Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Cream of the Crop: Arthalos Picks His Best of 2015

Overall I felt this was quite a strong terms of both quality and quantity across all genres of metal, but that has always been the case so I doubt 2015 surpassed annual mean scores by a great deal. In another sort of Murphy's Rule for yearly releases, the bulk of the quality was concentrated in the first and last couple of months, at least for me, and the pool of better releases in between was spread out a little more thinly. Still, that may also have to do with the fact that much of my own lack of research during these months was due to a combination of slight disinterest in and reluctance to pick up newer recordings at the time, which I managed to rectify somewhat by the end of the year. In terms of reviews I did start strong but my writing dwindled as lots of real life issues started filtering in, and unfortunately I had to conclude the year on a low-ish note in terms of reviews. Towards the end of the year I pushed to listen to as many new albums as possible, thus molding the current shape of my lists, but of course a good deal of albums went below my radars. I hope to make up as much as I can for those in the initial months of 2016.

Nonetheless, there was an excellent scree of releases all around, with France and Norway sticking out more than usual, beyond the usual suspects like USA and Sweden. France may not have made the top 20 cut, but it produced metric tons of great, caustic black and death metal in its national brew, fitting selections at a time when Deathspell Omega have remained idle for a good long while (seriously, new album better be in the work, guys). And Norway just trumped with an unprecedented triplet of gold from its three avantgarde mavericks Solefald, Arcturus and Dodheimsgard (though the latter did not make the cut) who assuredly produced enduring masterpieces to enrich the legacy of their discographies. But of course the Enslaved album, being more 'black metal' than its gonzo counterparts, perhaps one of the safer records they've done in the last decade, is also fantastic. 2015 is perhaps most surprising considering the wealth of releases that either belong to long-time masters (Sigh, Raven, Motorhead, Saxon, Solefald, Angra, Satan, Killing Joke, Enslaved, Arcturus, even Iron Maiden, etc.) or newer entrants and banner-carriers who had already won my heart from a few years hence (Horrendous, Sulphur Aeon, Tribulation, etc.).

As always, I avoided or just downright disliked many of these uber-hyped mainstream metal records, not to mention the mass of stoner/sludge material promulgated by media-friendly review sites and communities. But downsizing that pool in its entirety is also risky, as several of the year's best turned out to be some of the most 'overrated', like the Ghost or Enslaved records.

I have also compiled an extensive list of my 100 favorite releases, in non-hierarchical order, so as to provide a little more mileage on the density of worthwhile recordings for the year. You can take a look here

YouTube links have been embedded in the lists below.

Edit: After numerous listens the new Leprous record has earned my heart's fondness with exponentially high returns, hence acquiring a spot in the top 10. Pushed back the Katavasia album and replaced the Enforcer album with the new Nechochwen record.

Top 20 Metal Albums of 2015 ****

21) Lychgate - An Antidote for the Glass Pill (Blood Music)
20) Nechochwen - Heart of Akamon (Bindrune Recordings)
19) Crypt Sermon - Out of the Garden (Dark Descent Records)
18) Kontinuum - Kyrr (Candlelight Records)
17) Wilderun - Sleep at the Edge of the Earth (Independent)
16) Soilwork - The Ride Majestic (Nuclear Blast Records)
15) Tribulation - Children of the Night (Century Media Records)
14) Ghost - Meliora (Loma Vista Recordings)
13) Sulphur Aeon - Gateway to the Antisphere (Imperium Productions)
12) Trial - Vessel (High Roller Records)
11) A Forest of Stars - Beware the Sword You Cannot See (Lupus Lounge)
10) Sadist - Hyaena (Scarlet Records)
9) Horrendous - Anareta (Dark Descent Records)
8) Leprous - The Congregation (InsideOut Music)
7) Killing Joke - Pylon (Spinefarm Records)
6) Satan - Atom by Atom (Listenable Records)
5) Year of the Goat - The Unspeakable (Napalm Records)
4) Enslaved - In Times (Nuclear Blast Records)
3) Zierler - ESC (Vanity Music)
2) Arcturus - Arcturian (Prophecy Productions)
1) Solefald - World Metal. Kosmopolis Sud (Indie Recordings) ****

Top 10 Non-Metal Albums of 2015 **

10) Sammal - Myrskyvaroitus (Progressive Rock/Folk)
9) Julia Holter - Have You in My Wilderness (Dream Pop)
8) Grimes - Art Angels (Pop)
7) Grave Pleasures - Dreamcrash (Post-Punk/Goth)
6) Mew - +- (Progressive Pop/Rock)
5) Squarepusher - Damogen Furies (Electronic/IDM)
4) Purity Ring - Another Eternity (Pop)
3) John Carpenter - Lost Themes (Electronic)
2) Susanne Sundfør - Ten Love Songs (Synthpop)
1) Everything Everything - Get to Heaven (Progressive Pop/Rock) **

Honorable mentions:

Hot Chip - Why Make Sense? (Electronic/Synthpop)
Zombi - Shape Shift (Electronic)
Steven Wilson - Hand Cannot Erase (Progressive Rock)
Django Django - Born Under Saturn (Progressive/Indie Rock)
Carpenter Brut - Trilogy (Compilation) (Synthwave/Electronic)
Braids - Deep in the Iris (Indie Rock)
Knife City - Star Versus (EP) (8-Bit/Chiptune)

