Sunday, July 16, 2017

Below - Upon a Pale Horse [2017]


Doom takes some skill to do right. So much of what goes around my ears traverses fledgling attempts at sucking the listener's emotional valves through sustained, meandering, heavy music for the sake of being heavy and morose, that I'm not surprised that the genre is so often berated for being 'slow'. Especially past a certain classic era which ended somewhere in the 90's, I find it difficult to counteract these enduring doom myths, but thankfully bands like Atlantean Kodex, Grand Magus and Crypt Sermon have proven to be persuasive arbiters of the best which their genre has to offer, combining the groove-laden moods of Candlemass, Count Raven or Pentagram which juicy, unbarred traditional heavy metal riffcraft, creating a riveting fusion of pace, melody and earthly sensation. Both the artwork and thematic plateau of Below's Upon a Pale Horse suggests something more in line with a King Diamond disc, but the assured quality and content is rather on a par with the aforementioned masters, something which only serves to further boost Sweden's retinue for streaming such excellent old-school metal from its bloodline.

To be frank, Below's effort here does not stack up an exceeding height to a body of already impressive recent heavy/doom offerings from bands I've already laid out, chiefly memorable among which I would cite the dazzling Crypt Sermon debut. The band gets the 'epic doom' tag from Metallum, a curious intimation with the original specters of the sub-genre, such as Candlemass, and one that I can't entirely agree with. The opener ''Disappearing into Nothing'' showcases a strong tact for tasteful riffing and harmonious, atmospheric choruses that explode with moving momentum; similarly, much of the rest of the songs follow such a course, whereby the sheer and dark Candlemass-esque pulsations are curtailed with a more pronounced proclivity for melancholy, injected through occasional arpeggios and low-ebb verses. All this, however, is not at all to detract from the band's capacity to churn out strong crafts of melody and musical narrative. There is also a fair bit variety in the pacing. ''Suffer in Silence'', my favorite from the album, begins with a harried diminished chord attack, and come chorus unveils with another killer, moving chorus the band seems to have such a knack for. ''The Coven'' could certainly have been a cover for Mercyful Fate, with its somber leads and Gothic vibe. Despite the evident comparisons, Below doesn't have the same saturnine weight as the Swedish legends Candlemass, because the compositions sail more elegant, albeit still convincingly poignant, waters, and the augmented fleshes of melody and harmony certainly serve as ear-catchers on the mast of the ship.

Vocalist Zeb is no virtuoso, but he does a fine job in reconstructing the Bruce Dickinson timber, sometimes sporting this grainy haughteur that's more reminiscent of some of Bruce's creepier moments, with the early Maiden records or as on some of his solo records, and the choruses and chants are nothing if not vibrant and memorable. Production is close to perfect: the drums cling on loosely but patiently in the background like sleepwalking candle-bearers in an abandoned attic, witnessing a sacrificial ceremony, the guitars, both while clean and distorted, hover with organic, if slightly sinister precision above the dim lights, - here's where the Candlemass comparisons really get their due - and the vocals, all told, are sufficiently resplendent to carry out the emotional wave of the record forward. The riffs never offer a copious endless variety of funereal meatiness, but as far as I'm concerned they're groovy and crushing enough to elude the caveat of 'bored metal' for the good +45 minute duration of the album. Tip to toe, I'm happy to say this is an accessible record, a fairly delectable 21st century yarn for Candlemass fans like myself, perhaps not the most forward thinking piece of music you're likely to hear in 2017, and certainly not an impregnable morass of lugubrious horror a la Esoteric or Skepticism, but a highly listenable, inspiring gauze of melodic doom nonetheless. Retro and maudlin, a luminous contender in a sea of colorless mourning.

Highlights:
Suffer in Silence
Disappearing into Nothing
The Coven

Rating: 77%



Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Cream of the Crop: Arthalos Picks His Best of 2016



This year I managed to expand my cream of the crop to 25 pickings, as a lot of great but not absolutely riveting works tend to get dismissed when lists are severely downsized. If anything, I thought 2016 offered an even more motley platter of goods when you look at the overall span of the records I enjoyed, but their year-on-year qualities are roughly on a par, which is a definitely a positive when I look back to 2013 and 2014. The latter two were not 'bad' by any means - not by a mile - but I think the surge of quality has been upped by a healthy pinch with the last two years. Moving on.

