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CONAN Evidence of Immortality

Album · 2022 · Doom Metal
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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BitterJalapeno
Orogenic processes fast-forwarded while the stricken lay dying...

The fifth full-length offering from Liverpudlian doom metal machine Conan shows no sign of deviating from spirit-crushing, despair-filled doom metal of the most ferocious degree. Clocking in at over 50 minutes, Conan’s latest is their longest album to date and is somewhat a return to their older style, centring the structure around lengthier tracks as opposed to the shorter and punchier tracks featured on 2018’s impressive “Existential Void Guardian”. However, there are still pockets of aggressive sludge here – such as the punk-tinged “Ritual of Anonymity” which contains some of the albums faster-paced sections. The aggression in the middle is book ended by two epic epochs of slow-moving, catastrophic doom which despite length, do not outstay their welcome and are the strongest portions of music on offer here.

There are two things that Conan’s music always brings to mind: barbaric battles and geological processes. Opening track “A Cleaved Head No Longer Plots” is so destructively heavy and dense that it manages to replicate how I imagine the collision of continents sound if it occurred in 10 minutes rather than over a period of millions of years. The usual pulverising doom riffs are nuanced with some nice touches of post-metal adding some nice stylistic diversity. Conjured in the mind are images of thick, slow-moving lava snaking its way down the side of a volcano as pyroclastic bombs descend from the ash-obscured sky above leaving reducing everything in its path to cinders.

In addition to the strong structure, the album impresses from a production perspective. The viscosity of the guitar and bass tone is unfathomable while still allowing the drums to shine through with crystal clear clarity. It’s obvious that Conan has lost none of its forbidding atmospheric quality and on “Evidence of Immortality”, some additional features develop this further. Organs are utilised to great effect in the funeral doom closer “Grief Sequence”, providing another layer of ominous atmosphere as the brooding, monolithic guitar chords gradually edge the listener towards their impending death following the aftermath of a medieval bloodbath. The sinister atmosphere intensifies as the song (and album) crawls to an end, assisted by the inclusion of warping flange techniques on the organs, delivering a fever dream-like sound as if the stricken listener is slipping into a delusional state as their life approaches its inevitable terminus.

Upon conclusion, Conan has delivered yet another high-quality lump of barbarically heavy doom metal and have once again cemented themselves as a prime act of the genre by adding another pillar to their legacy – one with the utmost consistency in quality, and undoubtedly, longevity.

GRIMA Frostbitten

Album · 2022 · Atmospheric Black Metal
Cover art 3.92 | 2 ratings
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siLLy puPPy
When it comes to modern black metal, i frankly have a hard time keeping up with it all so something has to stand out in some way whether that be a personal recommendation, a compelling review or in the case of FROSTBITTEN, the fifth overall studio album from the Russian noise making machine GRIMA, it was the outstanding frosty freaky album cover art that sold me!

And what a nice discovery. So much mediocrity in the world of black metal world and GRIMA is a bonafide talent for sure. While tagged atmospheric black metal, GRIMA has lost none of the second wave furor delivered long ago by likes of Darkthrone, Satyricon, Immortal and beyond. GRIMA has mastered the art of the black metal rampage as if it were just set loose from hell to terrorize humanity all the while mustering up the hypnotic perfection of a well-oiled atmospheric generator. FROSTBITTEN promises what it suggests. A frigid cold musical journey.

This two man band has been and still is the creation of Morbius (guitar, bass) and Vilhelm (vocals, guitar, bass, keyboards, programming) however make no bones about it: these two dudes are veritable beasts on every instrument involved. Add to that a keen sense of black metal compositional fortitude which allows soft folky passages laced with wintery sound effects to caress your should with just enough melody that once the bombastic black metal furor begins you are hopelessly hooked on like an unsuspecting fish.

GRIMA plays the black metal part all the way as well. The duo dress like Satanically possessed corpses lurking in the snow-covered vastness of the Russian forests. The authenticity and commitment rings true on the musical delivery. This is no slouch in the world of black metal for sure with the melodic touches bands like Sacramentum and Dissection with the atmospheric splendor of others such as Wolves In The Throne Room or Paysage d”Hiver. Add to that a touch of Russian folk musical sounds, a screaming from the din vocal style right out of the Summoning playbook and you have a nice recipe for an excellent atmospheric black metal experience.

