Sunday, June 29, 2014

Mastodon - Once More 'Round the Sun

Last week, prog-sludge giants Mastodon released their 6th full-length album, Once More 'Round the Sun. I have made it very clear, on numerous occasions, that I don't like Mastodon. I've felt for years that the hype train has barreled through their career, carrying them far further than the actual material warranted. That said, I've been won over before by bands I initially disliked, so I'm willing to give groups abundant opportunities to change my mind about them.

I've listened to every album the band has produced since Leviathan, and this is easily my favorite Mastodon record to date.

Many of my past complaints feel like they've been corrected on this release. The band's material has tended to meander, feeling more like prog noodling than structured, driving music. Here, the riffs grab my attention and move the music forward. The lighter, drifting passages work to accent the music and provide some character without getting carried away the way they have in the past. The varied, proficient drumming is excellent. The production, as usual, is clean and well-balanced. Normally I'm a fan of gritty production, but for this type of material the clarity is a better fit. Overall there's a nice sense of flow to the record, where the songs fit together well and feel like a coherent, unified whole.

I'm still not a fan of the band's vocals. To my mind the clean-but-strained singing is easily the weakest part of this release. I found myself on several occasions feeling that this album could be the one that finally draws me into the Mastodon cult, if only the vocals were better.

So in conclusion, this is good. There are still some things bothering me, but for the first time in years I won't be actively annoyed when I hear people talk about how great the new Mastodon album is. Oh, and the cover art is pretty awesome.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Nightmare Dessert

I was sitting around thinking about food (as I am wont to do) when I started really wanting pie (as I am also wont to do). Pie is awesome, but there are some things that are even better. Like, for example, horror movies. Horror movies are super awesome. Especially ones that pull on Lovecraftian influences, though there are of course plenty of cool horror films in other veins. Those aren't the kind I'm thinking about right now, though.

Anyway, something along the lines of that spazzy reasoning chain reminded me of something I made with my sister when I went back to Ohio to visit my family this past Christmas. It seems very appropriate to share, given how often I bring up H.P. Lovecraft on here, but as far as I can remember I haven't posted it on this blog before.

So here he is, the nightmare king of desserts. Tremble in fear before his sweet, jiggling, gooey goodness.

Without further ado, I present to you: PIETHULHU!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Internet Hates Republicans

First off, I do not consider myself a Republican or a Democrat. In fact, I don't vote (think of that what you will) and my personal views pull bits from both major parties as well as other bits that neither party seems to support. As such, I have no personal interest in protecting either side.

With that out of the way, it has not escaped my attention that the internet at large views Republicans as the stupid party that is ruining everything in the world (or at least in the USA). I recently watched a Youtube video on the subject which, while nothing terribly special in its own right, gave a five-item list of reasons why the Republican party is stupid as a whole. I think this list is pretty representative of the claims the young generation dominating the internet tends to level against Republicans, so I'm going to stop and take a deeper look at this list, providing support or refutation wherever I see fit.

In other words, brace yourselves folks, it's about to get all political up in here.

The following list may be paraphrased for convenience, but if you fear I'm distorting the claims in any way you can check the video in question here. It's not too important, though, because I'm addressing these as common, general claims and only using that specific instance as a convenient reference point.

Anyway, here we go.

Item #1: Republicans are against allowing a raped woman to get an abortion.

True. Republicans in general oppose abortion in general. Raped women are not specifically the target of this opposition, though they do often find themselves subject to it. Of course this whole question boils down to the central philosophical question of moral agency, and at what point a life-form or potential life-form acquires it. Unfortunately, there's not a really easy way to resolve that question in the case of a developing fetus/baby, as several different points in the process each have their own valid reasons to be taken as the cut-off point where moral agency comes into play. Conception, first ability to feel pain, first cognitive function, ability to survive outside the womb, and birth are the five most commonly chosen cut-off points. Personally, I'm a supporter of the cognitive function option, which is a debated point but most credible sources say it begins somewhere around 10-12 weeks into pregnancy. At least in my mind, the beginning of cognitive function is the beginning of self, and therefore it is the beginning of moral agency.

