Overkill working on new studio album

In a review with SkullNBones.com, Overkill’s frontman (Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth) revealed that their next studio album is intended to come out by October of 2016. This might be something for fans of old speed metal to look forwards to, especially if the band continues in their current vein. While Overkill always tended towards the earlier, more punk inflected forms of the subgenre, they pulled it off in a versatile fashion with some room for experimentation and elaboration, as evidenced by their famous work in the late 1980s. Overkill also has recently released a box set of their middle period work; entitled Historikill: 1995-2007, it showcases the band repeatedly trying to reinvent themselves for a new era by imitating the more rock-like (Pantera-like) material their genre inspired. It also stops short of the band finally succeeding in this regard with Ironbound, which proficiently built off their early work and made it onto this site’s best of 2010 list.

Horrendous – Anareta (2015)

Horrendous - Anareta (2015)
Horrendous is evolving. They’re not content to merely be one of our masochistic metal victims, so they’ve been gradually and haphazardly incorporating more jazz fusion and djent influences into what was previously a Heartwork inflected sound, and what continues to partially stink of it. What entertains me so much about Anareta is how neatly compartmentalized these two styles are and therefore how little they interact, making for perhaps two EPs stitched together and all sorts of increasingly implausible hypotheses about the band’s songwriting and tracking process that distract from the main issue at hand. Neither half of Anareta is exactly a sterling example of what already are difficult styles to pull off well in a metal context.

The “progressive” side of Horrendous leads off the album and appears to occupy significantly more of its runtime. This part of the recording emphasizes its internal rhythms – it is midpaced, replete with offbeats and odd time signatures, and it showcases some complicated interplay with the local guitarwork. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that the band is at least trying to make something interesting and complicated, but there are a couple of problems with their approach. One admittedly trivial (but strangely attention-grabbing) flaw is that they have no idea how to write introductions to their tracks; therefore, many of Anareta‘s tracks begin with a minute or so of pseudo-random gassing. More importantly, the emphasis on surface rhythmic complexity isn’t matched by a willingness to expand the percussive textures that underlie it. Furthermore, the guitar tracks above this, while benefiting from the rhythmic prowess of the band, rarely allow their actual riff content to escape from the traditional metal and rock tropes that hold the band back. At the very least, Horrendous will need to severely edit their tracks and develop a better sense of narrative composition in order to master this substyle.

While it’s pointless to judge whether vaguely “progressive” metal is better or worse than generic melodeath and Stockholm syndrome, the gradual shift in emphasis towards the former over the band’s career suggests that if they keep going, they might have a genuinely good album on their hands in a few years. Anareta definitely hasn’t reached that point yet, being too haphazard and scatterbrained in its ambitions to really hit home, while still occasionally lapsing into straight up generic guitar pop.

Melechesh – Enki (2015)

Melechesh - Enki (2015)
Back in 2010, Melechesh’s previous album (The Epigenesis) made its way onto our “Best of 2010” list. I don’t know what to make of that, but this year’s batch of Melechesh doesn’t live up to that hype, despite sticking to the band’s signature mixture of streamlined extreme metal with older substyles and (importantly) a Middle Eastern folk garnish. The problem here is a common one – directionless, flat, almost random songwriting. Whether or not this afflicted previous works by the band is hopefully something someone more versed in their past might be able to shed some light on.

That the structural side of this album is so underwhelming is belied by the good first impression that Melechesh makes with their polished sound. They succeed in combining their three aesthetic streams where many bands stumble with two… or less. For instance, the band constructs almost every riff and phrase they use from vaguely exotic scales like the Phyrgian dominant, the double harmonic (“Arabic”), etc. This indicates greater dedication to the aesthetic than, for instance, Nile, and doing something similar in your own work will probably get you further in the long run than merely tossing in some instruments that are culturally relevant to what you’re trying to imitate. Not to say that Melechesh doesn’t add in extra instrumentation, but it’s skillfully incorporated into their sound to the point that it never seems incongruous. The older metal and rock elements, in comparison, don’t make themselves as immediately apparent, but they imbue this recording with a strong sense of conventional musicality that makes it easy to pick up off the shelves and listen to by the standards of its nominal genre.

