Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Best of 2013: Top 30 - 21

Continuing yesterday's summation of the year, let's take a look at another ten albums.This will take us right to the cusp of the Top 20, which is traditionally as large of a list as I've put together. But since I've listened to so much more music than I typically do, I thought I would put together a larger list. Here we go. These may not have made the Top 20, but they're all well worth your time.

30. Antigama - Meteor

Grindcore is a pretty touchy genre for me. Occasionally, I'll hear something that absolutely captures my attention. Most of the time, I just can't be bothered. The sixth release from Poland's Antigama falls into that occasional category. The tracks are long enough to allow contemplation, but not so long that they exhaust the listener. The three tracks that last over three minutes are that length because they brought the tempos down, not because they tried going full-bore too long. Since gore and splatter themes bore me, outer space was a great place to take grindcore. "Stargate," which intersperses grind blasts with space station sound effects transitions perfectly into "The Signal." Album closer "Untruth" brings listeners back down again with gang vocals and big tom beats. One of the few grind albums that keeps drawing me back.

29. Vreid - Welcome Farewell

Black metal, of course, is well within my regular listening realm. Imagine my surprise when Vreid took their war metal sound in a more black n' roll direction. The result was a band that sounds refreshed and ready to bring black metal forward out of the '90s and into the '10s."The Ramble" and "The Reap" are stand-outs in this new directions, while more traditional tracks like "Way of the Serpent" and "Sights of Old" assure listeners that Vreid still knows how to put Norwegian defiance into song. "Black Waves" brings some grumbled clean vocals into the mixing pot, and "At the Brook" has strummed guitars—I'd love to see Vreid put these elements all together and do their own take on the black metal ballad. Welcome Farewell had the misfortune to come out in February, and so was quickly overwhelmed by the albums at the top of my list. If it had come out in May or June, perhaps I would have given it more time.

28. Satyricon - Satyricon

Speaking of black metal ballads, Satyricon has one, and it's even better than "They Rode On." "Phoenix" has a Goth Rock feel to it that meshes quite well with black metal. The entire album has a depressed, almost lackadaisical feeling to it, which may sound horrible, but I find to be a nice change from the phoned-in riffs of Age of Nero. For the most part, Frost isn't playing fast blasts here—you'll need to listen to 1349 for the real fury these days—but "Walker Upon the Winds" is a highlight for those who like it fast. Where Satyricon really excels, though, is when it takes things into a moody place with the aformentioned "Phoenix," "The Infinity of Time and Space," and "Tro Og Kraft."

27. Soilwork - The Living Infinite

I will admit that The Living Infinite is too long. If it had been trimmed down to size, it probably could have made my Top 20. But despite having some dull moments, it also has some of the  best riffs that Soilwork has ever written. Album opener "Spectrum of Eternity" absolutely clobbers, with speed, catchy hooks, and a string section that reminds me of the old BBC The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. So wins all around there. The album continues to dish the melo-death with songs like "This Momentary Bliss," the "Living Infinite" (I and II) and "Rise Above the Sentiment." Disk One gets more spins from me than Disk Two, and I hope that Soilwork practices a little more self-restraint in the future. But after a disappointing few years, it's nice to hear the band excelling again.

26. Ihsahn - Das Seelenbrechen

I'm not sure when Ihsahn got the idea that the best way to make an album cover was to give it a difficult to pronounce name and then scramble the letters up on a black and white image. He's wrong about that. Musically, however, he's still one of my favourite progressive metal artists. Ihsahn is a master of syncopation and counterpoint. The pieces he writes fit together like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, even when he explores the less extreme realms of metal. The album has more in common with Peccatum than with Emperor. The epic "Regen" is a personal favourite and I still have to dive further in to the electronically brutalized second half. Were we ready for a new Ihsahn album? Probably not. I'm still listening to Eremita (shit, I'm still listening to After) and so haven't given Das Seelenbrechen nearly the attention it deserves. But it does deserve your attention. Ihsahn has never repeated himself, which is more than most artists can say.

25. Inquisition - Obscure Verses for the Multiverse

Speaking of repeating yourself, Inquisition's highly regarded 2013 release has a major problem, and that problem is a little album called Ominous Doctrines of the Perpetual Mystical Macrocosm. The greatest duo in US black metal, Inquisition are known for their riffs, their riffs, and their riffs. Also for Dagon's frog-croak vocals, but mostly that other thing. And this album has them. It has them in abundance, and Incubus beats the skins in a non-stop frenzy. Bass guitars? Don't need 'em. This is black metal, people. Anti-cosmic Satanic mysticism provides lyrical fodder and this is the second Paolo Girardi cover to appear on my list. The thing is, as good as Obscure Verses is, it mostly just makes me want to listen to Ominous Doctrines, from which it borrows a number of riffs. If the other album didn't exist, Inquisition would probably have made my Top 5. But why drink inferior wine when you have an unlimited supply of a superior vintage?

24. Voices - From the Human Forest Create a Fugue of Imaginary Rain

Winning the award for the most cumbersome album title of the year (at least in music that I would actually want to listen to), Voices is the  new blackened death project from a number of former members of Akercocke. It's furious, messy, and delicious. The album mixes up vocal styles and the black/death balance to keep things interesting—"Eyes Become Black," "This Too Shall Pass," and "Everything You Believe Is Wrong" are songs I keep coming back to. Unfortunately, I think that "Sexual Isolation" misses the mark in striving for the rarefied air occupied by "Shelter From the Sand," but this first outing by Voices is a powerful one. I for one hope that the band has a strong future ahead of them.

23. Saor - Roots

When I first heard this album, the band was named Àrsaidh, but a month later they changed their name to Saor because they had grown tired of people not being able to pronounce their name. Well, guess what, guys. I still am not sure that I'm pronouncing your name right. That silliness aside, the music is damn good. Usually when you think of a one-man black metal project, you think of the ultra-depressive suicidal projects like Xasthur or the ultra-controversial projects like Burzum. Saor hails from Scotland and plays triumphant folk music. Roots is only three long songs plus an interlude, but the combination of beautiful beautifully played flutes, bagpipes, and strings (it's unclear what is sampled and what is played live, that's how good it is) with melodic arpeggiated guitars and tom-heavy tribal drumming make each song an immersive experience. I listened to a lot of bands trying to do Scottish folk metal this year. Saor gets it right.

22. Woe - Withdrawal

Withdrawal is Woe's second full-length as a quartet, and follows the black n' roll trend that seems to be sweeping the metal world lately. I mean, it's still clearly black metal. Opener "This is the End of the Story" has a great blast/tremolo passage that always gets stuck in my head for days. "Song of My Undoing" is the weirdest song here, and probably one of the most hated. But I love it. "All Bridges Burned" segues clean guitar strumming right into shredding tremolos while "Exhausted" draws on some hardcore influence. Withdrawal has a nice mix of styles with a constant raw guitar sound that pays homage to those lo-fi days of metal. The clean vocals aren't nearly as strong here as they are on Satyricon, so the band might want to tone that down in the future. But I think this is an album that has been unwisely passed over simply because it's not as strong as their last masterpiece. I'm still waiting for the acoustic album Loudly, Dramatically, though.

21. Domovoyd - Oh, Sensibility

Drugs, okay? I don't do them myself, but this album was obviously written for those that do by those who have. The cover art disturbs me, but the music inside is entrancing. This is droning fuzzy doom from Finland. I mean, where else? Together with Oranssi Pazuzu and their absolutely incomprehensible language, Domovoyd has convinced me that Finland isn't actually inhabited by normal human beings. And that's totally cool. Whenever I want to have an altered reality experience, I put on Finnish music. Seriously, though, if you like stoner doom, psychedelic doom, doom with swans, or any kind of bizarre out-of-the-ordinary experiences, you need Domovoyd in your life. Nasty prisms, good sir.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Best of 2013: Top 40 - 31

In my last post, I said that I would be breaking down my favourite albums this year out of the nearly 300 that I've had the pleasure or misfortune to listen to. So let's get to it. My Top 10 is already available on Last Rites, where I am an author, so check that out once you've explored these picks

40. Darkthrone - The Underground Resistance

I sometimes debate with myself whether the Darkthrone of the 2000s ought to even be considered the same band as the Darkthrone of the 1990s, since their music is so different. But that's a fairly irrelevant debate when the music continues to be this rocking and rolling. With The Underground Resistance, Darkthrone step outside of the crust punk line they've been following and reach back to even earlier 80s metal. Sure, Darkthrone has always drawn from Celtic Frost, but never has it been so baldfaced. The near 14-minute "Leave No Cross Unturned" is guaranteed to stick in your head for days. The album was in pretty constant rotation for me for about a month, but after that it dropped off considerably, resulting in its relatively low position here.