There aren’t really any weak moments on FROSTBITTEN as this musical soundtrack for dying of hypothermia and then eaten by wolves is a keeper for sure. The album consists of seven tracks of perfectly paced musical processions that deliver just enough downtime to crave the black metal attacks once more. Perhaps the biggest drawback is that GRIMA doesn’t immediately come off as totally original. For those not well versed in the black metal universe, much of it can sound similar if not downright identical. Like stars in the sky, it takes some adjustment for seeing or in this case hearing in the dark which is provided by the black metal guitar distortion and other thundering effects.

For those well versed in this noisy corner of the metal universe, GRIMA won’t disappoint at all. The second wave black metal graced by the accoutrements of folky acoustic guitars, sensual yet frigid atmospheric backdrops and interesting chord progressions as well as perfectly timed thundering attacks will surely please the hardened black metalheads who have heard it all before. True not the most original of the lot but so well executed that i find this to be an outstanding modern example of well produced black metal that hasn’t jettisoned its lo-fi origins. Guess i gotta check out the earlier albums now!

OCEANS OF SLUMBER Starlight and Ash

Album · 2022 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 5.00 | 1 rating
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lukretion
I’ll start this review with a confession: this is the album that I always hoped Oceans of Slumber would make. Don’t get me wrong: I did enjoy the Texan band’s take on the progressive death/doom genre that they have been perfecting over their previous albums. But especially after their 2020’s self-titled LP, I had the strong feeling that the band had reached the limits of what they could do with that sound. It had started to grow stale and did not seem to do full justice to the band’s immense talent, especially to that of their lead singer Cammie Gilbert. Unexpressed potential is probably a way to put it – there was tons of that on their last album. A change was inevitable if Oceans of Slumber wanted to move to the next level. And what a change they delivered with Starlight and Ash!

The new album wipes away most of the tenets that had guided the band’s sound up to this point. Gone are the cavernous death growls. Gone the blistering double-bass runs and most of the other extreme metal aesthetics. Comparing the new LP’s tracklist with that of previous records, you’ll also realize that even the band’s idea of what a song is has radically changed– gone are the long-winding, multi-part 7-minute epics, leaving room for more concise, 4-minute tunes centered around Cammie Gilbert’s extraordinary vocal talent. You get the gist: Oceans of Slumber have taken the road that several other metal bands took before them, moving away from the heavy shores of extreme metal towards softer, more melodic expanses.

To be frank, this much I had expected after listening to Oceans of Slumber’s last LP. That record already contained a handful of more melodic, gothic ballads that were catered to Gilbert’s clean voice. My bet at the time was that the band would continue to dig deeper into this balladry sound, perhaps landing somewhere not far from modern-day Anathema. And here is where I was spectacularly wrong. Because, you see, Starlight and Ash does much more than simply mellowing down the band’s original sound. That’s only part of it. Oceans of Slumber take this softer songwriting approach and let it grow into a whole new aesthetic, which they dubbed “Southern Gothic”.

If you are like me, the term Southern Gothic will tell you little about the actual sonic identity of the album, but it may give you a good idea of the type of vibes it emanates: dark, gloomy, dramatic, but also charged with a deeper spiritual intensity that speaks of trauma and catharsis. Then there is of course the adjective “Southern”, which is testament to the band’s geographical roots and evokes rhythm and blues, gospel, and country music. And here is probably where the biggest surprise of the album lies: those Southern musical traditions are subtly weaved into the songs to form a new, hybrid sound where twangy blues guitars and gospel choirs are juxtaposed to art rock sensibilities, dashes of electronica and, of course, a lingering sense of sluggish heaviness that is inherited straight from the band’s death/doom origins.

This genre bending is done masterfully and ever-so-subtly. The blues and gospel influences are not as in-your-face as, say, in a Zeal & Ardor album, but surface gently from the groovy rhythms and soulful melodies of “The Lighthouse” and “Salvation”, probably the two songs with the strongest Southern accents on the album. These tracks also illustrate another characteristic of the album’s sound that emerges consistently through its 11 songs: drum grooves and vocal melodies take absolutely center stage in Starlight and Ash, to the point that at times they constitute a song’s whole texture. Guitars and keyboards are instead used with restraint, to inject bursts of color into the sound and to shift the songs’ dynamics to dramatic effects (“The Waters Rising”; “Hearts of Stone”; “Red Forest Roads”). Elsewhere, Oceans of Slumber flirt with dreamy art pop (“The Hanging Tree”), while “Star Altar” is the song that most reminds me of the band’s metal heritage – a gorgeous, doomy affair that twists and turns across its different parts before exploding into a spellbinding, down-tuned finale that is bound to trigger some serious headbanging.

