Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Overkill - Horrorscope

The eulogy he would've wanted

If you've followed my reviews for a while, you know that I've covered Overkill plenty throughout my career.  You'll also know that I've never given them a positive review.  It's true!  Somehow I've just always gravitated towards knocking them down a few pegs because they had so many albums I hated that people seemed to give a pass, and it always bewildered me.  However, I'm not an insane person.  As a thrash fan, I know damn well that Overkill has plenty of great albums too, and I think it's about high time I covered one.  I promised a friend I would do so a long time ago.  And now, in my perpetual lateness, I'm going to fulfill my promise to my now-fallen compatriot, and give an honest review of his all time favorite album (or maybe second place next to some choice albums from Limbonic Art or Kalmah or something), Overkill's fifth and arguably finest album, Horrorscope.

The most obvious and major factor most people should realize when it comes to this album is the not-so-amicable departure of longtime axe-slinger Bobby Gustafson.  Overkill may be most obviously defined by Blitz's signature nasally snarl and D.D. Verni's mega-trebly *dween* bass tone, but Gustafson was a force to be reckoned with in the early days, churning out classic riffs left and right ("Hammerhead" from the debut contains one of my all time favorite riffs ever written) and writing a good chunk of the music, in particular the (frankly undeserving, but hey) classic The Years of Decay.  Him getting the boot should have been a huge blow to the band's sound, but Blitz and D.D. ain't no fuckin' quitters so they just regrouped and hammered out one of the monsters of early 90s thrash in retaliation. 

I've made this point over and over, but thrash was never great necessarily because of Overkill, instead Overkill was great because thrash as a genre was great.  This shows here, because the early 90s was a good era to be a product of the times as a thrash band.  The album I've always seen to be the parallel to Horrorscope is Kreator's seminal Coma of Souls, what with both having a really dry-yet-punchy production and a heightened influence of slower, more crushing moments in conjunction with their customary neck wrecking tempos.  This might seem immediately odd, because one of my biggest complaints with The Years of Decay is that there are too many slow songs that bog down the pace and break the flow, but the big difference here is that the slower tracks here are just flat out fucking excellent.  While something like "Skullkrusher" just sounded slow with little else in mind, something like "Horrorscope" or "New Machine" sounds like there's a clear goal at stake.  For example, something like the title track actually feels like a true marriage of thrash and doom metal, something the band had attempted before and would continue to attempt throughout their career and never quite nail again.  It's slow, but the riffs are menacing and pounding instead of meandering and dull.  It's still a driving force, and the extended one note breakdown just absolutely decimates with the addition of something simple like the haunting guitar melody in the background.  "Nice Day... for a Funeral" utilizes this same trick and it sort of astounds me that they never managed to make this work again, because it turns out this nebulous coagulation of melancholy and malice creates an incredibly neat effect.  "New Machine" may actually be my favorite of these tracks for an entirely different reason.  That one sounds more like a simplified version of "Who Tends the Fire" but works 1000% better simply because it gets to the point quicker and is carried by a super tight groove.  Yeah, this is basically just a groove metal track, something they'd tie their noose to before flailing around for 20 years and failing to write more than a handful good ones despite focusing entirely on them, but damn if their first foray into the style isn't a home run.  That main riff is an absolute banger.

However, this is motherfucking Overkill we're talking about here.  The fact that their constant experimentation with slower tempos finally worked this time is a nice bonus, but it's not what makes Horrorscope such a classic.  Hell no, it's their fervent dedication to punk-infused attitude entwined seamlessly with top-tier thrashing mayhem that made them stand out in the first place, and this is arguably their most consistently vicious offering of tracks in that vein.  "Coma" kicks things off with a nice clean intro to lull you into a false safety, because once the riffs start the band makes extra god damned clear that they mean fucking business.  I've never once heard the section with the double bass in the intro and not immediately sought out the nearest living thing and punched it to death.  The lion's share of the music here follows somewhat in line with The Years of Decay, what with the extremely obvious Metallica influence shining through with the monstrously chunky riffs and decidedly simplistic drumming carrying most of the songs.  It's like if that 1989 album was full of tracks like "Elimination" an "Evil Never Dies" all the way through, because it's just a non stop riff attack and it shows up most of their contemporaries.  Overkill was never the fastest or the heaviest of their peers, but this is one of those times when it didn't matter for them, and through the power of sheer songwriting fortitude they managed to deliver an unreal streak of excellence.  "Thanx for Nothin'" shoves their punk roots in your face without ever sacrificing an ounce of their osmium, and the chorus can whip any crowd into a frenzy effortlessly.  "Live Young, Die Free" and "Bare Bones" rip and tear through listeners as if they were paper, with riffs so simultaneously fast and chunky that they sound like tommy guns that fire raw steaks.  I could be a dick and point out that they both sound an awful lot like "Battery" but if you haven't noticed, the frequent Metallica-isms work to this album's benefit rather than its detriment.  Instead of sounding like a calculated knockoff of Master of Puppets like the previous album did, this sounds like the lost album recorded in lieu of And Justice for All.  It's a logical continuation of what they were doing before, except this time they decided to push further towards the extreme end of the spectrum instead of settling on an easier-to-digest groove.  No, this is one of the gloriously few times that Overkill found themselves truly pushing an envelope, because this is by far the hungriest they've ever sounded.  As a result, Horrorscope is probably the most Overkill album that Overkill ever released.  This is the one where they truly solidified their identity to me, and it's a damn shame that they abandoned it so quickly.

