Metal Music Reviews from J-Man

MEADOWS END The Sufferwell

Album · 2014 · Melodic Death Metal
Cover art 4.50 | 1 rating
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J-Man
Like many other "sub-subgenres" in metal, symphonic death metal has tons of untapped potential in my view. Though a couple fleshy bands like Septicflesh and Fleshgod Apocalypse have garnered a fanbase for this style of music, it has yet to see the same level of fertility and diversity as the symphonic variant of black metal, for instance. Enter Meadows End, a band from Sweden that has been active since the late nineties', but only began releasing full-length albums with 2010's Ode to Quietus. While they can easily be labeled symphonic death metal alongside the aforementioned fleshy bands, Meadows End is a bit unique in their approach. Meadows End's foundation borrows heavily from melodic, and even progressive, death metal - something that hasn't been fully explored in a symphonic death metal context, perhaps other than by the Netherlands' Mayan. This unique approach to a criminally underpopulated subgenre is placed alongside brilliant songwriting and delivery on 2014's The Sufferwell, and the result is nothing short of astounding.

In many ways, the music on The Sufferwell reminds me of Finland's Omnium Gatherum - while perhaps more aggressive than these Finnish masterminds, the entire record has a melancholic and atmospheric vibe, rather than the dark and evil mindset typically associated with death metal. This works excellently in a symphonic context, and the fact that Meadows End also knows how to craft some damn catchy compositions makes this a winner on all fronts. Though the strongest tracks here (in my view, at least) are the most progressive ones like the stunningly epic "Insurrection" and the fist-pumping "Masses Flee", this is a record of all killer, no filler. Great melodeath tunes like "Devilspeed Loathekill" or "Funeral of a Porcelain Doll", as well as the beautiful female-led folk song "Under A Canopy of Stars", showcase the band's strengths in more conventional songwriting.

Meadows End are the real deal when it comes to epic, symphonic, and melodic death metal - don't be fooled by The Sufferwell's self-released status, as this is a fully professional sounding album with some top-shelf musicianship to boot. I really hope fans of bands like Omnium Gatherum, Septicflesh, Xanthochroid, and Insomnium take the time to check this one out, as it is one of the strongest albums that I've heard in 2014. A true hidden gem!

ARKAN Sofia

Album · 2014 · Folk Metal
Cover art 3.50 | 2 ratings
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J-Man
With their 2011 observation entitled Salam, French metal act Arkan impressed me with their ability to follow many melodic death metal conventions, while still incorporating a Middle Eastern flair that is largely unheard of in this genre. The result was an album that felt familiar enough to instantly click with its listener, but also broke enough rules to leave a lasting impression. 2014's Sofia, the band's third full-length, follows down the same path of its predecessor, though I would argue that Arkan sounds even more unique this time around.

Like Salam, Sofia's main selling point is its Middle Eastern-influenced approach to metal, and although other acts like Orphaned Land and Myrath have similar gimmicks, Arkan sounds unique even when placed next to their stylistic brethren. Sofia is also perhaps the band's most adventurous album to date - the melodic death metal part of the band's sound only sparsely appears here, and it seems as though the band is now playing a Middle Eastern-inspired brand of gothic metal, rather than melodeath. Death growls are used sparingly, and the focal point here is the distinct and angelic performance of vocalist Sarah Layssac. Consequently, Sofia lacks some of the "bite" that impressed me on Salam, but it is also the band's most mature and stylistically consistent album to date.

Whether you enjoy Sofia more or less than Arkan's previous outings ultimately depends on your preferences. If you are a gothic metal fan looking for a unique foray into the genre, Sofia will undoubtedly impress you, but if you (like me) were more into the band's melodeath-focused tracks, this may leave you a bit unsatisfied. Regardless of your preferences, however, there's no doubt that this is a well-performed, well-produced, and extremely catchy album from Arkan. Recommended!

ILLDISPOSED With the Lost Souls on Our Side

Album · 2014 · Death Metal
Cover art 3.00 | 2 ratings
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J-Man
Like many other veteran Scandinavian melodic death metal bands, Denmark's flagship act Illdisposed has evolved quite a bit in its twenty-plus year history. Though Illdisposed's early records reek of raw, old school brutality, the band's newer albums have a much more polished, groove-oriented style that takes plenty of cues from modern trends in death metal and metalcore. 2014's With The Lost Souls On Our Side, their twelfth full-length studio album, is a strong outing with enough mosh-inducing grooves to satisfy most extreme metal listeners, even if it has a different audience in mind than Illdisposed's classic nineties' albums did.

If you've kept an eye on modern thrash bands like Legion of the Damned and Dew-Scented, the sound of With The Lost Souls On Our Side shouldn't come as a total surprise. While still death metal at its core, the album relies heavily on thrashy grooves with touches of melody thrown in to keep things interesting. With a crisp production and polished musicianship to top it off, this is a very 'modern' sounding album that may not appease old school death metal purists, but for listeners that take a liking to contemporary thrash riffage, With The Lost Souls On Our Side has plenty to offer. Though not many tracks stand out from the crowd, all ten are solid enough to warrant a decent amount of headbanging.

I suppose my biggest gripe with this album is just how familiar it feels from start to finish. Though it isn't derivative enough to strip it of all merits, Illdisposed doesn't do anything here that hasn't been heard before, and as such, it's hard to give this record a strong recommendation to anyone that doesn't already follow the band. Still, this is a well-played, well-produced, and generally well-written observation that fans of modern death metal certainly won't regret hearing. This isn't the must-hear 2014 death metal album that Behemoth released earlier in the year, but it's certainly not anything to scoff at either.

AMBERIAN DAWN Magic Forest

Album · 2014 · Symphonic Metal
Cover art 3.47 | 6 ratings
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J-Man
Finland's Amberian Dawn is not a band that I've followed in the past, but it's my understanding that 2014's Magic Forest is an important album in their discography. As their first album of wholly original material without longtime vocalist Heidi Parviainen, Magic Forest serves as a proving ground for new singer Capri. Though she has previous experience in the music industry, her presence in Amberian Dawn marks her first appearance as a frontwoman in a metal group - and even though I'm currently unable to compare Capri to her predecessor, I know that she does a damn good job on Magic Forest.

As a matter of fact, I would say that she even elevates this record from a fairly average symphonic metal outing to something worth hearing for fans of the genre. Comparisons to bands like Epica, Within Temptation, and Nightwish are inevitable when listening to Magic Forest, but Capri's powerful and "rock-inspired" vocal performance serves as a nice contrast from the more operatic styles heard from popular frontwomen like Simone Simons or Tarja Turunen. The music itself is well-written and meticulously arranged, though nothing totally stands out to my ears. While catchy enough, Magic Forest doesn't pack the same punch that recent Epica outings have (perhaps because of this album's general lack of aggression and preference for mid-tempo grooves) and doesn't stand out enough from the crowd to make for a stunning observation.

That being said, Amberian Dawn have absolutely put together a solid collection of tunes for Magic Forest, and fans of symphonic metal will find plenty to enjoy here. As a well-produced, well-performed, and catchy album that features some truly terrific vocals, Magic Forest has enough going for it to warrant a listen from fans and newcomers alike.

SHROUD OF DESPONDENCY Tied to a Dying Animal

Album · 2014 · Black Metal
Cover art 4.00 | 2 ratings
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J-Man
Shroud of Despondency's sound takes inspiration from an eclectic pool of sources, but if one were to deconstruct their music into only two basic elements, black metal and acoustic folk would be the most important. 2014's Tied to a Dying Animal explores this idea of 'musical deconstruction' in an album format. Spread out over a lengthy double-disc playing time, Shroud of Despondency's fifth observation separates the two major aspects of their music, effectively resulting in the band's heavy and light sounds residing in total isolation from one another. Not unlike Opeth's Damnation and Deliverance duo, one disc of Tied to a Dying Animal sounds nothing like the other, and the the result is nothing short of an intriguing experiment that highlights Shroud of Despondency's competence as both a pure extreme metal act and a darkly contemplative folk act.