A little addendum on my non-metal choices. Of course my auditory leisure time generally circulates around the realms of metal, but these albums reflect part of my interests outside of those realms, and as you may have noticed this year supported a wealth of wonderful pop albums with scarcer electronic music, rounded by a selection of rock albums of varying style and contour. Every album on this list is compulsive and I enjoyed them immensely, but I have to say the Everything Everything album earned its plaudits by far, a record I listened to more than any other album, in any genre. That may be partially because the songs are fairly short, but I also found myself in entranced with the Brits' ability energize with song after song, amazing falsetto vocals, synthesizers and other electronic influences popping in - just fantastic. I cannot recommend it enough, even though it has some minor flaws. But the Susanne Sundfor record comes close, despite the simplicity of the compositions. The John Carpenter album of 'lost' film scores is also extremely noteworthy, and should come as no surprise for someone who adores the man's backlog of 80's horror flicks. The oddest ball of the bunch is arguably the Sammal record, which not only restored my faith in modern prog rock outfits but strengthens Finland's hand as one of leading conduits of 60's-70's worship. Points for Svart Records (which also released the new Seremonia album this year).

And Now... Listmania: A List of Lists * 

Of course during the course of over 4 years of blogging here, I've kept tabs on MANY blogs, and I've always had an inexplicable sympathy for fellow bloggers and reviewers alike. This year has been no exception. Therefore I've decided to make a compilation of all the notable year-end lists I could muster, since the idea is to make the music as widely known and accessible to people as possible. Granted, I may have my own little grudges about these lists, but rest assured it's nothing personal, in fact differentiation between choices is always welcome, so long as the list isn't a big, fat, cock-swallowing ape of Pitchfork's Top 10 albums of 2015. What follows is a comprehensive list of all the year-end lists I could find, although obviously with that excuse the curious reader is also encouraged to read through the other articles and reviews in the respective blogs. Some of the blogs I've linked can also be found on my blog roll column.

Autothrall's Execution Through Listification: The 2015 Edition -- The best of the best. His lists amaze me for their depth, range and also for the sheer fact that I tend to enjoy almost every record in the top 20-25 unanimously. There's also a very extensive bonus section comprised of top-lists for books, non-metal and various games. Simply mandatory for metal music nerds.

The AMG Staff Picks the Top Ten Records o’ 2015: There’s No Accounting for Anything Anymore -- I love AMG's brash, in-your-face attitude when it comes to reviewing, and I certainly feel most of the time that their high scores are justified, plus they seem to be seated in some kind of independent twilight zone between the 'poorer' bloggers such as myself and the more mainstream milieu of music reviewers, in their own social commune which is just awesome. The end of the year lists are always great and exuberant, with so many different staff members with different tastes. Be sure to check out the individual lists as well.

Skull Fracturing Metal's Top 30 of 2015 -- Perhaps a bit too high on modern power and traditional heavy metal but SFM has nonetheless been one of the very first blogs I've been acquainted with since my initiation and consequently I can't help but promote this list.

Listmania 2015 (No Clean Singing) -- These guys have a freaking open sale of awesome lists every year, from so many different users and with different labels that I can hardly keep track of all them. This is just a link to one of those individual lists, be sure them to give them all a decent look.

Arson Cafe: 2015 Dispirit -- Just a very well composed list that endures no truncation, leading up to 100 entries, all listed hierarchically. All sorts of meritorious extreme metal can be found here, as well some more modern metal records that should accord well with you if you have experimental tastes.

The 2015 End-of-Year List (Heavy Metal Spotlight) -- Just seeing the Slugdge album at #20 makes me happy. I dunno, man, it just does. Plus range and diversity run fairly wide with this list, An opportunistic mash of death, black, doom and traditional heavy with a good focus on the more 'old school' side of things.

Best Albums of 2015 (Metantoine's Magickal Realm) -- Basically your go-to blogspot (along with Slugdelord) when it comes to DOOM. All sorts of great, obscure, retro-related rock and metal here, and the list is pretty sweet to top it off. So much of a 70's stoner reprise in this blog that it practically begs a joint while you're browsing for music.

piotrekmax: Best metal albums of 2015 (Sputnik Music)

Finally, you can seek here an even larger compilation of RYM lists, if that's your thing, a great, long shelf of worthwhile lists with actual descriptive commentary and out of the ordinary pickings. That rounds the end-of-the-year craze for 2015. You have no excuse not to check out at least a few of these works. Now is a time for rest, which I believe I've earned, shortly before I get on the 2016 bandwagon. Praise Cthulhu and stay metal, my friends.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Vorage - Vorage [2015] (Demo)

I still find it surprising how claustrophobia isn't a commonplace occurrence among heavy metal throngs with the growing evocation of these monstrous, murky cavern-core acts in the underground. What started with Portal, Mitchondrion and Ulcerate is now a hit trend among youngsters who practice this irretrievably clamorous brand of death metal that fans seem to so fond of, even though the initial gloss of the sound has arguably worn off within last 3-4 years. In fact, propagators of these cavernous antics have become so formidably numerous that I'm starting to think if I spend just a little more time in their nullified vacuums, I'm going to end up starting to acknowledge the low-tuned vocal mantras of these bands as a veritable means of communicating with the Old Ones, who, without a shadow of a doubt, are just eagerly awaiting for one of their metallic emissaries to conduct the action necessary for us to enter into their threshold where there's no coming back....

