Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A Tale of Two Albums

It was the hottest of times, it was the metalest of times, it was the age of blistering desert sun, it was the age of crushingly heavy doom, it was the epoch of broken air conditioning in a traffic jam, it was the epoch of sludge. I could go on, but unlike Dickens I refuse to write a sentence with 17 commas.

In case the title didn't make this clear, this is a joint review of two albums. It's also (sort of) a story.

So yesterday I set out with the hopes of acquiring two new albums from the local record store. Emanations  by Serpentine Path, which had come out that day, and Symmetry in Black  by Crowbar, which had come out the previous day. I rode with my brother to Zia (the record store) to look for them, though we were working within a pretty tight time-frame because he had some other obligations that couldn't be delayed. I found the new Crowbar easily enough, but Serpentine Path was nowhere to be found, despite the help of an employee who looked it up in their system and said that they had it. My brother dropped me off at home and hurried off, while I jammed to the tasty southern groove of yet another strong Crowbar album. Incidentally, and don't hate me for this Crowbar fans, but Kirk Windstein's vocals remind me a lot of Chad Gray. I mean, he doesn't have the whining goth vibe, but his voice is pretty similar. Anyway, the album was excellent, and I listened through it twice immediately. "Symmetry in White" was my favorite track, with a simple but undeniably catchy main riff that I just loved. Still, I was hungry for more.

While back at Zia, I'd been informed that the store's other location across town had a couple copies of Emanations, so I went over there and did indeed find it. By now it was mid-afternoon, the temperature was up around 104 (according to my phone's weather app), and rush hour traffic had started to really swell. 104 isn't the worst we'll get here in Las Vegas by any means (last year's peak was 117) but when you're driving a black car with dark interior and a broken air conditioner, it's much too hot for comfort. I soon found myself trapped in total gridlock, baking in the desert sun as I stared balefully at the rear bumper in front of me, and it was into this reality that Serpentine Path slithered.

There's something about sweltering heat that makes sluggish, doomy metal all the more effective. The massive riffs coiling around you and crushing your sweat-drenched body feel so right, and the slow groove becomes almost supernaturally captivating. If black metal is for the cold, then doom is for the heat.

My car stalled once I'd reached the freeway, a recurring heat-related problem, and I coasted to a stop under an overpass. There I sat, car dead on the side of the road, with nothing to keep me company but the crushing groove. After a while I milked it along to a little bar by an off-ramp, and my brother and his girlfriend came to save me. As much of a pain is the ass as the whole thing was, though, it was actually the perfect way to experience that record for the first time.

Rarely do I buy two albums on the same day and immediately consume and enjoy both of them. Yesterday's purchases, though, were terrific. Crowbar have been at the pinnacle of sludge for essentially the sub-genre's entire existence, and that continues to this day. This newest album was just Crowbar doing what they do best, bringing groovy southern flair to crunchy doom riffs, and I enjoyed every minute of it.  Serpentine Path, on the other had, are only a few years old. They've been criticized for unadventurously occupying well-explored death-doom territory, but I like them in the same way that I like Bloodbath: it's okay to follow the beaten path if you do it really well. I personally liked their debut, but I think this time around they sound even better. They stretched out a little and recorded some tracks I don't think they would have considered on the relatively simplistic debut. "Claws" in particular stood out, reminding me a bit of Swallow the Sun's phenomenal The Morning Never Came.

Neither of these is groundbreaking, but they both sound awesome. I have a feeling, in the heat of the summer, that I'll find myself coming back to both of these records repeatedly. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go play "Symmetry in White" again. 'Tis a far, far better riff that I hear now. . . .

Monday, May 26, 2014

Aborted - The Necrotic Manifesto

Aborted are a band that has had a rather interesting trajectory over the years. The Belgians began their careers as a death metal outfit, and established a pretty good name for themselves. Then, in 2008, they did what many bands have done over the years and they transitioned into a far more accessible deathcore style. As usual, the fans were outraged, but new fans came on board. What Aborted did next was the unusual part: they found a way to make everybody happy. They` decided that the problem their old fans had with deathcore was that it wasn't heavy enough, so they reasoned they could stick with the new style so long as they their songs hit like a truck. Hence, Aborted nestled into the rather scarcely populated niche of brutal deathcore.

