because most of the songs are twelve minutes long and do not adhere to any traditional song structure, and instead are built around a series of intertwined tremolo guitar parts, Diotima is by no means an easy listen. Some may never pierce its shell, and hear only a bunch of self-absorbed guys in their mid-twenties creating a parody of something that shook the world twenty years ago. But if that's all you get out of Krallice, you're either too old or too set in your assumptions (or quite likely both). The drums are driving and the riffs infectious. The guitars screech and swirl over the growl of the bass. The raw production of  Diotima uses just the slightest amount of reverb to blend the sounds together. The sound is truly remarkable, and if experienced in the correct way, is a powerful tool to drive home the philosophies and ideas of today's young and disillusioned. Whether or not Krallice will be able to stay relevant with time remains to be seen, but they are undoubtedly a band of their times.

Wolves In The Throne Room - Celestial Lineage
Art: 5/5
Washington natives Wolves In The Throne Room are one of the originals of this particular movement of black metal, and also one of the best. Their sound is one of green nature and grey rain. When you listen to a WitTR album, you can feel the moss under your feet and smell the forest. If somebody told you that the Weaver brothers, the only two "members" of the band (although the album features eight guest musicians), did nothing but stand in an enclave in the forest holding candles and chanting in low voices, you would absolutely believe it. On Celestial Lineage, that natural feeling is more present than ever before. Ever since 2007's Two Hunters, WitTR have included ambient clips of rain and forest sounds in their albums to help set the tone for the music, but on Lineage they are integrated into the music in a way that few metal bands achieve. The use of subtle synthetic pads as well as piano and chimes fills out the sound while a haunting female voice chants poetry, and for most bands, there would be a specific cut-off point where you could say "now the metal begins," and after a first listen, you would skip the intro track from then on. But not so with Wolves in the Throne Room.Tremolo guitars surge into existence, Aaron's skillful drumming rushes in, and Nathan's tortured shrieking replaces the female chanting, and it all feels like one complete piece—a seamless transition. This level of control is rare in metal, and it comes from having a focused message and a specific delivery. The pads, chanting, and chimes continue to make their appearances throughout the album, appearing alongside distorted chords and esoteric drumming.

Grip: 4/5
It's hard to tell which parts of the album are more compelling—the full-on black metal assault or the expansive chanting sections. Both are put together superbly, and Celestial Lineage receives the best production I've yet heard on a WitTR album. Everything is warm and rich in analogue tone, with guitar tone so good you can barely tell when a note is being tremoloed and when it's just rich, fuzzy sustain. The drums lack the harsh edge they enjoy on Diotima, and the vocals are the reverb-drenched "demon yelling from the mountaintop" style that has become so popular in this blend of black metal. With alternate instrumentation ranging from pipe organs to Celtic harps to glass chimes, as well as the previously mentioned 3-part female chorus, Lineage also contains the greatest diversity of sound yet heard on a WitTR album. The one flaw is that with all this diversity, it's easy to get lost in the album with little sense of song. That's a common risk that bands take when they produce epic 10+ minute tracks (and one that Krallice falls prey to as well). Still, Celestial Lineage is a great 50 minute excursion into a more primeval natural world. I'm confident that Wolves in the Throne Room will only continue to improve with time.

Altar of Plagues - Mammal

Art: 5/5
Mammal is Altar of Plagues' 2nd full length release, after 2009's stupendous White Tomb, but since in 2010 they put out the 35 minute (two track!) Tides EP, it feels like their third album in as many years. In every work they've done, these Irishmen have shown themselves to be concerned with the way that human beings treat the environment and see themselves within the world as a whole. This theme sounds similar to Wolves In the Throne Room or even French metalmasters Gojira, but Altar of Plagues brings the game to a whole new level. The word that springs to mind when you hear Celestial Lineage is "hippy," but the Mammal screams "authenticity." It may seem strange that black metal music could be such a powerful medium for what many consider a political message, and others (myself included) consider a moral discussion, yet hearing the music will convince you. The tone of the guitars, the energy of the drums, the passionate outcry of the vocalist—it all sounds organic. I don't mean "analogue," like an old-school recording studio, which it certainly also is. This sounds like Nature, pressed into sound waves. and fed into your ears in a new way. If listening to songs like "Neptune Is Dead" doesn't bring to mind images of oceans and fields, wind and rain, growing and dying, then you need to get your ears (and probably your head) checked. With lyrics like
I know that when I die the world is alive
And I cannot see a world without them, those who came before me
I cannot see a world without them, those who stay after.
I search for a greater meaning, and still I find nothing
it's obvious that this is exactly what the musicians want us to feel. Mammal makes you view the world you live in as more than just the disposable stage to your everyday existence.Unlike most metal, it emphasizes the smallness and weakness of the human being in the grand scheme of things. Sometimes, in our egocentric world of self-actualization and momentary achievement, this is exactly what we need to hear.

Grip: 5/5
Altar of Plagues has managed to include something in their work that the other pretentious black metal artists of the day have narrowly missed, and that is truly infectious riffs. And it's not just the riffs, it's the tone and the timbre and the absolute commitment to every note that this trio display. The mastering is absolutely perfect, with a real richness and depth to the guitars. The chords and tremolo parts have an almost sparkling clarity to them,with waves of distortion seething through the reverb to catch up with them. The bass never steps out to impress on its own, but it's never absent, keeping everything warm and powerful. The sparse use of alternate instrumentation is completely integrated and complimentary—so much so that it might be several listens to a certain track before you recognize that it's a piano making some of those sounds. "Neptune is Dead" could easily be the single best song that I've heard all year, and at nearly nineteen minutes, it's quite a song. The churning guitars of the second track, "Feathers and Bone," are sure to get stuck in your head for hours, while the chanting of "When the Sun Drowns in the Ocean" is, at times, truly haunting. "All Life Converges to Some Center" closes the album off with mixed feelings of peace and turmoil, and that's it—four excellent tracks, fifty-one minutes of music. And then I press play again. The album is that good. I listened to it once for four hours straight, and I still believe that to be time well spent. You can certainly play Mammal as background music to whatever task you happen to be doing, from cleaning to driving a car. But I certainly recommend that you take an hour, sit down in a dark room with a good pair of speakers or headphones, and let yourself be taken on the journey that Altar of Plagues have prepared for you.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Welcome To Garde Duty

Avant Garde is a minefield. For some reason, many bands want to be considered "ahead of the curve," or "revolutionary," so they try introducing weird or "experimental" (by which they mean electronic) elements into their music. The problem with avant garde metal is that anybody can "do it," and so few can do it well. Witness the atrocity that is the latest Morbid Angel release. They were trying to be edgy and experimental, and instead they became shitty and juvenile. The other problem with avant garde music is that it's a label that can be tacked on to almost any kind of music. Celtic Frost was avant garde, because they pioneered elements of black, death, and doom metal, without being pigeonholed into any particular frame of reference. John Cage (famous classical composer) was avant garde because he had an orchestra sit in their seats and not play music for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. Cynic was avant garde because they included jazz and electronic elements in their metal, and Meshuggah is avant garde because they invented 8-string guitars and have weird time signatures. So I'm not going to try to define avant garde for this particular review session. I'm just going to go ahead and let you figure it out on your own.

Ulver - Wars of the Roses
Art: 5/5
Ulver has a long reputation as an "avant garde" band. These Oslo natives started out as a black metal group in 1993, but quickly abandoned any ideas of KVLT status for true musical experimentation. They played around with folk metal for a while, before developing into something just too weird to classify without the nebulous labels of "progressive" or "avant garde." In fact, Wars of the Roses isn't even a metal album in any sense of the word. There are no blast beats, no harsh vocals, not even screaming guitars. It is, rather, dark music that is undoubtedly avant garde. So why would I even bother with the album on The Blackened Edge? Frankly, because it fascinates me. Like the fact that the lyrics to every song until the 14:52 closer "Stone Angels" (which is apparently a recited poem) are written in couplets. Or just the thematic nature of the album. Or lyrics like "We are our own enemy/and the last judgement." Or the fact that the first strong beat of the album doesn't appear until "September IV." This album is only 45 minutes long, but it's a fantastic study of art. The vocals—both male and female—are well performed, and remind me somewhat of Katatonia, if not necessarily in tone and timber, at least in melancholy and passion. There's also plenty of creepy organ, clarinet, and electronic manipulation. The tweaking of the guitars reminds me of master jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, another master of the avant garde.

