Thursday, October 31, 2013

Nolentia - May the Hand that Holds the Match that Will Set This World on Fire Be Blessed Above All

Nolentia’s “May the Hand...” is an album that is as musically tight as its title isn’t. At around a half hour long the French death metal/grindcore band offers up a surprising amount of interesting ideas in a well-focused package. Even with only 4 of the 17 songs cracking the two minute mark, the band manages to blend ideas and entire songs well with one another, completely avoiding the feeling that can happen with such releases where it seems like a band has just a handful of unrelated ideas. By the time you near the work’s end and hear “The glorious march of progress” you can really notice this overwhelming sense of cohesion through the separate songs. This cohesion continues on to the very end of the album because of how well the latter songs meld in with the one another. A strong flow like this makes for really effective pacing, which isn’t always easy to achieve with 17 different songs in such a relatively short time. Even earlier in the album the band pays keen attention to timing, “Encoded” flows perfectly into “Wright” and the mid-section songs are a slightly slower middle act to give the listener a brief reprieve from the churning violence.

With a clear sense for songwriting Nolentia has no use for gimmicks or ornate musical ideas, “May the Hand...” is interesting simply because it is crushing and has meaty riffs. Nothing here will be overwhelmingly original or groundbreaking, its just good. Strongest among all songs on the album, “Et in acedia ego” pulls no punches when it comes to that eminently important meatiness factor. Screeching unhinged guitar riffs that pull away from a thick percussive bass that is crunchy enough to not need the guitars anyway. Other bands take note, this is how a bass with facial hair sounds. I only wish that the bass player was more inclined to speak up in the other songs since it sounds so damn awesome. This don’t need to include attempts to get fancy, but it would be nice to hear something like having the guitars go a bit higher every so often in order let the bass have a temporary dictatorship over the low-end.

In “Et in acedia ego,” as elsewhere on the album, you can hear how focused the band is on strong rhythms and downbeats. Occasionally, “May the Hand...” has the drums choke out this rhythmic sense by being too busy and concealing the natural punch some of the melodies have. This is a mix between too must blasting and keeping the same beat while the riffs change in rhythm. Usually though the drums, guitars, and especially vocals all line up together to unleash a battery of music. It is pummeling, which should be unsurprising given that there is a predominance of grindcore influence, although songs sometime structurally feel hinged around death metal ideas. Take for example “The boiling frog principle” which doesn’t have an abundance of mostly death metal riffs, yet still feels like it due to very first riff and the jagged transitions throughout.

One significant weakness is the upper register vocals. These higher pitched yips are really grating and whiney, but nothing unusual for the style. Despite not liking how they sounded I still appreciated how Nolentia varied the vocal styles while keeping an eye on balance. Switching off one style to another and then screaming together can be much more interesting than a more monotonous approach. Even with one of the voices being fairly poor, the two combined simultaneously manage to be stronger than either individually. Fortunately, when there is only one vocal line the gutturals effectively dominate as they often carry a melody rather than only a rhythmic punch. Moreover, the gutturals are much thicker and have more musical presence so anytime they appear it is much more noticeable. The higher vocals in contrast are dynamically flat and partly like they are the product of studio magic, there isn’t a sense of strain or volume in their delivery.

Nolentia closes off the album with “The second principle,” which unsurprisingly could be thought of as the second half of “Better” because they transition so well despite the closing track being much slower than the rest of the music. Another strong part of “The second principle” is how it has such a powerful sense of finality. The slow and steady tempo helps create a stability to bring the ending into focus, tremolo picked notes make a wall of sound that even out the rest of the album’s rhythmic thrashing. Best of all is the very ending, as things get progressively louder and distorted there is no questioning that this is the crushing finale. Not personally being into shorter songs, I didn’t think I would like this much. While the longer songs were on average stronger, this is really just coincidence because so many of the songs seamlessly meld together. This is an album with enough direction to almost make it narrative. Nolentia has a bright future and would be excellent if they allowed the bass take the lead more often, eased up on the drums, and worked on the higher pitched vocals. This would help the band’s songwriting swell up to the musical size the band deserves.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Sacred Gate - When Eternity Ends