The deception this entails means it took me a bit to pick up on how little of the content here was actually making its mark. Enki showcases its share of isolated musical ideas with which one could build a song, but arranges them in an entirely haphazard and arbitrary fashion. The general lack of dynamics also helps in building an environment full of interchangeable content – one entirely folk interlude (“Doorways to Irkala”) and some halfhearted soft sections does not an adequate substitute make. It may be that drone and repetition form an integral part of Melechesh’s songwriting, but the best bands to rely on such techniques don’t simply vary themselves through minor variation, but arrange such in a fashion that allows for actual in-song progression. Melechesh’s failure to do so combined with other aspects of their style make for an experience that decays to irrelevance shockingly fast.

Varathron – The Confessional of the Black Penitents (2015)

Varathron - The Confessional of the Black Penitents (2015)
As half original work (a short EP) and half live document, The Confessional of the Black Penitents seems more compilation than unified album at first glance. I wouldn’t be surprised if the live tracks were added in an attempt to increase the supposed ‘value’ of this EP, but this is one of those cases where the commercial intent of a tracklisting decision seems less important than its overall effect on how I engage with the tracks themselves.

Varathron does admittedly stick to the stereotypical “Greek” aesthetic on the original half of this EP – in this case, a combination of contemporary black metal technique and production with elements of older metal and rock. After an extended intro, the two lengthy tracks that form the core of this half tend to explore this by alternating more overtly extreme sections with slower sections similar to older works and frequently interspersed with melodic guitar leads. These tracks showcase a strength of organization and a tasteful, limited incorporation of modern metal elements in a fashion similar to that of the band’s previous album. Based on this, and compared to other bands in the Greek scene, Varathron has aged gracefully, avoiding the contrasting pitfalls of endless repetition, excess streamlining, or overextension in the name of artistic progress or even just diversity.

The live half of this recording could serve as a general survey of Varathron as reinterpreted through the band’s modern lineup, although it is lacking in the band’s 2000s output. With three of its four tracks sourced from the band’s earliest days, it showcases the often slower and sparser approach of the band’s earliest days. Even the faster, blasting components showcased on the original tracks here make some appearance, so the main difference appears to be that in their ‘classic’ era, Varathron focused more on the rhythmic and percussive elements of their music. The other live track comes from 2014’s Untrodden Corridors of Hades; this rendition does much to render it closer to the older material in sound, which helps highlight the similarity of their songwriting. The production also helps to unify these tracks – while rougher than a proper studio environment, it’s still intelligible and in some ways more polished than that of the original material.

The new studio tracks, at the very least, make The Confessional of the Black Penitents a fine purchase. Fewer will go out of their way to acquire this EP for its live component (although it is apparently Varathron’s first official live release), but it too has value, as it provides an introduction of sorts to the band’s older material.

Summoning’s Minas Morgul turns 20 this week

Summoning - Minas Morgul (2015)
On October 16th, 1995, Napalm Records released Summoning’s second album, Minas Morgul; it is arguably the first release by the band to showcase their signature sound. Minas Morgul is heavy on repetition, ambiance, and cheap keyboards, but in spite of its minimalist elements (or perhaps because of them), it’s a surprisingly sophisticated work. On full display here is Summoning’s ability to convey an overarching mood or idea without resorting to extreme aesthetic shifts or overstuffing their tracks. In the process, Summoning often leaves behind conventional black metal technique but never abandons the themes at the core of their music – war, wandering, fantasy, triumph, and so forth. The band’s next album (Dol Guldur) refines much of the technique and production surrounding this approach, but Minas Morgul is still an excellent album 20 years after its debut.

Sadist – Hyaena (2015)

Sadist - Hyaena (2015)
Despite no paucity of topics to possibly review, I took a commentator’s advice (which, for agitprop, I’m going to suggest was inspired by our call to arms) and decided to take a look at the new Sadist album that came out last week and was teased some months ago. Supposedly, Sadist inspired by earlier death metal/jazz fusion bands like Atheist and Pestilence, and I can hear where influences poke through like bones of a half-eaten carcass, but Hyaena also owes some of its genetics to the newer breeds of ‘progressive’ metalcore and djent acts, and therefore walks a fine line between the two.