Grip: 2/5
One of the problems with incredibly experimental music is that it can be hard to wrap your head around. While listening to Wars of the Roses is certainly an engaging and cerebral experience, you'll be hard pressed to remember a riff or a melody once the album is over. I think that is simply typical of this kind of music—it takes a lot of brain power to take it all in, but it isn't the brain that remembers music, it's the body. When you're playing the album, however, it certainly sounds excellent. The bass is surprisingly strong in the mix, and the various random instruments all blend together well into creating a soundscape. The guitars are almost always heavily manipulated, and you'll often find yourself wondering "what's that sound," but the album never sounds hollow or empty. The use of clashing flute noises, manipulated organ sounds, and clarinets all combines into a sound that is both experimental, yet still fully musical. Wars of the Roses is a journey that one must undertake deliberately, but you will certainly be rewarded if you stay the course.

Septicflesh - The Great Mass
Art: 4/5
Greek experimentalists Septicflesh, on the other hand, are undeniably a death metal band. True, they're a metal band who plays with a 200 piece orchestra, but they're still a death metal band. What they are trying to do, obviously, is create music that is both fearsome and epic, and most of the time they succeed. It's surprising how well an orchestra can interface with a metal band (if you read my review of Cradle of Filth and Dimmu Borgir, you'll see that I like this style when fused with black metal). Unfortunately for Septicflesh, there are moments when their music seems uninspired and ripped off, like "Pyramid God," which sounds like it was pulled off of the Requiem For A Dream soundtrack. Unfortunately, I can't find any attribution to that film or the Kronos Quartet, so I'll have to assume that the copy-catting was not in fact an intentional tribute but rather born from laziness.

Still, The Great Mass has some fantastic moments. Most of these are when the band (and the orchestra) are going at a million miles per hour. What is the sound of an orchestra blasting? Listen to the beginning of "A Great Mass of Death" to find out. It's pretty great. The trick with symphonic material is that it's often an excuse for the band to play lazy material and let the symphony take all the burden. Septicflesh only suffers from this temptation a little bit on, The Great Mass, as the drums provide the structure for the whole song, while the bass gives a solid backbone thickness to the sound, but the guitars provide only simple chugging chords to bring texture to the melodies provided by the symphony. On one hand, this may seem like the only way that things can be done, but on the other hand, Abrahadabra.

Grip: 4/5
There's on really irritating thing about this album, and that's the second vocal style. The main vocal style is a low bellowed "beardly" affair, much like Amon Amarth's vocal style. The second vocal style, however, is an irritating nasal whine that speaks words in an "eerie" fashion. This is just not good. No, it's not as bad as the singing on The Unspoken King, but it's still irritating enough to make me dislike otherwise excellent track "The Undead Keep Dreaming." But every time I hear that orchestra take off, it slaps a great stupid grin on my face. There just isn't another sound quite like it, and that includes every other metal use of orchestration that I can think of. The drums have a solid, heavy sound that meshes well with the orchestra and the band, and the guitars' meaty, modern sound gives an aggressive tone that blends right in with the sounds of cellos and horns. The vocals are at their best when they sound fuzzy and full, but when the individual words start to get too clearly distinguished, they just sound bad. Mikael Akerfeldt he is not. "Mad Architect" is sure to be divisive among fans, but I think it's loads of fun, since it really explores some of the avenues of avant garde classical music in a dark, metal setting. If it wasn't for the vocal weakness, I'd probably give this album a fat 5 out of 5 for grip.

Unexpect - Fables of a Sleepless Empire
Art: 5/5
Now this is avant garde! Taking various styles of metal, classical music, jazz, electronic music, flamenco, and even circus music and blending them all into one (mostly) cohesive whole with some of the best musicianship and vocal expression I have heard all year, the Canadian oddity that is Unexpect is back with the follow up to their critically acclaimed 2006 freakshow of an album, In A Flesh Aquarium, described by MetalReview.com as "essential listening for those who want a challenge." Yes, it does take a 75 word sentence to say much about Unexpect. The fact is, their influences are so eclectic that it's not only difficult, but actually misleading to list them all. Why misleading? Because Unexpect doesn't sound like any of those things. This isn't a band that combines 1 and 2 to make three, it's a band that combines apples and flour and butter to make a pie. Yes, the pie is like all of its ingredients, but it is more than its ingredients.

That makes Unexpect incredibly difficult to review. They blow my mind every time I listen to them, because I never expected (ha!) that these different influences could be brought together at all, never mind with such staggering effect. The thing I love about Fables of a Sleepless Empire is that, unlike In A Flesh Aquarium, it's actually musically intelligible enough that I can understand and appreciate it. If Fables can be compared to William Faulkner's stream-of-conscious novel As I Lay Dying, then Aquarium is James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake. The difference is remarkable. While Aquarium offered its treasures only to those who were able to digest it fully, Fables has layers that allow you to start out with appreciation and then go much deeper. From the catchy lines of "Orange Vigilantes," a song about pumpkins taking over the world, to the Dillinger Escape Plan-esque djenty guitars merged with complex fiddle phrases of "The Quantum Symphony," there are so many hooks to grab your attention. And throughout the whole thing, bass master ChaotH plays the most fascinating things on his 9-string (yes, nine string) bass. This album features the best bass playing that I've heard this year, and I've been listening to Obscura's album nonstop (I'll be reviewing it at a later date).

Grip: 5/5
Like I said, this album contains an incredible number of hooks. You can't listen to it without it infecting you, and that is unquestionably a good thing. From the incredible bass playing to the multiple vocal styles, to the gypsy-style fiddle, to the thunderous piano of "Unfed Pendulum" to the absolutely bizarre lyrics (seriously, pumpkins taking over the world?), everything about Fables fascinates, and provides fodder for hours of listening. They even managed to pass my time-limit test, since any album I listen to that runs longer than 45 minutes needs to justify its length (Fables is 55:45 long). You can't be bored listening to this. You might be baffled, shocked, or angry, but you won't be bored. I'm definitely excited about this album, because it shows not only how advant garde should be done, but that a band as experimental, strange, and critically acclaimed as 2006's Unexpect can still evolve, grow, and mature into a better band without sacrificing the ideas of experimental music. For me, this is the standard of how to blend genres, time signatures, and keys, and all those other groups who are trying it, whether Xerath, Atheist, or Morbid Angel, should take note.

Okay, it's there now

I finally have my review of The Black Dahlia Murder's Ritual up. Make sure to check it out, since I won't be using animated gifs for reviews again for a while. Coming up next, I want to delve into some of the more interesting black metal that's come out this year. Unfortunately, the complexity of the music makes it somewhat hard to write coherently about, so we'll see how long that takes me.

Monday, July 18, 2011

It's Not There...

You'll notice my last review post didn't contain its 3rd review. And it still doesn't. The album that I want to place there is The Black Dahlia Murder's Ritual, which is, simply put, awesome. But since I'm a critic, I have to tell you why it's awesome, not just that it is. So I haven't done that yet. Why? Because I spent all of last week at a business conference, and frankly, it burned me out. But now I'm getting back into listening to (and writing about) music, so there should be some good new stuff up soon. Until then, make sure to check out Unearth's new album, and the new single from Fleshgod Apocalypse. And Phoenix Amongst The Ashes is growing on me, while The Great Mass becomes less and less awesome. Which is sad, because I love the theory of what Septicflesh is trying to do, and it occasionally succeeds. But then it doesn't.