These first seven songs are absolutely stunning and showcase the tremendous potential of the band’s newfound style. The flow from song to song is also exceptional: each new track builds on the previous one, but introduces new nuances to the sound, subtly pushing it into a slightly distinct direction to explore a different sonic niche. The magic breaks down somewhat as the album moves to the next set of songs (“The Spring of ‘21”, “Just a Day” and “House of the Rising Sun” - the latter a cover of a 1960s song by UK rhythm-and-blues act The Animals). I cannot quite put my finger on what it is, but these three tracks do not chime in with the rest of the record. Taken separately, there is nothing particularly wrong with each of them. Granted, “The Spring of ‘21” could do with some trimming in its second half, and the mood shifts in “Just a Day” are just a tad too jarring, but this is nothing that one does not get used to after a few listens. My reservation mostly comes from the way these three songs diverge – quite abruptly – from the rest of the album, both sonically and in terms of atmosphere. While the sound progression up to here had been gentle and subtle, suddenly we are confronted with a stark narrative jump, as we plunge into moody piano music (“The Spring of ‘21”, the first part of “Just a Day”) that suddenly turns into the heaviest wall-of-sound bit you will find in the whole album (the second part and the finale of “Just a Day”). Meanwhile, “House of the Rising Sun” veers into chamber rock, with its lush string arrangements and violin solo, marking yet another sudden change of direction in terms of sound. Starlight and Ash eventually returns to the sonic identity of its initial songs with “The Shipbuilder's Son” – a very good song in itself, although it’s somehow too late to restore the continuity and the magic that the first seven tracks were able to create.

Despite my misgivings about the album’s second-half, Starlight and Ash remains a mighty strong record. I have no doubt this is Oceans of Slumber’s best album to date and I am quite sure it will top my album of the year list too. But I am also prepared to go out on a limb and say this record will end up among my favourite 10/15 albums of all times, simply because it excels in absolutely everything that I love in music. It has a sound that innovates without losing sight of the band’s own heritage (both musical and cultural), and, as a consequence, it feels fresh and interesting but at the same familiar. It is exquisitely produced, feeling organic and nuanced, but retaining bite and power when needed. It contains fantastic melodies and arrangements, and superb performances from all musicians involved, especially from Cammie Gilbert – probably the best female singer in metal right now. Most importantly, Starlight and Ash delivers music with soul, capable of connecting with the listener at a profound emotional level, thanks to its themes of trauma and redemption and to its deep musicality and transporting impetus. As I said at the beginning of this review, I have been waiting for Oceans of Slumber to write this album since I first heard their music back in 2016, as I felt the band had the potential to express themselves at a whole new level. Even so, Starlight and Ash vastly surpasses my expectations. If there is only one album you can listen to this year, make sure it is this one.

[Originally written for The Metal Observer]

DECAPITATED Cancer Culture

Album · 2022 · Technical Death Metal
Cover art 3.79 | 3 ratings
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Kev Rowland
Back with their eighth full-length album, Decapitated show no sign whatsoever of slowing down. Guitarist Vogg has of course been there since the very beginning back in 1996, while singer Rasta has also been there for more than ten years, but since their last album they have brought in a new drummer in James Stewart. They don’t have a full-time bassist at present, but previous member Paweł Pasek stepped in as a guest for this release, while they also have two guests who each contribute vocals to one track, namely Tatiana Shmayluk from Jinjer and none other than Robb Flynn from Machine Head!

What sets this album apart from much of their output is the sheer diversity contained within. They keep switching tempos so one is never sure what is going to come next, the result being an album that sits strongly within the traditional death metal genre yet keeps moving and changing. The brutal “Hello Death” suddenly loses its bass, we get a lot of finger-tapping and suddenly Tatiana is in there providing clear vocals and then we move into a style which has much more in common with djent. If that were not enough, “Iconoclast” is an absolute stand out with Robb Flynn providing some wonderful clear vocals in the middle which transforms what has been until then a death metal belter. Vogg has been in this band most of his life, and his guitar sound is rich and deep as he continues to drive the band forward, taking them in new directions. The title cut is the first proper song, and it is ear-strippingly fast, yet there is polish within, while “Just a Cigarette” allows Stewart to show he would be just at happy in a grindcore band, yet still provides finesse with some nice nuances around the kit.