There are nitpicks but they're just that, nitpicks.  Blitz doesn't sound quite as manic as the albums from the Three Bobbys era, and he's really the only musical aspect of the band that didn't make a massive improvement.  There aren't any moments like that insanely tense crescendo in "Evil Never Dies" here, instead he just does his thing in a fairly utilitarian manner.  Fortunately that's not really a big deal because even when he's in pure workman mode and giving the guitars the spotlight, he stands out for his iconic vocal delivery alone.  The solos aren't quite as memorable either, but that's to be expected because even when Overkill finally got their shit together and released another great album 19 years later, they never fully managed to replace Gustafson's absolute wizardry on the fretboard.  "Infectious" is a kind of meh song and the Edgar Winter cover is entirely pointless as well, but overall that's really all the negative things I have to say about this album. 

Feel the Fire will always be the band's finest hour to me, but their first two albums have a pretty different approach than what came afterwards, and if you want to split hairs so finely that you're in danger of nuclear fission, Horrorscope is unquestionably the highlight of the second phase of the band's first era.  This was the sound of a band in lockstep with one another, taking a brutal departure in stride instead of reeling and scrambling to make something work in his absence.  I know Horrorscope is a very well respected album, but it deserves even more than it gets, which is saying a lot.  This is 53 minutes of non stop action that feels like it flies by in 30.  Overkill wouldn't be this exciting and adrenaline-inducing for nearly two solid decades, and it's a great swansong for the classic era of the genre in general.  Everybody should be familiar with it, and if you're not, fucking fix that right the hell now, because this is a stone cold classic.

RIP Diamhea, you were a monster truck that walked like a man.  I'm sorry you aren't here to see me make an attempt to fulfill a dumb promise I made purely out of respect for such an insanely dedicated individual.  Hopefully I made good on my end.  You are the Beef Castle that took a lot of shit in stride and deserve all the credit in the world for making this site run as smoothly as it has for the past five years you were on the team.  Oh, and never forget: !!!FUCK YOU!!!


Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Euphoreon - Ends of the Earth

Thinking of titles gets harder by the day

All it took to interest me in Euphoreon was an offhand comment about how they sound like "Wintersun if they were actually good".  My boundless hatred for Wintersun has become something of a claim to fame for myself, but I've always vocally given credit where credit is due, and readily admit that they have a few incredible songs and could genuinely be an amazing band if they consistently played to their strengths instead of bloated everything to death.  If anybody else is touted to be exactly what it is I truly want out of my arch nemesis, then of course I'm willing to give them a shot. 

Euphoreon... well isn't quite that, because their influences are definitely more varied than that one particular Finnish institution, but they're solid regardless.

Ends of the Earth doesn't really break any new ground but they play this distinctly European style of melodeath pretty well.  Instead of really aping Wintersun's sound like I keep reading about, more accurately they sound like something of a hybrid between the less insane non-Bodom Bodom clones that started gaining traction shortly after they rose to prominence (like Skyfire and Kalmah) and the more melancholic and riffless style of melodeath that Insomnium helped popularize.  I guess you could argue that this really isn't so different from something like Frosttide but the first thing I thought when giving this album its first spin was how much it made me want to listen to Be'lakor.  I haven't seen them namedropped much around the band, but most of these melodies that carry the songs are straight out of Stone's Reach or Of Breath and Bone.  Hell, "Euphoria" almost uses the exact same main theme as "Abeyance" note-for-note.  That style of melody where the guitar quickly palm mutes an open high string and intermittently baps a few notes up the neck is abused to no end here.  The addition of epic keys and choirs is the one thing that truly sets Euphoreon apart from the style they're so firmly rooted in, and it's likely why they're more immediately compared to what seems to actually be their secondary influence.  Well, that and the vocals, since the Insomnium style has a tendency to feature incredibly talented growlers with destructively deep registers that would absolutely murder in more brutal styles, whereas this duo aims for a more ghoulish brittleness ala Kalmah's first three albums. 

The songs themselves here are, all told, fairly simple despite the average length falling a few seconds short of seven minutes, but they do a good job of not getting boring, exactly.  It's sort of odd, because despite not being boring, they aren't quite engaging all the time either.  There are a few highlights, sure, but "Euphoria" kicks off the album on a fairly humdrum note, and I don't think I've ever actually noticed the point where "Cravenness" gives way to "Oblivion".  Despite that, the album tends to get better as it goes along and then starts wearing on you as it begins to wrap up, since there isn't a whole lot of variation between the tracks and the idea of mid-paced riffless melodeath with good melodies festooned in booming keys can only work for so long before you just start to tune it all out.  So naturally, Ends of the Earth hits its stride between the second and fourth tracks before becoming a bit too samey to stay consistently engaged, despite a few standout moments in the back half in "Cravenness" and "The Grand Becoming".  The title track is one of the few that truly does sound like Wintersun to me, with the heightened aggression calling to mind a more exciting version of  Jari's least-bad-but-still-bad song, "Battle Against Time".  "Mirrors" in particular really stands out for the truly astounding lead melody that never really stops careening around the track but never gets old either.  I could probably listen to it forever.