New Fleshgod Apocalypse

Last year, Italian death metal masters Fleshgod Apocalypse released the strongest EP of the year. This year, we finally get the full length. Here's the lead single/video, "The Violation." It's making me excited for the album, and you should be too. Get your pre-orders in!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Evolution of Dez Fafara

Since I just reviewed DevilDriver's latest, I thought I'd post a series of music videos to show how far Dez has come in his career. Unfortunately, stupid Roadrunner Records decided to disable embedding for there videos, in order to protect their copyrights. So all you get is a list of links. Oh well.
1997: Coal Chamber - Loco See what we put up with people calling "metal" back in '97?
1999: Coal Chamber - Shock The Monkey No, including Ozzy in this song doesn't make it metal.
2002: Coal Chamber - Fiend Probably a low point for Dez.
2003: DevilDriver - I Could Care Less Aside from the atrocious grammar, see how hard he's trying to be metal?
2005: DevilDriver - End of the Line At this point, Dez has become legitimately metal. Plus, John Boecklin is playing double bass with bare feet.
2007: DevilDriver - Clouds Over California Good times on Rock Band. How much fun would it have been to be the little kid who gets to play Dez in this video?
2009: DevilDriver - Pray For Villains Super weird video, but it demonstrates once again that John plays drums barefoot. And the song is a step up from "Clouds Over California."
2011: DevilDriver - Dead to Rights And guitar solos summon zombies. I'd say this is the most metal that Dez has ever been.

So the quality of Roadrunner's uploads are atrocious. You'd think that they'd want people to be able to see that music videos that they'd spent money on. But no. They don't. I have no idea that they're thinking. I am impressed that Dez has basically put out an album every other year since 1997. Few artists do that today.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The United State of American Metal

So, I thought it would be appropriate, considering that we all just celebrated Independence Day, to take a moment to look at modern American metal. Not necessarily the mostly underground material, like Revocation, or the established but fringe material like Deicide or Autopsy. No, this is the kind of music that you could find at Best Buy or FYE—the kind of metal that a good number of people will be familiar with if you tell them "I'm into metal." And we're not going to look at cobras of any color, so STFU. These are all bands that I've listened to for years, and as long as you aren't going to take a hipster or TRVECVLT approach, can provide some fun listens. That's right, all these albums are great for moshing at the stoplight while the granny in the car next to you looks on in horror and slowly rolls up her windows.

Since this is an all-American review of more "popular" metal, I'm not going to apply my usual art/grip scheme. These albums are of limited philosophical value, because if they had something too deep to say, they wouldn't be popular. Still, that doesn't mean that they're of no value. So let's replace "art" with "Flags," meaning how pumped up the album gets you when you listen to it. Do you feel energized, aggressive, and ready to grill some steaks and blow shit up? Then that's an all-American, five flag album.

Our second field will be "Fireworks," instead of grip. It'll mean that the album is awesome like a fireworks show, and you want it to keep going on. When it's over, you're in awe, and remembering the coolness that you just witnessed. Okay, so it's basically the same thing as grip,  but with animated gifs. Animated gifs are totally metal. Awesome.

DevilDriver - Beast
Do you really expect some kind of idea or concept from DevilDriver? I'm not sure that they're out to do anything particularly fancy. Just play some metal, make some money, and score some chicks. Because what else could they do in life considering the tattoos they have on their bodies? Seriously, though, DevilDriver is often good for some fun times. I dug their debut back in 2003 (although considering what else I was listening to in 2003, that's not surprising), and although it was simplistic and stupid, certain songs had a catchy groove to them, and I enjoyed the follow up record, The Fury of Our Maker's Hands (2006). Unfortunately, their 3rd album was a disappointment, and although they demonstrated that they spent some time in the woodshed for Pray For Villains, it was only a good album when compared to The Last Kind Words. For their fifth full length, however, DD has stepped things up. Beast is undoubtedly their most aggressive release yet. Album opener "Dead To Rights" features a speedy tempo and complex (especially compared to DevilDriver) riffage while Dez Fafara delivers a steady stream of snarly vocals. I think his skills as a vocalist have certainly developed over time—you wouldn't believe this guy is 45! On the other hand, I think that the vocals are the weak part on this album, specifically in their overabundance. I realize it's Dez's band, but if he gave his bandmates more room to breath, the music would be stronger, and probably more memorable. The guitar parts have certainly become much more impressive, and I can hear a definite Meshuggah influence on tracks like "Dead to Rights" and "Hardened." The drumming isn't anything mind-blowing, but it's some solid metal drumming and certainly more interesting than anything that I've heard out of, say, Disturbed or Shadows Fall, in the past five years. This album will definitely get you pumped up while it's playing. Sure, it's not a Suffocation cd, but with tremolo picking, aggressive vocals, and plenty of double bass, it's a hell of a lot more metal than anything you'll find on the local "hard rock" radio station.

Unfortunately for DevilDriver, their albums tend to fade quickly from the mind after they've finished spinning. I place the majority of the blame for this on Dez. He just sings too much. I find that the grooves and riffs the band lays down are actually pretty interesting, but for the most part, this is a vocal driven band, and if you don't know the words, it's hard to remember the songs. And Dez isn't really a master of memorable vocal or melodic lines. "You're on the shit list, you're on the hit list"? Okay, sure. I mean, it's better than the grammatical monstrosity of "I could care less," (my favorite track off of their debut), but it's no poetry. I think that Dez's vocal delivery has improved, but it's still very samey from song to song, and with so many of the drum and bass lines sounding generic, it's hard to remember any great distinguishing moments from song to song, especially when the vocals overpower the admittedly interesting guitar offerings. I've enjoyed Beast every time I've spun it, but I'm never sitting at my desk and suddenly think of a song off of it that I just have to hear.

Unearth - Darkness In The Light
I first encountered Unearth in 2006, right before their album III: In The Eyes of Fire came out. The music video for the song "Giles" was included on the CD that came with an issue of Guitar World magazine, and when I heard it, I knew that I had to hear more of this band. They had aggression, they had speed, they had the intricate riffs that appealed to me as a guitarist, and goddamn, they new how to make use of a breakdown. "Giles" is still one of my favorite metalcore songs, and while 2006 was one of the best years for American metalcore, with great releases from Lamb of God, Killswitch Engage, Zao, and All That Remains, In The Eyes of Fire still stands strong in my mind as a milestone for metalcore. The memorable riffs, the aggressive vocal delivery, the neck-snapping breakdowns. All these things were powerful and fresh, and nothing was cheesy or "scene." Fast-forward to 2011, and "metalcore" has become stale and formulaic. Metalcore isn't music for real metalheads anymore, it's the subgenre of scene kids and Hot Topic employees. And along comes Unearth to show those posers that they're not only among the founders of the genre, they do it best (yes, I'm aware that Unearth put out a good album, The March, in 2008, but it didn't have the weight of In the Eyes of Fire).

Darkness In The Light is undoubtedly Unearth's strongest album yet. The production is rich, the riffs are flying, and the band still knows better than anyone how to make good use of a breakdown. Album opener "Watch It Burn" is rife with melodic lead lines and catchy grooves. A distinctly European melo-death influence rears its head early in the song, before punishing the listener with the first breakdown, but that's just a teaser for what's to come. The clean vocals heard later in the song are well performed, and although I typically associate that particular sound more with bands like All That Remains, they don't sound out of place. It's good to hear that Unearth has been able to incorporate strong elements of melody into their sound without sounding processed or "sold out." I'm particularly impressed with the guitar solos throughout the album, something that In The Eyes of Fire didn't contain.

Unlike Beast, Darkness hits you hard between they eyes and buries itself into your skull. Whether it's the melodic vocals of "Last Wish" and the quite moments of "Equinox," or the soaring guitar lines of "Arise The War Cry" or the shouted breakdown refrain of "Watch It Burn," this album will remain with you long after you've shut it off. Speaking of "Arise the War Cry," it's my favorite song on the album, and although the album has only been out for a very short time, I've already played that track at least ten times. From the sweep-and-tap explosion of notes the open the song through the great melody of the chorus to the war cry raising breakdown, the song shines. That's what an album should be—solid from front to back, and when it hits the end, you're more than ready to go again. At 38.6 minutes in run time, it's also nearly sixteen minutes shorter than DevilDriver's release, and I've long been of the opinion that forty minutes is the right time for a metal album, and fifty is just too long, unless you're Opeth. Unearth have absolutely hit the nail on the head here, and although the album only came out yesterday, I know that, like In The Eyes of Fire, I'll still be listening to it five years out.