They have celebrated their first quarter of century in style, here’s to the next.

MASSACRE Mythos

EP · 2022 · Death Metal
Cover art 4.42 | 2 ratings
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Kev Rowland
Massacre have been through multiple line-up changes over the last nearly 40 years since their inception, but they are widely regarded as one of the most important bands on the death metal scene, creating a style which has impacted and influenced many others. Indeed, original singer Kam Lee is widely viewed as the person who invented the growl now used by many. He first came to prominence in the very early days of Death, performing on their early demo tapes before joining Massacre, where alongside bassist Mike Borders, drummer Bill Andrews and guitarist Allen West he recorded the ‘Aggressive Tyrant’ demo in 1986. The band split-up and reformed multiple times over the years, with Kam last being with the band in 2007, but having won a court case to gain rights to the name, he created a new version of Massacre which saw them release their fourth album, ‘Resurgence’ in 2021. Apart from Kam, none of the band had previously been on a Massacre album, although bassist Mike Borders did appear on the 1986 demos.

With some semblance of stability, all those who appeared on that album are also on this new 4-track EP with Kam and Mike joined by Brynjar Helgetun (drums), Jonny Pettersson (guitars), Rogga Johansson (guitars) and Scott Fairfax (lead guitar) and a jolly romp it is too. As one might expect from someone who was involved with death metal from the very earliest days of the scene, Kam knows exactly what he is doing and has pulled together a band who are polished, full of finesse, and packed full of chops. It is hard to pick fault with this, as the vocals are on point, the drums provide the backdrop, the bass rumbles in the background to provide the foundation while the three guitarists are incredibly tight. Helgetun played with Kam in his solo days, while all the musicians (apart from Borders) have been in multiple bands, so it is no surprise they know what they are doing. In fact, the only real issue I have with this release is that it is just an EP, as it is crying out for more material. However, none of these songs appeared on last year’s album, and there has been another single since this came out at the beginning of July, so it really does look these guys are putting their heads down and working hard.

This is death metal which demonstrates how it is possible to bring together commerciality and brutality in the same genre, and the result is something which crosses genres yet appeals to both. Massacre are well and truly back.

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CHELSEA WOLFE Pain is Beauty

Album · 2013 · Non-Metal
Cover art 3.96 | 3 ratings
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Warthur
Shifting her distinctive style of ethereal wave into a more overtly electronic direction with the aid of producer Ben Chisholm, Chelsea Wolfe delivers a series of electrifying meditations on the usual gothic topics.

Opening track Feral Love sets the scene particularly well, with an ominous synth note and a darkly pulsating drum beat giving way to a tempestuous, almost orchestral musical backing, as Wolfe's vocals evoke something at the crossroads of the darkest Cocteau Twins and sparsest Dead Can Dance tracks. With folk influences creeping in here and there and a sense of atmospheric foreboding which would sit well next to the gloomiest of doom metal (even though this is not really a metal-based release), Pain Is Beauty offers astonishingly dark pop music for the bleakest dark nights of the soul.

THUNDER WAY The Order Executors

Album · 1993 · Power Metal
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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siLLy puPPy
Of all the modern European nations, perhaps none has been as defiantly resistant to change and modernization as the small enclave of Albania situated smack dab across the Adratic Sea from Italy and on the northern border of Greece. Steeped in traditionalism and a culture that is distinct from any other, Albania hasn’t exactly been a hot bed for modern musical expressions but a few staunch souls found their way into the modern world with the band THUNDER WAY having become one of the nation’s best examples of a cult classic.

This band was founded in Tirana by the ex-Megaherz guitarist Bledar Sejko in 1992. As Megahertz, only three songs were recorded but by the time the lineup grew to six members which also included Mit’hat Laro (bass), Roland Fusha (drums), Dritan Xheladini (guitars), Alban Laro (keyboards) and vocalist Elton Deda, the band changed its name to THUNDER WAY and was more than ready for primetime with a keen modern interpretation of modern power metal launched by Helloween in the mid-1980s. Given the band’s isolation and non-existent market for heavy metal music in the final years of the nation’s communist regime, THUNDER WAY only managed to release this sole album THE ORDER EXECUTORS but wow did they make their one statement count!

