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.

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Carnage – …Left to Suffer in the Aftermath…

carnage_-_left_to_suffer_in_the_aftermath

In my view, the premiere Swedish death metal releases were Therion Beyond Sanctorum, At the Gates The Red in the Sky is Ours and Carnage Dark Recollections. Those who appreciate the latter may enjoy this disc of a live set from 1990, a soundcheck from 1989, and the “The Day Man Lost” demo from that same year.

This compilation/re-issue is exactly what it purports to be: a highly competent live set of the songs in the form you remember them from Dark Recollections, a brief glimpse of the more chaotic earlier live performance, and the classic demo that is mostly similar to the album. For this reason, …Left to Suffer in the Aftermath… will be essential for no one except death metal historians and those who want a less-detuned and slightly faster version of these classic songs for the “live experience” feel. The 1990 set dominates the release with its uptempo take on the Dark Recollections songs, with little if any deviation from the album, where the demo shows the details of the crustcore plus death metal fusion barely beginning to come together. The 1989 sound check shows an interesting glimpse of this band in a more vicious mood, but peters out when it gets going, and could easily be forgotten. The demo is faithful and a pleasurable rough listen.

For almost any occasion, it makes more sense to throw on Dark Recollections, especially since the re-issue contains this same demo. The live set however conveys a certain energy that studio recordings can never hope to duplicate and is a great listen for afternoons outdoors when you want something loud and chaotic but structured, sort of like the reason that people still treasure Mayhem Live in Leipzig despite the microphone-in-Satan’s-anus sound quality. Obviously, if you are still reading, you are a Swedish death metal and/or Carnage fanatic, and you probably need this on your shelf.

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Arcturus – Arcturian (2015)

Arcturus - Arcturian (2015)

Much of 2015 passed me by without commentary before I took up my position as the editor here at DMU. As the year draws ever closer to its end, I see the need to rectify that. How about some pseudo-prog? Arcturus began as a black metal band so underwhelming and half-hearted, to the point that their metamorphosis into a more obviously overwrought, melodramatic rock act on La Masquerade Infernale was actually an improvement. Their vaguely symphonic, electronic, and generally etcetera-based approach, along with a couple of other prominent bands (Borknagar, Solefald, etc) sold well around the turn of the millennium before, like most trends, people lost interest. Somewhere along the line, Arcturus decided to reform and write/sell more material.

Things haven’t changed much on Arcturian, but a few changes in the overall sound did catch my attention. There’s more synthesizers – I’d say “contemporary electronic music”, but metal musicians seem to lag a few years behind popular electronic music trends for better or worse. Furthermore, longtime collaborator Kristoffer Rygg is long gone. One thing I enjoyed about La Masquerade Infernale many years ago was his vocal performance – a powerful, assertive bass that was admittedly used primarily in this sort of post-black context. Simen Hestnæs (ICS Vortex) is similarly charismatic, but he performs in a much more heavily explored vein, so he doesn’t have novelty in his favor. Given that an album of this shape relies on aesthetic novelty to retain reader interest, that’s a strike against it. Otherwise, instrumentation here is reminiscent of Arcturus’s first two full lengths – modal, often mid-paced, sometimes drowned in symphonic instruments.

Arcturian does end up hitting some of my aesthetic buttons, but I’d be a pathological liar if I said I found it particularly interesting. The band relies primarily on varying its sound; the songwriting underneath is fairly standard. There’s a little bit of effort to vary up actual structures through use of dynamics, and techniques pulled from earlier eras of the band’s lifestyle, and there is a sinister sort of consistency here in that every track sounds different from the last. However, the emphasis on aesthetic changes over everything else basically relegates this to the level of soundtrack, presumably adequate for a high budget science fiction themed film or television series but not very interesting on its own. Nothing offensively bad or stupid here by my standards, but it’s essentially a rehash of a style that relies too heavily on its own novelty to be particularly valuable.

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Denner/Shermann – Satan’s Tomb (2015)

Denner/Shermann - Satan's Tomb (2015)

When I first became aware of this recording, I figured the obvious points of comparison would be Mercyful Fate for spawning the eponymous duo of this act, and Satan because that word was in this album’s title. Those comparisons have turned out to be less appropriate than initially expected – Satan’s Tomb draws more from recent mainstream heavy/power metal than either of those two. It’s not enough to separate them entirely from this comparison, but those expecting the second coming of Don’t Break The Oath are going to walk away disappointed for more reasons than they might expect.

