Metal Music Reviews from Necrotica

DARKHER Realms

Album · 2016 · Metal Related
Cover art 4.48 | 3 ratings
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Necrotica
One thing I've always loved about album art is how it reflects the music within. Of course the music should also speak for itself, but album covers can still give a taste of what's to come when done correctly. So, reader, I make this request: just look at the art for Darkher's debut album Realms. A woman with a black cloak looks down, as if in grief or simply melancholy, as she's enveloped in different shades of gray encompassing both the sky and the ground. A mass of storm clouds can be seen up above, and there's an aura of bleakness to the overall picture. After giving Realms repeated listens, I can certainly say that it lives up to its album cover in every way.

To clarify things, here's the deal: Darkher is considered the alias of a singer-songwriter known as Jayn Wissenberg, hailing from Yorkshire, England. In actuality, Darkher are currently a trio, the other members being guitarist Martin Wissenberg and drummer Shaun "Winter" Taylor-Steels (according to Facebook, at least). However, Jayn is definitely the heart and soul of this project; she's the vocalist, the primary guitarist, the producer, and the lyricist, so it's fair to say that she's the driving force. When you get to the music itself, Realms is a gothic experience with elements of doom metal, folk, post-metal, and ambient music; the atmosphere ranges from deeply melancholic to eerily unsettling, and there never seems to be an uplifting moment to be found. By far, the best aspect of the record is Jayn herself. Her vocals are simply wonderful, with a haunting and almost operatic quality to them, and they're layered over the music with a large amount of reverb. This works especially well in songs like "Hollow Veil" and "Wars," in which her evocative voice clashes with the metallic doom-laden guitars just perfectly.

Despite a consistently dark and grim atmosphere, there's still variety and genre-bending to be found. Realms happens to be one of those records in which the metal elements don't necessarily outweigh the softer moments. In fact, the intro "Spirit Waker" and the interlude "Buried Pt. 1" rely entirely on dark ambient instrumentation to establish the desired atmosphere; the latter is especially effective because of how Wissenberg's drawn-out vocals meld with the dreary soundscapes. Needless to say, it's a great fit for a song called "Buried." Of course, there's also "Buried Pt. 2," which builds on its predecessor with more frequent dynamic shifts and murky electric guitar riffing mired in incredibly slow tempos. But unfortunately, the one big problem I have with Realms has to do with the tempos in general. As much as the slow riffing and long instrumental buildups assist in enveloping the listener in the album's world, it also causes the record to be slightly homogeneous after a while. For instance, "Foregone" mostly relies on one particular motif as it builds and builds into a clangorous climax of pounding guitars and drums, but the sluggishly paced buildup feels a bit tedious and dull. At the very least, the track probably shouldn't have been the longest on the album at over 7 minutes. Regardless, the record still ends on a strong note with the fittingly-titled "Lament." It's one of the strongest pieces on the album because of its softer dynamics, and the acoustic guitar balladry is beautifully combined with Jayn's droning vocal performance. Ending Realms with something more somber and folk-influenced was a nice change in pace after the doom/post-metal material preceding it.

Honestly, as a debut, this is extremely impressive. It's gorgeous, intense, doomy-as-hell, and it takes pride in engulfing your ears in incredibly thick layers of darkness. Again, much of the album's quality comes from Jayn Wissenberg's sheer talent and charisma, especially behind the mic. Between her hypnotic vocal performances and the post-metal-oriented instrumental work, Darkher have proven that establishing a strong atmosphere and focusing on subtle songwriting shifts are among their strongest talents. The downtrodden beauty is really something to behold, and it'll be interesting to hear how they follow it up next time around.

WINTERSUN The Forest Seasons

Album · 2017 · Melodic Death Metal
Cover art 2.77 | 3 ratings
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The forest is teeming with darkness.

I love the four seasons and the way they can change our understanding of the world. Every time they shift, it’s as if our moods and perceptions are shifting with them. And as such, they can each bring out a beautiful variety of emotions and vivid imagery in their wake. That’s why baroque violinist and composer Antonio Vivaldi had such great success with his famous composition The Four Seasons. With every season, certain stylistic deviations were introduced to signify its characteristics; for instance, the sprightly and festive feel of the legendary “Spring” movement of the piece. Now, before I go any further, I’m not against someone in 2017 presenting us with a modern-day update of a timeless classic with a timeless theme. But when I heard that one of metal’s premier musicians and procrastinators Jari Maenpaa was behind the project with his primary project Wintersun, my eyebrow was more than raised… and not in a good way, really. I once loved Wintersun, a band whose first album was among my favorite modern metal debuts and provided a glimpse to a once-promising future for the band. But between the gradual dip in quality and the waiting time between albums, Jari seemed to be an artist who could only answer high expectations with false promises. But I’m always ready to keep my mind open and think positively, so I’m ready to dive into this new piece with open ears. Let’s go season by season, shall we?

Spring - The Season of Genre Cliches

We plunge into Spring, a bright and colorful season. But in the world of Wintersun, the skies remain as gray as ever. The cheap keyboards give a mood of cheap dollar-store melancholy, and the shameful production values seal the deal before the experience gets off the ground. I don’t even want to hear the rest, but I press on. The season of spring is apparently devoid of its usual life, and its generic cookie-cutter riffs are as recycled as they were on the last album. The percussion sounds like the drumset was wrapped in a giant paper bag to siphon it of all its power, then beaten senselessly over and over in the same two or three tempos. There are some “creepy” (I use this word hilariously lightly, hence the quotation marks) spoken word parts, I suppose in an attempt to enhance the atmosphere. But it’s remarkable how little Jari’s evolved as a singer, pretty much using his most familiar cleans and growls in the most predictable ways. The more I dig into the band’s discography, it seems ever more evident that Wintersun are only capable of conveying the season of their namesake (even then, not in very interesting ways). I only hear cold, distant, passionless blandness. If this is the sound of spring, I want to skip the season altogether.

Summer - The Season in Which Experimentation Meets Redundancy

At least there’s a bit more effort as we approach the season of Summer. There’s a decent acoustic guitar buildup in the intro, even though it bears a bit too much resemblance to “Sadness and Hate” in the notation and guitar tone. The tempo is more Opeth-like and the anthemic clean singing is neat, but there’s not enough to differentiate this season from the one preceding it. That is, except for the admittedly nice folk interlude in which folk and sitar sounds are integrated to add some atmosphere. Still, there isn’t nearly enough of a “wow” factor to any of this to excuse a 12-minute running time, and that’s a criticism seems to run through the entire recording. For the record, the lyrics are also a load of garbage. Check this out:

"In the dark ruin the grey mountains sing A sad song of winter and the howling wind Visions of the past in the haunting dreams Under the dead sky, under the withered trees"

If that cliched nonsense is Jari’s idea of high art, then my high school alternative rock band was full of Shakespearian poetry.

Autumn - The Season of Brooding, Brooding, and More Brooding… and Dark Riffs!

We kick off Autumn with some dark tremolo riffs to give an evil, black metal-oriented sound… spooky! Too bad the thin production makes the blast beats sound like trash. Beyond that, the mixing is so horrible that the drums overpower any of the riffing or other guitar licks we’re supposed to make out. I’m glad we’re finally listening to a song that comes a little closer to representing the weather and feel of its chosen season, but I’d like to actually hear the songwriting too! Granted, it’s nothing special. The keyboards are still bland and gimmicky, and the melodic death metal-inspired riffs are just as meandering and unengaging as ever. Somewhere around the middle, Jari uses a deep spoken word vocal style that makes him sound like Dani Filth… it’s somewhat interesting, but mostly seems like a means of distracting us from the boring 6/8-time riff and its directionless lead guitar work. The solo that follows is just some generic shredding too, so it’s really not very interesting. Just trust me: Autumn may try to sound sinister, but Jari’s not inspired enough to convey this properly.

Winter - The Season Wintersun Knows

We finally come to our final season, the season of Winter. And, lo and behold, this is actually the best piece in the collection. There’s some nice buildup in the icy synths, generating a mood both eerie and depressing. The actual title of the track is “Loneliness,” and the doomy tempo is a fine demonstration of such an emotion. The vocals are a bit melodramatic at times, but at least I’m hearing something other than the bland growls that have dominated the other seasons. Jari sounds more anguished and desperate here, fitting the theme of the composition and its blustery vibe like a glove. Alas, not everything is perfect here either. The tune seems to stick to the same tempo for most of its duration, making it a slog to sit through to the end. As usual, there’s not enough experimentation or new instrumental perspective on this season to justify a 13-minute closer to an already-overlong mess of an album. Also, the production is still pretty atrocious, but now I’m sounding like a broken record.

The forest is teeming with dread.

The four seasons can be open to such fruitful depictions and fantastic musical avenues, but Wintersun manages only to produce a small handful of these. Whenever I hear The Forest Seasons, I don’t hear the sound of fresh ground being broken. I don’t hear an exciting new aural adventure of both aggression and beauty. I don’t hear a band displaying a new or interesting take on a promising concept. I hear the sound of dread. I hear a project that has long passed its expiration date even after just three albums.

Most distressingly, I hear thousands of loyal Indiegogo funders being fucked by one egotistical Finn.

HELMET Strap It On

Album · 1990 · Alternative Metal
Cover art 3.86 | 4 ratings
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Imagine being crushed by a bunch of bricks. Imagine slamming headfirst into solid concrete. All while either of these events are happening, imagine you are also wading through a thick river of mud at the same time. Better yet, listen to Helmet's debut because it's the audio equivalent of having all that happen to you. It's a brutal, unpleasant experience; it's one that doesn't try to paint a pretty picture or have any polish from the production studio. But at the end of the day, that's exactly what makes Strap It On such a powerful gem of an album. It bridged alternative rock and metal, alternative metal with hardcore punk, and brought in some noise rock to tie it all together. It's still an uncompromising experience to this day and hasn't lost its punch over the years.

Helmet spawned from the NYC hardcore scene back in the early 1990, and instantly stood out from the rest of the metal bands of their day. They were often regarded as the "thinking person's heavy metal band" during their heyday due to their penchant for precise staccato riffing, unorthodox time signatures, and experimenting with jazz and noise rock. They also stood out from an image perspective, having a more earnest and "down-to-earth" look with t-shirts and jeans; there was no theatricality or grandiosity, nor were there any wankish or ridiculously flashy solos either. Now, I should mention that Helmet didn't hit their commercial stride until their second effort Meantime, which had their signature song "Unsung." But Strap It On definitely provided the building blocks of what would become the band's sound, while also being their rawest and most relentless piece of work. Much of what made Helmet so fresh came from frontman Page Hamilton, who still leads the charge today as the band's leader and figurehead. Also, if you're wondering where the jazz and blues influences come from, Hamilton actually studied jazz guitar in the Manhattan School of Music prior to forming Helmet. In any case, his guitar work is simply insane on Strap It On. His solos can range from showing off his technical skills ("FBLA") to becoming utterly incomprehensible nonsense at times to fit the song's mood ("Murder"), or be a mixture of both ("Bad Mood"), but his guitar skills allow him to bend a song to his will just by the way he plays and experiments with his instrument.

Strap It On may be a short affair (only thirty minutes), but just like Reign in Blood, it packs such a punch in that time that it warrants several replays. Right from the percussive bass/drum-centric intro of "Repetition," the album's production is instantly catches the ear with it mixes rawness and instrumental clarity. There's a thick wall of sound coming from the guitars during the more textural moments, such as the solo section of the slowly crawling "Sinatra" and the lengthy intro of the midtempo alt-metal number "Rude," but it's always punctuated by a punchy drum performance and tone courtesy of the legendary John Stanier. Then there are songs like "Bad Mood" or "Repetition," which are basically straight-up hardcore punk songs without any of the alternative metal elements the band is usually known for. But those are some of the best tracks on Strap it On as they're the best displays of a group who was young, pissed off, and (as I stated) uncompromising as hell. Perhaps the best thing about this album is that it mixes intelligence and strong talents with brutality in one fell swoop, something that would be lost in future records as Helmet would eventually get cleaner and more melodic. There are melodic flourishes here and there, as the guitar textures of "FBLA" and "Repetition" prove, but there's always something propulsive going on in the backing instrumentation so Helmet don't really linger on them for too long. But whenever the more emotive moments are on display, they're often incredibly gloomy or depressing; the bridge of "Sinatra" in particular is pretty hard to listen to for this reason, as the lead guitar work just makes it sound defeated... until the chorus kicks back in, that is.

Helmet made a number of brilliant records during their 90s heyday, but Strap It On is the one that just sticks with me the most. This just seems like the most impressive document of their sound, creating a perfect balance of alternative metal, hardcore punk, and noise rock in one complete package. It's short, but to the point. It's brutal, but coherent and melodic enough that it never seems too abrasive. Plus, it's still one of the most headbangable (is that even a word?) albums I've ever heard to this day. And on top of all that, there's not a bad song to be found here. If you're into punk, metal, alternative rock/metal, noise rock, or just 90s rock/metal in general, this (along with Meantime and Betty) is simply essential.

OPETH My Arms, Your Hearse

Album · 1998 · Death Metal
Cover art 3.90 | 94 ratings
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The sky is dark and dismal, rain plummeting as if to cover every surrounding inch of earth. Soon, a lone piano enters to fully flesh out the mood. A few melancholic chords are played, and the scene is set. From the distance, a crescendo of cappella vocals gets stronger… stronger… stronger…

...and from this point forward, Opeth would rewrite the blueprints of progressive metal for the next decade.

My Arms, Your Hearse was a turning point for the Swedish metal act. It’s the very reason we were able to have masterpieces like Still Life and Ghost Reveries in the first place, as it’s the opus that cemented Opeth’s standing as one of extreme metal’s titans and foremost innovators. But beyond just its legacy, My Arms, Your Hearse still stands strong as its own powerful creation because of its near-seamless blend of death metal, black metal, progressive rock, folk, jazz, and blues into one cohesive offering. The twin guitar attack exhibited by Mikael Akerfeldt and Peter Lindgren got more fluid, and while Johan De Farfalla was sadly absent from this point onward, Akerfeldt himself filled in the cracks nicely on bass. On top of that, we also got a new longtime addition to the group with drummer Martin Lopez, whose musical chemistry with the rest of the band is staggering on this release (and most subsequent releases, I might add).

Whereas predecessors Morningrise and Orchid often seemed like a bunch of great ideas strung together in an arbitrary fashion, My Arms, Your Hearse builds upon much more conceptual and coherent groundwork. Because of this, the songwriting is often incredibly flowing and focused, with each idea progressing into the next in a logical way. This also makes for a lot of emotional peaks and valleys, especially when the band sways between death metal savagery and folk-like contemplations. Some of the quartet’s finest moments of melancholy and sheer melodic catharsis are on display here, such as the mindblowing finales of “When” and “Demon of the Fall.” But the reason these moments work so well is the balance of moods and dynamics on offer. For instance, the decision to have the reflective acoustic folk ballad “Credence” after “Demon of the Fall” provides a contrast that’s as beautiful as it is stark. The way it calmly rests as a lonesome trench between two of the album’s heaviest tracks provides a nice moment to sit back and rest before the brutality comes back. And even the brutality is multi-faceted in its own unique way, right from the jazzy a cappella chord that kicks off “April Ethereal” to the densely layered guitar chords in the doom metal portion of “The Amen Corner.”

Speaking of layering, the production values are spectacular. Frederik Nordstrom captured the essence of a raw extreme metal recording while letting each instrument move and breathe as if having a life of its own. The “clear-meets-murky” approach was a great choice, retaining just the right amount of melodicism and accessibility while still letting the sheer intensity of the heavy moments shine through. Case in point: during the chugging one-note riff in “April Ethereal,” check out how those lead guitars are playing at two separate octaves above the simple riff. The combination of the eerie leads and the crushing nature of the breakdown is exquisite, and the same goes for the complex riff patterns that cover a good chunk of “Demon of the Fall.” The harmonies are bleak and depressing, a good fit for the relentless guttural vocals and the aggressive rhythm guitar assault. There’s even some jazz influence in the guitar chords during its finale! Really, the only criticism I’d level at the record is that “Karma” and “Epilogue” weren’t quite the best pieces to end on. “Epilogue” feels like it could have been cut in half, and “Karma”’s death metal sections get a bit overlong and bland, particularly during its ending.

It’s fascinating to think we’d eventually (arguably) get an even more brilliant album with Still Life, but I like to consider My Arms, Your Hearse the album that made it possible in the first place. This was the true stepping stone, the record that brought Opeth to a new level in both their music and their acclaim as one of Sweden’s most promising metal acts at the time. My Arms, Your Hearse is a masterwork steeped in brutality and despair, and it hasn’t aged one bit with time.

NICKELBACK Feed the Machine

Album · 2017 · Hard Rock
Cover art 3.00 | 1 rating
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I’m going to confront the elephant in the room head-on: no, this is not a grand reinvention of Nickelback’s tried-and-true style.

As much as many people want to see that (and seem to be expecting it), it might be too much to ask a band with such a recognizable comfort zone to immediately pull a 180-degree turn into new territory. But before you walk away from this review, keep listening. Feed the Machine, while pulling the same old stops for a Nickelback album, is easily the band’s most refined and energized product since their breakthrough hit Silver Side Up. Yep, after a whole 16 years of nonstop mockery and hate mail, Chad Kroeger and his band of post-grungers have decided to give us something a bit more dignified and well-written. And, all things considered, this is not a bad album by any means. If anything, it’s a somewhat solid mainstream rock offering with strong hints of alternative metal strewn about. One wishes the band’s potential could have been touched upon years ago, but you know the old saying: “better late than never.”

The oddest thing about Feed the Machine, and the reason that it ultimately falls short of greatness, is that it straddles multiple styles in a seriously imbalanced way. Hearing the heavy downtuned - and even surprisingly progressive - metal anthem “The Betrayal (Act III)” coupled with bland ballads like “Every Time We’re Together” and “Song on Fire” might end up causing rifts in Nickelback’s already-polarized fanbase, just as the varied levels of lyrical quality could as well. That said, the variety is still fun once in a while. The intro to the cheesy rocker “Must Be Nice,” while pretty standard for Nickelback’s typical cock-rock fare, is so groovy and bluesy that the flaws are much less noticeable by comparison. The heavier moments found on songs like the title track and “Coin for the Ferryman” are aggressive as hell in this outing, and they occasionally contrast well with the sappy balladry that causes the album’s tonal imbalance. The band have also upped their game on the musicianship front; while famed Extreme guitarist Nuno Bettencourt has to carry the solo duties on “For the River,” Chad Kroeger and Ryan Peake are able to bust out some decent solos and melodies in their own right. While the rhythm section is as boring as it’s always been, the increased chemistry and personality of the guitar work were a neat surprise.