This album was self-released in 1992 and was technically only a demo but has rightfully earned a cult following as one of Albania’s most technically proficient and more interesting releases from a nation with zero infrastructure for promoting such bands. The album itself was recorded in neighboring Macedonia at a studio in Skopje. THE ORDER EXECUTORS is the perfect example of a band that was fueled on sheer passion and determination alone. Despite all the odds THUNDER WAY managed to write, record and release a true underground gem of early power metal splendor. The band only lasted two years from 1993-95 but did enjoy national success having won first place at the Albanian rock festival but with a limited population of only around 3 million at the time didn’t exactly set the world on fire despite national popularity.

Despite the band’s limited appeal, THUNDER WAY was wise enough to craft lyrics in the English language and tackled the typical fantastical power metal themes that included war, mysticism and the struggles of life under a repressive political regime. Despite the exotic fact of geographical location, THUNDER WAY was a typical early power metal band in many ways. Obviously inspired by such German acts as Helloween, Running Wild and Blind Guardian as well other other acts such as early Omen, THUNDER WAY still managed to stand out with its own unique mix of innovation which included idiosyncratic dual guitar attacks, sophisticated interludes, intros and deviation from the power metal norm. The band was quite accomplished and had it emerged in a more conducive region of the world such as Germany or the USA, surely would’ve become one of the 90s best examples of power metal.

Although a mere demo turned EP, THE ORDER EXECUTORS exhibits a decent production and mixing job for the time and place it was created. While not polished to the point of modern standards, the album competently integrates cleaner psychedelic moments with the thundering gallops of the guitar-driven speed / power metal moments and heavy metal bombast that evokes moments of not only the early power metal world but also the classic sounds of Iron Maiden, Manilla Road, Judas Priest and Fates Warning. The album features the expected melodic and dramatic twists and turns that any good power metal album requires but also features a multitude of unexpected moments that deviate from the norm. The production is adequate for the style but has enough lo-fi grit to give that unpolished speed metal fury in the vein of 80s extreme metal bands.

Rightfully considered the best metal band to ever have emerged from the tiny nation of Albania, THUNDER WAY has more than earned its status as a cult legend hailing from a remote land under the worst conditions, a fact that give this power metal battle and ever more triumphant victory on the larger global battlefield. All in all this album came as a true surprise in how masterful the band was at weaving together a classic sounding power metal album in the vein of Helloween’s “Keeper of the Seven Keys” dynamism without sounding like a clone. While Elton Deda’s vocal range may not be as octave-rich as Michael Kiske or other power metal singers, his vocals perfectly suit this grittier power metal sound. While this may not exactly be the undiscovered masterpiece of the ages, it certainly is a power metal album of extraordinary quality made all the more interesting by the conditions of its making.

MORBID ANGEL Abominations of Desolation

Demo · 1991 · Death Metal
Cover art 3.41 | 11 ratings
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UMUR
"Abominations of Desolation" is an archive album release by US, Florida based death metal act Morbid Angel. The album was released through Earache Records in September 1991. While it bridges the gap between the band´s second- and third full-length studio albums "Blessed Are the Sick (1991)" and "Covenant (1993)", "Abominations of Desolation" was actually recorded in May 1986 and was originally planned to be Morbid Angel´s debut album. It was not released at the time though and lay on the shelf until Earache Records decided to release it. One of the reasons was it had been heavily bootlegged and therefore the band/the label could just as well release it themselves, and make some money out of it. The album was recorded by Mike Browning (vocals, drums), Trey Azagthoth (guitar), John Ortega (bass guitar), Richard Brunelle (guitar), and produced by David Vincent. The latter would become the lead vocalist/bassist for Morbid Angel a few years later.

"Abominations of Desolation" features 9 tracks of energetic, raw, and aggressive death metal. It´s a seminal death metal release and one of the first in the genre (had it been released when it was recorded). Although the music is obvously influenced by the most raw and brutal thrash metal (Slayer´s chaotic screaming chromatic solo style is an audible influence), Morbid Angel twist their thrash metal influences into something (for the time) new and more menacing. Browning´s vocals are raw and snarling, and although they aren´t the deep growling type vocals, which are usually associated with death metal, they are still more extreme than most contemporary thrash metal vocalists.