The first disc showcases Shroud of Despondency's most lethal take on black metal yet, and if I'm being honest, it is also their best in this style to date. Death metal plays a pretty big part on this disc too, and using a term like 'deathened black metal' wouldn't be out of the question as there are plenty of times where you'll be reminded of Morbid Angel's hellish riffs or Immolation's dark brutality. Even in the absence of acoustic segments, the band manages to incorporate a decent number of melodic leads and catchy riffs to grab onto - not unlike the Norwegian bands Ancient or Enslaved, Shroud of Despondency's music contains generally melodic compositions amidst all of the cacophony. A track like "The Life of Fire" with its darkly majestic lead guitar is an example of melodic black metal done right!

On the second disc of Tied to a Dying Animal, the listener is treated to dark and melancholic folk music with diverse instrumentation. It actually sounds quite similar to Borknagar's Origin album at times, and that's certainly a good thing in my book. The compositions here are moody and contemplative, and although folk elements were often present in Shroud of Despondency's music, here they are more developed than ever before. Every track works as both a unique standalone piece and part of a conceptual whole. Although Shroud of Despondency doesn't always appeal to "metal naysayers", fans of dark folk ought to at least check out this disc. It shows a band that can hold its own with some of the genre's best.

At the end of the day, I think Shroud of Despondency's best albums are the ones that seamlessly unite different styles throughout the duration of one CD, but Tied to a Dying Animal is still an excellent release. Shroud of Despondency isn't content with staying in one place for very long, and there's no doubt that plenty of musical growth can be heard on this observation. Tied to a Dying Animal contains some of the band's finest material to date, and although its lengthy duration can make for a seemingly daunting listen, there's enough variation here to keep things fully engaging from start to finish.

OMNIUM GATHERUM The Redshift

Album · 2008 · Melodic Death Metal
Cover art 4.01 | 3 ratings
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J-Man
Omnium Gatherum's first album with the legendary Dan Swanö covering production duties sees this Finnish melodic death metal outfit in particularly high form. Indeed, 2008's The Redshift shows these Finns more or less continuing down the same path established by their previous three full-lengths, but it also displays the band taking full advantage of Jukka Pelkonen's diverse vocal range while also offering some of their strongest compositions to boot. Soaring guitar leads, epic synth backdrops, and deep guttural vocals come together perfectly on The Redshift, and although future Omnium Gatherum albums show even further development, The Redshift is a remarkably consistent album that reeks of atmosphere, professionalism, and class!

Omnium Gatherum's music takes plenty of cues from genre leaders like Dark Tranquility, At the Gates, and In Flames, but on the whole, I'd argue that the band's approach to melodic death metal is pretty distinct. The Redshift places a heavy emphasis on both progressive and melancholic sensibilities, which makes comparisons to bands like Katatonia, Opeth, and Crimson II-era Edge of Sanity pretty valid as well. There are a few fairly straight-ahead melodeath tracks here like "The Redshifter" and "Nail", but perhaps the album's most noteworthy moments can be found on the progressive-edged tracks like "The Second Flame" and "Distant Light Highway", the predominately clean sung "Greeneyes", or the beautiful instrumental "Song for December".

There really isn't a weak track on The Redshift, though, so most listeners should expect an enjoyable listen from start to finish - this is an extremely cohesive album that sounds stylistically consistent throughout its duration, but still manages to throw in enough surprises to keep the listener on his toes. Factor in the top-notch musicianship and flawless production courtesy of Dan Swanö, and there's very little to complain about here.

If you're thinking about checking out The Redshift these days, there is a recent reissue available from Candlelight Records that includes a couple of bonus demo tracks, a live version of "Nail", and an alternate mix of "Shapes and Shades". The recording quality of these versions isn't the best, and if you already own the album, there's little reason to re-purchase it for these bonus tracks. Still, for newcomers to the band, this 2014 reissue is the definitive version of The Redshift; definitely check it out if you're into melodic and atmospheric death metal!

ABORTED FETUS Private Judgment Day

Album · 2014 · Brutal Death Metal
Cover art 1.25 | 2 ratings
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J-Man
When talking about a band named something as extreme as Aborted Fetus, you should know what to expect from their music right out of the gate - and, in the case of this Russian brutal death metal act, these suspicions would be proven true. On Private Judgement Day, Aborted Fetus dishes out twenty five minutes of gory lyrics, pig-squeeled vocals, and intense death metal riffs that will satiate fans of this style, but its strong sense of familiarity keeps it from making much of an impression on the death metal scene at large.

Private Judgement Day does very little to sound different from the hordes of other bands playing this type of goregrind-tinged brutal death metal, and as good as the musicianship and production is, nothing about the album stands out enough to make for a truly memorable listen. Aborted Fetus makes a decent venture into previously charted territory on Private Judgement Day, but the indecipherable pig squeels and lack of compositional variation make this a tough one for me to sit through. Fans of Devourment, Cryptopsy, and Dying Fetus might enjoy this, but it's not something I'll be returning to.

ROYAL HUNT A Life To Die For

Album · 2013 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 4.22 | 3 ratings
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J-Man
DC Cooper's return to Royal Hunt for the release of 2011's Show Me How to Live reignited interest in this Danish progressive metal band for many listeners, and with 2013's A Life to Die For, that interest is likely to remain ignited. Royal Hunt's twelfth album doesn't deviate much from their established blend of neo-classical power metal, melodic hard rock, and progressive metal, but the songwriting here is strong enough to make for a solid listen from start to finish.

Although the title track and "Hell Comes Down From Heaven" easily stand out as highlights (I've always found that Royal Hunt's best compositions tend to be their longest), the rest of A Life to Die For is well-written and well-played. Keyboardist André Andersen's detailed symphonic arrangements are quite impressive, and DC Cooper's vocal performance demonstrates why he is such a fan favorite when it comes to melodic progressive metal.

Royal Hunt's bombastic and symphonic approach to progressive metal doesn't usually connect with me on the same level that bands like Fates Warning and Dream Theater do, but there's no doubt that these Danes are really good at playing the music that they play. Fans of Royal Hunt will definitely want to check out A Life to Die For, and this isn't a bad place for newcomers to start their journey either.

PRO-PAIN The Final Revolution

Album · 2013 · Hardcore and crust
Cover art 3.83 | 3 ratings
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J-Man
As far as groovy, thrashy, and completely badass hardcore goes, there aren't many bands that rival the New York pioneers in Pro-Pain. For roughly twenty years, these guys have been pumping out uncensored audio assaults that blur the line between thrash metal and hardcore, and 2013's The Final Revolution once again shows Pro-Pain doing what they do best. Sure, the band's own evolution in recent years has been minimal at most, but as long as they keep releasing records as consistent and enjoyable as this one, it's tough to complain.

The Final Revolution's main focus seems to be on grooves, grooves, and more grooves - the riffs here are infectiously catchy at times, and even though this is a very aggressive and “in-your-face” type of album, each track features the sort of mosh-inducing licks that we've come to expect from Pro-Pain over the years. Factor in Adam Phillips' exceptional lead guitar work and Gary Meskil's passionately angry vocal performance, and it's clear that The Final Revolution is another strong entry in Pro-Pain's discography. A revolution it is not, but a solid offering of thrashy hardcore awesomeness it sure is.

DEADLOCK The Arsonist

Album · 2013 · Metalcore
Cover art 2.62 | 6 ratings
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J-Man
On paper, the music of German melodic death metal act Deadlock doesn't sound like something that would appeal to me very much. The band's ultra-melodic and almost “commercial” approach to extreme metal wouldn't usually be my cup of tea, but something about 2011's Bizarro World really grabbed my attention and put Deadlock on the radar for me. I loved the way the album blended catchy hooks with atmospheric arrangements and heavy riffs, and although a few important changes have been made with 2013's The Arsonist, Deadlock's sixth album once again shows their music in full force.

The Arsonist features a few lineup changes, as vocalist Johannes Prem has left the fold and ex-bassist John Gahlert has become Deadlock's new male vocalist. Ferdinand Rewicki of Fall of Serenity has taken over bass duties on The Arsonist, and the album also marks the departure of longtime guitarist Gert Rymen. These lineup changes may have inspired a bit of a change in Deadlock's music, as The Arsonist draws more heavily on the band's groove-oriented and metalcore-influenced side than did past releases. Although the album isn't a radical departure from Deadlock's earlier efforts, I could see it alienating fans that are allergic to chugging riffs and breakdowns.

That being said, tracks like “The Final Storm” and “The Arsonist” are top-quality Deadlock, and the rest of the album is still enjoyable from start to finish. The Arsonist is a definite step down from Bizarro World, but I'm happy to hear that the band is exploring new things... even if the older formula yielded more exciting results.