Sacred Gate's debut album, When Eternity Ends, a very acceptable record for the style of Heavy Metal which this German outfit produce. While there is in fact very little to set Sacred Gate aside from numerous other acts, they competently perform an album which is half Iron Maiden gallop and half mid-80's Accept without the notable riffage of the later or the songwriting and twin guitar attack of the former. Regardless, bands of this ilk are difficult to appease my love of the Heavy Metal art form which has been over-tilled like a field in the midwest during the dust-bowl. As average as Sacred Gate is on this album, there are some take-aways to mention. While two or three tracks offer some interest, all of the tracks including those that are better than average lack serious depth. The album was put together nicely and the layout, the production and the sound quality are all extremely professional however it doesn't hide the music's general flavorlessness. When Eternity Ends is like watching a carpenter build a chair that functions perfectly but no one would want to put in their house because he made it out of pressure treated two-by-fours.

The key word with Sacred Gate's When Eternity Ends once again is depth. It's not just limited to Sacred Gate of course. Plenty of modern bands lack this necessary attribute to propel an album from average to above average or better. Depth, as it relates to Heavy Metal can be found in rhythmic variety, melodic variance, harmonizing and playing against other instruments - especially the bass guitar - but there is none of that here. Sacred Gate rarely deviate from typical chugging in common time or triplet Maiden-esque sections. When Peter Beckers, whose bass playing is technically very good on this album, simply follows along predictably against all this - even if he does little fills here and there (all within the 'box') - it sets the album for a very mundane trip down Heavy Metal lane. Melodically, there is also nothing beyond what's presented immediately to the listener. It's all very novice structuring of chord progressions. The album is a great exercise for intonation practice for those that are not good with figuring out notes by ear. I know because I have terrible intonation and it was enjoyable to play along to the tracks to see if I could pick out notes and progressions. When opportunity arises for Sacred Gate to inject some harmonization or dueling leads into the tracks, it never arrives. Halfway through the title track the band goes about twenty seconds after one of the choruses where nothing happens and the rhythm guitars are very thin sounding. This would have been a great place to incorporate some variation or harmonization to build up to the lead afterwards.

More positive recognition goes to the effort put into crafting memorable leads on the album. Nicko Nikolaidis really rips it up in many of the songs with great leads and solos. "The Realm of Hell" for example sets up a kick-ass tapping solo with some finely crafted off-key bends and slides even if underneath this is the limpest rhythmic backing I've heard in a long time. The lead in "Freedom or Death" is also very good and this one has a better backing to it of marching snare drums. Another high point for me was Jim Over's vocals which were really strong across the album. I could see him being really animated and emotional in a live setting with these tracks. His voice has a slight waver which doesn't really come close to a vibrato but it's not totally stiff either. The added bit of sandiness and flex his voice offers is also unique. It's not really similar to a lot of other singers I've heard and that makes the vocals endearing to me. I touched upon the clarity and production value earlier but I'll just note again that it's well done. The guitars are crisp and sound like there has been very little post-production work on them. The drums are set back a little too much for my taste but they are clear and audible. The kick and snare are discernible and with the punchy bass tone and honest guitars, the rhythm side of things are well taken care of. Strangely, the lead tone sounds a lot like the lead tone which Orlok has used lately on the recent Countess albums. Unfortunately Orlok makes no appearance here. That would have made my night.