Of course in both moral and political rhetoric, all this is set against a woman's right to do what she wants with her body. I won't deny that I think everybody deserves the right to treat and care for their own bodies as they choose. Additionally, I can certainly understand that a raped woman could pretty strongly want to not give birth to her attacker's child. At a certain point, though, it does become an issue of one person's life versus another person's personal preference. In a deep third-trimester case, currently illegal in most US states, where the baby is now fully formed but kind of small and could survive outside the womb, I feel like killing it could certainly be called murder. When the pregnancy is 5 weeks in, though, we're talking about a small clump of cells with no ability to think, move, or feel, and it's pretty hard in my book to oppose a woman ridding herself of it. Thus, the whole thing is a murky puddle in the middle, where a woman's right over her body is on a sliding scale against the developing life's own agency, and the trouble is agreeing on the transition point. The common conservative viewpoint of "all abortions are wrong" is, I think, pretty stupid. On the other hand, the common liberal viewpoint of "all abortions are okay" seems equally stupid. So technically his complaint is valid, but as pertains to the bigger issue of abortion in general, I'm not convinced that either extreme is really the best. And as with most issues, it's the extremists who shout the loudest and want to make it part of every discussion. Of course, many liberals and conservatives fall somewhere closer to the middle on this issue, and I think that's where the solution needs to be found.

Item #2: Republicans stand against two consenting adults getting married.

Gay marriage, in case it wasn't clear, is what he's talking about. Of course, given the generally more heavily religious views of the Republican party, this one is well-known and unsurprising. Honestly, I fully support gay marriage. Additionally, I think that on a purely political level divorced from religious views, allowing same-sex marriage falls in line with the general conservative "keep the government out of my business" type of thinking. The big issue here is with the morality and/or naturalness of homosexuality as seen by the Republican party, along with the questions of how same-sex couples will manage raising children, and how this shift will affect marriage as an institution.

1) Whether homosexuality is moral or not is nobody's business unless they are being directly affected by it. Even if it is immoral, which I'm not willing to concede, so are a lot of other things, like lying to your wife or being racist, which are perfectly legal. That's because you can't legislate morality. The general basis for this claim is a couple quotes from the Bible, which is a whole separate issue ("If it's that big of a deal, why is it mentioned so rarely, almost exclusively in the largely-ignored Old Testament sections of Jewish law, and under such hazily-translated circumstances? Why doesn't it come up in the Ten Commandments or in anything Jesus says?" And so on and so forth.) Religion has no place in dictating government policy, though, so all that ought to be a moot point anyway.

2) The fact that thousands of animals exhibit homosexual behavior in the wild is a pretty clear demonstration that is does, in fact, occur naturally. But even if it didn't, since when do humans only do "natural" things? I know it's trite, but driving cars, wearing shoes, and keeping food in refrigerators are "unnatural" activities that I don't see many people abandoning. Of course homosexual intercourse does not produce offspring, which is usually at the crux of this argument, but given that the planet's population went from 1 billion in 1900 to 7 billion in 2011, is anybody really going to argue that we as a species need more reproduction?

3) Numerous psychological studies have shown that kids with two parents caring for them, regardless of gender, are more likely to be well-adjusted than kids with one or zero parents as caregivers. Thus, single women are, by all evidence, more likely to have child-rearing issues than gay couples, yet quite rightly nobody tries to stop them from raising their kids alone. An additional point is that gay couples have to go out of their way to have a child, so it's not likely to happen unless they feel ready and willing to raise one. Straight couples accidentally have kids all the time, and unwanted children are much worse off than wanted kids with two mommies or two daddies.

4) If anybody feels that another couple getting married will in any way devalue their own relationship, that's just sad. Marriage is already pretty watered down by five-time divorcees and week-long celebrity couplings, so if you're worried about gay marriages ruining the overall institution, I think your fears might be misplaced.

So yeah, I agree on this one. Republicans, on the whole, oppose gay marriage and I think that that opposition is dumb. If it bothers someone on a private level because of their own religious convictions, fine. I'm not here to tell anybody what to think. But personal dislike is not a basis for legal action.

Item #3: Republicans oppose gun control despite the fact that countries with tight gun control have less violence.