LALU Atomic Ark

Album · 2013 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 4.48 | 5 ratings
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J-Man
After eight years away from the studio, French keyboard player Vivien Lalu and his project Lalu have returned with an impressive new lineup and an even more impressive album in the form of Atomic Ark. Featuring Martin LeMar (Mekong Delta), Mike LePond (Symphony X), Simone Mularoni (DGM), and Virgil Donati (Planet X) as band members, as well as guest musicians like Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater) and Jens Johansson (Stratovarious), Atomic Ark is the product of top-notch players, and the songwriting is strong enough to make the album feel even greater than the sum of its parts.

Rather than relying on otherworldly technicality and mind-bending scale runs to show the worth of these musicians, Atomic Ark's main focal point is on well-crafted compositions, detailed songwriting, and strong melodies. Tracks like "War on Animals", "Momento", and "Deep Blue" all clock in at under four minutes and feature extremely melodic hooks, but intricate musical details keep things feeling progressive and interesting. For a prog metal release, Atomic Ark is certainly on the catchier side of things, but a song like the twenty-minute-long "Revelations" proves that Lalu isn't content with just sounding like a melodic metal band.

Even at its most straightforward and melodic, Atomic Ark features clever drum fills and captivating keyboard flourishes that become extremely rewarding during repeat listens. Lalu's music just reeks of classy professionalism, and fans of bands like Anubis Gate, Dream Theater, Ayreon, and Cloudscape should find plenty to enjoy from Atomic Ark. Let's just hope we don't have to wait eight years for another album!

AYREON The Theory of Everything

Album · 2013 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 4.06 | 37 ratings
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J-Man
Like most of Arjen Lucassen's bombastic metal operas released under the Ayreon monicker, The Theory of Everything had quite a few heads turning before it even hit shelves in late 2013. A list of guest musicians that includes seventies' prog legends like Steve Hackett, John Wetton, Keith Emerson, and Rick Wakeman is sure to grab enough attention, but when one also considers the presence of musicians from Nightwish, Dream Theater, Kamelot, Lacuna Coil, Grand Magus, and many others, it's crystal-clear why so many folks had high hopes for The Theory of Everything. Fortunately, Ayreon's eighth observation lives up to, and even exceeds, these expectations. A breathtaking conceptual masterpiece that easily ranks up there with Lucassen's finest, The Theory of Everything is sure to top plenty of "best-of" lists as the year comes to a close.

For those familiar with Ayreon's previous outings, this one doesn't change things up too much - like most of the other releases, The Theory of Everything is a double concept album that tells a detailed story through the lens of progressive metal music, although there are still a few notable changes. This album feels much more like a single piece of continuous music than other Ayreon albums, largely due to the fact that it is split into four large "phases" rather than individual songs. There are also a number of repeated themes and motifs throughout The Theory of Everything, and although other Ayreon albums featured recurring ideas, this one feels even more unified than Lucassen's previous masterworks.

The Theory of Everything is the sort of record that has grabbed me in a way that very few releases manage to - in addition to feeling memorable after only a couple spins, the music here is detailed enough to make every subsequent listen feel even more rewarding. Lucassen's bombastic approach to songwriting and arrangement has always sounded genuine to my ears, and although some folks will still find Ayreon to be too overblown for its own good, this album is a captivating delight for all fans of epic progressive metal operas. As far as I'm concerned, it doesn't get much better than The Theory of Everything!

HAVOK Unnatural Selection

Album · 2013 · Thrash Metal
Cover art 4.00 | 5 ratings
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J-Man
Hailing from the “mile-high” city of Denver, Colorado is Havok, a thrash metal act that has existed for less than a decade, but already has quite a legion of fans praising them as one of the States' best modern thrash exports. Largely thanks to Candlelight Records signing the band for the release of their debut LP in 2009, Havok has had the opportunity to share their music with most of the thrash metal community, and as one would expect, their classic approach to the genre has resonated with plenty of listeners. With 2013's Unnatural Selection, Havok hasn't made any major changes to their sound, but they've offered a slice of thrash metal solid enough to have your head banging for weeks!

Like most of Havok's other material, Unnatural Selection sounds like an updated version of classic Megadeth, Exodus, and Testament - although the production takes advantage of modern technology, the music here is old school to the bone and fans of thrash metal from the eighties' will feel right at home with Unnatural Selection. I suppose that Havok hasn't done a whole lot to set themselves apart from the pack this time around, but the top-notch musicianship and generally excellent songwriting (the first trio of songs is especially killer!) has kept Unnatural Selection in my musical rotation. If you've been sleeping on this band, it's time to lend an ear!

DEICIDE In the Minds of Evil

Album · 2013 · Death Metal
Cover art 3.75 | 2 ratings
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J-Man
Although recent Deicide observations have traditionally been met with mixed reception, 2013's In the Minds of Evil seems to be an exception to that rule - and with good reason. The band's first album with guitarist Kevin Quirion in the fold (and eleventh overall) shows these US death metal legends in particularly good shape, and while I thought that 2011's To Hell With God was pretty damn enjoyable, In the Minds of Evil is a noticeable step up.

Deicide's fast-paced, blasphemous, and semi-technical approach to death metal is fully intact on In the Minds of Evil, but as has been the case on the band's last few records, melodic guitar leads play a big role in the compositions. I even notice a few melodic-sounding choruses thrown into the mix this time around (just listen to the darkly anthemic title track!), though it is worth pointing out that this is not in any way “melodic death metal” - In the Minds of Evil still sounds like ominous, fast, and evil old school death metal, but its frequent borrowings from traditional metal lead guitar technique add a unique twist to Deicide's music.

At the end of the day, In the Minds of Evil is not a revolution for neither Deicide nor death metal in general, but when the playing is this tight, the production is this powerful, and the compositions are this memorable without sacrificing an ounce of brutality, it's clear that we have a winner on our hands. Folks that have given up on this band over a decade ago may want to take the time to investigate them again - In the Minds of Evil proves that Deicide can still bludgeon listeners with the power of a thousand inverted crosses!

GAMA BOMB The Terror Tapes

Album · 2013 · Thrash Metal
Cover art 3.50 | 1 rating
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J-Man
Northern Ireland's Gama Bomb are often cited as one of the best contemporary bands playing classic crossover thrash, and although it wasn't until 2013's The Terror Tapes that I finally gave the band a listen, this album makes it clear to me why they are so highly regarded by fans of the genre. With their fourth full-length album, Gama Bomb delicately (or not-so-delicately) balances a humorous lyrical approach with killer thrash riffs and irresistible punk energy, resulting in a listen that is nothing but fun from start to finish.

The Terror Tapes doesn't contain anything too revolutionary, but when we're talking about songs with guitar solos as blistering as those heard on “We Started the Fire”, riffs as quirky as the carnival-styled “Terrorscope”, and vocals as powerful as Philly Byrne's performance on “Backwards Bible”, it's clear that this is still a fine example of kick-ass crossover thrash. Established fans of Gama Bomb, as well as followers of bands like Municipal Waste, Birth AD, and Havok, should have no trouble loving these tapes!

EXHUMED Necrocracy

Album · 2013 · Death Metal
Cover art 3.74 | 4 ratings
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J-Man
Not unlike their heroes in Carcass, Californian extreme metal act Exhumed has made a number of changes to its blood-soaked style of goregrind over the years. The band's increasing use of groovy death metal riffs and melodic guitar solos has set them on a much more sophisticated musical path since their reformation in 2010, and this new path feels fully realized on 2013's Necrocracy.

The album's combination of catchy death metal riffs and melodic guitar solos immediately brings Heartwork-era Carcass to mind, and although there are subtle differences between the two bands, I have little doubt that fans of nineties' Carcass will love this one. Tracks like “Coins Upon the Eyes” and “(So Passes) The Glory of Death” showcase the band's impressive knack for crafting songs that are both instantly recognizable and relentlessly brutal. The full album maintains this high level of compositional mastery, and its powerful production assures that all of Necrocracy's details are clearly conveyed to its listener.

I suppose that Exhumed's blatant Carcass influence may turn off some people, but if you can look past that, you'll discover one of 2013's best death metal albums. Necrocracy will cause whiplash if you aren't careful!