The truth is, the best moments on Feed the Machine are the ones in which the band throw their old mainstream shackles away and just embrace metal. The ballads here sound both tired and dated, and simply don’t suffice in a discography that’s already drenched in tired ballads. In fact, I swear the chorus of “After the Rain” rips off the main melody to “Club Can’t Handle Me” by Flo Rida. And as I mentioned, some of these songs sound ridiculously dated. The uptempo power ballad “Silent Majority,” while at least exuding some energy, sounds like it came straight from an old post-grunge edition of Now That’s What I Call Music that would have been popular in the mid-2000s. It offers nothing new or interesting, and just results in another skippable tune for the listener to filter out. With this in mind, I must still admit that some of the experiments on the album result in highly rewarding payoffs. The two biggest here are the chunky, aggressive riffing of “Coin for the Ferryman” and the progressive metal stylings of “The Betrayal (Act III).” These songs completely abandon the band’s old cliches to deliver something that’s honest-to-god fun and steeped in genuine effort. They’re heavy, they have memorable riffs, and they present the true stylistic stepping stones in this experience.

For the first time in quite a while, I didn’t really know what rating I’d give Feed the Machine or whether to recommend it. This is a classic case of Nickelback giving us really nice songwriting and concepts before shooting themselves in the foot for making stupid decisions at the cusp of greatness. I will say that the positive aspects of Feed the Machine are some of the best things I’ve ever heard from this band, but they really need to decide whether to move forward with these changes or to replant themselves in the past. This half-and-half deal isn’t quite going to cut it, and it might end up warding off more of their fanbase than the usual Nickelback record because of it. But, because of those positives, I think Feed the Machine deserves a slight recommendation at the end of the day. It may not sway ardent haters, but those who are genuinely interested in hearing the band touch up their sound and try some new things might find something they enjoy.

SOUNDGARDEN Superunknown

Album · 1994 · Hard Rock
Cover art 4.19 | 65 ratings
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The death of Chris Cornell was a tragedy for many rock fans across the globe, but in my case, it was an especially devastating blow to the gut. On the day of his passing, nostalgic images suddenly rushed back to my mind. I recalled my time as a young teen back in California playing the classic Superunknown over and over again on the car stereo. Those hazy summers were the perfect time to listen to some sentimental alternative rock records, but Superunknown was truly unlike anything I’d heard before (or since). Suddenly, the sludgy and grimy world of grunge was colorful and expansive. Aggression married grandiosity, and the moments of punk rock fury were paired with moments you swear you’d hear as a funeral dirge. Then psychedelia, stoner metal, 70s classic rock, and even some progressive rock were piled on as icing on the cake. And now with Cornell’s suicide fresh in people’s minds, the dark atmosphere and frequent mood swings that define Superunknown seem even more real and relevant than ever.

Truth be told, calling Superunknown a grunge album is a massive oversimplification. The 70-minute behemoth is packed with so many shades and flavors of rock music that it’s tough to know where to even begin analyzing it. But I can say one thing right off the bat: as great as the individual songs are, this album is best heard as the entire experience. It may be long, but trust me, it doesn’t feel that long despite how draining it is. There’s an overarching sadness to the record, but the emotional contrasts can add a layer of deception. For instance, “The Day I Tried to Live,” with its hopeful title and relatively upbeat (if a bit off-kilter) riff suggest an optimistic message, but the lyrics tell a different story altogether. Cornell’s charisma on the mic shines through, yes, but the transformation of imagery in the first verse is bizarre and even jaw-dropping. It goes from “seize the day” to “watch the rolling heads” in a matter of seconds, and yet Kim Thayil’s fantastic guitar leads continue to drive the piece along. Other songs bring on the aggression like a parade of bulls, such as the energetic punk jam “Kickstand” or the tight Drop-D riffing found in opener “Let Me Drown.”

But it’s the slower numbers that truly bring out the best in Superunknown. Whereas 90s grunge peers Alice in Chains would use doom metal to create a feeling of horror or sickness, Soundgarden brought the style to more grand and deeply profound places. “Black Hole Sun” sounds almost mystical in the way Thayil’s dreamlike guitar leads blend with the down-to-earth and even minimalist rhythm section, as if some spiritual being is being anchored and weighed down by reality. It’s wonderful that the band could maintain melodic sensibilities while at their darkest, which turned out to be one of their defining traits. The same goes for the closer “Like Suicide,” a song that’s recognizable by an unsettlingly cheery guitar melody while Cornell is singing about smashing a bird with a brick to end its suffering. The subject matter on Superunknown is portrayed and expressed with so much personality, even it reaches its darkest moments. Perhaps the most gloomy and deeply uncomfortable song on here is “4th of July,” a song that fully embraces the most grim and distraught aspects of grunge music and puts them on full display. The slow tread of the riff sounds like you’re watching a portrait slowly decay and melt with time, and the distortion is so thick that it puts many sludge metal bands to shame. Add to that a heavy Drop-C tuning on the guitars and the whole experience is a sound to behold.

The band members are simply fantastic here, no one truly being a weak link. I’ve already touched on Chris Cornell and Kim Thayil a bit, but bassist Ben Shepherd and drummer Matt Cameron deserve their share of praise as well. These guys had so many diverse sounds and knotty time signatures to work through, and they somehow made it sound as natural as any of the other grunge bands at the time who were always playing in 4/4. For the best showing of Cameron’s talents, I highly recommend his amazing performance in the rhythmically complex “Spoonman,” in which he has an inventive drum solo alongside somebody literally tapping spoons (known as Artis the Spoonman!). “Limo Wreck” is also great, if you want to hear how creatively he works around slower tempos. For Ben Shepherd, my favorite moment would be his incredible chemistry with Chris Cornell on the main riff of “Mailman,” an octave-hopping affair with a dreary and somewhat bluesy motif. He also kicks ass on the title track and “Kickstand,” which exhibit his (and Matt Cameron’s) speed and precision more than usual. Every member brings a great level of personality and chemistry to these tunes, and Chris Cornell’s vocal performances here are among the best he’s ever recorded. Just listen to those soaring verses in the title track, as well as those beautifully subdued moments in “4th of July”! Truly a legend.

But it’s truly heartbreaking to see him gone, as well as the fact that we probably won’t get another Soundgarden record ever again. The grunge legends of the 90s seem to be slowly dying out, and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam is now officially the last of the Big 4 frontmen to still be alive and kicking (unless you count Jerry Cantrell). But much like Alice in Chains, Soundgarden were significant in the fact that they were able to be a bridge between grunge and other genres, especially metal. The band’s style wasn’t just black and white, but allowed to have breathing room and a wealth of diversity in the middle. Simply put, they were an incredible rock band with a distinct style, and Superunknown is their crowning achievement.

NEUROSIS Souls at Zero

Album · 1992 · Atmospheric Sludge Metal
Cover art 4.44 | 13 ratings
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Did you feel the shifts? The shift in the tempo, the shift in the style or the shift in the vision of the punk-turned-doom act Neurosis?

Was the eerie Wicker Man-inspired album art a strong enough indication of the change? Or did we have to wait until we heard the content within?

The content within, I must state, is terrifying. Sludge and hellish distortion crush the ears like a trash compactor; the songs are longer, the compositions more complex, and seemingly inching toward the progressive or avant-garde;

"To Crawl Under One's Skin" sets a grim tone, its creepy intro sample a sinister indicator of the following horrors; and what follows? A brilliant mixture of post-metal, doom metal, post-hardcore, and sludge metal with enough menace in its tone to make a seasoned metal fan buckle.

Did you feel the shifts? Did you experience the sea change? Listen to the way the acoustic and electric guitars of the title track bicker and contrast with one another; an cold, tenuous relationship forming a dreary masterpiece of atmosphere as the bizarrely paced piano chromatics seal the deal.

Once in a while, the speed picks up and yet the tension never truly dissipates. The two chords that encompass most of "Flight" rely on instrumental textures and tortured vocals until the acoustic guitar beckons us back to the void.

The content within, I must admit, never ceases to be draining. The further you delve into it, the more it takes from you. Some quiet moments occur, such as the acoustic intro to "Stripped," but it never feels like a respite. The heavy moments plow through like a sledgehammer to the skull and the reflective moments are woeful and depressing.

But that's also the beauty.

Souls at Zero is something of an entrancing horror; much like Requiem for a Dream or Eternal Darkness; the vivid hell it portrays is intoxicating. And just one listen to outro "Empty," with its uneasy acoustic melodies and melancholic electric leads, and you'll feel both gutted and wanting to brave the whole journey again.

Do you feel the shifts? Did you hear the rise of a remarkable force towering over you? Have you heard the utterly disgusting majesty of 90s metal in its prime?

With Souls at Zero, you'll feel it.

OPETH Sorceress

Album · 2016 · Metal Related
Cover art 3.64 | 23 ratings
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Sometimes it’s hard to determine if a review is really going to sway people anymore. With a number of bands, especially ones with established fanbases, it often seems like people’s minds are set pretty quickly on a new album or project. But the real fun happens when a group has a polarizing impact on its audience; there’s an odd pleasure in watching a bunch of critics fight each other on a band’s quality or musical direction, preferably with some popcorn on standby. And since 2011, Opeth has been one of the most interesting bands to witness for this very reason. Their 2003 record Damnation might have been an interesting deviation from the typical progressive/death metal formula we know them for, but hey, at least Ghost Reveries and Watershed brought those elements back! Surely they wouldn’t switch to a different style for good, right?

Right?

Ok, so most of us know what went down after Watershed. But, for the people who aren’t aware, I’ll give the rundown. Essentially, Heritage was a major switch for a band who were mostly rooted in extreme metal at this point. Sure, the progressive rock stuff was always there from the beginning, but from Heritage onward, the band decided to abandon metal altogether to create something more rooted in the golden age of progressive rock. The title of the album was pretty apt, as it seemed like a deliberate tribute to the band’s 70s roots. What fans didn’t expect, however, was that the band stayed on this path up until the present day. Pale Communion ended up being more of a prog throwback than its predecessor, and the band started sounding more and more like a stylistic pastiche who forgot their original musical identity. So when these elements started popping up again on the new record Sorceress, many people’s minds were already set and the fanbase battlegrounds were established as usual. So what’s the point of reviewing something if that’s the case? Well, hear me out on this one.

Right from the get-go, Sorceress plays out like a long buffet of musical stylings. It’s really fun hearing Opeth go from genre to genre on this album, as the record sees them tackle folk, progressive rock, progressive metal, jazz, 70s classic rock, classical, blues, and more. This does lead to some disjointedness from time to time, but the adventurousness of Opeth’s songwriting is what anchors them here. You almost have no idea what to expect when the introductory folk number “Persephone” sets the tone, but the following title track is much more effective at giving an overview of the experience. Technical drumming marries bizarre keyboard motifs, until a doom metal riff drives the distorted guitar playing. It’s like a funeral march, but with a heightened sense of fury in Mikael Akerfeldt’s mean vocal performance. Say what you will about the musical content, but I simply can’t deny how strong Akerfeldt’s singing is on this album. From the mid-range Ian Anderson-esque performance he gives on the light folk rock ballad “Will O’ the Wisp,” to the raspy high notes he provides on the title track and “Chrysalis,” the man’s dynamics and range have improved over time.

But these aren’t the only strong points of Sorceress. Go a little deeper, and you’ll find the aforementioned “Will O’ the Wisp,” a simple acoustic guitar piece that evolves into a beautifully melodic and emotive electric guitar solo. The blues tone melds perfectly with the acoustic framework, and the rhythm work is suitably subtle underneath the great melodies. “Sorceress 2,” despite the lazy title, is also a highlight here. It’s entirely driven by vocals and acoustic guitar work, and the blend of major and minor keys creates a fascinatingly unsettling piece of music. And if there’s anything that this album has shown me, it’s to never underestimate the versatility of Opeth’s band members. Just listen to the incredible buildup and climax of “Strange Brew” (nice Cream reference, by the way), in which Joakim Svalberg’s eerie keyboards create a suspenseful vibe before anything else kicks in. The piano work keeps building and building… and the guitar work comes in briefly… and then the band just goes ***ing nuts. The playing is controlled and precise, but the discordant keyboards and Martin Axenrot’s nimble drumming create sort of an organized chaos. Eventually, the track erupts into a gloriously bluesy metal section with amazing guitar solos topping it all off. The entire song is a masterpiece of atmosphere and dynamics, and the musicianship is top-notch the entire way through. This is easily the album’s centerpiece.

But as one might imagine, not all is perfect here. First off, the lyrics have taken quite a huge nosedive from previous Opeth efforts. Remember those amazing stanzas the band would write in the old songs? Here’s a sample from 1999’s “Godhead’s Lament”:

Marauder Staining the soil, midst of stillness Beloved fraternity to an end Red eyes probe the scene; All the same Stilted for the beholder Depravity from the core Handcarved death in stoneladen aisles

And now look at an excerpt from “Will O’ the Wisp”:

When you’re tired of waiting And time is not on your side When you’re tired of hating me You no longer want to hide; Stuck to the failures of your life Marred with the sorrows of your strife

Not that simple lyrics are necessarily bad, of course, but there’s a lot of cheese to sift through on Sorceress. The lyrics tend to be both cliched (especially on the title track) and corny, which is a far cry from Akerfeldt’s previous work with the band. Also, as I stated, things do get disjointed once in a while. There probably could have been a better way for the band to transition from the beautiful folk of “Will O’ the Wisp,” to the abrupt metal intro of “Chrysalis,” or from “Persephone” to the weird groove of the title track. The album’s structure seems a bit confused and unpredictable, which proves to be both a good and bad thing in the end. While it keeps the listener guessing, it also means the record struggles to find a real concrete direction to take.

Still, part of the fun with Sorceress is the variety. It’s a true musical adventure, and while the derivative moments of Pale Communion rear their heads here and there, the diversity on this record is crucial to replaying it over and over again. This may not necessarily be the best Opeth album I’ve heard, but it’s the most fun I’ve had with an Opeth album in a long time. Many of you may have your minds made up already, but for those on the negative side of the fence, I recommend giving the record another listen. You might just find a few gems and a few surprises lurking within this glorious mess of an album.

DEATH Individual Thought Patterns

Album · 1993 · Technical Death Metal
Cover art 4.27 | 96 ratings
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When "The Philosopher" was played on MTV and got featured on Beavis & Butthead back in the 90s, it was clear that Death were becoming influential even beyond the realms of death metal. Keep in mind that, while Headbanger's Ball was a popular MTV program back then, it usually featured artists more rooted in traditional, alternative, and thrash metal. More extreme genres of metal were thrown in there from time to time, but were often tucked behind the primary stuff that was being shown/heard. That, and the program was canceled in 1995, around the time that Death were finally getting more recognition. Basically, what I'm saying is that a band like Death being on MTV rotation is nothing short of an anomaly. But, in hindsight, "The Philosopher" was a great piece of music to get people into the band; from the now-iconic tapped guitar intro to the bizarre shifts in rhythm, "The Philosopher" was the sound of a band venturing into their bold and most adventurous territory yet. Throw in some of Steve DiGiorgio's finest (and finally more audible) bass work yet and Gene Hoglan's intricate drumming, and this song was a perfect appetizer - and closer - for its parent album, Individual Thought Patterns. The second album in Death's highly acclaimed "Final Four," this also might just be their most fascinating album as well.

The album itself is a formula nearly perfected, blending death metal, progressive metal, and even jazz fusion into a ten-song whirlwind of masterclass musicianship and multi-faceted lyrics. Chuck Schuldiner's songwriting was tighter than ever by this point, with the ability to pack so many riffs and twists in each song to vary their moods considerably. "Mentally Blind" is a perfect example, switching from a speed metal-influenced pre-chorus to a slow, atmospheric crawl in a matter of seconds without killing the song's pace. There are also a few welcome additions to Chuck's musical arsenal here, such as the beautifully written acoustic intro to "Destiny" (which would eventually be more fleshed out in 1998's "Voice of the Soul") and the Cynic-influenced "jazz metal" portions of "Trapped in the Corner." In fact, there's a LOT more jazz here than on Death's other albums, based on the guitar chords and rhythmic structures. The title track even gets a bit groovy in the pre-chorus, although it still benefits from some technical bass melodies underneath. You could also argue that this album, alongside Symbolic and The Sound of Perseverance is one of the Death albums most akin to classic progressive rock in style, as the band seemed to be gradually working themselves away from classic death metal to focus on a sound that's more intricate and diverse. But what makes it work in Individual Thought Patterns' favor is that it still retains the rawness of the previous albums in the process. It's like you're listening to the unpolished production values and jagged guitar work of Human combined with the epic compositions and progressive tendencies of Symbolic in one single package, which is pretty damn cool.

But, as I stated, the adventurousness is what makes this album especially notable in Death's discography. There's some genuinely surprising material here, so let me briefly list a few highlights:

-A Latin jazz portion in "Out of Touch" which sounds like Death's interpretation of Atheist -A melodic outro in "Nothing is Everything" that mixes catchy guitar leads with a chugging riff for a nice juxtaposition of sounds -A chromatic solo by Andy LaRocque in "Overactive Imagination" that sounds like an evil circus, followed by one of the album's jazziest riffs -The aforementioned acoustic portion of "Destiny" which beautifully kicks off the song and gives it an epic feel, along with some of that Latin flair in the lead guitar -Some very weird discordant harmonies and melodies in the intro/main riff of the title track, which somehow feel both natural and out-of-place at the same time -An extended bass solo in the outro of "The Philosopher," which takes up the last minute of its runtime -A breakdown in "Mentally Blind" that shows all the deathcore kiddies that you can still make a breakdown that's well-written while retaining its heaviness/distortion

Those are just a few of the interesting elements strewn about, and they're coupled with some of the best lyrics you'll ever hear on a Death (or death metal) album. Among the subjects covered are Schuldiner's perceptions of jealousy, social norms, and other realistic topics regarding the human experience. It's cool to hear concepts that started out on Spiritual Healing fleshed out so much in Death's later work, as well as hearing a band that really makes you think about the world around you and might even influence your perceptions of that world. Especially notable is "The Philosopher," which (as far as I can tell, at least) concerns people who think they know everything on their high-and-mighty proverbial pedestals, while never acknowledging the opinions and thoughts of others in their narrow-mindedness. Pretty sophisticated subject matter, to say the least.

While it's not quite my favorite record in Death's impressive catalog, Individual Thought Patterns does come incredibly close to that distinction regardless. It's such a fun album to listen to because of it's experimental and progressive nature, while showcasing an incredibly high quality of lyricism on top of all that. It doesn't reach the production polish of Symbolic, but it seems better off with the rawer production that was used, as it marries the album's instrumental complexity with some edge. Just trust me on this: if you're a death metal or progressive metal fan and you haven't listened to Individual Thought Patterns you're missing out on one of the best records from either genre.

AMORPHIS Circle

Album · 2013 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 3.88 | 24 ratings
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There's a number of bands who do the whole "discography consistency" shtick very well. Those very bands won't push themselves outside their comfort zone a great deal, but have a strong fanbase who's willing to defend them every step of the way; Amorphis happens to be one of those bands. When you pick up an Amorphis record, you usually know what to expect: melodic death metal with elements of doom metal, folk, and progressive rock. That's been their sound for years, and they haven't seemed to be changing things up very much. This brings us to their newest release, Circle; I'll just say it now... if you're expecting the band's big 180 turn that surprises everyone and brings in a boatload of new fans, you might be pretty disappointed. However, if you want an extremely consistent and expertly-crafted set of melodic metal tunes, stick around.

