Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Deceased - As the Weird Travel On (2005)

This wouldn't be the first time a Deceased record has grown on me. While 1997's Fearless Undead Machines elicited positive thoughts on its first spin, that's an effort that I have continued to appreciate in increased capacity for almost two decades now. And lo, sandwiched between my two favorite albums to involve King Fowley, Surreal Overdose and Supernatural Addiction, lies another underrated gem of which I am also responsible for some degree of neglect, As the Weird Travel On, which faithfully carries forward the band's great legacy of entwining speed, heavy, and death metal aesthetics into a confident and consistent exhibition of cult horror worship that is as true to its musical sources as its literary and cinematic inspirations, while remaining completely underground with a 'cool factor' temperature that makes the flesh of the undead seem balmy by comparison. I brought up Fearless Undead Machines, because looking back retroactively at the Virginians' ouvre since that particular evolution is to behold one of the best streaks by an American metal band since the 80s...

Not to fault the first two Deceased full-lengths, which are both good as developmental milestones, but this is a style I can NEVER grow sick of, a seamless integration of the legit sounds I explored as a teenager, where the riffing and structure of various metal strains had become more complicated in terms of both aggression and melody. Not to say that they're 'technical' by any means. Their tracks tend to dwell around the 6-8 minute range, with substantial amounts of riffs and tempo shifts that are persistently catchy. Marginally predictable in some cases, but always leading to something that pops with your ears, like a great, shifting rhythm hook galloping away beneath a lead, or a very tasteful and sparse use of a keyboard to accent some gloomy moonlit vista that erupts from the frothing, shambling speed metal mob converging upon it. Mark Adams and Mike Smith are 'classically' trained axemen in that they have an encyclopedic knowledge of 80s A-, B- and C- tier heavy, power and speed metal, with a healthy dosing of the youthful fits of energy that thrash and crossover brought; but they play a lot of this stuff even faster, to a level of extremity that even some jaded Morbid Angel fan might appreciate.

The drums are perfect on this album, a cavalcade of firm, fiery hard rock rhythms that can easily burst into any intensified technique the hypertension of "A Witness to Suspiria" requires. As the Weird Travel On bears distinction because it's an album where King Fowley himself stepped away from that duty, bringing over Dave Castillo who was also working with his other project October 31, and the man simply doesn't cock it up. Les Snyder's bass lines don't always seem to strike out much terrain on their own, but they really round out the record with a great, audible tone which anchors the lightning that Adams and Smith have let off the leash in both the speed/thrash metal undercurrents and the spastic Maiden-esque leads and harmonies, which are yet another selling point of this album because, while conventional in approach, they are without exception memorable or at the very least perfectly fit to the tracks surrounding them. Deceased even manage to incorporate a bit of dissonant Voivod riffing on a track or two to help round out the record from sounding too straightforward, a trait they used on some of the earlier releases but hadn't reared its head so much on the two albums preceding this.

In sum, As the Weird Travel On is wall-to-wall, shoulder-to-shoulder metal bliss which doesn't age any more than the psychological and corporeal late-night horror cinema that inspires it. Narrative lyrics that describe their ghastly scenes and situations with perspectives both external and internal, melded to the polished but salacious melodic speed death which plays like no other band I can name. Sure, there is DNA planted here by anyone from Rigor Mortis to Iron Maiden, but Fowley and company retain so much of the medium's genuine pulse and translate into such a coherent picture without ever coming off as excessively studio-driven or as trendy as their Swedish counterparts had become by the early 00s. Asked a decade ago, I would have probably ranked this behind its two predecessors, but I have no choice now but say that this is every bit as good as Fearless Undead Machines, and nearly on the plane of its followup. It's also a little more energetic and high speed than either of those, another great salve for those souls needing soothing for their kitsch horror addictions or reminiscences of Halloweens lost, willing to take that injection in both the fight and flight of heavy fucking metal.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10] (prepare for the abbatoir)

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Morgul - The Horror Grandeur (2000)

While both of its predecessors were solid, competent entries into Napalm Records' catalog of oft-forgotten black metal recordings, it was The Horror Grandeur which tipped Jack D. Ripper ever so slightly further into the limelight. A new deal with Century Media Records, an 'upgrade' to the sort of grotesque morbid photo art which was all the rage at the turn of the century, what many would consider vastly superior production values, and further acclimation to the symphonic ingredients that were increasingly incorporated into the form by more popular Gothic and black metal acts were all reasons that this might prove many listeners' first exposure to Morgul, even if it still failed to carve large swaths in its field.

