Remains – Angels Burned

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If there is ever a death metal album to break your heart, it is Remains Angels Burned: a collection of excellent riffs and ideas which never fully make it to realization, resulting in an album with filler and disorganization predominating over concepts that should stand on their own.

Many of these riffs show a detailed study of the past three decades of death metal and picking up on patterns which had potential to be developed in other ways, and doing so, but the songs feel like sketches where great riffs form the center but much of the rest is filled-in with junker riffs, e.g. bounce on the same chord a few times or a chromatic fill with no shape. Inevitably it will be compared to Suffocation Breeding the Spawn, which similarly created a “hasty” feel with many good ideas suspended in technique alone. With more time to think through these songs, Remains could have isolated the point they wanted listeners to get to as a culmination, instead of repeating it and then patching together a song.

Two basic conditions destroy death metal albums: being predictable and being disorganized. This falls under the latter, with as a consequence of its disorganization, a tendency to fill in song form without content. This is a crushing shame since there are so many amazing riffs and fertile ideas which get lost in the flood. If I had a wish for the new year, it would be that Remains get back in the practice room — not the studio — and rework this album until its brilliance outshines its disadvantages.

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Akashah – Eagna an Marbh

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Akashah starts with Iron Maiden styled heavy metal and mixes in diverse influences ranging from the speed/death metal of Absu, the lengthy melodic passages of Dissection, the grandeur of viking-era Bathory, the odd grooves of 80s Gothic rock and the strange sad simple melodies of neofolk. Add to this choruses that are more infectious than Ebola on a bath house water fountain and you have the fundamental Akashah approach. Songs do not reach for unrealistic symmetry as bad music in the 1990s did, but find a catchy phrase and then expand upon it in a circular way that gratifies all of the emotional potential it has without delivery release.

The music that pours out as a result is sentimental like heavy metal but with the more advanced technique of putting energy into the riffs themselves and using them in a dramatic way. It approximates the narrative stream of newer death metal and black metal as a result, but the band clearly favors emotional moments — and this band is more outright and unconcealedly emotional than most bands on the heavier side of rock — and so goes back to a satisfying verse-chorus pair to hash that out, interrupting this loop to introduce tension with new riffs but not as frequently as might prevent a certain sense of being worn down by the listener. At times it resembles the black metal/heavy metal/doom metal hybrid of early Varathron in its riff phrasing. While the band writes excellent riffs both within known forms and of a nature entirely unique to themselves, songs follow the heavy metal format and so do not vary internal riffs as much, which leads to a loss of inertia on some of these longer songs; in addition, some melodies are too evenly balanced which creates overly-symmetrical phrases paired to repetitive vocal rhythms that are too obvious or too complete, giving the songs a jingle-like nature.

Inevitably, people will compared Akashah to Absu: the same speed metal infusion into heavy metal marks the heavier riffs on this album, as does the reliance on what feels like Celtic or central European melodies with insanely catchy choruses. Moments on Eagna an Marbh compare favorably with the best from black metal and heavy metal, but this album badly needs an edit to keep from feeling repetitive and to develop some of these ideas outside the chorus cycle. Nonetheless, there are riffs on this album that show up nowhere else and many moments of fine songwriting that, if properly channeled, could make for an A-level metal album.

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Woodtemple – Hidden in Eternal Shadow

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For those who wanted more of Following the Voice of Blood, Woodtemple approximates this style in longer songs that allow a range of emotion to create a backstory to the dominant mood of darkness and ambiguity. Often these take the form of folksinger style acoustic (or at least sans distortion) strumming of simple melodies which reflect often pastoral moods, before contrast with abrupt tempo change to the darker black metal tremolo or churning slow strum in the style inspired by Mayhem/Thorns but taken to a darker place. While these two tracks sound like they could have come off the Graveland album, the emotional outlook for Woodtemple is both more naturalistic and more varied.

Vocals follow an entirely open pattern that comments at half-speed to the pace of the riff, with guitars enfolding internal texture through strumming speed and variation among strings creating an empty and lonely sound, allowing songs to background drums to a faster pace without making the guitars pick up speed, although creating a background of urgency. Often dual guitar tracks create a clear voice of simple strumming over a brooding, distorted sound, building up a tension of instability and threat within the sound. Songs tend to move in a cyclic pattern through multiple riffs that return to a chorus riff and vocal pattern through the contrast created by other pairs of riffs warring it out to establish a mood to contrast the dominant theme.

Hidden in Eternal Shadow creates the experiment black metal should have embarked on earlier in creating the intense dark atmosphere for which the genre is known, and then manipulating it like a mural, taking it to different places as a means of creating context and showing the origin of the melancholic morbidity. This follows up on the experiments of the Graveland/Lord Wind early years which attempted to find a folk voice in black metal that was not merely surfacing, as in the “Viking metal” (power metal with Norse lead guitar melodies and styling) of the time, and does so successfully by creating a new form of ambience which both drones and builds upon itself to the point of expression of melody. For this reason, Hidden in Eternal Shadow shows not just Woodtemple at its strongest but black metal evolving to pick up the promise it birthed and nurture it further toward the creation of what might be a new genre.

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Thou Shell of Death – Sepulchral Silence

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Resembling a collision between space-ambient music, doom metal and black metal, Thou Shell of Death creates slow-paced doom metal with the atmosphere of black metal bands — a more melancholic, brooding and existentially nihilistic outlook — but like past doom metal greats Winter, the lead instrument here may well be the keyboards, which in reverb-heavy waves lace melody through crashing guitar chords which gives them both context and foreshadows development. The ethereal and spectral sound of the keyboards conveys simultaneously an otherworldly removal and a soaring sense of possibility, which temples the normal self-indulgence of doom metal into an exploration of wonder in the darkened halls of a fallen world.