As always, my top crop is a shapeless mesh of different genres and tastes. Since some of my favorite avantgarde artists had released records last year (Arcturus, Sigh, Solefald, DHG) this year was somewhat devoid of their clownish, gonzo black metal expressionism, but to cover up there was a fairly large plate of progressive-tagged servings. I am not the biggest progressive metal devotee (Dream Theater and Opeth do get unabashed ticks in my book but that's a good given for many metalheads) so it seems strange that six out of my top ten have overt 'progressive' tendencies, be it Ihsahn's idiosyncratic mold of Emperor-isms and amplified 70's prog rock, Stam1na's unique brand of proggy groove/thrash, or Votum's 'chugressive' (see here for reference). It's simply loaded. Nevertheless, every album here occupies a distinct sector of sound within metal. No two are even relatively similar.

Two great experimental Greek black metal albums (Hail Spirit Noir and Aenaon) and a much-waited Virus record round up a small but addictive bastion of insanity and boiled freakishness that compensate for the larger lack of avantgarde; Lovecraftian old school death metal tribulations a la Chthe'ilist and Howls of Ebb carry the banner of appendage-laden antiquity for a genre that was starting to pale out in the last couple of years; retro heavy metal searching back into anything from Thin Lizzy to Iron Maiden and Manilla Road gets its due (Spell, Eternal Champion, Attacker); black metal shows in a myriad forms why it isn't even close to running out of season (Nordjevel, Winterhorde, Eldjudnir, Anaal Nathrakh, Khonsu, Oranssi Pazuzu); and even the sludge/doom niche, something I usually don't look forward to listening to, let alone push so high up among my preferences, gets some representation with the new Khemmis. The only travesty among this potpourri seems to be the Avenged Sevenfold record: an admittedly difficult choice for me, but trust me when I say I fervently listened to the shit out of The Stage, a fantastic transformation from an otherwise negligible outfit. And so high up, too? My conviction remains unchanged.

My pickings come full circle as the greatest diadem went to Terminal Redux. No other record felt so complete, so epic, from its magnificent lyrical narrative to its compendium of titillating technical thrash riffs, although the top 4-5 records did come close. It was sad hearing three of their four members departing after the tour.

I've also decided, for a change, to make a brief pool of records I haven't got around to listening yet, particularly those which received a lot of internet media buzz. Because I'm a terrible person and often prefer discovering obscure lumps of black metal via Mortuus instead of checking the freshest Metal Blade releases. So this is pretty much a list of albums I want to hear in the near future. Don't be surprised if you see some of the below names cropping up randomly on my top 100 list in the ensuing weeks.

The Dillinger Escape Plan - Dissociation
Wormed - Krishgu
Krypts - Remnants of Expansion
Lesbian - Hallucinogenesis
Zaum - Eidolon
Fates Warning - Theories of Flight
Schammasch - Triangle
Wildhunt - Descending
Insomnium - Winter's Gate
Messa - Belfry
Trap Them - Feral Crown
Ravencult - Force of Profanation

Bear in my mind also that my top 25 does NOT include EP's and demos, as I've reserved those for my larger, non-hierarchical grain storage of 100 metal on RYM, which you can access here. The list has brief commentaries on each entry in case you were curious why I thought those were among the best albums of the year.

YouTube links have been embedded in the list below.


Top 25 Metal Albums of 2016****


25) Eldjudnir - Eldjudnir (Independent)
24) Chthe'ilist - Le Dernier Crépuscule (Profound Lore)
23) Attacker - Sins of the World (Metal on Metal)
22) Anaal Nathrakh - The Whole of the Law (Metal Blade)
21) Khonsu - The Xun Protectorate (Jhator Recordings)
20) Oranssi Pazuzu - Värähtelijä (Svart)
19) Eternal Champion - The Armor of Ire (No Remorse)
18)  Virus - Memento Collider (Karisma)
17) Witherscape - The Northern Sanctuary (Century Media)
16) Winterhorde - Maestro (ViciSolum Productions)
15) Aenaon - Hypnosophy (Code666)
14) Khemmis - Hunted (20 Buck Spin)
13) Opeth - Sorceress (Moderbolaget)
12) Hammers of Misfortune - Dead Revolution (Metal Blade)
11) Dark Tranquility - Atoma (Century Media)
10) Mouth of the Architect - Path of Eight (Translation Loss)
09) Nordjevel - Nordjevel (Osmose Productions)
08) Howls of Ebb - Cursus Impasse: The Pendlomic Vows (I, Voidhanger)
07) Haken - Affinity (InsideOut Music)
06) Avenged Sevenfold - The Stage (Capitol)
05) Votum - :Ktonik: (Inner Wound Recordings)
04) Hail Spirit Noir - Mayhem in Blue (Dark Essence)
03) Stam1na - Elokuutio (Sakara)
02) Ihsahn - Arktis. (Candlelight)
01) Vektor - Terminal Redux (Earache)