39. Cultes Des Ghoules - Henbane, or Sonic Compendiuym of the Black Arts

A solid hour of impenetrable black metal, Henbane is scary like heavy metal ought to be. The sheer length of these songs makes the second full-length from these Poles a challenging listen, but it's a rewarding one. Steeped in witchcraft lore, you could consider the album cheesy and/or historically inaccurate. Or you could stop listening to the Wiccans and other modern witch apologists and get with the black magic vibe. Subtle additions of flutes and bells as well as spoken word samples add to that medieval eerie feeling. Consider that the band is named for one of the most powerful black magic texts in the Cthulhu Mythos, and you'll have to admit that they're doing something right.

38.  Deafheaven - Sunbather

Practically the opposite of Cultes Des Ghoules, Deafheaven have created a piece of black metal that completely rejects all the old stereotypes. This is music for indie music nerds who wear yellow skinny jeans and thick black glasses. Including plenty of shoegaze and post-rock elements, Deafheaven is just as influenced by Explosions In the Sky and The Album Leaf as by Mayhem or Darkthrone. More so, perhaps. Sure, it's easy to make fun of the fucking pink album cover, but try to get beyond that to the music itself. Deafheaven has picked up where Alcest left off. The fact that it finds itself so low on this list speaks more to my tiredness with post-metal in 2013 than its lack of quality. Sunbather will likely be the poster child for intelligent metal for some time to come.

37. Argus - Beyond the Martyrs

Another victim of my melancholic tastes this year, Pennsylvania doomsters Argus are back with their third full length, and it's just as rollicking and heavy-metal-tastic as their previous two. This is the sound of a band playing great traditional metal with no pretensions. The rock-solid bass of Andy Ramage gives a heft to this album that you sometimes forget about when you listen to black metal all the time (like this critic does), and the guitars draw direct from the blues and rock classics like the Allman Brothers and Thin Lizzy as much as from Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden. But the hands-down MVP of this album is Butch Balich's soaring vocal delivery. Argus is still criminally unrecognised, and I suppose I'm not helping them nearly enough.

36. Norma Jean - Wrongdoers

Norma Jean's status as "a Christian band" has likely lead to them being overlooked by a vast number of heavy metal fans. As a kid who grew up on dc Talk, however, Norma Jean were one of my first truly aggressive bands. Over the years, they've only improved their noisy post-hardcore delivery, and their recent departure from long-time label Solid State Records has only been a benefit to them in the musical department (if not in album sales). Despite a number of line-up changes, Wrongdoers feels like a more band-centric effort than 2010's Meridional. Wrongdoers has a stronger second half than its beginning, so I encourage listeners to give it a couple full spins and not give up early.

35. Scale the Summit - The Migration

Creating an instrumental metal album that doesn't just sound like brainless wankery these days is a difficult undertaking. This Texas quartet somehow manages it while still more than fulfilling anybody's guitar virtuoso quota. I think this is because of how much their songs depend on melody and instrument interplay and not just on sweep arpeggios like many modern bands display. Believe me, they're still doing plenty of things that you can't play—witness the tapped intro to "Atlas Novus." But nothing ever feels like "now I'm going to shred a million notes." Rather, the profusion of notes feels like a natural part of the song and every player has his heart right in the melody. Don't pass this one up just because it doesn't have words.

34. Watain - The Wild Hunt

Here's one that has been hotly debated by the black metal community, I think needlessly. I've never been a huge Watain fan, but nobody can deny that they've made some harsh-edged Satanic music that stays true to the essence of black metal. I think that this time around Erik Danielsson and company are taking more influence from Bathory and the pagan metal scene and less from Emperor or Marduk. If  you want to denigrate them for that or say that somehow they've "lost the spark," Watain doesn't give a shit. Nor should they. Songs like "Black Flames March" and "Sleepless Evil" sit just fine alongside "The Wild Hunt" and "They Rode On." And as far as this idea of black metal ballads being unTRVE, you can fuck right off. Watain's first ballad may be no "One Rode to Asa Bay," but this is how progress is made.

33. Satan - Life Sentence

This is not what I would expect a band named Satan to sound like. But I guess I don't get to make that judgement, because this particular Satan (there are seven bands named Satan listed on Metal Archives) wrote a New Wave of British Heavy Metal classic called Court In the Act back in 1983. And now they're back, thirty years later, with Life Sentence (they did also put out an album in 1987, but that's not the point). Life Sentence sounds like it came straight out of a time machine. It's difficult to believe that this album was put out by a group of guys probably in their late 50s. Judas Priest doesn't sound this fresh. Black Sabbath doesn't either. If you like melodic and speedy harmonized guitar lines, this is for you. If you like heavy fucking metal, enjoy your Life Sentence.

32. Lycus - Tempest

In a complete about face from the last album on the list, here's a piece of funereal doom. Hailing from California, this new band puts together low tempos and cavernous growls in a truly beautiful way. This is the best example I've heard of the style since Ahab released The Divinity of Oceans in 2009. It's just three songs, yet it's forty-two minutes long. The title track clocks in a twenty minutes, making it an absolute epic. This is appropriate for this style of music, as movements in and out of aggression and sorrow are the hallmarks of funeral doom. Additionally, Paolo Girardi created one of the most absolutely drop-dead gorgeous album covers of the year. When you consider that Tempest is a début, the album becomes even more amazing. Lycus has a dark but beautiful future.

31. Carpe Noctem - In Terra Profugus

Hailing from Iceland, this quintet studied long at the altar of Blut Aus Nord and Deathspell Omega. The result is a twisting, demented début that burbles, splashes, and boils out of the ground like Eyjafjallajökull.In Terra Profugus is dense, and furthermore is practically unknown, having come out on the obscure Code666 Records in September to zero fanfare. The sound of  Tómas and Andri's dual guitar attack seems to echo off an empty sky while Helgi mixes up the skinwork in an impressive slurry of blasts, fills, and grooves. Whoever miked the cymbals should receive an award. I've grown sick of muddy drums in black metal and as Portal proved in February, adding clarity to something unsettling can often make it more unsettling. The album oozes seamlessly from song to song with a great hissing and buzzing; the entire project is a picture of desolation. I'm excited to see if Carpe Noctem will grow out of the shadows of their French influences. For now, though, In Terra Profugus is mandatory for anyone who lives on the experimental edge of black metal.

The Best of 2013: Introduction

So 2013 is almost over. Imagine that. I certainly haven't updated The Blackened Edge much more this year than I have any other year, despite my constant good intentions. I suppose there's only so much one man can do. That said, I haven't been idle in the world of metal in 2013. As a staff-writer for Last Rites, one of the premier metal websites in the world, I've written a great number of reviews and features. I've discovered music both great and terrible, and had first encounters with masterpieces recorded thirty years ago.

Before I started receiving music directly from metal labels, I had almost no idea of how big the metal scene truly was. You want an idea of scale? In my iTunes library, I have 335 heavy metal albums released between 1990 and 1999—from popular albums like Pantera's Cowboys From Hell to obscure releases like the Vlad Tepes/Belketre split March to the Black Holocaust.

From 2013, I have 481 heavy metal albums in my iTunes. So far, I've only listened to about 280 of those, however, I know that there are also other albums that I've heard streaming somewhere (usually Bandcamp or Spotify) that I don't even have accounted for. And that's not to even speak of the albums from 2012, 2011, or even the 1980s that I listened to for the first time this year. And in looking at other people's year-end lists, I could easily name 20 albums that are highly regarded that I haven't even heard of yet. And this is just in the realm of heavy metal.

So in the spirit of the end of the year, I've put together a Top 40 list to help put a bit of order to the music that I heard this year. Hopefully you will find it interesting and informative. I know that I always enjoy reading others' lists, and have found some of my favourite albums that way. I'm also going to list my Top 5 Disappointments, Top 5 EPs, Top 5 Reissues, and Top 5 Non-Metal Albums.

My Top 10 is actually already published on Last Rites, and you may have ended up here by following the link in that article. If so, I thank you for your interest. I won't be repeating that material here, but I will link it each day so you can be sure to check it out. And I highly encourage you to do so, as the albums on that list are some of the greatest that I have heard in any year, never mind 2013.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

What I've Been Listening To

If you follow my reviews on Last Rites, you know that I've given perfect 10 ratings to two very different black metal albums this year. The first was Aosoth's IV: Arrow In Heart, and the second, a little over a month later, was the third Altar of Plagues full length, Teethed Glory and Injury. Now, I don't give out 10s easily. In fact, I would only rate my album of the year from 2012 (yes, I know I haven't told you what it is yet) a 9.5.