Guitars on Sepulchral Silence intelligently vary texture in the background under the keyboards which are more clearly heard both through being louder in the mix and being a clearer sound, which makes their orientation as lead intelligence. The musical role of guitar in this context is to set a basic progression in the background which the keyboards riff against in order to produce a sense of convergence, as if actors were in harmony with their background and role rather than opposed. Often mid-paced, guitars use a variety of technique including fast downstroking and tremolo but just as often fall back to the Black Sabbath/Winter styled power chords played open, or strummed once and allowed to resonate. Behind them drums lag comfortably and minimally, removing what might have been a distraction to a role as timekeeper plus a sound of inexorable time that affirms emptiness. Each progression stands distinct and keyboards take advantage of this to set up a mood that, like ambient music even of the discotheque variety, resonates around the listener while vocals are demoted to speech filling in the gaps with a narrative to center the song. Over this, heavily reverbed vocals hang like shrouds and flags hanging torn above ruins, battered by the winds of history.

Avoiding the dual traps of becoming essentially slowed-down hard rock or slowed-down death metal, Thou Shell of Death renovates funeral doom music with a new variety of emotions and technique that avoids the pitfall of this music, which is that it is often tedious both from its slowness and the resulting relative invariance of its riff texture. While riffs are relatively few compared to death metal in these songs, as in black metal songs, each serves a purpose and riffs tend to change with lyrical progress, creating the sense of a morbid storybook tale narrated by a demon rather than a rock song over which someone is ad libbing Tolkien. From this basic approach, Sepulchral Silence makes a dense liquid atmosphere that provides all of the dread and despair of doom metal but with the adventurous spirit of black metal and the hope of discovery that pervades electronic music, creating a new voice for funeral doom.

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Sadistic Metal Reviews 12-27-14

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Nothing is less metal than accepting everyone and everything. Metal discriminates. Fundamentally, we recognize that most people have their head in their clouds and like craven mice prefer comforting illusions to even only moderately disturbing truths. In fact, over 90% of everything is simply disorganized garbage made by distracted mice. For this reason, we unleash our cruelty and separate the music from the squeaking with Sadistic Metal Reviews

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Arkham – “Demo 2014”

It may become necessary to invent a genre for this style because it shows up frequently. It might be called “narrative speed metal” for music that adds heavy metal and death metal into speed metal but fundamentally follows the vocal line for song development, as if narrated as background action by the lyrics. The dominant influence on Arkham seems to be Iron Maiden, whose harmonized riffing and song structures bleed through, but the band has chosen a death metal vocal and a basic speed metal verse-chorus approach with introductory riffs leading to change in the verse riff for each section of the song. Good riffs, and good sense of melody, but this band ends up being too linear in narrative and the chaotic vocals interrupt their melodic songwriting.

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Bloodscribe – Prologue to the Apocalypse

Fairly standard brutal percussive death metal in the post-Internal Bleeding style that is essentially deathcore but with more internal coherence through simplicity. The problem with this genre is that, like Cannibal Corpse and the post-Suffocation clones that inspired it, it requires reducing itself to a catchy guttural vocal phrase and distracting riffs with lots of squeaks and squeals but very little put together into tremolo or complex textures. The result is that this is the musical equivalent of elevator music, just a lot more intense sonically and with far better technique. It misses (however) the mind-blowing aspects of death metal and replaces them with the toe-tapping, head-bouncing and brick-eating mental state of listening to someone force a jackhammer around a sewer line.

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Gnosis – The Third-Eye Gate

This band of some local repute comes to us playing the style that some call shuffle metal. In this genre, the vocalist chants and the drums race to catch up while guitars strobe a two chord riff in the background. It has the gratifying tremolo sound of early Florida death metal but the vocal dominance inevitably makes this combination sing-song and thus the foreboding sense comes apart, replaced by the feeling that one is in a local pub, drinking a warm brew, listening to the local band whose songs are as familiar as backyard dirt at this point and while improving, never seem to get good. Interesting ideas appear on this album but never develop because they are too busy keeping the chanty choruses going for the Budweiser drinkers who are wondering if they should pass out or vomit first. If this band wanted to get good, they would lose the vocal hook and replace it with monotone until the guitars sounded good, then re-write vocals to fit the guitars.

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Nameless One – Thousand Memories and Nameless Sword

Essentially Iron Maiden styled heavy metal with death metal vocals and riffs thrown in for emphasis, Nameless One achieve a reasonable fusion of the genres but cannot hide the sickly sweet pop music underlying their Iron Maiden tribute composition. It is catchy and elegant in the way Iron Maiden is, but everything wraps up too nicely and the result is a sense of listening to one of those pop bands that pop up and vanish overnight in the dance music community. All instruments are executed with aplomb and solos are highly professional, and no song drops into lower-quality riffs, suggesting these guys have good quality control. Riffs are cut from archetypes, and the fusion is a little goofy, but the real sin here is making Iron Maiden into a candy pop band and thus making it as saccharine form of the irritation of nails on a chalk board.