If you have to ask me, the second half of this disc is better than the first four tracks. Starting with "Freedom or Death," the album seems to take a slightly darker, more foreboding feel. "Freedom..." is the first track that has some more layered riffs and melodic stuff going on. It's essentially a ballad - something the Europeans love - and seems to be the track which Metal on Metal decided to go with as a single as it shows up on the Compendium of Metal Vol. 7 compilation. The song is well written and picks up later on with some leads and solos, touched upon earlier which give the track a bit of life and energy. "In The Heart of the Iron Maiden," shares similarities with "Freedom or Death" and the two pair well to create the best ten minutes on the release. These tracks are slightly more solemn and important sounding. Once the obnoxious intro and bridges in "Vengeance," which sound like plucking splinters out of your eardrum, are over, there are few terrible moments to follow. The final twelve minutes are pretty enjoyable Heavy Metal but Sacred Gate have to recognize they are doing very little to make me want to listen to them instead of listening to something with more personality and heft.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Johansson & Speckmann - Sulphur Skies

The percentage of projects which Rogga Johansson is involved in that sound like every other project which Rogga Johansson has been in is over one hundred percent. I don't even need to listen to this release to know what it's going to sound like. Remarkably, people flock to the dude like fifty year old metal fans flock to Iron Maiden concerts. Much like Iron Maiden, Rogga has been doing the exact same thing forever, is unabashed about it and doesn't seem like he has any interest in anything other than the Swedish death metal which he pumps out like an overworked assembly line that's been making the same product regardless of quality for aeons. In reality, I have no problem with any of Rogga's music. It's very good to use as a baseline for measuring Swedeath. It's perfectly average. It's pretty fundamental stuff that you really can't hate, even if we can be honest about it's redundancy. Paganizer has made appearances in Contaminated Tones several times already and the verdict was similar to my opinions here. Humanity Delete also ran into some problems but was a better effort. Johansson and Speckmann, is the same message, the same style that we've come to love or be bored by and offers the same thing we either love or are bored by, but with Paul Speckmann on vocals.

Preface out of the way, I'll make note of some of the stuff that I really did enjoy. One thing which Sulphur Skies has going for it is in fact Speckmann, whose vocals are pretty good on the release and offer a bit of differentiation and interest. At times the words at the end of phrases trail off in, what I imagine to be, a stream of dribble down his beard. I wouldn't be surprised if somewhere behind the curly grey quills escaping from his face like prisoners jetting out of a POW camp, is John Tardy. There is no comparison here to Speckmann's bitterness and emotion in Master or Death Strike but Speckmann never seems tired or bored. He must be one of those guys that just unconditionally loves death metal. Still, the tracks here emit a certain level of timidity which ensconces the release in the kind of aura which you would find above a man painting his house with a toothbrush or hovering next to a seventeen year old in a first grade math class. Even some of the longer screams are not nearly vicious enough. Some other notable moments are the various leads that appear throughout the release. The first of which, several notes held out over the dross death metal underneath, comes into focus near the end of second track "Spiritual Wasteland," and again in third track "Taste the Iron," a song which I imagine has a lot to do with laundry. Slower moments on Sulphur Skies rekindle those memories of hearing Into The Grave for the first time. In my case, it made me actually put on the classic album instead of listening to Johansson And Speckmann. You can't argue with classics and this just emphasized what Sulphur Skies is missing - the evil.

If I had to pick out a highlight, it would be title track "Sulphur Skies." The one track summarizes the entire release. It's a blitzing beast of predictability and Rogga-riffs. The main recurring verse phrase is rather awesome and memorable. The lead at the end is well situated. The drumming of Brynjar Helgetun is precise and compliments his old compatriot Rogga. If I had to pick out a final lowlight, it would be the pacing of this album, also an issue with many other Johansson led releases. It's twelve tracks, all basically exactly the same length, with similar structures and not a huge amount of differentiation between tracks other than the occasional memorable intro riff. "Vile Stench and Decay" is one such track with a memorable introductory riff. At it's heart, this is a death metal fan's album. If you're the kind of person who has no restraint when it comes to Death Metal, you'll probably love this. If you like death metal that is complex, difficult and unique, there is none of that here and for that reason, it's not my chalice of blood.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Cvinger - Monastery of Fallen