This year's release saw Aborted continue that trend, though perhaps slightly less successfully than on their previous record. The songs don't quite grab you as much this time, but the heaviness is still there and the band have mercifully put their audio clip fetish in the backseat where it's present but no longer quite so prominent.

It's a solid album with all the pieces properly in place, but I doubt many fans of the band (from whatever period) will peg this as their favorite album because it does suffer a bit from "this is like their last album but not quite as good" syndrome. It's a worthwhile listen, though, and I've enjoyed it.

Grade: B

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Alcest - Shelter


Oh! It's over? Sorry, I must have nodded off again.

Alcest released yet another well-received addition to their popular line of sedatives back in January. It certainly does the trick, though I'd advise taking care when and where you use it. This stuff is pretty damn potent, so you should absolutely avoid it when driving or operating heavy machinery, as the risk of accidentally falling asleep at the wheel is just too high. When employed responsibly, though, Shelter  is an excellent way to ensure a sound sleep.

I'd give it a solid 'A' for effectiveness.


Ummm, I've just been informed that this is in fact NOT a sleeping medication, but rather an album of music one is meant to stay awake through and listen to in its entirety. This does rather change things.

Alright, let's start again.

French one-time black metallers and current hipster wank fodder Alcest released yet another boring, tepid, mystifyingly popular album early this year. As with their previous material, there were plenty of pretty moments scattered throughout its length. Also in common with their previous releases, there was absolutely nothing else even remotely interesting going on in the record.

The band have fully completed purging what traces of metal they ever actually had, and at this point their music is purely the light, jangling, directionless indie shoegaze crap their PBR-swilling fans so desperately desire. Well good for them, I suppose. They're doing well for themselves, though not as well as they'd do if they released this exclusively on yellow vinyl and gave away a used fedora and scarf with every copy of the record. More importantly, now we don't have to close our eyes and pretend anymore that Alcest is not a part of the metal world. They have exited that door of their own volition, thankfully, so now they can go litter somebody else's yard with their dry gray piles of boring shit.

If your only problem with Pitchfork is that it's too mainstream, you may want to give this a whirl. Otherwise, use only as directed by your doctor to treat insomnia.

Grade: D

Monday, May 19, 2014

Autopsy - Tourniquets, Hacksaws and Graves

I was the of the few Autopsy fans who was not especially thrilled with the band's return-from-retirement album Macabre Eternal. Then last year, I totally missed The Headless Ritual, because I just wasn't paying much attention to new releases at the time. Consequently, I came into the band's new album as someone who loves their classic records but didn't give a crap about anything they'd released in the past 20 years or so. Despite the lukewarm reviews for this release I decided to pick it up, and I'm glad I did.

Autopsy at their best have a unique way of blending warped, cavernous doom elements into gross-out gory old-school death metal, creating a sound that has been aped at by many imitators but never truly captured. To put it bluntly, for the first time in decades, I think this is Autopsy at their best. Chris Reifert's tourtured, wailing roars encapsulate the insane horror the band sets out to create. The instrumentation is heavy, but it's a little more open than what you hear from most death metal bands. Autopsy give their songs room to breathe, creating an organic atmosphere without having to include soft passages or rely on gimmicks like keyboards.

A real standout feature on this album is the guitar soloing. Contrary to the typical (for death metal) rabid shredding, which has its place but seldom feels to me like it adds very much, the solos here are better structured and feel like actual coherent and well-formed inclusions in the songs. They're still very heavy and aggressive, but fundamentally I feel like they fit into the songs in a more natural and beneficial way than most death metal solos. It's similar to the kind of soloing you'd hear from a classic rock band in the way the guitar grows out of the songs and builds to an apex rather than just sounding like random notes being tremolo picked as fast as possible. I know I'm going on a lot about one aspect of the music, but it's an uncommon approach in death metal, and it's a big part of what sets this album apart from most of the pack.

