Slayer – Repentless (2015)

Slayer - Repentless (2015)

It probably bears mentioning that I consider Hell Awaits to be Slayer’s peak. While it could’ve used a larger recording budget, it showcased some of the band’s most elaborate and well-written compositions. The band didn’t generally follow up on this approach on later albums, but you can hear the lessons applied on the rest of Slayer’s classic ’80s material, and therein lies a lesson. At their peak, Slayer had obvious songwriting formulas, but were able to go build more elaborate and memorable works due to their solid understanding of song structure.

Repentless is Slayer’s 3rd attempt to recapture something else of that era. The production standards are admittedly better (although Slayer generally had good producers working for them in the past as well), but everything else is the stereotypical speed/death assault that the band helped pioneer. Paul Bostaph and Gary Holt serve as adequate substitutes for the departed Dave Lombardo and the deceased Jeff Hanneman (R.I.P), carrying on general stylistic trends without rocking the boat too much. That this is a commercially viable endgame for popular metal bands is something I expect to be one of the major themes of my tenure here at DMU. Even now, though, cracks are showing in the war ensemble – Tom Araya’s vocals are a major stylistic weak point on Repentless. His shouts have become more “extreme” and insistent in recent years, but his ability to vary his vocal techniques has all but collapsed. This album’s prosody is the worst casualty yet, as he delivers these monotonous shouts in unvarying rhythms; the effect is essentially the same as shouting nursery rhymes into a megaphone from your neighborhood rooftops.

Araya’s weaknesses are particularly damning on an album that relies so heavily on vocals to retain the listener’s attention, especially when everyone else on the recording is so competently unremarkable. We live in the age of self-referential Slayer, a long darkness that our learned scholars perhaps debate the duration of in their moments of distraction. Repentless is essentially a more formulaic version of previous Slayer albums that themselves were a simplification of their own predecessors. It’s very likely that the songs here sound marginally more like classic Slayer than those on Christ Illusion or World Painted Blood, but their unwillingness (or inability) to expand on basics renders them ultimately pointless. I can’t fault the band for continuing, though; previous recordings, while underwhelming, more than satiate an omnivorous fanbase who will probably go back to Reign in Blood after a while.

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Cruciamentum – Charnel Passages (2015)

Cruciamentum - Charnel Passages (2015)
AKA Unholy Cult II. I suppose it would be unreasonable to ask Cruciamentum’s full length debut after several years of formative demos, EPs, and a brief period of disunion not to be instrumentally refined and polished as crystal clear as death metal allows; I reference Immolation’s 2002 effort not because Charnel Passages is a clear aesthetic match for it (although both are more melodic than the usual straight-ahead DM while not quite qualifying for the “melodic” buzzword), but the sense of rising formulas that could very well strangle any band.

What bugs me most about Charnel Passages is that Cruciamentum is competent. The members know how to construct lengthy, relatively varied death metal songs that avoid the worst excesses of the random and nonsensical. This puts them far ahead of most of the disorganized or simply flat acts out there. Presumably, their study of various greats in the genre has taught them how to construct riffs, drum patterns, song sections from their various influences and recombine them as desired. While they lean primarily on the percussive, rhythmically complex style of the old New York death metal scene, there are tinges of so many other contributors to death metal scattered throughout. These are minuscule at best and don’t draw much attention to their incongruities unless the listener is actively searching for them. Ultimately, it works in the band’s favor, and these incorporated influences showcase them as knowledgeable musicians passionate about their beloved death metal recordings and able to assemble new tracks with no major flaws in their construction.

However, Charnel Passages fails to rise beyond this level of stewardship. It is as if they are so devoted to imitating the great moments of the past that they are unable to build off them. In the process of listening to this album for review, I was constantly bombarded with moments where I found a transition slightly jarring, a breakdown slightly overblown, a blasting section more out of obligation than of narrative strength. Were I less attentive, I would probably not notice these, but they would still gradually push me away and towards proven classics. As a result, while it probably meets the average listener’s standards and will force its way onto many a best-of list of 2015, I expect it to be condemned to obscurity in the long run, popping up occasionally in internet discussions of “lost gems of the 2010s”. If it weren’t so close to being a good record, this wouldn’t be as much of a tragedy.