Picture a Mustang Cobra with flames gracelessly adorning the sides. It's pretty tacky, but still badass enough be tolerable. Now remove the Mustang’s engine from your mental image and suddenly things aren’t so tolerable - you now have a solid grasp on how Cvinger’s works as a band. They have all the style, body, and framework for really excellent aggressive black metal, but the band can’t move anywhere because there is no power. The notes in the riffs never seem to lead to anywhere, but merely linger around the same pitches without noticeably raising or falling. Drums crash with relentless violence, but without ever feeling like they are driving forward. Every moment of music clamors for your attention creating a clashing white noise like countless screaming sports fans at a game, no individual has any character of its own. No riff is memorable. The band also fails to understand how contrasting rests or tempo changes within a song can make faster parts sound all the more aggressive. A rare and perhaps the sole exception to this can be heard in about two minutes into the titular track “Monastery of Fallen” where a slower section with a trilled note really emphasizes the fairly unrelated speed that immediately follows it. Overall though, the music is just far too monotonous. What’s also completely missing from this EP is that special feeling you get when listening to metal, where you absolutely need the next note to happen because the riffs simply command it to. Cvinger never achieves this momentum, so all we are left with is the facade of aggressive black metal - speed, but its empty, bloated, and hamstrung.

The most accurate comparison I can think of would be a bloated, “modern”, and watered down version of Zyklon-B’s “Blood Must Be Shed” but perhaps a more recognizable way to convey the same idea would be to just mention Marduk. That too may be overly generous. Essentially, Cvinger is fast but doesn’t have much else going on, this mustang is mostly a one-trick pony. But there is another major problem here, the one-trick pony ponderously gazes into the mirror and becomes somewhat self-aware of its limitations. It thinks “I know I am a fast pony, but deep in my horse heart I also know that there is more to me than that. I am a sophisticated pony.” The musical side-effects of this equine introspection are severely out of place interjections of Gregorian chants and sloppy acoustic guitar breaks titled as “Chapter[s]”. In an undisguised attempt to sound varied, the band ends up bloating the EP’s sense of speed, which also kills the bulk of the band’s identity. With around 20 minutes of music this bloat takes up around 5 minutes, a substantial blow to pacing that is further amplified by the fact that the intro and outro tracks are both devoid of metal. Clearly there is nothing wrong with trying to vary music and break up the pacing of an album to be more interesting, but this is not the way to go about it because the band still sounds monotonous. Firstly, the filler tracks are so musically unrelated to the heavier party that they serve only so disconnect the EP. Secondly, these tracks suffer from the same songwriting problems as the other songs, no sense of direction or power. “Chapter 2 Of Ashes and Dust” is a very glaring example of this. While that song’s stripped down acoustic melody may be stylistically different from most of the music, its simplicity provides an obvious reminder of the Cvinger’s weaknesses as a whole - the band needs a songwriter.

DarkBlack - Midnight Wraith

DarkBlack's debut LP, Sellsword was a great blending of late 70's early 80's Heavy Metal which pulled a lot of influence and inspiration from Thin Lizzy and wrapped it up in a box that conjured hints of Slauter Xstroyes. With Midnight Wraith, DarkBlack have dropped a some of the heavier elements of that album and some of the more intricate riffs, streamlined the style and incorporated a more decisive approach to what they want DarkBlack to sound like. In this case, it's a heavy dose of more Thin Lizzy a long with some of the sharpness and vibe of Diamond Head. DarkBlack don't simply milk old cows though. Comparisons to less referenced bands like Blackfoot fall well within range of the band's overall sound and with both Sellsword and also with Midnight Wraith these classic influences are plastered all over the band's riffs and sound. Highlighting these early Heavy Metal influences are guitar tones which would fit right at home at that period of time. The guitars are crisp and clear, very natural and bright while the bass is clunky and solid thump that stands out easily against the bright guitars. You can hear the sliding of fingers, plucks of strings and subtle (im)perfections that make appearances all over the place. It's a no bullshit recording.