And this is where Vorage comes in. One of the newest entrants into this field of disheartening evil and murky abrasion, the UK duo lets loose on the same brand of malefic music practiced by some of their larger forebears, bashing neanderthal death metal that resonates with the reticent insanity of some Lovecraftian elder thing sipping up the Earth's oceans and then regurgitating them back along with all the culinary excess of its interior. Bombastic, thick fucking guitars rule the mix almost entirely, and the riffs revolve around a more syncopated, semi-technical refurbishing Incantation, Rottrevore and late Gorguts, and these drilling tremolos that spiral like cranial whirlwinds. Granted, if you've been exposed to this style, you won't be immeasurably shocked by the discord of it all, and I should note that Vorage keep things fairly 'death metal', without going far into these more atmospheric, chord-driven exercises in dissonant chaos redolent of Portal or the New Zealanders Vassafor, sticking to the groove rather than outright chaotic madness, but in any case the material offered here is freakish enough to impress upon the mind of any cavern-core or black/death aficionado. Ballistic grooves are abundant, especially with the title track, adorned here and there with nervous snippets of technicality, and the overall impact leaves just as much life in the listener after one spin as after a 4-hour roller coaster ride.

I could compare this to the Malthusian EP, which I also heard this year, although Vorage certainly retain a more dynamic approach to their inherent claustrophobic overtures, dredging bountiful tremolos and eerie fringes of complexity rather than sticking to the death/doom motif. That said, the title track, also the longest in this 3-track demo, flirts with the sludge of bands like Malthusian around half way through. Just bear in mind that none of the material presented here can really hold a candle to the acknowledged masters of the genre, and that ''Vorage'', despite its initially dark appeal, is merely an addendum to the earlier, less intricate work of these bands. Whilst bombastic, the Brits aren't really doing anything to challenge the book here: the brief ambient outro is frightening enough, and there one or two decent moments I'd cite from this demo, but nowhere is this as fibrous or unhinged as, say, their peers Abyssal, nor does it completely wallow the listener in as Portal or Antediluvian with the soup-bowl trope of ungodly hymnals. The vocals are there, these ultra low grunts and growls that are excellent set-pieces for the lexicon of the Necronomicon, but once more, there are dozens of vocal practitioners out there who can produce the same, tremulous inflection. Vorage somehow ends up in this oblique spot where it has the choice to either expand upon riffs or atmosphere; or, if they're aplomb enough, both. The demo itself showcases that they have the rudiments in both, but not only is the sound too primal, but there are already hundreds of similar cave-dwellers working on it. Even so, this is archaic paranoia of the murkiest, fuzziest kind, just another solid gateway into cosmic fright and abyss.


Rating: 70%

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Vardan - Between the Fog and Shadows [2015]

It would have been a high supposition at any rate to expect Italian one man suicidal black metal hermit Vardan to cast aside the cumbersome simplicity and rawness of his album ''Winter Woods'' and the dozen records which precede it and break mold with his 6th album for the year, ''Between the Fog and Shadows'', since the man has not only failed to mature in his taste for cover art but also to artistically develop and improve upon the quality of the music on way of another, let alone cast a wider net of influences to garner sounds from. Vardan's creative repertoire is quite frankly depleted at this point, but somehow he can still come up with songs of 10+ length by downsizing what the works of Burzum or fellow countrymen Forgotten Tomb into a recalcitrant amalgamation begetting nothing but doom and desolation. My only theory at this point is that he's bulk buying from some low-income producer of depressive bedroom black metal - who, by the way, might currently be strumming the strings of his next bleak piece - and then presenting them in seemingly remote packages for the maximum amount of profit. If not that, the man is working his ass off every hour of the day, crafting these dreary, sleepwalking bevies of desolation and wintry silence, and it's a real shame that the amount of work he's culminated hardly accrues into quality writing, on a par with other prolific modern black metal musicians like Jute Gyte. Quality over quantity, right?

The pastiche is the same; the musical equivalent of being strapped on a crucifix and slowly gliding through an icy fjord by midnight, with owls creaking in their groves and the forest leaves rustling silently behind. This is the kind of immersive experience already channeled by the likes of Midnight Odyssey, but Vardan are far too down-to-earth and never take the aesthetic to its cosmic and astronomical, mesmerizing flights as some other bands do, with raw and perturbed production standards capturing most of that early 90's Burzum/Darkthrone tone. Simplistic riffs in the river of convergence here. There is not even a hugely chord-based, Scandinavian trope to be found, since I found ''Between the Fog and Shadows'' to be even more dolorous than its predecessor, and instead there are loads of stringy open chords and flimsy, distorted arpeggios all over the place: the result is not a mess of whirlwind of intensity, but a pale wave of desolation and distress like ripples in the water. There are moments where Vardan will splash some damp gloss on the sway of the guitars with these odd, slightly inaudible synthesizers that remind me of the ambient mastery of Forest Silence, a Hungarian black metal outlet extraordinaire, but as much as I enjoyed the momentary aural realizations of the synthesizers, they're much too buried in the mix and the frankly poor levels of production to have any sheen. To wit, the songs feel outrageously long at times, and rightfully so, since by cutting down to 3 tracks Vardan is presenting us with songs of 11, 15 and 18 minutes in length, respectively, each another frigid exercise in blatant chord strumming and almost apologetic depression ad nauseam, with few breathing holes existing within their immersive bodies for the listener to take a moment from the monotony.

