Thursday, October 23, 2014

Licrest - Misery

I'm going to have reviewed more Armon Nicholson albums than there are Star Wars novels before the end of my reviewing career. With Misery, the second album from his Licrest project, we once again follow Armon into the depths of what seems to be a very doomed and depleted heart. Where death doom is concerned, this is far more on the doom side, with only the vocals and a few chug chugs breaking into death metal territory. The flickering death metal influences, noticed at random across the release such as in "I Want To Watch You Die" give some attitude to what otherwise is a platitudinous and disappointing follow up to the strong Devoid of Meaning debut. Even with the strengths here being once again the lead-work and melodic play, the rest of the album feels generally unfinished. It's a seventy-percent cooked release in my opinion, especially with other elements appearing momentarily elsewhere in short spurts and not being utilized to their full potential. Misery is more stagnant than Devoid of Meaning and it kills me to say so but with some new elements appearing, perhaps it is setting the stage for an impressive third release, where integration of Licrest's death-doom sound and the string sections, pianos, and atmospheres which fleetingly reveal themselves here, will be given a stronger compositional role in the arrangements.

In addition to being a bit stagnant, Misery also drifts in and out of being less grandiose and more petty. While the lyrics aren't available in the actual physical copy of the release, similar to Devoid of Meaning - an issue which I originally voiced concern over - Armon's growls at times border on crystal clear snarls and so when choruses such as "I'd rather die than make-up with you" or the very first verse in the very first song which informs us that "You make your suffering a fucking competition" come across as angsty,  it drags the overall vibe of the release into the nether realms of amateurism. Sure, personality and a quality of individual passion are imbued, but the quality of that passion and that personality more likely than not would be perceived more in a negative manner by the audience. The lyrics throughout can be questionable but if you're critiquing the album as a window into Armon's life, maybe such insights would be important. I don't think that's the case in almost any situation though. The album can actually be viewed much like Fleetwood Mac's Rumors then: as Armon's break up album. Though I'm not too familiar with Armon's personal life, the album's contents  suggest a tumultuous existence but I know that Armon is quite a nice and genuine person to chat with and makes some awesome home-made guitars.

Anyway, I would generally characterize the album as angry yet stoic. Musically, I found this Armon's most consistent effort of any of the projects which he has sent my way. While at it's most simplistic level, we have thick, generally slow doom death riffs that crawl at a pace not much faster than Ataraxie's average speed but  some new sounds have also made themselves known. The first notable element is the clean vocals which appear in three of the eleven tracks but first show up in opening track "Regret." Throughout Misery we also hear much improved drum programming and percussion composition. Piano and strings show up in the interlude tracks "A Starless Sky" and "Fading Away Into Nothing" as well as the prologue, "Exhale." With  these new components offering a large opportunity for depth in the arrangement, it's unfortunate Armon didn't take advantage. Generally, a lot of these songs sound similar. Incorporating the strings and the piano and some additional clean vocals (maybe) could break up the monotony of Misery a bit and help differentiate between songs. As an example, "Exhale" almost feels like it should be a full length track instead of an afterthought. It has a beautifully crafted introduction with the piano and it moves into some heavier riffs but feels like it should be more than a two-minute album conclusion. The faster moments at times sound like Dark Tranquility's Damage Done such as in "Forever Lost." A lot of the material is built around the concept of the 'grand chug' which is intended to be more powerful than these chugs actually are.

I think this is overall a step backwards for Licrest but it sets the stage for what could be a great leap forward by introducing new elements to the sound but not fully incorporating them. "Like a Flood of Anger," for example, has the most unnecessary usage of one of these new elements - the clean vocals - when they are stuffed awkwardly before a chorus section which would be stronger on it's own to contrast the earlier parts of the track. The clean vocals take away from the melodic hook of the chorus, by poorly cueing the section. The clean vocals here also sound strained and not entirely confident. This is one of the few moments where Armon's technical musical ability is not up to par. As far as the rest of the instrumentation goes, his guitar playing, bass playing, growls and drumming are all done extremely well. He's done a great job on the engineering side as well and though I liked the slightly harsher feel to Devoid of Meaning better the smoother guitar tone works well and, if some of the other instrumentation were better arranged here, the less aggressive tone would have created the feeling of a decently done death doom album with Gothic overtones, a tragic theme (were the lyrics much better), and maybe captured the ears of fans of Paradise Lost's mid 90's albums. A track like "Misery" with it's big harmonized central instrumental section would be served well with building it with additional elements like the string sections and piano. The additional textures would strengthen the impact of what is intended to be dark and beautiful and would draw attention to sections that deserve attention.

