Carcass – Surgical Steel

carcass-surgical_steelFrom the opening dual guitar harmonies straight out of 1985 that bring to mind the live intro to a Europe or Stryper set, it’s obvious that this album will be more in line with the guitar hero pop-metal of Arch Enemy than anything from Symphonies of Sickness or Reek of Putrefaction.

To some degree, that’s to be expected. Carcass threw in the towel on forward momentum long ago (1991) and have resorted to playing up their namesake for the purpose of phoning in stadium metal for the aesthetically overblown Wacken age, and Surgical Steel is perhaps their most commercially flexible attempt at filtering late model radio format speed metal through a death metal aesthetic filter, where actual death metal technique is limited to tremolo picking, blast beats, and Jeff Walkers vocals.

Carcass joining an elite cadre of financially successful bands by doing so, starting with At the Gates’s Slaughter of the Soul and even Pantera’s Far Beyond Driven. Let me state it again for those who wish to be millionaires: the appearance of being an outsider to a society nearly universally loathed by its inhabitants, with an underhanded delivery of comfortingly familiar derivative works that by their obedience affirm the social order, will always be a financial success. It allows the appearance of rebellion with none of the actual costs. It’s like artistic insurgency tourism.

Surgical Steel ends up being a mix of Swansong‘s Thin Lizzy-isms applied to the framework of songs like “This Mortal Coil” and “Doctrinal Expletives.” These songs have more to do with Mike Amott’s recent Wacken pandering than anything on Heartwork. “A Congealed Clot of Blood” resembles a “revisited”, more uptempo version of Swansong‘s “Don’t Believe a Word” and the last song, brings to mind the best years of Sanctuary with its sentimental melodic guitar intro, or evokes the Overkill ballads “The Years of Decay” and “Soulitude” with its emotional framing and pacing.

Some tracks like “Cadaver Pouch Conveyor System” attempt aggression by utilizing the same speed metal meets extreme music technique as “Carnal Forge” from Heartwork, but with the obvious “money riff” effect of the dual harmony guitar part that is the focus of these songs. The reversion to old lyrical themes (based off the song titles and album artwork) seems like misdirected fan service as these songs would probably win over more people from the Century Media crowd if the lyrics had the same simple “emotional” topics that songs such as “No Love Lost” had.

While this album may appease the simple appetites of those who merrily purchase Arch Enemy and Children of Bodom albums, many songs try to deviate from the verse-chorus stylings with an overloaded, ill-fitting bridge that detract from their simple nature. This divided nature may keep Surgical Steel from being as successful as recent Hypocrisy or Slaughter of the Soul in the arena of stadium faux-death AOR metal for drunken Wacken attendees.

Again, we say: if your heart is no longer in death metal, don’t bother. Start up a project band and transition into progressive rock, classic rock, or whatever it is that actually appeals to you. Explore your new musical pathways. It’s just as much a sell-out to try to “stay true!” when you no longer care as it is to make Justin Bieber-styled pop because you know ten million teeny boppers from the ‘burbs will buy it. Musicians, chase your dreams. We get the best of your talent that way, even if we have to transition genres to appreciate it.

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First in Line: Metallica – Kill ‘Em All

metallica-kill_em_allThirty years ago, a struggling band from California unleashed their first album and changed the world of heavy metal forever. The genre that they may not have invented but certainly formalized was speed metal, and it represented the start of heavy metal’s journey away from verse-chorus rock into the dual worlds of hardcore punk intensity and progressive rock song structures.

At first, these changes were less obvious. Kill ‘Em All owes a huge debt to the heavy metal that came before it, and embraces many of the conventions of rock music as well, but it funneled them through a singular filter and achieved a uniformity of sound. In addition, this new style crept in with a number of innovations, like the use of introductions and instrumentals to change song structure, that presaged where this new subgenre would go.

From a casual observer’s position, the first Metallica album isn’t that far removed from its predecessors. The dual influences of UK heavy metal and hardcore punk are clear, as is the distinctive feature of speed metal: the muted strum that produces a choppy explosive sound from percussive lead rhythm guitar, allowing the construction of more complex riffs by making the power chord a building block instead of a place where the riff rests, as open chords are in rock.