The problem is that, on my second spin through the album, that melody finally clicked in my head and I realized I have been listening to it forever.  It is, almost note-for-note, the "chorus" melody in Joe Satriani's "Crushing Day".  I never really talk about him because he's rarely relevant to what I typically write about, but I'm a big fan of Satch.  Surfing with the Alien is one of the all time greatest guitar albums ever penned, and his penchant for ear catching melodies in between his signature shredding is exactly why Satch stands so far above most of his contemporaries to me.  On one hand this means Euphoreon picked a damn good melody to nick, but on the other hand that marks two melodies (along with the aforementioned Be'lakor "homage" in the opener) that I fairly quickly noticed were borrowed with suspicious similarity.  Obviously it could just be coincidence, but now every time I listen to this I'm doing so with heightened scrutiny, seeing if there's anything else I might've missed, and everything I don't immediately recognize is given something of a side-eye glance because now I can't help but wonder if some other, better artist already wrote it.  Y'all better hope you don't get too popular now, because Uncle Joe has proven himself to be the litigious type if he feels he's been ripped off, just ask Coldplay how borrowing the melody to "Flying in a Blue Dream" worked out for them.

Overall though it's not really the biggest deal, and it'd be massively hypocritical for a Gamma Ray fan like myself to write off a band for getting a bit too ballsy with riff/melody borrowing.  Ends of the Earth is a quite solid melodeath album with a grandiose atmosphere.  There's pretty much no chance it'll find itself on several year end best-of lists in 2018, but I certainly do like their approach and will surely keep listening to this as the year goes on.  If this appeals to Wintersun fans I certainly would recommend Euphoreon to them, because the less people listening to Wintersun, the better.


Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Genocide Pact - Order of Torment

*Eyes Turkey*

I don't really know what to make of this album, and it's not because it's so weird and/or varied that it discombobulates me.  The problem is that I just think it's really hard to have an opinion on something that more or less doesn't really exist.

Genocide Pact isn't necessarily a bad band, they're just an extraordinarily bland one.  Order of Torment is pretty much just mid paced death metal with not much else going on inside itself.  The songs all groove along at a head-nodding pace with a few breaks of speed and one or two parts that I think are supposed to be doomy but in reality are just slow, but that's pretty much the long and short of the entire ordeal.  The peripheral aspects of the band are all just fine.  The guitar tone is suitably beefy and the drums hit like a truck, but the songs they actually create with this sound are totally static.  This is probably a weird thing to notice, but despite the occasional tempo changes, the songs all tend to sound the same because there is one type of riff they abuse into fucking oblivion.  Strum a quarter or half note, and then follow the next measure and a half with eighth or sixteenth note palm mutes over a grooving double bass.  I realize this is probably a dumb thing to criticize because it's not even really a technique, but pay attention.  It's constant.  Every single track seems to be based around this ultra basic riff.  The tempos change sometimes, the drum fills vary, and the fast portion of the riff is sometimes a bit more technical but it's all the same thing. 

This stye of death metal (specifically mid/low pace chugs and grooving double bass) can work just fine.  There are plenty of classic bands who don't blast along at top speed the whole time.  Look at Bolt Thrower, Jungle Rot, Asphyx, and especially Autopsy.  It's not necessarily uncommon, but I think it's fairly difficult to make it engaging throughout an entire 40 minute album.  What those bands all have in spades that Order of Torment very glaringly lacks are twofold: engaging hooks and a sense of savagery.  There's a sort of danger and outright meanness attached to the classic mid paced death metal bands, and all of them are unabashedly unafraid to throw memorable hooks at you and make something catchy in addition to brutal.  Instead what Genocide Pact reminds me most of are post-World Demise Obituary, where the band just writes gluttonous mid-paced drudgery with no urgency or vigor.  It's a bunch of sound that just sorta happens and that's it.  But even then Obituary at least has the X-factor of John Tardy, who is an insanely iconic vocalist who helps even their shitty songs sound absolutely fucking killer in a live setting.  Genocide Pact doesn't even have that, as Tim's vocals are just a nondescript low growl that complements precisely nothing.