Armon got the consistency and sincerity right here, even if it was at the expense of the overall album. I'm looking forward to what is next for Licrest. I think it could be a top album given the contenders around it. Keys would be to maintain the strong foundation of death doom, work on maturing the lyrical themes and better investing in details to create a complete sounding album.

Osmium Guillotine - Osmium Guillotine

Osmium Guillotine is NWOBHM worship. Riffs straight out of the early 80s - not via the 90s, but straight from the first couple Iron Maiden records with a few notes changed. There are hints of Saxon, Priest, Satan, and more NWOBHM too - this isn't amateur heavy metal worship, it's a well-honed imitation of that time in 1981-83 when Britain was overrun by amitious young bands who wanted to prove themselves to be the very best of this massive, successful wave of bands that were ripping off Iron Maiden.

At this point I trust that you get the idea that this isn't the most original band, but they're pretty good at times. There are some very energetic moments where the band hits their stride and kicks off a song hard with a good riff, like "D-Day" and "City of Chaos," but these catchy riffs are caught up in the overwhelming familiarity of it all. The vocalist is neither distinctive nor charismatic, but at least rehearsed enough to sing in the mid-range he middles in. A very middling release, as the band has some moments where they sound great, the performance and production are technically solid, but at every step they completely lack all of the tools needed to make it feel like something special.

This band is, in essence, a retro thrash band playing heavy metal. They have the riffs, the album is loaded with homages to great bands, and any 20 second clip without vocals would sound great as a 20 second clip. The problem is, the driving force behind this band is to emulate an era, a sound, a group of bands. "Into the Battle" borrows heavily from the second half of Powerslave, but it feels like the motivation isn't to tell an epic story like "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" but to make a song that has a riffs that has the same "epic" vibe as the song, while falling back on mediocre speed/thrash riffs with a mediocre vocalist over them.

This album simply doesn't have the charm, the magic of heavy metal that it emulates. It lacks character, identity, and the ability to conjure a mystique about a song. What successes it does have - some flashy and cool riffs - are diluted heavily by a lack of focus and vision in an aimless, wandering 55+ minute runtime.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Orion's Personal Sale List

This is stuff I'm selling personally. Once, again nothing to do with Contaminated Tones.

Magic The Gathering Cards: $200
I have about 200 Rares, 350 Uncommons and 2000+ Commons. Selling it only as a lot.

$3 Richard Lee Byers - War of the Spider Queen Book I: Dissolution
$3 Troy Denning - The Avatar Series Book V: Crucible
$3 Terry Goodkind - Stone Of Tears
$3 Terry Goodkind - Temple Of The Winds
$3 Terry Goodkind - Faith Of The Fallen
$4 J.R.R Tolkein - The Return Of The King
$9 Paula S. Rothenberg - Race, Class and Gender In The United States
$4 Glen Cook - The Black Company
$9 John Storey - Cultural Theory and Popular Culture
$9 Wiesner, Ruff, Wheeler - Discovering The Western Past 5th Edition

$10 Frey, Botan, Kreps - Investigating Communication

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Predatory Light - MMXIV

Most band names are just empty bravado, but that’s not the case with Predatory Light. The band’s debut demo “MMXIV” is fantastically transfixing black/doom metal that you will want to consume you as you sit quietly, frozen in place like a frightened animal. This music is so addicting that I always listen to it multiple times. Always. Granted, the two songs total less than 18 minutes, but this release still has a gripping and iron-clad sense of completeness that refuses interruptions. Blending black and doom metal, Predatory Light isn’t doing much new, but they are doing everything much better and more dynamically than the vast majority of their peers. A fair benchmark for comparison is Negative Plane - take the same top-tier quality and similar lush cascading reverb, but drop the hints of surf rock in favor of a more ponderous mood that is elegantly feathered with touches of dissonance.