Ah, this old chestnut. Here is a Harvard study debunking the claim that banning guns reduces violence, though I'd think a little common sense would go a long way on this issue. Setting aside little quibbles like the fact that the nation with the highest murder rate on earth (Honduras) doesn't allow open carry and has tighter gun control laws that the US, let's pretend for a second that reducing or eliminating guns actually would reduce violent crime. With that assumption, here are a few simple questions. Will the type of bans or tight firearm controls that have largely eliminated guns in small European countries actually be viable in a nation this size, that contains over 300,000,000 privately-owned firearms by even the more conservative estimates? Given that the majority of mass shootings occur in areas like schools where it's already illegal to carry guns, do we honestly think that the same violent criminals who break those laws will be more inclined to follow broader gun control laws? Does anybody proposing bans on different types of guns really think those weapons can be kept off the black market? If your answer to any of those questions was "yes" then, to put it very kindly, you are being unrealistic.

So yes, Republicans by and large oppose gun control laws. I don't think having a few light restrictions is unreasonable, but tightening gun control in any significant way would be both crushingly expensive and largely ineffective. It may or may not be for the right reasons, I'll leave that for you to decide, but on this issue I think the Republican party is adopting the far more realistic stance. Oh, and Democrats, here's a quick PSA: a semi-automatic rifle without a fully automatic option is, by definition, not an assualt rifle.

Item #4: Republicans thought it was a good idea to have Sarah Palin as the vice president.

While I do think she gets dumped on more than she deserves, I have a hard time really arguing with this one. She isn't the worst or most annoying politician to emerge in recent years, but the overwhelming feeling that her public addresses evoked was that she was an unintelligent rube who was chosen to lock down ultra-conservative voters and hopefully appeal to women who wanted to see somebody besides another white male in high political office. Clearly that strategy backfired, but that's not really the point. Most high-profile politicians these days are just different varieties of shit, so I'm not going to waste too much time talking about either her or the alternatives to her. Nonetheless, I agree that putting Sarah Palin in the White House doesn't sound like a brilliant plan to me.

Item #5: Republicans were responsible for the Iraq War.

While it's true that the Republican party was more aggressively behind that invasion, here's a fun fact that many youngsters may not be old enough to remember: in the wake of 9/11 most Americans supported US military involvement in the Middle-East. Republicans, Democrats, everybody. Yes George W. Bush was the president running the show, but in late 2001 his approval rating hit over 90%. In case you weren't sure, that required more than just Republicans. "That's Afghanistan, not Iraq," I hear you say. Okay, how about this: the resolution to invade Iraq could not have passed the US Senate on Republican votes alone. In fact, the majority of Democrats in the US Senate voted in favor of invading Iraq. As those charts will show you, the House of Representatives carried largely on the Republican vote, and in the senate the Democrats were far more split than the Republicans. I'm not arguing against the obvious fact that Republicans were the driving force behind involving us in that shit-storm. What I am saying is that Democrats aren't guiltless either, so stop pretending like the big, bad Republican party did it all and the innocent Democrats couldn't do anything to stop them.


Okay, so that's my response. In summation, as with most things, I agree with Republicans in some ways, I agree with Democrats in others, and I think they're both idiots in their own special ways. There are still other commonly contended issues like immigration, environmentalism, and health care that I could get into, but for now I think I've said enough. To close, I'll quote comedian Lewis Black, who said "I don't know if you've noticed, but our two-party system is a bowl of shit looking in the mirror at itself."

Friday, June 20, 2014

Dead Congregation - Promulgation of the Fall

If you're like me, you've heard an awful lot of hype for the new album from Dead Congregation. When the Greeks released their debut six years ago, the death metal underworld excitedly gobbled it up, and it's taken until now for the band's sophomore full-length to emerge. With that it mind, there was clearly a lot of anticipation, so it's no surprise that it seems like everybody is talking about it now that it's been released. So does it live up to the hype?

Well, partially. The record features some excellent creeping, dissonant guitar riffs (especially on the tracks Serpentskin and Schisma). The drumming is strong, though not especially unique, and there's more notable bass presence than on most death metal albums. On the other hand, the vocals are pretty standard fare. They're fine, but generic. The band opts for a doomy flavor, which can be excellent for providing darkly atmospheric heaviness in death metal, but compared to some other recent releases in this vein, Dead Congregation's effort fails to make the same kind of impact. The slower parts do give more room for the guitar riffs, which are the clear highlight, to unfold. I'm not convinced that those riffs are enough to lift this record beyond good into great, though.