While I personally acknowledge its limitations, in particular the rather predictable form many of the riffs take, I hold a soft spot for this record due to its unflinching horror noir aesthetics, the Grand Guignol nature of its presentation. The prior albums were good, but had a slightly harder time in snaring my attention, where this one caught it immediately upon the record crackling and doomed, melodic onset of the title cut. The entire record is staged like a carousel of corny theatrics, whimsical organs and even a couple King Diamond ringmaster laughs, meshed with spurts of atmospheric black metal circa Emperor, Limbonic Art or Hecate Enthroned, but it just sounds so great due to the clarity of the mix. The strings and keys sound vivid and bright, and Jack's occasional use of clean vocals soars off into the album's near-threatening nightscape akin to a lot of his Norse countrymen like I.C.S. Vortex.

There is a sliver of experimentation here, like the industrial beats used to fuel segments of "The Murdering Mind" or "Elegantly Decayed", which would also be explored on the subsequent Morgul offerings, all tastefully entwined within the morbid modus operandi, rather than creating a heavily eclectic or scattered style like on Arcturus' The Sham Mirrors a couple years later. I had mentioned Jack's clean vocals, but that's only one of numerous styles he incorporates. Roaring black metal rasps, wavering and eerie chants, breathy whispers, or whatever fits his mental asylum narrative. The bass is not an enormous presence throughout much of The Horror Grandeur, but it does keep its end of the bargain so that the album has depth across a number of frequencies. The drums successfully shift from the more traditional rock and metal patterns into the electronic areas and back seamlessly, with a bright snare sound that offsets Ripper's harsher vocals fairly well.

I had mentioned that the riffs lag behind creatively, and that's mostly the case, whether they're the traditional black metal explosions with tremolo picking, the blackened thrash parts, some of which even seem to mimic the presence of Ministry circa their Psalm 69 album. They're all functional and well-suited to anchor the delirious atmosphere Jack is creating here, but often too predictable and not intricately woven with catchy melodies or truly diabolic chord patterns that a lot of other Norse bands were bringing to the medium years before this. That said, the slower, graceful melodic doom passages which sparsely populate the album are among its most magnificent and memorable, and the rest are at least percussive enough not to disrupt the flow of the album or its haunted house aesthetics.

I feel like fans of Arcturus and Dimmu Borgir at the time would probably have dug this despite the fact that it's not as unique as the former nor as massive as the latter. It's actually the Morgul record I break out most often, whether that's around the autumn time of year or just when I'm in the need for an interpretation of classic horror themes through this style. Lyrics cover subjects like evil dolls and Poe-like death obsessions, eloquently penned to stick to the narrative structure of the music, and it's just one of those underappreciated gems which tread slightly left of the beaten path without setting any new trends, while mutant and elevating the one-man band into a form that could in some alternative timeline hold its own against its kin.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10] (rattle your puppet limbs)

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Vision Bleak - The Unknown (2016)

The Vision Bleak have been faithfully preaching the gospel of Gothic metal for 16 years now, long after the arguable summit of the style's popularity (i.e the H.I.M. and Type O Negative days) has eroded in the wake of other niches. And they've done it with hardly a single mar on their body of consistency. Full-length after full-length of equal parts atmospherics and rocking references to traditional horror literature (up to around the early 20th century) and classic film (a few decades later), dour vocal poetry and a public image that is in turn vaudevillian and endearing. This new record, The Unknown struck a chord with me for abandoning the band's kitsch cover motifs of the past for the transformed, alien vista of nightmares that it promises, and the questions that evokes...have the Germans changed up their style? Are they aiming for some sort of grand Lovecraftian concept?