An excellent drummer can make an enormous difference in almost any type of band, and Predatory Light is thankfully no exception. The percussion’s expressive intensity accents the guitar’s moods while simultaneously breathing life into repetition, making the riffs insist on being heard over and over again. This concussive variation gives Predatory Light free reign to marinate in mood and atmosphere without sacrificing even a scintilla of excitement, which is an incredibly rare and special combination. Even the exemplary plodding riff in the second song “Spiritual Flesh,” which goes on for over three minutes, is fantastic due in large part to the varied percussion. When that mesmerizing riff switches over to clean guitars, the drums keep adding flavor, making the return to distortion feel absolutely necessary. Small changes like these are clear signs of the band’s excellent overall songwriting intelligence.

Having a the ability to write an absolutely crushing riff like the one in “Spiritual Flesh” is a pretty great trick for a demo, and even for a full-length. But “MMXIV” is so much more than that. Despite what you may expect from doom metal influences, this striking demo still is peppered with vibrant energy and is even up-tempo at times. Take for example how the massive speed jump at about 1:50 into “Changing Skins” builds on the slow sinuous melodies it follows. Bold tempo changes throughout the demo make for an experience more like a hazy fever than the typical walk into a murky cave. Single notes blur into one another, yet each riff is distinct and dynamically segues into the next. Helping to tie these riffs together is the warm and round bass. Much clearer than the shimmering guitars, the bass also soaks into the mix as a superb mediator between the distant melodies and the immediate punch of the percussion. This is in contrast to the vocals, which play a minimal but apt role; the low growls and muted screams are almost background accents.

By excelling simultaneously in both atmosphere and energy, Predatory Light’s masterful debut demo is immensely satisfying and will leave you eager for more.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Fides Inferno - Correspondence

Fides Inferno’s “Correspondece” oozes with a sense of heat and vastness to that point that it’s like a sun-scorched trek into a desert - a desert that also happens to have a stadium seating view of the universe. This drone-doom-experimental album is unlike anything else out there, and is surely one of the finest example of whatever sub-genre it may fit into. Simultaneously heavy and desolate, vast but penetrating, “Correspondence” births a new musical world. Downtuned echoing acoustic guitars give off a vaguely Western feeling, but with a profoundly apocalyptic mood. If Ennio Morricone had died in a desert and then had every last molecule of his body scattered across space, this is the music those molecules would make.

While best thought of in terms of blended textures, this album is not without riffing moments or a sense of melody. That said, depth and enormity are the most prominent features, and these are achieved through a slathering of reverb, echo, and thoughtful dynamics. As echoes and quietness both reflect distances in the real world, their varied uses here imbue the music with a sense of representing a physical location - and also a sense that that place is otherworldly. Loud sounds can seem far away, and quiet ones can be close enough to be crystal clear whispers. Even the sample of running water in the intro to “Immortal Response” is paradoxical, as it does nothing to quench the sense of heat; a musical mirage.

Depth, especially on a cosmic scale, is difficult to convey - but Fides Inferno carves a musical landscape with dynamics that continually pull the listener deeper in. This isn’t just a mix between acoustic and electric guitars; the volume weaves sounds together by contracting and dilating across instruments. Few musical acts utilize even half as much dynamic variation. As an example, “Vacant,” the opening track, begins with a low drone note swelling into existence. Next, a single twangy acoustic chord rings out into strummed notes that make the album’s characteristically low and quiet growled vocals seem to arise out of nothingness. This clothes the highly minimalistic composition in a shroud of lush intertwined textures. Aside from some of the guitar work, all of the sounds here are textures rather than instruments. Vocals are rumbles, notes tumble over their own echoes, and nearly indiscernible rattles permeate the mix. Is that a cymbal, didgeridoo, a gust of wind, fret buzz, or a rattle snake? If you focus on it, the answer is clear, but unimportant to the experience.