There are things to like here, but admittedly not many.  "Pain Reprisal" has the standout section of the album with the homage to "Hammer Smashed Face" near the halfway point, but it's pretty telling that the best thing about the album is the thing that reminds me of Cannibal Corpse, a better band in every conceivable way.  "Structural Dissolution" is also notable because it has the most extreme variance between tempos, and in a way it sort of accidentally highlights the band's greatest weakness, which is the static nature of the songs.  When they build on a slow section and then cut loose and lose their fucking minds in a blasting segment, it really gets the blood pumping.  It builds and releases and that's exactly what exciting death metal bands can do.  If they did this sort of thing more often they'd likely be a thousand times more entertaining.  But as it stands, it's a woeful few times throughout the album that they actually break their chains and turn in something with some actual fucking adrenaline behind it.  This is an opening band, not a headliner.  Genocide Pact is the group that goes on when people are still shuffling through the doors and getting beers, because no matter how heavy these songs are, they don't contain much of anything worth pricking up your ears and paying more attention to.


Saturday, May 5, 2018

Jess and the Ancient Ones - The Horse and Other Weird Tales

Flower... "power"?

In the hallowed halls of metal history, this style of retro-occult-psychedelic-(sometimes)-doom-rock flamed out especially quickly, earning itself a spot next to rethrash and salad shooter tech death in terms of the almost hilariously imbalanced hype-to-longevity ratio (mark my words, synthwave has a year left at most, it will be looked at like Skrillex-style brostep by 2020).  Like most fads, it bloated dangerously quickly, and got too big too quickly, with a few genuine greats struggling to breathe beneath the infinitely expanding quagmire of mediocre nobodies ripping off established classics.  This psychedoomic style is no exception.  Year of the Goat was phenomenal with Lucem Ferre and Angel's Necropolis but I haven't kept up with them since, I can never remember which one I liked between The Devil's Blood and Blood Ceremony, probably whichever one was less metallic, and uhh... Jex Thoth was okay maybe?  It's only been like five years and I've already forgotten pretty much everything about the scene, that's how amazingly quickly it dissipated into total irrelevance.

But the one who always stood out to me was, without a shadow of a doubt, Jess and the Ancient Ones.  You could easily accuse me of just being a dumbass headbanger and latching onto the band with the most ridiculously badass metal background, but I pinky swear that I was already a big fan cranking the debut and Astral Sabbat five times a day by the time I found out that the band included Antti Fucking Boman (aka the interplanetary eldritch calamity that gurgled Demilich to the level of underground legends) and half of the band was also in motherfucking Deathchain (who you may remember as the band that wrote fucking "Napalm Satan").  These guys could be peddling soundcloud trap and I'd be willing to pretend I loved it based on my unending adulation of the members' pedigrees alone. The influence of their decidedly death metal background is more or less entirely absent in JATAO, but it doesn't matter, they've earned my respect so I'd've been all over this band before even hearing a single note if I had discovered this information earlier than I had.

But none of that matters, because almost as soon as I was armed with this knowledge, the band... well, kinda got shit.  Second Psychedlic Coming just went in one ear and out the other so cleanly that even after a few years and probably a dozen spins I've forgotten every single note.  When their third album here, The Horse and Other Weird Tales dropped, I didn't even notice or care.  I only decided to give this a whirl because I got the itch to hear the self titled again the other day and figured this at the very least deserved a listen.  And well, I may not exactly regret listening to it, I certainly don't feel like my life has been enriched in any way by catching up to the band.

Musically, this is as light as they've ever been.  And there's nothing wrong with that really, they were never particularly heavy in the first place, never reaching towards anything more threatening than Blue Oyster Cult for inspiration, but they undeniably had something of an edge that has since been excised entirely.  The occult angle seems to have been replaced entirely with just general flower power psychedelia, taking more inspiration from oriental rugs and incense than pagan rituals in a black forest.  Again, there's nothing really wrong with that outside of personal preference.  I really do miss tracks like "Prayer for Death and Fire" and "Come Crimson Death" but they never really needed to look towards the devil to be great.  If anything, it just shows where their music was going to go as well, because that rough edge that kept the songs a little more dangerous than their contemporaries has been sanded completely clean with the expulsion of Lucifer from their writing room.  Now it's just Jefferson Airplane and The Doors and uhhh... I dunno, The 13th Floor Elevators?  This isn't my style, sue me for not knowing.  The point is, this is pure 60s psyche rock now, drenched in hallucinogens and thus producing music that is far more swirly than straight ahead.

The problem with this is that their average song length has since been cut down by like 60%.  So now that all the real riffs are gone and the band seems more prone to just jamming on Manzarek lines and LSD, but the songs themselves have settled in the 2-3 minute range.  Nothing has time to develop anymore, which is baffling because they were really good at lengthy songs before.  "Sulfur Giants", "More Than Living", and "Come Crimson Death" all ran on an average of around 13 minutes or so, and all of them felt larger than life.  They were sprawling, twisty experiences that built upon themselves and eventually exploded into colorful ejaculations of triumph.  Pardon how absolutely fucked up this sentence is going to be, but one of Jess's main appeals was just how gloriously she would climax.  Even their shorter songs built towards something, and when they reached their apex it would be absolutely astounding.  They've already proven that they're at their best when allowing their songs a lot of time to breathe and develop and form lives of their own, so how the hell did the band decide that it would be a good idea to start writing in a more jammy style while suddenly adhering strictly to a more traditional rock format structure-wise?  In the old days, the songs that had a more "normal" structure and approach were still hovering around the six minute mark, and tracks like "Astral Sabbat", "Twilight Witchcraft", and especially "Prayer for Death and Fire" were 1000x more engaging and exciting than go-nowhere nonsense with an eighth of the content in half the time like "Return to Hallucinate", "Your Exploding Heads" or "Minotaure".  The only songs where this really works are "Shining" and "Here Comes the Rainbow Mouth", and that has more to do with the songwriting in general just being tighter and catchier on those songs.