MASTER The Witchhunt

Album · 2013 · Death Metal
Cover art 3.50 | 2 ratings
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J-Man
Unlike many of their contemporaries, legendary death metal act Master has proven itself to be a force immune to 'current' musical trends and styles. For roughly a quarter-century, the band has delivered music that reeks of a time when death metal was still an emerging form of extreme thrash metal, and though this hasn't allowed Master to consistently shatter the boundaries of death metal, 2013's The Witchhunt is proof that their uncompromising dedication to everything old school can still result in a killer record!

Folks familiar with Master's previous work should more-or-less know what to expect from The Witchhunt, as the album's thrashy and politically relevant approach to death metal represents what the band has been creating for its entire career. Paul Speckmann's distinct growled vocals still remind me of what Lemmy would sound like as the frontman for an extreme metal act, and the playing is as tight as you'd expect from musicians with this level of experience.

The Witchhunt isn't the sort of record that will change anyone's perception of Master, but if you're a fan of catchy old-school American death metal, there are enough quality riffs here to keep your head banging for days!

MAJALIS Cathodic Black

EP · 2013 · Atmospheric Sludge Metal
Cover art 3.50 | 1 rating
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J-Man
Sweden's diverse musical landscape is bound to have something for every type of metalhead, and for metalheads in search of dark, atmospheric, and doomy post-metal, Majalis may be the country's latest export worth checking out. With their 2013 debut EP entitled Cathodic Black, the band offers a tightly delivered trio of well-composed and lengthy songs that, while still feeling rooted in the post-metal tradition, have a unique twist.

Spacey synthesizer melodies and a surprisingly large influence from retro-doom metal help spice up Majalis's sound, and the playing is as professional as you'd expect from musicians involved with acts like In Mourning and October Tide. Cathodic Black does occasionally linger on a single idea to the point of feeling repetitive, but it is still a powerful first step for Majalis; it'll be interesting to hear where this band goes from here!

MÅNEGARM Legions Of The North

Album · 2013 · Folk Metal
Cover art 3.95 | 4 ratings
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J-Man
Although the concept of viking metal will probably feel gimmicky to some people until the end of time, acts like Sweden's Månegarm prove that nothing about the genre has to be inherently cheesy. The band's mix of lethal black metal, folk-inspired melodies, and a deep appreciation for their homeland's mythology has led to a critically successful career spanning nearly twenty years, and with 2013's Legions of the North, these Scandinavian warriors show no sign of slowing down.

I'll confess that this is my first experience with Månegarm's music, but I've been quite impressed with the material offered on their seventh full-length album. The generally epic atmosphere throughout Legions of the North suits the band's bombastic lyrical approach perfectly, and the mighty vocals (delivered in both harsh and clean singing styles) make the experience complete. Though the production is perhaps too polished for fans of blackened folk metal with a raw edge, each instrument here sounds clear and powerful.

Månegarm's strongest asset lies in their ability to create cheese-free viking metal that sounds both instantly catchy and startlingly heavy; whilst it may not seem earth-shattering to experienced listeners, Legions of the North is an exceptionally well delivered album that few metalheads would regret hearing.

DAMNATIONS DAY Invisible, the Dead

Album · 2013 · Power Metal
Cover art 3.73 | 5 ratings
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J-Man
Drawing inspiration from both the melodic and thrashy ends of the power metal spectrum, Australian act Damnations Day offers a fine example of music that sounds as aggressive as it does catchy on their debut album, 2013's Invisible, the Dead. The melodic heavy metal chorus in the title track sounds quite different from the heavy thrash riffs in “Reflections” or the mellow acoustic arrangement of “A World to Come”, but Damnations Day shows an impressive degree of mastery in all of these styles.

Invisible, the Dead even showcases a few prog metal moves on “Carried Above the Sun”, and the end result is a unique and rock-solid debut by a band with plenty of great things to bring to the table. Fans of heavy, melodic, and sophisticated bands like Anubis Gate, Cloudscape, and Fates Warning should have no trouble loving this one!

FATES WARNING Darkness In A Different Light

Album · 2013 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 4.09 | 27 ratings
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J-Man
Though fans of Fates Warning have had some killer side projects to keep them occupied during the nine year gap between 2004's FWX and 2013's Darkness in a Different Light, it's great to finally hear a new album from these American prog metal legends. Vocalists aside, this album features the exact same lineup that crafted the masterpiece of a debut from Arch/Matheos, and it also marks the first time that guitarist Frank Aresti has appeared on a Fates Warning album since Inside Out released back in 1994. Subsequently, Darkness in a Different Light feels like a throwback to the band's catchy, twin-guitar sound of the early nineties', and, as expected from Fates Warning, the result is nothing short of excellent.

Between the technical workouts in "And Yet It Moves", the heavily melodic touch in "Firefly", and the haunting atmospheres in "Lighthouse", Darkness in a Different Light explores all of the band's trademark qualities with some unforgettable compositions to boot. Fates Warning's comeback album may not be the most groundbreaking thing they've ever released, but from a listening perspective, it doesn't get much better than this! An essential pickup for any progressive metal fan.

SEROCS The Next

Album · 2013 · Technical Death Metal
Cover art 3.67 | 3 ratings
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J-Man
Entitled The Next, the second album from Mexican technical death metal act Serocs offers listeners a tasty platter of complex brutal metal in the classic style. Although you'll hear a few bass patterns or guitar solos that bring newer acts like Obscura and Beyond Creation to mind, the album's raw production and utterly suffocating atmospheres reek of a decidedly 'old school' scent from start to finish. The Next showcases plenty of complicated riffs and odd rhythmic patterns without feeling like a vehicle for technical showoffs, and I think this feature even makes the album appealing to fans of Floridian old school death metal acts like Morbid Angel and Deicide.

Although not terribly innovative, it's fair to say that Serocs have developed their own sound on The Next; folks who miss the days when tech-death had more of an unpolished edge may want to investigate what this Mexican death squad has to offer!

CARCASS Surgical Steel

Album · 2013 · Melodic Death Metal
Cover art 4.26 | 21 ratings
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J-Man
Whether you like their evolution as a band or not, there’s not much debate regarding the huge impact that Carcass has made on the extreme metal landscape - after all, how many other groups can you think of that pioneered the grindcore style before leading their country’s death metal scene and eventually helping create melodic death metal? With that in mind, it’s no surprise that 2013’s Surgical Steel (their first album in seventeen years) was met with high expectations, and whilst it may be a letdown to folks hoping for Symphonies of Sickness Part Two, Surgical Steel is a fine example of a comeback album done right. The lyrics are as gore-soaked as ever, the musicianship is as professional as it gets, and the songwriting is powerful as hell, but most importantly, this feels like a Carcass album. The band’s ability to make utterly brutal metal that still sounds memorable has not faltered even after years of silence, and that’s what ultimately makes Surgical Steel a monumental death metal opus.

XANTHOCHROID Blessed He with Boils

Album · 2012 · Black Metal
Cover art 4.36 | 6 ratings
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J-Man
Like a sunshine pop band from the slums of Baghdad or an ice cold black metal act from Jamaica, something feels weird about a folk-inspired progressive black metal act hailing from Orange County, California. This style of music has been mostly dominated by the vikings in Scandinavia, but the southern California collective known as Xanthocroid actually has offered one of the genre's best observations with their debut album, 2012's Blessed He With Boils.

Sporting a sound that combines the bombast of Wintersun with the progressiveness of Enslaved and the epic compositions of Emperor, Xanthocroid is very far removed from the likes of Mayhem, Darkthrone, and Burzum, but their music represents a startlingly original approach to black metal. Even with some intense progressive workouts and lengthy detours into acoustic folk territory, Blessed He With Boils feels remarkably coherent thanks to its larger-than-life atmosphere and consistently excellent songwriting. Xanthocroid has made one hell of a statement with their debut, and I will be very curious to hear where these guys go from here. Killer stuff!

GORGUTS Colored Sands

Album · 2013 · Technical Death Metal
Cover art 4.34 | 23 ratings
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J-Man
Gorguts may have only released four albums in its original run, but with those four albums, the band made an insurmountable impact on death metal. Particularly with 1998's Obscura, Luc Lemay's brainchild pioneered one of the most experimental approaches to technical death metal ever recorded - to this day, I've yet to hear any other band explore death metal in such a chaotic, yet darkly atmospheric light. Gorguts is one of the few bands in death metal with a completely unique voice, and even after twelve years between albums, that statement rings as true as ever.