Though again revolving around the melo-death/doom/prog/folk formula, Amorphis do bring some new things to the table. The most noticeable element they place their emphasis on is the bombast; the expansive nature of Circle is just breath-taking at moments. Take the first thing you hear, "Shades of Gray," as an example; the record immediately lays a thick symphonic atmosphere as the song begins to assume a crawling doom-oriented tempo. It reminds me a lot of a more string-based version of "Greed" from the band's fourth effort Tuonela; a similar melody and style dominates the song, but with a bit more "oomph," if that makes sense. The reason for this is that this song, and the album as a whole, cut out a good chunk of the filler of previous Amorphis records. Despite the aforementioned bombastic sound of the record, the melodies are more fleshed out and the little details never get in the way of the structures of these songs. For instance, "Mission" is one of the shortest songs on the record and yet feels more accomplished than many of the group's past efforts. Beginning with an absolutely gorgeous melancholic piano introduction, the song transitions extremely fluidly to the triumphant riff that follows said intro. The clean vocals only add to this darkly lovely atmosphere while the piano makes a nice return in a sort of bridge that appears a little more than halfway in. Stuff like that is what makes this album work; the band combine little nuances with "epic" metal music to create something that's more cohesive and balanced than the sum of its parts.

That's not to say the band have lost any heaviness in their sound; in fact, many of these songs are even heavier than expected. "Hopeless Days" pummels the listener with a percussive guitar assault that's combined with slow-moving drum work similar to "Shades of Gray." The melodic chorus retains this heaviness while having the same climactic soaring vocals you'd generally expect from the band. That, and the growling is GREAT. Tomi Joutsen really outdid himself in the vocal department on this one, and the growling is no exception. My personal favorite songs in terms of his death growls are "Enchanted by the Moon" and "Nightbird's Song"; the former mixes Joutsen's deep devilish growling with a thick riff that's played over a swing-style drumbeat. "Nightbird's Song" both the clean and harsh vocals together over one of the more complex compositions on the record. Joutsen gets the tone just right; he utilizes whichever style fits the mood best, and you can tell that he knew what he was doing.

The most obvious flaw of this record is how predictable it is. There's no going around the fact that these guys know how to cater to their fans, but one must wonder when enough is enough and the group might have to alter their sound a bit. While this record is very well done, there is indeed a distinct feeling of "been-there-done-that" that's hard to ignore; Circle simply sounds like a refined edition of past glories. However, while this formula worked almost flawlessly for an album like Dead End Kings by Katatonia, this one is lacking something that's hard to describe, and it can't be given anything above my 4.0 rating because of it. Maybe it's in the riffs or the instrumentation, but it'd be nice for Amorphis to be a tad more ambitious with their future work. Sure, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," but it still seems like Amorphis could add a few more tricks the next time around. As it stands though, Circle is definitely worth the investment. It's got great melodies, a nice dark atmosphere, good quiet sentimental passages, and a sense of bombast that's more than welcome for a band like this. If you like melodic death metal, progressive metal, folk, or all three together, give this a listen.

VEKTOR Terminal Redux

Album · 2016 · Thrash Metal
Cover art 4.32 | 17 ratings
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To many, Vektor are essentially carrying the torch of modern thrash metal. It’s a completely understandable claim; the band have released three albums thus far, and each one of them has received a ridiculous amount of praise. The skeptics may deem the group a smidgen too reminiscent of Voivod, but I’d argue that the whole “progressive-thrash” concept is where that similarity begins and ends. Sure, there’s the space theme as well, but both bands deal with that idea in different ways. Whereas Voivod’s music is much more based around panic and confusion, Vektor take a more expansive and otherworldly approach to their atmosphere. That, and raspy black metal-esque vocals add a layer of extreme metal aesthetics to the prog-thrash core of their sound. Either way, whatever you may classify them as, Vektor is basically one of the most acclaimed thrash bands in years. So after Black Future and Outer Isolation, it seemed like they couldn’t take their sound any further, as well as the quality of their music.

I was dead wrong.

Terminal Redux feels like the musical equivalent of being lost in space and feeling insignificant to every star and planet around you. There’s not only an overarching darkness to the record, but such a strangely attractive beauty to it all. This is, of course, despite the amount of intense distortion and fast tempos you’d typically expect in Vektor’s chosen genre. While the beginning of “Charging the Void” suggests a frantic atmosphere to the following album, it’s soon realized that the band are especially keen on inserting moments that let the listener breathe and take in the majesty of the instrumental work. The highly melodic and catchy interlude “Mountains Above the Sun” is a perfect depiction of this, bringing a mellow respite (until the end of the track, at least) after three intense bangers. Speaking of those, I don’t think I’ve heard such a strong three opening tracks in a long time. “Charging the Void” immediately strikes with countless inventive thrash riffs, and before you know it, by the end of the song you’re hearing a goddamn choir singing along with David DiSanto’s shrieks. It’s all brought together by an overall song structure that’s highly progressive while maintaining a headbang-worthy slew of riffs. “Cygnus Terminal” keeps up with the standard of quality with a beautiful clean-guitar introduction and a few moments that somewhat borrow from jazz fusion due to the guitar chords, while “LCD” has an exceptional finger-tapped guitar motif that’s both technically impressive and appropriately spacey. One of the most remarkable things about Terminal Redux is that it never really dips in quality… and it’s 73 minutes long! Quite an astounding feat.

A big part of the album’s appeal is that, with every track, an interesting story is unfolding through David’s dense and complex lyrics. I haven’t been able to fully grasp the entirety of the tale, and the band haven’t totally explained it as of yet, but this is what I get from it: an individual comes to rule the Cygnus regime after rising to power because he found a supposed method to attaining immortality. However, considering some of the lines DiSanto delivers, the character’s views are likely controversial, most notably on “LCD” with lines like, “have them screened/we feed off their disease.” Regardless, the way the story is combined with such compelling instrumentation and vocals makes for a record that’s simply addicting to listen to. This is especially true of faster-paced songs like “Ultimate Artificer” and “Pillars of Sand,” which generate a sound more akin to classic 80s technical thrash while retaining the rest of the album’s songwriting complexity. Also, despite the tightness of the instrumental work, there’s a hint of irreverence once in a while; the climactic solo in the middle of “Pteropticon” combines classical elements with a touch of seemingly random dissonance, tapping into something more chaotic. This is one album that’s incredibly entertaining to listen to while reading the lyric booklet, if mostly to see how each stanza works in conjunction with the musical accompaniment. Of course, I can’t forget the other musicians alongside David DiSanto who make all of this possible. Erik Nelson blends with DiSanto effortlessly, and brings some experimental and even jazzy guitar leads to many of the tunes; the rhythm section of Frank Chin and Blake Anderson is also to be admired, particularly on the faster tracks which require a ton of stamina and intricacy to nail.

Everything eventually wraps up with the mindblowing closer “Recharging the Void,” a 13-minute epic that pulls together everything the album tried (and succeeded) to accomplish. The story started by “Charging the Void” comes full circle with many musical and lyrical nods to that very track. One of which is the melodic portion with the choir returning, but it’s been expanded to a full ballad portion with DiSanto showing off a beautifully calm vocal performance; in it, he sings: “All we ask is our story told.” Well the band’s story has been told. It was told in a 73-minute-long masterpiece, a sci-fi tale that’s gorgeous and compelling while being complex and brutal. I usually don’t hand out a perfect score to such new releases, but it’s the only score I can imagine lending to Terminal Redux. There’s not a single dud here, the story is exceptionally well-delivered and well-paced, and every musician is on-point. This, my friends, is a modern metal classic.

EMMURE Slave to the Game

Album · 2012 · Deathcore
Cover art 0.50 | 1 rating
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What's worse than a low-quality deathcore band? A low-quality deathcore band that doesn't make any legitimate attempt to evolve their sound or bring themselves out of the pool of mediocrity. Don't get me wrong; I'd be lying if I said I hated all deathcore, as bands like Carnifex and All Shall Perish are definitely above average. However, most of the genre's bands that have increased the quality of their material have done so by incorporating other genres and ideas (case in point: Carnifex having hints of black metal) into their formula.

With Emmure, it seems that there's been no escape from the incessant pummeling of their material from about 90% of the metalheads out there. Billed by many as a "Bro-core" band, Emmure have gotten constant criticism for their bland midtempo chugs, excessive breakdowns, and Fred Durst-inspired clean vocals, none of which have left from their repertoire. Unfortunately, their album "Slave to the Game" brings nothing new to the table and even manages to be worse than the majority of their work.

There's still plenty of "chugga-chugga"-esque riffing going on in drop A (and sometimes going down to G) tuning, with the repetitive guitar and drum work taking effect as usual. The biggest problem with the album, the one that sends it over the deep end, is how forced and lifeless the "experiments" are. On "Protoman" (most likely a reference to Mega Man, going with their love of video games), there are few instances of melody. However, once the silly vocal shouts and breakdowns come back into play, those instances go down the drain and are quickly forgotten, as they simply felt thrown in as a cheap way to break up the monotony.

The other thing that kills the album is just how much the repetition starts to drill through the listener's brain. The riffs are completely mind-numbing after the first few songs, and the overproduced guitar sound only gives more of an impression that the album was created in an assembly line instead of a real band creating it. Plus, it always seems like the band try to cover this up with pure heaviness, like in "Blackheart Reigns"'s breakdown. It is, in fact, heavy, but it isn't really as effective when it rambles on for the rest of the tune instead of picking itself back up for a more interesting ending. As with most of the album, it all relies on one guitar string to get the job done.

Honestly, that's about it. If you like "bro-downs," need a generic bottom-of-the-barrel deathcore fix, or want to hear what Limp Bizkit would sound like it they were a deathcore band, knock yourself out. Meanwhile, the rest of us will forget this album was ever released and listen to something far more substantial in the metal department... or, hell, any department.

GOJIRA Magma

Album · 2016 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 3.86 | 8 ratings
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If Gojira’s last effort L’Enfant Sauvage presented a more streamlined sound, Magma is the next step in stripping it down. Abandoning the technical death metal sound that got them popular in the metal world might seem like a betrayal to some, but I’ve always seen Gojira as more of a progressive metal band anyway. They’ve often eschewed the modern tech-death tag in favor of a sound that, while brutal, is heavily textured and dripping with atmosphere all the same. Gojira’s way of combining beautiful textures, chunky riffs, and impressive instrumental skills is simply infectious, especially in albums like The Way of All Flesh and The Link. But Magma is a bit of a different beast, as it opts for an alarmingly simple approach to their signature sound. The groove metal element is still retained, but there’s almost a post-metal quality about the way the album is presented. We now have much more buildup and subtle dynamic shifts in many of the tunes, and this is clear right from the slow-burning opener “Shooting Star,” a song which immediately brings a sense of minimalism to the forefront. During the verses, a single guitar/bass note is repeatedly being played at the bottom while Joe Duplantier’s clear vocals take charge above it. While “Silvera” picks up the pace substantially with Mario Duplantier’s technical drumming and swifter guitar chugs, “Shooting Star” is a clear foreshadowing of the album’s tone. Speaking of vocals, Joe’s clean vocals are much more prominent. Harsh singing is still present, but it’s more thrash-based in nature instead of being gravelly; basically Joe’s shouted vocals are especially frequent. In any case, it’s not like Gojira’s technical side has been entirely erased here, as moments like the punchy-yet-melodic “Silvera” or the amazingly intricate polyrhythmic intro of “The Cell” demonstrate.

But strange moments do pop up more than once as a result of the band’s stylistic shift. The somber instrumental piece “Yellow Stone” is certainly in character for the band, given how their melancholic guitar-driven interlude “The Silver Cord” from The Way of All Flesh sounded. But it still seems completely crazy that they would place an acoustic ambient/folk song at the very end of the album, especially one that lasts for as long as it does (almost 4 minutes, in this case). But “Liberation” does represent this album’s experimentation nicely, and the preceding track “Low Lands” is another odd song that emphasizes a doom-laden atmosphere and somber melodies over outright heaviness. If there are any songs here that represent Gojira’s more traditional sound from past albums, they would be “Silvera,” “Stranded,” and “Only Pain.” Here, you get to hear all the intense double-bass drumming, heavy guitar distortion from Duplantier and Christian Andreu, and bassist Jean-Michel Labadie’s monstrous grooves. This is most notably heard on the fantastic chorus of “Stranded” which subtly slides into a 6/4-time riff while Joe Duplantier belts out some of his most intense harsh vocals yet. But I feel as though the more adventurous songs are also the most exciting ones; they may seem simplistic at first, but despite (and partially because of) their minimalism, they command the listener’s full attention through their subtleties. It would also be sensible to mention the event that likely influenced much of this album’s tone and style: the tragic loss of Joe and Mario Duplantier’s mother, Patricia Rosa. So the somber and downbeat vibe of Magma would certainly make sense because of this as well. While I don’t think this is Gojira’s best record, and it definitely seems like a transitional one, it’s an incredibly exciting one at the same time. It can be tonally inconsistent once in a while, but the unusual experiments and minimalist songwriting choices definitely stick out in a genre filled with technical wizardry and complexity. Magma may be from a different Gojira than we’re used to, but it’s still an excellent piece of work.

OPETH Deliverance

Album · 2002 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 3.65 | 101 ratings
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It's fair to say that some bands are better within their comfort zone than others; from the moment Opeth's debut Orchid came out, their goal has presumably been to bring 70s progressive rock and folk-oriented beauty to the normally extreme nature of death metal. Whereas bands like Tristania and Within Temptation would use the "Beauty and the Beast" approach to contrasting vocal dynamics/styles, Opeth essentially brought this concept to their instrumentation. In one song alone, you could get a fast death metal riff, a soothing acoustic segment, some light jazz touches here and there in the soloing, the occasional classical detour, some occasional black metal screams (mainly in their early work), the list goes on. Well, around the time the band's fourth effort Still Life came out and had a more polished sound, it felt as though we were entering a new chapter in their career. While Blackwater Park was a more than solid successor to Still Life, sadly the following two efforts weren't.

Deliverance and Damnation were released to showcase the band's heavy side and light side, respectively. While Deliverance has a few songs similar to Damnation, its main focus is on heavy distorted riffing and an emphasis on Mikael Akerfeldt's inhuman growling. Damnation, on the other hand, was more focused on mellotron-laden 70s progressive rock with a strong emphasis on its melancholic atmosphere. While both albums are terribly flawed, Deliverance seems to be the weaker effort in the long run; why? Well, to get straight to the point, the album is split into two halves. One of them is great; the other one's awful. It's one of the very few albums I've ever heard where it's literally split down the middle in terms of quality, and it makes for an extremely frustrating and ultimately average experience.

The first half is where things really shine; here, we have "Wreath," the title track, and "A Fair Judgement." Every song here exceeds the ten-minute mark, some more deserving of a long length than others. "Wreath" is probably the song that suffers the most from length here, but at least there's enough to keep you on your toes. The beginning riff is definitely an odd way to open up an album for starters; while it has that 12/8 time signature Opeth is obsessed with, the drums are a bit off-kilter when combined with the guitar work. They constantly switch between a weird rhythm with off-beat snare drum placements and the typical swinging rhythm Opeth normally utilize. Anyway, while the beginning sounds quite intimidating, the song quickly goes into a melancholic set of melodic guitar patterns. Unfortunately, this part does go on for a bit too long and even the solos aren't really interesting enough to justify each set of chord changes. Luckily, a pretty nifty speed metal section (!) picks up the pace with a guitar solo that almost sounds middle-eastern in execution. Anyway, the song's flawed but definitely great. The reason so much of this writing was spent on "Wreath" is that the rest of the album is quite similar in style, for better or for worse. The only deviations from this are the more subdued piano-driven "A Fair Judgement" and the interlude "For Absent Friends." The title track, however, is the best example of the Opeth formula done well on this album. With a nice mix between wonderfully dissonant guitar patterns, sorrowful acoustic guitar picking at choice moments, and a healthy amount of tempo changes to spice things up, this song pretty marks the direction the overall album should have taken. The song also showcases Akerfeldt's clean vocals more, since the folkier moments almost always call for them; that's always a plus. The main riff sounds deliciously evil, switching between dissonant guitar melodies in different keys to create a dark and eerie mood. "A Fair Judgement" is the curveball of the album when you get down to it, trading in the growls and overall brutality for a beautiful piano ballad. While it does get louder later on, as power ballads go, the song keeps focus until the very end. Similar to Damnation, this song maintains a consistently sorrowful atmosphere as the cleanly-spaced piano chords are constantly ascending and descending between two keys to create "peaks and valleys" mood-wise. The overall piece is just as well composed as the two that came before it, and serves as a nice conclusion to Side 1.

Unfortunately, here's where the real shit begins. "For Absent Friends," "Master's Apprentices," and "By the Pain I See in Others" are the songs on the second side, and absolutely kill what the album might have been going for. "For Absent Friends," while refreshingly short, doesn't really have a purpose on the album other than being an average interlude. The continuation of the soft ballad-esque ideas from "A Fair Judgement" is nice, though. However, I can't even begin to describe how awful "Master's Apprentices" is. Not only does it just plod and plod and plod, but nothing about it leaves any impression whatsoever. It doesn't have nearly as much atmosphere as the title track, not nearly as much tempo variation as "Wreath," and certainly not nearly as much interest in dynamics as "A Fair Judgement" did. Most of the heavier portion of the song consists of multiple variations on its already-dull main riff, and the band members sound like they're simply going through the motions as there are never any instrumental surprises. The clean vocals around the 4-minute mark at least offer something different from the monotony, but that more-melodic section's very short-lived. As with many of their songs, the middle contains a folkier segment to lighten up the distortion, but it sounds like it could have been switched out with any other acoustic segment Opeth have performed. There's nothing really noteworthy except for some ambient guitar effects that arch over the acoustic strumming. The entire song is just plain horrendous, and it's baffling to me that it's still so acclaimed by the band's fanbase. "By the Pain I See in Others" isn't much better either, as it could have ended around the four-minute mark. Admittedly, the song doesn't start badly at all; in fact, the melodic line kicking it off sounds very inspired and suitably dark. The verses are a little odd, with distorted growling combined with soft acoustic guitar work, and the "choruses" (if you can call them that) are thunderous and almost akin to speed metal with the tempo they shift to. On top of this, the breakdown that follows is absolutely crushing, combining double bass and fast guitar picking with that speed metal-esque tempo mentioned before. However, this is where the song should have ended. The rest of the song is, for lack of a better way to say it, really damn boring. It rehashes all of the ideas from the previous songs and plods at the same time signature throughout. The soft moments are predictable and the heavy moments are extremely repetitive after being constantly thrown in your face.

It's a shame because this could have been one of Opeth's greatest albums. Unfortunately, this goes down as Opeth's worst effort because the second half brings it down completely. Even worse, Damnation isn't much better than this either; it would take the follow-up Ghost Reveries to get the band back on track before it was too late. As for this album, it's completely average; just download the first half and forget about the rest of it.