My total reaction, then, is something like my reaction to Behemoth's new album early this year. Yes, it's good. But for a record that I'm hearing "album of the year" buzz about, it just doesn't seem as special to me as a lot of other people seem to think it is.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (#2)

Okay, it's time for the second installment in my newly created series. For those of you just joining us, this is a segment where I look at three new albums: one good, one bad, and one that is interesting but problematic.

Off we go!

The Good: Teitanblood - Death
This blackened death metal album is a monstrosity. It's just this big, horribly malevolent . . . thing. Dripping with hostility, the record buries you under a wall of bristling, snarling chaos before closing with an apocalyptic 16-minute colossus of atmospheric darkness. The guitar riffs are an indistinct ball of noise, coming across like a twisted thorn-bush: dense and menacing but lacking in distinct or memorable portions. I can see how this may bother some listeners, but when this approach is paired with the blistering drumming and the ferocious vocals, I think the pieces all fit together perfectly. It's not catchy and it's not pretty, but it leaves a massive impression. Of all the many violent, aggressive, hard-hitting new albums I've heard in 2014, this one is almost certainly the most downright hateful sounding. It's not for the faint of heart, and in my book that's worth quite a lot.

The Bad: Burzum - The Ways of Yore
Since his release from prison five years ago, Varg Vikernes has been in a frenzy of musical productivity, releasing six albums in that time. Unfortunately the material, while plentiful, has been inconsistent at best. With his first four albums back in the '90s, Varg established Burzum as arguably the greatest black metal band in existence. Those albums were the work of a deeply flawed musical genius who passionately adopted some bizarre and terrible viewpoints along with a few really deep and interesting ideas. These days, it seems that the man has totally lost his mind and is suffering from a persecution complex the size of Norway. The result is music like this: a 68-minute exercise in tedium as he spends an entire album essentially noodling his way through intros and interludes that have had the songs around them removed. I'm okay with ambient and atmospheric metal, but it needs to work in its own right. Instead, this all sounds like it's building toward something that just never happens. (Incidentally, I realize how odd it is that Mayhem and Burzum are my first two "bad" selections. I promise I don't hate Norwegian black metal bands.)

The Ugly: Falconer - Black Moon Rising
The riffs on this folk-flavored power metal album are excellent. The songs are compelling and interesting, and on the strength of the instrumentation it's the best power metal album I've heard this year. But the vocals . . . ugh. I cannot overstate how much I hate the flat, boring, emotionless vocals on this record. Admittedly I'm not the biggest fan of the typical high-pitched power metal wails, but I'd take those a hundred times over in lieu of this feeble, phoned-in performance. So I'm torn. Whenever he shuts up the music is excellent, but that's a pretty big caveat.

Incantation - Dirges of Elysium

A week ago, American death metal monsters Incantation released their newest album Dirges of Elysium. Incantation are a remarkably consistent band (notwithstanding a minor slump in the early 2000s while Mike Saez was handling vocal duties) and on top of that, they are probably my favorite pure death metal band. As such, I came into this expecting them to deliver.

Which, of course, they did. So far this one of my favorite death metal releases of 2014, which is saying something given the laundry list of excellent new death metal albums I've heard this year.

As usual, this record is crushingly heavy and downright evil sounding. Incantation rely on a cavernous, doomy low-end to achieve their exceptional heaviness, and with the aid of the band's continually refined production, they have yet again managed to provide just barely enough clarity without losing that magical balance of grit and tone.

In typical death metal fashion, the guitar riffs lead the way. They are primarily sluggish and crushing, though there are some brisker segments to break things up here and there. The guitar sound is just perfect, with plenty of weight in the rhythm play and a creepy, compelling tone for the leads. The bass mostly fleshes out the bottom end without standing out too much, which is all it really needs to do anyway. Due to their doom-inflected approach, the drumming rarely comes at high speeds. Rather, it provides a galloping mid-to-low-paced drive that maintains the material's forward momentum.