For the most part, this is business as usual. The somber Sisters of Mercy inspired Gothic rock clad in more meaty, metallic guitars, sent back in time a century or two, with synthesizers and acoustics used tastefully to complement a set of dependable if not always entirely unique chugging and driving rhythms. The Unknown is mildly heavier in terms of drumming, speed and thundering riff structure, at least on a handful of tracks like "From Wolf to Peacock". If the band had changed its name to The Vision Bleak With a Vengeance, it wouldn't have been without merit. But despite its marginal sense of urgency, this disc has a fair degree of variation between it's murkier, Gothic doom swells "The Whine of the Cemetery Hound") redolent of Paradise Lost and the more urgent, aggressive material. Thick palm muted patterns perform a percussion unto themselves while the vocals and guitars drift above them, as if afloat between dark valleys of jagged rock and wolf-prowled pine groves, elevating tracks like "How Deep Lies Tartaros?" to seismic, sodden glories that I wouldn't have expected in their opening moments.

The true calms here are relegated to shorter pieces like the intro or the instrumental "Who May Oppose Me?", but these are all perfectly placed to allow the listeners a chance to breathe after what ever Transylvanian (or Victorian) terror has stalked them through the woods or streets. The vocals of both Schwadorf and Konstanz provide elegant, brooding mantras which assist even the most base of the guitar progressions to hypnotize beyond their due. Instruments are mixed very well. Production is polished, and complexity minimal, but the oblique nature of the lyrics (EXCELLENT lyrics) and note selections keep it from broader accessibility. That is not a negative. This is definitely not an album which has many sugary spikes of catchiness, even by comparison to some of their own past material. The songs all work rather well, both on their own and in unison, but it's the overall mood and imagination of this album that had me absorbed more so than its ability to compose some nuanced riff. You've heard a lot of it before, just not put together quite the way this duo accomplishes it, and The Unknown, while not the standout of their career, is another reminder of how a project's convictions can persevere well beyond the trendiness that might have provided them some grand entrance eons ago. Try and grab the version with the bonus disc, both of the tracks are also worthwhile.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (drag yourself along the twine)


Thursday, October 13, 2016

Putrevore - Tentacles of Horror (2015)

The roiling, ominous, Putrevore has been my favorite of the many Rogga Johansson collaborations since its inception, but as with the rest, there has always been the risk of retreading the same ground too damn often, a criticism I've often seen leveled at his more long enduring bands like Paganizer or Ribspreader. With Tentacles of Horror, the duo of Rogga and guttural guru Dave Rotten attempt to channel the nihilistic punishment of Morphed from Deadbreath and the amazing Macabre Kingdom into a more varied, dynamic and I daresay 'accessible' direction with largely successful results, though I came away from it with some degree of disappointment since it lacked the suffocating and crushing capacity of its forebears.

This is largely the same neo-Incantation style, with the grungy rhythm guitars and pure wall of growl that the prior albums mastered, only a lot of the riffing structures and drums are focused more around a basic groove that occasionally treads into blasting territory. The bass has a nice distorted tone to it which sounds cool where it appears on its own, but also adds some reinforcement to the tremolo picked patterns, some of which retain that morbid appeal of predecessors. Once this album lays it all out with hammering drum tracks and Rotten's murky ravings moving simultaneously with a pure 1990-93 guitar progression, it definitely reiterates the character of Macabre Kingdom, but where that record just felt so over the top and hostile and cataclysmic, this one just seems more of a laid back affair. Some tunes like "Through the Vortex to Aeons Past" and their ilk have a slightly more overt nod to the Swedish aesthetics of bands like Dismember and Entombed, which Rogga has already beaten to death in other projects, but the majority of the material hearkens back to the first few Incantation discs, maybe some Rottrevore, or Finns like Purtenance in their earlier years.

Didn't love this one, since it seemed slightly neutered from its older siblings, despite its obvious attempts to branch out and flow into a broader songwriting realm than the duo had achieved prior. The Juanjo Castellano cover art is great, and the lyrics are on par with the first two records, glimpses at vistas of Cyclopean horror, but the music just doesn't leave me the same squashed up mass of entrails and ground bone as I was after Macabre Kingdom. That's not to say I didn't enjoy this, because at least half the songs hooked me, and overall it doesn't have many other weaknesses beyond few too familiar chord patterns that lack the atmosphere or thrill of their betters. I think listeners will find the production to this most approachable; the second album was quite caustic, especially with the mix of the beats, and yet that ended up lending it an otherworldly character strangely suited to the archaic fictional beings it summoned. Here you've got a cleaner effort which thankfully doesn't dispense that great guitar tone or Rotten's subterranean vocal effects.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10] (to lunge itself into times spectrals)


Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Raise Hell - Written in Blood (2015)

I was a little dismayed and concerned when I found out that there had been a Raise Hell record I completely missed last year; the former because nobody had really been talking up Written in Blood, and the latter because...I missed a Raise Hell record, and felt the cold, cobwebbed fingers of senility probing between my ears. Well, it turns out that there's a pretty good reason for both, because while this record returns a degree of the Swedish firebrands' furious Holy Target energy and velocity, it does seem to abandon a little of that ghoulish, haunted house charisma and face rocking hilarity that dominated Not Dead Yet and then resonated onto the two discs after that one, even if they weren't quite as excellent.

On its surface, this album is a stylistic doppelganger to what they've produced before. Harsh vocal driven murder thrash with convulsions of the death and black metal traditions that the band had mutated from early on. Largely in those same vocals and some of the drumming, or in the rhythm guitars that seem occasionally indistinguishable from other Scandinavian death/thrash or melodeath. The issue here is that while the note counts and the structure of these songs is comparable to prior efforts, so many of these tunes head right in one ear and out the other, largely due to exhaustion with so many well-rounded thrash acts possessing this level of competence and execution but not the capacity for memorable songwriting. Written in Blood is an able record if you just want to bang your head and possess audio evidence that the Swedes are still firing away, but the highlights are few and far between, and nothing like a "Babes" or "Nightcrawler" or "Dance With the Devil" really turns up.

It's not a total wasteland. Raise Hell have always understood how to induce some variation and balance to their LPs, and that exists here between pure ragers like "Dr. Death" or the Exodus paced "Six Feet Under" and more dramatic, melodic pieces like "A Blackened Resurrection" which are a little more successful as reincarnating the charm of older songs. Some tunes are little more than meaty, brickhouse thrash boredom like "We Arise", while others like "The Bell of the Reaper" are nearly worthy to be mixed in with better tracks from City of the Damned and Wicked is My Game. Clean guitars are used effectively in a few intros, acoustics glimmering before the distortion elevates the threat level. The rhythm guitars are constantly chopping and hacking like professional butchers, the drums circa the band's one new member to this recording are perfect, and Jimmy Fjällendahl's vocals remain consistently hellish throughout, though he lacks that raving, zany charm Jonas Nilsson brought out for Not Dead Yet.

Leads are proficient and timed right here, and there's no shortage of melody in general, but half of them are merely elegant rather than catchy. A lot of the riffing framework is structurally sound but inescapably predictable, and while that might have been par for the course with prior releases, they had those extra pieces of personality there to seal the deal, where this just seems a more soulless and obligatory exercise that impersonates its predecessors. Granted, it's been almost a decade since the band were releasing albums, and their scalpels might take a little dusting off. Written in Blood is by no means a bad record, and it has the same fixation on both slasher and classic horror themes that they've had since the earlier albums, but beyond a serviceable EP's worth of stronger content it just lacks the resonant engagement I had really hoped for a post-hiatus Raise Hell. Not a large misstep, but unlikely to be something I'd choose over the four older discs.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]
(crawls out from the dark)


Thursday, October 6, 2016

Svartby - Swamp, My Neighbour (2015)

Svartby is a Russian band highly fond of Slavic and Swedish folklore, especially those aspects that go bump in the night, steal your children or are otherwise likely to hex and curse you. The colorful artwork they employ drowns the viewer in childhood nostalgia, storybooks, cautionary tales by the fireside, the kind of stuff that seems superficially attractive in this Autumn time of year, so despite my usual hangups with a good deal of what we dub 'folk metal', and some tepid former encounters with earlier albums, I decided to give their latest record a spin and see if I had been missing out on anything after all. I'm not averse to some fun foot stomping, Pumpkin Ale swigging entertainment if the riffs, lyrics and themes can support more than the skin-deep aesthetics they strive for, and I've yet to really meet the band that can effectively convey folkloric 'goblin' or 'nocker' metal without coming off like a bunch of confused, ironic weirdos, and not in the good sense.