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Winds of Genocide – Usurping the Throne of Disease

This album is hilarious. Imagine taking a standard hard rock album and trying to do it in the style of Blasphemy (yes, the Ross Bay one). Then add vocals which linger past the phrase or lead the vocals much like a pop band, and allow individual musicians to show off in the process. The result is unintentionally comedic as it sounds like Hollywood hired a bunch of Charles Bronson style tough guys to make Poison relevant again. In an attempt to hide the roots of this music, the band play fast and loud and layer it in vocals of several types, including the electronically processed chant and the barking chihuahua howl. For comedy’s sake they throw in citations to Sarcofago, Von and other ultra-basic bands, but no experienced listener will be able to get past the hard rock progressions and bouncy glam metal riffs even if played in detuned, double BOSS HM2 distortion’d power chords. Do not listen when stoned, as you might have a laugh attack.

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Crucifyre – Black Magic Fire

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Late entries in the attempt to partake in the retro-Swedish death metal sound, Crucifyre comes with an impressive pedigree of B-level Swedish death metal bands contributing members to this new project. To realize this vision, they combined heavy metal verses with Sodom-style chanted choruses and melodic death metal touches using the Swedish death metal modified d-beat under the skin. The result is not stylistically terrible except that it satisfies none of the cravings associated with its constituent parts, and instead makes a very “modern metal” collage which makes sense linearly but taken as a whole expresses nothing.

In addition, the melodies and vocal rhythms used here are simple in the way radio jingles are (as opposed to the “broken air conditioner that needs oil” way that Cannibal Corpse-derived bands can be) and the combination makes this music simply annoying. Catchy rhythms, sing-song melodies and a jumble of riffs thrown together seemingly both hastily and craftily creates a sensation of being in a Disney ride where each new riff is a new attraction and each represents a general gesture at an idea, not an attempt to unite a theme through all the different parts. This creates a feeling of rotation to the songs as they cycle past.

Making retro death metal is not easy, nor is it usually advisable. Death metal does best when motivated by a strong vision and hence a clear aesthetic voice and thus selective use of the techniques available to it after three generations of metal and punk. What happens with Black Magic Fire is instead the an attempt to make music like one would make a burrito: dump in some death metal asada, top it off with heavy metal cheese, then scatter some d-beat rice and German speed metal lettuce through the mix and wrap it up. Then hope it makes sense. This album does not, and does so in the most brain-liquefying simplistic way possible.

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The Best Underground Metal of 2014

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William Burroughs often wrote about the “edge,” or the liminal threshold between states. The last real edge year for underground metal was 2009 when strong contenders and new voices united to defend extreme metal against the onslaught of imitators making Potemkin village metal from hipster flair and lite-jazz fireworks but underneath it, nothing but disorganized songwriting and an absence of something to express. As the underground has come back with a vengeance, it has begun to displace the imitators because their music simply does not measure up. This has created a backlash as the hipsters defend their territory with guilt, ostentation, pretense and surface-level novelty. On the other hand, the underground has produced some strong contenders. And so we move forward through the past to the future, remembering that what is true is eternal, and trends, novelties, fads, hipsters and other transient moments pass quickly away…

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Blaspherian – Demos (Compilation of Death)

Compilation of Death Records has re-issued the a classic demo and rehearsal from a band of recent vintage but oldschool origins, Blaspherian. Their thunderous death metal sounds like Incantation and Obituary covering Deicide but has a voice of its own and unique perspective. It also carries forward the old school sensibility of building intensity and contrast in a morbid mood that is not self-echoing and redundant. Songwriter Wes Weaver (Imprecation, Infernal Dominion) avoids solos and other adornments to focus on tunneling riffs that are distinctive and create interplay with others in each song to give every song a unique feel within the lexicon of symbol and emotion that death metal addresses. Like the bands that inspire it, Blaspherian aims to create an immersive atmosphere of doom and morbidity in which it can bring forth other emotions in layers, such that the “mixed emotions” feel common to much music is not something achieved at the peak of a song, but is a constant in which the emotions mixed vary like a texture, revealing new combinations under the shifting striations of darkness.

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Blood Urn – …of Gory Sorcery and Death (Terrorghoul)

Death metal of the classic style fascinates this young band who write music much like the early years of death metal but with more of an emphasis on melodic bridging material, avoiding the pitfall of using melody as essentially a production technique and instead causing it to highlight songs that come alive with a ferment of conflicting riffs. Vocals use the old-school method of shadowing riffs and the salad of phrases itself fits together and creates a deepening mood. While on the heavier and slower side of death metal, this demo is varied enough to touch on all areas of the genre, assembling rich textures as a means to develop depth to the emotions in each part of the song. Unlike many newer bands, Blood Urn decided not to follow a single identifiable influence but instead sound like a study of European and American death metal rendered by someone approaching it with a fresh vision.

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Cenotaph – Riding Our Black Oceans (Chaos, re-issue)

A re-issue of this album restores it to its rightful place in the death metal canon. After the immensely powerful Gloomy Reflections of Our Hidden Sorrows, the thunderous Mexican death metal band Cenotaph changed their style to an airier and more intense high-speed melodic death metal sound. Unlike contemporary “melodic death metal” this style embraced the vigor of death metal by expressing it through sequences of tones that added melody without obscuring structure and darker moods, and Cenotaph displayed its customary acumen for songwriting by keeping each track centered around an idea that came forth not only in the whole but in the shape of its riffs. In the years following Sentenced North From Here and At the Gates The Red in the Sky is Ours, many bands attempted this newer style but few made it as vicious and uncompromising as Cenotaph.

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Conquering Dystopia – Conquering Dystopia

Conquering Dystopia creates instrumental mental that hybridizes death metal styles with progressive heavy metal and some of the newer progressive styles like that of At War With Self. The result often sounds a lot like Joe Satriani’s older works in that clear theme is expressed and highly repeated, but varied with other instrumental detours which strengthen it as the song progresses and all the pieces fit together more an in interrupted linear way than the geometries of pure death metal. While this is like most commercial rock indulgently emotional, the underlying music is good and the technique interesting without leaving service to what each song needs, which keeps it not only topical but interesting.

