Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Cult of Fire - Ascetic Meditation of Death

At its heart, Cult of Fire’s “Ascetic Meditation of Death” is a normal black metal album and no amount of Hindi language, sitars, or chanting to Kali change that here. With that in mind, the album is still solid. The band doesn’t need anything special or unique to make good music, yet they manage to thoroughly incorporate some unorthodox sounds into the album. This isn’t like how garbage food marketed to children will often be the same thing as adult garbage food, but shaped like a tiger riding a surfboard or have a different color just for novelty’s sake. While having a fair amount of Hindu influence in their atmospheric styled black metal probably makes the band more marketable, Cult of Fire does more than just add a childish sprinkling of these influences. These elements are enjoyable and well blended, yet the band’s songwriting is still the true engine and that engine is black metal. “Ascetic Meditation of Death” likely could have just as easily had Cajun or Ainu influences if the band put their efforts in another direction. This is in contrast to bands like Melechesh or Negură Bunget, whose differentness and instrumental decisions are an integral part of their music. Cult of Fire’s strength comes primarily from a sense of atmosphere that doesn’t require overindulging in repetition. Naturally, their major weakness on this album is the tendency to stray from that strength and make lazy jam-band styled songs.   

Vocals here are similar to what you might hear from Agalloch, but with a harder driving edge and a more than ample varnish of reverb. This isn’t entirely surprising, given the blurry intersections between post and atmospheric flavors of black metal. Cult of Fire does a good job straddling those influences. On the post side: the seventh track has crystalline high soaring melodies, the eighth track could be some kind of “inspirational” new-age mediation song (not a compliment), and the fourth’s mood is nothing short of a contemptibly triumphant Hindu themed black metal sports montage. Despite all of this, the band never completely looses that sense of black metal grandeur for too long, where many similar bands devolve into limp-wristed post-rock. Yes, the tonal quality is warm, especially with the rounded off bouncy bass and flamboyant organ, yet the mood remains stern for much of the album. This happens because of the band’s overall sense of direction can include upbeat detours and rich flourishes that keep things interesting but without jeopardizing the guitar’s ample melody. Throwing the driving vocals on top of that melody gives the band a real sense of power and everything else is almost ornamental. The band’s approach is highly melodic, which is especially obvious with glissandi like the organ intro to track 2,  the high guitar flourish on track 3, and even in track 4’s cheesy piano interlude. What also helps this style breath is how the drummer is smart enough to know when not to blast.

The downside, to be blunt, tracks 4, 7, and 8. Lazy. Each one suffers from an overuse of repetition. At first glance it might appear from the chant-heavy fourth track and the sitar laden final track that the band is shoehorning hindu influences into their music and would be better off without them. This is not the case, as the band incorporates these ideas better elsewhere and track 7 has none of these influences but showcases the same problem. Cult of Fire is faltering in terms of song structure, and while the band maintains their pleasant sound throughout the album you can’t hide several minutes of trite chord progressions no matter how they are dressed up, if at all. With the last two tracks being problematic this way, it certainly gives off the impression that the band simple ran out of ideas and padded the album. To reiterate, these tracks don’t mar the album’s overall mood, but taken alone each one sucks. This might mean that they would have worked better with more dynamic material to provide context, track 4’s repetition could be generously viewed as a nice change-up if it were the only one of its kind. Instead the band is excessive with the happier breaks from their music. Even something like the fire sounds on track 2 works as a nice break even while other parts of the album feel forced (it says a lot when a band with the word fire in their name isn’t being awful while also using a sound recording of fire.)
Don’t be fooled into thinking that the band’s use of Hindu influences is some kind of revolutionary approach to metal, it isn’t. To repeat, Cult of Fire is a black metal band at heart; and continuing with the organ analogy their particular approach on this album is more like a gallbladder. It is useful, but you can be fine without it, yet no one wants to cut it out unless it becomes a problem. There are no gallstones here. What is more important than the gallbladder though is that Cult of Fire’s body as a whole is strong, if a bit overly fat due to fits of sedentary songwriting.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Chain Of Dogs - Burning Bridges In A World Of Death - De Ep's En Nog Get Mieë


