Fester – Winter of Sin: As you venture through the underground, Sadhu, you will find that many of those described by others as the Ancients are in fact the regurgitated accumulation of techniques, ideas, and poses outworn long ago, and used by those who have not prospered to justify their position as Those Who Swallow What Society Spurts. Fester is one such offering. It’s a pungent mezcla of hard rock, heavy metal, proto-death metal and punk riffs, without direction or real organization. As a result it’s like stepping into a sauna: suddenly you’re warm, and at some point it ends, and you can’t really identify any particular points in the time you sat there, alone in the dark, probably bored and sweaty. Except for the sweaty part, unless you’re excited by tedium, this is that experience. Yet the black metal kiddees talk about how goddamn cult it is. Cult like Eddie Cochran but not as good by a million billion miles.
Lugubrum – Winterstones: During the halcyon years — in relative metal quality — of the mid-1990s, I picked up this CD and heard it and thought, “Aha, a Burzum clone.” At that point I wasn’t desperate for something to fill the void of quality metal. Now desperate, I groped for it again. What do I find? Mix Burzum technique with the simple-hearted and obvious songwriting of the average indie rock band. All of the familiar “Burzumy riffs” are there, from the trudge to the plod to the prismatic cycle, but they end in slight variations of the known pattern and then drop into song structures of minimal variation from a standard Motorhead or later black metal song. You will want to like this because you want Burzum. It will not deliver.
Steve von Till – A Grave is A Grim Horse: When you’ve reached the top of the innovation curve as a punk musician, your tendency is inevitably to ask: what’s more alienated, more extreme, and gives us a better explanation of where we are in history and how we got here? The inherent politics of punk is rejection of society; the emergent next step is going back to roots and making a folk album. Fusing the aggro-folk rock hybrid of Tom Waits or Roky Erickson with an almost Danzig-style verve, Steve von Till brings us an acoustic, gentle and dark album that is like the stories of a grandfather at the hearth. They aren’t all good stories, but in persistence through darkness, there’s a sexiness to morbidity and a delight in the struggle. The real superstar here is von Till’s voice, which like a Johnny Cash hummed mutter carries the dust and weight of trails both imagined and real. If you’ve got to go cowboy after your society smashing days in Neurosis, this is a good option, and my hope is that the folk-punk-country-necro indie volks don’t deny it.
Emancer – Twilight and Randomness: A lot like France’s S.U.P. except that Emancer choose the Pantera-style choppy riff arrangements amongst which they scatter odd phrase conclusions, dissonant chords and progressive metal melodic lead rhythm riffing. Influences from alternative metal, metalcore, progressive rock and indie abound, which makes this a stew more than a distinguishable, deliberate meal. Some good ideas get lost in the muddle, because these songs are so self-referential they forget about reality and the listener.
Strid – Strid: Some bloviation commends this band as inventor of the “depressive black metal” sub-sub-genre, but that’s where genre names get ridiculous. Instead, it’s appropriate to say that this band very carefully apes early Ancient while using the Paradise Lost technique of layering a melody on top of repetitive music, augmented with Burzum technique of strobing strum. Like so many other bands that followed the first wave, it has that melange tendency which suggests an imitation of end result and not the ideas that can launch a parallel result that’s as good. Some will compare to Ras Algethi or Gehenna, but where those had a spirit motivating their semi-random choices that turned out to work together, this lacks randomness and the same spark, so is lukewarm in reception and effect. Note the rip of Graveland’s “Gates the Kingdom of Darkness” on the third track. This CD is a compilation of demos in the above style, with the first being closest to Ancient, the second closest to early Bathory, and the third like a three-note version of Gorgoroth.
Grey Daturas – Return to Disruption: Did we ever leave disruption behind? Powerviolence mates with emo while smoking crack; the fetus is occasionally much more brilliant than either, but without a direction in life, relapses into playing Wii on the couch with Papa John’s on fast dial. Noise interludes mar driving emo-chorded passages, and long silences let us know when we’re supposed to be assimilating, but it’s unclear what the message is. Disruption? You want disruption? My advice to you is to make like an L.A. gangbanger during the riots and set fifteen fires across the city, then take potshots at cops, emergency personnel and news reporters. The chaos will far surpass this, which sounds a lot like guitar practice and not much like anything with shape. They’re trying for Pelican-style drone and they succeed at it, but transitions into that drone and between different riffs are tortured, and the howling wheezing creeling background noise doesn’t do much to change that. There is promise here, but only if they pony up and start writing real songs.
Black Altar – Death Fanaticism: This is the album Metallica wish they wrote instead of Death Magnetic: it’s bounding, bombastic, cheesy and hides its heavy elements well behind a whole Return To What’s True aesthetic. Even more, there is no continuity between riff changes, so it’s like a bundle of abrupt leaps to nowhere. Vocals fit the exact rhythm of guitar chords, which makes it sounds like kids music. Halfway through the third track — a pile of cliches, dated death metal riffs, and Cradle of Filthisms played more aggressively so not to reveal their deeply lisping side — Windows Explorer crashed, and for a few minutes I thought I would be unable to get this off my speakers. Suicide was considered. Not bad, not good.