This seems like some pretty hateful flak here, but in fact there are some fairly 'enjoyable' sequences to be found within the album. ''Solitary Death of a Forest Spirit'' is easily the best among the triplet, with dissonant and angry chord sequences ousting the slower, black/doom moments and a rather excellent, rainy array of ambient synths working their way through the middle of the song, and during one of those rare instances Vardan truly captures the monotonous, dreary bulwark of emotion it needs to synthesize to its entirety. The riffs, limited in their natural disposition of favoring recurring waves rather than slews of unhinged creativity, are nonetheless not too bad, but I don't feel too good for them either. Vardan's vocals, once more, while the possible game changer, become stunted and lethargic as the record passes on, and with all the records pacing in linear currents and motives, vocal duties hardly retain a symbiotic relationship with the other instruments, merely propagating these harsh, unruly, echoing ululations and howls that are quite cold and haunting in their own respect, but fall short of excellent in the long-run. Unfortunately, while all the instruments never dip below the level of 'average', the drums are quite fucking painful. I'm not know to be a complainer of drums as much as I chastise guitars and riff-craft, but even the silent reviewer has to despair the awful stampede of the open hi-hat and the unnecessary loudness of the drums in general. This is a bedroom black metal record, and the drums should traditionally be embedded deep in the mix, way behind the guitars and vocals, but here they're constantly to the fore, without even producing anything besides simple beats. As Fenriz says the drums are only supposed ''to... be there'' - and thus on this one point I will be unabashedly cancel my charitableness. Fuck you, drums.

Beside that little mishap, ''Between the Fog and Shadows'' is not a bad record, and that mournful sameness it breeds would help you with sleep if one day you're in the mood for slashing your wrists open and there aren't any knives to be found in your house. Anti-depressants that come with corpse paint. But heck, we've already been through this, and if you've somehow traced this review from whatever obscure source you found it in, you're probably pretty well-versed in black metal yourself, and know that groups like Burzum, Bethlehem, Forgotten Tomb, Sombres Forets or Austere have long emerged as apostles of this somber, wintry sub-genre, so your chances are probably stronger with them.

Solitary Death of a Forest Spirit

Rating: 55%

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Night Demon - Curse of the Damned [2015]

Since everything from rainbow filtering to tasteless 'malcore' music is being practiced these days with utmost diligence, it would be impossible for me to argue against the resurgence of NWOBHM throwbacks, which has, along with the emergent superstars of rehashing from other genres of metal have created a small scene of their own. I can hardly find anything wrong with this; since I'm equally gratified to see legends from the olden days like Satan and raven uproot the foundations of modern heavy/speed metal with stunning comeback records as I am seeing newer groups like Iron Dogs, Hessian and Trial rise to the pulpit and proclaim these awesome, refreshing records which manage to retain identity and diversity without staving off the fundamental core of the 80's. California's Night Demon are not exactly on the same list as some of their more potent peers, especially when it comes to originality, and in fact their self-titled EP was not much more than a fun blast of modernized Angel Witch and Judas Priest, calcified in its obsession, but their debut is such a great, if frivolous, pastry of early 80's speed/heavy aesthetics that I'm willing to forgive whatever faults were made in the past.

Granted, those faults weren't many with their self-titled EP, since that was jumpy, Americanized misadventure in NWOBHM which could hardly be accused of anything except perhaps perusing its source material too deeply, and to be sure, their debut doesn't seem like a far cry from that familiar path, with cheesy 80's-inspired horror flick and youthful attitude, This is basically a parade for fans of anything from Exciter and Anvil to Maiden and Raven, from Razor and Running Wild to Abattoir and Angel Witch, or even newish acts like White Wizard and Enforcer. The 'heavy metal' palette offered here is pretty sparse, so the sound has a wide spectrum of appeal, simplistic barrages of speed metal and bluesy chords smitten with an occasionally heavier pantry of thrash-y discord and mid-paced chug fares a la Exodus and Agent Steel, and bear in mind that Night Demon are never melodic or intricate enough to earn themselves a seal of approval from the department of technical guitar work: so the riffs don't mirror the gyrating, harmonious minimalism of Iron Dogs, since the production is a fairly granular from any point, with tracks like the title track plodding on with some more mid-paced, rhythmic sways instead of a directly dynamic, effusive Iron Mainde-esque parade of whizzing melodies and lightweight chords. In fact, in the sense that ''Curse of the Damned'' feels more thrash-based than your regular NWOBHM outfit (think early Priest, Jaguar, early Satan, etc.) I might add that Night Demon aren't performing the strictly 'purest' brand of heavy metal. But who the hell cares, right? All the convoluted scholarly blather aside, the Californians kick ass on many levels here. ''Killer'', ''Screams in the Night'' and ''Heavy Metal Heat'' are all blazing metaltastic anthems (the last one being my favorite) loaded with unabashed, peppy riff-work that's never as coarse as, say, Piledriver, but never quite 'clean' either.