The Black Dahlia Murder - Ritual

I think that the Black Dahlia Murder often gets a bad rap from the "underground" death metal heads, who (often without ever hearing the band)  deride it as deathcore. Well, that's absolutely not the case. I've been listening to The Black Dahlia Murder since 2003's Unhallowed, and I've never heard a synth-drop breakdown or a "chugga-chugga-chugga" mosh riff, or a "come on m*******kers!" vocal shout out. If you want that kind of thing, go listen to Winds of Plague (and if you really want to avoid it, you'd probably better stay away from Carnifex and Whitechapel too). What I have heard is a lot of double bass, a lot of tremolo riffs, and a lot of shrieking vocals. In fact, the dual-vocalist approach used to be one of The Black Dahlia Murder's defining characteristics. Now, however, it seems that everybody is getting on board with that style, and Job for a Cowboy's 2011 EP, Gloom, sounds more like TBDM than the band's own 2009 release Deflorate did. What TBDM needed was to refresh their sound and show that they still play this style better than anybody else. The absolutely delivered with Ritual.

I'll be honest, my favorite Dahlia record is 2005's Miasma, because for all the flaws of that disk, it had some absolutely killer riffs that have stuck with me for six years. Ritual has those in abundance. I don't know if they'll stick with me for six years or not, but TBDM knows how to build a powerful riff, with the entire band working in concert. Unlike DevilDriver, the vocals mesh with the music, never overpowering it. One of the biggest flaws in Miasma was the solos—sure, it was good to have them, but they all sounded the same. Even on Nocturnal, you thought "Oh, it's a TBDM solo now," and you knew what notes would be played, and how. Not on Ritual. The solos are all interesting, varied, and masterfully played. Not every song contains one, but the ones that do stand out. The band has always known how to make use of melody within the death metal framework without resorting to the Gothenburg formula (e.g. Dark Tranquility, Arch Enemy, early In Flames), and they continue to do so here. I think that their music sounds characteristically American, especially stand out tracks "Carbonized in Cruciform" and "Den of the Picquerist."

I was a little worried about this album at first, because the early half of the album is, while not weak, slightly slower and more churning than I typically associate with The Black Dahlia Murder. Third track "On Stirring Seas of Salted Blood" has a tempo and feeling that I usually associate with an album closer, and what I expect from TBDM is ripping typhoon speeds and ferocity. I shouldn't have doubted. When you take the album as a whole, you'll see that it's carefully crafted to have a balance of speedy and melodic moments. Downtempo melodic piece "Malenchanments of the Necrosphere" follows the Motorhead-on-speed moment of "Den of the Picquerist," and even contains some nice synchronized dual guitar chuggs a-la "What A Horrible Night to Have A Curse." And as soon as that song ends, the band plows full speed again into "The Grave Robber's Work." This is a great album to listen to front to back, as it doesn't ever bog down and bore you (like Deflorate did). There are plenty of great guitar lines, and the drums are nicely varied throughout the album to never slacken, but never get boring. I'll say again, the guitar solos are particularly good on this album, bringing flavor and variation where in the past they might have brought only exasperated sighs. The production is also great, as the band realizes that the guitars are the driving force of the band, and the drums are the railroad tracks they run on. Everything folds nicely into the mix, and every piece is discernible (including the bass lines), but guitar is the first thing you hear on a casual listen, followed by a rich kick drum. Like DevilDriver, The Black Dahlia Murder have consistently put out an album every other year since 2003. With only one disappointing album among those, I'd say that's a great track record. Today's TBDM is undoubtedly more mature than the band that put out Miasma, and they've used that maturity to good end. I look forward to hearing the band continue to develop.

Well, that's it! It took me an extra two weeks to get that last review up, but that's just how it goes some times.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

So What's Up

So, why haven't I written anything these past two weeks? Honestly, I've been too busy to listen to any new music with a critical ear. When I listen to music that I'm going to write about, I want to make sure that I really give it a fair shot and also get something interesting to say about it. Hopefully this week, though, I'll get a posting up. I definitely have heard some good albums that need to be written about.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Difference Between The Genres

From the internet. A friend shared this with me, which he found on MetalStorm.net forums, written by user Mankvill. Whether it was original to him or not, the internet does not tell. But it is worthy of sharing.
    The protagonist arrives riding a white unicorn, escapes from the dragon, saves the princess and makes love to her in an enchanted forest.
    The protagonist arrives, fights the dragon, saves the princess and fucks her.
    The protagonist arrives on a Harley, kills the dragon, drinks a few beers and fucks the princess.
    The protagonist arrives with some friends playing accordions, violins, flutes and many more weird instruments, the dragon falls asleep (because of all the dancing). Then all leave........ without the princess.
    The protagonist arrives in a ship, kills the dragon with his mighty axe, skins the dragon and eats it, rapes the princess to death, steals her belongings and burns the castle before leaving.
    The protagonist arrives, kills the dragon, fucks the princess and kills her, then leaves.
    The protagonist is the dragon, dwells in the heart of the night with in a castle full of hellhounds and eternal flames. He kills the sassy knight, fucks the noble steed and sacrifices the princess to Satan.
    The protagonist arrives, kills the dragon and spreads his guts in front of the castle, fucks the princess and kills her. Then he fucks the dead body again, slashes her belly and eats her guts. Then he fucks the carcass for the third time, burns the corpse and fucks it for the last time.
    The protagonist arrives, sees the size of the dragon and thinks he could never beat him, then he gets depressed and commits suicide. The dragon eats his body and the princess as dessert. That's the end of the sad story.
    The protagonist arrives with a guitar and plays a solo of 26 minutes. The dragon kills himself out of boredom. The protagonist arrives to the princess' bedroom, plays another solo with all the techniques and tunes he learned in the last year of the conservatory. The princess escapes looking for the 'HEAVY METAL' protagonist.
    The protagonist arrives, the dragon laughs at the guy's appearance and lets him enter. He steals the princess' make up and tries to paint the castle in a beautiful pink colour.
    The protagonist arrives in a run down Honda Civic and attempts to fight the dragon but he burns to death when his moronic baggy clothes catch fire.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Speed Kills

Speed. It has long been a feature of metal music. Thrash, death, grind—all are concerned with playing fast and furious as genre feature, not just a band gimmick. Yet some bands go far above and beyond the call of duty in their furious applications of speed. We'll look some of these bands today.

First, why speed? Speed is often a measure of technical proficiency, and musicians throughout the vast array of styles use complex, speedy phrases and licks to demonstrate their talent. Whether in bluegrass & country guitar, like Danny Gatton & Brad Paisley, jazz music with Victor Wooten or John Coltrane, or the classical world of Franz Liszt & Nicoló Paganini, musicians delight to demonstrate their abilities in composing and then performing blazingly fast passages with both precision and feeling. Extreme metal, with its strong emphasis on musicianship, is no different. Speed impresses.

But metal is not merely a technical exercise or a talent establishing test. Metal, unlike classical, country, or even jazz music, is primarily primal. Metal is about power—the power of the subject matter, the power of the listener, and most of all, the power of the musician. What better way to emphasize power than with overwhelming speed? This isn't the elegant speed of a horse in motion, or a bird on the wing. This is the raw, out of control power of an avalanche; the man-made force of a drag racer; the brutal, unstoppable force of a rocket-propelled grenade. Speed in metal is intended not only to impress, but stir your blood. That is why in metal alone do we find the furious speed of the double bass drum. The speed of guitars, basses, and other instruments is matched and sometimes even exceeded by musicians in other genres. But nobody else plays drums as fast as metalheads. It is through this instrument that the metal musician can command chaos and fury into an ordered display of power.