Kill ‘Em All showed a new blueprint for metal that developed the extremity of Motorhead with the intricate riffery of Judas Priest and other NWOBHM bands, making for a brainy album that relied on speed to cram all of its power into songs of a normal length. In addition, the speed kicked it up to a new level of complexity in riffing. Speed reveals the sparseness of a riff, and so the one- and two-note riffs of the past would seem immensely repetitive at a faster pace. Thus the riff itself grew with speed metal.

Conceptually, metal grew up with Kill ‘Em All as well, at least partly. Yes, there were some embarrassing songs that sounded like West Side Story retrofitted for violent Northern California speed metal gangs. But more importantly, there was an epic view of existence. Songs about fate, about the fall of civilization, and dark lore that reveals the topics feared by daylight conversation all gave the album a weight beyond its (merely) heavy riffs. Like hardcore punk, this was the howling voice of the apocalypse at our door.

One of Metallica’s most important contributions was to liberate the riff from the drums, hence the “lead rhythm guitar” designation that appeared with many speed metal bands. Following the lead of UK crust punk bands like Discharge, Metallica viewed the drums as a background timekeeper which framed the riff loosely rather than accentuated it, and thus the riff could change without the drums changing. This allowed the riff to change more frequently without forcing tempo changes, although the band delighted in abrupt and surprising tempo changes as well.

Speed metal took this pattern and ran with it. While its antecedents are clear, such as the proto-speed metal of Satan/Blitzkrieg and Motorhead, and the fast-fingered intricate melodic riffs of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, the new speed metal band from California turned up the intensity and pushed aside conventional song structures. This set metal free from the world of rock, and laid the groundwork for the next generation, which would not only inherit the true lawlessness of hardcore punk, but build up complexity to be closer to the world of progressive rock.

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Exhumed – Necrocracy

exhumed-necrocracyFounded by a group of career metalheads, Exhumed started with a simple mission: make grind, but make it entertaining and participatory like the better heavy metal of the past few generations. While they were initially known as a Carcass clone, that comparison involves the vocals, while the guitar music is itself quite different.

Necrocracy continues the tradition with some very professional songwriting. The technique is pure death metal, grindcore and smatterings of punk and speed metal; under that surface, what lurks is old school heavy metal combined with Swedish-style melodic songwriting (which interestingly was also discernible on the debut).

As part of that professionalism, Exhumed fit each song into a series of gratifications: a good introduction, pounding verses, surging choruses, fireworks for solos and then a transition through a minor key melody into a triumphant return to the verse, plus an optional outro. This formula — adopted in part from glam ballads — propelled speed metal and heavy metal bands to the stratosphere. It’s doing something similar for Exhumed.

What makes Necrocracy hold together is that each song is composed of only necessary parts toward achieving this goal, which could be roughly described as half wanting to be a fun grindcore band, and half wanting to be a professional metal band with MTV-ready songs. Much like Amebix recently saw the utility of this format for reaching the slumbering masses, Exhumed use it to inject some death metal into the melange of hard rock, punk, speed metal, grind/death and heavy metal that makes up their songs.

It is probably not wise for old school death metal fans to rush to this album. It has more in common with grindcore and album-oriented stadium heavy metal, since it relies on the verse-chorus and derives much of its effect from application of known songwriting technique instead of straying into odd structures, bizarre twists, and experimental riffs. Its choruses are hooky, its verses catchy and chanty, and the heavy production and technique hides a band that could go toe-to-toe with the big heavy metal bands of the 1980s through 2000s. Their audience is its audience, updated a bit.

Carrying on the tradition of making metal music that pushes past what is socially acceptable, Exhumed return with an onslaught of cynicism about humanity that takes joy in its own dire predictions. Energetic and necrotically enthusiastic, Necrocracy pumps out the energy and the engaging heavy metal tropes in a voice that is all its own, and will serve as a great introduction for many to these genres.