Sure, you may say that the tracks on this record feel too modern compared to their roots, especially with ample production values and Brent Woodward's vibrant vocals, but the again everyone's cashing in on the production game nowadays, since audibility is far too alluring to refuse, and while a tortured, punkish scream could as well have been supplanted on some of the songs, I can't say I'm in protest of the guy's voice. However, it's not that the back-to-basics riffing coupled with the loud production doesn't create a caveat. There are 1-2 humdingers across the record, but overall I did expect a stronger array of riffs from Californians that would have complemented the airiness of the record well; in fact as a restless dreamer and formulator of imaginary case-scenarios I envisioned that ''Curse of the Damned'' could have ousted a further dozen records in similarity had it displayed some more guitar acrobatics or impressive leads like on that spectacular album Satan bequeathed us with back in 2013, and sometimes the band will lag into this Sabbathian doom groove that doesn't always comply with its naturally gritty aesthetics. This is still old school, folks. To be frank, bands like Hessian or Order of the Solar Temple are practicing heavy metal with a closer adherence to the genre's early 80's and late 70's template than Night Demon, and while everything doesn't fall perfectly here, I did enjoy this album, especially some of its dirtier tracks just as much as Rob Halford enjoys a fast ride on his motorbike, so if you're ever in the craving for nostalgia, but with a modern face, look no further.

Heavy Metal Heat
Screams in the Night
Livin' Danger

Rating: 75%

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Autokrator - Autokrator [2015]

Drone and death. Two things which would have seemed irreversibly oblique had you told me about it 20 years ago, when death metal had just gleaned its initial flourish, but here we are, at the edge of the world, listening to a French band with an album capable of satisfying followers of both genres, at least in theory. Autokrator. Oh, the autonomy. We've all had our fair share bands only too incapable of governing their own creativity and resulting in veritable travesties of musical produce, and a smaller percentage of bands which can skillfully exploit their unabashed titles and work out miracle albums, across the heavy metal spectrum. Autokrator doesn't quite belong to either camp. Simply put: there's a place, deep within the reaches of an industrial complex shrouded with clouds and gloom, perpetually fixated in production and yielding the same output with pretty much every return, coagulated in its moody ambient obsession. That's where you'll likely encounter ''Autokrator''.

Now, as much as the term 'drone/death' feels slightly alien to me, there's no denying that the Frenchmen are following a similar path to the Americans Aevangelist with their brand of irrevocable, tumultuous black/death shaking the very foundations of your cortex, or the calculated, Deathspell Omega-esque dissimilitude of Imperial Triumphant; but even so my resemblances wouldn't be entirely exact since there's a very industrial foundation to found here, not so slick or street-like as Ministry or Godflesh, but a more carefully plotted, systematic rendering of bulky, impenetrable chords redolent of Portal or Impetuous Ritual. Certainly the 'drone' is there, because Autokrator flesh out their riffs in some of the most mundane fashions I've recently heard, with dronish chord upon chord flung with unobtrusive reverb and patterned segments; yet I could also complain that between these gigantic hulks they propagate and the darkly atmosphere present, the Frenchmen aren't particularly interested in spicing their material up with detailed melodies or intricate high-end fret melodies the way their countrymen Deathspell Omega would have evoked excesses of nightmare and agony. Fuzzed out and implicitly linear, ''Autokrator'' is only slightly shy of becoming a dark marital industrial project - think In Slaughter Natives or Kreuzweg Ost - especially on the final track ''Optimus Princeps'', and as inclined the Frenchmen may be to spooning off your brain with these buzzed exhortations of sound and rhythm, I've found that none of the songs here cling to head, which isn't too surprising, but moreover, they lose their hypnotic and cranial power a little too quickly - in fact I found myself scrambling for ways to keep myself occupied by the third track.

Every track is nearly a duplicate of the other, with little or no nuance offered in between, therefore I find it silly to point out specific highlights on this record.While records of this kind are definitely difficult pills to swallow, after a acclimatization of the ears they should be taken in entire packages for the maximum, potent effect, yet ''Autokrator'' feels like a drug which loses its initial gloss of hypnosis shortly after the first injection, like a cheap, painful high. The drums here can be annoying for some. Personally I didn't have a problem with them since the sharp, industrialized snares provide with a few splotches of white in a a gossamer otherwise completely embroidered in darkness, but beyond that the cymbals were weak and the dynamics department therefore surprisingly meager. Some props go to the few ambient effects which somehow made it into an album almost completely filled with simplistic, gloomy synthesizers and hard-boiled riffcraft, giving the listener a few rare moments of breath and exploring more atmosphere than the instruments could ever hope to. As much as I sometimes enjoyed the aural and industrial punch of the rhythms from time to time, there's never enough variation to make the album worth reveling in. The majestic darkness of Deathspell Omega or Aevangelist is simply not there. The vocals, the musical equivalent of coughing out wet coals out of your asshole, are there, but even that hellish diarrhea feels unsatisfactory.