But these two are something special. I've been listening to them non-stop since I first got a hold of them (usually about a month before they hit the streets). You owe yourselves to check them out. I also think that Altar of Plagues has managed to create the best metal music video since Triptykon's "Shatter." Click the links to read my reviews, and click the videos to win a million dollars.

Altar of Plagues


Monday, May 27, 2013

Top 20 of 2012, Part II

Well, May was pretty much a bust for The Blackened Edge, but I hope that you're also reading my reviews over at Last Rites. I've also restarted my writing blog, Salon Auteur, after a six month hiatus, and have begun writing fiction again after seven months away from it. In a sort of spring cleaning, I've given The Blackened Edge a facelift for the first time since I created it back in 2010. Here's the next dose of my Top 20 albums from 2012 for you, if you're wondering what you ought to be listening to as summer rolls around. Of these five, only one of them has an English album title, and that's a fairly obscure word at that. Enjoy them!

15. Dodecahedron - Dodecahedron

Pallbearer was music that almost anyone could appreciate. Dodecahedron is the opposite. Exploding out of the gates with the disonant chords of "Allfather," these Dutch masters manage to stuff an entire art gallery full of strangeness into fifty-two minutes of demented black metal. Dodecahedron undoubtably takes cues from other European black metal acts like Deathspell Omega and Blut Aus Nord, but their final product is one of the most unique that I've heard yet. They combine electronic sound manipulation (for example, the "alien" vocals in "Vanitas") with brute force instrument abuse to create an electrifying blend of cerebral blackness. And unlike some black metal musicians this year (I'm looking at you, Dødsengel), the music actually pulls you in and smothers you, instead of ejecting you forceably and causing you to fight for it. Yes, it has layers and it's difficult to digest, but these are layers that you will disect with wide-eyed fascination, not cross-eyed frustration. One thing that I find fascinating about Dodecahedron is how little distortion they actually use on their guitars. When I play black metal, I maximize the gain on my amp and then stick a tube screamer in front of that sometimes. There's very little fuzziness to the guitars of M. Nienhuis and J. Bonis, but they create extreme sounds through their technique and choice of notes. The three-part suite "View From Hverfell" that closes the album is my favourite piece of the album. Just relax into the insanity and let it carry you away.

14. Dordeduh - Dar De Duh

I've often found myself regretting the 80 minute runtime of the CD. Having that much space often allows bands the freedom to put out 60 minute albums when they have only 30 minutes worth of decent material. Dordeduh, on the other hand, has made wonderful use of the length of the CD, producing 80 minutes of brilliant folk metal. Formed after a split with Negura Bunget, multi-instrumentalists Hupogrammos and Sol Faur recruited two other extremely talented musicians to round out their group. The complexity of this music astonishes me, as guitars, drums, and the normal sounds of heavy metal mesh seamlessly with dulcimers, mandolas, flutes, and a long list of other folk instruments. Chanting mixes with howling and hand drums with double bass. This isn't exactly accessible music, even for heavy metal. The first track is over sixteen minutes long. But if you have the patience, suddenly you will find yourself sucked into an incredible fantasy world. Dordeduh sounds like forests and streams and mountains. They sound alive. It doesn't matter that you won't understand the lyrics (they're all in Romanian). It doesn't matter that you won't be able to pronuonce the song titles. It doesn't matter that the band name (which translates as "Longing for Spirit") sounds dumb. Listening to Dar de Duh, you will be able to partake in that spirit which for which they long.

13. Borknagar - Urd

Borknagar is a completely different kind of folk metal. More rooted in the melodic death and black metal scenes of Sweden and Norway, the driving force on Urd is clearly legendary vocalist Vintersorg. Although it's not quite fair to say that Vintersorg is the be-all and end-all of the band, as three of the six musicains in Borknagar provide vocals, incliding ICS Vortex of Dimmu Borgir fame. Urd is Borknagar's ninth album, and easily the best that they've put out since the 90s. The album explodes out of the gates with "Epochalypse," setting a standard of melody combined with energy will be upheld throughout the rest of the album. The modern production keeps everything from bass to keyboards to guitars sounding clean, but never sounds overproduced. "The Earthling" is my personal favourite, combining spacy keyboards with acoustic guitars and soaring vocal lines in a midtempo song that is actually catchy. Nothing feels cheesy on Urd, not even the downtempo number "In A Deeper World" that closes the album. All in all, Borknagar offers up a delightfully Scandinavian sound that I can't get enough of.

12. Gojira - L'Enfant Sauvage

French metallers Gojira have long been hard to pin down. I suppose they play death metal, but it isn't death metal that conforms to any of the other regional conventions. One word that always gets thrown around when discussing the band is "heavy," but most people aren't even sure how to qualify it beyond that. I'm not going to try to label the band's style, but it depends a lot on harmonic resonance and trance-like grooves. Vocalist/guitarist Joe Duplantier has a harsh yell, but is entirely understandable, and somehow manages to blend his shouts into the melodic content of the song. His brother Mario beats the skins as one of my favourite modern metal drummers. I just love the tone on L'Enfant Sauvage, from the twangy guitar sounds of the breakdown in "Explosia" to the signature pick scrapes to the abundance of natural harmonics throughout the album. Tapping is often used for melodic riffs, rather than solos. It all sounds very urban and polished, and yes, heavy. Yet it also sounds like real instruments played by real people. The occasional use of vocorder vocals among the regular vocals lends a futuristic feel to thing that was absent in their older work. The trance-inducing guitar patterns are more prominent on L'Enfant as well, although the New Age lyrical themes are expected. "Planned Obsolescene" and "The Gift of Guilt" are two stand-out tracks, but this is one of those albums that will pull you through from start to finish over and over.

11. Burzum - Umskiptar

Varg Vikernes, the most notorious man in black metal, returns for his third consecutive year on my list, but since he plans on building a house next year instead of recording music, this is likely the last we'll see of him for a while. Umskiptar has received near universal hatred, which should tell you something about how good it is. It's not strictly black metal—it's much more folky than anything we've heard from Burzum so far. The entire album is recorded in Old Norse, and all the lyrics are taken from The Poetic Edda. As such, you will probably find Umskiptar more interesting if you have a more than passing interst in Nordic heritage. Some of the tracks, like "Jóln," are fairly uptempo with lots of tremolo guitars. Others, like "Alfadanz," are slow and built around fairly simple riffs, but all the riffs have that memorable quality to them that I've always noted in Burzum's music. As always, Varg works alone, and some may say that this album is simply a product of the self-indulgence of a disturbed mind. I say turn down the lights, pour yourself some mead, and enjoy it as the bardic performance that it is. It might even inspire you to learn a little Norse.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Into the Void - December Moon

My next album isn't actually a black metal album, but rather a death metal one. I'm including it for one specific reason, though. The vocalist on this demo was one Pelle Ohlin, better known by his stage name, Dead. It's extremely interesting to me that all four of the vocalists that have ever sang in Mayhem had releases in 1987 (Maniac and Messiah on Deathcrush, Attila with the Tormentor demo, and Dead here).

Morbid - December Moon (Demo) (?/?/1987)
A part of the early Swedish death metal scene, Morbid released the December Moon demo the same year Chuck Schuldiner came out with Scream Bloody Gore. While this is earlier than anything by Entombed or Dismember, the five-piece band never actually produced any full albums. After Dead left the band, they recorded another demo with somebody named "John" on vocals, and that was it. It's interesting to note, however, how similar in musical content December Moon is to Kreator and Sodom. It even shares more than a passing resemblence to Bathory, particularly with the rapid legato riffs that Quorthon favoured.

The real difference between this demo and Kreator or Necrodeath is the tone. While the black metal scene was purveying a thin, necro sound, Morbid has a fuzzed out, edgy tone. Riffs are played with precision and clear palm muting, giving the whole thing a much more "we are serious" feeling than bands like Sodom or Bulldozer were projecting. But of course it's Dead's vocals that make this so much different from what Entombed, Dismember, and similar acts would create in a few years time. His rasp here is much the same as the style he would make famous with Mayhem, and the song writing bears his distinct touch. Compare the lyrics of "Winds of Funeral" and "From the Dark" to classics like "Freezing Moon" and "Funeral Fog." The constant themes of the grave, funerals, and cemeteries have a much darker tone to them than the sort of simple blasphemies that Sarcofago or Bulldozer offered.