Flaws on “Correspondence” are few and mostly minute with the exception of the song “Why Are Your Eyes So Cold.” That song, in a complete reversal of the usual course of events, is the most metal and also the weakest. It isn’t a per se problem that the song deviates from the vacant, soundtrack style. It falters by being overly repetitive and flat. Abandoning the dynamic strengths would have been forgettable enough, were it not also for the excessively long stretches of the same fast three note runs. While the album’s overall tendency to overindulge in repetition is nearly unnoticeable in light of the overflowing atmosphere, some may view it as problematic, particularly on this song.

“Why Are Your Eyes So Cold” also reveals another weakness - the dull and flat drum samples marring an otherwise vast soundscape. The percussion ends up not being a real issue because it is so sparse and nearly subsumed by other instruments. For the more minute flaws, the only one worth mentioning is how a small portion of “Immortal Response” is vaguely reminiscent of “The Streets of Cairo,” a well known song that is an irritating Eastern music cliche, but this part ends quickly. Despite these minor issues, “Correspondence” is still a powerhouse of an album.

Clocking in at around 35 minutes, this album is absolutely necessary for anyone looking to spice up their drone, doom, or ambient music with something enjoyably engaging yet comprised almost entirely of atmosphere. Fides Inferno is one of the few bands that can successfully balance the two in such a minimalistic setting. With a foreboding vastness contrasted against reflective quiet that persists long enough to delve into bleakness, “Correspondence” also deftly dances with varying volumes to manifest sounds into a physical, alien, world. The central question is, do you enjoy echoes that cascade across the entire universe before hitting your ears? Well in the case of “Correspondence,” you really should.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Kaarmekristus - Saturnaalinen Siunaus

I respect artists' desire for privacy. In the black metal world, that goes a long way sometimes. A couple years back, I had the pleasure of reviewing Ajan Lopun Alku, the debut demo from Ophiuchus' project Kaarmekristus. It had ups, it had downs, but it was personal and pure black metal through and through. Ajan... was finer than most of the ephemeral promos that get emailed to me and forgotten about. I had forgotten about the tape for almost a year or two when two more Kaarmekristus demos landed on my doorstep. The first was Cosmic Satan. Also included was a second tape, Saturnaalinen Siunaus, an unreleased demo which was sent out to a few people Ophiuchus apparently likes. 

The album translates to "Saturn Blessing" or "Blessing of Saturn" - I'm not an expert in Finnish in any way but I can admit to be well versed in the language of black metal. This release is dedicated to fellow countrymen IC Rex and is similarly frigid and cold in vibe. Kaarmekristus has improved in some areas on this release even if it isn't meant for mass consumption. The songwriting is a bit more convoluted and intricate and less static compared to Ajan Lopun Alku. Stylistically then, the similarities to the release it claims to be a tribute to are keen.

The production is rough for a normal / average listener. Lo-Fi fans would have a feast with this if they could get their hands on it  as it is all the perfection we seek - rough hewn guitars, miserable vocals and general sloppiness in sound at times. It feels as natural as if one were actually in a rehearsal where perfection is forfeited for emotion. Ophiuchus is still influenced by others and the initial Darkthrone and Beherit respect is shown in the two unnamed tracks. Opening with an ambient intro before the track takes off, the first salvo is the longer of the two but the second quicker track is where Kaarmekristus shines. More unique, with a spoken lyrical style that carried through the composition which sports an apocalyptic and sullen atmosphere over the scraping guitars. Unfortunately, at only a eight minutes long, this tape is over too quick.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

News - September

A quick news update because of a bunch of stuff going on. First, the Crypter tapes are out so be sure to grab one for some kick-ass Celtic Frost / Hellhammer inspired thrashin' madness! The tapes came out great (as was to be expected) and the band will have a bunch of copies before the month is out.

The next live release is under construction but may not be out until October. I have a bit of work to do with it before I want to announce it. It's going to be excellent though.