All tracks from the album (except "Demon Seed") have been re-recorded and released on various later album releases. Some have been renamed, some have been given new lyrics, and some have been rearranged. On "Abominations of Desolation" the tracks are presented in their most raw and undeveloped form, and although the album was meant to be released as the band´s debut album, there is an almost primal demo atmosphere to the release (a very well produced demo that is). It´s an absolute blast listening to the early versions of tracks like "Chapel of Ghouls", "Unholy Blasphemies", and "Abominations", although the re-recorded versions are ultimately superior in quality and delivery.

Upon conclusion "Abominations of Desolation" is a good quality archive album release and an important release in the early history of death metal. Had I not listened to and gotten used to the later re-recorded versions of the tracks, I would probably have been able to appreciate "Abominations of Desolation" even more, but I can´t unhear what I´ve heard, and therefore the re-recorded versions will always stand as the original versions to me, and these early versions as lesser quality demo versions. A 3.5 star (70%) rating is still fully deserved.

STEVE VAI Flex-Able Leftovers

EP · 1984 · Hard Rock
Cover art 2.71 | 5 ratings
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UMUR
"Flex-Able Leftovers" is an EP release (later re-released as a full-length studio album featuring additional material) by US, California based guitarist Steve Vai. The EP was released through Akashic Records in 1984, while the album re-release was released in 1998 by Epic Records. As the title also suggests the material on the EP/re-release album are leftover tracks from the recording sessions for Vai´s debut full-length studio album "Flex-Able" from January 1984. Vai recorded 24 tracks during the sessions, but only picked 11 to be included on the original version of "Flex-Able". A further 8 tracks from the sessions were released as the "Flex-Able Leftovers" EP later that same year, while the 8 tracks from the EP and the remaining 5 leftover tracks finally was released as the "Flex-Able Leftovers" full-length studio album in 1998.

Stylistically the material on this release (both the EP and the album versions) is a continuation of the wacky, comedic, adventurous, and Frank Zappa influenced rock of "Flex-Able". It´s actually a bit hard to figure out why Vai picked some of the tracks he did for the debut album, and left some of the tracks from this release out, as all tracks are of a similar quality and style. Some tracks are instrumental while others feature idiosyncratic vocals and quirky lyrics (in the case of opening track "Fuck Yourself" the lyrics are relatively offensive), and while the music on display are a far cry from the virtuoso guitar sound that Vai would be known for on subsequent releases, he still on occasion shows his skills and plays some pretty crazy things. As the material wasn´t recorded at a professional recording studio there is an air of demo recording quality to the whole release, but Vai still manages to make the material sound relatively decent. A 3 star (60%) rating is warranted.

STEVE VAI Flex-Able

Album · 1984 · Hard Rock
Cover art 3.39 | 10 ratings
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UMUR
"Flex-Able" is the debut full-length studio album by US, California based guitarist Steve Vai. The album was released through Urantia Records in January 1984. Vai started his music career working for Frank Zappa, transcriping his songs, but from 1980-1983 he became part of Zappa´s touring band. After he left Zappa in 1983, he became a solo artist and built a studio in a shed in his back garden. The recordings featured on "Flex-Able", were recorded at his home studio. Vai handles synthesizer, bass, guitar, percussion, and keyboards on the album, but he is helped out by several guest musicians, including a couple of his old colleagues from the Frank Zappa band in Tommy Mars (violin, keyboards, vocals), Bob Harris (trumpet, vocals), and Chad Wackerman (drums).

The material featured on the album was recorded between 1982 and 1984 and the recording sessions spawned 24 tracks. Only 11 tracks are featured on the original version of "Flex-Able", while later reissues feature 4 extra tracks, which are culled from the 1984 "Flex-Able Leftovers" EP. The "Flex-Able Leftovers" EP originally featured 8 tracks, but was re-released in 1998 as a full-length album featuring all 13 tracks, which did not originally appear on "Flex-Able".

Stylistically the Zappa connection is obvious when listening to the music on "Flex-Able", which is a wacky, comedic, and challenging type of rock music, featuring idiosyncratic vocals, quirky lyrics, and all sorts of sonic experiments and adventurous time signatures. This is a far cry from the sound Vai would develop and be known for from the early 90s onwards, although a few tracks do featured some of his crazy signature guitar abuse. "The Attitude Song" is the track which sounds most like the Vai most people know, but a few other tracks also feature his unique guitar playing. Most of the other tracks are quite creative and experimental rock songs, even at times touching avant-garde territory. It´s not all pretty and sometimes it all becomes a bit too silly for its own good, but there´s nothing wrong with the high level musicianship on display.