Unlike last year, there won't be any feature length non-metal list, as I was able to find less time research other music when preoccupied with metal in general. From what little I did hear, however, new albums by White Lung, John Carpenter, Phantogram and David Bowie are all extremely worthwhile. I might add an extra splash of names to that list later on in 2017, but no promises.



Saturday, December 10, 2016

Eldjudnir - Eldjudnir [2016]


Black metal's ability to constantly reinvent itself and transcend the sepsis of bland musical conformism has been, for me, one of its key assets. That is not to say every black metal band or album per se capably defies genre conventions to achieve and cultivate sounds or soundscapes that are highly divergent from the next one, but in general I don't think it's a great coincidence that the genre has been able churn out so many harrowing, innovative and effective practitioners on a level that would surpass, if not always dwarf, those produced by other genres' think-tanks. The variety and imaginative stretch, as often grim and nightmarish as it may be, (not necessarily a deficit according to my tastes) is undeniable. Yet this also invites the whole post-metal sub-genre into scrutiny, since the label is so often thrown under the black metal banner, yet features a myriad taxonomies of its own that often constitute great difficulty for the analyst's part to categorize. Boring semi-academic platitudes aside, Danish hopefuls have been one such band to offer such a caveat. While I find myself meddling over the authenticity of the atmospheric black metal tag as bequeathed by the M-A, their unique, desert-like brand of black metal has sold me consistently, spin after spin, giving credibility to my initial statement, to the extent that I no longer give a fuck whether I should term them 'black metal' or 'blackened gonzo avant-garde desert rock'.

Comparisons to the Norwegians avant-garde weirdos are justified. Granted, Eldjudnir does not swerve with the same wacky post-metal antics as The Virus That Shaped the Desert or their latest, Memento Collider, but swerve it does. Rather than the skedaddling waltzes of the Norwegians, Eldjudnir employ slow, intimate, distorted arpeggios and droning chord sequences that all fit into a mid-paced tempo. The bass lines here are fantastic: they gyrate effortlessly underneath the dissonant wave of chords, flowing out with jazzy, serpentine succor. What's unique about the Danes is that they seem to channel a sonic discordance that strikes a balance between the slower, somber undertakings of  French bands like Deathspell Omega, Merrimack and Blut Aus Nord and the crepuscular, desert leanings of Virus or DHM with their later, more progressive offerings. The album, coupled with the haunting visual of the cover art, presents this image of some antiquated train running across a lone rail track in the midst of a nocturnal, desert landscape, with derelict buildings or scraps of human development peeping about the ghost train. The Danes are certainly not industrial, but the mournful jangles of the guitars evoke such an atmosphere, leaving a trail of abandoned sickness as the tracks groove along.

Another obvious selling point for me are the vocals: they come in a scree of varieties. The more traditional, raspy black metal rasps, which are delivered with great accord to the harrowing aura of the record, are prominent, but more than those I loved the absolutely haunting cleans, these ritualistic timbers stretching across the illimitable atmosphere the Danes have constructed. The title track employs a healthy portion of both, with titillating melodies accompanying the rasps and the choruses ballasted by a choir of harrowing cleans. This goes on to show how much and how successfully Eldjudnir enjoy experimenting vocally, even when their bizarre but consistent riff fodder retains a stylistic cohesion throughout. The cleans, as on ''Mimer'', are not unlike Opeth at their best, and pull at the listener's heart's strings as though with a pair of mechanized phantom hands. On top of that, the band is brazen enough to boast a series of female vocals, like on the excellent ''Skade'', and yet their delivery does not loosen at the seams, actually proving to amplify the crippling, strange dolor of the record.