Yet, there is still the balance. Speed alone does not make for the best music. If it did, then the most incredible metal could be produced by computers and drum machines set to 1,000 BPM (yes, such "music" does exist). The trick is to combine speed with feelings other than pure frenzy, feelings that are much more easily elicited at slower tempos. Many famous guitarists, including such famous names as Yngwie Malmsteen or Slayer's Kerry King, have been accused of surrendering too much "feeling" to speed. But how does one express a feeling through a sequence of sixteenth-note triplets at 240 bpm? Is it merely a matter of melody & phrasing? How does the guitar tone effect these things? Isn't it all just subjective anyway? Well, yes. So if you want to go listen to Agoraphobic Nosebleed, by all means do that. Actually, go do that. The album PCP Tornado is only 4:24 seconds long, and you can take that much time out of your life to experience something truly terrifying. Then come back and read about these bands.

Origin - Entity
Art: 4/5
Origin is a band known for its blazing speeds, where they're known at all. In the past, many people have remembered Origin as "that death metal group with the fat, bald singer." For Entity, however, former vocalist James Lee has been replaced by Jason Keyser, who is neither fat nor bald. Hopefully this will do something for the band's public image. It's certainly done plenty for the band's sound, as Jason's vocals on Entity are not only deeper and more powerfully delivered, but fuller in the mix than James's on Antithesis. The rest of the band certainly hasn't slackened off in the slightest, as Origin's raison d'être is to play as many notes as possible as quickly and as accurately as possible. Unlike some bands, however, Origin does this in the context of actual songs, and their albums sound musical, not like a collection of training exercises.

One of the ways that Origin is able to emphasize their speed is by slowing down. As axiomatic as this may seem, variations in speed are absolutely key to keep the human brain amazed by speed, as spending too much time at 280 bpm will leave the listener "speed blind." At first, it seems really fast, and then it just seems par for the course, since the mind cannot hold a contrasting slow tempo in mind for long under such a sonic onslaught. This may seem like an elementary concept, but bands as popular as Dragonforce to bands as obscure as Brain Drill suffer from this predicament. In fact, it took Origin five albums to learn it themselves. Entity contains much more diversity of tempo than even 2008's Antithesis, and this is a great thing for the band. The album is short, and seems to absolutely fly by at 36:31, but that's great for the band, as I've often found myself putting the album on repeat, something I don't usually do with speedy bands like this. They also find many ways to express the speed, whether through innovative guitar solos, advanced drumming patterns, or original riffs. One unique twist that guitarist Paul Ryan often incorporates into his riffs is the use of sweep picked arpeggios. That may not sound unique—everybody and their mothers sweep pick today—but Ryan incorporates his sweeps seamlessly into riffs. They actually are an integral part in the movement and feel of the song, not just gratuitous technical masturbation. Stand-out track "Saliga," a 6:52 epic, demonstrates all the best features in Origin's songwriting. This is a band that has grown not only faster but better with each release over their five albums and fourteen years, and that's amazing.

Grip: 5/5
This album has incredible flow. From the opening "I can't believe they're playing that" tapped lick of "Expulsion of Fury," through seven-minute masterpiece "Saliga," to the fade-out riffs of "Evolution of Extinction," the album never feels dull or bogged down. Indeed, when it's over, you will probably put it on to spin completely again, because it is that strong. Antithesis had its two or three riffs that have stuck in my mind even for three years, but I almost never listened to the entire album start-to-finish. As always, the musicianship is astounding. It's almost unbelievable that these men can play this many notes and not miss a single one, but it's even more astounding that they can do it in a song that sounds like it has purpose and drive. This album gets you pumped and ready to take on challenges. "Saliga" is a track that will undoubtedly stay in my rotation for years to come.

Brain Drill - Quantum Catastrophe
Art: 3/5
Brain Drill is a band known for its blazing speeds...oh, wait. Of course, I already gave away my opinion of this band in my review of Entity. These Californians released Quantum Catastrophe in May of 2010, so I've had an entire year to form my opinion of it. Brain Drill's purpose is to play the fastest, most technically difficult music that they can dream up, and they do that well. They are undoubtedly talented musicians who are skilled at what they do, but what they do is monotonous. I would compare Origin's music to Bruce Lee giving a martial arts demonstration, and Brain Drill's to a professional body builder who lifts things up and puts them down. Yes, the body builder is moving a lot of weight. Yes, Brain Drill are playing a lot of complicated notes really fast, but why? It doesn't seem to accomplish anything. It's less a piece of art, and more of a building plan. It isn't even that Brain Drill doesn't know how to turn down their metronomes. They occasionally turn the tempos down, usually at the end of songs, but even when they do, it isn't a relief from the constant barrage. "Beyond Bludgeoned" is a fantastic name for one of their songs, because that's exactly how you'll feel after listening to this album.

While I certainly have leveled a lot of criticism at the band for not knowing how to write, I must praise them for knowing how to play. The kind of insanity that these guys dish up is quite impressive, especially the two-handed-tapping lines on the six-string bass. That's difficult. Not only that, but the ability to hold all that material in your mind in order to perform it is also something impressive, as I can't distinguish one Brain Drill song from another. Who knows, maybe at live shows they just count off when to start playing, wail on their instruments, and then stop at a prearranged point. I don't know.

Grip: 2/5
It's really difficult to hold a song in your mind when you can't remember any riffs. It's really hard to hold an album in your mind when you can't remember any songs. Still "Beyond Bludgeoned" usually comes to my mind when I think of Brain Drill, if just for that particular line in the chorus, and that I find the word "bludgeoned" to be awesome. Unlike the Origin album, Catastrophe exhausts the listener, not pumps him up. I've only sat through a complete front-to-back play-through of the album once, mainly because the album closer is 11 minute behemoth "Quantum Catastrophe," and that can truly be a chore to work through. The best song on the album is "Awaiting Immanent Destruction," the only track that clocks in under three minutes, because, as grindcore players learned long ago, less is more when it comes to this particular level of ferocity. Much longer than that, and the listener begins to get worn, which diminishes the impact of the music. Still, Brain Drill is a relatively new band on the scene, with only two albums to their name. Their album isn't that much different from Origin's early work, and so we can only hope that the members of Brain Drill learn to use their prodigious talents to do something other than "lift things up and put them down."

Hate Eternal - Phoenix Amongst The Ashes
Art: 4/5
Unlike the previous two bands, Hate Eternal isn't known so much for its blinding speed as for its burning fury. Eric Rutan and company certainly play fast, but they do it with a unique style of riffage that always sounds more "earthy" than bands like Origin and Brain Drill, who can tend towards the cerebral. Their last album, 2008's Fury and Flames, aptly demonstrated this tendency, but was plagued by a less  than flattering production that over-emphasized the drums to the detriment of the guitar parts. And believe me, Hate Eternal is a guitarist's band. Since Erik Rutan, formerly of Morbid Angel, is the primary songwriter for the band, this isn't surprising (I'm sure that Erik is glad now that he only contributed to Domination and Gateways To Annihilation, two great MA albums). And what riffs they are! There's always something interesting happening with the guitars, and the bass doesn't just copy-cat them either, but although the bass is present in the mix, it doesn't have a very rich tone, meaning it easily gets subjugated to the roar of the bass drum. Drummer Jade Simonetto is a young drummer,  but a monster on the kit. His performance on Phoenix is more dramatic than on Fury, and although he doesn't have the variation of Origin's drummer John Longstreth, he manages to avoid the mechanic qualities of Brain Drill.

Phoenix makes you want to smash things. The passion that Rutan and his bandmates put into this album flows straight out of the speakers and into the listener. I think this is the best kind of death metal. Not music like Brain Drill that exhausts you, or even music like Obscura, that causes you to gaze at the stars in wonder, but music that inspires you to howl at the heavens and tear the stars from their moorings, because your world has been desecrated by nature, and so you will destroy her back. No, I'm not saying "listening to Hate Eternal makes you want to pollute." That's stupid. I'm talking about something bigger than that. Something like cracking the Earth to the core and letting molten rock burst forth in a terrifying geyser to consume all living flesh while you tower over your enemies, a Lord of Monstrosity. Phoenix Amongst The Ashes sounds something like that.