DEATH Spiritual Healing

Album · 1990 · Death Metal
Cover art 3.47 | 55 ratings
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There seems to be a growing number of people who consider the 1990 album Spiritual Healing to be Death's worst record, even deeming it clunky and unfocused. Personally, I still stand by my opinion that Scream Bloody Gore was the most lackluster offering by the band; it sounded more like a foreshadowing of future greatness than a great album itself. While follow-up Leprosy did its best to raise the stakes, Spiritual Healing still seems to improve things much further and hit almost all of the right notes. While it may not be the very best album of the Death canon, it is often overlooked and definitely deserves more praise than it gets.

So what do we get? Between eight tracks and forty-two minutes of non-stop death metal, the record flies by pretty quickly. Chuck Schuldiner's songwriting is still the main focus here, but plenty of new elements after predecessor Leprosy help this album succeed the way it does. First things first, the music is way more technical and intricate; many of the speed metal sections of Leprosy and Scream Bloody Gore, while still present, are toned down and usually replaced with rapid tempo shifts and frequent time signature changes. That, and the rhythms are usually quite unorthodox; the riff during the verse of the title track still throws me off now and again. More specifically, though, everything has tightened. The production sounds cleaner, the songwriting is actually more focused than people give it credit for, and Schuldiner was finally starting to ditch the gory lyrics in favor of more social and philosophical issues.

With that said, how are the songs? They follow the typical Death "verse/pre-chorus/chorus/solo/verse/pre-chorus/chorus/sudden stop" formula fans have come to expect by this point, but with the sort of forward-thinking attitude that makes this a great predecessor to Human. Schuldiner and co. were interested in progressing the band's sound, and it shows. It's probably best to start with the opening number "Living Monstrosity" because it's the first impression. As the mid-tempo riff starts up, you may realize the aforementioned tightness in the sound compared to Leprosy. One other thing to note is that Chuck's vocals are a touch odd, and are my main issue with the album. While they're not bad, there's an unsettling echo effect used on his voice that sounds pretty off-kilter compared to how organic the rest of the music is. However, going back to the song, it's an exceptionally strong opener, combining thrashy riffs, an emotional chorus that repeats the beginning motif to great effect, and an emotionally poignant solo that leads to Schuldiner's climactic lyric, "Some say she's naive; she's a stupid bitch." Blunt, but effective.

The other tracks are of a similar nature to "Living Monstrosity," but all have certain moments that set them apart from each other. For instance, after a rather complex riff pattern in "Low Life," a solo battle between Schuldiner and other guitarist James Murphy comes out of the blue. They both let their playing styles clash as a galloping thrash riff illustrates the background behind the two leads. Also worthy of noting is the doom-laden intro to "Altering the Future"; while the rest of the song is Death doing business as usual, the beginning sets a completely different tone, one of despair and a loss of hope. Even when the mid-tempo riff for the verse appears, the atmosphere set by the first thirty seconds continues to loom over the music long after it has concluded. Finally, there's the title track. Good God, the song is great. After a very Halloween-esque (seriously, it sounds eerily close to something out of the main theme from the Halloween movies) intro, the rest of the song is absolutely jam-packed with those "certain moments" I mentioned, the ones that set it apart from other songs on the album. How about the unorthodox riff that manages to be in 4/4 time, and yet has some of the most off-kilter drum work in Death's discography? How about the constant tempo-switches during the speed metal portions? How about the chilling chorus with rapid guitar runs and Schuldiner screaming the song's title? Great moments are littered throughout the song, making the whole thing an absolute highlight.

There's not much else more to say, really. Spiritual Healing is a delightful slice of death metal, as well as a great illustration of how Death were progressing as a group and an entity. While later albums like The Sound of Perseverance and Individual Thought Patterns would come to surpass it, the album has aged very well and remains an early technical death metal classic even after so many years.

P.S.: What the hell is up with that silly album cover?

MESHUGGAH obZen

Album · 2008 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 3.42 | 46 ratings
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If there's anything a band like Meshuggah's especially known for, it's how consistent they've been with their sound over the years. Much of their work has used their second effort Destroy Erase Improve as the general template, subtly evolving in different ways with each passing record. Unfortunately, one negative aspect of such a strategy is the band's tendency of sounding a touch too repetitive and sometimes resting on their laurels. Their 2005 album Catch Thirtythree, while boasting hints of jazz fusion, was a good example of the group's sound starting to become somewhat stale. So what did the Swedish metal legends unleash with 2009's Obzen? Absolute trash.

Meshuggah have always been a highly regarded group in terms of the instrumentalists' talents, but that does have the occasion of backfiring on a band; unfortunately, that is exactly the case with Obzen. Everything sounds too calculated, too artificial, too cold. While this style is present in other genres/bands (obviously technical death metal is generally infamous for such an approach), almost all of Obzen sounds as if it wasn't recorded by a band, but rather an assembly line of musical parts. The semblance of passion and general energy of previous records is replaced by robotic, by-the-numbers extreme metal that's almost completely devoid of any surprises or stand-out moments (or stand-out tracks, for that matter).

Fortunately, the shining light leading the darkness is the opening number "Combustion." The track is reminiscent of older Meshuggah records such as Contradictions Collapse or the aforementioned Destroy Erase Improve, opting for an extremely thrash-esque method of starting the album. Jens Kidman's voice sounds as angry as ever, and the musicians play with an exceptionally commanding presence. The solo is also a nice aspect, highlighting Frederik Thordendal's agility while also showcasing a nice sense of variety in his playing. Unfortunately though, the song only lasts four minutes. The album that follows is an overly homogeneous trainwreck that is only saved by a few choice moments.

While the band members do nothing particularly offensive to get such a low rating, my biggest criticism comes right down to the songwriting itself. Much of the album appears to be on autopilot, right down to the riffs that these songs revolve around. Let's take the title track, for example; while the doomy nature of the opening A-tuned riff is promising, the first "verse" section is completely uninteresting and leaves a lot to be desired. Jens' vocals sound too aggressive for what's being played, and lack of any embellishments to add to the precise riff make the portion sound unfinished and even unneeded. Moments like these are littered about the album, perhaps reaching a peak with the biggest travesty on the album, "Bleed." "Bleed," considered by many to be one of Meshuggah's greatest songs in their most recent work, leaves me completely baffled about why it is so revered. While repetition can be done extremely well in music (see: Opeth, Earth, Lightning Bolt, etc.), "Bleed" preys on one's boredom much more quickly. The main motif is very bland and leaves little to the imagination, and while Thomas Haake's drumming is usually a highlight in the band's music, it's tough to get invested in his drumming on this one. Even when the song speeds up, everything sounds just as mechanical as it did before. The polyrhythms in the song aren't particularly interesting, especially when the band pounds them into your head 50,000 times, and the solo happens to be one of the tune's only saving graces. On top of all this, the song is over seven minutes long... again, not a very wise investment in the long run.

Considering so much of the review was spent on just a few songs and the vast majority of the album contains the same style, you can imagine I have an absolute trove of problems with this record. Judging by the 1.5, this is definitely true, but I must mention that I didn't want to hate this album. You may not take issue with what criticisms I brought up, and if not, more power to you; the album certainly managed to strike a chord with a large amount of metal fans. I, for one, find it to be a pretty atrocious and dispassionate piece of blandness. Despite the band members' talents, the record they made is an exercise in pure frustration and unnecessary repetition.

OPETH Damnation

Album · 2003 · Non-Metal
Cover art 3.80 | 109 ratings
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Immersion can be such a wonderful thing in literature and music. It’s great in movies and other visual mediums as well, but when you eliminate the visuals entirely and force the audience to let themselves envision the world the artist has created, individual interpretation has a magic of its own. I’ve often seen myself gravitating toward the atmosphere of an album because of this, as well as the fact that it creates a tangible environment to explore (so to speak) with the ears. With Morning View by Incubus, I imagine myself resting on a beach watching the waves go by. Homogenic by Bjork gives off the feeling of walking along an icy tundra because of its sweeping strings and the overall tone. Well, with Opeth’s Damnation, two themes always come through without a doubt: contemplation, and pure unadulterated melancholy.

After an impressive string of well-crafted progressive death metal albums, frontman Mikael Akerfeldt thought it would be interesting to create two polar opposites musically. Deliverance would focus on the band’s heavier side, going on to be one of their harshest and darkest recordings, while Damnation would be entirely devoid of death growls or any form of metal. I can only imagine how much this split the band’s fans at the time of its release, as Damnation’s tonal and dynamic shift was easily their biggest stylistic departure up to that time. Now we have Heritage and Pale Communion nodding to the band’s 70s progressive rock roots and stirring up the fanbase even more, but Damnation points to a palatable blend of classic progressive rock, folk rock, soft rock, and some symphonic elements here and there. It still remains Opeth’s most subdued recording to date, and the melancholic vibe is strong in this one that its presence seeps into every song in some way and enhances the emotional resonance beyond just the songcraft. In fact, the black and white album cover, depicting a doll and a wooden desk, is a perfect companion piece to the music within.

Steven Wilson is, once again, at the helm of production (as well as various instruments such as the keyboard and mellotron), and his work is immaculate here. The instruments blend together phenomenally, especially heightening the chemistry between the guitar and bass work throughout the record. For instance, songs such as “Windowpane” and “Ending Credits” are able to layer keyboards, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, and bass work on top of each other without muddling the sound in the slightest. Despite this, the band still capture a sort of contemplative and sparse atmosphere that captures both a sense of bleakness and resignation. “Weakness,” which is an incredibly minimalist duet between Wilson and Akerfeldt, captures the vibe perfectly because of how the keyboard and guitar tones mix. Of course, we can’t forget Mikael’s strong vocal performances, either. His voice sounds dreary and calm, but never in a way that it sounds as though he’s lazy or careless. It’s simply subdued, and melds well with the soft dynamics of each piece; in fact, the harmonies on this album are just gorgeous! There’s one section in “Hope Leaves” that always strikes me as particularly beautiful, in which about 4 or 5-part vocal harmony actually fades into the next instrumental section after the chorus. Little subtleties like that go a long way on this record.

The other members are great as well; Peter Lindgren, Martin Mendez, and Martin Lopez (on guitar, bass, and drums respectively) display both restraint and a decent amount of technicality at the same time, which is a tough balance to effectively pull off. Mendez, in particular, gives a strong bass performance that’s in the foreground much more frequently than in most other Opeth albums; his work on “Windowpane,” “Closure,” and “Death Whispered a Lullaby” is especially strong. As for the lyrics, they’re a bit stripped down this time around in comparison to albums like Blackwater Park or Still Life, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. They might be simplistic and lack some of the incredibly detailed imagery of the past, but the more personal and intimate writings heard here seem very fitting for a softer and more somber piece of work. Even Steven Wilson’s lyrical contribution, “Death Whispered a Lullaby,” is pretty decent; if more Porcupine Tree songs had excerpts such as “Into the dark, there are eyelids closing/buried alive in the shifting sands,” instead of crap like “Xbox is a god to me/a finger on the switch, my mother is a bitch/my father gave up ever trying to talk to me,” I’d certainly enjoy that.

Unfortunately Damnation does get a bit repetitive and homogeneous after a while. The band do their best to try and shake things up, but songs such as “To Rid the Disease” and especially “Ending Credits” just don’t do much for me. The latter seems completely unnecessary, totally hampered by needlessly dull songwriting and highly uneventful passages. Not only that, but it seems bizarre that a song named “Ending Credits,” which sounds like the musical version of a curtain call (especially as an instrumental with a fade-in and gradual fade-out), is the penultimate song here. That’s not taking anything away from “Weakness”, however, which is a great closer. As for “To Rid the Disease,” it’s actually a decent song, but the second half is quite a drag compared to the first. The piano playing by Steven Wilson is a nice touch in the background, but the instrumental flourishes aren’t very interesting and become increasingly dull. “Closure” also has a long outro, but the drumming has become much more lively and the instrumental work is actually quite technically challenging in this section. With the exception of “Hope Leaves,” I prefer the first half of Damnation by a pretty wide margin.

Either way, I can’t deny that this album has grown on me over time. It’s flawed, certainly, but the atmosphere is beautiful in its somberness and the songwriting is top-notch in most of the songs. The reason I consider Damnation a better record than other classic prog Opeth albums like Heritage and Pale Communion is because it seems like less of a blatant throwback and more of a 70s prog-influenced piece with its own identity. Basically, it’s the same old Opeth meeting the old prog legends with a passionate love letter… it might pay tribute to the classics, but it’s still distinctly Opeth. If you enjoy classic 70s progressive rock or want to hear a softer version of Opeth’s typical sound, I suggest giving this a try. It might be a jarring shift in style for the band, but make no mistake: this is the same band, just adorning a different, refreshing coat of paint.

QUEEN Queen II

Album · 1974 · Proto-Metal
Cover art 4.03 | 49 ratings
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I like to see progressive rock epics and albums as rock's own answer to classical symphonies and suites... complex, multifaceted, and brimming with technical skill. With the help of bands like Kansas, Genesis, Yes, and whoever else gets categorized in so-called "symphonic prog," 70s prog was able to be played on heavy rotation by those who didn't want to listen to the more simplistic forms of rock at the time. However, 70s-era Queen were always of a different breed. Yes, their music was complex. Yes, it was multifaceted. Yes, it contained varying time signatures. But what was so different? What really stood out? The charisma and bombast.

Freddie Mercury and co. were one of the very few acts to marry the complexity of prog with the mainstream success and streamlined nature of pop almost perfectly, something even Supertramp couldn't fully pull off (but they tried their best, that's for sure). "Queen" is such a fitting name for a group who could pull off pomp and eccentricity with such elegance and taste... and of course, there's the eclectic genre-bending involved as well. The band tried ragtime, hard rock, classical, jazz, gospel, metal, you name it. Oh sure, it felt a bit forced and out-of-control on occasion, but you can't really blame a band who are trying to expand the normal confines of hard rock. But here's the craziest thing: the album that only began to develop Queen's signature sound also happened to be one of their very best... perhaps their best, in fact. That, my friends, is Queen II.

Make no mistake, this is a full-fledged progressive rock album. Multitracked vocal harmonies run rampant, time signatures change quite frequently, and the band's signature stylistic shifts are here in full-form. Right from the dark funeral-like guitar overdubs of "Procession," you know you're in for a pretty unusual record from the get go; even more unique is the way the band had set up this epic album. First is Brian May's "white" side of the album which focuses on more beautiful and light tunes, whereas Mercury's "black" side is absolutely warped, outrageously bombastic, and extremely dark. With that said, let's just say that you shouldn't expect a whole lotta camp from this one like in later Queen works. Most of the material here replaces the band's usual humor and lightheartedness with more dramatic lyricism, much of it focusing on fantasy-influenced storytelling. Expect a dark record through and through, basically.

Aside from that, though, the real draw is in how well everyone in the band works in tandem with each other. John Deacon's bass perfectly compliments Freddie's piano playing in the somber "Nevermore," just like how Brian May's heavy guitar riffing and Roger Taylor's hollow and rough drum sound are a great fit in a hard-hitting song like "The Loser in the End." There's a genuine chemistry between the band members, something that seemed so powerful even in this phase of their career. Also, this is the first album in which the group's layered vocal harmonies came into high prominence, and they couldn't feel more welcome with the grandiose arrangements. The slow buildup in "Ogre Battle" leads into an incredibly loud burst of vocal bombast that has to be heard to be believed, and "March of the Black Queen"'s use of counterpoint brings out many highlights of this nature as well. That's not to say there aren't poppier or more tightly packed arrangements on here as well, as "Seven Seas of Rhye" and "Funny How Love Is" can prove, and these are placed right at the end to bring an optimistic end to a beautifully dark journey.

If Queen's debut was their set of musical blueprints, this is the towering skyscraper they were arranged to construct... and indeed it towers over most of its contemporaries, progressive rock or otherwise. It's beautiful, brutal, dark, florid, complex, and everything in between. But above all, it's simply a masterpiece. The combination of instrumental prowess and emotional depth is breathtaking... and to think that this was only the band's second record! It was clear that Queen's future would be bright, but it's cool to know that they had already mastered their craft early on; in any case, get this. I don't care if you enjoy rock, pop, classical, jazz, whatever. Just get this.

STEEL PANTHER All You Can Eat

Album · 2014 · Glam Metal
Cover art 4.45 | 2 ratings
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"Fuck the Goo Goo Dolls, they can suck my balls They look like the dorks that hang out at the mall Eminem can suck it, so can Dr. Dre They can suck each other, just because they're gay"

From their famous first words, I think most of us knew that Steel Panther would be something special. While they made a previous album as the band Metal Shop, 2009's Feel the Steel is generally considered to be the band's official debut and their real breakthrough record. Right from the beginning, Michael Starr and co. have been striving to make some of the most vulgar and hilarious modern rock out there, all while showcasing very genuine instrumental talent in the process; sort of like the glam metal version of Psychostick except arguably funnier. Unfortunately, while the band's previous record Balls Out was a solid follow-up to Feel the Steel, it wasn't as much of an outrageous leap forward lyrically or musically as its predecessor was. The jokes were funny (particularly the Tiger Woods ones) but not as quite as memorable. The music was solid and full of fun riffs, but seemed a little bit safe. So how do Steel Panther follow up this (very) slight regression? Way more vulgarity!!!

All You Can Eat is easily the band's funniest and most diverse offering to date, their confidence coming out in full force this time around. While staying within the glam metal/hard rock framework of previous works, Steel Panther include a few notable surprises this time around. "The Burden of Being Wonderful" is probably the most interesting departure, ditching Satchel's normal heavy riffing for a more synth-laden symphonic sound with lead guitar work sprinkled a bit over the top. Some songs' instrumental qualities perfectly mirror their subject matter, like "Bukkake Tears" having the makings of a melancholic power ballad while describing the female's regrets over... uh... the titular act. Other songs end up opting for a heavier route than we're used to for this band, particularly "If I Was the King" and "Gloryhole" which both using a more double bass-driven drum approach in their riffs and showcase Satchel's more aggressive guitar licks. While the band's lyrics are still the highlight here, it's always worth mentioning the band's instrumental abilities relative to the "comedy metal" movement.

Lyrically, the ante has seriously been upped here. While you get the regular jokes about fucking, whores, STDs, and other typical subjects for the band, we now have lyrics pertaining to bukkake, sex with the elderly, even more self-indulgence and hedonism, and other ridiculous acts to toss more wood in the bonfire. Michael Starr's deliveries are just as charismatic as ever; you can't say the man is afraid of not holding back when he proudly sings lines like "The place was packed with wrinkly boobies and dicks; The youngest one there was maybe 76." There are, however, songs like "Party Like Tomorrow is the End of the World" and "You're Beautiful When You Don't Talk" which are on the slightly safer side lyrically (well, for them anyway), the former going for the fun party atmosphere the band usually bring out anyway in their music. When you get down to it, All You Can Eat is just another great offering by the band... but in some ways, it just goes further than that. This album is just so damn fun, even when compared to the group's other albums. Despite sounding similar to them and simply expanding upon the band's previous work, this one is overall more consistent with its jokes and more diverse with its musical offerings. Especially when compared to Balls Out, this is a powerful double penetration of both hilariously vulgar lines and bitchin' riffage that just can't be ignored. Other than being slightly too safe in certain spots, there's really no flaw to be found here. If you liked the band's last albums, you'll love this one... simple as that.