Yesterday's Dictionary.com word of the Day was scherzo and while not totally "light or playful", Chain of Dog's take on the pagan metal style which was made so popular by bands like Finntroll is very much in line with the word. Burning Bridges In A World Of Death - De Ep's En Nog Get Mieë, not the most simplistic album title by anyone's measurement, is a mix of past recordings from this Dutch group. It compiles the bands two EPs: 2012's Deathworld and 2008's Bridgeburner as well as their self-titled demo minus a song, a remixed version of "Doa is mie Land" from their 2010 full length and finally an unreleased track. Burning Bridges is forty-seven minutes of frivolous sounding folky thrash. While the band frivols through the tracks impressive musicianship and finely crafted songs allow the strange combination of thrash and folk to at least be taken seriously. Whether its humpaa or a Celtic styled jig, the folk is in full effect across all the releases touched upon and Chain of Dogs tackles them all admirably.

It almost doesn't work though. If it weren't for the amazing violin work of Arne Gerits the album would fall about as flat as a pancake dropped from a high building. The simple instrumental texture it adds to rather mundane riffs and bland rhythms is a blessing for all the songs here. This is evident from first track, "D'r Zjwarte Hond va Krapoel" when, about halfway in, the song runs into an instrumental section which is highlighted by how boring it is without the violin playing. It's not just the violin that picks up the slack however, the band is at their best when incorporating the additional folk instruments into the songs. "Deathworld" uses a mandolin as well as the violin giving the track a very celtic feel and "Bridgeburners" shows Gerits' flute-playing skills. Even though the actual usage of folk instruments in terms of the songs' structures and arrangements remains generic, the end outweighs the means here.

As for a favorite track, I think "Blood Follows" is the strongest track here. Vocalist Olaf Nijssen has a gritty vocal timbre and across many of the songs I continuously keep thinking of Hansi Kursch. "Blood Follows" shows him being more versatile, with more melodic vocal sections and some screamed parts his accompaniment on the mandolin, though subtle is nice as well. In this song, though it remains folky and retains the pagan elements which Chain of Dogs is keen to explore, is just a little less happy-go-lucky and more serious. While not as thrashy as "Bridgeburners," the song which follows, the faster, thrashy ending rounds out the track nicely. Speaking of "Bridgeburners," Olaf sounds most like his Blind Guardian vocal-doppleganger in the verse sections and when he isn't screaming in what sounds like the agony of a thousand burning arrows to the sternum. In a bunch of the songs, we get some really quick spurts of yelled vocals influenced by the band's punk roots.

Weakest point for Chain of Dogs is the drumming of Keneth Martens or Niena Bocken or whoever played on the multiple released compiled. It seems like it's the band's stubborn enemy. A lot of the drumming just stands out as miserably uninspired and lazy. We are given four or five different beats across all the tracks. The thrashy parts continuously resort to snare-beating. There is a monotony to the percussion which emphasizes the monotony in the rhythms of a lot of the songs. For the few measures when the drums skip along in "'t Zjwatte Loak" is one of the few times we get some new looks with the drums. The Unreleased track that is on the album is only fifty-three seconds long. That's ridiculous. Chain of Dogs should have left this a pure compilation instead of add it on for whatever reason. It's not very good and really doesn't need to be here.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Battleroar - Blood of Legends


Power Metal can be background music or it can be foreground music. It's very often not both. Battleroar's Blood of Legends is both. While some of the album becomes just something to throw on while you're folding laundry or washing dishes, some moments do leave a more lasting impression in mostly favorable ways. The album can be a very European sounding release with all the additional bombastic instrumentation and choral arrangements but Battleroar have done well to remember that they are a Heavy Metal band and even with all the violins and added backing vocals, Battleroar are heavy enough and hard enough to appeal to those that don't buy into the whole European Power Metal sound that's been immortalized by bands like Rhapsody and Blind Guardian's recent releases. Battleroar don't follow that trend at all, which is a blessing. The band seems to draw more on pagan metal melodies instead of the more classically influenced symphonic power metal bands as well which makes Blood of Legends a less generic listen. The importance of Alex Papadiamantis' violin within the songs is not lost even on the least critical listener. What comes across inevitably is a very dramatic and epic power metal record that grows better with multiple listens and unfolds into a heavy-hitting Heavy Metal record.