What we have here is an arguably “darker” recording. There are a few overtures towards Denner and Shermann’s past in Mercyful Fate, like the harmonized guitar leads at the beginning of the title track, but musically, the members pull more on techniques popularized after the early ’80s, creating guitar sounds from a more dissonant, chromatic, abrasive source, as if the band had occasionally listened to more extreme works and allowed a tinge of their riffing style to seep in at crucial moments. The vocals also adopt a different style – Sean Peck relies on strained screams with little in the way of falsetto to make his presence known. Oddly enough given this approach, his vocals are not the prime attraction – I would go as far as to say he is subordinate to the guitarists despite his attempts to sing over them. Regardless of style, Satan’s Tomb does fairly well on the instrumental front, showing better technique and a good use of microvariation and riff diversity within its style.

The main flaw of this album is that its songwriting is particularly haphazard. One thing Denner/Shermann consistently draws from its musicians’ past is an emphasis on complicated song structures. The band members try to recapture some of this, but songs here consistently suffer from organizational problems, including one particularly ill-planned coda at the end of “War Witch”. Without anything to properly glue together more obvious transitions, songs here listen like a heap of unrelated samples, which is amusingly similar in effect to the band’s promotional trailer. More conventionally structured songs like the title track don’t suffer to this degree, but the album wouldn’t necessarily be better if it were more simply shaped. Ultimately, we’re left with a somewhat ambitious, but flawed effort – while the rest of the album is otherwise acceptable or better, structural weaknesses are, as a rule, simply too great to ignore.

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Children of Bodom – I Worship Chaos (2015)

Children of Bodom - I Worship Chaos (2015)
I think I missed this band’s big moment in the limelight. By the time I became aware of underground metal in any fashion, they’d already received a lot of flak for not playing the same style of vaguely neoclassical themed pop melodeath that they started their career with, and I steered my musical inquiries away. Apparently they’ve metamorphosed into some sort of bizarre fusion of such with overt Pantera style groove party rock, which sounds like an obvious awful, misguided idea that even the more mainstream-leaning metalheads would reject out of hand. That I Worship Chaos often juxtaposes various styles of former pop metal tends to support this hypothesis.

Underneath everything it carelessly throws at the listener, I Worship Chaos is not very artfully written. Like most pop music, it’s vocally driven, and like most pop music that adopts metal technique and aesthetics, the vocals are monotonous; in this case, they’re locked into a mid-range shriek with little in the way of timbral or rhythmic variation. The other band members are aren’t shackled to the same degree, so they take advantage of it by performing riffs and patterns reminiscent of many other previously commercially successful subgenres. Nuclear Blast probably has it down to a science – “Add a long breakdown here, and some stop-start riffing in the middle of this one song, and maybe one noisy solo after that, and we’ll earn 38% more tour ticket sales per album purchase” levels of formula that don’t exactly make for intelligent songwriting.

As a reader, you’re probably not looking for what is essentially a carnival of warmed over old pop metal and probably would avoid Children of Bodom’s latest even without our criticism. However, I Worship Chaos also fails in comparison to other recent pop metal albums. The fact it throws so many cliches at the listener (like rotting fruit) is bad enough, but the brickwalled production won’t do it any favors, either. Although it’s far from the worst example of such I’ve heard recently, the fact that the band attempts to have some dynamics (even if only by alternating obvious fast songs with obvious ballads) renders it unfitting. It does pass the major label litmus test of being otherwise competently performed and produced, but skilled musicians playing banal parts have never been on the menu here at DMU, and such does not save the band members from my displeasure.

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Satan – Atom by Atom (2015)

Satan - Atom by Atom (2015)

A good legacy and a promising single can do much to build up expectations for any album. Atom by Atom was shaping up to be a textbook example of this axiom back in September, when I first became aware of it. Having listened to the end result, I can confidently say that the band’s reformation continues to pay dividends to those who pay attention (and/or cash).

The general formula hasn’t changed since Life Sentence – Satan plays the same sort of NWOBHM/early speed metal style that they became famous for, but in a more musically adventurous fashion than they favored 30 years ago. This sort of path leads many a band to neglect the coherence and intelligibility of their songwriting, but that doesn’t turn out to be the case here. The guitarists are particularly inventive here – the melodic and consonant style they perform in belies the wide variety of riff construction techniques they’ve incorporated into these tracks. They’re particularly good at the harmonized ‘dueling leads’ that so many similar bands have adopted; lesser bands would find their musical language shackled by overuse of one mode or otherwise limited.