The main reason for the delay is that I really want to focus on getting all the other stuff laying around added to the distro list. I had several packages come in this week that I'm working into the distro and I'm announcing what is being added on the facebook page so that's really the best way to stay on top of what is getting thrown in with the rest of the items for sale. This is also the reason why I haven't posted many new reviews. My time has really been focused with beefing up the store with new product. Once that's all added in, you'll see a flurry of new reviews from me - I have about five or six written that need to be typed up and posted. Hopefully, Apteronotus and Steve will be able to hold you over with reviews while I finish adding all the new stuff to the store.

I also may be doing a "sale" of some sort later in the month to coincide with a week I will be unavailable but more info on this later. For the last week, however, I will not be around so please don't get antsy / upset  / impatient if you email me and do not receive a response. I will respond to all emails the first week of October.

 Additionally, please buy stuff! Money is getting tight and I have some excellent planned releases for late this year / early next year that I won't be able to do without stuff being sold. Spread the word about the label / releases / distro so I can keep putting stuff out. Support the underground, support the hardworking bands that kill themselves each night. I can only do so much without support from all of you!

Monday, September 1, 2014

Kognitiv Tod - Mysteries

Like an abandoned house in the middle of the woods, Kognitiv Tod is a quaint, even rustic black metal solo project whose debut release “Mysteries” is oddly addictive. On the surface level there is plenty not to like. Each and every one of the tones is frumpy, dry, and almost shoddy. This escapes even the usual charms of raw black metal because of the surgically clean and dry approach. Beyond that, the music is very straightforward and minimalistic, taking cues from Burzum with the riffing and overall song structure. Despite not quite being amateur, “Mysteries” tonal quality also gives the release an abrasive atmosphere to the extent that Kognitive Tod doesn’t superficially feel similar to the hypnotic atmosphere of Burzum (amazing how minimal reverb can majorly change very familiar black metal paths.) Given the overall sound quality and minimal heaviness, “Mysteries” comes almost half way to being similar to “Dauði Baldrs,” certainly poor company, but it is still weird enough to be an obvious musical outlier.

What makes these simple melodies so addictive however is the clever and dynamic use of counterpoint. Even transposing a melody to a different voicing, whether it be guitar or synth, and layering it in unanticipated ways allows a few songs to worm their way into the listener’s memory. Contrasting these powerful glimpses of songwriting is the bone-dry flavor that makes it seem like the drums aren’t the only programmed instrument. Still, it works. Instruments jumping in and out to double up on melodies or diverging to accent the harmony help to overshadow what would otherwise be irritatingly dry aspects like the sound the guitar pick hitting the strings. Sadly, the top-notch counterpoint that lends the album a lasting richness also makes up the vast bulk of its charm. This is a problem because only a paltry three of the nine tracks on “Mysteries” heavily rely on that technique: the excellent “Inviolate…” “Dysphoric…” and “Indomitable…”

Apart from these highlight tracks, the album is plainly flat and a rather tepid experience. While these songs make the others stronger in the context of an album format, they aren’t enough to make the entire release particularly strong. To be specific, these three songs all have killer guitar counterpoint riffs. While there is guitar counterpoint elsewhere, it is less frequent and weaker because one melody is typically just a flat background progression. Even in the overall dry vibe the vocals and drums both can be especially tough to swallow and are each used very narrowly. The programmed drums are stripped down to little more than sinew and the vocals are heavily processed and compressed to the point where they have no range in volume or attack. Moreover, there is minimal vocal variation with speed, rhythm, or pitch. Synths however work as a countervailing factor by lightly gluing the mix together while also subtly enriching it.

As the album is so counterpoint dependent, it would be nice to see the project delve deeper into that avenue. Pursuing richer and fuller tones, especially with the drums and vocals, would also help to propel the project onto a very strong path, but the true strength is within the addictively off kilter layers of melodies. Jangling without necessarily being dissonant or angular, these strong moments make “Mysteries” well worth listening to. Given that the project has three similarly situated 2014 full-length releases, Kognitiv Tod is clearly in need of a paring knife; “Mysteries” could have been a strong demo. As a closing side note, it is also surprising that the music is weirder than the cover art, which says a lot because the cover art is a progeria-stricken gentleman, circumscribed with golden hoops, giving a depressed black-robed wizardly man an enema. Weird indeed.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Nocturnal Abyss - From the Depths of Mörkvod

Nocturnal Abyss is a band steeped in the morbid glory of old black metal. The influence of Darkthrone, Les Legions Noires, and more recent Finnish black metal couldn't be more apparent. This strives for those harsh aesthetics, the ugly picture those sounds painted. It's more than apparent, it's overt. It's a pretty rough line to tread, and it falls firmly on one side.