This is a record which strangely enough ticks all the boxes except for intricacy as far as this industrial black/death metal niche goes, but most of those ticks are, well... half-ticks. Unnerving, cyclical displeasure runs throughout. While one half of me wonders if this was the album those engineers and worker stormtroopers were jamming out to be while Death Star was being constructed in the midst of a spatial vacuum, the other half thinks it's probably a good idea to lay off this record, especially when there are so many other monstrous alternatives lying aground, although ''Autokrator'' still isn't terrible by any means.

The Tenth Persecution
Imperial Whore

Rating: 52%

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Nocternity - Harps of the Ancient Temples [2015]

Choosing from a not-so densely populated backlog of releases, I'd easily vie for Nocternity's 2003 ''Onyx'' and the following EP ''A Fallen Unicorn'' (2004) over any of their other releases since only with these two pieces the Greeks seem to be blessed for cultivating quality, Burzum-esque black metal epics spanning the epochs of grief, glory and crenelated medieval towers which give actually satisfying vibes. In respect to the Greek black metal scene today, Nocternity's choice to plod through a field bearing more resemblance to Burzum, Ulver and Kvist rather than Necromantia and Rotting Christ may be regarded as slightly unnatural, even though they are technically sticking to the norm with this approach, albeit one bedecked with a trademark middle-age warrior clad in silver and chain mail, and an myrmidion helmet. I have to give the band props at any rate even if their music sometimes falls short of the intended majestic effect, especially given my personal knack for pottering with such fantastical, lyrical themes as the ones the Greeks present as their thematic pastiche, with lengthy, almost poetic lyrics not unlike those of Summoning, or the verses of H.P. Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith, but as always, this only proves to be a color filter at best, and in cases like ''Harps of the Ancient Temples'', the band's third full-length, fanciful lyricism scarcely enhances the experience.

That's not to say the album's bad, because I've certainly heard worse. Only, between the rigid, almost Hellhammer-esque riffs and the dull atmospherics of an album, despite being 'relatively' short, I found myself looking for plenty of breathing space, or a few moments' escape from drudgery. Nocternity's style is really not hard to determine: they espouse these creaky traditional rasps on top of a fragile expanse of usually doom-y chords and lumbering tremolos and boom - you have pretty much the gist of the album ready. Beckoning of Scandinavia, yet also feeling intimidatingly near to a crude Eastern European counterpart, ''Harps of the Ancient Temples'' is a surprising shock value loss over the band's 2003-4 material with a much less dynamic and visceral guitar, faded ambiance, even though the band still manages to live up to its fantastical imagery through the use of mystifying, if slightly bland, synthesizer work, which feel reminiscent of Summoning's earliest work from the early 90's, and along the way simplistic influences of early Emperor, Burzum, Ulver or Ragnarok are scattered sans bombast. Much like the few Vardan records I listened to (or anything of this vein for that matter) Nocternity does a decent job of charging off into gloomy, melancholy antiquity without careening or giving the guitar a few fickle taps over the fret board, and it's admirable that they can do this with consistency, but when it comes to evocation of dolor and a battlefield abound with the phantasmagoria of fallen armies, this is as dry and as withering as a feast for crows, and appropriately too since they seem to favor the fiction of George R.R. Martin (you gotta admit, Khal Drogo is a sick pseudonym).

Granted, no one was expecting an opulent black metal masterpiece that reaches toward the stars, like those Spectral Lore records, nor some wacky avantgarde tour de force a la Hail Spirit Noir and Transcending Bizarre?, but I had my subtle hopes that this album would have at least been on a par with ''Onyx''. Lurching chords with depressed note patterns and rhythmic sways with the tempo equivalent of a trudging elephant seem suitably grim, for 1984. ''Blood Rite'' contains a few 'diversion', like minimal, meandering melody wisps that cling on to the main hull of cascading chords, and the band even digresses to a few riffs notes instead of chords for a brief instant, but it doesn't save the song. The title song (which was actually introduced back in 2007 as one of two songs in an EP) is perhaps the most memorable tune out the entire archaic grimoire, with tingling synthesizers and an actually impressive guitar solo slightly past the middle, although even that alone doesn't belong in the same league as Katavasia, Spectral Lore or Varathron in my book; whereas ''B.O.D.D'' is marginally more interesting and choral due to its ambient effects and moody sense of embitterment. Ultimately, in a growing market for Greek black metal, I'm glad that Nocternity is joining the bandwagon (sort of) in a party heading to be one of the world's best, but in that case scenario where each of these newsprint Hellenic black metal records are compartmentalized and projected into the stratosphere, you can be sure that ''Harps of the Ancient Temples'' will be among the first to start thawing shortly before disintegrating in the vast spacial expanse. You have the choice to jump back to their previous releases.