Hyaena is so thoroughly permeated by its jazz influence that it often sounds like a group of jazz musicians approaching metal, as opposed to the more familiar opposite. There’s certainly a great deal of surface complexity throughout this album. First, it often favors the sort of off-beat syncopation and polyrhythm over 4/4 beat type of percussion popularized by Meshuggah and sons. Secondly, Sadist crams in a great deal of synthesizer and sample presence, including plenty of “tribal” percussion that probably synergizes with the lyrical/visual aspects of this album. What begins to tip me off that this might not just be a mess of pseudo-progressive tropes is Sadist’s adept understanding of modulation and tonality – unlike many bands that play around with it, they actually manage to use this to write more flexible riffs and build some of the changes into their song structures. That is definitely not a mere surface strength.

With further listening, it becomes apparent that Hyaena‘s main strength as an album is its ability to integrate its musical aspects into a coherent whole; as a result, I am willing to forgive some of its weaknesses… which primarily revolve around the fact that this integration sometimes means questionable elements make their way into the album’s sound. For instance, I’m not too fond of some of the sounds used by the keyboardist, but the actual content of the keyboard lines here fits in nicely with the rest of the band, as they end up alternating between providing textural reinforcement and actual counterpoint. This does wonders for the songwriting, as Sadist goes beyond merely using instrumentation to distinguish song sections. It helps that they have two strong sources of musical language that they can pull on for basic elements, but such a potent tool would do little in the hands of a band that failed to integrate those halves.

Needless to say, this puts Sadist at least on a higher level than some of the other metal themed jazz bands. Those with a serious fusion/metalcore/djent allergy will want to stay away, as the ‘heavy’ side of this album seems to lean more core in its aesthetics than not. Still, there is some real depth to this music, even if some of the surface elements seem to chase contemporary trends.

Stryper – Fallen (2015)

Stryper - Fallen (2015)

Christianity as an ‘attack’ on metal might not be as trendy as it used to be, but Stryper never got the message. They reformed in 2003, and someone out there has to be buying their albums, right? The Billboard 200 seems to think so, and the existence of Fallen means, at the very least, that there is still an audience of Christian evangelists that a shrewd marketer can take advantage of. Add to that a more technically skilled visual artist for your cover and some minor updates to your image to make you trendy for this decade, and you get a more religiously acceptable way to listen to some modern pop music and then quickly forget about it.

Make no mistake about it – Stryper is certainly Christian propaganda. I don’t think anyone goes to Stryper looking for an intelligent portrayal of Christianity’s tenets (as opposed to said propaganda), but I could be mistaken about this. They certainly won’t succeed, because Fallen sticks to a fairly basic set of lyrical/ideological templates. A couple of songs here are simple retellings of scriptural events. A few others are songs of victimhood and impending eternal salvation, which are also theologically shallow. Like many other Christian musicians, Stryper also falls victim to the tendency to write thinly disguised secular love songs, but that’s hardly a selling point. I wasn’t expecting otherwise from this band, but given how many anti-Christian bands fall through the DMU meat grinder, it’s occasionally interesting to see another side’s agitprop in comparison to their rough equivalent here, like generic simplified Satanic or nationalist themes.

Backing this up is a fairly generic hard rock band that admittedly trends more pompous and theatrical than average for the style. This is likely a throwback to the band’s “glam” past, but it makes for an understandably vocal heavy experience. Michael Sweet is a reasonably talented singer, but he seems to obsess with multitracking his voice, especially during Fallen‘s multitude of Big Dumb Choruses™. Besides the vox, there really isn’t much to latch onto here. It’s possible that more traditional metal technique has crept back into Stryper’s sound since their halcyon days of commercial success in the 1980s, but with 30 years of production wizardry in the mean time, it can be hard to tell. The band also throws in a cover of Black Sabbath’s “After Forever” for what are presumably lyrical reasons, and even in its more vocally bombastic form here, it outdoes Fallen‘s originals in mood and organization. It does not bode well for you to be outdone by your choice of covers.

In the long run, Stryper is too inoffensive to draw my hatred, but I am certain the local community will be more than willing to savage this album.

Grave – Out of Respect For the Dead (2015)

Grave - Out of Respect For the Dead (2015)
As a death metal listener, I always ended up favoring the more melodic, complex substyles as exemplified by the work of bands like At The Gates and Necrophobic. Grave isn’t those, never was them, and probably will never will be. I can’t really fault them for their lack of ambition, but the impression I derived from previews of this album’s tracks seems generally accurate. Out of Respect for the Dead is an adequate recording, considering that it’s a retread of a basic style with few detours into others, but the aforementioned lack of ambition makes it difficult to appreciate the expertise Grave displays in their small niche.