Tim Smith's vocals are one thing which I don't yet fully love. I don't loathe them either. I just wish they were a little clearer. He's got a good voice and a good delivery but just as on Sellsword they are a bit buried on Midnight Wraith. It's difficult to really distinguish words. There is a hefty amount of reverb on them which seems in direct conflict with the clearness of the instrumentation. The emphasis is clearly on this aspect of the band - the instrumentation - and it hurts a bit because great vocals have to be present to make a release like this stand out. With so much throwback to those early years of Metal, a period when having a great vocalist was imperative and having great vocals on albums was such a huge part of what made bands like Thin Lizzy and Judas Priest and Rainbow famous, for DarkBlack, this is a segment of their music that needs some work. Tim isn't a bad vocalist either. I don't know why they would hide him in the background as they have.

Either way, the songs on this album are all really enjoyable. Opening track "Doom Herald" is immediately memorable, ear catching and tone setting for the rest of the EP. Even though overall, the five tracks have more of a Hard Rock feeling than the debut LP, they are nowhere near that cusp of ballessness and boredom which so many bands that try this style find themselves at. I think of a band like Riggs, whose full length album was god-awful hard rock but their track Radar Rider on the Heavy Metal movie soundtrack was killer hard rock, borderline metal. It's like that. DarkBlack are Radar Rider. They are the exception and not the rule. DarkBlack find ways of highlighting moments of harmonies with the perfect underlying notes such as halfway into "Doom Herald" or during the solo section of "Golden Idol" when you get this great sweeping tingle of melody and harmony in one fell swoop or an unexpected collaboration of melodies.

Though "Power Monger" and "Golden Idol" have their moments, "...Idol" in particular, the final two tracks are the best here. "Midnight Wraith" is just a bit rougher and just a bit more dark though and is the best song here. The refrain or chorus sections build up some pressure and tension and when drummer Eben Travis pounds through sections of the song, it sounds like he's putting his drumsticks straight through the snare and the beater through the kick. It's hard and vicious for a band that for the most part keeps it cool and concise. With "Broken Oath," DarkBlack open with the most memorable harmonization and melodies on the release. Tim's vocal lines are a bit more fluid on this track too. Midnight Wraith ends strong and opens strong. It shows a band that might be heading on a collision course with awesomeness.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Scythe - Beware The Scythe

I don't know what it is about Scythe's Beware The Scythe but no matter how many times I try and listen to it, I just find myself wandering off. It's not that the album is bad - because it's not - I just find myself having a hard time paying attention past two or three songs. Maybe it's the genre, or rather blending of genres. It's a bit of thrash and a bit of black metal but moments are also quite rock and roll. It's what Midnight would sound like if Midnight wasn't so focused on speed metal. And if the riffs were more mediocre. I guess one of the closest comparisons of Scythe's style would something like Witchery though not their better two early albums like Dead Hot and Ready or Restless Dead. Scythe is closer to the less aggressive Symphony for the Devil. Never once do Scythe break out some of the really killer riffs though. At times Scythe launches into more blackened sections similar to the Czech Avenger but they don't provide enough opportunity for atmosphere to build either. It's a really difficult and middle-of-the-road style which has never really appealed to me. A lot of people may compare them to Aura Noir. It's appropriate, maybe, but there is no similarity in quality.

Album opener "The Iron Witch" sounds like two or three different bands at times, hinted at previously. The production is modern, crisp and well done and emphasizes the sharpness which Scythe might be aiming at with their riffs. In general, the thrashier riffs are cut-and-dry. There is no looseness. Everything is tighter than the center of a rubber band ball. The static guitar tone leaves plenty of room for the bass guitar to stand out. It's probably the best track on the album. "Mastermind" contains more give-and-take riffing; plodding series of chugs in a more call and response fashion. The back and forth is at times taxing on the nerves. Title track "Beware the Scythe," provides the first hint of experimentation and left-field inclusion when half way through the band jumps into a Fireball Ministry esque mid-tempo groove riff complete with Stoner Doom vocals and lead. One review I saw mentioned Black Label Society in this regard. That's a proper comparison as well. It's at this point where I usually feel the tug of my waning attention span which I've come to learn can be extremely short. It's strange that even though the songs include variations and different personalities, it's all very bland. The opening four tracks are great foundations of songs, but there is very little additional detail added to make repeated listenings justified.