To be honest, it’s possible I may end up giving Cruciamentum the benefit of the doubt in the long run. Critics have been known to double back on their old opinions from time to time, and considering its level of quality, Charnel Souls seems like the sort of album I could change my position on very easily.

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Mgła – Exercises in Futility (2015)

Mgła - Exercises in Futility (2015)

A recent discovery of mine, if far from a newcomer to metal music; Mgła plays a sort of streamlined melodic black metal on Exercises in Futility. There are no real divergences from this formula, even in their slightest form, and even any residual rock or traditional metal influence is assimilated deeply into the overall sound and form of the music. It’s easy to pass this album off as repetitive, dull, and pointless at first glance, but the constraints of this style have bred some much-needed creativity. Continued listening highlights the band’s ability to successfully vary their compositions in a narrower range than most of my recent reviews. This is a difficult skill to learn, and its payoff is often subtle to the point of inaudibility, but the band’s efforts paid off; they’ve secured this listener’s interest and showcased their potential prowess as songwriters.

In general, Mgła leans towards the consonant, the ambient, and (at moments of weakness) the predictable. Exercises in Futility is driven primarily by very simplistic riffs and sometimes even single chord drones, but frequently overlays melodic, treble heavy guitar lead counterpoint over the exceptionally basic chord patterns that serve as its foundation. The rhythm section is muted in comparison to the guitars, but it dutifully follows their acrobatics by offering up its own new patterns as the tracks evolve. While I rarely found my ears focusing in on the drums, I was pleased by how the drummer didn’t treat his subsidiary position as an excuse to mindlessly blast or simply keep time. This was more of a problem with the vocalist, who admittedly also handles guitar and bass. For how prominently the vocals are mixed, the unending sameness of their techniques and how unaffected they are by any other aspect of the recording is quite a setback. Still, the instrumentation tends better than the alternative (incompetence), and when every metal band with a budget can assume their performances will be studio quality, the ability to add nuance is quite important.

Exercises in Futility is still not a particularly diverse album, although it doesn’t necessarily need to be one to be worthy of attention. Its biggest weakness is most likely that its tracks don’t develop particularly well over their duration, although the songs at least have clear (if basic) structures, which suggests some non-trivial effort towards this end. Other problems with this recording are relatively trivial in comparison, as strength of narrative/communication is perhaps the one aspect this genre’s elites can safely say they share. To truly unlock their own potential, the band members will have to cut repetition and achieve a greater level of focus and precision when constructing their songs. They may very well be able to pull it off if they’re willing to put forth the effort.

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Iron Maiden – The Book Of Souls (2015)

Iron Maiden - The Book Of Souls (2015)
Iron Maiden’s main strength in their 1980s heyday was their ability to incorporate progressive rock tropes (and therefore useful techniques for song variation and extension) into what was otherwise a fairly standard, if well executed poppy heavy metal sound. Not the rarest trick in the book, but more than enough to turn the band into a commercial juggernaut whose influence can sometimes be heard even in the deepest dregs of the underground.

On first impression, The Book of Souls ages gracefully, offering an aesthetic mostly similar to the band’s earliest recordings with Bruce Dickinson if understandably and obviously brought up to modern production standards. Like the rest of the band’s latter day material however, it leans ever closer towards its prog-isms, resulting in several enormous tracks and inflating the content into a full-fledged double album. The unfortunate weakness of these epics is that they are replete with filler of questionable value to a track, and as the length of these albums and tracks grow ever longer, so does the tedium, as Iron Maiden’s ability to extend a track beyond 7-8 minutes or so has not advanced along with them. Tracks end up overwhelmed by moments stunningly reminiscent of old hooks and hit singles (for instance, the intro of “Shadows of the Valley” seems to channel “Wasted Years” from Somewhere In Time), and the true nature of the band’s recent weakness reveals itself.

Iron Maiden has become a band split between two souls that they are unable to effectively reconcile. Their urge to extend their songwriting and write metal epics is held back by their need to continuously sound like Iron Maiden and the corresponding need to push hit singles. Paring down some of the worst excesses would probably be the most profitable option, since the band has demonstrated many times through their career that they can handle some degree of extension. Even then, Iron Maiden is competing with their own past; a past that is more virile (if not as slickly produced or musically experienced) and still easily experienced at their live concerts. I expect this album to jump off the shelves of record shores for still being recognizably Iron Maiden, for having some memorable and well-written moments and for being a valid way to financially support the band, but as a work of music, I don’t expect it to retain much listener interest after its marketing blitz subsides.