Necrocracy will be released on August 6, 2013 via Relapse Records and can be pre-ordered here. Catch Exhumed on tour:

EXHUMED European Takeover 2013 [remaining dates]:

  • 7/17/2013 Vlamrock – As, Belgium
  • 7/23/2013 Metal Days – Tolmin, Slovenia
  • 7/24/2013 Garage – Munich, Germany
  • 7/25/2013 Eisenwahn – Obersinn, Germany

EXHUMED w/ Dying Fetus, Devourment, Waking The Cadaver

  • (10/4 – 10/19), Abiotic,Rivers Of Nihil (10/26 – 11/2):
  • 10/04/2013 Mojo 13 – Wilmington, DE
  • 10/05/2013 The Soapbox – Wilmington, NC
  • 10/06/2013 Back Booth – Orlando, FL
  • 10/07/2013 The Orpheum – Tampa, FL
  • 10/09/2013 Fitzgerald’s – Houston, TX
  • 10/10/2013 Red 7 – Austin, TX
  • 10/11/2013 Trees – Dallas, TX
  • 10/12/2013 Chameleon Room – Oklahoma City, OK
  • 10/13/2013 Warehouse 21 – Santa Fe, NM
  • 10/14/2013 Rocky Point – Tempe, AZ
  • 10/15/2013 Observatory – Santa Ana, CA
  • 10/16/2013 The Whisky – W. Hollywood, CA
  • 10/17/2013 DNA Lounge – San Francisco, CA
  • 10/18/2013 Branx – Portland, OR
  • 10/19/2013 Studio Seven – Seattle, WA
  • 10/20/2013 Rickshaw Theater – Vancouver, BC
  • 10/22/2013 Republik – Calgary, AB
  • 10/23/2013 Pawn Shop – Edmonton, AB
  • 10/24/2013 Riddell Centre – Regina, SK
  • 10/25/2013 Park Theater – Winnipeg, MB
  • 10/26/2013 Station-4 – St Paul, MN
  • 10/27/2013 Reggie’s – Chicago, IL
  • 10/29/2013 Peabodys – Cleveland, OH
  • 10/30/2013 Chance Theater – Poughkeepsie, NY
  • 10/31/2013 Palladium – Worcester, MA
  • 11/01/2013 Gramercy Theater – New York, NY
  • 11/02/2013 Empire – Springfield, VA

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From the Vault: Miasma Changes

miasma-changesIt’s easy for us looking back on underground metal to see it like a textbook description, where it was ordained that certain bands would become pillars of the underground. In reality, it was more like a place where rivers meet, with currents flowing under and behind each other to weave into a body of water.

Miasma’s Changes never got much distribution, being on tiny and sometimes inconsistent Lethal Records, nor did it fit into what people expected. At a time when European metal was surging ahead with fast melodic material, this Changes combined doom metal with primitive American-style death metal like Morpheus Descends or Baphomet. With its heavy vocals and dark cadenced approach it made stuff like Entombed sound cheerful.

Like German heavyweights Atrocity, Miasma was calibrated incorrectly for what the audience wanted, but the band knew how to make crushing metal, more in the style of Grave and Uncanny than the At the Gates and Therion more delicate fare. Using trudging verses and choruses that seem to be from familiar memories of years past now forgotten, Miasma created music that was both intuitive and surprising. Even more, it worked in melody, but used it more like doom metal bands — think Candlemass here — who use the sweetness and light to accent the morbid and dark and make it all the more real.

Behind the scenes, this album influenced a wide range of people, but most of them were metal musicians. The fans never quite got it, other than a few hipsters in the early 2000s who wanted it for its collectable value. However, those who wanted to know how to make death metal that felt like a subconscious gesture, Changes remains a prized treasure.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9IWVo8-M05s

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Black Sabbath – 13

black_sabbath_-_13

Black Sabbath’s new album, 13, is a marvel. The first single “God Is Dead?” didn’t adequately prepare me for the experience of the whole work. This album contrasts the old sound and the new sound. The band frequently harkens back to their former work. I’ll note these instances when I treat the individual songs later in the review. In fact, some fans think 13 is too much like the earlier material. But they’re wrong. Surely we want them to recapture their earlier sound to some degree, but this album does much more than that. While surely somewhat nostalgic, this album does NOT fling itself into the market as a refurbished rehashing of used riffs. It’s a GREAT album. The original vibe remains as strong as ever. Fans agree and have propelled this album to #1 on the charts.

Let’s just talk about the players for a minute. Black Sabbath-for better or worse-always rests on the genius of guitarist extraordinaire, Tony Iommi. He has lost NOTHING on this album. He includes riffs and architectonic elements from ALL of his work with Black Sabbath, his recent work with Heaven and Hell, his solo albums, and perhaps even some of the blues roots that preceded Black Sabbath. His solos are as good as, or better than, his earlier work. When they do echo earlier compositions, they echo the very best soloing of his career.