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Dead Congregation – Promulgation of the Fall (Martyrdoom)

Although this band gets mentioned as the foremost in the “Incantclone” series of bands inspired by streaming columnar detuned tremolo underground metal in the style of Incantation, Demoncy and Havohej, Dead Congregation draws influence as well from the subtler structuring of older Immolation in its use of melody to underscore is otherwise a thunderous series of chromatic rhythm riffs needing a center. Although songs vary in completeness throughout the album, generally these storming high-intensity dirges fit together well and produce an encompassing atmosphere which both crushes and awes the listener. If anything, this band could let up on the classic technique and float more of their own aesthetic ideas now that they are established.

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Demilich – 20th Adversary of Emptiness (Svart, re-issue)

Back when death metal was viewed by just about everyone as an incompetent genre of malcontent losers who would go nowhere and who were complaining about our new consumer+hippie paradise, a few bands emerged who saw the emerging genre not as a style but as an artistic voice with unlimited possibilities. One of these, Finland’s Demilich, created an album so circuitous and bizarre that the metal press basically dropped it and ran in fear, as did many fans. For those who discovered it however, Nespithe presented unlimited potential as to how death metal could adopt technicality and yet not be mastered by it and forced into the type of generic jazz-blues-rock theory that served to actually limit what musicians could conceive of and execute. With its twisted passages and seemingly erratic rhythms, Nespithe resembled a strange machine risen from the bowels of earth to conquer humankind. Instead, it inspired generations of fans and musicians to visualize death metal as a broader language than many wanted it to be. This re-issue pairs up older works with a handful of newer songs to make for a complete experience of this distinct voice and its concept.

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Desecresy – Chasmic Transcendence (Xtreem)

Desecresy combine Swedish death metal, doom-death metal and atmospheric influences from black metal to create towerlike scenes of dark moods in collision. With Chasmic Transcendence, the band update the formula with more easily separable rhythms to riffs and use of melodic transitions to intensify the building sense of doom. It builds grinding tension and discharges it in lengthy melodic passages which expand beyond their origins into new landscapes. Add to this a tendency to use lead melodic rhythm guitars over its power chord riffs and this makes for a haunting listen that resembles a descent into the underworld. With this third album, the band shows not only its staying power but the depths of the well of its creativity in not just re-inventing older styles but finding a new combination of them and using that to express a perspective which elaborates upon the basics of the genre and gives them new elegance and power.

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Enthroned – Sovereigns (Agonia)

Famed for their high-speed melodic black metal, Enthroned take the populist approach of middle-period Dimmu Borgir — before it went into its final stage as warmed-over hard rock — and craft it with greater urgency and the instrumental approach of older black metal. The result more resembles the later Bathory albums where heavy metal, proto-black metal and post-Slayer death metal influences merged to create a potent ferment. Sovereigns does not achieve the vast contrasts and epic sense of loss of earlier black metal, but upholds a battle-spirit and pushes it into song with strong melodies that do not lapse into the cloying saccharine world of “feelings” — personal observations based on personal perspective — but instead appeal to emotions, or the shared sense of importance and value to certain things which might be eternal. This album breaks up the formula slightly with slower songs as the album expands, in the style of Hypocrisy Penetralia.

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Entrench – Violent Procreation (War Anthem)

Following in the steps of Merciless, who could be seen as the stylistic ancestor of this band, Entrench craft speed/death metal with melodic underpinnings and a frantic but strident voice which guides riffs much in the way Dio narrated his own songs. To the Merciless formula of adroit ripping riffs concluding in both ambiguity and alignment, Entrench adds a Kreator style of finality to both vocal and guitar phrase, making these songs less emotional but more solidly violent. While speed/death hybridization usually ends badly, here the essence is speed metal riffs played as if by a death metal band in the context of a rhythm more like that of death metal. The result is satisfyingly impact-oriented but for it to take the next step to where Merciless is, it will have to coordinate its melodies and cultivate ambiguity both for it to resolve and preserve to keep the dark sensation produced by the riff-style of death metal, minor key melodies and mentalities outside those of the herd.

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Heresiarch – Wælwulf (EP, Dark Descent)

Attempting to forge a niche for itself in the Incantation/Blasphemy inspired style that has become a de facto underground currency during the past few years, Heresiarch create a muddier and more obscure version of their previous works, focusing less on tunneling riffs and more on simple two-chord riffs introducing songs that expand to greater degrees of structure with the slightest hints of melody. The band, in hoping to take war metal to the next dimension, probably consider their work to be unstudied and arising on impulse, but these songs show a clear pattern of development from the grinding to the structural and as a result, take the listeners with them on a journey of finding beauty in darkness and coherence in chaos. The violent slamming intensity remains but by lessening its consistency the band achieves a greater sense of contrast, like raising a sacred object higher above the marble floor to ensure that when it shatters the pieces are irreducible.

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Kever – Eon of Cycling Death (Dark Descent)

Perhaps one of the most inspiring releases this year, Eon of Cycling Death wears its old school influences in Suffocation and Morbid Angel on its sleeve but without imitating them in pale imprint of their technique without understanding their essence. Instead this band forges on with a kind of fantasy death metal that shows them living an alternative and parallel timeline to these bands, developing the basics they innovated with a voice specific to these individuals regardless of what time they are born into. Percussive riffs give way to an ensemble of death metal styles united by rhythm and space which convincingly outline the ideas of each song and then give them depth through internal dialogue. On top of it, an abrupt and croaking vocal gives new life to a very familiar technique with its guttural but carefully sculpted sonic enunciation.