Final Verdict: Because this falls more in the death metal camp than the black metal one, I'll leave the scoring to others

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Strongest Day of Metal

For those of us who think about numbers and calendar dates (guilty!), one thought experiment that is sure to occur at some time during the year is "What day this year is/was/will be the best for metal?" Since I'm the sort of person who thinks about that kind of thing, allow me to hazard a prediction. I think that it will be tomorrow, April 30th.

There are three albums that come out tomorrow that are all incredibly strong, and I am sure will end up on many year end lists, quite possibly in the #1 slot:
In addition to these excellent albums, we also see releases from Amorphis and Cathedral, Purson and The Melvins, and even HIM and Heaven Shall Burn, if you're into that kind of thing. If you know of a single day that has had stronger releases or that you suspect will, go ahead and leave a comment!

Edit: It has been pointed out to me that releases from Deep Purple, Revelation, Avantasia, and Battle Dagorath are also coming out on April 30th. I have no firsthand knowledge on the quality or lack thereof of said releases.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Top 20 of...2012? Part 1

Now that we're nearly at the end of April, you've probably all been enjoying a number of 2013 releases. I happen to know that there are a number of great albums coming out next Monday. Be sure to check out the new Arsis album, Unwelcome, which I just reviewed over at Last Rites. If death metal isn't your thing, there have been plenty of excellent releases in all genres, from doom to power metal. But I'm going to take this chance to actually look backwards. Now that we're a quarter of a year removed from 2012, how are last year's best standing up against the newest releases? Time to finally bring out my Top 20 of 2012 list. Here are the first five.

20. Allegaeon - Formshifter

I'm more than willing to admit that Allegaeon's second album isn't as strong as their excellent debut Fragments of Form and Function (which ranked at #11 on my list in 2010). Perhaps the fact that they lost their drummer sometime in 2011 and recorded Formshifter with a session musician contributed to the lack of growth for the band. But I'm still as sucker for this kind of super catchy, melodic, technical death metal. In a year when bands like Spawn of Possession and Gorod failed to impress me, Allegaeon showed me that I'm still open to some great melodic shredding. From the industrial drill breakdown of "Behold (God I Am)" to the off-kilter groove of "Iconic Images," to the flamenco-inspired acoustic guitars of "Secrets of the Sequence," Formshifter kept me smiling. Yes, the album has flaws. Most of the songs are in the same key and around the same tempo, leaving a lot less distinction between tracks that one might hope for. But I've always picked my albums because they make me happy, not because I would necessarily hold them all up as examples of flawless execution. Allegaeon is one of those bands that drives me back into the woodshed time and time again. Let's hope that the sudden abundance of legal weed in their home state of Colorado doesn't distract Allegaeon from pushing technical death metal to new levels.

19. Unleashed - Odalheim

Unleashed have been around since the beginning of death metal, way back at the end of the 80s. Their first full-length, Where No Life Dwells, released in 1991, is an all-time classic. And in 2012, with their eleventh full-length album (not counting two live albums), they're back at the top of the Swedish death game. Odalheim is everything that their last few releases haven't been—immediate, powerful, catchy, and brutal. Instead of relying on the buzzsaw guitar sound of the other Swedish death elite, Unleashed brings knife-edged tremolo guitars to the mix, but still with plenty of chuging riffs and melodic solos—this isn't black metal, after all. Johnny Hedlund's vocal delivery is stronger than ever, as he delivers songs about ancient warriors from all over the world in both snarled and bellowed form (the word "battalions" is by far his favourite). I've found Unleashed's last several albums to be somewhat less than remarkable, but Odalheim is bursting at the seams with catchy, thrash-along moments. Album opener "Fimbulwinter" is my personal favourite, but the album continues strong all the way through closer "The Great Battle of Odalheim," touching on the Mayans, the Celts, and the Germans in their round up of global warriors. Appropriately apocalypticly themed, Odalheim was a great album for a year the world was supposed to end.

18. Christian Mistress - Possession

Here's an album in a completely different style. Christian Mistress is the best of a crop of female-fronted "occult rock" groups that have cropped up in the past two years. Christine Davis matches powerful vocals with the extremely retro-styled riffage of Oscar Sparbel and Ryan McClain. Skinman Reuben W. Storey keeps it loose and quick, and Johnny Wulf fills out the sound with bass groove. Bands like Christian Mistress often raise the question "what is metal?" as these groups seems to have more in common with hard rock groups like Led Zeppelin and Motorhead than modern metal bands. A careful listen, however, reveals plenty of Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, and Judas Priest influence—just listen to the opening riff on "Black To Gold." It's metal. I for one love this style, and don't care about sticking it in a genre box (although I did move Jess and the Ancient Ones to my Top 5 Non-Metal Albums list). Title track "Possession" is probably my favourite, but I often find myself with other song stuck in my head as well. The album features a slightly drier and even more retro feeling production than 2010's Agony and Opium, which suits the music well. If modern metal has you feeling like this guy from Brutal Legend, then you need to listen to Christian Mistress. The past is alive again, and stronger than ever.

17. Meshuggah - Koloss

Meshuggah have been shaping the face of progressive metal for twenty-five years. They've built a reputation for heavy sounds and off-kilter polyrythmic drums and ridiculous eight-string guitars. Yes, these are the guys who first tuned down to F#, who first encountered tones so low that they needed to stretch the scale and add an extra string just to keep the intonation right. The fact that Koloss is only their seventh album (not counting 2006's rerecording of Nothing or their several EPs) hides just how staggeringly influential this band has been. They're even credited/blamed with creating the entire sub-genre of "djent" music (just listen to "Stengah" and you'll know what I'm talking about). So does Meshuggah still have anything left to contribute? Absolutely. Koloss has a primordial and organic heft to it that's missing from some of their old music. Just compare album opener "I Am Colossus" to the aforementioned "Stengah," and you'll see that the near-sterile digital quality of the older track has been enrichened with an absolutely cavernous reverb. I think that the greatness of Koloss must be dug for, as opposed to 2008's obZen, which put all the Swedes' brilliance on display. In many ways, this album is simpler than obZen, much in the same way that Nothing was simpler than Chaosphere. Meshuggah continue to use the eight-string guitar in exciting and new ways. I would encourage you to keep listening to this one, and you will hear it unlock.

16. Pallbearer - Sorrow and Extinction

This four-piece from Little Rock has produced one of the most exceptional piece of doom metal that I have heard in a year that was absolutely stuffed full of great doom metal. The album starts out so slowly that if you approach it in the wrong mindset, you'll actually get bored. But when you come at this right, this music wraps itself around you and carries you away. The production is absolutely fantastic. You can hear every note, particularly of the bass, which burbles and growls its way through some catchy lines, and the whole thing has this analogue warmth to it that some of my favourite doom bands were missing this year (Daylight Dies and Swallow the Sun in particular). Also in contrast to those two bands, Pallbearer features only clean singing. And what lyrics they are! Album closer "Given to the Grave" is one of the most powerful expressions of funeral doom that I've ever heard, and this band doesn't even play "funeral doom." Brett Campbell's voice is actually sprinkled fairly sparsely through this album, interspersed with lyrical lead guitar, and the ballance is excellent. It's rare that you hear true sadness rendered this beautifully. It's been a great year for Pallbearer, with a full length release on Profound Lore and two showcasings by Scion A/V. I can't imagine this band has anywhere to go but up.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Into the Void: Into the Macabre

Necrodeath - Into the Macabre (?/?/1987)
The album opens and closes with a creepy little musicbox number that actually gives you a good impression of what Necrodeath will be like. They're not going for the ultra-blasphemous silliness that would be implied by a down-pitched man speaking evil words, and they're not going for the epic atmosphere that would be stirred by an orchestral intro. No, these Italians are going for a horror movie vibe, and it's a nice change from what I've heard from Italy so far. Necrodeath are, like Mayhem, a functional trio, with one guitarist, a bassist, a drummer, and a vocalist. They don't use stage names, and they play fast and furious in a style that draws more from Bathory than most of the bands that we've heard from so far.