As the material was recorded on an 8-track recorder, it´s not always professional studio sounding, and there is definitely an air of demo recording to some of the material. Especially the drums feature a powerless and sometimes programmed sound, and I´m pretty sure some tracks were recorded using a drum machine, which is a real shame, as the drum machine sound doesn´t do those tracks any favours.

Wearing your influence (Frank Zappa) on your sleeves as much as Vai does here is maybe just a bit too much, and thankfully Vai would later find his own path, but "Flex-Able" is still a relatively interesting release, and a 3 star (60%) rating isn´t all wrong.

MY DYING BRIDE The Manuscript

EP · 2013 · Doom Metal
Cover art 4.17 | 9 ratings
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Warthur
Later paired with The Barghest o' Whitby on the compilation The Vaulted Shadows, whereas the Barghest EP consisted of only one long track, this consists of a clutch of (comparatively) shorter songs which didn't quite make the cut for A Map of All Our Favours. With Shaun Macgowan's violin cutting a particularly haunting and beautiful air on the title track, this is an EP which finds the band deep in the gothic death-doom realm they defined with their early work and have further refined ever since, and refine further here. The quiet section at the end of the title track, in particular, feels like it's influenced somewhat by early Opeth, which feels new in My Dying Bride's sound.

I can only assume there was some thematic reason why they weren't included on Map of All Our Failures, because goodness knows the quality here is very solid - if not even stronger than that album.

DREAM THEATER Dream Theater

Album · 2013 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 3.54 | 71 ratings
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Warthur
Dream Theater's second album with Mike Mangini on drums takes the ballsy step of being a self-titled album. There's basically two reasons to do a self-titled album: one is that it's your debut album, and the other is that you think it's a release which really encapsulates your sound. Doing this some 12 albums into your career feels like a big step in particular - it's not that doing this necessarily disparages the preceding albums, but it does imply a crystallisation of the thread that ran through all of them.

As it turns out, though, the choice of title is apt not for this reason, but simply this: "Dream Theater" is about a generic a Dream Theater album as Dream Theater have ever made.

It's not that it's clumsy or bad - it's just that nothing in particular stands out, the band largely continuing to plough the same furrow they'd been working on A Dramatic Turn of Events. That album, in itself, was very much a "business as usual" affair; producing such a thing after one of your co-founders have left and you need to establish you can still go like you used to is fair enough, but doing two in a row suggests the creative well is drying up.

The major exception here is False Awakening Suite, a brief under-3-minutes introductory track which sees the band dabbling in symphonic power metal territory; it's incongruous and could have probably happily been trimmed, but at least it manages to stand out. Here, Dream Theater sound like, well Dream Theater - or any other reasonably competent imitator. And we've got plenty of that already.

I wouldn't say this album is outright bad - but I'd be lying if I said it was great. It's fine to listen to in the background if you are fond of the group, but I'd never make it the first album you listen to. For better or worse, if any album in their discography can be said to sum up what makes Dream Theater, well, Dream Theater, it's Images & Words, their first true classic which set the stage for everything to follow. As for Dream Theater, by Dream Theater... well, it's Dream Theater, alright. But it's just Dream Theater, nothing more than that. And Dream Theater are able to be a better Dream Theater when they reach beyond the unambitious boundaries they set for themselves on "Dream Theater".

METAL CHURCH Hanging in the Balance

Album · 1993 · Heavy Metal
Cover art 3.88 | 26 ratings
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"Hanging in the Balance" is the 5th full-length studio album by US power/heavy metal act Metal Church. The album was released through Rising Sun Records in October 1993. It´s the successor to "The Human Factor" from 1991 and marks a change for the band after two major label releases, going back to releasing albums on smaller labels again.

Featuring the same five-piece lineup as the predecessor, very little has changed on "Hanging in the Balance" though, and Metal Church are still a guarantee for high quality US power/heavy metal. "Hanging in the Balance" features a raw, organic, and very well sounding production, which suits the material perfectly, and although the album was released in 1993 this sounds in every possible way like a 1980s release. Metal Church did not bow to the alternative heavy rock/metal sound which swept the world in those years, but held the US power/heavy metal flag high. It was probably a commercially unwise move, but the choice kept their integrity and authenticity intact.