So I'm pretty bummed out when I spin the Russians' latest record Swamp, My Neighbour and the first things that blow out of the speakers sound exactly like EVERY other European, charging folk metal band with the driving drums, predictable and majestic melodies, keyboards presenting atmosphere in the most overt, expected ways and a lineage that clearly owes more to Finntroll and Ensiferum than anything hinging on originality. This stuff should sound like demonic fauns dancing nimbly around a glade, or the cobwebbed laughter of an old crone, but it's just the usual glory-hounding cheese with the same Wagnerian swells and indistinct barking, hoarse black metal vocals deliver about as many chills as a warm bath. The riffs are largely just gallivanting chugs and melodies meant to imbue into the keyboards, never haunting or particularly catchy or even interesting. It literally sounds like they just let the synthesizer come up with the melody and then whatever the first palm-mutes they could produce were then set in stone as the bedrock from which the band would achieve its metalness.

I'm not trying to say that Svartby are terrible at this, because they possess the base level of competence to pull it off in time and a couple quirky uses of keys and female vocals that round out the sound to make it listenable. But this really just feels like someone obsessed with Finntroll, yet not willing to go the full distance and include less of the humppa music parts, though some tunes like "Bog Bar" definitely flirt in that territory. I mean, this is no Midnattens widunder, more of a mediocre descendant of Jaktens tid; so in that regard, they're more alike an Equilibrium or Ensiferum writing passable LARP music. The creepy creatures, elixirs and witching ways that the cover artwork hints at are relegated to the lyrics alone (which are decent), and never manifest with any spooky progressions of chords, notes, not even the vocals which are as banal and blunt as their harsh inflection can get. A few later tracks like "Clock Tower" are catchy enough that I wouldn't want to skip through them, but not in the way that the outward aesthetics of the band would hint at, and that's really the biggest disappoint I feel here, another folk metal band that thinks everything needs to be a dance party in Medieval shoes. File 'em away with Trollfest and just stick to the original.

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10]


Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Cadaveria - The Shadows' Madame (2002)

Opera IX was not a band with any real weak link back in its heyday, but if there were any member distinctive and striking enough to set off on her own solo career, it was frontwoman Raffaella, aka Cadaveria, whose gaunt, raven-haired presence and unusual vocals were a large part of the band's appeal. Not to take anything away from their overall style and songwriting, which was unique among the volleys of earlier European black metal, for its use of Gothic elements in ways not entirely mimicking peers such as Cradle of Filth, etc. But for whatever reasons now lie buried in the dust of indifference, a split took place after the Italians' third full length The Black Opera, and she and drummer Marcelo Santos parted with the rest, forming a new act around the singer's stage and studio persona.

They pursued a modified sound which is to most ears more accessible than the duo's alma mater, but not entirely rounding off the menacing, erotic striga edges of her past performances. The riffing and structure of these songs is a simpler and more familiar, perhaps a little less ambitious than they had worked with before, but not exactly mainstream in architecture. As the operatic intro to "Spell" dissolves, they lurch into these palm muted, chugging doom/thrash Candlemass riffs which work very effectively as Cadaveria shouts out an angry, vitriolic harpy tone similar to Nicole Lee of ZnöWhite obscurity or the late Dawn Crosby from Detente and Fear of God. However, there are also traces of black metal charge rhythms, and proto death metal tremolo riffing and a slight degree of classical note progressions woven through the material that keeps it fresh and expansive, and when she wants to turn up the heat she'll erupt into some blacker rasping vocal lines that seem like a more strained mutation on the higher pitched parts, although I have to admit I prefer those.

Elsewhere, The Shadows' Madame is a fairly well-balanced production with an appreciable level of proficiency, especially in Santos' drumming which retains a lot of the faster black/death metal components employed by the previous band. Bass lines are fairly average, but the rhythm guitar tone is rich enough to pop right out, and you get a lot of inflection to the chords, the climbing and falling patterns of the original guitarist Frank Booth. Leads aren't the most well-developed aspect of the band's sound, but they definitely bring enough frizzy and wailing rock & roll antics to offset some of their fatter supporting riffs. There's also this overall depth to the recording which makes them feel like a much larger band, yet they don't overdose on symphonic ingredients or other pompous aesthetics you might expect; this is a very pure, riff-driven record at its heart, with a subtle use of atmospherics or electronics and sound effects that serve only to underlie the grime and groove of the riffs. I can't promise that a lot of those riffs are individually very interesting, but combined with the subtle strangeness and Cadaveria's haunting angst they're lent a lot more personality than they might otherwise harbor.