Ingo, the vocalist, usually barks out his vocals rapid-fire, like a slightly less intense Mille Petrozza, but occasionally uses studio effects to give his voice a more deep, evil sounding tone. Okay, I was wrong. Necrodeath does subscribe to the "pitch-shifted vocals = devil talk" philosophy, as demonstrated in "Master Tenebraum" and "Internal Decay." Because of the intensity of the music, it doesn't sound quite as silly as when previous bands have done it, though. The drums feature plenty of simple blasts and D-beats, and never feel like they're lagging behind. The guitars, on the other hand, while not sloppy, feel extremely limp, as though guitarist Claudio is barely touching the strings with his pick. I don't know if it's an element of his technique, or just the way the album was recorded, but I often found myself thinking "Just fucking dig in, already!" It's disappointing, because with a stronger guitar sound, this album could have been quite remarkable.

Necrodeath undoubtedly plays black/thrash music, clearly drawing from Slayer as much as Bathory. This is particularly apparent in "Necrosadist," one of my favourite cuts from the album, and "Internal Decay," with its whammy-abusing guitar solo. The occasional use of clean guitars and seemingly detuned notes helps add to that horror movie feeling. Album closer "The Undead" exemplifies the band's strengths and weaknesses, blending a great Bathory-esque out-of-control mess of notes with some tremolo guitars and mid-tempo thrash verses and a Slayer-inspired guitar solo for some evil times. Into the Macabre is a decent album that has been overshadowed since the day it came out, and is nearly unknown today.

Final Verdict: 5/10 - the strongest Italian offering yet, but still not great enough to be remembered much

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Into the Void: The 7th Day of Doom

Tormentor - The Seventh Day of Doom (Demo) (?/?/1987)

Tormentor hailed from Hungary, and are mainly remembered today as the first band of Attila Csihar. They never actually released an official album, and the material that exists from them is incredibly rough and unpolished. Some people find this to be charming. I am not necessarily one of those people. While I certainly appreciate a lo-fi recording, there's a profound difference between something like Transylvanian Hunger, which sounds raw and organic, and this demo, which sounds like it was recorded with a single microphone stuck under downy blanket.

Still, there's plenty to be gleaned from this album, particularly with the knowledge that this tape was extensively passed around the fledgeling black metal scene. Tormentor was a a five-piece band, and unlike the rest of the bands we have encountered so far made extensive use of their dual guitarists to play solos. This tendancy towards wheedly-wheedly guitarism (mostly the solos are just a few notes played really fast over and over and over) reminds me more of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest (or maybe Kerry King) than it does Bathory or Venom. The songs are also goddamn long. I'm not sure if it was some sort of conscious choice from the band, but they have one song that's 5 minutes, one at 6, and one at 7, 8, 9, and 10 minutes (there's also one at 5:30, so maybe not).

Attila's vocals are definitely the most unique element of the recording (the riffs aren't, as all the songs sound pretty much exactly the same to me). He croaks, he howls, he bellows and crows. He's certainly not all that understandable, but I think that may be more due to the production than his particular style of delivery. This album was recorded seven years before he joined with Mayhem, and his voice obviously sounds younger and less developed. But his madcap warblings are an interesting contrast to Quorthon's much more controlled snarl. Both he and his band, however, have a long way to improve, and we will revist them a couple years down the road.

Final Verdict: 3/10 - If this was all that Tormentor left us with, I doubt they would be remembered today

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Into the Void: I.N.R.I.

Sarcófago - I.N.R.I. (Aug, 1987)

Another Brazilian quartet, Sarcófago inspired black metal's style as well as its sound. I.N.R.I. came out right around the same time as Deathcrush, and Euronymous and Sarcófago vocalist Antichrist corresponded by letter (oh, pre-Internet world). This is where the corpse paint style in black metal comes from, not Arthur Brown or KISS (except for Immortal). I.N.R.I. also comes with Fenriz's seal of approval, just in case you were wondering what TRVE black metal was. The band members, however, considered themselves to be a death metal band. It just goes to show. They do live up to the black metal ideal, though, in naming themselves Antichrist, Incubus, Butcher, and D.D. Crazy. D.D. Crazy? Okay, then.

In my opinion, D.D. Crazy can call himself whatever the fuck he wants, because he was an absolute monster on the drums. Up to this point, we've barely heard any blast beats. Skullcrusher (see, Igor knew how to choose a stage name) used a few in "Antichrist," and Manheim blasted a bit on Deathcrush (particularly in the gutsfucking part of "Chainsaw Gutsfuck,") but I.N.R.I. is the next thing to a Marduk album. The snare is sharp and punchy, and he's hitting the kick and the snare together (what will later be called the "Suffocation blast" or the "Mike Smith blast"). These aren't your ska-rockin' dad's skank beats. You've got to admire D.D.'s balls-out approach to drumming, but he did suffer from the same thing that Stefan Larsson did on the first two Bathory albums—namely lagging tempos. It sometimes feels that while he starts a song out with abandon, by the end, he's struggling to keep up with the band (this is particularly noticable on album opener "Satanic Lust"). Out of nine tracks, four are two minutes or shorter, and these quick songs are where the band pulls together the strongest.

The guitar tone is a highlight of the album, I think. It's a completely different sound from what Sepultura had, and seems to capture that "real instruments in a room" ideal that Fenriz is always spouting off about. The tone is pretty light, actually, particularly when compared to Euronymous's heavily distorted buzz (I happen to know that Euronymous used a Tube Screamer into a Marshall JVM800, in immitation of Tom G. Warrior). The technique is something of a combination of thrash phrasings with a lot of unmuted tremolos. Another functional trio, Butcher is the only guitarist, and although some of the solos are overdubbed, it's basically just him and his strings, pounding it out.

The lyrics are, frankly, the low point of the album. If simple blasphemies like "Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, Jesus Christ" and promising girls "torrential orgasms" is what does it for you, I suppose you'll enjoy I.N.R.I. What interests me is the similarity between Sarcófago's lyrics and Bulldozer's, because both bands came from heavily Catholic countries, and both bands fixated heavily on juvenile blasphemies and crude sexuality, while Sweden and Norway, which have Protestant state churches, produced much more elegantly delivered anti-religious material (although not always, and we'll deal with Finland when we get there). The actuall vocal delivery, on the other hand, is pretty good. Antichrist rasps his way through songs like "Deathtrash" and "Satanic Lust" in a way not dissimilar to Kreator's Mille Petrozza, but with more cough and less snarl, if that makes sense.

Final Verdict: 6/10 - some great guitar and invoative drumming are weight down by juvenile lyrics and, franky, underdeveloped musicianship

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Into the Void: Deathcrush

In case it wasn't abundantly clear, the entire post about Howlin' Wolf was an April Fools joke. But this album here is no joke. The time has come to address the most infamous band in all of black metal. It's ironic, considering their influence on the scene and their presence in the media, how little music they've actually released, and how inconsistent in style and quality that music is. And yet, the very essence of the band is that they consider themselves to be the very definition of black metal. That's right, ladies and gentlement. It's time for Mayhem.

Mayhem - Deathcrush EP (Aug, 1987)

Black metal has finally come to Norway, and this is where it would fester and grow into an uncontrolable force. Mayhem, the brainchild of one Øystein Aarseth, better known as Euronymous, was, like the majority of the bands that came before them, a functional trio—one guitar, one bass, one drummer. But because none of the musicians in the band could perform vocals, Mayhem added a fourth member as a dedicated vocalist. Who this vocalist was would vary back and forth between Maniac and Messiah up until 1988, and so both singers appear on Deathcrush, with Maniac singing the majority of the tracks, and Messiah coming in on "Witching Hour" and "Pure Fucking Armageddon."

Oh, yeah, "Witching Hour." This is what it sounds like when a black metal band plays Venom. The song originally appeared on Venom's debut, Welcome to Hell, from which the name of the band was also derived ("Mayhem with Mercy"). Messiah's vocals are more shouty in the Teutonic thrash style than Maniac's, who howls completely out of control like a stuck pig, but neither of them are too comprehensible thanks to the warbly reverb effect on the vocals that Mayhem borrowed from Sodom's Obsessed by Cruelty. Speaking of things borrowed from earlier bands, Necrobutcher's growling overdriven bass style is pure Celtic Frost. Manheim, the drummer, drew from Sepultura's frenetic blasting to form his own completely off-the-rails style. Like the bands before them, Mayhem included an intro track on their album, but unlike the stupid spoken word devil declarations of some of the other bands, Mayhem chose an eerie synth drum track. Nothing the band was doing was a simple carbon copy of anything that had been played before, but when you listen to all this music from Venom to Mayhem, you can hear the influences building up.

What is completely new, however, is Euronymous's guitar playing. While Deathcrush is obviously early in the development of his style (the main riff from "Chainsaw Gutsfuck" could have come from Hellhammer or the early Celtic Frost demos), he had begun a new style of playing riffs with pure, unmuted tremolo picking. His style was different from the thrash players of the time, from Slayer to Destruction, because he wasn't muting the strings to get a heavy, chunky sound. He was just letting them all go, making the guitar sound as out of control as Maniac's vocals.