Noctir's vocals lead the music - they're on top of the treble part of the mix, like a less drawling Meynach, or like later Darkthrone but less froggy. The vocals find a certain voice, not a unique one, but a convincing and sufficient throaty tone that works well for him. Noctir hardly has any competition for nice things to say about this album though. One guy plays all of the instruments, and it seems like the moderate success of the vocals is overwhelmed by the complete failure of all of the instrumentation and songwriting. This basically boils down to the guitars, which strive to be but fail to be much more than the frail backbone that is the rhythm section.

The guitars bask in a mildly abrasive harshness, an unabashedly blank texture for black metal. The riffing wanders between a few different emulations of styles with little direction, no transitions within a structure, and basically no driving structure behind it. One part doesn't build up to the next part, it doesn't flow, there are no directional dynamics to the song structure. It sounds like a series of riffs inspired by other bands linked together with no preconceived intent, no greater structure, and no purpose whatsoever. There is no sense of nuance, no accentuation nor structural variation to give the music movement.

There are stylistic cues that the band hints at, but fails to grasp. Much of the album is slow-to-mid-paced, which sets up the potential for aggressive and jarring riffs like early Gorgoroth. Tonal variations of the traditional wide-interval black metal tremolo riff could build and release tension. Off-kilter tremolo riffs could conjure the weepy Mutiilation sound. Slow could be contrasted to fast, consonant to dissonant, vocals trade the lead with guitar. To be fair, I think Noctir tries that last one and the guitar just sounds so shitty that it doesn't work. The guitarist's phrasing is so sloppy that every riff here sounds like a kid trying to play along with riffs while hitting the notes but having absolutely no phrasing, no sense of nuance, and absolutely no sense of the emotion that was expressed through the original. It's a Mutiilation aesthetic with the emotional depth of pizza thrash.

This is a Soulseek safari through black metal; bred in captivity, presented as wild.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Countress - Ov Sin

Countress is a dark, occult-inspired band reminiscent of Integrity and Doomriders. The dark and straightforward nature of the heavy music screams holy terror, while the simple and groovy riffs are reminiscent of the faster doom-inspired stuff like later High on Fire. The aesthetic is surely inspired by A389-style hardcore, a heavy dose of doom metal, and the extreme side of rock and roll, as Tom G. Warrior described Celtic Frost. Though I name a plethora of apparent influences, the band's style is quite coherent, just hard to pinpoint. That's a good thing.

The songs and album are well structured, they feel natural and jammy, very heavy and groovy. The band knows how to find a groove and work into it - they're so good at this that the dark aspect to the music gets lost pretty easily. Heavy grooves, reminiscent of NOLA sludge, strong enough to make Kvelertak look like wusses. One songwriting quirk does stand out - their tendency to make some abrupt transitions from the more aggressive hardcore style to the groovy dark stoner stuff. While they blend those two pretty well, they haven't quite found a perfect synergy. The middle five tracks find that doom-n-roll style pretty well, which is where the Doomriders comparison comes from. The vocalist even lightens up a bit while maintaining his similarity to Dwid Hellion of Integrity. The first and last tracks, however, are where the band finds their darker side, very reminiscent of Integrity, Ringworm, and Pulling Teeth. These songs are much more intense, harder driving, and perfectly representative of the band's dark aesthetic. The bookending leaves me feeling that the band could have had a much more focused sinister intent here, and perhaps that's something they should explore.

Bottom line, Countress are a good band and this is a good album. It speaks to its notability that it's a bit hard to categorize and compare to other bands. If you like anything I've mentioned in this review, give it a listen, it's worth your time.