Satanic Warmaster – Black Metal Kommando / Gas Chamber: This compilation does nothing to disguise the surly disgust the underground feels for Satanic Warmaster, otherwise known as “the Nargaroth of Finland.” Like other black metal vultures, they feature all the external aspects of controversy without the amazing music that made people other than the desperate metalheads notice: chiaroscuro Neo-Nazi overtones, adherence to trueness, novelty, catchy hooky songs that go nowhere, lots of talk about keeping it real, yo. When you boil it down, just about anyone can make a thrashing riff from a known archetype and then drop to kick-beat, shrilly screaming until the collapse, without having songs that go anywhere. In their favor, these are pleasant Motorhead-y songs that bounce along well if you don’t want any conclusion to ambiguous elements raised. If this band could heed any advice, it would be to ditch the black metal stylings and the pretense by implication, and just make Motorhead style rock-metal. They’re due to retire soon anyway, so we’ll need a successor, and that seems more the headspace in which this band composes.
Guapo – Elixirs: This is what could legitimately be called dub jazz, being light jazz played in layers with the intention of creating a drone or ambient effect. Keyboards and clean guitars interplay with percussion reminiscent of the third Atheist album, combining found sounds and unusual implementations of familiar ones in a style like that of Vas Deferens or other collage atmosphere projects. The second track quotes from a Fripp/Eno piece and despite bad hippie vocals later on the disc, it maintains a heritage of prog and jazz that provides interesting playing that seeks to find a mood, immerse in it, and then depart unnoticed. Sometimes I hear overtones of Thule in this. Like anything venturing in this style, it provides excellent music but not exciting music because it cannot take a direction; it’s like the Rothko chapel in that it intends to suspend you in a place like the space between dream and reality, but goes nowhere from that state.
Old Wainds – Death Nord Kult: You can tell the corpse of black metal is warming in the sun, eructating and oozing adipocere, when something like this counts as a major release among those who seem to know their stuff. It’s half speed-metal/death metal mixed in with droning black metal in the Eurasian style, with over-the-top vocals ranting counter-rhythms in a style like early Impaled Nazarene. Chord progressions are obvious, song structures undeveloped, and the rest is a riff salad of the past 25 years of metal with an emphasis on crowd pleasers. They love to try to keep that Mayhem feel alive but end up sounding more like Niden Div 187 merged with Drudkh and Nifelheim.
Testament – The Formation of Damnation: A 1980s speed metal band keeps updating itself, and ends up with a cumulative style not unlike what is in vogue among current metalcore-influenced bands: riding rhythms and harmonizing pre-choruses like a faster Iron Maiden, big heavy metal choruses with broad slow chords, the melodic leads of metalcore, and solos that imitate Kirk Hammet during his most excessive noodling on pentatonic leads. Vio-lence style hardcore influenced volley choruses and churning, chanting death metal verses add some power but don’t give it direction. You could almost sleep to it except for the constant pounding and “quirky” changes that sound like a messenger ran into the studio with a note saying, “Add that thing Deeds of Flesh do when they get bored, except slower” or “Maybe you really need to rehash that Overkill riff from The Years of Decay here.” Vocalist sounds like he worships recent Metallica.
Abdicate – Relinquish the Throne: Cut from the Cannibal Corpse mold, this CD of old-school inspired death metal sounds like a hybrid between the heavy muffled chording with blasts of Blood and the racing power chord streams of later Malevolent Creation, rendering a demonic-sounding and fast-attacking music that stands head and shoulders above others. Like all good death metal, its specialty is dynamism, or radical change between phrase form, tempo, texture, you name it, that later makes sense when the piece is considered as a whole. Songwriting here is simpler than classic death metal and less tonally-conventional but more interesting than Cannibal Corpse. As this band gets more confident, they may weave more complexity into their songs and it should end up making this a very compelling listen. For those who do not like the alternatingly bouncy and cadenced old school death metal sound, this may give you a headache, but from among the recent variations of the genre this is a good choice.
Xantotol – Liber Diabolus: Despite the alleged dates in the title, I find myself keeping this one at arm’s length. It is like a hybrid of Varathron and Ungod, in that it has the luciphagous rhythms of Varathron and the same steady progression of songs into descent, and the awkward riffing of Ungod that has two endings and then an ungainly turnaround. However, what it does not have is compositional form: songs are about the same general idea because they are composed outward from the aesthetic, and never generated a poetry (narrative) which met that aesthetic halfway toward full conception. I keep listening but so far am not knocked out of my chair by anything but distraction.
Enslaved – Vertebrae: The former gods of Nordic folk black metal have reincarnated in their new form as a rock band. Was there a word missing in that sentence? Oh, you expected me to say “progressive,” but there’s nothing progressive about this. Song structures are very straightforward. Riffs use more than power chords, but are based around writing melodic hooks and repeated them with a few breaks for ambience. There are jam parts… really… and over what chord progressions? Fairly easy ones. Songs loop and go nowhere. This isn’t progressive rock, it’s a flavor that “sounds like” progressive rock but really is the same old ear-easy singalong stuff. Barf.