In terms of negatives, I can't really think of anything that bothered me. Some may call it a bit samey, but considering how long it's been since Autopsy released a really strong record in this vein, that seems like a pithy complaint. This didn't latch onto my brain with the force of the recent Triptykon and Morbus Chron releases, but it was a very good album that I have no hesitation in recommending to any fan of old-school death metal.

Grade: B+

Friday, May 16, 2014

Insomnium - Shadows of the Dying Sun

Back in the '90s, melodic death metal belonged to its founders in Gothenburg, Sweden. There are still plenty of good melodeath releases from Sweden these days, but over the past decade or so the throne of the subgenre has arguably moved next door to Finland, where the brilliant Insomnium reign supreme. Last month, these melodic metal masters released their 6th full-length album, Shadows of the Dying Sun.

This review is going to feel like a little bit of a repeat for me, but not of any previous remarks about Insomnium. Rather, it feels like I'm about to review an album by Amon Amarth. At least half of you already know where this is going now, but I'll press on anyway.

If you've perfected the formula, is there a reason to change it?

There are a few bands for whom that question is pretty central. Amon Amarth, Skeletonwitch, and Incantation all spring readily to mind. With this release, I think Insomnium may be preparing to join them. It's a strong album, with all the right ingredients to make for an excellent melodeath release. The vocals are good, the instrumentation is flawless, the songwriting is tight, and the production is perfect. Yet if you're a fan of the band, it sounds like something you've already heard many times before. It's a filler album, full of strong but essentially unremarkable material that will quickly fade into Insomnium's already exemplary catalog, stashed away on a storage shelf in a cardboard box labelled "more songs".

Taken on its own, this is a very good album. I've heard too much from the band to take this on its own, though, and in the broader context of their entire discography, it's more than a bit redundant. I understand that the band is doing everything right, and when everything sounds great you have to ask "Why mess with it?" However, if a band is unwilling to experiment and grow, they run the risk of stagnating. I love Amon Amarth, but every time they release a new record I hesitate to go out and buy it, because I already know that I have half a dozen copies of the same album on my shelf at home. It's too early to say whether Insomnium are about to fall into that same category, but it feels like they've taken a big step in that direction.

If you like the band and you want more of the same, go ahead and buy this. If you're new to Insomnium it's worth checking out, but I'd recommend buying their wonderful 2006 release Above the Weeping World  instead. It's the same album as this, only even better.

(Sorry for spending half of the review talking about Amon Amarth, but I really wanted to drive home that point.)

Grade: B+

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

H.R. Giger

Yesterday, the world lost a dark visionary. H.R. Giger's art featured prominently in the metal world, and the world in general knew him through the revolutionary design work he did for Alien. Recently, his work graced the cover of the brilliant Triptykon album Melana Chasmata. A fitting obituary for a one-of-a-kind artist. He will be missed.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

More Dinosaurs, Please

I think what this world needs is more metal albums with dinosaurs on the cover. I mean, think about it: what is more metal than a dinosaur? Well, pretty much nothing. After all, they're DINOSAURS! They are giant prehistoric monsters with teeth and claws that put hunting knives to shame. They died a cataclysmic and epically metal death when massive flaming space rocks pounded the planet, and then their bones helped give us the idea to invent a bunch of other cool and also totally metal stuff like dragons. But we didn't need to invent colossal terror lizards, because they already existed, and they were called dinosaurs.

So yeah, dinosaurs are basically the most metal thing ever.

If you need more evidence of why dinosaurs should be on more metal album covers, just take a gander over there to the left. Look at how unbelievably bad-ass that is! I've seen two versions of this cover, and while the colored one appeals more to me, they are both more awesome than about 95% of the album art out there today.

Metal bands of the world, it's time for you to get to work. I expect to see ten more awesome dinosaur album covers on my desk by the end of the month, or you're fired.