From the introduction to first track "Stormgiven" we are placed into a narrative with a tense acoustic passage and sounds of wind and rain. Violin carries the track into the first heavy hitter, "The Swords are Drawn." While this main opener contains some of the epic components that latter tracks fully embrace, it's a relatively simple opening track and, after the grandiose intro, is a bit of a let down. The album really starts then with the excellent "Poisoned Well" which is immaculately crafted with the big slow verse riffs, violin melodies, and the big expansive vocal performance of Gerrit Mutz which blossoms at every moment. "Blood of Legends" picks up nicely, it's a faster track and it once again incorporates the violin nicely. It's tracks like these that makes you pick your head up and take notice. But it's tracks like "Immortal Chariot" that make you look down at the floor with your head between your toes. One of the most tedious tracks on the album, the fifth song seems to go on and on with vocalist Gerrit giving a wholesom performance but just repeating the miserable chorus over and over again to no end. It's the worst part of the album. Also not that enjoyable are some vocal moments in "Chivalry" that include some raspy vocals that don't seem to pair well and some shorter angsty vocals that also seem poorly executed.

After this mishap the album regains it's flavor though and songs like "The Curse of Medea" which makes more use of the violin and the excellent "Valkyries Above Us," which I'm leaning on as my second favorite track pick up the slack to prevent Blood of Legends from dropping off into no-man's-land. "Valkyries Above Us" is a true highlight though and much like "Poisoned Well" is massive and bombastic with huge drumming from Nick Papadopoulos and also some well placed bass licks from Stavros Aivaliotis. Big vocals during the chorus are chilling. Battleroar sounds their best here, with every member taking moments to shine in this track. A risky spoken word part at the end of the track does no harm and adds to the variety of the song. Guitarists Kostas Tzortzis and Antreas Sotiropoulos make a great tandem across the album. Big sounds, big melodies and some really great songs make Blood of Legends a serious must-have for fans of epic metal.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Agiel - Dark Pantheons

Agiel's Dark Pantheons EP is immediate. From the second this five-song romp starts, the listener is gifted with constant blasting rhythms accentuated by computer generated symphonies a platter of vocal techniques which, within the eighteen minute playtime, is concentrated enough to not become grating if still being boring. The overall effect of the keyboards, programmed sounds is not dissimilar to that of latter period Emperor. The production is very modern here and even with all possible methods to get a better mix and better timbre from instruments such as the drums and the bass - especially the bass which sounds more like a pile of slop than a stringed instrument - there is a muddiness that is present. Agiel's product: an over-the-top brutal death metal album that borrows some symphonic black metal elements and mashes them together to mixed effects. Parts of this five-song EP sound absolutely strong and engaging while others are stagnant and - for all the blistering speed and technique - boring.

This is best evidenced by the placement of the stronger "Deeds Rendered Upon The Flesh" between the weaker "The Awakening" and opening title track "Dark Pantheons." Where "Deeds..." creates some atmosphere and direction with the keyboards, outlines some melody and uses the unnatural drum tone to create the effect of a marching army, the songs that bookend are more than not over-expressed renditions. Even strong mid-sections which allow the sampled choral segments to shine in "The Awakening" fail to set the track apart, even though there are plenty of opportunities to let up. The drums are often too overbearing and Agiel would do themselves a huge favor by using them in a manner that better highlights the dramatics of the rest of the music - more as a classical composition would use percussion than as death metal artists usually use drums. "Serpent Masquerade" shines light on this issue from the beginning where obnoxiously fast drums smear interesting ideas in dust and during the Arcturus-esque bridge that follows the drums simply sound as if they don't have any other ideas to offer.