I've gone this far without really addressing Jess herself, and that's because if I had brought her up first I'd have basically nothing else to talk about.  She is this album, and that's the long and short of it.  The songs being less guitar driven seem to be done with the intent of giving her even more of the stage, because she is mixed obnoxiously high and given center spotlight at every turn.  The instrumental segments don't really shine when they finally do get the spotlight because now it feels like the band is almost uncomfortable without her howling over them.  Don't get me wrong, her voice is still excellent, and it's a bit smokier and sultrier this time around, which admittedly does mesh with the more laid back instrumentation than her exuberant wailing of the past.  This is the sound of a woman matured, but that does also contribute to the more exciting nature of their earlier work being so noticeably absent.  That youth was enrapturing, and this more weathered performance works fine for what it is (and again, the actual sound of her voice is still stellar), but it ultimately winds up being yet another contributing factor to why the band has fallen off so hard in recent years. 

I don't claim to actually know the inner workings of the band behind the scenes.  I don't know who the primary songwriter is, it stands to reason it could be Jess since, ya know, the band is named after her, or possibly Abraham since the keys drive the music so much (though I must admit that despite my overall distaste for the album, I can't get enough of how fucking groovy these basslines are), but whoever it is I think they need to chill out and refocus themselves.  They have strengths that they're perplexingly neglecting to utilize.  JATAO is great at longer songs that grow throughout their runtimes, they're not quite so good at trying to be trippy and succinct at the same time.  While this has grown on me somewhat, it looks like I'm gonna have to just stick to the self titled and Astral Sabbat whenever I want my fix of this style, because what they're doing right now just isn't working on a fundamental level.

I don't really have a good way to end this review, so I'll just point out that Jess's accent is still hilarious and her pronunciation of "eyes" will always sounds like "ass".


Thursday, May 3, 2018

Astronoid - Air

I waited a full day to publish this because I couldn't think of a title

Just look at this bullshit.  Look at that fucking watercolor album art, look at that wussy title, look at the band photo.  A bunch of pencil-necked coastal hipsters with big beards, suspenders, square glasses and plain-ass striped shirts?  I bet every last one of these losers owns a fixie and at least one Radiohead vinyl.  How dare they try to co-opt metal while peddling this weak dreampop hipster bullshit!  I bet they tour with Arcade Fire.  This is the same shit that made Deafheaven so insulting!

Well, if y'all remember, I actually like Deafheaven's endlessly controversial Sunbather, and in turn, I also like Astronoid's debut, Air.

I'm not going to sit here and pretend that these dudes have anything even remotely approaching metal cred.  Air is almost exactly as light as the title implies, focusing on waify, floaty soundscapes akin to what Devin Townsend puts out at his lightest, with seemingly random blastbeats and zippy guitar lines underneath.  Take a listen to something like "Up and Atom" or "Resin", this is cut from pretty much exactly the same cloth as Sunbather, albeit assembled in a much more coherent and less segmented way.  Despite the blasting and tremolo lines, it's all used to an effect closer to a sailboating excursion than anything menacing.  There's no sense of danger here, there's nothing unhinged or scary present.  Brett Boland's vocals are probably the most saccharine and least threatening thing I've ever heard in the context of a metal album before.  They have negative grit, just floating pleasantly above the music in a very dreamlike atmosphere.  They're often labeled as "emo", but I know emo gets misused just as often as "techno" does so I'm not going to exactly go that route, but there's no denying that they're very emotive and pleasant.  You can easily argue that they have no place in this overarching genre, but I think they work well for what Astronoid is doing.

What makes this album fascinating to me is that it seems just sort of backwards in everything it does.  It's aesthetically the complete opposite of black metal, despite utilizing so many of the genres tropes.  It's pretty obvious that the band didn't form until after Alcest and Deafheaven and the like rose to prominence.  You could argue that this is just a continuation of what Lantlos and Fen were doing in the early 2010s, but I'm more willing to point the finger at the hipstery "we play metal but don't actually like metal" bands of the Pitchfork ilk.  Their inspiration for the (admittedly constant) heavy parts clearly come from the least metal metal bands to ever play metal.  It's more Amesoeurs than Darkthrone, is what I'm saying.  Even one of the most basic workaday models for this style of metal comes from the idea of basing the sound on calming swells of post rock melodic climaxes with a backdrop of the occasional minor key tremolo riffs and blastbeats, but they even seem to do that backwards.  Astronoid is based instead on those metal elements, with the busy percussion and surprisingly dexterous guitar lines forming the true meat of the album, with the dreamy pop vocals and flittery melodies coming in second, mere peripherals to the frantic rhythm section.  It's all very fast, but it's completely devoid of aggression, instead coming off as pure desperation.  Just like Harakiri for the Sky, it's both fast and slow at the same time and spends a refreshing amount of effort on making the riffs themselves just as interesting as the melodies.