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Massacra – Enjoy the Violence (Century Media, re-issue)

One of the great classics of death metal, long passed-over for more dramatic acts, gained new life with this re-issue. Massacra created their early music in the style which stretches from Slayer through Morbid Angel and emphasizes fast strumming of rapidly-colliding riffs which emphasize ambiguity and openness over the kind of certainty that works well with more percussive styles. Enjoy the Violence is like a rollercoaster between extremes where all things lead back to the same point, but the experience is changing enough that it is almost unrecognizable as the same. With the remaster, some of the weaker sound from the earlier recording is corrected and bonus tracks are added, giving new life to this under-recognized classic of the genre that was more highly influential among musicians than fans, and took on new life in the bands it influenced.

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Massacra – Final Holocaust (Century Media, re-issue)

This foundational album of death metal by Massacra has been re-issued by Century Media with bonus tracks and a booklet rich in information. That provides a good introduction to this view of the death metal style, which instead of attempting to be “heavy” aimed for shock and awe with fast riffs and convoluted songs that somehow emerged into an almost peaceful calm after chaos and combat. Massacra derive their strength from the ability to write fast-fingered riffs that capture the thrill and terror of being alive into a single moment and use this to make basic clashes within life into a mythology of trying to conquer empty spaces with the will and sensibility of a warrior wandering a dystopian wasteland. While this album was forgotten in the day mostly due to its mids-heavy (in contrast to bass-heavy) production and relative availability through distribution contracts more circuitous than its riffs, it rides again in new form.

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Massacra – Day of the Massacra (Century Media)

Century Media compiled several early Massacra demos into a single disc, paired it with extensive liner notes and pictures, and remastered everything for an insight into the rise of the Massacra sound while it was recognizable as what would emerge on the first two and most influential Massacra albums. These recordings show the band merging its early influences into a style and then finding its own voice within that beast, allowing it to compose distinctive and evocative songs immediately including several pre-album tracks with some duct tape still visible. While this might appeal most to Massacra maniacs, it also serves as a useful introduction to new fans who may appreciate the heavier production and more aggressive primitive approach here as a means of transitioning to the albums that follow, which focused not so much on slamming impact as a kind of sky architecture of riffery.

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Nausea – Condemned to the System (Willowtip)

Straddling the line between grindcore, crust and old-fashioned hardcore — which are inches apart as it is — Nausea return with this recording of older and newer tracks alike. Carefully pared down to incorporate only necessary elements and keep energy high, Condemned to the System demonstrates the simpler style of punk composition with all of the riff power of early grindcore, including several tracks (and pieces thereof) that later made it to the first Terrorizer album, World Downfall. The listener who can forget that heritage however will discover merely a crushing, efficient and streamlined album of enjoyable but hard-hitting punkish music that will not win awards for extremity or technicality, but shows care applied to songwriting so that a listener does not feel lost in a sea of riffs or drone, but can isolate each song in the mind and appreciate its individual attack.

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Nunslaughter – Angelic Dread (Hells Headbangers)

While some may be tempted to categorize Nunslaughter as dinosaurs, the fact remains that this band takes the raw ingredients of power metal, speed metal and most death metal and makes a stripped-down, hardcore-punk style ripping version of this that remains highly listenable even if not particularly distinguishable on a song-to-song basis. Like other collections of many short songs, such as Dead Infection or Carcass, Angelic Dread operates like many small insights into roughly the same idea. Somehow, what this band creates never gets old, in part because they understand their riffs as a language from the same basic source, and in part because like a thrash band their song format carefully fits the particular clash of the two riffs (with a few budget transitions, and sometimes rhythmic variations, Nunslaughter uses two riffs per song on average) and the need of presenting them in the best light. The result is compelling and enjoyable and upholds the best tradition of riffcraft and expressive violence in underground music.

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Oppression – Sociopathie & Gloire (Preposterous Creations)

Merging Oi!-style punk with some enhancements from black metal, tracks are short (2-3 minute) affairs. Melodies are catchy, yet wistful lines grounded in simple guitar and bass riffs, with vocal alternating between manic shrieks and an idiosyncratic, youthful attempt at melodic singing. Using the more linear style composition of punk, as opposed to the riff-stacking song construction used by much of black metal, each song contributes a sense of motion that builds the album up over successive tracks. Production values are what one would expect for this style of music; clear enough to make out each instrument, but raw enough to preserve low-budget ethos. This is a release that is not attempting to invent a new genre, but rather one which seeks to renew genres that had collapsed under their own entropy. The strange aesthetics may be off-putting to some, but if those can be sublimated into the spirit of this album, a refreshingly honest work will open itself for enjoyment.

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Personal Device – Microorganismos del Mal

First there was the faux 80s crossover thrash revival with party retro-thrash bands like Toxic Holocaust and Municipal Waste, then bands like Birth A.D. bounced back with actual thrash and reformed the genre. Now Personal Device take it a step both further and in a different direction by being a classic hardcore band that informs itself with early speed metal like the first Metallica and Nuclear Assault albums. The result is bouncy fast and precise punk like Ratos de Porao or even middle-period Bad Brains that is thoroughly enjoyable with riff breaks that resemble “The Four Horsemen” or maybe even “Live, Suffer, Die.” Their guitars are remarkably precise which creates an unusual sound for punk that by making it mechanistic makes it seem more inexorable than like protest music, and the result is a more testosterone-fueled and warlike approach. Mix that with the surging chord changes of speed metal and the fast repetitive chanted choruses from thrash, and you have a high-energy band. Its flaws are that experienced listeners may find this a bit too transparent, and that many of its rhythms are similar, but the band has administered its style with an editor’s red pen handy, cutting out any lesser parts, which gives it more staying power than all but a few albums in this stylistic range.