Take it away, Michael Starr! What would you do if you were a king???

"I'd knock down all the schools And put up licquor stores And give free boobjobs to the strippers and the whores I would outlaw common sense Feed the homeless to the wolves And if you didn't like Steel Panther you'd go to jail!"

Damn straight.

(Originally published on Sputnikmusic)

STEEL PANTHER Feel the Steel

Album · 2009 · Glam Metal
Cover art 2.60 | 6 ratings
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Remember The Darkness? They're a British retro hard rock band with a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor about their music. They are essentially a modern-day Queen with more emphasis on laughs and quite a bit less on musical quality. One could be forgiven for initially thinking that Steel Panther is the American equivalent to The Darkness, but this band goes further. They don't just place subtle sexual references and mildly offensive lyrics... no, they are very upfront, with topics ranging from dicks, tits, hookers, cocaine, and the like.

And does the music have to suffer from any of this? Nope. Steel Panther may be parodying glam metal, but their modern production and extra-heavy edge makes them far more entertaining to listen to than any Poison or Warrant song I've ever listened to. Additionally, the band members seem more skillful at their instruments, particularly guitarist Satchel. It's also hard to believe that vocalist Michael Starr is still able to belt it out so well in his mid-to-late 40's. Lexxi Foxxx and Stix Zadania do a commendable job in the rhythm section as well.

What better opener could there be than "Death to All but Metal" for an album like this? The song sees the band yearning for the old days of 80's metal bands and basically deriding more modern acts like 50 Cent. The whole song is hilarious, and the double bass drumming and extra guitar distortion make this one of the heaviest songs on the album. It's not like "Asian Hooker" tones things down either... the song is exactly what the title says: going to Asia and fucking a bunch of hookers, all while getting high. Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian gives the song a nice heavy groove, while the Asian synthesizer effect makes the humor all the more present.

Unfortunately, there's a bit of a dull patch in the middle... "Fat Girl" and "Party All Day (Fuck All Night)" aren't bad songs, but they're not really as memorable. The former is a power ballad that is only funny in certain places before the joke wears thin, and at over 4 minutes, the "fat" premise gets a bit old. The latter, while it has Justin Hawkins making a cameo, is also a bit boring, following the Bon Jovi premise a little too closely. The solo is also a bit bland and could have brought more variety to the table.

Fortunately, the last four songs REALLY pick up the pace. "Turn Out the Lights", while quite morbid, is a fantastic rocker with surprisingly solid guest vocals from Avenged Sevenfold frontman M. Shadows. Also notable is album closer "Girl from Oklahoma", which is an all-acoustic ballad complete with a Latin-flavored solo from Satchel. However, the sentimental feel is obviously played for irony as Micheal sings about a groupie "sucking his balls all night". The song is a BRILLIANT way to finish the album.

There have been many sub-par comedy albums, mainly stemming from boring crude humor that's been played a thousand times. Thankfully, Steel Panther is willing to pick up the torch with something fresh... and for that, we should be very grateful. So my parting words are: rock out with your cock out!

(Originally published on Sputnikmusic)

ULVER Shadows Of The Sun

Album · 2007 · Non-Metal
Cover art 4.23 | 8 ratings
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The album cover for Shadows of the Sun might have come from a picture in Natural History Magazine, but I can't think of a more fitting image to represent such a melancholic piece of art. Since abandoning their black metal roots, Ulver have created a great deal of forward-thinking electronic and ambient music that completely contradicts the first phase of their career (sans Kveldssenger) by abandoning metal altogether. However, one thing has never changed: Ulver's music is fucking dark. No matter what genre they attempt with each passing release, the bleak atmosphere of their work is always something that sticks out, much like Agalloch or Corrupted. However, Shadows of the Sun managed to go the extra mile, particularly by stripping down their sound from the bombast and general loudness that pervaded much of Blood Inside. In fact, this was the first record by the band since Kveldssenger to be so low-key and somber... and it worked beautifully.

One of Ulver's greatest strengths is that they truly know how to create a musical setting and mood, and Shadows of the Sun may be the best example of this. A bevy of instruments come together to enhance the album's variety, such as a trumpet, theremin, cellos, violins/violas, and various guitars; however, it all comes together with the powerful vocals of frontman Garm. It's hard to believe that this guy once performed primarily with black metal shrieks (mainly with Nattens Madrigal), because his somber vocal work here is simply incredible to experience. The way his performances lift songs such as the title track and the Black Sabbath cover "Solitude" is worth the price of admission alone, but the highlights of his vocals come with the layered harmonies he brings to certain tracks. "Eos," which is already a superb song because of its subtle variation and use of minimalism, features some of the best vocal harmonies in modern music. Garm said he was influenced by the harmonies of The Beach Boys for much of his singing on the record, and it's interesting to hear him create such dark soundscapes from the aspects of an often cheery band.

Beyond this, what I love about Shadows of the Sun is how scaled back everything is. It seems as though the members were incredibly selective about the instruments used here, especially regarding the limited percussion. In fact, songs such as "Eos" and "Like Music" have no drumming or electronic beats whatsoever; they are only propelled by piano, strings, synthesizers, and such. The songs that do have percussion, like the title track and especially "All the Love," create busy drum work around repetitive and droning rhythms to convey a lot of variety beneath the soft dynamics. The entire record truly feels like a cohesive experience, but the clean and warm production ensures that the album is best heard through headphones; in fact, despite how bleak and depressing the whole thing is, the music is surprisingly warm and comforting at the same time. Perhaps it's because of Garm's soothing vocal melodies or the uniquely tangible tone of the piano, but I feel as though the production is still the biggest reason. Every instrument feels as though it's enveloping you in each distinct atmosphere, and there's almost a vintage ambience to it all. In the end, however, what cements Shadows of the Sun as one of Ulver's best albums is its consistency. The record knows what it is at all times; there aren't many surprises or weird frills, but for a record this dark and low-key, I'd say that's a good thing. The atmosphere is consistent, the ambient instrumentation is consistent, the vocal work is consistent, and yet every track has something different to offer. Want a more instrumentally-involved piece with percussion (albeit slow percussion)? "All the Love" and the title track. Want something more droning and minimalist? "Eos" and "Funebre." Want a lot more piano work? "Like Music," "Vigil," and "Solitude." When you get down to it, Shadows of the Sun is just an amazing piece of work. It's emotional, unique, beautiful, and well-composed. If you enjoy quiet and somber music, you owe it to yourself to buy this. Now.

(Originally published on Sputnikmusic)

L7 L7

Album · 1988 · Hard Rock
Cover art 4.00 | 2 ratings
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If you haven't listened to L7, I can't blame you. They were one of the many rock acts of the 90s who had one or two big hits and then fell off the face of the map. For these rock/metal babes, that song was "Pretend We're Dead," one of the finest anthems of apathy and alternative coolness that came out around then. There could have been worse L7 songs to get so popular, but as with many bands who only have a few major hits, the track doesn't really represent every side of the band. If I told you that L7 was a huge influence to the punk-based riot grrrl movement and you only had the slow grungy riffage of "Pretend We're Dead" as proof, you probably wouldn't believe that statement. No, at the core, L7 are really punk rockers. They came out of the L.A. punk scene (even guesting on Bad Religion's Suffer!) and their early work definitely reflects this. While everything they did from Smell the Magic onward marked a transition from punk to straight-up metal, their debut album is pretty much a full-fledged punk album.

Right off the bat, one of the most impressive things about L7 is the band's chemistry. Drummer Dee Plakas wasn't on this recording, being preceded by Roy Koutsky for this release, but the rest of the line-up are perfectly matched as they blaze through each track. As is typical for many classic and hardcore punk albums, many of the songs on here are short bursts of energy that, despite their length, still leave quite an impression. One listen to the Suzi Gardner-written "Bite the Wax Tadpole" shows just how intense and energetic this band were in their early years. The screaming from Gardner and Donita Sparks is bloodcurdling as it combines with hard-hitting riffs and much faster speeds than in the band's later material. There are some notable exceptions to this, such as the slow-building and lengthy "Uncle Bob" or the more vocally seductive and grunge-inspired "Snake Handler," but for the most part, this is just fast straightforward punk music. Hell, "Metal Stampede" pretty much adopts a thrash tempo during a few sections!

But really, it's the three main members of the band who make it kick so much ass. Jennifer Finch already displays her talent on the bass guitar with her speed and even versatility (impressive, considering she's the youngest member of the band and was in her early 20s), while Suzi and Donita just rip through these songs with ease. Their guitar tone is just fantastic here, maintaining both clarity and sort of a buzzing rawness that keeps the distortion levels quite high. Songs like "Let's Rock Tonight" and "Uncle Bob" are cases in which the amount of guitar feedback is one of their main draws. Roy also does a good job on the drums, providing some good fills here and there; however, it's pretty obvious why Dee would come in soon, as she truly does a better job behind the kit. Ultimately, the one thing that holds the album back from being a classic is probably what you'd imagine it is: L7 didn't fully develop their sound at this point. The chemistry is there in spades, but there's a slight lack of personality in some of the tracks; this would be fixed right up with Smell the Magic.

But still, L7 is a fantastic record. It's a short but memorable blast of punk rock energy that, while perhaps not being the best representation of their sound, certainly shows how much their time hanging out with Bad Religion and Epitaph Records paid off. What it lacks in depth and maturity, it makes up with sheer intensity and rawness. When you get down to it, this is a really fun album, and just as worthy of multiple repeats as much of L7's other work. If you like 80s/90s punk music or want to hear a huge component in riot grrrl's development, this is up your alley.

(Originally published on Sputnikmusic.com)

NICKELBACK Silver Side Up

Album · 2001 · Hard Rock
Cover art 2.85 | 12 ratings
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There was once a time in which post-grunge was actually considered a worthy successor to its parent subgenre grunge. Artists like Foo Fighters, Collective Soul, and Alanis Morissette began this new sound on the right foot, retaining much of grunge's distortion and intensity while utilizing more accessible song structures in the process. Things certainly got more bland and generic during the 2000s with bands like Puddle of Mudd, Theory of a Deadman, and Seether leading the charge, but little did people expect the explosion in sales and overall popularity from another up-and-coming act. Hailing from Canada, they are known as Nickelback.

What many people don't know is that Nickelback actually started as a straight-up grunge band, their first few releases Hesher and Curb having a much more distorted and heavy sound than in their later work. Unfortunately, this material was a bit bland and uninteresting for its subgenre and frontman Chad Kroeger's highly recognizable vocal style wasn't fully developed by this point. But with each successive release, their songwriting got a bit more fleshed out and you could see glimpses of the worldwide phenomenon they would become in the 2000s. Well, despite their career lasting for 20 years, they've never quite been able to replicate the success of their 2001 album Silver Side Up.

Nickelback's third effort was a huge leap up from The State, both in quality and sales... and why shouldn't it? The album's smash hit "How You Remind Me" was not only an iconic track for the band, but it was that for a reason. The song really represents the band's finest work, being highly melodic and catchy without abandoning the stronger elements of their first two records. The mix of intensity and poppy polish was infectious; luckily, the album it accompanies is quite good as well. Unlike Nickelback's later work, Silver Side Up fully embraces its alternative metal sound with much smaller room for ballads. In fact, "How You Remind Me" is among the softest tracks on this record, with heavy bangers like opener "Never Again" and "Just For" being much more prominent here. The songwriting is extremely tight and highly varied in its dynamics, offering soft verses and loud choruses in a move similar to Nirvana's work on Nevermind; however, it's usually not to the point of sounding too derivative.

Either way, what makes Silver Side Up so strong largely stems from the heavier songs. The songs are not necessarily technical marvels by any means, but Nickelback make up for it with songwriting consistency and some of Chad Kroeger's best vocal performances to date. The latter is especially notable in songs like "Never Again" and "Hollywood" in which Kroeger's voice really soars in the choruses, a great contrast to his more subdued and laid-back verses; this is a common post-grunge technique, but works quite well this time around because of Kroeger's charisma and overall presence in these songs. But in the end, it all comes down to the craftsmanship of the songs. "Just For" is still my favorite on here because of that great syncopated main riff; the F-minor motif is so catchy, but retains a distorted quality to maintain its edge throughout. "Too Bad" is also fantastic, the loud and climactic chorus being a wonderful payoff following such emotive and subtle verses; plus, its lyrics of poverty and abandonment are some of the most touching in the band's career. Naturally, some of the weakest tracks on here are the ones that bring out the more generic side of post-grunge music; "Where Do I Hide" and "Hangnail" are definitely those songs, sounding more like Theory of a Deadman's flavorless leftovers (I can see why Chad Kroeger would eventually work with them on their debut) than songs Nickelback really put their hearts into.

In fact, the second half of Silver Side Up as a whole doesn't always live up to classics like "How You Remind Me" or "Just For." It starts to sound as though the band are on autopilot, something that would unfortunately plague their work more drastically in the future. Despite this, I still think it's a very enjoyable little piece of post-grunge history. Is it life-changing? Of course not. But the songwriting can be quite excellent at times and the variety can be surprisingly strong when considering how many mid-tempo alternative metal songs are here. Overall, I'd recommend at least one listen if you're curious about Nickelback's beginnings as a worldwide smash, because this is certainly them at their finest.

(Originally published on Sputnikmusic.com)

PORCUPINE TREE Stupid Dream

Album · 1999 · Non-Metal
Cover art 3.68 | 16 ratings
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Porcupine Tree have always been a bit of an oddity in the progressive rock world. Sure, they've experimented with many other genres to date, but not many bands in the musical style can lay claim to such an accessible and inviting sound in the process. Of course their 90s work is a bit more obscure and inaccessible because of Steven Wilson's psychedelic offerings, but with Signify, the band hit a turning point. A more band-oriented approach was taken, a more streamlined style was introduced (although still psychedelic, mind you), and the the switch in sounds was quite surprising to the fans of Porcupine Tree's more sprawling early work. And then if that wasn't enough, Stupid Dream was released.

Stupid Dream is basically Wilson's first foray into more commercial pop and alternative rock music, complete with shorter songs and much cleaner musical arrangements. The instrumental work is incredibly tight and crisp, but many of the songs are much more uplifting in tone (especially "Stranger by the Minute" and "Piano Lessons") despite some very depressing lyrical themes. Traces of the old Porcupine Tree sound are definitely present, especially in longer tracks such as "Tinto Brass" and "Don't Hate Me," but I really enjoy the balance presented here between alternative rock and hints of progressive rock; other than the band's next offering Lightbulb Sun, this mix can't really be heard as prominently as in other releases by the band. The lyrics also happen to be a strength of the record despite Wilson's unfortunate track record of having consistently weak lyrical work in other records, ranging from subjects such as survival ("A Smart Kid"), tragedy ("This is No Rehearsal"), complacency ("Stop Swimming"), and multiple other subjects throughout the experience. Interestingly enough, however, the atmosphere of the record usually remains pretty sunny and light, making the whole thing a comfortable entry for newcomers to progressive rock music in general. However, just as with most Porcupine Tree albums, there are still many complexities and inner-workings that serve to make Stupid Dream a compelling listen; Richard Barbieri in particular has wonderfully layered keyboard work that melds wonderfully with Wilson's melodic guitar lines. The production is also a strong reason for this, being exceptionally lush while highlighting every instrument perfectly; it's clean, but has enough edge during the heavier and more distorted moments.

The album is essentially split between what you would call the "singles" in structure and style, and the more sprawling progressive tracks such as the aforementioned "Don't Hate Me" and "Tinto Brass," much like Lightbulb Sun that came after it. "Piano Lessons" is pretty much the most accessible and fun track on here, with an incredibly poppy piano arrangement and Steven Wilson's melodic vocal work, while "Stranger by the Minute" and "This is No Rehearsal" follow suit (despite the depressing subject matter of the latter). On the more complex side, "Don't Hate Me" and "Even Less" are fantastic numbers with a ton of instrumental buildup to their melancholic songwriting. In fact, "Don't Hate Me" even has a killer saxophone solo and lots of jazz elements during the middle portion! "Tinto Brass," on the other hand, is less impressive; it basically sounds like meandering left-overs from the Signify album and doesn't fit the atmosphere of the album very well. "Baby Dream in Cellophane" is also quite weak, being one of the blander ballads in Porcupine Tree's catalog despite combining both depressing and uplifting moments pretty decently. Despite this, the thing that perhaps solidifies Stupid Dream as one of Porcupine Tree's stronger records is that, even with the catchy alternative portions, the album doesn't sound complacent or lazy when viewed as a successor to Signify... it merely comes off as a logical progression. "A Smart Kid" is probably the best way to view the evolution, as it is perhaps the most beautiful tune in Steven Wilson's entire discography; the acoustic portions are wonderfully minimalistic, and the catharsis reached by the more climactic chorus is truly a sound to behold because of the layered instrumentation and Wilson's emotive vocals.

Stupid Dream is pretty much the definition of a transitional record (along with Signify), but it's a damn good transitional record. The balance between emotion, accessibility and complexity, which is key to the Porcupine Tree formula, was pretty much in full effect by this point and the experience is quite satisfying as a result. I wouldn't say it reaches the heights of some of the band's subsequent releases such as Lightbulb Sun or In Absentia, but the leaps and bounds of Stupid Dream were pretty much instrumental in leading up to those albums, so I can't pick on it too much. Not when the music is this good, anyway.

(Originally published on Sputnikmusic)

SPIRAL ARCHITECT A Sceptic's Universe

Album · 2000 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 3.81 | 11 ratings
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Playing technical metal music can be a bit of a risky gamble. While it's often fun to showcase your skills in a more complex and intricate setting, the balance between emotion and technicality tends to be incredibly tough to strike effectively. Sure, bands such as Brain Drill and Trigger the Bloodshed could pull you in with their insane levels of musicianship, but how long will it be until you get bored of pure technicality and brutality alone? How about integrating some atmosphere, or maybe some meaningful interludes to offer some breathing room? Well, one band from Norway was able to create a wonderful experience of both mind-boggling technicality and borderline-beautiful moments of progressive rock bliss; they are known as Spiral Architect.

Not to be confused with the Black Sabbath song of the same name, Spiral Architect were (and are, since they somehow haven't disbanded) a progressive metal band with technical elements similar to Watchtower or Psychotic Waltz. While their music is strictly progressive metal, it's interesting to note that (other than Scariot) every band Spiral Architect are associated with members-wise are involved with Norwegian black metal. Anyway, they ended up gracing the world with only one studio album, A Sceptic's Universe, back in 2000. First of all, I'm not going to beat around the bush with this statement: A Sceptic's Universe is the most musically technical album I've ever heard. More technical than Necrophagist. Or Watchtower. Or Atheist. Those are not statements to take lightly, but the sheer intricacy and complexity of each composition is absolutely mindblowing. Right from the opening track "Spinning," there's often a sense of chaos and frantic energy despite how calculated each passage is; the guitar/bass interplay of album highlight "Insect" is another fantastic example of this, especially in how the guitar line emulates the unsettling keyboard part in the intro. Then there's the singer Øyvind Hægeland, who brings an almost operatic quality to the experience with his strongly-layered harmonies and use of power metal-esque vibrato. His work is especially well implemented within the more melodic moments of the record, such as in the main verses of "Excessit" and closer "Fountainhead," but it also serves the more intense moments with the more dramatic and even semi-theatrical elements involved.