As I'm writing this, I have my balcony door open (which is right next to my computer), and it's currently storming like a motherfucker.  Rain is billowing sideways, wind is howling, heavy and humid atmosphere is being intermittently broken up by sharp, cool blasts of air, there's very distant thunder rumbling and the occasional flash of lightning, and this is all, honestly, a very fitting backdrop for Air.  With a title as wispy as fucking Air coupled with such a bright, lively, and serene album cover, you figure this would be a good match for a pleasant summer afternoon.  But no, there's something about this cacophony occurring mere feet from where I currently sit in safety that compliments the album very well.  It meshes with the earthy forces of nature outside in a weirdly pleasant yet discordant way.  The music itself isn't malicious or destructive in any way, but it doesn't ignore the vaguely chaotic underpinning of nature itself.  The rain is crashing down in sheets but no trees are blowing over, and this album is similar in that regard, it's soothing with its veneer of welcoming safety, and the ill-fitting fast metal underneath the dreamy soundscapes hits me the same way a rainstorm hits me.

I've said a hundred times before that most Pitchfork-approved metal bands suck shit, but I'm learning that it's mostly the doomy stuff I hate.  When that bastion of snooty baristas latches onto something that melds dreamy chillwave atmosphere with some semblance of "black" metal (this is the first time I've ever been uncomfortable using the term, there really ought to be a different descriptor for something this wholly lacking in vitriol), I... kinda really dig it.  At its core, Air is a metal album written by indie kids who don't actually know anything about metal (total speculation on my part, but I feel like you'd never write a song like "Tin Foil Hats" or "Homesick" if you were worshipping at the altar of Beherit), and in doing so they wound up crafting a surprisingly well made experiment in clashing sounds.  If I had any credibility as a metal critic before today, it's now pretty much entirely shattered.  And I'm okay with that, I'd rather embrace something like Astronoid than pretend I hate it simply because it's fundamentally un-headbangable.


Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Harakiri for the Sky - Arson

Through the darkness of future's past...

I'll admit that this is somewhat outside of my usual wheelhouse.  When I reach for black metal, I tend to prefer it to keep itself far away from the post rock/shoegaze trappings that have become so ubiquitous in the atmospheric camps as of late.  I have soft spots for Altar of Plagues and Wolves in the Throne Room but for the most part it just generally bores me to tears.  This is why the Austrian duo, Harakiri for the Sky, is such a huge surprise to me, because I love the absolute shit out of Arson.

From what little I can gather, most fans of the band find their fourth album here to be somewhat of a disappointment because very little has changed throughout their discography, but honestly this just tells me that I'm missing three other incredible albums by starting this late.  On paper, Harakiri for the Sky plays a fairly by-the-numbers brand of post-black, consisting mostly of melancholic melodies layered over simplistic mid paced riffs with distant vocals playing second fiddle to the melodies, but where I think this band excels is actually through their other fiddles.  The band takes the Anaal Nathrakh route of the two-man-band ideal by having M.S. handle all of the instrumentation while J.J. just stands there and screams, but I feel like choosing to take on a session drummer for Arson (the current drummer of Septicflesh) was probably a huge boon to the overall feel of the album, because he absolutely fucking murders his performance.  He seems to have an almost Kollias-level addiction to speed in his lower half, because almost the entirety of the album is comprised of him blasting his fucking heart out, and even when he slows down it's only through his upper half, as his feet continue pummeling away at insane speeds.  It lends a frantic dissonance to the experience that I adore, changing what would otherwise sound like "I'm dying and I'm very sad about it" into "I'm dying and I don't want to fucking die please help me."  Nothing about this sounds like a triumph, it's all instead a mournful dirge played with incongruent ferocity, and it's an extremely cool effect.  I'll take this speedy and riff-heavy approach over the weepy bleakness of Alcest any day.

Another thing that absolutely deserves mention is how brutally long every song is without ever feeling truly drawn out.  It never falls into mindless repetition, with each track being a dynamic journey complemented by seemingly dozens of riffs and patterns.  The most impressive parts of the band to me are the more peripheral aspects, but the songs all live and die by the strength of the melodies regardless.  There really aren't any moments where I find myself bored or wishing a certain section would hurry up and end, instead finding myself enraptured in gorgeous clean and/or soaring guitar lines over the frantic rhythm section.  It's pretty impressive to have the shortest song still fall north of the eight minute mark and never fall into a rut.  The meaty production helps a lot in this regard, because even if you do tune out, it remains quite full and never really results in passive background noise.