2013's Colored Sands shows Gorguts once again residing in experimental tech-death land, but this time with a slightly different spin. Although the album features plenty of zany technical workouts and dissonant harmonic phrasing, it also showcases some straightforward death metal riffs and an epic approach to songwriting that was never present before in Gorguts' music. The result is an observation that sounds as daring and experimental as anything else out there, but also feels more accessible than the densest works from Gorguts. There's a reason why Colored Sands has received so much hype from the death metal community, and the only way to understand is to hear it for yourself. We're glad to have you back, Luc!

EXHUMER Degraded by Sepsis

Album · 2013 · Brutal Death Metal
Cover art 2.50 | 1 rating
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J-Man
Though it only clocks in at twenty five minutes in length, the second full-length album from Italian death metal act Exhumer ticks all of the boxes expected from a modern brutal death metal release - the riffs are technical, the drumming sounds faster than a machine gun, and the vocals are gutteral and indecipherable... not to mention the sickening artwork and grossly descriptive song titles (I'm looking at you, “Pungent Aroma of Uterine Necrosis”!). This certainly would make 2013's Degraded by Sepsis an enjoyable spin for any enthusiast of brutal death metal, but for more casual fans of the style, there's really nothing here to set Exhumer apart from the hordes of other bands playing this type of music. Whilst the playing is solid throughout Degraded by Sepsis and there are even a handful of catchy riffs, everything about it just screams “generic”. It's not bad, but it's not that good either.

DAMNATION ANGELS Bringer of Light

Album · 2012 · Symphonic Metal
Cover art 4.29 | 8 ratings
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J-Man
Originally released by a small Japanese label known as Radtone Music before experiencing a broader release by Massacre Records in early 2013, the debut observation from English symphonic metal act Damnation Angels is well-deserving of the attention it has recently received from the worldwide metal scene. Entitled Bringer of Light, the band's entrance statement is a strong example of symphonic power metal done right, and although it may not change the minds of the genre's naysayers, Bringer of Light's commanding sense of composition and professional delivery make it a tough album to dislike. With tracks as good as the folk-inspired “Pride” (a masterpiece if I've ever heard one!) or the epic-edged “The Longest Day of My Life”, Bringer of Light is not one to miss!

COFFINS The Fleshland

Album · 2013 · Death Metal
Cover art 2.50 | 2 ratings
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J-Man
Sporting a doom-styled brand of death metal that takes plenty of cues from acts like Autopsy and Asphyx, the Japanese collective known as Coffins is often regarded as one of the most pivotal acts in the country's underground metal scene. Their startlingly raw and dense sound has gathered enough attention from death metal fans to even gain a spot on the roster of Relapse Records for the release of their fourth full-length album, 2013's The Fleshland.

Unfortunately, the hype surrounding this band is a bit of a mystery to me after hearing The Fleshland - although the listener will be treated to a somewhat decent collection of crushing riffs here, this record often sounds like a rehash of ideas that have already been explored with better results. The murky production (which often makes deciphering the riffs quite challenging) and lack of dynamic contrast makes The Fleshland feel more like a half-finished effort than an engaging artistic statement. Fans of doom-influenced death metal may want to check out Coffins for themselves, but I don't find the compositions here strong enough to warrant much of a recommendation.

WITHERSCAPE The Inheritance

Album · 2013 · Death Metal
Cover art 4.00 | 7 ratings
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J-Man
It's been a while since we've heard an album of new material from Swedish metal veteran Dan Swanö, but with the recent debut from Witherscape (his new project with Ragnar Widerberg), it's clear that he is still a force to be reckoned with when it comes to progressive and melodic death metal. Entitled The Inheritance, this 2013 release for Century Media Records walks a fine line between melodic death metal, prog, and hard rock, and although it sounds noticeably different from the works of Edge of Sanity or Nightingale, Witherscape still has a unique Swanö stamp to set itself apart from other acts exploring similar musical territory.

It's worth pointing out that fans of lethal death metal in the vein of Unorthodox-era Edge of Sanity might not fully enjoy the sleek and melodic sound of Witherscape, but those with ears open towards catchy melodeath should find plenty to love here. Tracks like the progressive “Astrid Falls”, wonderfully epic “Dying For the Sun”, and eery “Crawling From Validity” stand as some of the strongest compositions penned so far this year, and everything on the album is delivered professionally. In addition to a powerful sound production, Dan Swanö's vocals (both clean and growled) sound as powerful as ever and Ragnar Widerberg's fretwork is strong across the board.

I guess that a few of the choruses throughout The Inheritance sound a bit too predictable for my tastes (particularly in “To The Calling of Blood and Dreams”), but there's no doubt that Dan Swanö has made a triumphant return to the metal scene with Witherscape's debut. Although I wouldn't place it in the same tier of excellence as Crimson or The Closing Chronicles, The Inheritance is a mighty impressive observation that fans of progressive melodic death metal should really enjoy. Great stuff!

GARDARIKA Chthonica

Album · 2012 · Thrash Metal
Cover art 3.25 | 2 ratings
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J-Man
The Russian metal scene is not one that I've spent a tremendous amount of time exploring, but it seems to me that Moscow's Gardarika is certainly among the country's more unique exports. On their second full-length album, 2012's Chthonica, the band explores a progressive style of thrash metal that sounds unique even on an international scope. Resting somewhere between Voivod and Fates Warning, the music of Gardarika has plenty of fast thrash riffs, but also throws a surprising amount of melodic hooks and complex rhythmic phrasing into the mix.

As such, Chthonica should have no trouble appealing to thrash fans craving something a bit more intricate than usual (or prog metal fans looking for something on the heavier end of the spectrum), although I wouldn't quite call this a flawless album. For one, the thickly accented and unique vocal style of Alex Izgarny is a bit of an acquired taste, and his voice doesn't impress me very much - although I've spoken with folks that find his delivery beneficial to the music, I don't think his voice has the level of dynamics that the compositions call for. The songs can also be challenging to distinguish from each other without numerous repeat listens, which is pretty substantial when we're talking about an album with as much rhythmic variation as this one.

Still, Chthonica's high level of musicianship and original stylistic approach makes it worth a listen for fans of progressive thrash metal. Although I think Gardarika hasn't fully hit their stride with this LP, they've put together a strong observation with an impressive attention to detail.

NAILS Abandon all Life

Album · 2013 · Hardcore and crust
Cover art 3.65 | 7 ratings
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J-Man
Though they only have two (very) short releases under their belts, American grindcore acts Nails has quickly gained a reputation as one of the world's most devastating forces in extreme music. 2013's Abandon All Life, the band's second full-length observation, clocks in at only 17 minutes, but there is enough crushing brutality contained within its duration to satisfy most of the genre's enthusiasts. The music here is generally fast-paced, chaotic, and rather noisy grindcore - it's nothing that most listeners haven't heard before, although Nails occasionally explores a heavy and slow-paced style that sets them apart from some of their influences. A strong example of this would be the unbelievably crushing closing piece, “Suum Cuique”, which also stands tall as the album's highlight. Nails's music comes across as too one-dimensional for my taste, but I do sense a few glimpses of brilliance throughout Abandon All Life. Although this record isn't for everybody, fans of extremely noisy and feedback-laden grindcore will love what it has to offer.

NAZARETH Hair Of The Dog

Album · 1975 · Proto-Metal
Cover art 3.55 | 23 ratings
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J-Man
Nazareth had experienced some commercial success prior to 1975's Hair of the Dog, but this album marks the band's true breakthrough into the mainstream. With its infectiously groovy title track and well-known (and surprisingly enjoyable) ballad “Love Hurts”, their sixth observation received quite a bit of attention upon its release, and is retrospectively regarded as the Scottish hard rock band's quintessential album. Hair of the Dog is a 'classic' heavy rock release that clearly takes some cues from the likes of Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and Led Zeppelin, and although it doesn't strike me as a wholly original album, there are plenty of great blues-based riffs to be found throughout this record. For my money, Nazareth is not among the 'elite' seventies' hard rock acts, but Hair of the Dog proves that they are nothing to scoff at! This one is easily recommend to fans of heavy-edged blues rock and proto-metal.