Beyond the vocals, however, the real shock of the experience is in just how much emotion and beauty it all contains. The typical progressive metal wankery certainly hasn't gone away (is it ever truly absent), but the difference is in how much of the wankery is necessary in fitting the confines of the band's songwriting. The way every instrument fits into the overall product ensures that everyone in the band is essential to how the music plays out, and there's not much genuine musical excess to be heard. "Insect," "Spinning," "Conjuring Collapse," and "Fountainhead" in particular feature some amazingly tight playing and wonderful chemistry, while songs such as "Cloud Constructor" and "Adaptability" allow the musicians to stretch their talents over more expansive arrangements. "Cloud Constructor" is definitely one of the standouts on the album because of this, featuring a slower and more sprawling sound along with beautifully harmonized guitars from Steinar Gundersen and Kaj Gornitzka aside often subdued vocals. It even has a few instances of *gasp* 4/4 time! Believe me, it's pretty surprising when considering the rest of the album. "Occam's Razor" is another instance of breathing room on the record, a slow interlude featuring Hægeland's synthesizer work to a greater degree while Sean Malone (of Cynic) plays a neat little chapman stick solo near the end. But the more emotional elements of the album even make it to the most technical sections; in fact, there's both a sense of chaos and even what sounds like a sense of impending doom in both the lyrics and the atmosphere. This is especially displayed in moments like the unsettling chugging breakdowns of "Insect" or the slow moments of "Cloud Constructor," the latter displaying a lot of bleakness in its subject matter as well. Finally, I have to mention the amazing talents of bassist Lars K. Norberg and drummer Asgeir Mickelson, who are perhaps the most impressive musicians on this thing. Norberg is especially phenomenal: he just rips through bass lines at speeds I've rarely heard in metal, and his level of precision in the process is just ridiculous.

A Sceptic's Universe, to me, is the route that more progressive metal artists should go in making a record. It's extremely technically impressive, atmospheric, emotional, has plenty of time for thought and intrigue, and is all brought together by quite an underrated frontman (who was also in Arcturus, I might add). The album might occasionally lack in terms of variety, but it's a small price to pay for one of progressive metal's more underrated and overlooked modern gems. If you can handle the ridiculous technicality, you really should try A Sceptic's Universe; it's a near-perfect mix of complexity, atmosphere, and emotion.

(Originally published on Sputnikmusic)

BLACK LABEL SOCIETY Catacombs of the Black Vatican

Album · 2014 · Traditional heavy metal
Cover art 4.00 | 2 ratings
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Let me begin this write-up with sort of an analogy (don't worry, it won't be long). Imagine getting your daily exercise walking down a familiar road; you have lots of friends here, and it's pleasant to watch your surroundings as you get your cardio workout in with the walk. However, with each day, some things are bound to change. Some toys will be in a different location, kids will be playing in a different area than before, etc. Basically, little changes based around a familiar path... and that's exactly the situation that Black Label Society have found themselves in. Zakk Wylde and co. have retained their sound - that is, classic metal with numerous touches of blues, southern rock, and sludge metal influences - for years and rarely break away from their comfort zone. On the flip side, the positive aspect of this resistance to change has been quality consistency; with the possible exception of Shot to Hell, the band have never released a truly bad album because they know exactly which mold they fit in. However, seeing as 2010's Order of the Black was one of the group's best records in years and perhaps a comeback of sorts, Catacombs of the Black Vatican has some pretty high expectations to meet as the successor.

Luckily, while the band don't break a ton of new ground here, they're continuing to refine the direction that Order of the Black set them in. First things first, however: one of the biggest things that fans were anticipating up to this album's release was how ex-Breaking Benjamin drummer Chad Szeliga would fare as the band's newest member to the position. Luckily (and a bit surprisingly), his grooves and overall technique fit perfectly with the band's numerous tempo changes and occasional stylistic shifts. Lead single "My Dying Time" wasn't exactly the best initial representation of the Chad's inception, given the slow and sludgy nature of the song, but a tune like the rhythmically-varied "Damn the Flood" displays things much better. As it constantly alternates between a fast swing-like rhythm and a slow Pantera-esque southern groove, it becomes more apparent how comfortable the man is behind the kit. Speaking of variation, that ends up being one of this record's greatest qualities in the long run. In particular, the ballads are much improved from the last effort. "Angel of Mercy" and "Shades of Gray" are both very solid and heartfelt songs, although in dramatically different ways. The latter in particular is pretty damn interesting for a Black Label Society song, using a clean guitar sound to give off a haunting approach as Zakk's multi-tracked vocal harmonies sound weathered and worn. The whole thing makes for a beautiful atmosphere not usually heard in a song by these guys. The instrumental work is in its usual rock-solid form, the band members adapting to each change with ease and always pounding out solid grooves to the heavier tracks. Of course Zack Wylde is still a great shredder, but he shows quite a bit of restraint as well here. His blues licks are much more fleshed out here with the ballads, and his solos generally sound as though he's making every note count in the grand scheme of things.

That isn't to say that the band have gone soft, however. The sludgy moments from songs like "My Dying Time" and "Empty Promises" are even more apparent than on Order of the Black, making for truly dirty-sounding pieces of music. The former even has a hint of Alice in Chains with the more grungy vocal harmony in the chorus, despite the distortion being way thicker. As instantly revealed by the more doomy opener "Fields of Unforgiveness," a good chunk of this album is quite slow and atmospheric as well, despite said opener having Zakk's signature shredding in the solo (and throughout many of the songs). Basically, when you get down to it, Catacombs of the Black Vatican is caught between a retread of old ideas and hints toward exciting new things. By now people should know what to expect from a Black Label Society record; if you didn't like them before, you probably won't now either. But just give this album a chance... it finally showcases some much-needed variety and diversity despite occasionally sounding more like a refined edition of the previous release.

(Originally published on Sputnikmusic)

EUROPE War of Kings

Album · 2015 · Hard Rock
Cover art 3.64 | 6 ratings
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If there's any band that captured the cheese and excess of 80s glam metal to the highest degree, it would have to be Swedish rockers Europe. The act responsible for the incredibly bombastic The Final Countdown record, whose songs have been featured on countless commercials and still get consistent radio airplay to this day, Joey Tempest and co. were not afraid to make their flamboyant image and stage presence a key element in their performances and overall impact on the masses. Love them or hate them, Europe took the world by storm. But where would they go after making record after record of fun excess and synth-ridden hair metal cheese? Well, getting more serious would be a nice route to consider… and that's exactly what they did.

Europe went on hiatus around 1992 after the decent Prisoners in Paradise, but after over a decade of compilations and a temporary reunion, the official reunion finally came about in 2003. But once their comeback record Start from the Dark was actually released, people knew this wasn't the same Europe they listened to years ago. The overall sound was much more subdued and dark, and the elements of glam metal that popularized the band were replaced with a more straightforward metal/hard rock mix. Little did we know that Prisoners in Paradise would be the last glam-oriented album to date by Europe; ultimately, their new album War of Kings doesn't change this fact.

Joey Tempest stated that the band's biggest influences for this album were Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, and Black Sabbath, and he definitely means it. The entirety of War of Kings is slathered in bluesy midtempo metal anthems with crunchy guitars and a dark overall vibe surrounding each tune. Right from the strong title track that opens the album, the riffing is much more thick and slow than in your usual Europe record, and even the faster songs like "Hole in My Pocket" and "Light Me Up" maintain the same groovy guitar work and Whitesnake-esque blues-based songwriting. As for the vocals, though, Joey's work sounds closer to Ronnie James Dio during his 70s/80s heyday. It's actually really nice to hear his rawer side when combined with his typically charismatic power metal-influenced wails, and gives some nice variety to each performance.

However, it's not long until the problems start to crop up. War of Kings is very consistent, but perhaps too consistent. I know this is the band's tenth album, but are they just going to play it safe for the rest of their career? Do they expect their fans to believe that not taking any risks or experimenting with a few other sounds would be just fine? And that's the problem. There's no denying that things get very homogeneous and boring around the middle, the blandness pretty much peaking when "Praise You" and "California 405" rear their heads. It's sad too, because the album's best song "Nothin' to Ya'" is sandwiched right in between these tracks so some individuals may not even end up listening to it. But "Nothin' to Ya'" represents what this album does best, and that's the mixture of metal and blues that's characterized much of Europe's later work. They come off as their most inspired when playing in that style, and it's also the reason that their softer and more toned-down songs tend to fall flat. If you do want to check this album out, I'd suggest the title track, "Hole in My Pocket," "Light Me Up," and "Rainbow Bridge" as the best listens here. The other stuff is fine, but generally ranges from middling to flat-out boring. But this isn't the worst thing Europe's released… consider it a mild success, I guess.

(Originally published on Sea of Tranquility)

DRAGONFORCE Maximum Overload

Album · 2014 · Power Metal
Cover art 4.30 | 11 ratings
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In a way, I've felt a little bad for Dragonforce in recent years. Sure, they should have to earn their status in the music world like any other band. But when the band were thrust into the spotlight with their 2006 tune "Through the Fire and Flames" and how it became synonymous with Guitar Hero, polarization within the metal community became the ultimate result. Some called their music fun and infectious, and many others would decide that the band is composed of a bunch of hacks with abominable levels of guitar "wankery." Unfortunately, the latter was usually the more prominent opinion among metalheads when overly long-winded albums like Inhuman Rampage and Ultra Beatdown (gotta love those creative titles) hit the stores. Here's why I feel bad about all this: ever since ZP Theart's departure and new singer Marc Hudson's arrival, it seems as though Dragonforce have been trying their best to prove themselves as more than just a group of shredders who got commercially lucky. Fortunately, while The Power Within was a very admirable effort to alleviate the band's past inconsistencies, Maximum Overload goes even further and feels like a fresh new chapter in the band's work.

Now, don't get me wrong, the core sound of Maximum Overload is still based on the old Dragonforce we all know and love (and hate). The choruses still have plenty of cheese, the anthemic "stand your ground and face the world" vibe is still incredibly frequent, and the group's trademark speed continues on. In fact, speaking of speed, opener "The Game" is actually the band's fastest song to date and takes numerous cues from classic thrash metal. Having Trivium's Matt Heafy performing growls to add to the intensity always helps too, that's for sure. But, after listening to numerous tracks on the album, you might notice something pretty interesting going on... some of those song lengths are even shorter than on The Power Within! It seems like the band are getting even more committed to streamlining their sound when judging by this fact, although the balance between conciseness and ambition is what really stands out. More progressive elements are prevalent throughout, like the tempo changes and operatic midsection in "Three Hammers" or the beautiful neoclassical keyboard introduction to "Symphony of the Night" (which I'm hoping is a Castlevania reference, by the way). However, the way everything is presented is very cohesive and digestible compared to previous albums, definitely aided by those shorter song lengths and more focused song structures. There aren't any four-minute solos or ridiculously drawn-out intros here, thankfully.

That's not to say everything is streamlined though, and the band still have a tendency to lose their way because of overbearing soloing or tedious instrumental portions. It seems as though Marc Hudson has a knack for bringing the band together when he's delivering his solid vocal performances, but things get a little inconsistent once he's off the mic. Certain little annoyances start to stand out, such as the slightly unnecessary soft segment before "The Sun is Dead" climactic harmonized solo or that bizarre Incubus-esque funky middle section of "Extraction Zone." But more than this stuff, the problem lies in the fact that "Dragonforce syndrome" still exists; as in, when everything starts to run together. One can only take so many melodic death metal-influenced harmonized guitar lines and fast thrashy drum fills before things get old, and this is definitely Maximum Overload's biggest issue. Some of the band's past repetition rears its ugly head here, primarily toward the end of the album, and the Inhuman Rampage memories come back to the listener. However, on a very positive note, the Johnny Cash "Ring of Fire" cover that closes the album is FANTASTIC. It's hard to believe that a country song could translate to power/thrash metal so well like this, but it did... major props to the band for that.

And on that note, Dragonforce should just be applauded for this album in general. That 3.5 on the top of the page may not look like much, but it means quite a lot for a band who have been so mercilessly ridiculed throughout their notorious history. While it sounds as though the band are still working on perfecting their recent power/thrash/prog formula that started being established with The Power Within, everything's beginning to be pieced together quite nicely. And above these things, Maximum Overload is just a ton of fun to pop in and play at any time. It's cheesy, yeah, but what did you expect from Dragonforce signature sound and vibe? In the end, this is the band's best record since Valley of the Damned... and considering that came out over 10 years ago, that's saying something.

(Originally published on Sputnikmusic)

L7 Bricks Are Heavy

Album · 1992 · Hard Rock
Cover art 3.70 | 5 ratings
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L7 were never really much of a riot grrrl band, no matter how many people tried to lump them into that category. Sure, their music had the same themes of female empowerment and sexuality, but the music is where things really differed. While they started with a more hardcore punk-tinged musical framework like their contemporaries, the 90s saw L7 enter a new phase with more metal and grunge influences. Suddenly, the band seemed closer to Alice in Chains and Melvins than they did to Bikini Kill or Bratmobile. Plus, let's face it: L7's focus was more on quality music than simply pushing a message to a male-dominated music scene... or at least there was more of a balance. These were ladies that not only clung closely to their feminist ideals, but made kickass albums in the process. Of course, their stage antics also played a part in their success during their 90s heyday. Guitarist/singer Donita Sparks was usually the main cause of the controversy, particularly in 1992; first she pulled down her pants during a performance on the British variety show The Word, and then she threw her tampon at the audience during the Reading Festival after the audience threw mud at the band. Her words were classic: "Eat my used tampon, fuckers!"

Needless to say, 1992 was the biggest year for this quartet. After the successful sophomore album Smell the Magic, L7 decided to make their sound heavier and more sludgy for their breakthrough record Bricks Are Heavy. Just as its popularity and acclaim might prove, this really is the band's finest recording; it has the best mixture of all the band's sounds and eras, as well as having the most diversity in its songwriting. Punk, heavy metal, and grunge are all given equal attention throughout, and so is every member for that matter. Just like with The Beatles or Queen, every member of L7 sings at some point on this album, three of the four members being featured prominently on lead vocals. This is, in part, why Bricks Are Heavy works so well... the band always feels like a single unit. The guitar/guitar/bass/drums setup is quite standard, but everybody gets a chance to shine. Plus, the lack of flashy instrumentation actually works to this band's advantage because of this tight chemistry.

Consistency is easily this album's biggest strength. From the tight riffing of the punk-influenced "Wargasm" to the off-kilter 9/8-time playing of closer "This Ain't Pleasure," everything is where it should be. Each member who sings is also the writer of her own respective song as well, each having her own vocal and songwriting quirks. My personal favorite is bassist Jennifer Finch; her songs "Everglade" and power ballad "One More Thing" are two of the most inspired tunes on this thing, particularly the former with its instantly mosh-worthy main riff. Of course, the song that people remember the most from Bricks Are Heavy is Donita Sparks' big hit "Pretend We're Dead." The song does provide a nice opportunity to relax after the one-two punch of "Wargasm" and "Scrap," this time focusing more on melody than outright heaviness.

Complementing all of this is a nice helping of tough and pissed-off vocals, definitely a more punk-inspired aspect of the band. Political issues ("Wargasm"), the aforementioned female empowerment ("Everglade," numerous others), freeloaders and lazy people (Suzi Gardner's anthem "Slide"), stress and anxiety ("One More Thing"), and other lyrical themes are addressed, all conveyed through very aggressive anthems that don't tend to hold these opinions back. But again, what makes it all work is how convincing the musicianship and songwriting are. No matter what side of each matter you sit on, you can always rely on the heavy and energetic musical accompaniments to keep the enjoyment going; this is certainly more than I can say of some of the riot grrrl bands I've heard. L7's presence and charisma on Bricks Are Heavy are very rare for the grunge movement they were part of, and make each song a treat... even if not every song completely works.

The only (somewhat) glaring problem is that the album may be a little too consistent. The music blends together occasionally, and the power chords and constant grungy distortion gets a bit old from time to time. But eventually this issue starts to leave you when you give the album repeated listens. Bricks Are Heavy has an enormous amount of replay value... not just for the little nuances that may have been missed the first time around, but for just the sheer enjoyment of the each riff, each of Demetra Plakas' inspired drum fills, each of Suzi's fun solos, and just the overall creativity of each tune. If you're even remotely interested in grunge, punk, or metal music, Bricks Are Heavy is almost essential. These angry no-nonsense babes are gonna kick your ass, but you'll want to keep getting back up and taking the punishment all over again.

(Originally published on Sputnikmusic)

WAKING THE CADAVER Perverse Recollections Of A Necromangler

Album · 2007 · Deathcore
Cover art 0.92 | 5 ratings
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While many bands have been jumping off the deathcore wagon to gravitate toward more solid extreme metal music (Job for a Cowboy, Carnifex), many others still maintain their diligence in trying to please the (largely teenage) fanbase they've developed over the few years they've been around. Despite the hatred the genre usually garners from a large percent of the metal community, there really are some great bands lying underneath the crap. Not all bands adhere to the foundations set by bands such as Suicide Silence, and certain bands can display a real wealth of stylistically diverse moments. However, when it comes to the worst of the worst, what band do you turn to? Emmure? Design the Skyline? Nah, they won't do. For the real tasteless atrocity, look at Waking the Cadaver's first album Perverse Recollections of a Necromangler.

Aside from being yet another band trying to cash in on deathcore, Waking the Cadaver try to dub it "brutal deathcore" and add deathgrind elements to their sound. This is topped off with some of the worst lyrics in death metal history; the band try the Cannibal Corpse route with themes of rape and graphic violence, but it comes off as even more childish... especially once terms such as "anal freak" and "hoes" pop up. It would be fine and dandy to get a good laugh out of these lyrics when the singer belts them out, but you can't hear a damn word he's saying! About 90-95% of his vocals consist of ridiculous inhaled growls that guarantee aural torture to the listener, and he simply doesn't let up with this style. But vocals are one thing; is the music any good? Nope. The entire album is a collection of completely forgettable deathcore/deathgrind songs that only exist to waste the listener's time. At twenty-six minutes, the album is mercifully brief; even then, the record still feels like double that length. The production of the record ensures a muddled sound to the instruments, while the formula of every song is nearly identical here. The formula: Blastbeat-laden riff, "REE REE" pig vocals and other inhaled grunts, usually about 4-5 breakdowns a song (long and tedious breakdowns at that), blastbeats; rinse and repeat. There's nothing on offer to make you remember any song after it's over, and no member stands out (other than the vocalist and his awful growls). Nothing is really going on when it comes to compositional variety; the development of each motif is very... well, undeveloped.

So why didn't I mention even one song? Simple: because all the songs blend into each other to the point that none of them deserve to exist. Between the ridiculous vocals, tedious song structures, complete lack of musical variety, and bland musicianship, there's absolutely nothing to like about this. Just thinking about it now is painful, and the fact that an abundance of people actually paid perfectly good money to buy this is absolutely soul-crushing. You deserve better than to listen to such a pile of shit. Perverse Recollections of a Necromangler, I dub thee the Holocaust of heavy metal music.