Incantation's vocals are a bittersweet topic for me. Craig Pillard's gut-wrenching bellows on the band's early albums are essentially irreplaceable. Daniel Corchado (mastermind of the brilliant death metal band The Chasm) provided a solid substitute on Diabolical Conquest  after Pillard's departure, though it wasn't the same. Then the aforementioned Saez slump set in for a couple albums before founder and lead guitarist John McEntee decided to just do it himself. This is the 4th full-length with McEntee behind the mic, and while he can't match Pillard's demonic gutteral roars, he's a very strong vocalist in his own right. Given the improved guitar tone and fuller low-end in their current production, McEntee's slightly higher (though still relatively cavernous) vocals find their own niche in the overall mix that works just as well as Pillard's did, only in a slightly different way.

As with all bands who have been around this long without major changes in their sound, Incantation are often accused of simply repeating themselves. I'd be lying if I said this didn't sound very similar to previous releases, but even though the band isn't going to win any awards for creativity, I still feel that the band has avoided stagnation through a constant process of refinement. Besides, McEntee and friends deliver with a level of power and malevolence that far outweighs any complaints about the familiar nature of the material.

Grade: A

Vintersorg on FMA

This is just a short post to say that you should go over to Full Metal Attorney if you want to check out my guest review of Vintersorg's upcoming album Naturbål.

You can find it here.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Ancient Ascendant - Echoes and Cinder

The British death metal band Ancient Ascendant released their second full-length album, Echoes and Cinder, back in March. I never heard their debut, so this was my first experience with their music.

First off, I think it's important to note that the band has managed to strike a good balance between modern and old-school sounds. It's clear that the group is drawing on older death metal influences, but it doesn't feel like I'm listening to a record from 1992. In my mind, this is how it should be.

Most of the tracks on this album have a definite groovy, melodic bent, but it's not really melodeath. Instead, I would unhelpfully say that "it is death metal that is melodic, but it is not melodic death metal." The riffs actually remind me more than anything of the earliest Hypocrisy albums, only with more of an emphasis on groove and with a dramatically different guitar tone. It's these riffs that, unsurprisingly, really carry the songs. They're not the most complex in the world, but many of them are very catchy and they tend to pull the songs into a really solid mid-tempo groove that's eminently listenable.

As you can probably guess from that last statement, this isn't terribly violent or chaotic, and as death metal goes it's not on the heavy end of the spectrum. What it lacks in heaviness and visceral intensity, though, it makes up for in its ability to engage the listener. The highly straight-forward drumming and bass likely won't appeal to fans looking for blistering speed and technicality, but they anchor the songs and provide a strong backbone for the style these guys have adopted. The vocals are hoarse, energetic growls in the upper mid-range, and they work perfectly with the simple but catchy riffs and surprisingly well-structured solos to propel the songs forward. Add to that the excellent production, and this record has more than enough going on to keep me interested.

It's not groundbreaking, experimental, technical, or especially heavy. That said, this was a genuinely fun album to listen to. If enjoyment is the ultimate goal of music, then Ancient Ascendant have done their job better than most. It may seem weird to say, but I'm tempted to call this the AC/DC of death metal.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Botanist Gear

I just wanted to make a quick post to show that today I got my beanie from the Botanist Kickstarter. Botanist is a cool and utterly unique sounding one-man black metal project, and if you're interested he has both music and very reasonably priced gear available on bandcamp.

Blasphemous Overlord - Embrace the Horror and Blasphemy

Blasphemous Overlord, with this release back in February, represents the lesser-known side of its sole member, Bob Macabre. Better known for his project Chainsaw Dissection, this man has probably individually produced more brutal death metal than anybody else on the planet. He has played black metal in some of his many many many solo projects, though, and this latest band is one of those cases.

The fact that this guy mostly does over-the-top, straight-forward, brutal material certainly comes through on this record. This music is blunt as hell. It's got all the ugly, nasty violence you could ask for in underground black metal. And the album cover looks pretty cool. Unfortunately, the music is so crushingly simplistic that even the amped-up levels of aggression can only carry it so far before stalling. The vocals are murky and over-saturated in reverb to the extent that they sound at times intentionally masked rather than enhanced by the effects, which is too bad because they seem like they would be solid on their own. The riffs are very basic and redundant, and the programmed drums are about as one-dimensional as they could possibly be.