There are a few problems here though, and admittedly they're all fairly large.  For one, while the songs themselves are very dynamic and shift through many different sections with appropriately intense climaxes, they all tend to shift through the same dynamic.  The tempos are almost entirely dependent on a brisk mid-tempo or a desperate blast, the moods are all melancholic and depressive, and there are very few truly unique sections throughout the runtime (like the absolutely crushing quasi-breakdown riff in the climax of "Fire, Walk with Me" or the hopelessly gorgeous outro of "You Are the Scars").  There's no fully calm song nor any fully blast heavy full-metal-assault.  It's one mood, that's all you get.  I've skimmed a few reviews of the album online and many of them mention an almost Korpiklaani-esque folk metal section somewhere in "Stillborn" but that's... not at all true?  I think they're talking about the section at roughly 2:30 but really it's just the same basic thing they do for the rest of the album, just with a slightly more active guitar line.  I guess if you really squint your ears it sounds a bit like early Ensiferum but that's really stretching it.  What the hell?  Did one reviewer throw that reference in as a joke and everybody parroted it without actually listening? 

It's also the opposite of succinct, with every song avoiding the problem of needless repetition but still following a similar structure throughout lengthy runtimes.  Including the Graveyard Lovers cover from the digital version (which I'm using to review), it clocks in at an excruciating 71 minutes.  With the songs all being so similar, this is one of the few albums where I would actually say that putting it on shuffle and listening to roughly three songs before just moving on to something else wouldn't devalue the experience at all.  That's about all it takes to get a full idea of what the album contains.  The first handful of tracks seem to have more individual standout sections but the last three tracks are probably tighter and more consistent on the whole, but even then it's a negligible difference.  "Tomb Omnia" and "Voidgazer" aren't really all that different from "Heroin Waltz" and "You Are the Scars" despite this distinction. 

There's really no place to put this, but the vocals are worth noting as a flaw as well.  J.J. isn't a bad vocalist by any means but he's noticeably the only truly static element of the band.  His screams are all a monotone bellow, with no variation whatsoever between all of his lines.  He hardly even has a "metal" voice, entirely devoid of black metal screeching or howling.  It's just a gruff holler, and it wouldn't sound too out of place in a particularly moody (post) hardcore band.  I don't particularly mind it, personally, but it's noticeable and worth mentioning.

Now, here's where we peel back the curtain a bit and see how all of this relates to my own personal philosophy on music and reviewing.  To me, music is art.  There are different kinds of experiences and goals that any given metal band will tackle, but it's art all the same.  Taken as a piece of art as opposed to a clinical deconstruction of the elements at play within Arson, all of those flaws amount to essentially bupkis.  Yeah the songs are all fairly samey and it's agonizingly long, but... man who gives a shit?  I don't need a fuckin' math problem to tell me how much I enjoy something.  If you plug in the individual components and weigh them however you choose to weigh them, you're going to encounter a lot of negatives that drag the score down.  If those negatives actually do impact your enjoyment then hey, more power to you, but for me they just... don't.  If I used some sort of formula to score this album, it'd land somewhere probably as low as the high fifties or low sixties.  But in my heart of hearts, if I just ask myself "How much do I like this album?", the answer is a very simple "A shitload."


Thursday, April 26, 2018

QUICK "HIT": Electric Wizard - Dopethrone


Hello children!  It's time once again for my new annual review, THE 4/21 SPECIAL!  For those who weren't around last year or are too perpetually stoned to remember, the basic gist is that I, as a metal fan who does not smoke, gathers up some friends of mine who do smoke but do not listen to metal, and force them at knifepoint to listen to a seminal stoner metal album to see if the genre works for people who only have half of the requisite qualifications for liking it (see: they dig ganj but don't get nearly as hard as I do when they hear a really fucking good riff dammit).  It turns out this is incredibly fucking hard for me because I didn't realize how much of a one-dimensional stereotype I was until it came time to list out the amount of friends I had who weren't metal fans and came up with like, I dunno, fuckin' two?  But, for the second year in a row now, I've somehow managed to round up three unfortunate souls to join me this year.  I'll give my short review first, as per the template I apparently use, but first you should know why Dopethrone was the chosen album.

Last year was easy, there's no stoner metal album more quintessentially "stoner" than Dopesmoker.  Sleep is the band for me, it was an incredibly easy choice.  But when it came time to do it again, I found myself struggling a bit.  I wanted it to be a first impression for myself as well, but I didn't want it to be some woefully obscure thing with ten bandcamp downloads or something because then nobody would care enough to read this.  So I decided on five random classics that I sorta knew but had never listened to in full, since this isn't my usual genre for casual listening (not nearly enough disembowelments and/or mystical dragonfaeries for me).  I started a group chat with the three participants (Returning champion Patt Mike from last year's edition, plus two new women, one I'll call NuBiz, since the original Biz Luckingham has since decided to run off and go join the circus, and one more I'll call Boo Boo Kitty Fuck, because I'm a child), and announced that this year was going to be player's choice.  I posted five album covers and told them to just pick whichever one they wanted.  The choices where: Kyuss's Welcome to Sky Valley, YOB's Atma, Goatsnake's Flower of Disease, Ufomammut's Godlike Snake, and of course, Electric Wizard's Dopethrone.