To my ears and mind, Euronymous was Mayhem. Yes, Necrobutcher still refers to Mayhem as "my band," and Euronymous as "my guitarist," but that's just because Mayhem is and always was a band full of egomaniacs. I'll be talking a lot more about Euronymous and the black metal scene once we get into the 90s and the formation of Helvete and Deathlike Silence Productions. At this point, however, they've crystalized the black metal sound. After Deathcrush, crappy bands like Bulldozer aren't going to cut it anymore.The Teutonic bands will delve into full thrash (or even death/thrash). Quorthon will start exploring his Viking heritage. And a whole new breed of bands will arise. Get ready for it.

Final Verdict: 8/10 - Mayhem changed the game with Deathcrush. Between this and Under the Sign of the Black Mark, 1987 was the definitive year for black metal.

Now we know what black metal is supposed to sound like. It's still the late eighties, though, and the so-called "Second Wave" of black metal hasn't started yet. I'll explain my use of the term "so-called" when we actually get there. For now, we have a few more bands to cover as the scene slowly forms around Mayhem.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Into The Void: Moanin' At Midnight

I hope you're loving this journey as much as I am. The fact is that I've just barely scratched the surface, and I've already had to rethink a lot of what I though I knew about black metal. As I believe I mentioned at the beginning, I originally had no desire to cover the early years of Venom, Bathory, and Sodom, and had wanted to jump right into the 1990s. But my friend Dan Obstkrieg convinced me that if I wanted to do things right, then I needed to look further back than that. And he was absolutely right. I wouldn't be able to understand Darkthrone without understanding Venom and Celtic Frost.

But the more I've thought about it, the more I've realized that I actually need to go further back. Venom is absolutely essential, not only because they coined the term "black metal," but for their unrelenting Satanism. But even Venom didn't exist in a vacuum, and as I've been researching and listening to albums, I've realized that there is one major influence that I've "missed" by setting an arbitrary start date of 1981. I've been busy writing reviews of new music for the site (seriously, be ready to snatch up Aosoth's IV on April 16!), and progress on this project has been slow enough, so I've been reluctant to go backward, but I've decided that the best way to make up for lost time is with "flashbacks." The way I'm going to do these is occasionally stick an older album in the flow of things, like I'm about to do now. Since there are obviously a lot fewer of these than there are albums going forward, by the time we hit 1992 (maybe 1993, depending on how often I bring you these features) we should be done with the older material, and able to go forward in a straight line like I originally intended. So without further ado, let's hit our first flashback.

Howlin' Wolf - Moanin' At Midnight (1958)
Born Chester Arthur Burnett, Wolf probably never imagined that he would influence a group of angry youngsters half a world away. But the truth is undeniable. One of the first men to put electric guitar to vinyl, Howlin' Wolf forged a path that would be trod by countless bands after him. Burnett was recordin radio-unfriendly music back in the late fifties and early sixties using a pseudonym and an anonymous band a quarter century before Quorthon formed Bathory. In fact, it's amazing just how much Wolf (a name that Kristian Vikernes would reference when he renamed himself "Varg" in 1993) foreshadowed Bathory. Using minor keys, lo-fi production, and distorted vocals, Howlin' Wolf produced music like no-one else was recording. He was more darker than T-Bone Walker, and more intensely emotional than Muddy Waters.

Wolf's short tracks had something else in common with Bathory and Venom. The majority of songs are about evil women. I'm not even kidding—"How Many More Years," "Baby How Long," "No Place to Go," "Asked For Water," the obviously titled "Evil"—this guy was more obsessed with wicked women than even Bulldozer with their huge Italian cocks. And, like Venom and Bathory, he defined a genre around him. Typically, he used just raw electric guitar with some drums and bass, but occasionally he added in American folk instrumentation, once again predicting a move that Quorthon would make thirty years later. And of course, the album was released exclusively on vinyl, aside from a limited run cassette release in Italy in 1987. What could be more KVLT? While Wolf went on to produce a number of well regarded songs in his field, I think that Moanin' At Midnight is his rawest and his best, and so deserves to be considered as the first truly black metal album.

Final Verdict: 6/10 - while the songwriting and vocals are stupendous, the drum work is fairly unoriginal and didn't push the genre far.

Into the Void: Under the Sign of the Black Mark

1987. This was the year that black metal truly started to sound like black metal as we know it today. It was also the year I was born, so I feel a particular affinity to the albums from this year. But don't think that means I'm going to rate them unfairly. Oh, no. These albums can stand on their own.
One of the problems that I've run into with 1987 (and it continues from here on out) is that I wasn't able to find release dates for many of the albums, aside from the year. So when I don't have a month for the album release, I'll go with the month it was recorded, if I can find that out. If I can't figure that out either, I'll just stick it at the end of the year after I've done everything I have dates for. That's the best I can manage.

Bathory - Under the Sign of the Black Mark (May, 1987)

Sometimes, bands are able to crank out album after perfect album, year after year (Darkthrone's string of 92-95 comes to mind). Sometimes, bands are better off taking a break from that kind of release schedule and taking the time to dig deep within the music. For Quorthon, this was definitely the case. After putting out albums in 1984 and 1985, as well as appearing on both Scandinavian Metal Attack compilations, Bathroy took a break from the studio in 1986. Then they exploded back onto the scene with this absolute monster. The rather goofy cover (especially compared to Bathory) might make you think that Under the Sign of the Black Mark would be cheesy, like some kind of "eviler than thou" Man O' War. Oh, you would be so wrong.

By this point, Quorthon had shed most of the weight of a band, realizing that he had no intentions of playing live with Bathory. He handled all the strings himself, effectively making the band a duo (although Christer Sandström is credited on the album for bass, it's unclear what tracks he actually appears on). Stefan Larsson, who did skin duty on the first two Bathory albums, was out, and Paul Lundberg was in. And although this would be the only album he would record, he did a damn fine job. He didn't have the pure furious energy of the Brazilian drumers (Igor "Skullcrusher" Cavalera and D.D. Crazy in particular), but he had a much more powerful presence on the kit than Larsson. Whether laying down a solid groove for epic "Enter the Eternal Fire" or slamming it full speed on "Massacre," Lundberg's snare rings out true through the mix. It's a very splashy sound that contrasts sharply with the more blended snare of The Return or Bathory, and while his blasts aren't as speedy as some other drummers, they have teeth-gritting solidity to them that I love. Larsson often sounded like he was struggling to match Quorthon's tempos. Lundberg's style says "I could do this all day."

Quorthon himself has improved everything. His guitar playing is tight and focused, with none of the "flailing" feel of Bathory. Songs like "Chariots of Fire" have a furious tremolo attack that doesn't wear down or get distracted. The improvised guitar solos (which Quorthon admits he never practiced) are all rip-roaring, finger-shredding monsters—not the kind of solos you would sit down and learn note-for-note, but the kind of solos that make you thrash your limbs around in a frenzied air-guitar mayhem. One of the standout tracks, though, is the mid-tempoed "Enter the Eternal Fire." This song hints at where Quorthon plans to go next with the band, but it's still a throughly "black metal" track—one that will be a clear influence on bands like Immortal. Again, Quorthon's lyric writing abilities have only gotten stronger (although he hasn't yet reached the summit), with even the ode to Elizabeth Bathory ("Woman of Dark Desires") being a complex piece of poetry, and Quorthon delivers everything with an uncompromising snarl that I wish I could channel when I work on my own project.

The one other extremely important thing that Quorthon did on Under the Sign of the Black Mark is introduced keyboards (which he himself played) into the black metal vocabulary. There's not really a lot to say about it, other than that they are there, and they add to the music, giving the album a full sound that doesn't need to be taken up by excess reverb. But most importantly, they mean that when bands like Emperor and Dimmu Borgir (re) introduce keyboards to the black metal sound in 1994, they are not "killing" or "perverting" the TRVEKVLT sounds of black metal as defined by some group of uncompromising arbiters of "the real black metal sound." We'll talk more about that when we get to those bands, but I wanted to point out that it started here, with Quorthon.

Quorthon would be back in 1988 with Blood Fire Death and a whole new sound, which is, arguably, "not black metal." On the other hand, Blood Fire Death and Hammerheart are fantastic albums, and I will be covering them when I get there.