Geezer Butler also plays as well here as he ever has, and a fan would do well to find anything on an earlier Sabbath album any better than his work here. Tony and Geezer seem to be playing for posterity. The lyrics of the entire album hint at the band’s contemplation of their own mortality, and surely Dio’s passing and Tony’s own illness make that inevitable. Ozzy Osbourne sounds pretty strong. His voice gets stronger as the album progresses, and some of the vocal melodies capture an Ozzy Osbourne solo sound — which was already developing on Never Say Die! (1978) back in the day. The synergy that made Black Sabbath a revolutionary band still exists in these three guys.

Brad Wilk’s drumming rounds out the record. The fan base made its displeasure at Bill’s absence very clear. Brad had a very big job trying to fill Bill Ward’s shoes. To his credit, he filled them well. We don’t hear the Butler/Ward swing anywhere on this record. Nor should we. Trying to imitate Bill would have been insulting. Brad did the job well, and he gets a big thumb’s up from this reviewer. All of these musicians in top form.

Musically, this album is VERY heavy in places. As mentioned, several of Tony’s solos equal anything he’s done so far, and his riffing remains the best there is. Lyrically, the darkness of this album stands with anything the band has ever done. The Grim Reaper peers over the horizon in nearly every song, and the tension between God and Satan (or at least the tension between the concepts of good and evil) emerges explicitly many times, as it did in their early work, when even the band were frightened by their own songs!

This review will address only the album proper, no bonus tracks. I may get an argument or two from some fans, but in general, I’ll say that the bonus tracks fail to achieve the same quality as the songs on the album. Perhaps more to the point, they do not “fit” the mood of the album proper.

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“The End of the Beginning” strikes me as the perfect title for the first track of this album. The return of the Ozzy-era line-up marks a new beginning for these elder statesmen of heavy metal. The main body of the song pays homage to the first Black Sabbath song “Black Sabbath” off the album Black Sabbath (1970). This song reflects Tony Iommi’s growth and range as a guitarist. The track opens with a heavy, doomy march of separated chords similar to “Shadow of the Wind” (The Dio Years – 2006) or “Atom and Evil” off The Devil You Know — a rather recent development used here to great effect. There are tempo changes, and the classic break that we hear on the first four albums. Some listeners may remark that they use the same sort of break in four of eight songs on the album, thus leaving them repetitive and even self-derivative. I don’t agree, but I concede they lean on this approach. It’s a part of their style and fits.

He plays two solos, as we see in Dehumanizer’s (1992) “Computer God”, using the same basic architectonics. The solos themselves soar into prominence. The first, at 4:42 or so, lasts 50 seconds, and features not only a fantastic Iommi-style lead but also a tempo change into a bluesy sound at the end. The second solo closes the song, and for around 90 seconds grows in intensity, rising to an effort VERY similar to “Lonely Is the Word” from Heaven and Hell (1980). Again, we are not talking about a mimeograph album. Tony taps into EVERYTHING he’s done. And he plays with abandon, with emotion.

Lyrically, we see a fresh address of the theme Society vs. the Individual, especially in terms of the former controlling the latter. This theme has been interrogated throughout the entire history of the band, dealing with societal issues like family collapse in “Wicked World” off Black Sabbath, economics in “Cornucopia” (Vol. 4 – 1972), psychology in “Johnny Blade,” (Never Say Die!) television in “Zero the Hero” (Born Again – 1983) and the eponymous “Mob Rules” (1983) and “Computer God” ( both self-explanatory). This song updates for the pervasiveness of the simulacrum, urging the “Reanimation of your cybersonic soul” and concluding “You don’t want to be a robot ghost / Occupied inside a human host / Analyzed and cloned relentlessly / Synthesized until they set you free.” This eight-minute opus is pure Black Sabbath.