Grip: 4/5
Phoenix is full of pulses and surges, giving it a boiling, seething sound. Unique applications of riffs and patterns stick in the listener's mind, like the riffs that open "The Art of Redemption," played on the high E string, instead of the low E, giving the song a screeching hellkite ferocity. Erik's vocal delivery is powerful, but I haven't found any incredibly memorable lines like "Behold Judas" from 2005's I, Monarch (my favorite Hate Eternal album). Standout tracks are "Phoenix Amongst the Ashes," aforementioned "The Art of Redemption," and album opener (ignoring intro track "Rebirth") "The Eternal Ruler." The guitar solos are well done because they recognize that the riffs and drums are already tearing forward with unstoppable speed, and so they don't have anything to prove in the speed department, letting them focus on melody and phrasing instead of gratuitous masturbation. Which isn't to say that there aren't fast and technically challenging solos. Because there are.  Phoenix shows that Rutan is back. He's been through flames, but like the phoenix, he's back again. The fury, of course, never departs.

That's all for this week. Next week we'll look at some of the best black metal releases so far this year. It's been a great year for death metal, but an even better one for black metal. Out of 98 albums I've heard so far this year, I've heard 10 death albums that I would rate a 8 or above, and 12 black metal albums 8 and above. If you expand the scores to 7-10, the numbers stand at 14 death albums and 19 black. I can't wait to see what comes out in the second half of the year.

Friday, June 10, 2011

When Great Bands Go Bad

Sometimes, good bands go bad. We all know it happens, and we can't predict why or to who it will happen next. Bands that have been interesting or even innovative put out albums that are dull and cookie cutter. Black Label Society recorded Shot to Hell, and Children of Bodom put out Blooddrunk. But then there are albums that are truly ghastly. Bands that defined genres, that produced albums essential to every metal collection, whose names we had tattooed on our chests and whose members we had named our children after put out albums so abysmal that they become bywords among metalheads and drag their creators down from their legendary status for years to come, if not forever. Today we will look at three of those albums. Since these are, admittedly, not good albums, I'm going to deviate from my typical Art/Grip scoring mechanism, and instead look at how bad the album is (Suckage, with 1 being "cringe inducing" and 5 being "absolutely ghastly") and how we would have responded if a different band had recorded it (Second Chance, with 1 being "they would suck too" and 5 being "cool new band!").

Metallica - St. Anger
Suckage: 5/5
St. Anger, to me, is the ultimate betrayal of what a band can be. Metallica was my first metal band. Metallica inspired me to play guitar. Master of Puppets was one of the greatest thrash albums ever created, and I actually own it on vinyl, even though I don't own a record player (it's a 2008 repressing, but if I ever find an original...). And it's not just Master of Puppets. Every album they made through The Black Album is a five-star incredible piece of music, and even the Load and Re-Load albums, and the various cover and live albums have their songs and moments, although they're obviously a different style from the first few releases. In 2003, when I heard Metallica would be producing their first album in six years, I was excited. Since I was 10 years old when Re-Load came out, this would be the first Metallica album I had been able to experience from Day One. And then I heard "St. Anger."

The music sucked. The riffs were sloppy and simplistic, the songs were repetitive and boring, the drums sounded like cans, the lyrics were more inane than Linkin Park (yes, I listened to Linkin Park when I was 16). Worst of all, where were the fucking guitar solos? How was I supposed to inspired and driven by this piece of mediocrity? And it wasn't just the album - there was the pathetic Some Kind of Monster documentary two years later that just drove the nails in further. Who could find heroes in the bunch of pussies that the members of Metallica were revealed to be? I still managed to hang onto my respect for Kirk (at least he didn't seem to have the ego of Lars or the drug & alcohol problems of James), but my image of the band was devastated. Thankfully, in 2003 I discovered Children of Bodom, Black Label Society, and Lamb of God, so I still found plenty of sources to draw inspiration from, and began my journey into the heart of extreme metal.

Second Chance: 1/5
Even if another band produced this album, it would still be fraught with issues. For one thing, the album is seventy five minutes and one second long, and contains about twenty minutes worth of unique musical content. I'm not even exaggerating. Each song has one verse, one chorus, and perhaps a bridge, and each of those pieces is repeated enough times to get a 6, 7 or even 8 minute song ("Some Kind of Monster," "Invisible Kid," and "All Within My Hands" clock in at 8:28, 8:30, and 8:48 respectively). And each verse or chorus may consist of only one or two lines repeated over and over. Yes, I understand that kind of simplicity worked for the old delta blues masters. But that's comparing apple pie to cow pie. They're both in the general category of "pie" (music), but one is a delectable pastry, and the other is just shit. Then there's that snare. CLANK CLANK CLANK! You'd think that somebody would have told Lars that snares have snares attached to the bottom of them for a reason. That's why they're called snares. But no. If I had a friend in a band who wrote a song like "Invisible Kid," or produced an album that sounded as hollow as St. Anger, I'd at least have the common courtesy to tell him how fucking stupid he was being before he went out and made a fool of himself on stage. And if he had to hire an army of therapists and filmmakers in order to produce said album, I'd go home and cry because if he had wanted to throw away money, I would have been happy to use it for him.

Cryptopsy - The Unspoken King
Suckage: 3/5
The reaction to this album was absolutely astounding. It's completely possible that the reaction to St. Anger was even more extreme, and I just didn't experience it, because in 2003 I wasn't involved in the extreme metal internet scene. But I doubt it, and here's why. Metallica may be a metal band, but they're also one of the most popular bands in existence today, and certainly the best selling. Not only that,  but The Black Album, Load, and Re-Load had already shown an extreme stylistic shift away from the old thrash days.That means that the most close-minded, underground metalheads had already rejected Metallica years ago, and it is that kind of person who reacts the most vehemently when their beloved band changes. You see, Cryptopsy weren't uber-popular thrash pioneers. Instead, they were a fringe brutal death metal group from Quebec who recorded an album in 1996 called None So Vile. The vocalist for the group at that time was a lovely man named Lord Worm, and they used to sing about destroying Jesus and other ultra-brutal topics. And by "sing," I mean grunt incomprehensibly. The musicians were incredibly talented, however, and None So Vile developed a strong cult following. After that album, however, Lord Worm left the band and Mike DiSalvo joined as the vocalist. Cryptopsy put out a couple albums with DiSalvo, developing their incredibly hectic riffing style. In 2005, Lord Worm rejoined the band and they released Once Was Not, which featured more furious blasting by drummer Flo Mounier, complex guitar riffs drowned out by the sound of the drums, and Lord Worm grunting about this and that. In other words, par for the course. Then they kicked Lord Worm out of the band and released The Unspoken King in 2008. And the first song they released on their MySpace page, leading up to the release of the album, was "Bemoan the Martyr." Which is, without doubt, an absolutely ghastly song. It starts out with weird electronics, a basic rock beat, and a simple grooving  bass line. Then new vocalist, Matt McGachy, moans out his first line, sounding for all the world like he is singing "You made a mistake." Oh, boy, did he.

The line he actually sang was "You may have escaped, but you've only delayed your fate." These  still proved to be accurate words for the band, as the fans went absolutely bonkers. "Bemoan the Martyr" is a horrendous song, and releasing it at all, never mind first, was a terrible mistake for Cryptopsy. But overall, although the band did simplify its sound, the stylistic shift between King and Once Was Not wasn't actually as dramatic as that between Load and St. Anger. In fact, electronic elements had already been introduced in Once Was Not, but the fans were absolutely infuriated that the band would dare incorporate metalcore (i.e. HotTopic popular) elements into their music. The band included clean singing! And breakdowns!  "Oh my fucking Satan! What happened to my Cryptopsy?" Fans began deriding the band as "Coretopsy" or even "Craptopsy," referring to the album as "The Unspeakable King" and saying "Cryptopsy is dead." What really made the situation horrible, however, was when guitarist Alex Auburn gave interviews to online music publications where he absolutely blasted fans for not loving the new material. He also lambasted Lord Worm as an incompetent vocalist who didn't care about the band and could barely perform that material in the studio and didn't even know the words to the songs to perform them live, and praised new vocalist Matt McGachy as much more talented than Worm (actually named Dan Greening). Now, I agree with Auburn that Lord Worm is not a good vocalist, but it's simply bad form to deride a former bandmate in public like that, and absolutely unacceptable to tell off your fans, not to mention just plain stupid to praise a man who obviously couldn't sing to save his life.