Final Verdict: 9/10 - Quorthon changed the game with this relase, and set a high bar for Scandinavian black metal that wouldn't be met for at least five years (and some say ever). This is the height of Bathory's black metal days.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Into the Void: Obsessed By Cruelty

Sodom - Obsessed By Cruelty (Jun, 1986)
It would be hard to overestimate the influence that this album had on the scene. But in order to understand the album, you need to know a little bit of history. At this point, Sodom still didn't have a permanent guitarist. They had recorded In the Sign of Evil with Josef Dominic (stage name "Grave Violator"), but when it came time to put together their full length album, the axeman who laid down the riffs was Michael Wulf (named "Destructor"). The album was so slapdash and haphazard that the record company said "This is shit. Go do it again."

So the band went back to a different studio, this time with Uwe Christophers (named "Assator") and redid the album. The original recording of the album was given to Metal Blade for distribution in America, and the re-done version was pressed in Europe. Of course, it gets even more complicated, since all the CD reissues of the album have used the inferior US release (the original recording). Thanks to the magic of the internet, however, it is relatively easy to hear the Uwe Christophers copy of the album without tracking down a $50 vintage vinyl. And for this review, I've decide to focus on the European release, since that is the release that would have been available to bands like Mayhem and Darkthrone in Norway.

At this point, Sodom really doesn't sound like a band yet, and that's understandable, given their constant guitarist rotation (they would go to record Persecution Mania and Agent Orange with a third guitarist; one Frank Blackfire). On the US release, they just sound like a bunch of disillusioned teenagers flailing around in a garage. On the Euro release, however, the band tightens up their sound, particularly the drumming. They sound invigorated again, like they did on In the Sign of Evil. Yes, they still sound like flailing teenagers, but they sound excited to be flailing, rather than indifferent. Sodom followed the horrific trend of putting a pitch-shifted spoken word intro over some "ominous" music, but thankfully on the Euro release the intro is half as long and not quite as stupid. In either case, it's skipable. The real meat is the first song "Deathlike Silence." This song is the album. Good enough to name a record label after? Absolutely. The chorus is unbelievably infectious. It helps that the refrain "Deathlike...Silence!" is actually distinguishable, and that brings me to the weak part of this album.

The fact is that while there are a few good tracks besides "Deathlike Silence," ("Equinox," "Volcanic Slut," and title track "Obsessed by Cruelty" spring to mind), nothing else is memorable like "Deathlike Silence," and the reason for this is plain. Nothing is distinguishable. The guitars are simply 40 minutes of finger fluttering. As I listen to the album, I can't help but wish for the guitarist to just dig in to those strings! It's like he's completely unsure of anything he's playing, and thinks that if he wiggles around a lot, it will sound convincing. Frankly, it doesn't. There are definitely tremolo riffs and phrasings that hint at both the madness of Mayhem and the Teutonic death/thrash yet to come, but for the most part, the sound is weak, particularly when compared to In the Sign of Evil, which had an ultra-sharp and violent guitar presence. The vocals are also extremely weak because they're buried under a warbling reverb effect (although not as bad as the US release), and this renders them nearly devoid of vocal hooks (with "Deathlike Silence" being the one notable exception). Still, although I criticise it, many of the stylistic choices on Obsessed By Cruelty will be imitated by bands that I admire, like Mayhem.

I find myself wanting to like Obsessed By Cruelty a lot more than I do. Intellectually, it seems like I ought to like it, but it just seems so samey to me. Between the extremely weak guitar sound (thankfully for the band, Sodom reintroduced the ultra-violence to the guitars on Persecution Mania) and the vocals that sound so disconnected, even "good" tracks like "Obsessed by Cruelty" fade from the mind almost immediately upon listening. I'm glad that Euronymous and his friends were influenced by this album, because I certainly wouldn't have been.

Final Verdict: 4/10 - I originally thought I would score the album higher, but it's just not as good as In the Sign of Evil. If it had more tracks like "Deathlike Silence," I could get behind it more powerfully. But at this point, Sodom sounds like a band still waiting to become something.

And that's all that I have for 1986, believe it or not. 1987 brought us some fantastic things, including what some consider to be black metal's finest moment, so we'll be jumping into that as soon as possible.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Into the Void: The Final Separation

Bulldozer - The Final Separation (Feb, 1986)

I don't think this album is all that great, but the development of the band in the one year since The Day of Wrath is remarkable. They skip the stupid album intro this time, instead going with an excellent music intro, with some clean arpeggios and choral "oooohs" that sounds kind of thrash, but also kind of black metal. This transitions cleanly into "The Final Separation," which has that sort of Motorhead feel to it. The arpegios from the intro come back throughout the song. I'm quite impressed with the songwriting here, particularly when comparing it to The Day of Wrath. The next three tracks, "Ride Hard, Die Fast," "The Cave," and "Sex Symbol's Bullshit" also have that Venom/Motorhead rocking feel that is typical of these early bands, with "Ride Hard" being the standout of the album.

The thing is, The Final Separation sounds to me a lot like a poor Italian man's Metallica. It's kind of like they spent all of 1985 listening to Ride the Lightning and Kill Em All. You hear this influence particularly on ten minute epic "The Death of Gods." You can definitely tell that the band is heading into full Thrash territory, and by their next album, the Venom worship is completely gone. I find the vocals on this album to be one of the worst parts. A.C. Wild's unfamiliarity with English is painfully obvious on tracks like "The Cave" and "Sex Symbol's Bullshit," and his accent makes it nearly impossible to distinguish between "St. John" and "Satan," for some pretty hilarious lyrical misunderstanding on my part. Also, it's come to my understanding that the original pressing of this album had an absolutely horrific production that sounded like it was coming through an AM radio. The copy I've listened to is the remastered one from 2007, so the original listeners would have heard a much more lo-fi version—something that could be seen as a black metal influence.

Final Verdict: 2/10 - Nothing particularly original here, this album is about hating the Catholic church and having a huge dick. Unfortunately, the first assertion is the only one I actually believe.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Into the Void: Bestail Devastation

Sepultura - Bestial Devastation EP (Dec, 1985)

What? Sepultura? No, they're a thrash band! And Morbid Visions is kind of a proto-death album. Yeah, well, this isn't Morbid Visions, is it? Look, if you don't believe that Sepultura was a black metal band in 1985, I dare you to watch this video, then tell me I'm full of shit (thanks to Invisible Oranges for bringing it to my attention). Not counting Sabbat, who would quickly ditch their fourth member, this quartet of Brazilians are the first non-trio we've encountered on our journey. And look, they've even got awesome stage names—Possessed, Skullcrusher, Destructor, and Tormentor. Max Cavalera was only 16 at that time this album came out (released as a split in 1985 with fellow Brazillians Overdose, and as a stand-alone EP in 1990).

And my god, what music. It does start with a retarded little spoken intro about Satan and the Lords of Death (I am sure I've mentioned how stupid I find this trend), but then "Bestial Devestation" expodes from the speakers. Those tremolo riffs! Those vocals! It could almost be a Mayhem song. You can definitely hear the thrash and death sounds in here, but that's metal for you. But the real highlight is "Antichrist." I couldn't believe it when I heard it the first time. Well, hell-o! It's the first proper blast beat that we've heard yet. The only earlier recorded example I can find of a blast beat is S.O.D.'s "Milk," which came out 4 months earlier (and is slower than Skullcrusher's beat). There are only two other tracks—"Necromancer" and "Warriors of Death—and they continue in the same vein. Raw, 100% intense heavy metal. Sepultura have something here that no other band had yet captured, even the great Bathory. That's what comes of growing up in an oppresive society. In their pictures from the time, the band looks like little kids. They don't sound like it.

Final Verdict: 7/10 - four tracks, 15 minutes. A whole new sound. It's unbelievable that the same man who brought us this gave us Soulfly only 11 years later.

And that's 1985 wrapped up! I only have two albums on my list for 1986, and then we start getting into the really good stuff. The second wave (TRVE black metal) is approaching!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Into the Void: Endless Pain

Kreator - Endless Pain (Oct, 1985)

Kreator is, of course, one of the great Teutonic thrash acts, and like Sodom and Destruction, their early work played a big part in what would become the sound of black metal. And when I say that, I mean that bands like Mayhem and Immortal would draw from this sort of thing—contemporary black metal artist Quorthon hated them, claiming that he couldn't listen to a Kreator album without laughing. And it is sloppy, certainly. The band members at the time were 18 and 19, and Endless Pain sounds like a trio of teenagers just slamming it as hard as they can. Yes, another trio. While Kreator would later go on to fame as a four-piece, adding the second guitar what I consider to be their best album of the 80s, Terrible Certainty, when they started out it was just Mille Petrozza on guitar, Rob Fioretti on bass, and Ventor (if your name was Jürgen, wouldn't you take a stage name?) on the drums.