Note the fact that I never used the word "bad". None of the individual elements are outright bad, per se. But they are all extremely simplified, and taken as a whole they result in music that just doesn't have enough creativity or complexity to really be interesting. I think the insanely prodigious amount of music Mr. Macabre has produced over the past ten years or so has probably left him with few if any novel ideas left at this point, and the stripped-down product we have here sounds like a record that was likely slammed together as fast as possible. Even if there were any new ideas left I don't think there would have been time for them to take root and grow. Besides, his forte has always been in the goriest, most un-subtle end of slam, goregrind, and brutal death metal. Those are areas where blunt blasts of simplistic heaviness can thrive, but in black metal the edge just needs to be sharper than this.

Grade: C

The video won't embed, but here is a link.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Vader - Tibi Et Igni

Late last month, Polish death metal giants Vader released their 11th studio album Tibi Et Igni.

I wasn't even going to review this initially, and I'm still barely going to do so now. The words "bad Vader album" have no place in the English language, unless they are preceded by "I have never heard a" or some similar phrase. Additionally, the band hasn't really changed their sound in years. Thus, there's not much to talk about that hasn't already been said of their music in general a million times.

On the heels of 2011's colossal triumph, however, fans all have one big question on their minds: is this as good as Welcome to the Morbid Reich? The answer is no, it's not, but it's close.

By now, every death metal fan on the planet knows what Vader sounds like, so I'm not going to rehash that. I would like to point out, though, that Peter continues to have one of my favorite voices in all of extreme metal. As for why this falls slightly short of its predecessor, it's hard to give a specific, concrete reason. This is basically one of those instances of "it's exactly the same, only not quite as good." Of course in this case it still means this was an excellent, well-written, powerfully-performed death metal record with Vader's distinctive personality all over it.

In short: it's good, go buy it. If you like Vader, you'll like this (but you already knew that). If you don't like Vader, then I'm not sure why you're even bothering to read this.

Grade: A-

Monday, June 9, 2014

Black Metal Masterclass

I don't know what's going on, but in the past few weeks I've seemingly hit the mother load in terms of excellent new black metal. I've already talked about the new Diocletian (which isn't really black metal but certainly draws plenty of water from that pool) and the weirdly exciting Vapor Hiemis black metal/EDM release. Beyond those hybrids, there have been a few really great black metal albums in an assortment of styles that I've recently encountered. I was thinking about reviewing each of these separately, but I've been enjoying the approach of collecting together a group of mini-reviews and it seems fitting when I'm addressing three strong albums in the same sub-genre that I should just put them together. So here we go.

The Great Old Ones - Tekeli-Li
Honestly, when I see something described as "post-" anything, I tend to have a moment of hesitation. The shoegaze sound isn't exactly a favorite of mine, so blending it with other styles rarely constitues an improvement in my eyes. This particular French post-black metal release is a rare and wonderful exception. First of all, Lovecraftian lyrics are always cool, so even if I can't speak the language, just knowing the influence is there makes me happy. More importantly, the record just sounds really, really good. The production is very lush (which is not a word I use often) and gives the music a richness in tone that is rare in black metal. Spoken passages and soft interludes add welcome breaks in the thick wall of sound that the band produces, and the record just has an overall feel of outstanding quality in every respect from musicianship to composition to production. It's not black metal at its most violent, but it's so thoroughly satisfying in all other respects that I don't care. Probably my favorite black metal release of the year so far.

Skogen - I Döden
Fun fact: this Swedish outfit hails from Växjö, which is where I would have spent a year during college if my plans hadn't fallen through. The band plays black metal in the Viking/pagan vein, with a very melodic approach packed full of northern folk flavor and epic atmosphere. The plentiful keyboards (particularly early in the album) may bother some people, but I think they suit the tone of the music really well. There's  honestly nothing especially adventurous or unique here: this is a well-explored area and Skogen stay comfortably within its borders. The execution is very strong, though. Many of you know that I have a pretty big soft spot for the side of black metal that branches off into Viking/folk/pagan territory, but this year has had something of a drought in that department. Skogen's new release isn't the pinnacle of this style, but so far in 2014 it's the only album in this favored niche of mine that has actually grabbed hold of me. One final note: the 13-minute closer, featuring a dreary atmosphere and some almost doom metal riffs, is one of my favorite tracks of the year so far.