Second Chance: 3/5
I'll be honest. I actually don't think that The Unspoken King is that bad. There are some great riffs on it, and the musicianship is still top notch, although the production unfortunately hides a lot of the guitars and bass behind the sound of Flo's drum kit. But that's always been the case with Cryptopsy albums. If this album had been a band's first release, I would have said it was a good, solid release, and I'd look forward to seeing where the band went in the future. I would have (and do) recommend that McGachy never sing again, but he can scream relatively well. I don't necessarily hate the deathcore style, and as far as that style goes, King is actually a good release. But it wasn't what fans wanted from Cryptopsy, as evidenced by the 16% rating the album has based on 15 fan reviews on Encyclopedia Metallum (as opposed to the 48% St. Anger has based on 21 fan reviews). Real critics who I respect, like the writers at MetalReview.com, gave the album 5.6 out of 10, which isn't that much worse than Once Was Not's 6.8.

Morbid Angel - Illud Divinium Insanus
Suckage: 4/5

Morbid Angel has the distinction of being one of the first death metal bands. Anywhere. Of all time. Their demos in 1986 and ’87, followed by debut album Altars of Madness in 1989 put this Florida group at the very beginning of the scene, along with Death, Autopsy, Obituary, and Deicide. They produced several other classic death releases—Blessed Are the Sick, Covenant, and Domination—with their original lineup, and were even able to produce another landmark album in 2000—Gateways To Anihilation—with new vocalist/bassist Steve Tucker replacing David Vincent. Well, in 2011, Vincent is back in the band, and Morbid Angel have released their first album in eight years. And what a pile it is. In fact, hearing this album is what inspired me to write about these other two metal disappointments. Yes, bands change and evolve. It’s not unreasonable for an album created twenty-five years after a band’s creation to sound significantly different from their first release (unless you’re AC/DC). But this is Morbid Angel, people! Fans expect death metal from a group like this. MA releasing this album is something like if The Rolling Stones had released Backstreet Boys. Sure, there are plenty of people teenage girls loved that album, but it wouldn’t have appealed to fans of The Stones, nor would it have been appropriate for them to adopt that style.

The album the Floridians have unleashed upon their helpless followers does contain four death metal songs of varying quality, but they are the shortest songs on the album and the other seven tracks (and 70% of the album’s hour runtime) are so horrible they boggle the mind. It seems that what the band was trying to do was bring some diversity and excitement to the music by incorporating industrial elements. Okay, I listen to industrial. I like industrial. I even enjoy industrial metal, and death and industrial can be combined with fantastic results, as Australian group The Amenta clearly demonstrates. But instead of drawing on good industrial for influence, it seems that MA have decided that Limp Bizkit would be a good influence for death metal album. With track titles like “I Am Morbid,” “Too Extreme!” (exclamation point included) and “Radikult,” you have to wonder if these 46-48 year old men have 14 year old sons who they let name their songs. These songs are painful to listen to, even if you’ve never heard another Morbid Angel song in your life, and I cut my teeth on Trey Azagtoth’s riffs back when I first started learning to tremolo pick. The lyrics on these songs are the worst kind of fake tough guy posing. If you have to tell everybody how morbid and extreme you are, guess what, you’re neither. Morbid Angel have never been poetic lyrical masters, and have often fallen prey to what I refer to as "Satanic dick wagging," but at least they used to have a dick to wag. Check out these lyrics from “Too Extreme!” Keep in mind that these are the lyrics that open the album.

This is your one warning...

Pounding, pounding... You feel it
Burning, burning this lava
Scorching weakened hearts be troubled
They scream we're too extreme
Guess what. The song is six minutes long. The drums sound like a cheap drum machine, the guitars play a few power chords, and it goes on and on. Then there’s “Destructos Vs. The Earth/Attack.” Narration-accompanied metal about alien invasions was funny when Devin Townsend did it, because he’s out of his mind. Morbid Angel wasted seven minutes on it here. Seven and a half minute “Radikult” is even worse, featuring a hip hop beat, a riff copied from Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People,” and such lyrical gems as
We’re living hardcore and radical
We'll always be maniacal and animal
They fear us cause we're physical irrational
Our radikult is thriving!
“Radikult” is so bad that I can barely imagine that the band actually produced it. If it was a hidden track at the end of the album, I’d laugh along with the joke, but there’s no indication that the band is anything less than serious. It’s fitting that the album closes with a song called “Mea Culpa.” You’re so guilty it’s not even worth a trial.

Second Chance: 2/5
Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, there are four good songs on Illud Divinium Insanus. “Existo Vulgoré,” “Blades for Baal,” “Nevermore,” and “Beauty Meets Beast” are all solid death metal tracks. “Blades for Baal” is even a worthy Morbid Angel track. If MA had released an EP with these four tracks on it, I would have given it full marks and looked forward to their next release. So obviously, if another band released those tracks, I would be duly impressed. But the other tracks? “10 More Dead” would sound shitty if Drowning Pool released it. The “boom boom” of “I Am Morbid” would be one of the worst tracks on nu-metal disappointment Soulfly, and “Radikult” would be shameful even if it was explicitly labeled a joke. “Destructos” is amusing in a way, and might give Rob Zombie a little bit of excitement on his next album. Closer “Mea Culpa” is probably the only place where the experimentation produces anything that I would interested in hearing developed. The fact is Illud Divinium Insanus would be a turd no matter who released it, and it’s painful to see a band who shaped one of my favorite genres end up like this.

And thankfully, that brings us to an end of horrible music for now. Next time, I'll review something that's actually good.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Modern Metal Guitarists

For the past couple weeks, MetalSucks.net has been putting up a list of the Top 25 modern metal guitarists, which, as a guitarist myself, I have been reading with interest. Many of their picks surprised me, as well as some of the exclusions, knowing the tastes of the writers MetalSucks. Their top guitarist of the modern era is David Davidson of Revocation, and I thought it was worth mentioning him here. Revocation is a death/thrash group out of Boston who are an incredibly talented group of musicians playing a unique take on the genre. Revocation's last album, Existence Is Futile, was one of my favorites from 2009. Apparently, they have a new album coming out this August, so I'm excited to hear how much they've developed in the past two years.

Here's a video from Existence Is Futile. Like axe-master Alexi Laiho (and the legendary Israelite king who he shares a name with), David plays the strings and sings, which anyone who's hefted the instrument knows is a whole new level of difficulty. Hopefully David won't burn out in ten years like Alexi seems to.

And while I'm being nostalgic, here's an extremely low-quality video of "Kissing The Shadows" played ten years ago in Seoul.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Top Album Lists

So I realize that I'm talking about old albums, but I've been updating my Top Albums of 2009 list, and the first half of it is now available here on the blog. Just click the tab above. You'll notice that my Top List of 2010 is also available. I highly recommend all these albums, and if you haven't heard them yet, now is a great time.

Two More Promising Albums

Here are another couple two that I forgot last night. I've only taken one spin through each, but was impressed with what I heard.

Vintersorg - Jordpuls

Although he's so Scandinavian that he probably bathes in pickled herring every morning, this Swede actually makes good music. I've not listened to a Vintersorg album since 2002's Tales From the Spiral Generator, where his ridiculous accent made me think he was singing about a flying potato, but I enjoy several of the other bands that he's involved in. Since Jordpuls is sung completely in Swedish, it doesn't have the problem that Spiral had, and the music is quite dynamic and compelling. Whether I'll be able to put up with his ridiculous voice for another 7 months is another question, so this one may not last the year.