For an album obviously meant to associate with the darkness and horror she'd long been working with, I can't say it really and truly delivers, at least not beyond the imagery evoked in the lyrics. It's much more of a straightforward, groove and burst of an extreme metal pastiche as opposed to an effort that can evoke the morbid fascinations and nostalgic rituals of bands like Mortuary Drape and Opera XI, nor the rich legacy of Italy's horror directors spanning back about 40 years before this. The Shadow's Madame is more of a vehicle for direct destruction, easier to digest without abandoning the extremity from which it was a borne, a hearse meant to spill its human cargo out on the red carpet of rock stardom rather than some desolate castle up in the hills where a psychotic nobleman waits to carve them up. As a post-Opera IX vehicle this album works well enough, it still sounds fresh and punchy behind the better vocal lines, and it's easily one of Cad's stronger works beyond the turn of the century.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10] (devoid of evening and morning)


Friday, September 30, 2016

Holosade - Hell House (1988)

Another casualty of the saturation of thrash metal throughout the later 80s, England's Holosade managed to slip past the radars of many listeners without doing anything particularly wrong. Hell House is an attractive package with its creepy cover manor that hints at a brand of horror metal that I always appreciated during those times, and even if I haven't got a whiff of a fucking clue what the band's name meant, it was actually pretty cool. The UK was hardly a hotbed for thrash like it had been for the genres that were influential to that medium, only a few stronger bands like Xentrix and Onslaught, and the once-godly Sabbat were in regular rotation for me. Yet there was always some faint hope of a further savior that might waltz in and do Megadeth, Anthrax or Slayer numbers, blowing up that scene, which never manifest, certainly not in Holosade or other unknowns like Arbitrarer and Deathwish.

Now I had hinted that this outfit hadn't made any major missteps with this debut, and I think the real issues were just its presence on a nearly invisible record label, and the fact that it comes across like an also-ran when compared to a lot of bands that used its formula to craft more exciting, memorable songs. At it's most thrashing and biting, the guitar tone reminds me a lot of a brasher alternate to what Anthrax were putting out around this time, and a similar comparison can be made to the inflection on some of the vocals, which aren't a far cry from Joey Belladonna even though the range sounds more like a punkish crossover and not so melodic and reedy. There were a few individual lyric lines and riffs which also recalled old Death Angel, and a substrate of crude speed metal which reminds me of the rougher production on some of the early Exciter albums. The vocals do have a bit of an unevenness to them, even from track to track. That's not to say they lack personality...only it's just not a sort of charisma that resonates long after the record is over, even when there are shouts to back it up and drive it home harder. At worst they feel slightly sloppy, but not unintentionally.

I do like the rhythm tone, something not a lot of bands would try getting away with today unless they were striving for the low-fi retro aesthetic, but bright and nasty all the same and wouldn't be out of place on a punk record from the same time period. Bass lines are exceedingly simple and do little else but climb around the primary riffs, and not very far, but at least you can make it out and it keeps a steady headbanging pace circa classic Priest. The drums are vibrant and fit just right against the rawness of the guitars, and there's a lot of double bass energy driving the snares and the blunt force of the songs as a whole, with fills flying off everywhere that are occasionally even a too loud and cluttered for the mix. Leads and melodies are spurious and scattered appropriately throughout the play length, but this was probably one of the record's biggest failings since none of them even border on evoking anything emotional or catchy, so they feel like an obligation more than a carefully constructed component to the songwriting, a mediocre pizza topping with just enough added savory flavor to feel as if it belongs.