Harps of the Ancient Temples

Rating: 48%

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Seremonia - Kristalliarkki [2015]

It sometimes happens that a band on such a creative spree suddenly starts to slow down for unknown reasons, closing up their inventive faculties for a safer approach. That aside, Finland has always stood for me as a creative bastion of heavy metal, rearing an expanse of cultural marvels and oddities with frequent use of their native tongue even on records which distinctly appeal to the Westernized culture, and therefore I count myself lucky to have witnessed sundry acts like Seremonia which exemplify the kind of diverse metal tradition I talked about. Finland is an endless pool of awesome, whether your tastes lie in their murky, archaic old school death metal milieu spearheaded by bands such as Convulse, Demigod or Purtenance or the relatively more recent black metal of Horna, Sargeist and Beherit, each conjuring their unique tapestry of grimness, and Seremonia belongs to an arguably more 'hippy-centric' circle among these. Their album ''Ihminen'' was one of 2013's highlights, so I was naturally elated to find they'd released a fresh disc: coming back to what I said at the beginning of the paragraph, it's somewhat disappointing to hear that the Finns didn't exactly explode with the same bonafide panoply of ritualistic Black Sabbath psychedelia as before...

...but even though they've sacrificed some of their creativity I'd say ''Kristalliarkki'' (crystal sheet if Google translate is to be trusted) kicks ass, to say the least. For newcomers, this is a great surprise of 70's doom/rock with psychedelic influences from the same era, and the Sabbath influence obviously weighs heavily here, but there are also bits and pieces that reek of stoned Finnish mysticism and queer folk textures anointed with queer and jumpy keyboard sequences that sound quite unlike anything I've heard, except its predecessor. So you can be sure that the Finns don't dip every single riff, pattern or oomph-laden sound effect into the Black Sabbath sink, since every crevice of those morose 70's doom/stoner progressions are filtered with at least a minimal dose of 'cemetery hippy' elements, which is a term that the band uses define itself, not an inaccurate one at that. If anything, I've found the dazed 70's keyboards here more prominent than on the debut, and assuredly they have a killer handful of keyboard solos at their disposal, and perhaps than just the sheer abundance of keyboard and gummy synthesizer sequences I loved that individually they channel different emotions, ranging from the atmospheric dolor of ''Jokainen Askel'' to something jumpier.

The guitars are meatier, too, which could be a positive development depending on your point of view. They've evolved slightly from these metallic, almost tinny stoner/doom tones to something considerably fuzzier. The Finns still manage to bring a surprising variety and sparse palette of riffing on the table, be it a rambunctious twist of bluesy notes or a heavier chord, they all hit their stride. There might be a few brief windows of time where I was more fond of the overall aural presentation of the wet, cannabis-dosed graveyard than the actual riffs when one or two of them were sounding alike, but overall they sink in quite well with my ears, and in fact get tastier with each spin. Noora's vocals are just as great: I've never seen female vocalists as a caveat to heavy metal, and she's exceptionally unique with her folksy, but strangely sober voice, tailoring both the ritualistic odor of the album, and to be honest, with backing vocals, there are few parts on the album where she nearly sounds like a j-pop singer. ''Kristalliarkki'' is not all hippy metal fun time, though, which is why it's so appealing. Like ''Ihminen'', there's a dark Nordic phantasm which rules over the fuzz of the guitars, the atmosphere never quite leers out of its menacing disposition, and just about any part of the album is fit for the commencement of some cankered ritual ceremony, wearing robes and doused in dope smoke, demonstrating that the seeping influence of Black Sabbath can take twisted, unexpected forms with time.

Seremonia doesn't take many cues from post-Sabbath bands like Saint Vitus, Candlemass or Paul Chain, although anyone with genuine interest in doom or even newer doom/sludge bands promulgated so frequently by mainstream magazines and record labels which I usually tend to dislike can find something interesting here, and there are even visible distinctions between the gloomy psychedelia the Finns propagate and the more sodden sound of modern stoner/doom bands such as Conan or Solstice. A major improvement over the debut might be the abridged lengths of the songs, as the whole album is overall shorter than its predecessor. Seremonia is probably one of the most unique voices in doom metal you'll hear today. They might have cut down on some of the fundamental weirdness of their debut, and while I'd still prefer it to this album, they've managed to up their consistency with shorter tracks, balanced compositions and professional finesse, with the exception of the quirky and trippy ''Kristalliarkki I'' with its uncanny jazz leads and flute murmurs, as though a folksy anomaly out of an album by the Finns' psychedelic black metal countrymen Oranssi Pazuzu, full of enticing and murky drowsiness. I'm not going to go on and say ''Kristalliarkki'' is perfect, because it isn't. A good 15-20% of the album could have used better penning or a few escapist digressions to keep the listener in continual trance, but by the end of the record, between your lazy ass seated as you read this review and the myriad tombstones smeared with moss and half-burnt sheaves of cannabis, how many good doom metal bands exist to which you'd pay lip service to? That's what I thought. So without further ado, acquire this, and stop bitching about the Finnish lyrics.