“God Is Dead?,” the first single, at almost nine minutes, seems like two songs. The first 4:00 or so offer a kinder, gentler sound. Then the chorus hits at 2:16 and at 2:26 that super-doomy descending lick hints at the Sabbath sound. Then they go back for the next verse. At 4:05 that Sabbath discord starts and at 4:09-4:10 Tony “shakes” the chord as only he does. Then a classic Iommi riff (4:17-4:18), a reprise of the aforementioned descending lick, and an expansion the power chords at 4:10 into back-and-forth riff, classic Black Sabbath-relentless, hypnotic. At 5:38 we get to the chorus with that descending lick again. Then at 5:48 they reprise the power chords from :30 into the song that form a bridge to the break at 6:19 that seems like something off the first album or Vol. 4 (or “Falling off the Edge of the World” off Mob Rules). Then at 6:27 Geezer Butler kicks it into high gear and never lets up. All the musicians do the same thing, classic Black Sabbath. Then Geezer starts what will be one of the best performances on bass guitar in the Black Sabbath oeuvre. Even when the song slows, his playing does not. The 15-second solo (7:38–7:53) has a bluesy, 60′s sound to it. Some listeners may have preferred a longer solo, but the musicianship and intensity so far have been so powerful that a solo isn’t needed for the song to have a high point. In fact, Geezer’s playing behind the solo almost equates with soloing itself as he’s playing much faster than Tony. The final minute is the descending lick behind repeated “God is dead” chorus. The chorus leaves us with a rather definitive statement “I don’t believe that God is dead.” The supremely dark lyrics offer the good vs. evil motif that this band has defined. These lines typify the questions asked in this song: “Nowhere to run / Nowhere to hide / Wondering if we will meet again on the other side / Do you believe a word / What the good book said? / Or is it just a holy fairy tale and god is dead?” Nothing says Black Sabbath like two songs in excess of eight minutes offering pessimism and plodding riffs. What a one-two punch!

“Loner” rocks: a flat-out, straight-ahead headbanger. Some say it reminds them of “N.I.B.” It actually recalls the basic riff pattern of the main riffs from “Black Oblivion” and “Flame On” from the 2000 solo album Iommi. Lyrically, the song speaks of isolation, and the head-banging groove of the song contrasts with the seriousness of the message, tied up in the final verse: “Communication’s an impossibility / His own best friend but he’s his own worst enemy / The secrets of his past locked deep inside his head / I wonder if he will be happy when he’s dead.” Perhaps one of the hallmarks of Black Sabbath and of the metal music they pioneered is an understanding of the angst — even depression – that their listeners experience. The strong of grounding in existentialism in their work makes even an up-tempo frolic cuts into the heart of the listener. The irony of the seriousness of the theme and the elation of the riff-similar in a way to “TV Crimes” off Dehumanizer bespeaks a long-standing Sabbath tradition as well.

“Zeitgeist” immediately reminds us of “Planet Caravan” off Paranoid. In a larger sense, perhaps the beauty of “Zeitgeist” is to recall Black Sabbath’s numerous slower and/or psychedelic tunes, such as the aforementioned, “Planet Caravan,” “Solitude” off Master of Reality, and admittedly, to a much lesser degree “Changes” off Vol. 4, “Spiral Architect” off Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973), “She’s Gone” off Technical Ecstasy (1976), and others off Dio-era albums. No innovation exists here vis-à-vis older Sabbath tunes of a similar nature. No doubt people will like this one-especially, perhaps, people who weren’t hardcore Sabbath fans. Unremarkable in comparison to the other songs on the album, it provides a break in the heaviness — much as the other songs noted here did for those albums — this song reminds us that Black Sabbath did this too. Insofar as this album may well become a historical document, “Zeitgeist” proves a worthy inclusion.

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The opening of “Age of Reason” sounds a bit like the opening of “Follow the Tears” off The Devil You Know. Another elaborately structured offering marked by numerous genre and tempo changes, reminiscent of “Dirty Women” off Technical Ecstasy, give this song an almost proggy feeling. The opening riff while really quite doom-laden, is also rather bluesy. While the structure and overall sound of the song unmistakably heralds Black Sabbath, the melody suggests Ozzy’s solo work (not to mention an echo of “Junior’s Eyes” off Never Say Die! which presaged the Ozzy Osbourne sound in many ways). The marvelous solo in this song recalls “Zero the Hero” a bit. Tony takes his time, and the solo carries us away as only an Iommi solo can. At the risk of being repetitive, Tony Iommi has lost nothing. The guitar work here stands up to anything he’s done. Similar to the general theme of “The End of the Beginning” and many other Black Sabbath songs, the lyrics describe a hopelessness accepted by people who have lost their will to be themselves: “Sustainable extinction / A fractured human race / A jaded revolution / Disappears without a trace.”