(Originally published on Sputnikmusic)

PANTERA The Great Southern Trendkill

Album · 1996 · Groove Metal
Cover art 4.02 | 41 ratings
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If there's anything I'd say right off the bat, it's that I've never heard a record quite like The Great Southern Trendkill.

Ever since 1990, Pantera had been working to perfect the groove metal sound, making it sound angrier and heavier with each passing album. Forsaking their glam metal roots and finding their place in the metal landscape, they followed in the footsteps of Metallica's initial 80s thrash sound (primarily because they were dismayed at the band's self-titled 1991 record) and made things heavier and more distorted... and of course groovier. No matter if you were/are a fan of the band or not, there should at least be respect for their tight unified sound with classics like Cowboys From Hell and Vulgar Display of Power. What I mean by that is that the band had a specific focus; they knew exactly what they set out to do: to make disgustingly heavy and pummeling metal music that was aggressive as hell. However, things changed by the time 1995 came around; singer Phil Anselmo started taking heroin and proceeded to distance himself away from the other band members. The chemistry of the band was being altered, and it seemed fitting that they'd take some interesting risks with The Great Southern Trendkill; well, the result still wasn't anything like I thought it'd be.

The music is not only possibly their angriest, but easily the most grim and downright hellish. Fast thrash/groove metal collides with downtrodden acoustic numbers and unusually sludgy guitar work; whether it's the raging anti-tabloid anthem "War Nerve" or the haunting power ballads "10's" and "Floods," there's a distinctly hollow vibe throughout the entire experience. Obviously Pantera's darker side is nothing new; Vulgar Display of Power gave us "Hollow," and Cowboys From Hell gave us songs like "Cemetery Gates" and "The Sleep." Far Beyond Driven certainly had its moments as well, but this album marks the first time that almost the entire record is dominated by such a depressing atmosphere. That's not to say that there aren't the typical Pantera staples, however; for instance, the title track is a pummeling opener that benefits from an extended Dimebag solo and one of Anal Cunt vocalist Seth Putnam's guest screaming performances. This song and the two that come after it form a great opening punch that mixes varied songwriting with the band's typically angry attitude. Performance-wise, the rhythm-section musicians have considerably less time to shine; Dimebag and Phil pretty much run the show as bassist Rex Brown and drummer Vinnie Paul just seem to be the backbone of the experience and not much more. It's really a shame because Rex and Vinnie brought out a lot of creativity in previous records, particularly with Vinnie's rapid fills during the band's faster numbers. When you get down to it, Phil's vocals and the overall atmosphere are really what make this whole thing so fascinating.

This is one of those albums in which the "bigger picture" matters a great deal in how effective it is. When you look at the album's individual parts like the members' performances or specific songs, the experience does seem a bit lackluster compared to previous records. However, it's the way everything's presented as one collective experience that elevates The Great Southern Trendkill a great deal. The way sullen vulnerability and raw anger collide with each other makes for an experience unlike any I've ever heard, and while there are filler tracks like the generic thrasher "Living Through Me" or the plodding groove of "13 Steps to Nowhere," the flaws ironically make the record even more effective. Just as the status of the band was unstable and beginning to fall apart, it's expected that an album based around this fact would indeed be rough around the edges. But aside from that, let's talk about those two other things that makes it so memorable: that grim atmosphere and the vocals. Between the hollow acoustic numbers like "Floods" and "Suicide Note Pt. 1," as well a sludgier number like "10's," it's clear that some odd experimentation was done to the Pantera sound this time around. These songs are arguably more effective than the aggressive tracks, particularly because of Phil's vocal diversity. For the longest time, Pantera fans associated Phil's style as dominated primarily by macho posturing and extremely frequent screams; while these traits definitely get featured in this album as well, his more tender and depressing moments displayed in the ballads prove him (and the band, for that matter) as more than just one-dimensional. On "Suicide Note Pt. 1," for instance, he avoids yelling or screaming and instead opts for a low, brooding vocal performance that depicts the sorrow of the song's lyrics. And that's perhaps what's so great about this record: the atmosphere, as well as the separated nature of the band by this point, created a completely unique Pantera album that combined the group's past fury with an extremely grim atmosphere. As I said before though, this record is best listened to as an entire experience rather than for its individual songs. It truly is a fascinating portrait of a band broken by inner tensions.

(Originally published on Sputnikmusic)

GOJIRA Terra Incognita

Album · 2001 · Death Metal
Cover art 3.20 | 14 ratings
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Most bands have some sort of progression in their particular established sound (be it good or bad), and it seems perfectly understandable to mix things up once in a while. Even with a band like Metallica, who obviously received a large amount of backlash for simplifying their music and following more unfavorable trends during the 90s, at least took a gamble and tried something different. Gojira, the progressive death metal darlings of Bayonne, France, definitely took a slower and more subtle approach to evolution; whereas some bands are completely abrupt in their musical shift(s), Gojira always retain their death metal brutality while mixing a few new tricks with each passing album. Most notably, each album has gotten more melodic and featured more vocal variety. Proof of that? Terra Incognita, the band's first record (after numerous demos, of course) is primarily rooted in straightforward death metal, during the early days before they starting branching out their sound at bit more.

While containing many hints of the group's future and still being both technical and progressive to an extent, Terra Incognita is also a lot more raw and rough around the edges. Songs like "Love" and "Clone" are extremely pummeling numbers and showcase Mario Duplantier's double-bass pedal work quite extensively during the heaviest sections. Of course, even early Gojira material isn't complete without certain soft interludes to balance out the intensity, with sparse bass-driven "04" and the two "De Tonnes" songs fitting the bill. None of this stuff is really what makes the record as unique as it is, however; what really makes it stand out is just how bizarre and dark the whole vibe is. Perhaps some of this comes from how isolated and slightly murky the production sounds, but it's also from the weird experiments that are attempted. For instance, while "Love" is primarily a very heavy death metal song, the intro is this weird chromatic clean guitar segment that sets a different tone for the song entirely. "Blow Me Away You(niverse)" is another good example; while most of the song is your average midtempo song (albeit with a large emphasis toward high screams), a complete instrumental freakout comes out of nowhere with atonal guitar playing rushing forth and odd clear vocal harmonies combining with intimidating growls. It's a frantic change of pace, but one that's refreshingly in its unpredictability. Moments like these are what really make the album work.

Sadly, it comes at a price: inconsistency. While this album isn't completely disjointed-sounding, some songs should have been left out of the final product altogether. "Satan is a Lawyer," aside from having possibly the most ridiculous Gojira song title ever, has Joe Duplantier attempting this weird rapping during the verses. That's awkward enough, but the song never really catches fire; the riffs are tired, the drumming is a little dull, etc. Other songs suffer from bad musical concepts as well, such as the plodding "Lizard Skin" and the (quite frankly boring) clean "eerie" interlude "On the B.O.T.A." No song on here is terrible, but bad track placement and half-baked ideas take away from what works so well. This also extends to the other problem, being that the album is a little too straightforward sometimes. While it's already ahead of the game since many death metal debuts are more generic than this, the complaint I'm mentioning is more from a retrospective standpoint. After listening to the band's other efforts and hearing how much they've progressed, some of the music on here starts to sound a bit "cookie-cutter" after a while. Regardless, Terra Incognita was still a very solid first step for the band. While many bands struggle to find their footing with their first efforts, Gojira already found a sound they could expand upon with each successive release. Even if this only provides a glimpse of what the band would become, it's still a great standalone effort and deserves more attention.

(Originally published on Sputnikmusic)

PORCUPINE TREE Deadwing

Album · 2005 · Metal Related
Cover art 4.10 | 56 ratings
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Porcupine Tree have certainly gone through an interesting stylistic evolution over the years, but what's always been fascinating is that each shift is more like an extension of their previous eras. Think about it: Their first era was almost entirely built on psychedelic rock, albums like Stupid Dream and Lightbulb Sun are primarily alternative rock but contain elements of psychedelic rock, and everything after that has been progressive metal with elements of alternative rock and psychedelic rock. While Porcupine Tree are on hiatus right now, it would be interesting to see what they come up with next to add to their current range of genres if they do come back. But, like many fans of the band, I believe that the 2000s (barring The Incident) is the decade that holds their best work and their most natural evolution: the aforementioned shift to progressive metal. We still have the layered and beautiful soundscapes in abundance, but the band's songwriting got a lot tighter and gained a lot more direction... along with some wonderfully heavy and crunchy riffs to boot. So, with frontman Steven Wilson hard at work with his solo career at the moment, I think now is a good time to revisit the first Porcupine Tree album that hit the Billboard charts and reached a larger audience: Deadwing.

A lot of the songwriting elements that made In Absentia such a fan favorite are still here in spades, but there's a bit more emphasis on metal here than on their previous records. "Shallow," "Halo," and "Open Car" are all songs that one could imagine getting airplay on alternative metal radio stations; hell, "Shallow" actually made its way into the action movie Four Brothers! But despite the presence of intense and almost grungy riffing, the same old Porcupine Tree we all know and love is still on this record. Even the heavier songs have softer and more atmospheric portions to even them out, such as the beautiful piano-driven pre-choruses of "Shallow" or the drumless outro of "Open Car" which features some nice harmonized vocals from Wilson. Speaking of "piano-driven," Richard Barbieri was really given the chance to shine on Deadwing. He was always widely regarded as a great keyboardist, especially when he was in the new wave band Japan, but he was often reduced to just providing background atmosphere with his layered effects and sampling. But here, there's much more of a balance as tracks such as "Lazarus" and "Start of Something Beautiful" (mainly the second half of the latter) showcase much more traditional piano playing in which Barbieri displays his virtuosity a bit more. Bassist Colin Edwin and drummer Gavin Harrison are fantastic as usual, providing a very solid and proficient rhythm section for Wilson to work with.

But, as always, the compositions are what makes it all come together. This might not be the best Porcupine Tree album ever, but it might just have the best balance in terms of dynamics and track placement. What makes Deadwing so accessible and fun to listen to is just the sheer range of song lengths and ideas flying around. It may seem weird mentioning the song lengths, but to go from the shorter, punchier, (presumably) religion-bashing and tongue-in-cheek alternative metal of "Halo" to such a powerful and emotional epic like "Arriving Somewhere but Not Here" is just a taste of what makes Deadwing work so well. The way the more hard-hitting and the more emotionally resonant pieces come together makes this both a thrillingly energetic experience and an intriguing one. The title track and "Shallow" work in very much the same way, with a more long-winded and dramatic song rife with progressive passages paving the way for possibly the most distorted and brutal song Porcupine Tree have ever released. But the quality also lies in the songwriting of the individual tracks too, of course. Despite the seemingly simplistic nature of the music compared to other contemporary (or even classic, for that matter) progressive rock bands, there are a lot of little intricacies that drive each song. Songs like "Glass Arm Shattering" and "Start of Something Beautiful" don't feature ridiculous amounts of instrumental virtuosity, but instead use the band members' talents for a more layered experience featuring a heavy amount of atmosphere and dynamic subtlety. The same goes for "Arriving Somewhere but Not Here," whose strength is how well it builds up to its very heavy metal-oriented payoff with beautiful space rock-esque soundscapes and one of Wilson's strongest and most emotional vocal performances.

Balance is what makes Deadwing so complete and fulfilling. It's both highly accessible and moderately challenging, technically proficient but also economical in its instrumentation, as well as soft and delicate while also tending to be crushingly heavy at moments. if it weren't for the slightly boring and uneventful ballad "Mellotron Scratch," this would most certainly be the strongest record in the Porcupine Tree discography, even edging out albums such as Signify and Lightbulb Sun. But it's still fantastic, and between the varied songwriting and consistently well-executed instrumental work, it stands as one of Porcupine Tree's finest hours.

Recommended Tracks ---------------------------------------------- Arriving Somewhere but Not Here, Shallow, Deadwing, Start of Something Beautiful

(Originally published on Sputnikmusic)

SLIPKNOT .5: The Gray Chapter

Album · 2014 · Alternative Metal
Cover art 3.11 | 6 ratings
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Out of any Slipknot record, .5: The Gray Chapter perhaps drew the most intrigue prior to its release date. Even the "maggots" who remained loyal through thick and thin were quite curious about how the album would sound, especially considering bassist Paul Gray's death and drummer Joey Jordison's departure. To their credit, Slipknot seemed legitimately serious about honoring their ex-bandmates' legacies, going as far as not letting the new session musicians use new masks for live shows just yet. But when longtime singer Corey Taylor said that .5 would sound like a cross between previous albums Iowa and Vol. 3: The Subliminal Verses, everything changed. The polarization between different camps of fans emerged, some liking the idea of a return to roots while others wanted the increased melody of later albums to stay prevalent. Well, .5 is now out... just in time for the band's huge festival Knotfest of course. What kind of musical journey are we in for? One that constantly tries to resurrect a brutally beaten horse.

About 90% of .5: The Gray Chapter sounds as if it's trying way too hard to recreate past glories, except with much blander riffs in the process. It's sad too, because opener "XIX" is a great way to introduce a genuinely creepy atmosphere to the album with its dark soundscapes and funeral-like tempo. Unfortunately, once Corey starts singing and spouting out high school-level lyricism, everything just crumbles. And just like that, the entire album soon crumbles into a pile of juvenile nu-metal angst amidst boring downtuned guitar riffs. A large chunk of the motifs here consist of a grand total of 4 notes: A, B-flat, B, and C, usually in some sort of uninspired succession. Songs like "Custer" and "Sarcastrophe" attempt to add some eerie guitar lines on top of the riffs to give some texture and melody, but often come off as flat and tired-sounding.

Also, this is what I mean by beating a horse: there's definitely much more of an emphasis on Iowa here than Vol. 3. While the melodic moments are always refreshing to hear in songs like "The One That Kills the Least" or "Killpop," the majority of .5 consists of ridiculously juvenile nu metal stupidity. If Slipknot were trying to resurrect their past, they could have done it in a more flattering or creative manner than playing a bunch of recycled and bland Iowa riffs. The Vol.3 moments sound quite lazily tied in to the experience as if they were an afterthought, and many of the weak Iowa-isms revolve around one thing in particular: those goddamn lyrics. The word "fuck" is used like candy in songs like "Custer," while "Lech" begins with an ever-tasteful line like "I know why Judas wept, motherfucker!" To be frank, the nu-metal angst of this album is what kills it. Not only does it feel forced, but it destroys years of attempted maturity in Slipknot's overall career. The progress made in the more somber and beautiful songs of All Hope is Gone or Vol. 3 feels like a waste when the worst aspects of Iowa and the self-titled are repeated ad nauseam.

Thankfully, there are two bright spots among this disaster: "The Devil & I" and "If Rain Is What You Want." Both songs are quite different, but show genuine effort and atmosphere at their best moments. The former is a melodic alternative metal song that channels All Hope is Gone's strongest offerings while the latter is a beautiful power ballad that masterfully combines brutality and melancholy. They really offer a glimpse of what the album could have been if Slipknot weren't so caught up with recreating their past and giving nostalgic listeners an incredibly boring nu-metal affair. On top of all this, Corey Taylor's vocals aren't nearly as strong as they were in their heyday, making the whole effort sound even more strained and forced. It's unfortunate that this is what 6 years have wrought, but I suppose it's time to wait for the next Slipknot record already.

(Originally published on Sputnikmusic)

ULVER Nattens Madrigal: Aatte Hymne Til Ulven I Manden

Album · 1997 · Black Metal
Cover art 3.47 | 25 ratings
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Rarely has album artwork evoked as much appropriate imagery as the wolf-adorned picture accompanying Ulver's Nattens Madrigal does. Alone and presumably howling to the moon that lies in the background, the wolf provides ample insight to the dark and bleak nature of what its album contains in songwriting and lyricism... and indeed this experience is bleak. Vocalist Garm has stated that Nattens Madrigal was intended as a backlash to all of the record labels that tried to bring black metal to a wider audience and polish it, which Ulver perceived as effectively ending the genre in terms of aesthetics and purpose. So, seeing as Ulver were a black metal (and folk) band up to this point, everybody was expecting another album like the intense-yet-accessible Bergtatt. And what did we all get instead? One of the most distorted and raw black metal albums ever recorded and released.

Seriously, let that sink in for a moment. In a genre like black metal, which prides itself on being "kvlt" and having horrible production values in the name of underground metal, THIS is one of the most underproduced and raw albums in the entire genre. Right off the bat, you can imagine that it isn't for the faint of heart and certainly not built for any mainstream appeal... but that's the whole point and the charm of this experience. The guitars rip through the ears like buzz saws, the vocals are uncompromisingly piercing shrieks, the drumming is thin and nimble, and the bass is virtually nonexistent; then we get the songwriting, which is simultaneously repetitive and hypnotic. There's only one real moment that gives listeners room for breathing, which is a gorgeous acoustic folk portion in "Hymn I." Aside from that, save for a few ambient outros, the whole album is a giant onslaught of shrieks and buzzing guitars. So what makes this record so appealing despite these elements? Well, for one, the guitar playing is still very beautiful despite the distortion. You get these very soothing melodies, half of which sound like they could have come from a folk record, and the harmonies Håvard and Torbjørn pull off are both melancholic and mesmerizing. Also, Nattens Madrigal features Garm's harsh vocals at their absolute best. There may not be any clean singing present anywhere, but his shrieks are instrumental in giving this record its chillingly cold atmosphere. It actually reminds me a lot of what Dani Filth's vocals bring to Cradle of Filth's Dusk... and Her Embrace; you can almost touch the depressive and haunting scenery the howling and screeching conjures up.

While it may not seem incredibly apparent at first, there's actually a lot of variety in Nattens Madrigal as well. Despite the overall looming darkness of the album, some songs actually feature the occasional moment of hope and peace. "Hymn VI" begins with a very beautiful guitar melody that highly contrasts many of the other songs by being in a major key for once, while much of "Hymn VII" carries a lighter tone to it. There are also some songs that have a more brutal sound to them despite the thin production, such as thicker and lower tremolo-picked riffing of fan favorite "Hymn III" and the extremely jarring and noisy introduction of "Hymn I," which could prove to be a huge shock to fans of more mainstream metal upon first listen. Also, there's one more thing that adds to this album's atmosphere and sound: the lyrics. It was a pretty wise decision to make the entire album in old Dano-Norwegian language, which only adds to the record's mystique and intrigue. When translated (to the best of people's abilities, at least), the lyrics fit the music perfectly with imagery of wolves, the darker aspects of man, and the overall night-related imagery you'd imagine with an album that sounds like this. From what I can gather, the concept of the record is that of a man who becomes a wolf by succumbing to the evil in and around him. The lyrics really make for some good reading on their own, and are immeasurably effective on Nattens Madrigal.

The whole experience is just sublime. The mixture of brutality, beauty, songwriting quality, lyrical mastery, and everything else is almost enough to make one cry at how perfect it is. But in the end, that's only for the ones who can really handle the rawness of this album and be dedicated enough to delve deeper into what lies beneath the intensity. It's obviously not for everyone and many will be turned off by the vocals and production (even certain black metal fans), but for those who stick with it, Nattens Madrigal provides amazing songwriting and an unmistakable vibe that make it one of the most rewarding metal albums of all time. It's cold, bleak, draining, emotional, hypnotic, and dripping with atmosphere with every song. This is the essence of black metal.