This power would be strong enough to draw in many a listener, but Satan’s strengths on Atom by Atom go beyond mere creative guitar wizardry, although they are still unified by an emphasis on mastering a subgenre. For instance, the vocals (which are pseudo-operatic in style) remind me somewhat of James Rivera’s contributions to Helstar in their sonority and dynamic range, although Brian Ross sings closer to the guitar lines than many similar vocalists. However, this applies most to the song structures – while Atom by Atom tends towards typical pop verse-chorus structures like so many albums before it, these songs notably don’t rely on any one specific technique to cloak this or elaborate on their musical ideas. It should not escape your notice that in doing this, Satan otherwise consistently sticks to the limits of their musical language; while the way they vary it suggests to me that they could successfully execute a major genre shift if they so desired, I find their success within a genre to be a good outcome as well.

Musically skilled, technically proficient metal may be the norm these days, but Atom by Atom also succeeds on the organizational, structural level that is lacking and often completely ignored in so many of its contemporaries. This makes it a highly worthy acquisition.

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Deafheaven – New Bermuda (2015)

Deafheaven - New Bermuda (2015)
On a less rigorous, and slightly looser site, my thoughts on New Bermuda could be expressed as something along the lines of “whatever”. The music here has been performed before by a cavalcade of metal-themed indie acts, each more individual and revolutionary than the last, yet stunningly conformist for their efforts. Deafheaven enjoys rather more media attention at the moment, even sometimes drawing our attention for their little escapades, but they’re pretty much cut from the same fabric – a few hints of loud guitars and blast beats to liven up boring sugary pop stretched far beyond the limits of its songwriting.

The stylistic deception is pretty shallow, to be honest. I found it mildly amusing that the album began with a few minutes of more overtly black metal flavored material, which was then abruptly cast off in favor of the basic rock riffing and reverb textures that Deafheaven seem to so particularly enjoy. It returns every now in then in case you forget you’re supposed to be listening to the future of black metal, but I can confidently say New Bermuda relies more on the band’s rudimentary modality (major-minor ad infinitum) than their rudimentary dynamics to occasionally wake up a sleepy listener when the soothing, inoffensive guitar strumming has lulled them into a dreamless slumber. The drumming in these sections gradually devolves into basic modern rock downbeats and timekeeping, as if to represent your transition towards a drowsy (indie) state of mind. That probably wasn’t the intent, but the idea that it could’ve been is dangerously tempting.

Now, I’m not the kind of person who tries to fall asleep to music, but were I to treat this as a collection of lullabies, it would still be fairly underwhelming. That it has loud sections at all is counterproductive for insomniacs, but even those are rather predictable in how they play out. The straight ahead black metal sections consistently move sluggishly under the blastbeats, with a vocalist who has learned but one type of shriek and a few basic vocal rhythms. Given how Deafheaven is marketed, that these sections sound like an afterthought is problematic. Maybe the album would be better if it was divested of the clearly unwanted black metal, but then you’d be left with just another unwashed (but charmingly patchouli and spice scented) post-rock/emo/indie-pop album essentially indistinguishable from all the others and guaranteed to gather dust after something newer and more exciting comes out.

I slept well last night. What about you?

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Alexander Jacob – Richard Wagner: Der Ring Des Nibelungen (2015)

alexander_jacob_-_richard_wagner_der_ring_des_nibelungen

On his previous album of classical piano interpretations of the music of Richard Wagner, Alexander Jacob converted a contemplative opera into an ambient soundtrack in which melodies emerged evanescent and drifted toward the surface. With Richard Wagner: Der Ring Des Nibelungen, Jacob takes the more robust thematic material of that opera and makes from it an album of stormy but passionate classical piano pieces as we might find from Chopin or Brahms.

The piano attacks these pieces with a stormy bluster followed by periods of long contemplative expansion on the melodies, compressing lengthy operas into a classical piece that can easily fit into the listening of a normal classical listener, with more of a Romantic style on piano than the hybrid Romantic-Modernist style of the Wagner operas. In this, Jacob and the transcribers Richard Kleinmichel and Karl Klindworth translate Wagner into an entirely different style while distilling his lengthy compositions to the internal dialogue of complex but approachable pieces.