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Krallice – Ygg Hurr (2015)

Krallice - Ygg Hurr (2015)

In one of the greatest misfiles of the 21st century, Krallice was labeled a sort of black metal band despite not even trying to ape the style on even the most basic level. Maybe there’s a few seconds that perfunctorily resemble the sort of chaotic ‘avant-garde’ black metal of a Deathspell Omega or whatever the kids are listening to these days. Krallice pulls more on the lengthy tradition of post-black – playing anything so long as you’re insistent that you’re beyond the juvenilia of the genre and/or that you’re pushing its musical and ideological boundaries. As a result, Ygg Hurr showcases every idea that Krallice’s members must have thought was even marginally cool, without any cohesive logic or anything in the way of quality filtering. Six Sigma this is not.

Every second of Ygg Hurr takes on a different meter, rhythm, tempo, tonality, and so forth. The band members definitely paid attention in their musical theory classes, and attempting to dissect any of the songs here would certainly yield a plethora of technical terms describing these tracks down to the note. It bears noting that compared to many other albums in similar styles, Krallice does not back up this writhing mess with unconventional instrumentation. That they stick to standard rock instrumentation makes this album less of a headache than it might be otherwise, but it further reveals weak production that probably caused a few executives at Profound Lore to tug at their collars. Outside of the record industry, its lack of intensity or at least atmosphere simply makes it even harder to take seriously as a “black metal” album. Calling it mathcore or “progressive” rock might make for more fruitful marketing, but ultimately, Krallice lacks the compositional range to pass for good examples of either.

Ironically, Krallice approaches flatness from the opposite approach of I usually hear. Instead of dwelling on one simplistic idea for an enormous quantity of time, Krallice abandons all their previous concepts like clockwork because it’s already time for the next riff. Constant change unmediated by anything resembling discipline makes for a particularly pseudorandom take on droning boredom, but it’s boredom none the less. This is stunningly reminiscent of the “horseshoe theory” in political science, which states that extreme political leftness and rightness converge more than expected. I don’t actually know or particularly care about any political goals of Krallice (At this point, it’s safer to assume there aren’t any), but my interest in history and especially its political aspects predisposes me to make such a comparison. The ensuing product is as bland as its musically simpler counterparts.

I really need to brush up on my mathematics so I can make a proper reference to deterministic chaos and attractors, but even without such a metaphor it should be apparent that Krallice’s music isn’t very well thought out. They favor what sounds experimental when their time would be better spent taking some of the ideas on display and developing them.

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Motörhead – Bad Magic (2015)

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Motörhead (n.): Consistency, especially over a long period of time

The way I see it, time has not been much of anything at all to Motörhead, positive or negative. Every few years sees another album, with gradually improving production standards and gradually evolving vocals from Lemmy Kilmister. It’s been a very long time since the band experimented with its formula. Essentially, Motörhead’s formula is so basic (blues rock amped up until it becomes metal and sped up or slowed down as necessary) that they’ve been able to keep pumping out consistent work to this point, and Bad Magic keeps this going despite Lemmy’s recent health scares.

The art of Motörhead is very much like that of oat porridge, perhaps with a bit of cinnamon or fruit for flavor. You can’t go into this expecting anything but very basic, especially blues inflected heavy/speed metal. This extends to the songwriting, which I can accept considering that there’s no pretensions of being sophisticated or experimental or Myrkur or whatever the target of the day is. Perhaps the instrumentation is a bit more complicated than on something like Overkill or Ace of Spades, but Bad Magic is separated from such formative works by decades of technological advance and metal marketing. This recording still has much in common with its predecessors, and you could reasonably make the argument that since Motörhead keeps making mostly the same albums, they aren’t adding much by churning these out.