SYMPHONY X The Divine Wings Of Tragedy

Album · 1996 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 4.25 | 93 ratings
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J-Man
Symphony X's over-the-top brand of progressive power metal may not be for everybody, but for those that like their metal with a high level of bombast, you'll be hard-pressed to find anything more impressive than The Divine Wings of Tragedy. Released in 1997, the band's third full-length album showcases their diverse musical palette through remarkably strong compositions and instrumental wizardry. This album's title track also shows the band exploring massive song lengths for the first time, and its majestic atmospheres and neo-classical styled songwriting make it one of the most impressive epics in progressive metal. Admittedly, The Divine Wings of Tragedy does not greatly differ from The Damnation Game from a stylistic perspective, but it tightens up the formula established on that album in virtually every regard - this is a record of "all killer, no filler", and between the hard-edged power metal in "Of Sins and Shadows" and "Pharoah", the progressive arrangement of "The Accolade", and the symphonic flourishes in the title track, The Divine Wings of Tragedy has all bases covered. Masterpiece!

SQUASH BOWELS Grindcoholism

Album · 2013 · Grindcore
Cover art 3.00 | 1 rating
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J-Man
It may be tough to take a band named Squash Bowels seriously, but Grindcoholism (their sixth and most recent observation) shows that these Polish veterans mean business... provided that you're defining business as “balls-out, take-no-prisoners” grindcore. Drawing inspiration from grindcore pioneers like Napalm Death and Carcass, as well as the fat riffage of Swedish death metal outfits like Entombed and Grave, Grindcoholism is not a wildly innovative album by any stretch, but its catchy d-beat grooves and powerful production make it an enjoyable enough spin. Although Squash Bowels may not have totally set the world on fire here, this solid collection of grinding insanity would fit nicely in any fan of the genre's collection.

SYMPHONY X The Damnation Game

Album · 1995 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 3.53 | 39 ratings
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J-Man
Although 1997's The Divine Wings of Tragedy is where most fans see American progressive metal act Symphony X hitting their stride, I think the band also had a major success with their previous album, The Damnation Game. Released in late 1995, Symphony X's sophomore observation may often get ignored by more casual fans of the band, but some of the tracks here rival their best material. Whether its the hard-edged neoclassical power metal in the title track, the progressive nuances in "The Edge of Forever", or the anthemic chorus in "Whispers", everything about The Damnation Game just reeks of sophistication and class.

The result is an album that is a vast improvement over their somewhat underwhelming debut, in terms of both songwriting and aesthetics. With a strong production, a powerful new vocalist in the form of Russel Allen (just listen to some of the notes he belts out and tell me he's not one of the most commanding voices in metal!), and songs that overflow with both memorability and sophistication, it's hard not to be impressed with what The Damnation Game has to offer. This is an album that I have been frequently enjoying for the past year or so, and even after quite a few listens, I'm still blown away. If you like progressive power metal, this isn't one to forget about!

SYMPHONY X Symphony X

Album · 1994 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 2.81 | 39 ratings
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J-Man
Like a lot of debut albums, the first observation from Symphony X is often overshadowed by the rest of their discography, largely due to its mediocre production values and lack of dynamic frontman Russell Allen (who would join the fold with their next album, The Damnation Game). Both of these flaws, particularly the powerless production, prevent this self-titled 1994 release from reaching its full potential, but I wouldn't say that it's as non-essential as most others tend to believe. Especially considering its 1994 release date, Symphony X is quite an ambitious release - I can't think of any other albums that blended heavy-edged US power metal with neo-classical, symphonic, and progressive stylings before this one. It's a unique album when examined historically, and although Symphony X would tighten up the formula on future releases, this observation is still pretty enjoyable.

There are plenty of killer tracks like "The Raging Season", "Rapture or Pain", and especially the highly progressive "A Lesson Before Dying" here, so even though Symphony X is not as memorable as the band's future releases, it isn't anything to scoff at. It's an interesting debut that was unfortunately marred by a powerless production, but it still is a recommendable listen to fans of Symphony X.

CNOC AN TURSA The Giants of Auld

Album · 2013 · Folk Metal
Cover art 3.76 | 3 ratings
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J-Man
Pagan metal has a reputation as a fairly silly genre among most metalheads, but every now and again a great band pops up to prove that there's more to the genre than just imagery and instrumentation gimmicks. Enter Cnoc An Tursa, a relatively new band from Scotland that blends black and folk metal together for their debut observation, 2013's The Giants of Auld. Unlike most bands labeled as pagan metal, Cnoc An Tursa's focus is much more on the 'metal' side of the equation than the 'pagan' side, as guitars are always dominant in the mix and the folk elements are fairly subtle. The Giants of Auld does a fantastic job adding folk-inspired melodies and atmospheric keyboard work to epic, melancholic black metal without ever detracting from the lethal metal energy. The result is an album that still ticks all of the pagan metal boxes, but sounds substantially less cheesy than many other bands in the genre.

The Giants of Auld is a triumphant debut in nearly every way, but I do have to mention that the metalcore-styled vocals are a minor blemish on the overall experience. Although they don't cripple the album, they are by far the weakest link in Cnoc An Tursa's sound - I can only imagine how much better this album might be with obscure howls and shrieks, but this is more of a personal gripe than an actual fault of the album. The bottom line is that The Giants of Auld is still one of 2013's best debuts, and anyone with a liking towards atmospheric, epic, and folk-inspired black metal deserves to check it out.

ARTLANTICA Across The Seven Seas

Album · 2013 · Power Metal
Cover art 3.75 | 5 ratings
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J-Man
Although a supergroup of seasoned metal veterans will not always result in a great collaborative effort, it's tough to imagine too many progressive and power metal fanatics not having their interest piqued by Artlantica, a band featuring musicians that have played with acts like Artension, Royal Hunt, and Ark (to name just a few). The band's debut, 2013's Across The Seven Seas, even features the legendary Steve DiGiorgio on bass and Savatage's Chris Caffery guesting on guitar - and, if you can stop drooling about the lineup long enough to listen to the music, you'll also discover that the band has some damn impressive progressive-edged power metal to offer its listeners. Played in the heavy-edged US power metal tradition, Across The Seven Seas' sound is rounded off with some seriously progressive moments (just listen to the instrumental “Return of the Pharoah, Pt. 3”!) and plenty of symphonic flourishes courtesy of keyboard virtuoso Mistheria.

Killer power metal tracks like “2012”, “Demon In My Mind”, and “Heresy” help make up for the rather syrupy “Ode to My Angel” and some of the album's lyrical faults (seriously guys, the 2012 apocalypse conspiracy was a joke long before it didn't happen!), but none of these shortcomings are significant enough to diminish this great debut. Fans of melodic and progressive-edged power metal that still has plenty of aggressive bite will have no trouble enjoying what Artlantica has to offer!

OCEANS OF SLUMBER Aetherial

Album · 2013 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 4.50 | 3 ratings
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J-Man
Even as a pretty active listener, it's not often that I stumble upon an album that defies categorization as much as the debut observation from Oceans of Slumber. Entitled Aetherial, this early 2013 release could loosely be thrown under the 'extreme progressive metal' umbrella, but that does no justice to the sounds created by this young Texan act - everything from jazzy acrobatics and atmospheric progressive rock to lethal sludge riffs and frantic black metal is explored here, and Aetherial's ability to seamlessly blend these diverse soundscapes is breathtaking. The musicianship is remarkably tight across the board, and although the compositions are quite dense, Oceans of Slumber still crafts music that is highly atmospheric and even melodic. Aetherial sounds like the work of true professionals in every sense, serving as even more proof that great music is constantly being released without the help of a record label.

AMON AMARTH Deceiver Of The Gods

Album · 2013 · Melodic Death Metal
Cover art 4.23 | 13 ratings
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J-Man
Sweden's Amon Amarth has a reputation as one of the most remarkably consistent forces in extreme metal, and although they haven't been known for experimenting much with their brand of Viking-inspired melodic death metal, they deliver the style with power and conviction every time. With 2013's Deceiver of the Gods, the band's ninth full-length album, Amon Amarth once again has demonstrated this to be true; few risks are taken this time around, but the compositions are infectiously enjoyable and the performances sound as inspired as ever. Characterized by epic Viking atmospheres, heavy riffage, and melodic guitar leads, Deceiver of the Gods sounds unmistakably like Amon Amarth, and while that means that naysayers won't have their minds changed here, devoted fans should be highly impressed by great cuts like “Father of the Wolf” (I love the traditional metal riffs in this song!), “Warriors of the North”, and the title track. Amon Amarth has delivered once again!