Clocking at a mere 36 minutes, Eldjudnir is an album I've found hard to break my jones for. Consistent, funereal and never really a drag; there are some sequences in some tracks where I wasn't wholly enamored, but certainly given the the brevity of each track (of which there are 7) there isn't ground aplenty to commit a lot of faults here. My biggest gripe, therefore, may simply be that I could not sink my teeth sufficiently into the plateau of ideas and musical desertification which they rather wonderfully shaped, however well it was construed, both in terms of atmosphere and production. The Danes' style is such that it can merely puncture a highly marginal niche even inside the black metal market, a small place alongside the likes of Virus, Hail Spirit Noir, DHM, Voivod, and maybe the more sophisticated dissonance of the French black metal school, but that quaint eccentricity which they espouse is precisely why I've grown to enjoy this record so much. Being so close to penning their own scripture, one that exists outside of the generic borders of black metal, I can merely wear out the humdingers on this on repeat until a third album pops into existence, out from the jarring and solemn womb of the Danes' imagination, and stamp this record as one of the finer yields of a crop that has already proved 2016 to be a blessed harvest.


Highlights:
Skade
Yggdrassil
Eldjudnir
Hræsvelgr


Rating: 85%

Friday, August 5, 2016

Pyrrhon - Running Out of Skin (EP) [2016]


In an alternative universe, I could have actually enjoyed records like The Mother of Virtues or Vermiis, records by two bands which pop up on occasion in my reviews since I entertain the prospect of teasing their most avid followers and acolytes by readdressing how artificially elevated they seem to be, especially when compared the bee knee's of the technical/avantgarde death metal spectrum, Canada's masterful Gorguts. That said, Pyrrhon's Growth Without End EP which came out last year was a refreshing coat of paint that fractured their immensely busybody stream of waxed, alienating notes and chord fusions into something more in tune with my ears, even though it still retained its caustic freakishness. Come 2016, I was excited to get my hands on their latest opus, Running Out of Skin, which turned out to be something less of an opus and rather a flimsy filler that obeyed the law of its titular maxim more than anything. Crafty and deracinating as these gentleman are in their approach, there is a level of versatility on this EP that I simply found unnerving, spin after spin.

And unnerving not in the most positive sense. Firstly, Pyrrhon are beyond doubt inaccessible, a feat they've already proven wit 2014's Mother of Virtues, but while complexity is certainly a characteristic, the real asset of their craft the cauterizing, unfazed attack of the guitars, the insomniac lying wait behind the thickset of instruments. Nevertheless, one reason for me abjuring this 16-minute EP is not it's dense focus on intricacy and avowed inaccessibility; it's the band's inability to employ little else that cultivates captivating musical experience. Let's take a look. ''Statistic Singular'', the opener and longest track here, broils with tense, discordant chords that weave into each other in a seeming mess, a characteristic choppy, bass-driven rhythm guitar driving a grotesque sort of groove beat while the lead guitars mingles with the fringes of utter ear-razing frippery: the intended effect IS alienation, but I'm too busy either scratching my head over what the hell is happening or waiting for a hook to give a damn about their skill. I profess: I do enjoy the simpler, plainer things in life, but the track absolutely lacks any momentum to engross anyone to a satisfying degree. As the same rule sadly applies to the rest of the disc, the quartet has apparently invested more time in attempting to emulate the philosophy of their half-sober practice sessions that actually filing any sensible flourish into the music.

But hell, if you're still pleading 'that's the whole point of the music, to sound dissonant'', be my guest. The guitar tone is unruly and boring, not a major deviation from the industrial grind of their previous records but nonetheless a degree more downtrodden, sharp high-end notes cutting at your eardrums like tiny bacteria with rusted, nail-sized cleavers hacking away in unkempt bliss.I actually enjoyed the vocals on here, though, perhaps the only single attribute that preserved some of that vile, cantankerous timbre I so loved on their previous outings - thankfully some things never change. There's something to be understood here if the best song on the whole disc is a cover of Death's ''Crystal Mountain'', surprisingly well applied into the individual, splenetic science which Pyrrhon has constructed on its own, - complete with both thicker and raspier variations on Schuldiner's voice plus tingling, cyborgian lead sections - and that's Running Out of Skin feels more like a piece of audio commitment fit for donation to poverty-stricken heshers in need, and even then I imagine a good many people wouldn't waste much tine before dumping it into the CD heap. Certainly not a 'terrible' effort by any means, but I felt that in between the dense interplay of meaningless notes and riffs some more substance would have been added, something which I hope the band will seek out to improve on their next full-length. That ''Crystal Mountain'' though.