The opening progression of “Live Forever” bears a similarity to the opening of “Lord of this World” off Master of Reality (with, again, a touch of that march of separated chords noted in “The End of the Beginning”) and then steps up the tempo to a riff strikingly similar to the up-tempo movement of “Cornucopia” off Vol. 4. This one really harkens back to the older groove. Even Brad’s use of cymbals seems rather Bill Ward-esque. While clearly adapting these older tunes, the nuanced use of the newer aesthetic and burnished sound of excellent production renders it a new song. Ozzy sings as only he can-with all the soaring menace of that same era. The lyrics of the song sustain the motif of aging and the looming presence of impending death. This song lacks the depth of the others on this album. For instance, the closing lines, “I may be dreaming or whatever / Watching my life go by / And I don’t wanna live forever / But I don’t wanna die!” certainly do not rise to the more profound, sometimes poetic, expression of the same uneasiness. I’ll neither label this song as filler nor dispute the inaccuracy of said label.

“Damaged Soul” is monumental. Clearly a tribute to their roots in the blues, this song amalgamates everything Black Sabbath not only does, but can do. Black Sabbath has made forays into the blues before, notable on the Seventh Star (1986) and the song “Dying for Love” off Cross Purposes proves a stunning blues song. But Sabbath hasn’t done this anywhere else. My first thought upon hearing it was that it sounds like Robin Trower, but heavier. There are moments in this song that sound like Electric Wizard. It almost demands a genre definition of “Doom-Blues.” Again, the soloing echoes “Lonely Is the Word.” The first solo at 3:49, lasts for about 45 seconds and never deviates from a standard blues structure. He means to play the blues here. Then at 5:26 we get another 30 seconds or so until a break takes us to another tempo. The harmonica wails into this change, and then Tony returns at 6:36 and serves up a solo of his own. While the rest of the players play the blues (and Ozzy even sustains a fine harmonica riff), the exit solo is pure Iommi. Lyrically, this may be the darkest song on this album and in the running for the darkest song they’ve ever made. Lyrically, the song calls up the career-long (or age-old?) subject of possession and reprises this album’s motif of impending death and the tension between good and evil: “I don’t mind dying ’cause I’m already dead / Pray not for the living; I’ll live in your head / Dying is easy; it’s living that’s hard / I’m losing the battle between Satan and God.”

“Dear Father” proves an indictment of Catholic Church’s priest sexual abuse tragedy, every bit as scathing and pessimistic an attack on this issue as “Wicked World,” “War Pigs” off Paranoid, or “Into the Void” off Master of Reality.” This song boasts a rather complex overall structure, featuring multiple tempo and style changes. But nothing in this song equals the rest of the album, musically. The reason for this appears to be that the band wants us to listen to the words. An album this good, with Tony and Geezer playing as well as they have ever played, with Tony playing his heart out in more than one place, would not forgo a solo without a reason. That reason must be to focus our attention on the message. The music changes every time the message changes, intensifying the merciless dissection of those merciless crimes. The closing lyrics sum up the song with perfect clarity: “Dear father forsaken, you knew what you were doing / In silence your violence has left my life in ruin.” The song closes with a repeating “In ruin, yeah” phrase, symbolizing the vile and on-going suffering caused by these atrocities. After this song ends, the rain sound effect from the beginning of the first album fades in for a few seconds, reminding us that this album not only provides a resurrection of the original line-up and sound but also offers a vital viewpoint on religion and music, contemporary issues and timeless questions.

In 13, Black Sabbath reflects both the original Black Sabbath sound, imagery, and philosophy and the influences of all their musical experience from their solo work, other incarnations of Black Sabbath, and their inherent genius. They recast the system of rock music 43 years ago, and in this “reanimation of the sequence,” they have again recast the system.

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Krypts – Unending Degradation

krypts-unending_degradationDoom metal isn’t a genre, but a palette of moods. Since doom metal itself varies all over the place in tempo, it doesn’t make sense to look at the first rhythm on an album, but instead to grasp the overall feel.

Unending Degradation is a heck of a doom metal album. It is structured like doom metal in that tracks are based around a riff and a return to its theme, building with harmony and rhythm a plodding expectation that is both welcome when it is gratified, and gradually grinding us into the ground. Behind it is the science of the four-note minor key melody.