SODOM Epitome of Torture

Album · 2013 · Thrash Metal
Cover art 3.58 | 6 ratings
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J-Man
Judging only by its opening number, it would seem that the German thrash heavyweights in Sodom have made some serious changes to their sound with Epitome of Torture. A highly melodic and polished piece indeed, “My Final Bullet” may scare some longtime fans away with its catchy power-thrash chorus, but rest assured as the rest of the album showcases Sodom doing what they've become famous for - angry, old school Teutonic thrash metal! Although Epitome of Torture is certainly a more accessible and polished version of Sodom, it's still business as usual for Tom Angelripper and company.

I'd like to hear Sodom experiment with their sound a bit more on future releases, but with songs as killer as “Invokating the Demons”, “Epitome of Torture”, and “Into the Skies of War”, it's tough to complain. While I do get the feeling that Sodom are repeating themselves a bit too much with Epitome of Torture, this is one of 2013's stronger thrash metal releases for sure.

BIRTH A.D. I Blame You

Album · 2013 · Crossover Thrash
Cover art 4.50 | 1 rating
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J-Man
More often than not, debut albums tend to be a rather immature expression of a sound that will be perfected on future observations, but every now and again a debut comes around that really lays its listener to waste. I Blame You is one of those albums. Released by Texan crossover thrash act Birth A.D. in 2013 for Unspeakable Axe Records, this is a stunning statement of punk-infused thrash metal with a sneering, "fuck you" attitude towards damn near everything society has to offer. If energetic riffs and angsty lyrics are what you crave from your metal, I Blame You is one of the finest options available.

I will readily admit that crossover thrash is not a genre I'm very well-versed in, but I do know that this is a fantastic observation in the same style as bands such as D.R.I. and Municipal Waste. That means that you should expect generally fast paced riffs, compact song lengths, aggressive shouted vocals, and even some "riot gang" choruses. Birth A.D. doesn't aim to reinvent the wheel on I Blame You, but they do deliver one of the strongest examples of crossover thrash I've ever heard - each track here is short, entertaining, and infectiously memorable. Though still frantic and raw, the riffs here have subtle melodic qualities that stick with the listener long after the playing time ends; the result is an album that is wildly engaging while it's on, but also catchy enough to make a lasting impression.

...and, of course, with song titles like "Bring Back The Draft", "Kill Everybody", "Blow Up the Embassy", and "Short Bus Society", it's pretty clear that Birth A.D. takes the idea of political correctness and shoves it up Tipper Gore's ass. I Blame You really has all of the qualities of a must-hear album in my book; the songs are memorable, the attitude is sincere, and the musicianship is impeccable. Birth A.D.'s entrance statement is one of 2013's most essential listens for any fan of thrash metal, punk, or just extreme music in general. Killer!

FREEDOMS REIGN Freedoms Reign

Album · 2013 · Traditional heavy metal
Cover art 3.50 | 2 ratings
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J-Man
Although he delivered very promising performances alongside Jim Matheos on the first two Fates Warning albums, guitarist Victor Arduini virtually disappeared from the metal scene for decades after his time with these American progressive metal legends. Now that it's been nearly 28 years since the release of The Spectre Within (his final album release with Fates Warning), the guitarist has finally returned to the metal scene with his new band Freedoms Reign. This time functioning as both a guitarist and vocalist, Arduini has also recruited other talented musicians to create an impressive display of traditional heavy metal.

Not unlike the albums that Victor Arduini created with Fates Warning, the music on Freedoms Reign can best be classified as “traditional” metal, but both bands sound unmistakably different. The most notable difference being in the vocal department - the high-pitched, commanding vocals of John Arch contrast greatly with Victor Arduini's Ozzy Osbourne-styled singing, and while I'm certainly more of a John Arch fan, Arduini does an excellent job as a frontman. The other three musicians on Freedoms Reign (bassist Mike Jones, drummer Chris Judge, and guitarist Tom Vumback) don't have experience in other bands from what I can tell, but they all deliver strong performances here.

Freedoms Reign doesn't aim to cross any boundaries with this debut album (and I would like to see them diversify their sound a bit next time around), but they have still delivered a strong heavy metal album with a likeable old school touch. Fans of acts like Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, and Rainbow should certainly enjoy what this ex-Fates Warning guitarist has up his sleeve!

OBSESSION Order of Chaos

Album · 2012 · US Power Metal
Cover art 3.70 | 5 ratings
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J-Man
Obsession are one of the many metal bands that released a couple of albums in the eighties' before disbanding, but unlike a few other classic acts that have disappeared into oblivion, this American group reformed in 2002 and is back to deliver their style of old school metal to fans worldwide. 2012's Order of Chaos is Obsession's second album since their reformation (and fourth overall), and although it doesn't show the band venturing outside of their comfort zone, their decidedly retro sound is likely to find appeal within the metal community.

Order of Chaos may have been released well into the twenty first century, but everything about this album screams heavy metal from the 1980's. The energetic riffs, soaring vocals, and generally straightforward compositions bring traditional acts like Iron Maiden and Metal Church to mind, as well as US power metal bands like Savatage or Iced Earth. Largely due to the crunchy guitar sounds and powerful riffs, Obsession's music is a bit more aggressive than one may expect from a traditional metal release, but it is still unquestionably old school and never ventures into extreme metal territory.

Although Order of Chaos is a well-played, well-produced, and generally engaging listen, I'd be curious to hear Obsession include more varied song structures into their future releases. Order of Chaos is a very good album, but it treads a bit too lightly to really make my blood boil. Still, I've found my experience with Order of Chaos to be highly enjoyable, and fans of acts like Metal Church and Iced Earth are highly advised to check it out!

BLOCKHEADS This World is Dead

Album · 2013 · Grindcore
Cover art 3.00 | 2 ratings
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J-Man
With a history dating back to 1989, French grindcore act Blockheads are certainly among the country's longest running and most well-respected grind outfits. It's been roughly seven years since the band released their fourth full-length album, 2006's Shapes of Misery, but the band has returned in 2013 with a lethal palette of political frustration, unrelenting aggression, and unsaturated anger for their Relapse Records debut, This World Is Dead.

In the spirit of acts like Napalm Death, Nasum, and Rotten Sound, the music of Blockheads is primarily fast-paced, aggressive grindcore music with a few hints of death metal and sludge metal. The sludge influence primarily appears in the slow, doomy closing track "Trail of the Dead", but the entire album has a somewhat sludgy and hopeless atmosphere to my ears. This World Is Dead evokes a feeling of despair in its listener, and while the music is quite energetic, something about it is rather unsettling to my ears - I need to be in a special mood for This World Is Dead's miserable atmosphere to connect with me.

When I'm in that mood, though, Blockheads' music really satisfies my craving for hopeless, fast-paced, and aggressive grindcore music. Its abrasive production and general lack of rhythmic variation means that This World Is Dead probably isn't for everybody, but fans of grindcore will find plenty to enjoy here. Although Blockheads may not be doing anything tremendously groundbreaking with the genre, their music is solid enough to find plenty of appeal among its followers.

IMPERIUM DEKADENZ Meadows of Nostalgia

Album · 2013 · Atmospheric Black Metal
Cover art 4.00 | 3 ratings
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J-Man
The bleak, wooded landscape shown on the cover of Meadows of Nostalgia is a fairly accurate summation of what one should expect from German black metal act Imperium Dekadenz's fourth full length offering; although it is a strongly melancholic and often times abject journey, the album's epic atmospheres always provide the listener with a small glimmer of hope. Meadows of Nostalgia is a very introverted observation for sure, but black metal fans with a liking for the nature-inspired segment of the genre will likely be stunned by what Imperium Dekadenz has to offer.

I've yet to familiarize myself with the earlier material from this German black metal duo, but the music on Meadows of Nostalgia strikes me as a more melancholic, depressive, and epic version of Norwegian black metal acts like Mayhem and Darkthrone without quite diving into the shoegazing of Fen or the dark ambiance of Burzum. Imperium Dekadenz certainly have their own place in the black metal genre, although their music does not sound out of place when put alongside other nature-inspired or Pagan acts like Wolves in the Throne Room or Drudkh. Most of Meadows of Nostalgia is reflective and melodic, yet still lethal by all means, old school black metal, but there are also a handful of acoustic segments like "Durch das Tor" and "Memoria" that keep the album from settling into monotony. Most of the other tracks also have a softer edge as well, particularly "Der Unweg" with its stunning undistorted guitar melodies.