Highlights:
Statistic Singular

Rating: 52%

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Phobocosm - Bringer of Drought [2016]


Although the relentless 'cavern-core' trend of the past few years has quelled in the absence of convincing riffs and atmospheric dynamics that we associate with this murky, spelunking sub-genre, there is still plenty of chaos to be had around, Canada's Phobocosm being one of them, with influences of anything from Blasphemy to Ulcerate running amok through their thick, mired veins. Their debut, 2014's Deprived, was one of the reasons (alongside the creme de la creme output of pioneering mavericks like Antediluvian, Mitochondrion  and Portal) that, despite its blooding excess of unruly brutality and sluggish Incantation-worship, I still keep my faith in this niche of music, and it was inevitable that through the conduit of one Dark Descent Records the group would continue to expand its retinue as a budding entity of this formula. Granted, whatever genre it is we're talking about, it's a perpetual labor to patronize and renew your sound; not only that, but to execute the newfound divisiveness in a coherent manner... none of which Phobocosm have quite attempted on their sophomore, Bringer of Drought, leaving, perhaps, something more to be desired.

Yet when I say the Canadians have not upped or refined their cavernous repository at all, I am not instinctively correct, but rather reflecting on the paucity of fresh elements that would render the music as immersive and punishing as the debut. The Canadians, unsurprisingly, have brought their huge, lumbering, even slightly granular guitars to the fore, such that songs like bombastic, crushing ''Ordeal'' reveal they haven't at all kept their cutlery dusty, delivering astonishingly heavy and smoldering waves of low-end chugs and sludge-like ruptures. Still, the song is probably my favorite among the bunch, (we're talking 4 tracks stretching between 8-12 minutes) so the rest of the songs hardly exhibit the same level of tactile destructiveness and pulverizing force, or, if anything, allure. Throughout the other three songs, we're exposed to a lot of contemplative post-metal, limping, desolate arpeggios that burst into cloudy swathes of distortion and titular chords in an almost Neurosis-esque fashion, sans the experimental tribalism of the California giants, sinewy impulses of fairly 'straightforward' old school death metal tremolos joined up by loose aural sections that make up for plenty of emotional resonance, occasional drum fills daunting and intimidating on the way.

The picture you get isn't a whole lot different from what Deprived had to offer, although a sludge/post-metal leaning is apparent, almost as though the Canadians are morphing into something in the mode of Mouth of the Architect or Holland's Sistere. However, there is a aridity to the riffs that just makes them too dry, lacking in intricacy, to be paired with Ulcerate, Deathspell Omega, or their fellow countrymen Gorguts, who possess an immovable vocation for balancing the cataracts of brutality and unearthly technical deceptiveness in a storm of highly refined wizardry. Not that any band has to be enormously technical to evoke satisfying, even stunning music: that much is abundantly clear. Indeed, Bringer of Drought nevertheless destroys within the furrows of its neanderthal regime: penalizing walls of sound and magnitude. The vocals are trenchant and great, highly claustrophobic and monstrous, just as you'd want them to be, looming over the instrumentation like an overfed cyclops out of hell, sending the listener's tranquility into a grating spiral of falling dominoes. My gripe is that by and large this isn't the most innovative thing I've heard, and even though its kills in its own standards, there's a point where it ceases to offer the listener anything more. I, too, am content that new bands are still channeling this atavistic and visceral sound that the new generation of old school death metal fanboys seem so enamored by, but without refurbishing their style, bands like Phobocosm don't have plenty of space to grow into. Solid stuff, gets a passing verdict, though I'd still vie for their debut.