Slough Feg - Digital Resitance

(The Lord Weird) Slough Feg released their ninth full-length slab of heavy metal mayhem back in February. After discovering that fact totally by accident at my local record store, I decided to pick up Digital Resistance  and give it a whirl.

You know that guy who works in your company: you're sure his name is Ted because other people have mentioned it, and you've seen him around the office dozens of times, but the grand total of your actual interaction with him was one silent elevator ride that day you pulled in to work at the same time? Well that's Slough Feg for me. So if you're a fan and you want to know how this stacks up relative to their previous releases, sorry but I have no clue.

When the first song came on, I encountered a goofy, energetic tune that sounded to me like a less manic version of System of a Down. As the final track rolled, I suddenly realized that I was practically listening to an Iron Maiden tribute band. The eight songs in-between complete that transition one step at a time. It's all filtered through the lens of traditional heavy metal, but those bands and that transition between them were what occupied my mind as I listened to this.

The production is nice and clear, letting you hear everything but stopping short of sparkling bubble-gum pop levels of polish. The songwriting is solid and carries the album through a natural progression that avoids growing stale while also never feeling like the changes are distracting or forced. The clean, slightly odd-sounding heavy metal vocals work well throughout and provide most of the distinct character in the band's sound. The guitar shows a pretty broad range of clean and distorted tones, with shifting approaches to riffing that largely carry the flow of the album from one sound to another. Sometimes it gives chunky basic riffs, while at other times it's choppy and aggressive. Still other occasions call for fluttering clean section or dramatic power metal soloing, all of which work really well in their own places. The bass is a contributor at times, though it is largely the least noticeable aspect of the music. The drumming is solid but fairly standard for the most part, though the rumbling beat on "Habeas Corpsus" is a notable example of a track that is largely driven by the drums.

There's really nothing wrong with this album as far as I can tell. It's one of those records, though, that while very respectable, lacks that "it factor" to really make it stand out from the crowd. I enjoyed it, but my entire opinion could be summed up quite neatly with the simple phrase "it's good". It's not amazing, it's not going to inspire me to gush about the band's brilliance, but it is a good album. I'm curious, for my own edification, how it holds up relative to their other work. But since I can't comment on that at this time, I can only say to the rest of the uninitiated that if you like traditional heavy metal and you're looking for a new album to listen to, this is a solid choice.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Cynic - Kindly Bent to Free Us

Cynic, who once upon a time brought us the legendary progressive death/thrash record Focus, have wandered a bit in the couple decades since that record's release. Today they're more of a prog rock band, as seen on their February release, Kindly Bent to Free Us.

As I said, this barely, if at all, qualifies as a metal album. It sounds much more like the work of a '70s progressive rock outfit. Actually, its lilting drugged-out-sounding vocals and light drum work remind me a lot of late Beatles albums. The metal cred is almost entirely found within the guitar work, which while still often light and clean, does deliver some riffs with just enough bite to keep the band from sounding like they've totally gone soft. The bass work, jazzy and progressive, is quite strong and may be a bit of an unsung hero on this album.

I actually really enjoy the style and bands that Cynic seems to be trying to emulate, but the trouble with impersonating 40-year-old albums is that you end up sounding like those bands you're aping, but without any of the originality or the standout tracks. Basically, this comes across like a bunch of unreleased or unremembered filler songs from a classic '70s band. The modern production spoils that unspectacular illusion somewhat, as do the occasional soft modern sections, but the overall impression remains intact.

This album isn't bad, per se. It's actually quite pleasant to listen to for the most part. But it brings nothing new to the table, and lacks both the teeth to grab hold of the listener and the beauty to entrance the listener. In the end, it winds up being very listenable but also very forgettable. I think the ultimate testament to this record's nature is the fact that the first time I played it all the way through, I was about half an hour in when suddenly I looked up with a start and realized it was still playing. I wasn't watching TV or having a conversation, it just faded into the background all on its own. That's right: I forgot I was listening to it in the middle of actually listening to it.