Someone tossed this to me and said, “Hey, check out this old school death metal,” but I think he was very, very high. This isn’t death metal at all; it’s doom-death, but its heart is doom metal. These tunes plod, trudge, dirge and resonate. The music doesn’t get any faster than the first Cathedral EP. The majority of it is radiantly dark and slow, and repetitive.

I wouldn’t expect old school death metal. There’s no riff Jenga here. There’s layers of variants on a theme producing a mood more like an ambient band or techno than death metal. But if you like the old school dark and doomy, this album full of catchy melodies and churning rhythms should satisfy.

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Summoning – Old Mornings Dawn

summoning-old_mornings_dawnAfter the first wave of Norwegian black metal entirely re-defined the genre into a melodic and intensely artistic form of music, it seemed metal had culminated. Its technique exploded in death metal, and with black metal, it began the process of creating narrative melodic compositions.

Summoning jumped into this heap by evolving from a relatively straightforward downtempo black metal band into a melange of keyboards, lengthy fast-picked slow melodic passages, and soundtrack-style framing of song structures in the context of atmospheric, Tolkien-inspired vaguely medievalist metal. Ever since they nailed that combination on Dol Guldur, Summoning has been a legend in the metal scene.

After the experiment in greater use of vocals and folk-like dynamics that was Stronghold, Summoning returned with Oath Bound, which edged them closer to the territory last explored on Dol Guldur before the music got more atmospheric on the Nightshade Forests EP. Seven years later, anticipation ran high for their latest, named Old Mornings Dawn.

Coming from the same creative wellspring as other Summoning works, Old Mornings Dawn channels three separate influences: the classic downtempo black metal of its origins, the “Renaissance Faire” style of folk/world music that it became, and an influence that can only be described as dark 1980s industrial goth pop. This album fits in with Joy Division, Soft Cell, Sisters of Mercy and other darker forms of synthpop and EBM, much in the same way that Nightshade Forests picked up similar influences. At the same time, hints of the Stronghold style where vocals lead composition help define these songs.

What is most pronounced on this album however is that Summoning are using the layered style that worked so well on not only Nightshade Forests but the Lost Tales EP as well, but have removed even more of the metal “forward” style narrative composition. Instead, these are circular compositions with layers, but in the best metal style, moods accrue and eventually force change into an entirely different but complementary riff. The result is a ferment of slightly differentiated influences fit into the only song structures that could incorporate them all. The result is like an exotic tour alongside a riverbank populated by fantastic figures from dreams.

Old Mornings Dawn is a creative journey into the recesses of the mind and embraces the sentimental alongside the epic, using its ambient structuring to immerse the listener in a world far beyond anything they have experienced. The result drifts farther from black metal without betraying black metal, and instead creates a voice unique to Summoning which sensibly does not try to be Dol Guldur II, but to create a niche for itself. Its decreased distance from the listener allows emotion to meld with music and create an atmosphere unique to this band and the spread of time they have chosen with their music.

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Ara – The Blessed Sleep

ara-the_blessed_sleepThe metalcore community is aware of your criticisms and attempting to reform itself.

During the past decade, a number of bands have tried to reign in the genre from its Necrophagist-style peak of unrelated technical fireworks to more of the songwriting that made bands like Botch, Human Remains and Rites of Spring influential founders of the genre.

With The Blessed Sleep, Ara steps up to the plate by streamlining the genre and removing the unrelated parts, which keeps a focus on songwriting like Harkonin or Neurosis. This eliminates the biggest problem, but for those who don’t like metalcore, it leaves the tendency to scream out lyrics in a trope of regularity and a fascination with “different” riffs and surprise twists that often leads toward a predictability of being unpredictable. (Imagine a general on the battlefield who maintains an advantage by being unpredictable. After a while, it becomes random, and easier to respond to because there is no expectation otherwise.)

The Blessed Sleep attempts to work around these challenges to the genre by varying tempo and the texture of riffing, stacking subtly melodic arpeggios up against chromatic chugging riffing, and by not using any single technique constantly (except the angry-man-in-a-phone-booth vocals). The result is far more listenable and develops actual songs that, although based on jarring contrast, are able to return to a single pair of themes and develop variation there.

Although Ara are touted by many as technical, nothing here is particularly technical as in specific skills, but putting these songs together without them falling apart and playing them on the nose will be difficult for any but a professional and experienced band. The streamlined songwriting, topicality and focus make The Blessed Sleep one of the more intense tech-deth albums to emerge in recent years.