As the EP moves along, we begin to see how Agiel have simply not offered much variety to the listener. We are given fast, blasting segments and very little bit else. Though "Deeds Rendered Upon The Flesh" is a definite highlight, I'm not impressed with the usage of the rest of the material here. Even though there is plenty of room for Agiel to take these tracks, build them as compositions and emphasize the intensity with contrasting moments, they've been unable to do so. Being that these tracks were all taken from their 2002 debut full length, Dark Pantheons Again Will Reign and "was revisited and re-imagined for a new era" it's possible that we've missed out a lot of the context from where these tracks were pulled. According to the Agiel website, this material is intended to bridge the gap from their earlier material to their current material. Having never heard their full length - and probably never will since this material didn't particularly rouse my interest - I feel as if Agiel would have been better served by simply putting out new music instead of older tracks re-recorded.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Sadhak - Sadhak


Norway's Sadhak is a project that would be easy to miss but hard to forget if you're a fan of somber and reflective sounding doom. There margin of atmosphere to riffs is wide on self titled Sadhak but it's the generally small number of riffs, their texture, attack and presentation that create that atmosphere. Opening track "On The Arrival Of Man" is a grand looming stumble towards something far away in the future which is hard to grasp now, but will eventually be revealed. It's a lot like what I could imagine as the score to a black and white film adaptation of Stephen King's Gunslinger novels. The track leaves me in dreary thought. Even though we are surrounded in life by those we are close with, we are ultimately alone and it's music such as the ringing twangy chords and mournful vocalizations of multi-instrumentalist Andreas Hagen that inspire introspective thoughts such as this. Two long tracks grace this limited edition tape from Shadow Kingdom and both share in the style which has become popular in the past several years - at least so I've noticed - that draws upon desert / mountain vibes. Second track "The Perfection of Wisdom" moves with a more anxious and frantic motive, much like the end of The Shining when Jack Nicholson can't find his way out from the hedge-maze. Even though this track is deeper in style and substance than Sadhak's opening track, I like it less. The simplicity of "On The Arrival Of Man" is excellent.

It's fascinating to me the influences pulled together here and the different sounds of this release. The whole is draped in the atmosphere of bands such as Velnias and what has come to be known as the "Cascadian" sound but where Sadhak improve upon this foundation is in the incorporation of vibes more like recent Earth releases, especially Hex: Or Printing In The Infernal Method, stoner riffs and - at least in "The Perfection of Wisdom" some home-grown classics such as Burzum's Filosofem and early Taake. Andreas' smooth heartfelt vocals, youthful and pure, pour over a melancholic foundation, and the result is a very tragic sounding two tracks. It's Andreas' vocals really that make this release more than what could have been. Though I would have liked to hear more differentiation between the two tracks, what was offered here is enough for me to want to come back and hear more.This is being offered as a package deal with a shirt and tape... I know I'm pre-ordering.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Phlebotomized - Devoted To God, Preach Eternal Gospels


About a week ago, some friends and myself went to a local steakhouse that offered rodizio. Our dinner included about twenty different cuts of beef, pork, chicken and lamb. It was absolutely incredible. We downed a ton of sangria and engaged in gluttony that would make Nero wish he had friends such as us. The most peculiar serving was roasted chicken hearts slid onto our plates from a large skewer. I maintain that they brought these out to attempt to run us out of the place since it didn't seem like we were willing to stop eating. Instead, we toasted the dinner with the tiny little morsels and gulped down the peanut sized flavor pouches. They were dense and mealy yet had a rich chicken flavor mixed with a saltiness of blood. They were actually really delicious. They weren't as appealing overall as garlic roasted steak or cheese infused pork loin but they were the perfect item to remind me of all the things I had been enjoying about, Devoted to God, Preach Eternal Gospels, this Phlebotomized compilation I have been stuck on for the past two weeks. Blood and Phlebotomized go hand in hand - their early 90's demos are one of the best examples of the melting pot of death metal, doom metal and classic slasher movie soundtrack scores. I had never heard of this band before this compilation and to finally get a death metal album sent to me - even if I am about twenty-three years too late - that I can really enjoy makes me shiver with joy. I think the last death metal album that impressed me this much was the Beyond debut full length, Fatal Power of Death, or some of the material I encountered on Leukemia's early albums while doing some research for the review of their third album, Love. Clearly Vic Records is putting out some worthy material to pick up. It just so happens that most of that worthy material appears as old and obscure re-releases.