Though the lyrics in cuts like "Welcome to the Hell House" and "Madame Guillotine" are solid enough to convey the band's appreciation for horror and dark history, another downside to Hell House is that it just never feels scary or evil. It's more like a mixture of enthusiastic Bay Area and New York thrash reduced to a series of unambitious riffing passages and chord progressions that hardly even come off cruel or vicious by 1988 standards, and since they lack a lot of the inherent musicality of their betters. If you just took "Alison Hell" alone off the Annihilator debut, it has more quality guitar work and faux-creepy vibes to it than this entire album. The only atmosphere provided is just through the production alone, and so it's one of those records that really only comes up when you're digging into the deep, dark corners of the niche and want something tonally genuine to that period. It's not a bad album at all if you just want to crank some raucous 80s testosterone through your speakers, and a few tunes like "Nightmare Reality" storm harder than the rest, but you were simply not short of options in those days, and you definitely aren't now...so it kind of just wanders through its own hellish gates and disappears before you know it.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10] (it's not an illusion)

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Siebenbürgen - Loreia (1997)

Thanks to Vampire the Masquerade, an evergrowing legion of Anne Rice fans and the propagation of the Paranormal Romance section at your local brick & mortar booksellers, the 90s were a fertile era for the wampyric subcultures. Because of the shared precepts, there was little doubt this would also carry over to the metal arena due to the obvious parallels you'd find among the Goths and heshers who fraternized and possibly even bumped their uglies behind seedy Barnes & Nobles franchises and on their parents' sofas during reruns of The Craft. Cradle of Filth was the most obvious musical outfit to cultivate the imagery, sexual fetishes and lyrical aesthetics pertaining to this theme, but among the Norse scene there were also bands as ranged as Darkthrone and Ancient who also tried to put their own stamp on the vampire myths, with mixed commitment and even more mixed results.

Siebenbürgen, named for the German of Transylvania itself, was another Scandinavian group whose earlier buzz seemed to revolve specifically around this niche, and like their far more popular British counterparts, a weaving of Gothic rock elements and melodic black metal that offer some measured of 'refinement' over that genre's crude roots. Reviled by some purists, but approachable for those who might have arrived at black metal directly through Cradle or the Romantic elegance that stood in stark opposition to the barbaric hordes who populated its underground. Granted, these Swedes skewed much further towards the 'black' than the Gothic in how they structured the material for their Napalm Records debut. Melodic tremolo picked guitar lines dominate Loreia, both against the slower rock beats and the moderately blasted, thundering drums, and these are rarely interrupted save for the more majestic chord patterns that are occasionally left to stand on their own. The band wasn't as savage as a Marduk, or as meticulous as an Emperor, but had more in common with middle run bands like Finland's Catamenia whose riffing patterns were quite similar via the reliance on overt melodic composition rather than intensity or, I dare say it, evil.

In fact, the only areas in which this debut might distinguish itself from the throngs of its corpse-painted peers is in the use of Lovisa Hallstedt's wailing, over the top vocals and violin sequences, neither of which were completely unique within this genre, but are mixed in so professionally well for this album that it seemed to stand head and...fangs...over a lot of the competition. As cheesy as Loreia can often feel with its constant attempts at emotionally wrenching the listener through its simple, predictable guitar lines, there's also something charming and appreciable about just how consistently it was assembled, without any particular region of the 51 minute play length feeling weaker than any other, even though there's an undercurrent of sameness running through it that betrays any notion of a pleasant, pleasurable surprise. There is no sudden, shadowy figure staring at you from your windowsill at night, entrancing you with its eyes before succumbing you to its horrible appetite...no, you're pretty much in Vampire Land from the very start, a fantasyscape of ivy strung Gothic castles, and lavish glades through which pale nymphs dance and bathe in the moonlight.

The mix is really well balanced, with the writhing, catchy tendrils of rhythm guitar given space to breathe over the tight-woven beatsand fat but obvious bass-lines. Marcus Ehlin's black metal rasp was hardly exemplary, assuming the position almost lethargically over the verse measures, but it does strike the right nerve once its being contrasted against Lovisa's shrill, almost ethereal presence, and by no means a bad performance on its own. The violin is sparse but sounds great where it appears, to the point that I wish they had included more of it, but where a lot of bands would dowse this sort of sound in loads of organs or other keyboard pads, Siebenbürgen keep it clean and powerful so you can ride the crisp propulsion of each rhythm like a bat carried along the prevailing wind pattern. I'd have liked to hear more varied songwriting, but I feel like a lot of bands of this ilk were trying to play it safe enough that they could establish themselves firmly within the genre's listener base and then execute their most insidious designs later on.