(Originally published on Sputnikmusic)

INCUBUS (CA) Trust Fall (Side A)

EP · 2015 · Hard Rock
Cover art 3.00 | 2 ratings
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Love them or hate them, Incubus have never made the same album twice. Despite their last few studio albums being a bit on the lackluster side, the overall evolution of Incubus' sound is one of their most fascinating elements. Even then, it seems as though many fans have been a bit displeased with the general lack of distortion and aggression from A Crow Left the Murder... onward. In exploring different sounds and styles, much of the alternative metal and general intensity of previous albums was dropped; this path was continued up until what many considered to be the band's worst record, If Not Now, When? The vibe of the music was considered just as wild and imaginative as Muzak, and the overall consensus was that Incubus had lost their way. Well, if a new little EP known as Trust Fall (Part A) is any indication, then I think these guys are back on the right path again.

It's hard to judge how the band's future material may be from a mere 4-song collection such as this, but this first installment of Trust Fall features some of the best writing and playing the band have pulled off in years. Right from the heavy and precise riffing of the opening title track, it's clear that some of the older Incubus sound is being captured here. The musicianship is tight, crisp, and full of energy and life; additionally, Brandon Boyd's vocals are much more inspired here than on If Not Now, When? and his level of investment in these tunes makes everything quite engaging as a whole. But, as is Incubus' tradition, there are some neat experiments that the band try on for size here. My personal favorite has to be the midtempo electronic rock number "Absolution Calling," which is characterized more by its deep sonic layers courtesy of DJ Chris Kilmore and guitarist Mike Einziger. Brandon's harmonized vocals are really a highlight here, especially when he sings "Are you there?" in the chorus. Then there's "Dance Like You're Dumb" which benefits more from Mike's heavier guitar tone and a high level of energy in the rhythm section. The track is pretty much just as the title implies, being a party rocker that can very easily be danced to; Boyd's vocals display an great amount of energy and power, and drummer Jose Pasillas and bassist Ben Kenney constantly keep up with the song's overall vibe.

Unfortunately, we've also got the much weaker number "Make Out Party." The instrumental work is still solid and well-crafted here, and it's nice to hear a song this heavy by the band again, but Boyd's lyrics and vocals just sink this one. His singing is obnoxious during the falsetto moments (which are unfortunately way too frequent) and the lyricism is incredibly juvenile and poorly implemented into the tone the music creates. It's just so weird hearing lyrics like "Girl I wanna kiss you, but not just on your lips" accompanying a very doomy and distorted riff like the one Einziger creates here. However, it's the only song that's not that strong on this EP; everything else on Trust Fall (Side A) is well worth the listen, whether you're a longtime fan or just getting into these guys. I can't say this record is an essential gem in the band's discography, seeing as it's only 4 tracks long, but it does make me confident that their future output could be quite strong. THAT's something I can trust them with.

(Originally published on Sputnikmusic)

ARMORED SAINT Win Hands Down

Album · 2015 · Traditional heavy metal
Cover art 4.01 | 7 ratings
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It's good to stick with your comfort zone sometimes. While risks tend to spice up things in life, being traditional and safe can be just as rewarding; you may not attain the same amount of satisfaction as you might have by taking a chance and experimenting, but there's often a lower rate of failure involved. Just ask Armored Saint; John Bush and co. have made an entire career of sticking to their 80s heavy metal guns and never altering their sound with each passing musical trend. Just like with Black Label Society, you know what to expect when digging into a new Armored Saint record: crunching riffs, shredding solos with lots of blues and neoclassical influence, harmonized melodies, high energy throughout, and of course there's John Bush's charismatic singing that's both gruff and varied. So does Win Hands Down continue these trends? You betcha!

However, it seems that there's some much needed new life injected into the band's sound this time around. Sure, the traditional 80s metal influences are there as usual, but the songwriting is much stronger here than in 2010's La Raza. As the opening title track bursts right out of the gate with intense guitar distortion and an aggressive snare-driven drum fill, the main riff chugs and you get what sounds like a combination of old-school thrash a la Megadeth and modern power metal. It's epic and it really sets the tone for the whole experience. Guitarists Jeff Duncan and Phil Sandoval are in top form, with flurries of Iron Maiden-inspired harmonies littering each song and lightning-fast shredding running rampant. There are also some neat progressive moments here and there, such as the rhythmically off-kilter neoclassical riff of "An Exercise of Debauchery" or the more complex and introspective dynamic build-up of mini-epic "Muscle Memory."

But where this album shines is in how fun it is. It's clear that many of the moments on Win Hands Down showcase Armored Saint's desire to progress with their established sound, but the best moments here are the ones that provide straight-up headbanging material from beginning to end. The main single "Mess" as well as "That Was Then, Way Back When" are perfect examples of this, especially the latter with its chugging thrash-oriented riff and the chants of the song's title during the chorus. Many of the tunes on here function perfectly as full-on anthems, and the excellent instrumentation is just icing on the cake. The rhythm section is also fantastic, with longtime Armored Saint stalwarts drummer Gonzo Sandoval and bassist Joey Vera providing both muscle and complexity to their roles and playing off the guitarists wonderfully. Unfortunately, there is one major problem with Win Hands Down and it's something that plagues numerous Armored Saint albums: how homogeneous things get after a while. There's quite a bit of variety on the album, but not quite enough to justify multiple seven-minute songs and a relatively long overall running time. That is, until the masterpiece known as "Up Yours." This is one of the best songs I've heard in modern metal; the main descending riff is always compelling, the vocals are extremely powerful and charismatic, and the guitar solo is among the best of this decade so far. I'm not kidding... the song is that good.

Win Hands Down is quite shocking in its quality. I suppose only time will tell if it will maintain such staying power, but as it stands, this is Armored Saint's best album since Raising Fear. It might not remain compelling throughout every minute of its runtime, and it does certainly tread old ground, but it ends up being a great mix of the traditional and the modern. In a current metal scene in which bands like Avenged Sevenfold and Bullet for My Valentine are worshiping Iron Maiden and Metallica left and right, it's nice to hear something from some real veterans who can show them how classic heavy metal is done.

(Originally published on Sputnikmusic)

THE SMASHING PUMPKINS Siamese Dream

Album · 1993 · Hard Rock
Cover art 4.03 | 12 ratings
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"Adventurous." What is your definition of that word when it comes to music? Many people will tell you that the word defines an act that breaks boundaries, one that bends genres in unusual ways, one that uses different techniques from who's perceived as average. But I'd like to note that there's another way the word can be described, which is in a more literal sense. "Adventurous," to me, means that you're literally going on an adventure, a musical trip of sorts. Whether they be realistic or surrealistic, albums that feel more like journeys or complete experiences than just a collection of tracks often end up being some of the most rewarding records. Every track flows well into the next, everything is strung together nicely, and atmosphere often takes increased precedence. And let's be real here: early 90s alternative rock produced many great artists, but often relied less on elaborate or ornate musical techniques or sounds because of how it commonly preferred a more simplistic approach. What I'm getting at is that we needed a band like The Smashing Pumpkins to get big when they did.

Fresh off the surprise success of their debut Gish, The Smashing Pumpkins were facing a crushing amount of pressure from the press, already being labeled as the next big thing to happen to alternative rock. This only added to the multitude of internal tensions the entire group were already facing, including frontman Billy Corgan's weight gain and writer's block, the breakup of bassist D'arcy Wretzky and guitarist James Iha, and drummer Jimmy Chamberlain's drug problems. Everything was crashing down during the band's most important recording session, in a situation almost akin to Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, but luckily, Billy Corgan did the exact same thing the members of that group dealt with the problems: looking inward. He suffered a nervous breakdown and even planned to kill himself during the time of recording Siamese Dream, and this led to many more lyrical and musical themes regarding insecurities and personal issues he dealt with, both in his childhood and in the present day. What it led to was one of the most breathtaking albums of all time, not just in alternative rock music but any kind of music.

Regarding what I said earlier about certain adventurous albums being akin to literal musical adventures, Siamese Dream is an absolutely prime example of this. It's very much a journey through Billy Corgan's personal life, and his songwriting is always sure to reflect this fact beautifully. What we've got here is a mish-mash of alternative rock, progressive rock, grunge, dream pop, and heavy metal sounds coming together cohesively with a few common atmospheres prevalent throughout the entire record. The best word I can use to describe the vibe as a whole is "warm"; this is an experience that's loaded with feelings of summer nostalgia because of its layered and fuzzy guitar sounds and Billy Corgan's sentimental vocals. Certainly, during songs like "Cherub Rock," "Geek U.S.A." and the ironically titled "Quiet," there's plenty of heavy aggression to be had here as well; however, it's always restrained just enough that it doesn't deviate too far from the album's common themes and overall sound. Each song's style perfectly fits the mood and lyrics it contains: "Disarm" is probably the best example, being a beautifully melancholic and primarily acoustic (and symphonic) ballad that has Corgan singing about the more negative aspects of his childhood and relationship with his parents. He might present himself as quite an arrogant individual on various news sites and interviews, but I don't think many people can deny that this is one of the most vulnerable vocal tracks ever put to a record.

What also really propels Siamese Dream above many of the albums of its day is how it handles its influences. There's a ton of 70s classic rock and dream pop that people can pick out on this record, especially from bands such as Queen and My Bloody Valentine, but once again, it's the blend of the old and the new that makes it all so enthralling. Look at a song like "Soma;" it is, for the most part, a very dreamlike alternative rock ballad whose sprawling motifs quite likely influenced Radiohead's late-90s work. But then it throws a wrench in the works by including an unbelievably gorgeous moment of guitar layering in the middle that recalls Queen guitarist Brian May's operatic harmonies. It doesn't last very long, but it somehow blends perfectly with the band's 90s sound and really makes a lasting impression long after the song is over. This is also reflected in the Mellotron playing in the ballad "Spaceboy," which has a sound similar to 70s progressive rock acts while skillfully retaining the characteristics of its own era, such as the more alternative and melancholic opening guitar lines. However, the beauty of it all is that Siamese Dream sounds like it could have been released today and still be relevant... THAT'S the sign of a truly timeless record. There's nothing here that sounds like a product of its time, despite the contemporary 90s influences and classic 70s/80s influences throughout the experience.

Finally, since Billy Corgan gets mentioned so much, I'd like to speak of the other musicians before I wrap things up; this is, by far, the best instrumental work that The Smashing Pumpkins have had. While Corgan helped D'arcy Wretzky with recording many of the bass lines on this album, James Iha's guitar work accompanies Corgan's playing very well and Jimmy Chamberlain is just a fucking monster on this thing. "Geek U.S.A." in particular is commonly cited to have some of the best drumming in rock history, and for good reason. In the end, what makes Siamese Dream work so wonderfully is that the band made the best of their darkest hour. They could have crashed and burned, crumbling under the pressure of hype and personal issues, but they ended up making these problems lyrical concepts and making music out of them. But the music that accompanies it is what's especially impressive, and the very thing that made this album the classic it is to this day. It's emotional, it's instrumentally proficient, it's personal, it's influential, it's a cornerstone of rock music, and it's one of the best albums ever made. Period.

(Originally published on Sputnikmusic)

ARCH ENEMY War Eternal

Album · 2014 · Melodic Death Metal
Cover art 3.92 | 19 ratings
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I've long considered Arch Enemy one of metal's great guilty pleasures; while they never achieved the overall level of quality many of their contemporaries reached in their heydays (Dark Tranquillity, Children of Bodom, etc.), they've been known to have a really fun anthemic quality to their music nonetheless. And that's what it really comes down to... I don't think many people take the band's music very seriously, but judging by how flat-out entertaining songs like "Nemesis" and "Silent Wars" are, this point can be pretty convincing. Unfortunately, it doesn't always mask the sad truth that much of Arch Enemy's output is hopelessly generic, particularly when it comes to both guitar leads and the primary riffs that serve as the basis for each song. Aaaaaand unfortunately, that's a serious problem when it comes to a genre like melodic death metal, with which both of those factors prove to be two of the most important elements of a band's sound. Both the leads and riffs are the primers that hold the songs together, and lead guitarist/primary songwriter Michael Amott has proven his penchant for creating bland motifs and solos for the last 10 years or so. However, there was one glimmer of hope on the horizon when looking at War Eternal: the fact that Angela Gossow would be replaced by The Agonist frontwoman Alissa White-Gluz. While Gossow was a great death metal singer, some fresh blood in the band would at least hopefully prompt some change in the band's dynamic and style. Well, that's wishful thinking, isn't it?

War Eternal proves that getting too comfortable with one specific style over time can prove fatal to a band's work, the entire record being littered with bland composition after bland composition. While there are some interesting moments here and there, such as the soft clean guitar-driven intro of "You Will Know My Name" or the electronic experimentation of the bonus Mike Oldfield cover "Shadow on the Wall," they aren't frequent enough to distract from the overall mediocrity at work here. First of all, the production is about as lifeless and synthetic as things can get, completely draining the impact of the more inspired and heavy riffs on the record; the whole album suffers from the same overproduction as many of the mainstream deathcore records from bands like Suicide Silence and Emmure. Compare this to records like Children of Bodom's Halo of Blood or Carcass' Surgical Steel, which have a clean sound to them but just enough rough edges to make them sound menacing. However, of course, the music itself doesn't help the band's case at all.

After listening to this album many times, I can safely say that I remember almost none of it; the riffs and melodies are so uninspired that it's simply remarkable that nobody from Century Media told them to alter their work before packaging it for record stores. Along with the production adding to the mediocrity, there almost seems to be a general lack of interest from the musicians as well. The title track, for instance, utilizes a grand total of one note (C) for most of its main riff, before devolving into a boring mid/fast-tempo set of melodies that sound recycled right out of a Carcass record. Songs like "Stolen Life" and "As the Pages Burn" go more for the "fast and brutal" approach, only to feature even blander riffs that end up muddled under White-Gluz's overdone vocal performances anyway. Speaking of which, Alissa's vocals aren't all that remarkable here; while it's nice to hear someone other than Gossow in this band for a change, Alissa certainly doesn't sound as inspired here as she did in The Agonist. However, I'll admit that the clean vocals she occasionally employs are a nice change in pace from the typical growls and screams... one just wishes they were perhaps used a bit more, honestly. When you get down to it, though, the compositions are what absolutely kill this record. Even a song like potential highlight "Avalanche," with its interesting keyboard arrangements and neoclassical vibe, instantly kills its own inspired intro with an extremely weak verse; once the keyboards come back in, the experience just feels inconsistent and underwhelming.

As if I haven't hammered the point into your heads enough, the entire album is just so damn uninspired and bland. It goes beyond that, though... it may sound tough for a metal album to put somebody to sleep, but this could easily do the trick. Every good moment on this record, such as the occasional usage of a dark atmosphere or some of the vocal highlights, is completely raped and pillaged by every boring riff and the choruses that define the phrase "going through the motions." The entire package feels synthetic, unappealing, unimaginative, sloppily written, sloppily paced, and just awful from almost every conceivable angle. Even with a new singer, War Eternal is just a depressingly lifeless mess of a record. Look on the bright side, though: at least it makes for a good coaster for your beverage, as well as a good substitute for reading bedtime stories to your kid(s) at night!

(Originally published on Sputnikmusic)

AVENGED SEVENFOLD City of Evil

Album · 2005 · Traditional heavy metal
Cover art 3.19 | 26 ratings
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Avenged Sevenfold are perhaps the band that I have the most "love-hate" relationship with when it comes to metal music. They have great records (Waking the Fallen, this album); they have absolute trash (self-titled, Hail to the King). Many of the band members are very skillful at their instruments, and yet they frequently choose to waste their talents on lazy songwriting and recycling musical themes from past greats like Metallica and Iron Maiden. Even vocalist M. Shadows is in the same position; sometimes his vocal performances are solid and varied, and at other times they're absolutely grating or completely boring. However, many people will say that the band's better work lies in their early releases, namely their first three. Aside from Nightmare, which was pretty solid (if inconsistent) in its own right, I can get behind that. Where does City of Evil fit into all of this?

Well, it's pretty much in the bittersweet zone between the lengthy harmony-driven metal tunes of Waking the Fallen and the uninspired and boring moments of the self-titled record. You could view it as a transitional record in that right, but admittedly that would be selling it short at the same time. Essentially, the album's quality heavily depends on which side of it is being heard. Tracks 1-6 are on the more conventional side, whereas tracks 7-11 give off a more ambitious and "epic" character. The latter is definitely the strongest of the two, clearly more inspired by classic bands like Iron Maiden and even putting some progressive metal touches here and there, most obviously displayed by the longer length of these tracks. Highlight "The Wicked End" even manages to throw in a choir around its halfway mark, leading to one of the most emotionally resonant climaxes of the band's career. "Sidewinder" experiments with classical guitar soloing courtesy of guitarist Synyster Gates' father, while "Strength of the World" uses an acoustic intro and outro that utilizes an orchestra and prominent crescendos in drummer The Rev's percussion work to create something more dynamically varied. Even while the songs have a tendency to drag due to their length and occasional lack of ideas (ESPECIALLY with "Betrayed"), the attempts to keep things fresh and varied are welcomed, particularly for a group who are generally known for their derivative nature.

The first half is definitely a more mixed bag compared to the second half, focusing more on shorter and catchier tunes. There's one particular problem with these songs that needs to be addressed now: M. Shadows needs to shut his mouth and let the musicians shine a bit. I'm not kidding; he overdubs over himself almost constantly, drowning out the exceptionally solid and enjoyable instrumental work. While it's more understandable with the album's sole ballad "Seize the Day," it would have been nice for the metal songs to focus more on the instrumentation itself. The reason this wasn't brought up with the second half of the album is because it isn't as frequent of a problem there. It would also be less of a problem if M. Shadows' vocals were better, but this happens to be his worst performance in Avenged Sevenfold's discography. He basically has two vocal settings here: nasally whining (see: the chorus of "Strength of the World") and constipated high shouting (see: many songs, but particularly the climax of "The Wicked End). It probably seems ridiculous to single out this aspect of the album so much, but it really gets distracting. However, if you can get past that, there's still plenty to enjoy from a songwriting standpoint. "Beast and the Harlot" is a strong opener with a neat guitar solo in the middle that emphasizes harmonized chromatic runs effectively, while "Bat Country" and "Burn It Down" are faster cuts that display the band's technical skills and particularly The Rev's flashy drum work. For that matter, the entire band upped their game from a technical standpoint from the previous album Waking the Fallen. Whereas that album was more cohesive and consistent, City of Evil is more technically accomplished and varied.

City of Evil is not the best Avenged Sevenfold album, but it's certainly among their best. While a bit overlong and placing too much emphasis on vocals, it's still very solid if you go in with the right mindset. If you can't get past the annoying vocal work, this probably won't do much for you; however, if you can, there's plenty of great musicianship and ambitious (particularly in the second half) songwriting to enjoy.

(Originally published on Sputnikmusic)

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