The key to Phlebotomy's awesome sound is the combination of melody, brutality and horror. These three components of their sound are very well refined to sound perfectly in place with each other. Melodically, the band takes a lot of influence from the early doom stalwarts such as Candlemass and early Cathedral. The first five tracks are from the band's 1992 demo, Devoted To God, with some tracks combined. Opening track "In Search of Tranquility & Subtle Disbalanced Liquidity" is one of these - originally it was two separate tracks on the original release. It's intro highlights the melodic genius which is present in all tracks and draws forth from classic doom albums like Nightfall or Forest of Equilibrium. It's evident that the Phlebotomized members were heavily into all the material coming from numerous scenes. Bolt Thrower riffs are plentiful throughout, and there are shared tendencies there as well, especially from Warmaster. Phlebotomized usage of melody is pristine. It leads and moves the listener into horrific places, foreshadowing a lack of anything remotely happy. On "Fate of a Devotee & Devoted to God" - the other combined track on the compilation - we meander through sections in which the listener is taunted and ridiculed by the mean-spirited combinations of rhythm and melody. Often times keyboards are also used to push the melodies to great effect such as on "Mustardgas" - off the Preach Eternal Gospels demo - or "Desecration of Alleged Christian History" which has one of the best song titles in all of metaldom and is my favorite track of this release.

With regard to brutality, Phlebotomized nails all the components of this integral element of death metal. The production on these demos is absolutely incredible. Thick, deep and gurgling guitar tones provided by Tom Palms and Jordy Middlebosch are an example of what modern bands can't seem to get right. It's a truly natural tone. It lives in the humble recording like a wolf lives in a cave. While the rhythms are murky and sludgy, the guitar leads cut through with a rough and trebly timbre. In addition to this, the vocals of Barry Schuyer and Dennis Geestman are super low-end snarls that are performed with the kind of distraught and malevolence you'd find in the voices residing in the minds of serial killers and madmen. Barry Schuyer's performance on the Devotion of God tracks tops Dennis' on the Preach... songs but both are aeons ahead of most other death metal vocalists. With the sounds perpetrated here very much holding up to the iconic death metal production expected of material from this period, to have songs that are every bit as competitive completes the brutality puzzle. Songs are memorable but never simple. There are twists and turns and numerous riffs and variations in each song to really increase complexity, but whether it's the opening bombardment of keyboards and accents of "Tragic Entanglement" or the unexpected turns and twists of ""Mustardgas" and "Preach Eternal Gospels" the compositions no feel pressured.

That said, there are other albums which have these characteristics out there. Phlebotomized however sets themselves apart with the horror motifs in their tracks. The keyboard parts are integral to this. It's easy to imagine Phlebotomized's keyboard parts being the score to Suspiria or Phantasm or any other number of classic horror movies. Devoted To God definitely is much more consistent with these sounds and overall vibe. Preach Eternal Gospels has moments where this influence is shown however other moments break this feel such as at the end of the title track with a folky interlude. It doesn't detract too much though and when the song ends with a slightly out of tune violin solo, fear is rekindled. This compilation also has three live tracks which are a nice window in what Phlebotomized was able to provide in a live environment; strong renditions of their complex brand of Death/Doom that retain all the essences of their demo and album material. This is a huge release that should be in everyone's record collection, especially for fans of this style of music.