The final five tracks pick up basically, where the first five tracks leave off, stylistically, however there seems to be more attention paid to detail at points. Some leads, overdubs and subtle melodic movements make these tracks more promising from the band. "Planet of the Humans" in particular shows some additional effort added with some atonal ringing guitars to contrast against the riffs. It's one of the better moments on the release but it's too late and too little. The rest of the track concludes with few notable moments. One of the more subtle issues with which the band struggles happens to be the syncopation prevalent in all their tracks. There is a general argumentative feel within all the riffs that, frankly is annoying. The prominence of this inert tough-guy rhythmic swell hidden behind the whole album really monotonizes and dulls the entire release. Scythe, should they find a way to channel that feel in measured restraint, could separate themselves in a more positive light. Some may argue that it adds some originality and definition to the band to separate them from everything else. Maybe. I just find it annoying when it's present in every song.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Court Tavern - Bible Thumper Pictures

Some pictures from Bible Thumper's set at the Court Tavern last weekend:


Friday, October 4, 2013

The Lumberjack Feedback - Hand of Glory

I sat down to listen to this EP and instead of a casual listen, I intended to pay attention to every last note in a feeble attempt to immerse myself in the music. As I listened, “Hand of Glory” started off with a thunderous intro of dynamic drums with both guitars and bass having jealousy-inducing tones, just like it had during my previous listens. This time though, something strange happened. I was focusing on the music and found myself enveloped. A slow creeping wave came over my body as note after note sustained outward to create endless surges of aimless buildup. Blackness started to consume me as the almost tribal pounding of the drums gangled about the two long instrumental songs. The rich tonality of the EP swirled about, and I drifted away. I drifted right into a damn nap. This EP honestly put me to sleep. Asleep at a time when I was going out of my way to stay alert. “Hand of Glory” is the kind of music that requires listeners to force themselves to experience. Everything is so monotonous and flat that it simply can not command any attention. Instrumental metal isn’t inherently a problem, but the band makes it one here because none of the instruments volunteer to take up the conspicuous melodic role usually filled by vocals. Guitars serve this purpose with more extreme genres of metal, but here they are just a backdrop. Everything feels like background noise. Aside from the very first moment where the song starts in one speaker and then suddenly doubles up, the EP is extremely predictable. Take for example the chord progression from around 3:50-4:30 in “The Dreamcatcher.” Almost even before it starts you know its destination, its nowhere.

With excellent production and beautiful sounding instruments The Lumberjack Feedback was off to a good start. However, the songs are simply overwhelmingly boring. After about two minutes into “A Whisper To The Thunder,” the band almost manages a good riff with the soaring guitar over the soporific chugging. But, for The Lumberjack Feedback to fill the shoes of their obvious influences like Pelican and Isis it will take more than just good equipment and one almost good riff. Bad sludge metal is like bad thrash in this way, everything ends up sounding really similar and formulaic. In the same way that you can’t tell one song’s feel or emotion from the other, each section within each of the two songs fails to convey anything. Maybe it is a metaphor, the band sends people tumbling downward into sleep in the same way that lumberjacks knock down trees. Plodding forgettable riffs as chainsaws, boring boring away at you with the same rarely-wavering rhythm of a small engine. After feeling that the band never once changed their tempo, I consciously checked and realized that they actually had, which means that they managed to change speed without having ever appeared to. Musically breaking the laws of physics. The EP is all just one constant buildup and is lacking the kind of tension and resolution you can get out of bands like Isis. This is metal elevator music, so while its really tiresome and fades into the background, it isn’t overtly awful unless you are trying to enjoy it for its own sake.