Highlights:
Ordeal
Fallen

Rating: 70%

Monday, July 11, 2016

Terra Tenebrosa - The Reverses [2016]


There is something distinctly unnerving about Terra Tenebrosa even as you glance at their various cover arts. Slanting, oblique figures in masks that look like they were stolen from a hellish carnival around the whereabouts of Chernobyl, set against a grainy, black-and-white bucolic landscape as though something out of a modern indie horror movie. But even the cover of their albums - among which their third, The Reverses, I find the most visually frightening - does not begin to encompass the integument of the aural and parasitic trance which these Swedish obscures have no offer, a kind of digestible, if not lacking experimentation, configuration of grating, otherworldly senses which seems to liaise between highly industrialized, bogged down venture, and a more cohesive palette of instrumentation akin to Deathspell Omega, Samael, Neurosis at their most unhinged, Blut Aus Nord, Red Harvest, and the Dutch hopefuls Dodecahedron. While most of the time I'm accustomed to slab the label 'unusual' or 'strange' onto bands, the classification does not help much here. In fact, the only way to rectify the crawling insanity of such a band as Terra Teneborsa should require a deep dissection of the band's style and music.

How exactly to go about this? The Swedes are frightening, theatrical, capricious and dissonant. Predictability is completely out of question, with the band employing such a rich mixture of dense, broiling industrial guitars, cavernous murmurs intermingling with chants, and the production value is simply off the chain, pummeling and bombastic, it's oddly yet titillatingly loud which gives the parasitical quality of the riffs a great deal of punch and energy. Truly, production is at the helm of the sheer momentum of this music. Had the band opted for a grainier, lo-fi production the aural experience, while no less unnerving, might have come off as underwhelming and appropriately downsized, but the magnitude of sound here enhances the claustrophobia and atmosphere, much like the Swiss Samael, especially after their 1996 masterpiece, Passage, only instead of the cosmic, ethereal aura they manifest so endearingly, the Swedes meticulously fabricate the auditory equivalent of a industrial nightmare doll-house, with charred pieces of plastic and piled masses of doll's heads lying about. Ambient sounds textures and multitudes of creeping voices fill in the almost mindless discomfiture they strew in between tracks or passages, and these as freakish and harrowing as a lengthy shot from a Tarkovsky or Kubric opus, dragging in the listener for several minutes with terrible anticipation until a load of jagged, heavyweight riffs are unburdened.

This is very noticeable with the final, overarching megalith, ''Fire Dances'', some 16 minutes long, which not only has a terrific set of crushing, grooving riffs but a totally immersive center section with long, drudging currents of sound and discord enveloping the listener with minutes at an end. But besides the band's obvious stylistic merit in cultivating such shadowy, implosive chaos, I was surprised at how many of these songs which I felt like coming back to, even with actually memorable riffs and sections I could pick out across the board. ''Ghost at the End of the Rope'' is like a titular, cadaverous Leviathan track, with one guitar chugging out huge rhythms and the other plodding at a terse, repetitive melody; the band's mastery at experimental black metal is apparent from the unusual timing and signatures, the explosive drums and the few, narrow moments of pureblood Scandinavian dynamics which they employ, making for a delicious kind of escape for the bedraggled black metal outlaw. ''The End is Mine to Ride'', with its more traditional structural approach and mid-paced gait, is also very good. Intensity is never a problem for Terra Tenebrosa when they are so apt at picking paces and tempos apart, diverging and converging into varying structures and patterns, which they equally reveal on ''Exuvia'', a forlorn industrial metal piece utilizes a single riff for its entirety, building upon the soundscape around it. Granted, there is some repetition with the riffs but overall the sound sustains itself and the album never yields to musical equanimity, which means I was rarely disinterested throughout. The Swedes have not quite deracinated black metal as others, like, say, Arcturus or Sigh, have. Instead, black metal remains an element of the recipe which in itself is, beyond just 'unusual', mortifying and creepy as fuck. Tribal and nightmare-inducing, this is the kind of album you definitely don't want to give a spin at 2-3 in the morning, not in the least if you're living in a wooden cabin, with the closest scrap of civilization being a petrol station located 20 km away. You've been warned.