As a deathpop album, this succeeds and fires on more cylinders than much of the other deathpop I’ve listened to in recent months. The song structures, while generally basic and reliably verse/chorus, show some expertise in hiding it through simple techniques like varying up the bridges and not forcing the vocalist to repeat the title of the song every 15 seconds. Furthermore, Grave tends to shove their most memorable riffs towards the beginning of each track; while this is a compositional limitation to be overcome, it’s a good idea from a commercial stance since it’ll at least recapture the attention of audience members whose interest might end up fading otherwise. Other hooks are carefully sprinkled throughout the tracks – the occasional “big” riff combined with some skilled use of tempo and texture shifts helps to maintain a basic level of musicality and memorability throughout the album. The product remains simple and accessible enough in spite of its consistent death metal aesthetic; and thusly Grave is guaranteed to sell albums, although I don’t know how much money they’re actually making off their musical legacy since the death metal niche is still not particularly large.

These successes are assuredly not enough to push Grave to the top of the Swedeath pile. They’ve clearly practiced their style to the point that it’s probably trivial for them to pump out a new album semi-regularly. However, most of the strong points of these songs merely make me wish that Out of Respect for the Dead was more ambitious in its songwriting. A failure in that regard is arguably more noble than a lack of effort, although from a philosophical stance that’s not a debate of particular importance or merit, especially when other bands have succeeded. If you absolutely need ultra-basic death metal in the Swedish vein, though, this will probably satisfy your needs.

Unleashed – Dawn of the Nine (2015)

Unleashed - Dawn of the Nine (2015)
There is no real difference between Dawn of the Nine and an album from a more mainstream Viking themed death metal themed heavy rock band (which, at this point in the history of the universe, means Amon Amarth). Sure, Unleashed is less consonant and theoretically more chromatic, but you’re still listening to an especially standardized and formulaic pop music product, even if Unleashed arguably sticks closer to their original sound than the rest of Nihilist’s progeny. Still, Dawn of the Nine is at least one way to feed metalheads the infamous “death’n’roll” sound without them complaining… at least not immediately.

On this album, like others before it, Unleashed sticks to the arena rock end of the pop sphere. Consonant, monophonic melodic riffing over generic drumming, no real bass, and unvarying vocal technique probably brings to mind many of the other generic, basal Swedeath styled albums we’ve rejected over the years. The songwriting here, though, is unusually fixated on the repetition of simple choruses to a degree that few bands dare approach, even when they’re just as obvious. Therein lies the tragedy of Unleashed, at least in the present – the guitarists have developed a sense of melody and rhythm that would be well suited towards writing good narrative (albeit probably more traditionally styled) metal. At points, there are some genuinely interesting musical elements being thrown around, but rarely if ever are they developed upon because, shockingly enough, it’s time for the song’s chorus. Other times, the musicians toss around extremely basic musical ideas for what are presumably commercial reasons, but that at least is common throughout the industry, and even then you can justify the occasional basic break in the middle of a track as part of an effort to write a more dynamic and interesting song.

What particularly strikes me about my own opinions on Dawn of the Nine is how close they are to previous site writings on new Unleashed recordings. The emphasis on tired, overly basic rock tropes weakens the entire album beyond what its also predictable strengths of musicianship and production can recover. It’s usually not this incredibly obvious on the recordings of this band’s contemporaries, though, but someday they too may need to pander especially hard to the blockheads to retain their underground cred.

Metal riffs without distortion

As something of a followup to yesterday’s article about rearranging or otherwise reinterpreting metal for compositional purposes – Youtube guitarist VAALVLA recently uploaded a video showcasing the main riffs of some popular metal and rock songs played clean and without any guitar distortion.

This was insightful and/or gimmicky enough to earn the attention of a couple other metal journalism websites, and it helps to reveal, on some level, the difference in technique between, for example, a Slayer and a Pantera song. A drum track was provided, but it doesn’t detract from the lesson at hand. VAALVLA also has several other videos in a similar vein that may be interesting to our readers.