12 tracks and a full playing time of 61:12 minutes is maybe a bit too long and the album could have been a little sharper and consistent if Metal Church had cut a few tracks. Some of the songwriting experiments that the band venture into, aren´t always successful either, and they are best when they just rock hard and deliver effectful US power/heavy metal tunes...which fortunately they do most of the time.

The musicianship is one of the features of the album which deserves a mention, because Metal Church are an incredibly well playing band. The rhythm section is hard pounding and organic, the guitar riffs are sharp and hard rocking, the solos are delivered with great passion and attention to detail, and Mike Howe is a skilled vocalist with a strong voice, who is perfect for the role as frontman for Metal Church. He has the right amount of roughness to his voice, but at the same time he is always conscious about the importance of melody. Upon conclusion "Hanging in the Balance" is another high quality US power/heavy metal release by Metal Church and a 3.5 - 4 star (75%) rating is deserved.

GHOUL Maniaxe

Album · 2003 · Death Metal
Cover art 3.50 | 1 rating
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"Maniaxe" is the 2nd full-length studio album by US, California based death/thrash/grindcore act Ghoul. The album was released through Razorback Recordings in June 2003. It´s the successor to "We Came for the Dead!!!" from 2002.

Stylistically "Maniaxe" is a continuation of the death/thrash/grindcore style of "We Came for the Dead!!! (2002)", but "Maniaxe" features a better quality sound production and more memorable songwriting. The music and especially the vocal style are strongly influenced by early Carcass, although Ghoul generally focus more on heavy death/thrash oriented riffs and less on blasting grindcore parts compared to the early output by the Liverpool legends. So while there are strong smiliarities there are enough differences too for Ghoul not to come off as a complete clone band...they are huge Carcass worshippers though and not ashamed of it either.

"Maniaxe" opens with "Pleasant Screams / Forbidden Crypts", and it doesn´t take long to know what kind of an album this is. It´s well played, well produced, but also slightly one-dimensional in style. The cover of Louie Armstrong´s "What a Wonderful World", which closes the album, is the track which stands out the most, and other than being a bold choice for a cover, it´s quite entertaining listening to a punked death metal version of the famous song. Despite being a bit one-dimensional in style, the original material are well written too, and individually the tracks are all powerful, raw, and relatively varied with both tempo changes and even the occasional melodic moment.

So upon conclusion "Maniaxe" is a quality sophomore album release by Ghoul. It´s not the most original sound that the band produce but the delivery is both passionate and convincing, and as written above the material are well written too. A 3.5 star (70%) rating is deserved.

M.O.D. Gross Misconduct

Album · 1989 · Crossover Thrash
Cover art 3.31 | 4 ratings
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"Gross Misconduct" is the 2nd full-length studio album by US crossover thrash metal act M.O.D.. The album was released through Megaforce Records in February 1989. It´s the successor to "U.S.A. for M.O.D." from 1987, although the two studio albums were bridged by the 1988 "Surfin' M.O.D." EP. Except for frontman/band leader Billy Milano the entire lineup has been changed since the predecessor as guitarist Tim McMurtrie has been replaced by Louie Svitek, bassist Ken Ballone has been replaced by John Monte, and drummer Keith Davis has been replaced by Tim Mallare.

Lineup changes or not M.O.D. was always Milano´s baby and therefore "Gross Misconduct" sounds like a natural successor to "U.S.A. for M.O.D. (1987)". It´s slightly more mature in the writing style and the production values have also increased a bit, but it´s overall more of the same. Crossover thrash metal which is typically energetic and fast-paced, but also features heavier groove laden sections, and Milano´s aggressive shouting vocals on top. Some lyrics are serious enough social/political criticism, while others are a bit more silly and obviously written for fun. It´s Milano´s vocals and voice which define the band´s music, because the instrumental part of the music could have been written and delivered by many other contemporary US crossover thrash metal acts and you wouldn´t have noticed. In other words it´s fairly generic and not instantly recognisable as M.O.D..

"Gross Misconduct" is a decent quality crossover thrash metal release, but it´s not exactly an album which makes my blood boil. On this release M.O.D. come off just the way many of their critics describe them. A pale version of Milano´s former act S.O.D. A 3 star (60%) rating is warranted.

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