Then there's that odd little detail of Mille and Ventor trading off on vocal duties. Ventor gets the odd-numbered tracks, and Mille gets the even-numbered ones. Guess which ones are the most black metal? Mille's signature rasp is nearly as aggressive as Quorthon's, and is certainly worlds apart from anything that Sodom or Destruction were doing. Mille's songs are, almost without exception, faster, sharper, and more out of control than Ventor's. Other than that, though, there there isn't that much variation in the sound. I laugh ever time "Son of Evil" transitions into "Flag of Hate," because it sounds like the same damn riff. For 1985, though, Kreator was extreme. Tremolo guitars, barking vocals, crazy tempos, almost blast beats? It's all here. Sure, Kreator would go on to achieve so much more (and they're still kicking major ass today), but I found myself digging Endless Pain a lot more than I expected to.

Final Verdict: 4/10 for Ventor's tracks, 6/10 for Mille's tracks. So you could call it a 5 overall.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Into the Void: Early EPs Part 3

Sabbat - Sabbat EP (June, 1985)

This is not the Sabbat you are thinking of. Those guys are a thrash band from the UK. These guys are a black metal band from...Japan! Yes, Japan. I'm not really sure what Japanese pop music sounded like in 1985, but if it was anything like it is today, this must have terrified them.  This release is not really an EP, it's a 7" single, with two songs—"Black Fire," and "Mion's Hill"—and they only pressed 300 of them. I mean, that alone is pretty black metal. Did I mention that it was released by "Evil Records"? Thankfully, the Internet has made these tracks available for our listening.

While they would later go on to become a trio, the band that recorded these songs was actually a quartet, featuring Gezol, Ozny, Elizaveat, and Valvin. What the fuck kind of names those are, I don't know. But so far so good for black metal tropes. The music itself has more of a simplistic thrash sound to my ears, and the vocals are just kind of...there. Gezol had yet to really develop a harsh vocal style, although he would by the band's full-length release in 1991. Still, I felt this pair of songs was fairly significant in being the first Japanese black metal. "Black Fire" is the catchier of the two tracks, and has the most intense vocal delivery.
Final Verdict: 3/10 - the album is a starting place, and not much else

Celtic Frost - Emperor's Return (Aug, 1985)

Tom G Warrior was on a creative kick back then, throwing down the Emperor's Return EP only a few months before Celtic Frost's first full length, To Mega Therion. The evershifting lineup of Celtic Frost was, at this time, Mr. Warrior on guitars and vocals, with Reed St. Mark on the skins and Martin E. Ain on bass. The album is, of course, bass-thick and dynamically rich—two hallmarks of Celtic Frost that don't seem to have had much of an effect on the black metal scene.

While I prefer Morbid Tales, Emperor's Return does include "Circle of the Tyrants," which is one of my favourite Frost songs, and, I think, features obvious black metal elements. The track contains high-speed drumming and tremolo guitars, as well as an aggressive vocal. The song would be re-recorded for To Mega Therion, and I think the version there doesn't have that same "black" feeling to it. "Visual Aggression" has an even more black metal sound, starting out with a frenzied tremolo riff and breaking into madcap drums and strangled vocal barks.

Final Verdict: The more that I work on this project, the more I hear Celtic Frost influence in later bands. It would be a grievous oversight to not include them in the first wave. That said, I don't want to rate them, as they are just as much doom and death metal as they are black metal, and so the rating wouldn't be a fair comparion to the other albums I'm reviewing.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Into the Void: The Return......

Bathory - The Return (Of The Darkness and Evil) (May, 1985)

Back in the 80s (and into the 90s), bands didn't make us wait around three or four years between releases. Bathory's second album hit a mere eight months after their debut. Since the first album, bassist Andreas Johnasson had replaced Rickard Bergman. Quorthon later told Pit Magazine that he knew that these musicians (including drummer Stefan Larrson who also hit the skins on the debut) "couldn't be real Bathory members," so the photos of the band were only ever of Quorthon himself. The album was recorded in the same studio that the Scandinavian Metal Attack albums had been recorded (and Bathory was mixed) and produced Börje "Boss" Forsberg (Quorthon denied the rumor that Börje was his father). Fosberg would go on to produce all of Bathory's albums.

The obvious first comparison for The Return is with Bathory. Like the older album, The Return begins with a three minute ambient intro. The first song "Total Destruction," however, has a much stronger presence than "Hades, the first track on Bathory. Why? For one thing, the guitar tone is denser. The bass is, surprisingly (or less surpisingly, given what we know about the future of black metal), less prominent in the mix. The drums are a big improvement over the last album, as they pop right out, giving the album some vertical space. This is how it sounds to me, so I'm just using the words that come to mind. Quorthon's vocals are the largest improvement, though, as it no longer sounds like he's shouting from the other room. Yes, there's still some reverb on him, but he sounds fully engaged with the music. Additionally, while the lyrical themes of The Return aren't too far from Bathory, but the lyrics are much more poetic, and therefore sinister instead of campy.

Every riff on The Return is a classic to my ears. It's one of those odd, future-tense sorts of things, because obviously all the songs that I'm reminded of were recorded years after this. I doubt anyone at the time could have guessed how influential the album would be. Songs like "The Wind of Mayhem" almost reach blast beat levels. You can tell that Larrson is playing at the peak of his abilities on this recording, and there are some moments of sloppiness, but this adds to the raw character of the album, right along with Quorthon's unrehersed solos (which Euronomous would immitate to great effect in the 90s). The final track, which reveals the full album name, "The Return of the Darkness and Evil," is even stuffed full of tremolo-picked riffs, without the thrash sound of Sodom or Destruction. The Return is also ten whole minutes longer than Bathory, clocking in at 36 minutes, which is a great length for an album.

Final Verdict: 7/10 - Bathory is moving black metal in a powerful direction, but they have even further to climb

Monday, March 11, 2013

Into the Void: The Day of Wrath

Bulldozer - The Day of Wrath (Mar 1985)
There isn't a lot black about this album as a whole, but it undoubtably was listened to by those in the scene, and has one really great song, so I'll cover it. Guess what? It's another trio! Hailing from Italy, Bulldozer makes full use of papist flavours to their anti-religious ranting. From the artwork to the Latin exorcism intro track to the lyrics, Bulldozer sounds...well, Italian. In the same way that the sound of Bathory reflects the cold northern circle (yes, I know they're Swedish, not Norwegian), Bulldozer reflects Mediteranian wine country. How does that work for black metal? Not very well, honestly.

You can tell that the band is fed up with the Roman Catholic church. Who can really blame them? But they completely lack that grimness that the northern bands would capture. Still, album opener "Cut Throat" sounds more black than thrash, with skank beats and rapid legato guitar riffs that are, actually, similar to what Quothon was playing. Bulldozer is extremely sloppy. They seem to find it hard to hold a constant tempo, and while sometimes it seems by design, sometimes it doesn't. Bassist and vocalist A.C. Wild doesn't so much shout (a la Cronos) or shriek (a la Quothon) as he does grumble into a box fan (probably a phaser, not a fan, but it's a funnier mental image). Bulldozer's own influence seems to draw heavily from Judas Priest, particularly on tracks like "Insurrection of the Living Damned."

Honestly, the album is too long. Not counting the intro, it's eight tracks that take up nearly 39 minutes, and none of them particularly stand out, aside from "Whiskey Time," just for the sheer party-attitude joy of it. It reminds me the most of Van Halen with a little Iron Maiden thrown in, but it's also, in some ways, the blackest song on the album, just because of the speed and attitude that they put into it. The drums almost play blast beats, and A.C. Wild actually gets his vocals above a grumble when he shouts "It's fuckin' whiskey time!" The next track, "Welcome Death," is also interesting, but has much more of a doom vibe to it than a black one. And "Fallen Angel" reminds me heavily of "Exodus" by some band who put out an album called Bonded By Blood.

If I wasn't for this project, I wouldn't have listened to The Day of Wrath more than once (aside from, perhaps, "Whiskey Time"). I can probably count on one hand the number of Italian metal bands that I listen to. I don't think Bulldozer will be joining their ranks any time soon. That said, I will be covering their second album in 1986, which is much more black metal.

Final Verdict: While I'm sure it's something that the bands were listening to back then, to my ears it has less to do with black metal than Venom.