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Ripper – Raising the Corpse (Underground Defenders)

Much like Merciless, Ripper know to invoke a melodic hook with a rhythmic hook and gradually bring a song into unity, at which point they hammer home the infectious chorus until the audience is ready to carve it into their own flesh. While some may point out that little new occurs here stylistically, and many of these riff forms can be traced back to Slayer or Destruction, what Ripper does well is keep this music high-intensity without falling into sameness and to streamline into an effective delivery mechanism that outgrows the confused collision of styles that was the mid to late 1980s. This approach fits within the early speed metal model that formed the basis of great hook-laden German bands like Destruction and Sodom, and this tradition continues with Ripper. Where Ripper succeeds is in removing extraneous material and cutting to the core of its music, eliminating some of the distraction and randomness that blighted later work from the German bands.

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Sorcier Des Glaces – Ritual Of The End (Obscure Abhorrence)

Flowing dark melodic forest black metal band Sorcier des Glaces burst onto the scene as any appreciation for this style of Graveland and Immortal influenced black metal fully waned as the initial loss of momentum in the genre caught up with its inertia. Since that time, the band has continued its path of making naturalistic long-melody black metal with the distinctive wandering tempo and phrasal development that many of the French bands also explored. With Ritual of the End, Sorcier des Glaces present their vision in a more focused style that nonetheless preserves the inconclusive nature of their earlier music, becoming like a vision of the woods at twilight equal parts promise and ambiguity, revealing the continuous nature of life through its inability to achieve finite endpoints. When metal mistakenly went toward faster/more extreme variants of the past, it lost the majestic beauty which inspired imagination as well as aggression, and Sorcier des Glaces return it.

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Varathron – Untrodden Corridors Of Hades (Agonia)

One of the original Greek black metal bands, Varathron returns with higher speed and more dominant melody in a style that approximates what Borknagar and other later black metal bands tried to do, with some nods to music since but fundamentally a sensibility closer to Rotting Christ Thy Mighty Contract. Keeping energy high with frequent changes but return to theme and focus on a melody or progression at the heart of each song, Varathron expand their repertoie and craft an album that speaks enough of a contemporary language to dominate that style with the vocabulary of the older era, invoking both a return to and a continuation of the past. While the influence of the present time makes itself known, it remains under control of the guiding forces behind this band that seek to open the imagination instead of gratify self-image, and as a result more possibility emerges here than in other contemporary works.

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Witchblood – Hail to Lyderhorn (Aurora Australis)

Attempting to uphold the values of classic black metal while introducing to them some of the more recent developments in tradfolk-inspired music, Witchblood combines the catchy attack of Venom with riff technique from mid-90s black metal and adds its own voice, which consists of equal part narrative bardic style and an idiosyncratic ability to make memory-haunting tunes. The result features a range of techniques from the history of metal, including NWOBHM-inspired riffing right alongside streaming tremolo picked melodic riffs, but this band makes it work by keeping focus on an essential melody in each song paired to a vocal rhythm designed to deliver a foot-tapping chorus, as bands like Sodom or Destruction did years ago. The result takes the Venom school of metal, upgrades it with black metal, and restores it to a 1980s delivery that is both clear and dark and then infuses that with the type of ancestral identity and epic sensation of purpose that arises from folk music. Through this, Witchblood creates its own form of metal that shows clear roots in much older traditions.

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Woodtemple – Forgotten Pride (Sacrilege)

Showing more of an influence from Following the Voice of Blood era Graveland, Woodtemple return with a more focused version of their flowing black metal. In the past, the music more resembled flowing hills in a landscape of vast breadth, but now greater internal contrast makes what is portrayed closer to a mountain range with ragged crags over deep valleys. The addition of floating female vocals and gentle keyboards allow the band to put more aggression into guitars and bass, keeping vocals semi-backgrounded which produces the effect of reducing the “human” feel to the music. As a result, songs come together with more focus, making this the clearest statement from Woodtemple yet made. Like most metal in this style, Forgotten Pride creates an effect of distance from the human world, isolation and a focus on the larger picture through a lens of large leaps in time, but now creates another hypnotic effect in a distancing from humanity itself. This band, while not a Graveland side project, features Graveland composer Rob Darken on bass.

Album of the Year 2014

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Sammath – Godless Arrogance (Hammerheart)

Godless Arrogance features nearly constant high-intensity rhythmic riffing and finally has a production to match which emphasizes internal harmony but projects vocals and guitars to the forefront, creating an enveloping wall of sound. Drumming is violent martial battery without the happy kickbeat tendencies of overly rock-trained drummer; percussion here is more like punk, hard-driving intensity to channel the guitars, which alternate between abrupt chromatic confrontation in the Demoncy style to gentle unfolding melodies much like were found on Strijd. Bass folds into the guitar, and vocals are the high-volume bluster that reduces distorted vocals to a sound like a whisper spoken close to a microphone in high wind. The result is incessant and unrelenting but also has an inner life of melody that gives it depth and allows it to manipulate riff context like a death metal band while evoking ambient atmosphere in the best tradition of black metal. For resurrecting the black metal spirit of great beauty hidden within massive aggression and alienation, Godless Arrogance deserves to be seen as the best album of 2014.