On the other hand, consistency is a virtue of its own, and in many ways, Bad Magic is a safe, sane, and predictable purchase. A slightly more refined and more technical Motörhead album, preparation for whatever concerts they might be able to play in their area, and most likely more enjoyment and value than some of the gimmicky recordings in this genre. It might be better for neophytes to start with earlier work, but as a relatively basic “more of the same” type album, Bad Magic is certainly a success. There really isn’t much to say beyond that, and I trust readers can make an informed decision about whether new Motörhead is something they want in their lives.

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Voivod – Negatron (1996)

voivod_-_negatron

In the mid-1990s, it became clear that death metal and black metal had run through their formative and matured material and were now in decline, so bands experimented with developing older styles of metal using the new techniques. Voivod dropped Negatron into this period with a fusion of Ministry, old Voivod and Master of Puppets-era Metallica accented by alternative rock vocals. The result came about a decade before the audience was ready.

Continuity from classic Voivod remains present throughout in not the odd riffs, angular melodies, inverted guitar chords and challenging tempo changes but also the overall sensibility, which creates a sense of unease and infinite possibility at the same time as is appropriate for the sci-fi theme of the band. That impulse translates into Ministry-styled industrial-influenced percussion and the complex phrase-based but rhythmically-centered riffing of mid-period Metallica, creating a smooth fusion that can hold its own against mainstream heavyweights like Pantera, who dominated speed metal at the time. Instead of focusing on easy grooves however, Voivod center their music around disruption and order emerging from chaos, giving these alternative-rock style choruses built around the vocal a space to expand and a strong musical bedrock on which to develop. Vocalist/bassist Eric Forrest gives a strained vocal cord performance which adds to the urgency of the material, and creates a sinister suspension of what we normally think of as reality.

The creative riffs of classic Voivod are here, but bent and twisted around complex rhythms and given more standard power chords to anchor them around an increasingly irresistible rhythm. Like most of mid-90s metal, Negatron anticipates the underground being re-absorbed into the larger world of metal, and does so with distorted vocals and death metal strumming techniques mixed in with the progressive speed metal touches from earlier bands. What propels this album forward is its ability to bring out an underlying narrative and reveal a hidden side to the previous explanation for how its pieces fit together, causing — like good death metal, or even Carbonized which it periodically resembles — a sensation of discovery for the listener. Its task was Herculean because the type of listener who likes mainstream power metal will probably find this inscrutable, and underground listeners balked at the Nirvana-plus-Amebix vocal stylings. Their loss, because this album provides solid speed metal with the best integration of progressive and industrial influences yet seen.

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Nile – What Should Not Be Unearthed (2015)

Nile - What Should Not Be Unearthed (2015)

Nile’s latest begins topical, with a blastfest themed after the recent years of strife in the Middle East. This is going to date the album some years from now, but from a commercial stance it’s still an excellent idea, certain to create buzz and boost the band’s reputation. They take a pot shot at a common enemy, and continue their legacy of Egyptian mythological themes in standard, professionally produced “brutal” death metal. All in a day’s work for the deathpop industry.

Surprisingly, I am not rehashing my thoughts on Infernus from a few days back like I expected I would when I first began researching this recording. On What Should Not Be Unearthed, Nile contributes to the corpus of accessible mainstream death metal in a broadly similar fashion to their Rutanian brethren, but in a fashion I find far less obnoxiously flat. It seems that Nile’s members have a better grasp of pop songwriting (and importantly, how to incorporate the instrumentation and technique of death metal into such formulas) that could potentially earn them enormous amounts of money if they were to sell their service as songwriters.

Nile’s Egyptologist trappings are one of their big gimmicks and therefore makes necessary discussion whenever they are brought up. The ideas certainly permeate the lyrics, but rarely go beyond that, with the notable exception of the occasional short filmic “Egyptian”/Middle Eastern interludes. There is nothing I can say for or against their authenticity, but few if any of the musical ideas they present in these asides make their way into the metal side of the songwriting. The constant usage of various musical scales and modes, though, might appear to be missing link for listeners not used to the general chromaticism and/or tonal experimentation of your average death metal band. The idea occasionally turns into a Billboard-style pop hook (see the intro to “Evil To Cast Out Evil” for an obvious example), though, and that’s probably good enough for Nuclear Blast.