Grade: C

Monday, May 5, 2014

Morbus Chron - Sweven

You may remember Morbus Chron as the band with the coolest death metal album cover you've ever seen (their 2011 release Sleepers in the Rift). Well, a couple months ago they released their sophomore full-length, Sweven. I was less excited about the cover art this time around, but I recently decided to check it out anyway.

Typically the phrase "old-school Swedish death metal" comes with such an clear and specific collection of baggage that it's barely even worth describing the record beyond that. You basically just imagine Left Hand Path  with a different band name on the cover, and you move on with your day. Oddly, though, that's not the case here at all. The obvious question, of course, is "If this doesn't sound like Entombed then why are you calling it old-school Swedish death metal, you idiot?" Many have called it progressive death metal, which owing to the somewhat Opethian nature of a couple tracks may well be a better name for it. Honestly, I label it as I do because as soon as I heard this a very specific release came immediately to mind. It's my considered opinion that Gorement's lone full-length release, 1994's The Ending Quest, is perhaps the most criminally unknown death metal album of all time. It is also a strong contender for the best Swedish death metal album ever released. Its mystical, gorgeous, atmospheric, yet still purely heavy old-school death metal sound was unlike any other album I'd ever heard. That is, until I played Sweven.

This album is everything I've been searching for in the years since I first heard that brilliant effort by Morbus Chron's countrymen. This is a beautifully soothing release, but it's still definitely death metal. I didn't bang my head when I heard this, but I did lean back with my eyes closed and blissfully soak it in like a dry sponge. I'm not going to sit and dissect the individual instrumental and vocal performances, the writing style, or the production on this record. Suffice it to say that everything does exactly what it should. The important thing is that everything works so perfectly together that the result is a beautifully balanced and compelling effort which has left me in a state of pure ecstasy.

Not two weeks ago I listened to the new Triptykon release and thought it was going to be a virtual shoe-in come December for the best metal album of the year. Unbelievably, Morbus Chron have already managed to wrest front-runner status away from the Swiss colossus.

This record is smooth and relatively mellow with a few purely instrumental tracks and some softly atmospheric intros, so people who really like their metal to pound the shit out of them probably won't enjoy it as much as I did. Personally, though, I almost instantly fell in love with Sweven.

"Chains" is the standout track in my opinion, but I couldn't get it to work on here for some reason. Instead, here's one of the slower, more progressive songs "It Stretches in the Hollow".

Grade: A

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Grand Magus - Triumph and Power

Back in January, these Swedes returned to carry forth the banner of good old fashioned heavy metal yet again. How did they fair? Well let's talk about that.

I thoroughly enjoyed the band's 2012 release The Hunt, so I suppose a certain amount of comparison is inevitable. Sadly, that fact doesn't do Triumph and Power  any favors. Different moods and approaches work in different styles of metal, but I find that in order for traditional heavy metal to really click and feel fresh these days, energy level is of paramount importance. On The Hunt, the engaging wails and enthusiastic riffing were infectious. I was caught up in the pure cheesy Manowar-esque exuberance. It made me want to wield a pair of over-sized battleaxes as I blasted through a horde of goblins on my flaming Harley Davidson. I wanted to wrestle a dinosaur on the top of a volcano. Pretty much if it looked like it belonged in the movie "Heavy Metal" then The Hunt  evoked my desire to do it.

Triumph and Power, however, is a lot less energetic. I can deal with mellow and melodic, but this doesn't sound relaxed: it sounds tired. The vocals are, with a few scattered exceptions, flat and unengaging. The riffs sound like uninspired material that the guitarist was already bored of as he recorded it. There is a certain rhythm and flow to the songs, and I feel like I can tell where the band wanted to go, but they just didn't get there this time. It's odd, because it's not like the band sold out or totally changed their style or even fell into a repetitive rut. It just feels like they weren't really into what they were doing.

Now this is not, as my review so far may suggest, a terrible album. It's fine. Every song is perfectly pleasant to listen to, some of the quiet passages are interesting, and there are moments where the band feels right on the verge of breaking through into their usual engaging selves. They never quite make that leap, though, leaving this album short of the Grand Magus standard of quality in my opinion.