Arch Enemy - Khaos Legions

Khaos Legions is a pretty stupid name for an album, but the music sounds like pure Arch Enemy. It's melodic yet fierce, and Angela Gossow's vocal talents have certainly developed since she joined the band in 2000. I've only heard the album once, and it didn't grab me as much as their last release, 2007's Rise of the Tyrant, but it's immediately apparent that Legions is superior to Doomsday Machine or Anthems of Rebellion, so perhaps a closer listen will elevate this one the notch or two it needs to really be something special. Even if it doesn't, though, it's a quality release from Arch Enemy, and certainly better than Children of Bodom's 2011 release.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Year So Far

So I haven't actually written any reviews in months, but I've certainly not stopped listening to metal, nor have I slackened in my defense of it to all open, artistic minds. One of my favorite albums to promote is Triptykon's Eparistera Daimones. That album just has so much to talk about, from a musical, philosophical, and artistic standpoint. Of course, 2011 has been filled with excellent music as well, so I'm going to just take a minute to mention a few of the 77 albums I have heard so far this year. I'll save the truly excellent albums for another post, so that I can give them the closer attention they deserve.

The Potentially Promising:

These are albums by bands that I have either enjoyed in the past or are acclaimed by critics I respect, who have put out albums this year that don't suck, but haven't engaged a lot of my time. I keep them on the hopeful list, knowing that eventually they may reveal their brilliance and become highly recommended, or at least perpetual fun listens.

Scar Symmetry - The Unseen Empire

If you've been listening to Scar Symmetry for a while, you know the sound. They haven't forged any new grounds or broken any molds, but this, their second album since the departure of Christian Älvestam, sees the vocalists finally engaging their strengths. Scar Symmetry made my end of the year lists with their first three albums, and only just missed it with their 4th release, because 2009 was so chocked full of good music. So I hope that when I'm ready to devote the attention to this album, it will at least live up to the legacy of the band. Until now, I've only listened to it as background music, and it hasn't jumped out at me.

DevilDriver - Beast

Don't laugh, I actually enjoy DevilDriver. They've had their strong and weak moments - I thought 2005's The Fury Of Our Maker's Hands was a great modern metal release, and although 2007's The Last Kind Words was forgettable, 2009's Pray For Villains provided some good summertime windows-down, head-banging moments. You have to admire a band that actually puts out an album every other year in this day and age, and Beast seems like a strong contender for DevilDriver's best. We'll see if it lasts the summer.

Vreid - V

Some of the guys on MetalReview.com are huge advocates of Vreid. I find the Norwegian black-metalers to be engaging, and their last release, Milorg got a few spins from me, but although it made quite a few year-end lists, it didn't make mine. I've found myself going back to V several times this spring, so this one could actually go all the way, because it is undoubtedly an excellent disk. Unfortunately for Vreid, there have been a lot of excellent black metal albums already this year.

Deicide - To Hell With God

Normally, I don't enjoy this level of Satanic dick wagging. Yes, I know that you like "The Devil" and you have a inverted cross branded on your forehead. I honestly don't care. But the energy that the band have put into their particular brand of old-school Florida death metal this time around is pretty infectious. And as always, Ralph Santolla provides astonishing and not in any way wanky solos. Can the music lift this album above it's 9th grade lyrical content? Potentially.

Becoming The Archetype - Celestial Completion

While Deicide is busy cursing God, Become the Archetype are busy worshiping Him. It's unusual for a Christian band to reach this level of excellence, and even more unusual for a band to be this experimental, regardless of their philosophy. BtA uses everything from choirs and orchestras to shifting tempos and ska bands to bring variety to their music, and they usually succeed with flying colors. I'm a sucker for concept albums, and so I expect that Celestial Completion will engage me more as the year goes on. On the other hand, it might be a bit too strange to hold long term sway.

The Human Abstract - The Digital Veil

Wiggidy wiggidy, djent djent djent. It's experimental deathcore. Or something like that. It's actually quite good, branching out far beyond the simple sweeps & synth-drop mosh-break protocols of the far-too-popular genre. Hot-Topic Metalers they are not. I enjoy the use of acoustic instrumentation and big chordy vocals (does that even make sense?) but I sometimes feel that the production is just too modern, perfect, and yes, digital to truly grab me. Of course, the album is called The Digital Veil, but there is a balance between "I did it for art's sake" and something that I'll actually listen to on a regular basis. This album actually reminds me a lot of The Ocean's two albums last year, if The Ocean took their inspiration from All Shall Perish instead of Tool.

Born of Osiris - The Discovery

Ah, actual deathcore. But the best of deathcore. Deathcore that I actually want to listen to, not Winds of Plague or whatever My Chemical Romance-inspired faux-core band Hot Topic is promoting this month. The riffs are heavy, yet varied, and the vocal delivery seems more robust than, say Oceano or Suicide Silence. Honestly, I've only had time to spin this album once, and although I liked it when I heard it, it hasn't dragged me back in yet. I'm going to have to make a point to spin it again before I get completely flooded with summer releases.

The Probably Pathetic:
These are albums that I have less hope for. They're worth a listen if you're a fan of the band or the style, but they would score poorly in my Art/Grip system.

Neuraxis - Asylon

Neuraxis is a tech-death band from Canada. I've enjoyed their past releases quite a bit, but they've never stood out enough from the crowd to be really excellent. I keep hoping, though, so I'll give Asylon another listen or two before I dismiss it.

One Man Army And The Undead Quartet - The Dark Epic

One Man Army plays good, reliable melodic death metal. I have all their previous releases and occasionally spin them. Will this one be strong enough to rise to the top? I doubt it.

Children of Bodom - Relentless Reckless Forever

I'm a longtime Bodom fan, and Alexi Laiho is one of my guitar inspirations. The 2nd solo that he plays in "Kissing The Shadows" contains some of my favorite notes ever recorded. But it was 11 years ago when Bodom recorded Follow The Reaper, and their recent work has been slightly disappointing. It's certainly not a worse album than Blooddrunk, and I still listen to that one on occasion. But it's no Reaper, or even Are You Dead Yet.

Benighted - Asylum Cave

This French death band blends grindcore with death metal, including some modern deathcore staples like pig squeals. I don't like pig squeals. So even though I've read quite a few positive reviews of this album, and even though I enjoyed their last album Icon, I just can't get into it myself.

Cavalera Conspiracy - Blunt Force Trauma

I've followed Max Cavalera's career since Sepultura, and I like a decent amount of what Soulfly has to offer, especially the Dark Ages album. Unfortunately, Max hasn't done anything new since 1996, when Sepultura put out Roots. Still fun for a mosh. If you're a Max fan, take a listen. The cover of Black Sabbath classic "Electric Funeral" is quite good.

I've heard a lot of other stuff, including a lot of obscure black and folk and black/folk metal from Germany, Norway, Finland, and all the other usual places. I'll mention all that's notable in a separate post.

Holy Hell, What Happened?

The truth is that I haven't been thinking as a music blogger ately. This blog certainly interests me, and the topic is always something I'm thinking about. If you've ever breached the topic with me in person, you'll know that I can go on for hours about metal, about this or that album, and about why the genre is so great and is a necessary ingredient in all art and music lover's lives. But why haven't I posted anything on the blog?

Honestly, I've just been too burned out to do it. I'm going to try to put up some updates. I have no idea what kind of schedule that will be. But for now, I've posted my Top 20 list for 2010, and you should absolutely listen to all those albums, if you haven't already. I know that Top 20 lists are extremely subjective, and I'm not going to fight anyone to the death for mine (except my #1 pick), but I often learn from other people's year end lists, so I offer mine for educational purposes. I'll also be collecting my 2009 and 2008 lists here on this blog, instead of leaving them languishing in Facebook-land.

If you want often updated reviews of the latest material from real critics (and some not so real critics), I highly recommend MetalReview.com (for the highest quality reviews) and TheNewReview (whose reviewers occasionally have too-mainstream tastes for me). Other than that, stay with The Blackened Edge for my own brilliant opinions on everything that I care to opine on.