Thantifaxath - Sacred White Light
With rare exceptions, I do my own hunting when it comes to new metal. There are, however, about half a dozen reviewers whom I sometimes use as reference points. I often disagree with their opinions, but seeing a glowing review from one of them is still enough to at least put an album on my radar. Well, after encountering great reviews from three of them on the Thantifaxath full-length debut, I felt compelled to check it out for myself. They did not steer me wrong. Thantifaxath are a Canadian band whose moderately progressive take on black metal is a hell of a lot better than their name. They remind me a bit of Deathspell Omega, which in my word is a pretty big compliment. In addition to varied songwriting and powerful performances, the band benefits from good production that hits the sweet spot of clarity without undue polish. I listened to this the most recently of the three, and given how densely-packed the music is I have a feeling I'll need more time to fully digest it. Right now, though, I think it will be strong contender for the year's best black metal album.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Vapor Hiemis - Пламя Зимы

I loved this album. I'm going to say that up-front. In fact, I've recently listened to several different black metal releases (of varied styles) that all have a legitimate chance to make it into my top 10 albums of the year. This is one of them.

Vapor Hiemis are a black metal band from Belarus. Last month, they released their first full-length record, which I haven't the faintest idea how to pronounce, entitled Пламя Зимы.

These guys did something really unusual, and it is always exciting to me when strange ideas work. This could be just another in a line of very good European pagan black metal albums. Instead, the band chose to fuse that style with electronic dance music. It sounds like it would be a weird blend, but it actually works shockingly well. The electronic beats are layered into the music in a really natural, seamless way. The EDM side steps into the spotlight at times and it plays a large role in the overall sound, but it never overwhelms the album. The resulting sound allows the black metal to take the front seat, with the EDM sitting beside it controlling the air conditioner, while the pagan elements (with what I'm pretty sure are synthesized bagpipes) provide backing splashes of atmosphere and flavor.

In terms of the pure metal end of things, everything works just fine. The vocals are a fitting black metal rasp, the riffs are energetic and they provide a solid backbone for the songs. As I said before, on this front the band is a solid outfit. It's the unique stylistic blend of the other elements that elevates the record.

If you're somebody who really doesn't like electronic music and doesn't want to see it encroaching on metal territory, you will probably have some major issues with this. Personally, I really enjoyed it.

Grade: A

If you like what you hear, you can buy the album pretty cheaply on Bandcamp here.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (#1)

First off, as the number indicates, this is the first time I've done this style of post. Also as numbering an activity at all indicates, I intend to make it a recurring feature. May or may no happen, but that's the plan.

So what is this? Simply put it will be a post with micro-reviews/first impressions for three new
albums I've listened to once but don't want to review in full form. I'll pick one good album, one bad album, and one wildcard. These can be in any style and may or may not be related to one another; it depends on what I've been listening to at the time. The one habit I will try to follow, though, is to pick albums for the bad category that are by reasonably well-established bands, since there's not much point in warning people away from music they'd never have heard of if I hadn't brought it up in the first place.

Well, that's about it. So without further ado, here we go.

The Good: Diocletian - Gesundrian
I gave this a whirl after reading a review of it on The Autistic Metalhead. Diocletian are either bestial blackened death metal or war metal, depending which way you want to nitpick it. I don't listen to much material from within that arena, but if I did I'd want it to sound like Diocletian: punishing, driving, tightly composed, well-produced, and performed with absolute ferocity. Definitely worth your time if you have any interest whatsoever in brilliantly executed, viscerally intense metal.

The Bad: Mayhem - Esoteric Warfare
Probably the most infamous metal band in the world, black metal titans Mayhem returned earlier this week with their first new album in seven years. Hellhammer and Necrobutcher are back, with Attila Csihar on vocals. Teloch is a newcomer on guitar, but the rest are veterans of the band's nebulous lineup. Full disclosure: I've never liked Mayhem. This record didn't change that. The production sounded thin and weak rather than primitive or cold. The riffs were redundant and forgettable. The vocals, while energetic, got on my nerves. The entire album felt like one long, painfully unengaging song.