I hope these guys get their passion and clarity of purpose back, because there aren't enough traditional heavy metal bands making really compelling music these days. I'd hate to lose one of the best to some bizarre apathetic malaise.

Grade: C+

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Problem with Saying "Metal is . . ."

Recently, Full Metal Attorney published an interesting blog post called "Metal Doesn't Give a Shit" in which he pointed out that, contrary to some claims, metal doesn't have a collective liberal political message. He proceeded to state that "Metal is horror films, snuff films, shock jocks, and pulp in music form. It has no higher purpose, and no social agenda."

Well it appears his post has struck something of a nerve over at No Clean Singing, and I think I know why. I alluded to this idea in my own comment on his original post, but I'd like to take some space here to flesh out my thoughts on the matter. There is, in my opinion, an inherent flaw in using the phrase "metal is. . . ."

You see, the metal world is widely disbursed and widely varied. I fully agree with FMA's assertion that the metal community does not have a unified political agenda, and that many metalheads just don't give a shit. The problem is that this is presented as a blanket statement, when the reality is that a great many metalheads really do give a shit.

Metal as a whole is too broad to really discuss in this respect, so let's narrow our focus for a moment. What, philosophically, is black metal? Many people would stand up here and say black metal is, at its core, anti-Christian. Certainly, that's true for many fans and many bands. However, such an answer is so incomplete that it carries little value.

-For Varg Vikernes, black metal is certainly anti-Christian . . . insofar as Christianity represents a dilution of traditional Nordic culture. See, for Varg, black metal is really about expressing cultural purity.

-For the members of Wolves in the Throne Room, black metal is a platform for promoting veganism and sustainable green living.

-For Wrest, of Leviathan fame, black metal is an means of channeling and expressing his own loneliness and depression.

-For Quorthon, black metal was a way to tell stories about Viking history in musical form.

-For Antestor, black metal is the ultimate way of expressing the members' Christian faith by turning the weapon of the enemy against him.

-For Dimmu Borgir, black metal is just a style of music they can play that helps them sell records.

All these responses to black metal, and many more beside them, are perfectly valid because to these individuals these are what black metal means. One cannot simply pick one, though, and say "black metal is about cultural purity" because for every person for whom that is true, there are a ton of others for whom it is totally false. And therein lies the problem with claiming that black metal is something in particular, even saying it is "a style of music with no higher purpose" is a problem, because that claim will be totally false for a great many fans and artists.

Now if just one specific (often pigeonholed) sub-genre can't be said to be any particular thing, it should be fairly evident that metal as a whole is far less likely to be subject to any such labeling process.

Metal as a whole is not liberal or conservative, atheist or religious, activist or apathetic. But many specific bands and fans are part of the metal world for those reasons. I've had friends who listened almost exclusively to Christian metal. It's my opinion that Christian metal is mostly terrible, but that's not the point. The point is that, for them, metal was about religion. I've got other friends who embrace metal for precisely the opposite reason, celebrating the anti-religious sentiments they find in their own bands of choice. For some, metal is about rebelling against authority or society or religion. For others it's an affirmation of what is good in those things.

So, does metal give a shit? Yes. And no. And sometimes. Napalm Death give a shit. Cannibal Corpse don't give a shit. Cattle Decapitation sometimes give a shit.

And that brings us back to the question of using the phrase "metal is. . . ." For FMA (and probably Lemmy Kilmister), "Metal is horror films, snuff films, shock jocks, and pulp in music form." But that's only what metal is for him, and that's why so many posters have taken issue with his claims. He took the step of pointing out that metal has no unifying agenda, but he assumed that metal therefore has no agendas at all, while for many people it absolutely does. And those people, many of whom try to project their own metal agenda onto the genre at large, are making the same mistake of assuming that what metal is for them, it is for everybody.

In the end, there are so many perspectives and so many ways of looking at it that there really is no adequate way of ending that phrase, other than by simply saying "metal is metal."