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Atomic Aggressor – Sights of Suffering

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Calling a band “technical” — not to be confused with musicianship as popular circles frequently do — creates general indifference among those accustomed to seeing this term used as a selling point. The industry generally uses the term for bands that cannot compose meaningful songs and so encrust them in adornments of musical acrobatics, creating artistic Potemkin villages which offer a cornucopia of musical fireworks on the surface but emptiness beneath. Many believe that musicality is only valid if the artist consciously intended to give the music a certain technical quality. This could not be further from the truth.

The best music has often comes from technically competent artists, but this does not mean that their music is guided by a handbook of rules, but the other way around: they use technical flair to elaborate on the ideas that motivate their music. When an musician has a superior talent for organizing notes into melodies, aligning melodies into harmonies and building sections that flow and speak to one another as seemingly essential parts of a whole, this process can be reverse-engineered by a clever and knowledgeable analyst. But like software reverse engineering itself, we only arrive at technical explanations about the originating commands that give the result its nature, not the programmer’s feelings, train of thought or the content they hope to communicate through their art.

Morbid Angel Altars of Madness is lauded as as a young genius’ masterpiece born out of raging emotion and unprecedented innovation in the then-young genre of death metal. Only new or superficial fans of the genre are oblivious to the achievements of this album that go well beyond mere historical relevance. Whether or not Trey Azagthoth planned each twist with the implied theoretical knowledge behind them is not important, although we can assume he may not have because such fervor as these pieces present is only possible coming from the deepest well of human emotion. Yet scrutinizing of them at several levels reveal logical explanations for the impact, drive and fluid development that they showcase.

As a short example we may take a look at “Chapel of Ghouls”. The song itself can be explained as using E major as its main or home key. As in classical music it ventures into the parallel minor and uses off-key passing tones for color. The most important of this is the fact that the guitars in the recording are tuned in E-flat standard tuning, which means that the repetitive muted strumming of the open low string consists of strumming the D (enharmonic equivalent of E flat) note, the seventh in the scale of E major. This gives the chugs a malevolent and dissonant feel. Another thing that should be mentioned is that the first two riff clusters in Chapel of Ghouls are quite unstable, each being in period form (antecedent and consequent phrases which mirror each other, but only the second one resolving). These riffs do not resolve convincingly (they do not land on either the tonic or the dominant when the consequent cadences), giving these both a satisfying feel and a need to continue and be completely resolved which appears to the listener as a will forward instead of a complete thought. This resolution is achieved on the third riff which finally leads to the tonic, but does not rest there, avoiding the typical full-stop feeling by switching into the relative minor (thereby using a flattened third and sixth which sound like off-key passing tones in the context of the major setting) and syncopating the rhythm while an atonal solo blazes above. And so the song is carried on with the mark of genius that cannot be now denied even by those who do not share a personal preference for the song. The songs in this album are not even remotely atonal or even overall dissonant; they make heavy use of the latter with striking effect while the atonality is reserved for solos which mark peaks and tornadoes of raw emotion that are never out of place here and which seem to be born out of the depths of this music.

Atomic Aggressor Sights of Suffering presents us with something that would be best described as a tribute to Altars of Madness-era Morbid Angel. But unlike Morbid Angel, Atomic Aggressor’s songs do not show Azagthoth’s structural cleverness and talent for directing and channeling emotion unavoidably towards strategic points in the song where powerful emotion surges. In fact, it is because this band is bent on sounding like early Morbid Angel that they are completely oblivious to the subtlety of the original composition and thus just manage to place riff after riff which sound like a more retro (sounding a little on the speed metal side at times) version of who they are trying to imitate. The vocals make this intention to imitate even more palpable not only in terms of the style of the growls but the way certain passages are emphasized or rounded off by grunts which in this far weaker music only manage to sound comical, especially if one is familiar with the original band. There is not much to say about this album because it is no more and no less than a bland, third-rate imitation.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_Lq2WEqj1o

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Satan’s Host – Pre-Dating God

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Satan’s Host create power metal with death metal influences like a hybrid of Kreator and Blind Guardian creating music in an Iron Maiden mold. Slight death metal influences intrude on riff construction in some of the songs but the majority are good old-fashioned heavy metal with speed metal technique periodically sparkled with some more extreme expressions here and there.

This two-disc set shows wide variety within those influences. Vocal delivery varies between resembling Kreator, especially on the early songs on both discs, and emulating Nevermore while sometimes adding quasi-operatic vocals in the style of Blind Guardian. The latter presents a fairly typical attempt at a democratized concept of this vocal style, which is both clueless to the subtlety in the original and what makes it challenging to compose as music.

This double-disc album displays three types of songs which are distributed evenly, as in a mirror, on both discs. The first group occurs during the earliest two or three songs on either disc and these songs resemble Kreator and in that spirit display an inclination towards riff-oriented writing with little concern to where the narrative of those riffs leads. The second group of songs comprise tracks three and four on both discs as well as track five on the first. These leave the Kreator vibe a bit in order to favor a more typically Iron Maiden feel. Here we can most appreciate the juxtaposition of the speed metal riff with the monolithic heavy metal chorus. This is not a fusion of the two, but a copy-paste of either style to fill in different functions of the same song. The third group of either disc is found on the last two or three tracks and resembles what is commonly called “progressive” heavy metal, most closely approximating post-Powerslave Iron Maiden.