Dwelling too much on Nile’s gimmick, though, is like only eating the plastic topper off an extremely sugary wedding cake. What Should Not Be Unearthed hasn’t got much in the way of coherent song structures or direction, and that’s why you’ll probably forget about it after a few spins. Judging from the content here, the band members understand on a basic level that they need to vary their parameters throughout a song in order to not come across as a vague buzzing sound. When they try to go beyond basic pop formulas, though, they collapse into stereotypical alternating blasting sections and breakdowns and occasionally make me giggle by, for instance, pitch bending a guitar harmonic chord at the beginning of the title track. It’s nominally better than no variation, but it’s going to take a lot more thought and organizational work than what’s on display here to write intelligent tracks.

Ambition is nothing without preparation, though, and Nile remains strongest (and commercially strongest) as musicians and songwriters when they stick to their basic deathpop. In that regard, What Should Not Be Unearthed is a partial success, and the rest probably… should not be unearthed.

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Order from Chaos – Frozen in Steel (2014)

Order from Chaos – Frozen in Steel (2014)

Review written by Daniel Maarat for DMU

The complete career recordings of unsung underground legends Order from Chaos have been definitely reissued by Nuclear War Now! Productions in five CD and nine and 12 LP boxed sets. These afford listeners the chance to experience the clear progression and compositional refinement from the band’s primitive Hellhammer, Sodom, and first wave beginnings. The LP editions have the usual analog distortion of vinyl and the peculiarities of GZ’s direct metal mastering. Fortunately, the CDs are well mastered with identical sound to the original pressings though the vinyl editions have the bonus of a 124-page hardbound book with lyrics, personal photos, and a biography of the band.

Stillbirth Machine opens with an excerpt from Ligeti’s “Requiem”and immediately proceeds into angular riffed, Teutonic deaththrash. Only intros and outros distract from the aural assault. The guitar tone resembles Swedish death metal with the fully dimed Boss Heavy Metal pedals but the production was marred by the inconsistent levels of a drunk seventies rock producer manning the knobs in an aging studio. The follow up Plateau of Invincibility EP is similar in material but self-recorded onto eight-track tape. This more amateur but consistent (e.g. no noise burst solos) production would continue for the rest of Order from Chaos’s career.

Dawn Bringer continued the compositional elaboration. The songs were more experimental and the melody that characterizes guitarist Chuck Keller’s and drummer Mike Miller’s future band, Ares Kingdom, appears on a twisted cover of Voivod’s “War and Pain.” The martial marching beats of the hybrid war metal sub-genre of first wave black metal and the three chord, hardcore punk side of grindcore was birthed too. Ending everything is the start of the intentional raw noise for which that bastard sub-genre is known as Keller pries off his guitar strings and pickups at full volume to end the album on “Webs of Perdition.”

An Ending in Fire shows the perfectionism that differentiated Order from Chaos from most of their contemporaries in the death and black metal scenes to even the most passive listeners. Earlier riffs and songs were rearranged with completely new material into three epic compositions. The songwriting focused on clever compositional coherency and melodic congruity rather than the random masturbation and showmanship of technical death metal. “Conqueror of Fear” twisted many of the band’s similar, Teutonic works into a flowing five-track declaration of bassist Pete Helmkamp’s existential, social Darwinist philosophy later laid out in his controversial Conqueror Manifesto. “There Lies Your Lord! Father of Victories!” was wholly original to the album and among Keller’s best guitar work. “Somnium Helios” updated the punky “Nucleosynthesis” from the Will to Power EP as the beginning of a requiem for the Earth’s future solar immolation. Order from Chaos broke up after An Ending in Fire’s recording, considering the album as fulfilling the band’s musical vision. The session outtakes were released as the And I Saw Eternity EP included in the set. This is true progressive heavy metal. Speaking more of musical specifics and the evolution of individual riffs and songs is best left for future articles as that would spoil listeners’ enjoyment.

Frozen in Steel is a fantastic value for fans. Purchasing just Order from Chaos’s three albums alone would cost well over a hundred dollars on the secondary market. Nuclear War Now! Productions should be commended for offering all the band’s studio material along with the extra rehearsals and live shows starting at just forty. This is the most significant and well put together anthology of an extreme metal band’s collected works since Demilich’s 20th Adversary of Emptiness.

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