Alfa ja Omega
Musta Liekki
Jokainen Askel

Rating: 80%

Friday, June 19, 2015

A Forest of Stars - Beware the Sword You Cannot See [2015]

Lately there's been an ongoing fetish in the black market concerning the dissection and integration of elements derived from 70's psychedelic rock bands, and to be honest, while this does not sound like a favorable coitus of genres at first, a trend which has engendered bands like Hail Spirit Noir and Oranssi Pazuzu can be hardly be chastised for lacking proficiency or being unambitious. Of course, the marriage of 70's psychedelia with black metal does require eccentricities of sorts, which is why even though we dub then as psychedelic black metal, each of these bands, as well as England's A Forest of Stars more or less enjoy a uniqueness under their own roof. A Forest of Stars' fourth offering ''Beware the Sword You Cannot See'' hits all the sweet spots for an eclectic heavy metal listener, a steampunk aficionado, a Victorian gentlemen, a comic Dickensian figure straight out of Bleak House, and a spiritualistic preacher of sorts, since it's likely to be one of the weirdest yet absorbingly idiosyncratic releases I've heard this year along with Solefald's ''World Music'', chock full of kooky inventiveness and immersive musical talent.

If you don't believe me, just have a look at the pseudonyms: one Titus Longbutter or T.S. Kettleburner certainly feels redolent of a Dickens novel, the bizarre parade of folk, autumnal psychedelia and gloomy black metal impressionism doesn't even begin there. From it's melancholy opener ''Drawing Down the Rain'' the band seems to be on the verge of a progressive black metal phantom in the mode of Enslaved with fairly simplistic melodies, but they immediately fill up the empty spaces with folksy flutes which beckons a far more pagan taste, say, similar to one Kroda, Drudkh or Arkona; but I love the fact that the group can shift through their own 7+ minute songs like quicksand, evolving once again into a hazily progressive riff and then into a meteor shower of unfrazed tremolos headed by melodic psychedelia. These Victorians are unhinged but it doesn't stop the music from evocatively drawing up imagery and queer, almost Gothic constellations and fragmentary journeys across the firmament. The opener is by far the most 'atmospheric' advent in the entire album, fostered by somber chords and almost minimalistic melody patterns, but the following two songs, ''Hive Mindless'' and ''A Blaze of Hammers'' are just as consuming pieces, and the group, thankfully does not omit a few pauses in between the marathons by adding a few stringy chords and clean guitar sequences glazed with nearly defunct violins and keyboard scores. They do take some time to get to the point, true, and not everything (especially in the first half of the album) is bound to grab you by your neck and slam you to the ground and leave you agog with sensation, but the material presented is celestial and beautiful to say the least.

Of course it would be a capital offense to exclude the vocalist Mister Curse who practically spearheads the benignly confusing effusion of sounds with his remarkable voice. We're not even talking regular singing here: he feels more as though he's reciting poetry in a remarkably 'English' manner, exquisite oratory that reminds me of Bal-Sagoth and their fantastical vocal shenanigans with similarly cosmic subjects in mind. Katheryne, Queen of Ghosts also handles female vocals here, a soothing and rich fairy-metal vox not unlike Nightwish or the operatic female vocals in Therion's later outings, but what I truly enjoy is that they supplement the harsher, brazen discourse of the male vocals with a maudlin alternative. Mister Curse, of course, engages in a more unruly inflection from time to time to complement fuzzier discharges of fairly straightforward Scandinavian tremolo work, like a well-attuned Victorian gentleman suddenly devolving into beast-mode. The second half of the album, which I probably enjoyed more than the first, is split into numerical parts. Not only are all the songs shorter in this half but they flow in and out of each other like a lengthy piece diced into smaller fragments: ''Part I: Mindslide'' begins with a moving vocal solo by Katheryne, and then into morphs into a haunting, hypnotic orgy of buzzing synthesizers redolent of John Carpenter's solo compositions and horror scores with ''Have You Got A Light, Boy?'', my favorite song on the entire album, which unfolds entirely with the words and there WAS light! before ''Perdurabo'', with its equally Gothic and alienating synthesizer swell, begins. But keep in mind that no single instrument truly steals the show here, ever. While the violins or singular keyboards may be to the fore on some of the rainier moments on the album, and the lapsing, flickering psychedelic guitar riffs during some other sequences, it's a surprisingly healthy balance of a canopy of instruments and endeavors in a rather 'unhealthy' album which makes it such a pleasure to listen to ,without anything running dry.

The sheer scope and autumnal drapery offered by ''Beware the Sword You Cannot See'' is enormous. Picturesque vistas and celestial serpents devouring their own tails. Imaginary soundscapes that could have easily fitted Mervyn Peake's masterpiece Gormenghast. The conceptual enigmas of the record, however, are just the cherry on top as far as the music goes, since this album is bound to be the new best thing for black metal, at least in my book. Not every moment is mesmerizing, and I really felt they could have trimmed the songs a little, - especially those in the first half - but the emotive, paranoid atmosphere offered, both lyrically and musically, is nothing short of delightful when it comes to the few outstanding tracks to be found, and certainly this is far more captivating tapestry of autumn leaves and starry auras than so many other 'atmospheric' black metal bands claim to possess. Instead of bludgeoning us to submission through tired, colorless monotone, these illustrious connoisseurs of the genre are inviting us into the celestial sphere and their mountable worms, alluring from a distance, beckoning with nocturnal beauty. Excellent.

A Blaze of Hammers
Virtus Sola Invicta
Have You Got A Light, Boy?
An Automaton Adrift

Rating: 87%