Whether or not this band ever accomplishes such an evolution is up for debate, but if you've got a soft spot (of neck flesh) for this mid-90s era of friendlier black metal, Loreia is an album which still holds a degree of nostalgic value, just not a lot of memorable songs. I myself would greatly prefer a record that can channel some of the dread, mystery and pathos of this theme which have always been my primary attractions to it, and Siebenbürgen came up a little short there. You won't shiver from any chill, in fact you'll feel almost like your sitting by a hearth with some red wine and a Gothic playmate while any storm or pitchfork-waving mob rages at a safe distance, appreciating but probably not understanding the lyrics; but that doesn't mean that this band eschewed an obvious effort to get this arranged and recorded, and so it remains a minor curiosity to sate fishnet-garbed connoisseurs of Laurel K. Hamilton, Sheridan le Fanu, and a long-locked Brad Pitt.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Monday, September 26, 2016

Dracula - Black Wings Over Translyvania 7" (2014)

I don't think it's any big secret that Australians Dracula are a group openly paying tribute to the earlier works of King Diamond and Mercyful Fate, so let's get kick the elephant out of the room right up front: Dracula sounds a lot like King Diamond and Mercyful Fate. Foremost, the vocalist uses the same falsetto style as the man himself, although you might pick up on marginal differences due to the Count's underlying accent and natural timbre. There's also the intentional implementation of dingy, throwback production values that strap the two tracks here into an 80s time machine, for better or worse. They're not just about aping the actual musical style, but relying heavily on their audience to share in the nostalgia. Do you remember the first time you heard Fatal Portrait? Melissa? Don't Break the Oath? Where you were? What you were doing? Who you were with? What shoddy cassette deck or record player you were using? I'm not at all trying to exclude younger fans who first encountered the Danish gods on CD or in digital format, but Black Wings Over Transylvania is certainly a 7" which seeks to dredge up the flaws, imperfections and by extension the personality of those old recordings and the environment in which they were initially experienced.

Tinny, dramatic rhythm guitar hooks draw a mix of comparisons to Denner, Shermann and LaRocque, at times swerving a little more closely to the playing of one or the other sides of the KD legacy but ultimately finding a happy medium, with both the meanness of Fate and the gloss and glamer of the solo band. Fed from the same trick or treat basket of NWOBHM, speed and proto power metal as their influences. Leads are even airier, tinny and piercing, and they use a lot of briefer flights of melody to glitz up the verses in the title track. Bass lines here are a bit primitive and tend largely towards just pumping along with a few notes misplaced from the rhythm patterns, par for the course of their times, but not terribly significant. The drums are solid in the first track but felt a bit more cluttered in "The Baroness", largely because that has a looser structure through part of its run where the guitars are drawing atmosphere unto themselves. Count Hawlok's falsetto doesn't deviate much, it's tonally appropriate to the brightness of the guitars below it, but he doesn't intersperse a lot of lower-range, grimy character here like Diamond does on some of his classic recordings, nor does he shriek out much by the way of the memorable lines that built a 35+ year career for their forebear.

As drifting back ground music, Black Wings Over Transylvania is a passable paean to the masters which doesn't really suffer from any delusions of purpose, but where so many such loving Xeroxes of classic records fail is that they don't write music that can really stand on its own beyond just that niche crowd which is looking to catch up with its childhood through a source other than the one that was....you guessed it, actually there during that childhood. Kingdom Come might have borrowed the aesthetics of Led Zeppelin to an unhealthy extent, but at least for a few years there they were writing absolutely fantastic songs in that style. Primal Fear has more Priest in its DNA than some might wish to admit, but they put such power into it that it occasionally felt like you were hearing the original at a new, contemporary level. Put quite bluntly, there is absolutely no reason whatsoever to listen to these two songs when you've got a copy of anything Kim Peter Bendix released in the 80s on hand, because even the least impressive songs of that hot streak eviscerate anything in these two. That's not to say that I think Dracula are bad, or that the material has any major issue beyond its obvious derivative nature, but when you've already got groups like In Solitude, Portrait, Attic and Trial which managed to start with such a strong KD/Fate influence and then spin off into fresher strains, a project like this faces a steep uphill battle, one it hasn't yet even begun to scale.

Verdict: Indifference [6/10]