The progressive heavy metal tracks may be where this release loses the most points. Slow intro, blocks of verse-chorus, then soloing-develoment section followed by incessant hammering of one idea with little creativity (like this harmless turd from Iron Maiden). Following this same Steve Harris brand of prog-heavy-metal trend we see a lot of pointless repetition with sing-along chorus (cornholish) abuse (e.g. “We’re blood brothers”). Unlike Iron Maiden who are functioning within one music style, Satan’s Host has a hard time shaping this into something with anything remotely sounding like a build up or a development that encompasses the whole song because they seem to be too busy juggling around with the show-off speed metal riffs and over-the-top Heavy Metal choruses. While riffs and are often developed and moved forward and transitions are always fluid and seldom abrupt there is always a lack of convincing development. It is present, it is just not credible and sounds tired. Songs often sound like they just continue but do not necessarily reach any objective or make a statement of what it all meant.

While the mixture of styles is both comforting and challenge, it does not quite “gel” in the way it would need to for a first-rate metal album. The Blind Guardian influence brings a penchant for incessant high vocals and accompanying guitar leads which double the intensity of screeching sounds. This can be found throughout the whole album alongside a feeling of everything being cranked up to eleven most of the time, which is precisely what I find unbearable about Blind Guardian (who at least try to introduce unconvincing melodramatic acoustic interludes which only drip with cheap cheese). This is coming from a fan of old Rhapsody (of Fire) and debut-album Pagan’s Mind, bands who knew how to handle cheese with a delicacy which invests a feeling of care and purpose (especially the former at their peak) to the melodramatic work in question. Similarly, many of the “progressive” metal parts fail for the same reason that Iron Maiden has had trouble elongated NWOBHM into epic song structures: the characteristics of the heavy metal genre are assembled to support choruses, the telling of a story and accommodate climaxing solos. When you repeat them ad mortem they lose the impact they are supposed to have because the listener gets exposed to them beyond their utility. And adding a soloing section in the middle which is harmonically stagnant, as per the requirements of the genre, only increments the dreadful sense of sickening bloating. It is thus that the NWOBHM in Satan’s Host fails. This in turn makes the speed metal riff-driven music lose its impact and drive. Finally, the death metal component is not used prominently except to spice up and add to the intensity.

Each music piece must and should be judged on the basis of what it is trying to accomplish. To be more specific, on two different points: first its goal, second its means to that goal. The goal must be distinguishable. A point must be made that genres, as compromises regarding form as reflection of deeper intentions, have natural and intrinsic limitations. Following this train of thought, it seems to me like the main reason for the pointlessness and mendacity of this music lies in the mixing of NWOBHM, speed metal and small amounts of death metal flavor. There is a reason why these are different genres and it isn’t just because “some people like to box and tag everything” like the ignorant rabble who do not understand the concept of form and its purpose would like everybody to believe. These failings leave Satan’s Host short of finding an artistic voice to express what obviously are passionate ideas, causing this listening experience to fall apart half-way and not motivate the hearer to pick up the pieces and try again.

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Mindcage – Our Own Devices

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Heavy metal with melodic vocal lines, Mindcage immediately calls to mind a cross between Queensryche and Candlemass, writing complex guitar leads on top of rock-rhythm classic heavy metal riffs. This allows Mindcage to create verses which showcase the melodic male and female vocals that serve as the lead instrument in these mid-paced songs, but also facilitate the inclusion of more intense metal riffing and soloing that will please fans of middle-period Iron Maiden. The rock-based focus on vocals pulls inside-out the extreme guitar-centric attitude of most metal bands, but with Mindcage, the result stands on its own.

Much of this material resembles 1980s Judas Priest in its mix of hard-rocking verses and metal choruses but song structures mostly stay within a reversed Slayer formula of verse-intro-chorus-bridge, yet vary the length and tempo to fit vocals and so manage to remain interesting. Because of its inclusion of post-speed metal riff styles, this band falls solidly in the “power metal” category but really spans over three decades of metal in a smoothly integrated whole. Those who like the paced vocal delivery of Candlemass and the melodic development of sung lines in the sense of later Queensryche will find some familiar twists and turns interpreted in a new way. While this would not make sense to most doom-metal fans, it maintains a mood that complements the plaintive despair of some doom and despite some fast riffs keeps songs within a reasonable pace.

The strength of power metal closely corresponds to its weakness. It is listenable, energetic and can be playing in the background while conversations happen. This means however that like rock it is intensely repetitive compared to death metal, where riffs vary more frequently and instead of vocals, serve as the lead instrument in composition. Within the framework of hybrid heavy metal and speed metal with death metal technique that is power metal, few are doing as well as Mindcage at keeping musical and emotional interest high without sliding into over-the-top dramatism like nu-metal bands. These songs present themselves in two stages, first appreciating the verse-chorus loop and its variations, and second, recognizing the moment of song development in the bridge or equivalent. This allows the band to keep any radical shifts muted until crucial points in the album, which allows this to be a good listen for being who are not focusing their entire being into the music. You would find it infinitely preferable to hear this at your regular bar than the usual power metal mishmash of theatrics, insistent verses and overly bombastic choruses.

Our Own Devices may not be over-active enough in the dramatic way that power metal has come to be, nor as inspirational and New Age positive as European listeners apparently like, but the solidity of this album lies in, like Queensryche and Candlemass, its ability to build a foundation around the vocals that enhance the mood-sensation of what they present. This creates a space for the kind of epic imagination that metal has always nourished with a touch of the science fiction style of outside narrative reflecting a technology for the soul that has hovered at the edge of power metal for some years now. Although Mindcage offer a different trip than riff-based power metal, Our Own Devices shows that they are one of the higher-quality players in that very specific niche.

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