Highlights:
Where Shadows Have Teeth
Ghost at the End of the Rope
Fire Dances


Rating: 80%

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Dark Forest - Beyond the Veil [2016]


What can I say? Metal and metalheads in general tend to have a soft spot for concept. That concept, whether its dragons, knights, spelunking ghouls, something out of Michael Moorcock or Tolkien, or in the case of Dudley's Dark Forest - embodying medieval myths and legend in lyrical, pastoral gloss  - is always a profound selling point. And as lyrical/conceptual deviants from the foray of the more Goth-induced imagery of Swedish traditional heavy metal bands, Dark Forest, like some of the genre's greatest underground staples - to wit, Brocas Helm, Slough Feg, Cirith Ungol and Manilla Road - have a more retrogressive approach to their music, one that has helped absorb my initial exposure to them, their 2014 album The Awakening, with healthy and savory intakes as a powerful, melodic, moving barbican to the continuing presence of heavy/power in such a vein. To be sure, King Diamond and Mercyful Fate are great, no question about it, but bearing in mind the implants they've detonated across a good half of the entire traditional heavy metal revivalism, - hence the notorious 'Swede-fever' - the soundscape offered by Dark Forest, however slapstick it may seem to its condemners, is a welcome entry.

I get that Dark Forest aren't the most innovative bunch out there; that's never been the point. Beyond the Veil does not resort to be anything of that sort, instead you get tons of atmosphere, quite a perfect Anglo-Saxon feel as though you were an enchanted knight strolling through a forest in search of some covetous chalice, not even so much of a battle-hymn the way bands like Ironsword or DoomSword evoke Conan-esque violence and triumph, but more of a melodious assemblage of busy, technically affluent guitars conjuring up a rich groundwork of history and folklore. Again, the UK quintet does not possess the same jumpy, splenetic piquancy I so adored on magisterial albums like Traveller or Down Among the Dead Men, but assuredly the 'retro' feel is there, a lack of keyboards provides impetus to the lucid and poignant acrobatics of the guitars, ballasted by heavier, albeit simple rhythms underneath. The guitars are, blatantly, upfront and lead the charge. Crisp but not overdone, the guitarists employ stirring, 'epic' melodies and plenty of harmonization, not unaccustomed to in this niche, the sort of lead playing that's not as liberal and unencumbered as, say, one Protest the Hero or whatever progressive/technical act you can imagine, nor should they be taken with a grain of salt. In fact, I was surprised at the number of riffs they could pen on a song for song basis bearing the length of the songs in mind, a tasteful array of sweeps and hooking solos rounding up the arsenal, like speckles and shingles of Dragonforce seeping in occasionally.

That doesn't leave much else to be said about the record. John Winnard's vocals are fine, blending the operatic theatricality of Dickinson with the more high octane adventurism of Mike Scalzi, appropriately embellishing the vocal buoyancy needed. But Beyond the Veil is altogether feels repetitive after 2-3 spins, not that the craftsmanship is subpar but rather because there's too much of the same structural and stylistic melody/rhythm pattern to be had: while the first 4-5 songs kicks and swerve their way with atmosphere and a masterful, titular patronage of riffs,  the formula essentially feels force-fed by the time you've made it to song no. 12, ''The Lore of the Land'', a lurching epic. It's essentially a sale from a soigne antiquarian who's selling us the feel, archaic and seemingly embossed in legend, even though the songs are memorable enough as you're listening to them (''Blackthorn'' has a great, choir-esque accompaniment to its chorus and ''Where the Arrow Falls'' is downright charged with energy) but the bulk of the record feeds back into the bands backlog of three full-lengths, principally an extension of the ideas explored therein. That's not to say you should omit Dark Forest, though; their position is certainly oblique, with songs like ''The Wild Hunt'' propagating such a delicate balance of folk metal a la Ensiferum, Korpiklaani and Turisas with ballsy heavy/rock (think Saxon and Def Leppard) and the more occult, atmospheric leanings of King Diamond, that I can't help but recommend it to an aficionado of the style. Be your own judge. With four albums at their belt, Dark Forest still have it. Gaunt, chivalrous and surging, I can't think of a whole lot of other bands fit to perform in a medieval fun fare. Have... fun?