The Ugly: Mekong Delta - In a Mirror Darkly
I've been trying to decide for a few days now how I feel about this album, and I still have no idea. There were moments where these prog thrashers had me right in the palm of their hands, but then there were moments when I found myself wondering why I was listening to this crap. I'd say this is an uneven record with lots of potential and some great pieces, but somehow that feels inadequate to describe my listening experience. Some people will probably really enjoy this, so it may be worth checking out for fans of the style. Personally, I'm still on the fence.

The Ocean > Mastodon

With the release of their newest album Once More 'Round the Sun  rapidly approaching, Mastodon are once again the talk of the metal community. This happens once every two or three years, and every time it does I find myself in the position of a baffled onlooker.

Many people whose music opinions I respect really like Mastodon, so I'm not going to claim there's anything objectively wrong with them. All I can speak to is what my own ears tell me, and what they tell me is that Mastodon are receiving a lot more praise than they're earning.

Meanwhile, last year The Ocean released another towering monument to all that is good about progressive sludge, adding to an already impressive resume. So, rather than just shooting down the reigning kings of the sub-genre and moving on, I'll instead present you with a take on these alternative masters of prog sludge who my ears tell me are distinctly superior.

What follows is my list of five reasons to listen to The Ocean instead of Mastodon.

(Of course, there's nothing to stop you from enjoying both.)

#1. Teeth

These days when I listen to a Mastodon album, I invariably find myself thinking "What would they sound like if they still had teeth?" If you've ever wondered this too, The Ocean are here to save the day. As Mastodon have moved further into a prog space, they've lost virtually all of their edge. I say "lost" because Mastodon weren't always toothless. Leviathan  was plenty hard-hitting, but since then the band have sacrificed all their heaviness and grit for prog polish. The Ocean, on the other hand, manage to explore just as far into progressive territory and still have a lot of bite.

#2. Dynamics

The Ocean are an extremely aurally dynamic band. Many groups treat the hard/soft dynamic like an on/off switch. Better groups approach it as a point on a sliding scale. The best groups treat it like a point in three-dimensional space, allowing not just heaviness but also tone, tempo, energy, and style to shift and flux throughout an album. In this respect, The Ocean are one of the best groups. From hard to soft, ethereal to visceral, experimental and proggy to direct and punchy The Ocean cover all the bases. Further, they move so seamlessly from one point to the next that this vast dynamic range never feels forced or erratic. Mastodon are reasonably successful in this vein too, but their dynamic range is less expansive and less fluid.

#3. Emotional Energy

Mastodon are, to my ears, a very dispassionate band. Their early releases had some inner fire, but by the time they released Blood Mountain  they were already falling into that common progressive trap of being more interested in technical noodling than in injecting any real energy or emotion into their music. The first time I heard Crack the Skye  the music was so completely and utterly drained of emotional impact that my immediate reaction was essentially "What the fuck is this shit?" The Ocean, on the other hand, have kept some soul in their music.

#4. Songwriting

Noodling and technicality have their place, but at the end of the day I want to hear a song that's actually well-structured and coherent. The Ocean's music has a sense of purpose, a direction, and it pulls you along toward its conclusion. Mastodon, on the other hand, feel a bit listless, like they're just fiddling their way through a Grateful Dead jam session. For an album to take the listener on a ride, it needs more than musicianship: it needs songwriting to tell it where the hell it's going.

#5. Because I Said So

Let's be honest: if better songwriting, more expansive and interesting dynamics, greater emotional energy, and some actual balls still left in the music aren't enough to convince you to go listen to a band then a 5th reason really won't do much good. So set aside those good reasons for a moment and just do it for me. Do it because you value my opinion, or because you share my interest in discovering new music, or because you want to be properly armed to disagree with me. Just check out their latest album. Maybe if more people did, I wouldn't have to hear so damn much about Mastodon.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

King Buzzo

Today everybody's favorite rock music idiot-savant, Buzz Osbourne, released the debut album for his solo acoustic project King Buzzo, entitled This Machine Kills Artists.

I haven't listened to the full album yet, and I don't plan on writing a review, but what I've heard has got a dark, gritty sound to it that I really enjoy. I'm not comfortable enough with the "Dark Americana" label to know exactly where it applies, but I feel like this could be one of those places. In any case, the result reminds me a bit of when Wino released Adrift: suddenly the frontman for a band I like seemed like he might have missed his true calling in a more stripped-down music style.

Anyhow, it's certainly piqued my interest.