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Imprecation – Satanae Tenebris Infinita

imprecation-satane_tenebris_infinitaThe long-awaited first real album from Imprecation resembles less their 1995 debut Theurgia Goetia Summa but a more streamlined and moody creation. While the demos compiled into that album revealed a raw understructure of a morbid subconscious arising, the newer work from Imprecation focuses on deliberate and meticulous ritual.

Shifting from a predominantly fast-riffed approach, Imprecation meld 1980s-style speed metal back into their death metal. Satanae Tenebris Infinita use extensive palm-muted downstrumming to carry riffs that are less phrasal than previously, and as a result are less distracting from the vocals and their integration with drums and (occasional) keyboards. IN addition to speed metal influences, riffing reveals the Slayer tendency toward angular riffing and an enmeshment with riff forms from earlier death metal.

While songs break to fast riffs, and vary standard song structure on a regular basis, the majority of the work here is mid-paced death metal with melodic underpinnings. In old school metal style, riffs start out simple and run into contrasting riffs, which fit together by relationship of riff shape and the emotions evoked. Songs later pick up on earlier themes and conclude; this patterning is reminiscent of early Celtic Frost. Lead guitars appear like schools of fish in twisting metallic sounds that dissipate into the dark surroundings.

Satanae Tenebris Infinita shows a band mastering their riff-craft and intensity of their earlier work by adding layers of dark moods, combining several genres of metal to produce a mid-paced death metal epic with the emotional depth of doom metal or early Metallica. The result resembles a ritual descent into an occult netherworld, and achieves the suspension of reality for which death metal is famous, filling the void with a world of grotesque beauty and raging death metal energy.

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Soilwork – The Living Infinite

soilwork-the_living_infiniteIf you ever find yourself wondering why mainstream music produces so many professional and well-produced acts while metal seems pasted-together in comparison, worry no more: Soilwork has invented a new form of radio-friendly metal that competes with the big bands you can hear on the radio.

Much of metal’s heritage is pop. Iron Maiden, Queensryche and even easy-listening death metal like Cannibal Corpse follow the pop formula. What they are not is systematic in listening to their own material, analyzing it, following published research on effective songwriting and thus, consistent. A professional band approaches music like science. Every part of every song must be deliberate, which requires organization and to put it bluntly, work. This anti-hobbyist view threatens metalheads two ways. First, it points out that we could do better, with self-discipline; second, it points out that the world isn’t as simple as “all pop is crap” and “all underground is good.” Pop is musically competent and in many ways surpasses the underground bands.

The Living Infinite manipulates human emotions like a Hollywood mega-movie. All aspects of this work are thoroughly professional. Nothing is left to chance. Every iota is calculated to produce an effect that works together to make a greater whole. Production is also a masterpiece, creating a glassine space that resonates with guitar sound and avoids crowding of the distorted tracks. Every aspect that wants to be heard can be heard, and through the magic of ProTools or an analogue, identical parts are (literally) identical. In itself, the production makes you want to relish this release because it gives it big-radio pop gloss without truly emulsifying the product into uniformity.

The style of the music is designed based on what has become highly popular for metal over the past two decades. If you can imagine Iron Maiden, The Haunted, Rammstein and Amon Amarth in a blender, you can see where Soilwork get their influences. It mixes the sweet dual lead guitar work of NWOBHM with the bouncing riffs and “carnival music” detours of metalcore. You will hear a Blind Guardian influence in the surging choruses and sparkly bright major key vocal melodies, and you could detect later Queensryche’s hybrid of indie rock, glam metal and power metal in its use of vocal hooks and interwoven rhythm lines. There are no ballads, per se; the ballad effect has been swept up in the metal effect, which is itself subsumed in the rock effect.

Soilwork target the audience for guitar-heavy bands like Dire Straights or Rush with the appeal of melodic metal and the positivity of power metal (which has a lot in common with modern Christian rock in this respect). While The Living Infinite may not satisfy the underground or true metal palate, its goal is not to appeal to that audience, but the people out there listening to mainstream rock who are looking for something that goes a bit further without going to a truly dark place. For that purpose, this heavily guitar-oriented band serves as an introduction and baptism into what could eventually become a dangerous metal habit.

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