Highlights:
The Wild Hunt
Where the Arrow Falls
Blackthorn

Rating: 75%


Sunday, July 3, 2016

Megascavenger - As Dystopia Beckons [2016]



Imagine if Rogga Johansson were a heavy metal DJ. He could slip in at least half a dozen of his own tracks, culled from a pool of releases spanning, over a decade, a veritable compendium in the finesse and artistry of Swedish death metal, and not a soul would notice. Regardless of what he owes his creative and productive force to, the man is to praised for the sheer size and scope of his output, so much so that even I've reviewed more than a couple of them, though it is very difficult to keep up with all his works. Of course this comes with the principal issue of having to beat around the bush excessively, since his brand of 90's, Entombed/Dismember-influenced death metal, however well and tactfully executed, falls short of enticing most of the time with so many of his riffs being xeroxed from a grisly, brutalized melting pot of the aforementioned bands, plus a few regular nasties like Autopsy, Morbid Angel, Incantation and whatnot. Nor is his umpteenth project, Magescavenger, an alien to that formulaic chasm of gruesomeness and gore, but the interesting fact about the third album under the Megascavenger guise, As Dystopia Beckons, is not only a thematic digression from the Lovecraftian concepts of the previous records, but also minute breakthrough - an animosity in this case - with its odd integument of industrial and electronic influences blending into the seamless old school death metal formula Rogga is so keen on reaping.

This comes as a shocker to me as well, considering the organic and fleshy quality of the majority of his releases, and although this daring repose offers a few breaths of comfort for the seeker of experimentation, Rogga, unfortunately, doesn't implement the stylistic shift with as much meticulousness as you would have liked. The introductory tracks, ''Rotting Domain'' and the gimmicky ''The Machine That Turns Humans into Slop'' explode with fierce, bulbous guitars accompanied by whizzing electronic feedback and tingles, moving into casual industrial breakdowns redolent of Godflesh or Samael at their more experimental, but the riffs retain their trademark simplicity throughout. There is even considerable clarity on this disc, as if somehow Rogga had rectified the gravel and grime of his traditional crusty Swedeath guitar tone with a few buckets of water to wash the mud and cake off, almost as an homage to the development of slightly cleaner melodic death sound. But be sure that the songs rage with uncompromising carnality and hefty slog of chainsaw-heavy guitar work we are so fond of. ''Dead Rotting and Exposed'' is another one of those industrially-tinged bulls that stampede with generic chugs and patronizing spells of industrialized distortion, almost at an attempt to redeem the lack of fresh, sticking riff work on the record. 

Kudos to Rogga for channeling a distinctly 'dystopian' feel, or at least trying to, through the use or reverb, robotic vocal syntheses, and mechanized d-beat rhythms that fluctuate around creepy tremolos and and chord-driven bevies. Force your imagination, and songs like ''Steel Through Flesh Extravaganza'' might just cloud your mind with the image of a gigantic, malicious, electrical saw-wielding cyborg chasing you down the streets of Detroit circa 2025, but at best these songs leave something more to be had, certainly in that they feel inchoate, and most likely because other, excellent death metal bands with industrial influences like The Monolith Deathcult have already played this weird, perfunctory sound to near-perfection. The oddballs across the record, like the Timat-esque ''The Harrowing of Hell'' (with Kam Lee on vocals) and the moody, stringently melodic ''As the Last Day Has Passed'' with its clean vocals and lumbering monotonous chords hardly contribute to the overall quality of the record; if anything, they should be hung up as addendum on a 'bonus material' disc. Fact is, Rogga has proven many times that he is a great songwriter. Peek into an album by Revolting, Humanity Delete, Paganizer, or the fantastic Putrevore and you'll see that my claims are justified. As Dystopia Beckons may be our gateway to a newer, more refined, maturer Rogga, one keeping tabs on occasional experimentation and versatility, but employing naked industrial synths into the traditional formula with guest vocal appearances on every track is almost like proselytizing the listener. It shouldn't come as a surprise that he's running out of material. At any rate, I would love to see him at the helm of another great, pummeling bastion of a brutal, sordid pummeling death metal machine, doted by the sounds of the late 80's and early 90's that we so love, not something as lackluster as this. Decidedly, Rogga needs his gusto back. Prescription: hard-boiled baby Cthulhu tentacles, blood syrup, and 5 hours of mandatory death metal listening every day.

Highlights:
Rotting Domain
Steel Through Flesh Extravaganza
Dead Rotting and Exposed

Rating: 63%