Meadows of Nostalgia's more 'standard' black metal tracks are incredibly epic in structure; this is the sort of music that just keeps building and building, and Imperium Dekadenz manages to convey these climatic atmospheres while still sounding musically sophisticated. Horaz and Vespasian have really put together a phenomenal black metal observation with Meadows of Nostalgia, and I can assure you that this will be something I revisit again the future. Very highly recommended!

ACELSIA Don't Go Where I Can't Follow

Album · 2013 · Hard Rock
Cover art 4.00 | 2 ratings
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J-Man
Playing a style of melodic hard rock with a strongly melancholic and alternative edge, the Norwegian duo known as Acelsia is undoubtedly a unique asset to its country's already diverse music scene. The introverted, reflective music found on Don't Go Where I Can't Follow (the band's 2013 debut album) makes for a listen that may not be as outgoing as other melodic hard rock efforts, but is possibly more rewarding in the long run. Don't Go Where I Can't Follow is not without flaws, but it is a strong debut from this highly original duo.

The driving force of Acelsia's music is Malene Markussen's vulnerable, yet still still powerful, vocal performances - her voice initially struck me as rather shrill, but her talents have really grown on me over repeated spins. Her unique delivery sets her apart from the crowd and the melodies that she sings are almost always memorable. Although the instrumental aspect of Don't Go Where I Can't Follow takes a bit of a backseat to the sung melodies, the fret work of Odd Henning Skyllingstad is nothing to scoff at and guest musician Bjorn Tore Erlandsen rounds it off with some impressive drumming. The compositions are a bit on the formulaic side, but they're still well-executed and memorable. Generally speaking, however, it's the softer tracks like "Left Alone" and "Hold My Breath" that really grab my attention - Acelsia impress me most when they focus on gentle atmospherics and subtle dynamics, and the hard rock riffs sound rather powerless by comparison.

This fault may perhaps be due to the album's unpolished production, but in general I find that Acelsia's talent shines its brightest during its softest moments - from my perspective, the metallic riffs heard on this album can't hold a candle to the sonic beauty heard on something like "Left Alone". That isn't to say that Don't Go Where I Can't Follow's heavier moments are weak, but more to illustrate that Acelsia's music would benefit from more focus in the areas where they truly excel. As it stands, however, Don't Go Where I Can't Follow is a mightily impressive debut observation, and any fan of melancholic alternative rock and melodic hard rock won't be disappointed by what Acelsia has to offer!

ROTTING CHRIST Κατά τον δαίμονα εαυτού

Album · 2013 · Melodic Black Metal
Cover art 4.20 | 9 ratings
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J-Man
Greek black metal veterans Rotting Christ have made quite a few changes to their sound over the years, but unlike other bands in the genre that have opted for a more polished style, they haven't lost sight of what made them such a great band to begin with. With their eleventh full-length observation, Κατά τον δαίμονα εαυτού, Rotting Christ offers listeners something that is more polished and bombastic than one may expect from black metal, but it entirely avoids the cheesiness that plagues many other melodic and gothic variants of the genre. Although Rotting Christ may no longer appeal to black metal purists, Κατά τον δαίμονα εαυτού proves that they are still a force to be reckoned with!

I haven't fully delved into Rotting Christ's discography yet, but from what I can tell, the band took form as a melodic black metal outfit before experimenting with gothic metal and later settling upon a black metal-styled form of melodic extreme metal. Describing the music on Κατά τον δαίμονα εαυτού is a bit of a challenge, as it doesn't fit into any single genre label - the blasting drum patterns and tremolo-picked guitars are often reminiscent of black metal, but the melodic hooks, choral vocals, and polished production make me question whether or not Κατά τον δαίμονα εαυτού could really be called a black metal release. Rotting Christ isn't afraid to experiment with more traditional Greek sounds either (especially in "Cine Iubeşte şi Lasă"), and plenty of the guitar leads were clearly inspired by traditional metal - just listen to the dual guitar attack in "Iwa Voodoo"!

What this ultimately means is that Κατά τον δαίμονα εαυτού is a pretty damn unique album, and although Rotting Christ has been around for over 25 years, I'd venture to say that they're still one of the most innovative acts in black metal. The album's distinctly Greek sound sets it apart from other bands on the scene, and its detailed compositions and convincing delivery also make it one of 2013's most enjoyable extreme metal listens. The Tolis brothers have created something very special with Κατά τον δαίμονα εαυτού!

GRIMMTHURS Grimmthurs

EP · 2013 · Death Metal
Cover art 3.52 | 3 ratings
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J-Man
Drawing inspiration from old school death, thrash, and black metal, the self-titled EP from the Danish collective known as Grimmthurs is a short, satisfying, and devastating blow to the face that should leave most extreme metal enthusiasts begging for more. Although the music we're dealing with here isn't totally earth-shattering from a stylistic perspective, Grimmthurs's old school aesthetic is instantly likeable and the riffs used on this EP have a level of memorability that surpasses most of their contemporaries.

Grimmthurs is primarily a death metal release, but some of the riffs (like the ones in "Faeton") have been clearly influenced by thrash metal tradition. The opening track, "Morgengry", sounds inspired by death/doom and there's also some black metal blasting in "LSH", so it's clear that Grimmthurs borrows influence from more than one style of extreme metal on this EP. This is still mostly a death metal release, though, and fans of the genre will be delighted to know that the music is held to a high level of quality from start to finish. The musicianship is strong across the board, with guitarists Lars Pedersen and fellow writer Kim Ebensgaard Jensen dishing out great riffage and leads from all fronts. The production doesn't sound fully professional to me, but its raw aesthetic and fat lower end still manage to suit Grimmthurs's music really well.

All in all, Grimmthurs does exactly what a great EP should do - it gives a good preview of what the band is like, and it makes me very curious to hear what they'll have to offer in a full-length format. Though it's a bit on the short side, I don't think any fan of death metal would regret hearing what Grimmthurs has to offer here.

WINTER CRESCENT Battle of Egos

EP · 2009 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 3.76 | 7 ratings
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J-Man
Greece's metal scene may not be as expansive as the landscape of some other European countries, but acts like Crete's Winter Crescent prove that there are more top-notch bands from this small nation than one may initially assume. Showcasing a style of old school progressive metal reminiscent of Fates Warning and Psychotic Waltz, the band's 2009 debut EP entitled Battle of Egos is the sort of music that really connects with me as a listener - the songwriting is sophisticated without sounding self-indulgent, the melodies are strong without sounding like cheap hooks, and the music gets pretty heavy without ever losing sight of memorability. If you, like me, can't get enough of classic progressive metal releases, Battle of Egos is a downright essential listen.

Perhaps due to the raw production values and two-guitarist instrumentation (there are no keyboards here), Winter Crescent's music reminds me mostly of late eighties' and early nineties' progressive metal in the vein of Fates Warning, Queensryche, and especially Psychotic Waltz. The American one-album progressive thrash metal wonder The Last Things wouldn't be a bad point of reference either, as Winter Crescent's generally dark atmospheres and gritty guitar tones give off a bit of a thrash vibe. The important thing to take note of, though, is that Battle of Egos is old school to the bone, and folks that miss the days when progressive metal sounded more like a complex version of traditional metal than a separate genre will be delighted to hear this one.

At over 34 minutes, Battle of Egos is also a fairly lengthy EP release, so it's a great value when one considers the generally high level of compositional talent exhibited by Winter Crescent. Each of the tracks are memorable and interesting enough to warrant numerous repeat listens, but "Furrow" is my personal favorite; Nikos Spyridakis's vocals really bring Devon Graves to mind here! As talented as all of the instrumentalists here are (and talented they are indeed; there are more than enough complex rhythmic ideas and melodic leads to satisfy any progressive metalhead), it's Nikos's tremendous vocal performance that really propels Winter Crescent into the upper tier of the genre.

Although Battle of Egos is perhaps not the most groundbreaking release in recent memory and a more professional production would benefit Winter Crescent's music greatly, I have completely fallen in love what these Greeks have put together for their debut EP. This is some excellent material, and I will be eagerly awaiting Winter Crescent's next move!

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