Where the last album occurred as waves of ambient melody as fit Parsifal, for the more sturm und drang material of the Ring cycle Richard Wagner: Der Ring Des Nibelungen takes an appropriately forthright approach in reducing many layers of orchestration and voices to a piano monologue. As an introduction to Wagner, this album may be more approachable than the first, although that may show more of Wagner’s technique in composition as it distinguishes itself from others. For those who want a classical piano experience that delivers intensity without veering into bombast, Richard Wagner: Der Ring Des Nibelungen will be a delight.

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Morbid Angel – Entangled In Chaos (1996)

Morbid Angel - Entangled In Chaos (1996)

With Earache Records promising us a re-release of this live album on vinyl in October, and an otherwise quiet week of upcoming relevant releases, I thought it might be a good idea to give this a more detailed look. Live albums are fundamentally interesting on a few levels – their attempts to capture something of the experience of a concert, their value as documentation of a period in a band’s career, the chance to possibly hear reinterpretations of favored songs, and so forth. Entangled in Chaos came out at the tail end of Morbid Angel’s commercial golden age and before the band tried to reinvent itself with Formulas Fatal to the Flesh. The product is low on references to the previously banal Domination for whatever reason, although whether that’s due to timing or creative reasons is beyond my knowledge.

These rerecordings end up more polished and standardized than the originals for the second time in MA’s discography, as the long holdovers from 1986 already got the Lemon Pledge treatment when they first entered the studios. Sometimes, the end results are rather stripped down; for obvious reasons studio adornments aren’t available, and Trey Azagthoth’s guitar solos are consistently altered from their original forms. Hearing the band’s earliest material with a production closer to Covenant or Domination is mildly interesting, to say the least, although the concessions to a live environment often cost these tracks some of their power and more musically interesting aspects. The performances are otherwise faithful to a fault, as such strict reproductions leave little room for reinterpretation… with the caveat that this is difficult to do successfully in a metal context and in this case might’ve resulted in an undesirable Domination II or similar.

There are not very many essential live albums in the realm of metal, and you can probably do without Entangled in Chaos in most cases. If you absolutely need to hear Morbid Angel playing relatively faithful but not particularly passionate renditions of their first era or are otherwise a collector, though, this rerelease may be to your tastes.

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Malevolent Creation – Dead Man’s Path (2015)

Malevolent Creation - Dead Man's Path (2015)

Malevolent Creation has been in my listening backlog for many, many years on the strength of a few tracks from Retribution. I never got to them, because I was constantly distracted by trendier bands (brands). When I first acquired Dead Man’s Path, I theorized that since the band’s been around for nearly 30 years and retains some of its original members, this was not going to be a major stylistic departure from those past works lest long-time fans abandon them in droves. The flipside of this, as evidenced by my experience with similar types of recent releases such as Repentless, is that I expected that regardless of the final quality, I expected a streamlined version of MC’s past style.

My listening throws this into question. Malevolent Creation’s early works tended towards the ancestral end of death metal, with obvious speed/thrash metal roots poking out of an otherwise standard monophonic, dissonant approach. Dead Man’s Path recalls something of this, but as predicted, it turned out more conventionally musical, with more consonant melody and a denser production (out with Scott Burns and in with Dan Swanö). Add in a somber march of an intro, and a renewed emphasis on vocal patterns, and you have a release that has definitely streamlined itself. It doesn’t rock the boat much, and it does still pass the aesthetic litmus tests that define death metal, but the production and packaging isn’t particularly interesting to write about beyond its most basic qualities.

Unlike most of the bands that take this approach, however, Malevolent Creation does a good job of applying their musical practice to write better songs. To my understanding, they were never a particularly complex act, and most of these songs rely at least in part on obvious verses and choruses. However, good use of tempo and rhythm shifts in particular keep things from getting too skull-crushingly obvious and predictable. The band members also showcase enough compositional awareness to move integral song elements around between tracks to obfuscate the formulas a bit. I would personally have liked to hear more variation in riff styles, as some of the songs here (“Corporate Weaponry” in particular) suggest that such could be successfully incorporated while retaining the strong points of the band’s approach. That, however, is a small flaw in an otherwise very solid package.

To be fair, I was not expecting the strengths of Dead Man’s Path to be so covert, but they are the sort of elements that take some time to properly dissect and understand. However, this makes it a more valuable and perhaps integral work than most of what passes through the review queue here.

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