The conversation went as follows, paraphrased:

BH: "Alright guys, here are the five albums to choose from.  Debate amongst yourselves and let me know which one seems like it might be the most interesting."

Patt: "Okay obviously I have to choose the one with fucking Satan smoking a bong"

BBKF: "¯\_(ツ)_/¯"

NuBiz: "I'll take Kyuss I guess"

BH: "You all get the same one so too bad you're outvoted"

And so, with that highly scientific process out of the way, let's take a brief gander at my thoughts on Dopethrone, quite possibly one of the most iconic metal albums I've just never bothered to listen to.

The first thing I'm struck by is how absolutely fucking gargantuan the guitar tone is.  I first played this in my car and I was genuinely afraid that my lugnuts would rattle off the tires.  I realize tone worship is a thing in these circles and I'm sure that this album's sound has been surpassed a few hundred times over in the eighteen years since its release (I am at least aware of something like Conan), but since I spend so much time outside of this sound it's still pretty striking to me.  Every note is drowned in this unrelenting wall of bassy fuzz, it's a beautiful distorted mess and it calls to mind the kind of stuff Sabbath might have created if more modern recording techniques had existed in the 70s.  I've seen an interview with Geezer Butler where he attributed a lot of their early success and identity with Rodger Bain's production, since he was so laid back in the studio he didn't care that they were all playing way too loud and distorting the bass to death.  It seems like stoner metal as a whole must've just taken that lesson and run to the most logical extreme they could with it, because even during this album's quiet moments it feels like it could loosen the plaster off the walls.  Jus Osborn's vocals are a cool feature as well, since they're just a completely haggard monotone yell buried somewhere off in the distance beneath the molasses-thick riffage.  That's really the album's strong suit, because my understanding of stoner metal as "super fuzzed out Sabbath riffs" is reinforced pretty clearly here, and dammit I don't care because Sabbath was really fucking good at riffs.  This sounds like Master of Reality but twice as dirty and three times as loud, with extra moments of extreme minimalism resulting in an agonizing drone that overtakes a few of the songs.  Personally though, those segments are nice for what they are, but the band is clearly at their best when they're cranking out bluesy-swingy-groovy-doom riffs with a menacing gait like on "Funeralopolis" or the title track.  It all ties together pretty well with the disparate ideas though, as the thruline of the album seems to be some vision of unremitting misanthropy and sheer hatred.  Don't let the psychedelic font of the logo fool you, Dopethrone is all about misery and death and hatred and Satan and nuclear hellfire.  The escapist odyssey of Dopesmoker from last year is nowhere to be found here, replaced entirely with a bleak aggression.  The world is awful and Electric Wizard fucking hates everything about this awful world, and that includes you, the listener.  Ultimately, I can't fault much about this album, because it clearly accomplishes what it sets out to do with aplomb, the problem is just that, like last year, it's really hard for me to focus on.  The ambient dirge of the last two movements of "Weird Tales" is fucking brutal and hard to get through, and "I, the Witchfinder" is absolutely agonizing in its extreme repetition, basically grooving on one riff for eleven solid minutes.  I do really like "Funeralopolis", "We Hate You", the first half of "Weird Tales", and the title track, but really admitting that makes me feel like a scrub, because those are generally some of the more active and mobile songs on the record, not nearly as sluggish as "I, the Witchfinder" or something.  Perhaps this is where my sobriety comes into play, because I like the parts where it riffs, the rest of it I can take or leave.

So that's my mini-review.  Now, unlike last year, I had a bit of a rare opportunity since all of the participants are also friends of Patt (instead of being scattered across three separate groups of friends), so the plan for the day was do all meet up at his apartment, have the stoners do their thing, and then jam the album while I sorta watched their reactions and took mental notes whenever they had something to say about it.  I didn't expect a serious listening party or anything, but I thought this might be more fun than just sitting on my ass playing BlazBlue while I waited for them to text me back.

So instead of separate sections, here's a rundown of my 4/20.

The day prior, I asked NuBiz if she'd be able to join the other two and I, and she politely declined, saying she wouldn't be able to, but she'd still be happy to listen to the album and report back to me.  As I was walking to Patt's place, I thought to text her and remind her just in case I had a repeat of last year where everybody forgot to listen to the album I picked.  She responds with "Ehhh, I might not be able to after all.  I don't know yet but it might be a good idea to have a backup."

Well fuck.

Okay so now what?  Doing this with just two seems silly, I want to hit that magic three.  I arrive at Patt's place with BBKF and am informed that Patt's boyfriend will be joining us later.  Alright sweet, I still got my three!  But wait!  Patt still lives at home, and said boyfriend recently got in a row with his mother and got kicked out (they were previously living together there), so he tells me it might be a good idea to just smoke up there, and then walk back to my apartment so things aren't too tense.  Ay dios mio, alrighty, that's not so bad.  New plan is now to let the goofs rip a few at Patt's, then walk the block or so away back to my own apartment where I can crank Electric Wizard at proper volume, so they can fully experience the proper bone rattlage.

Upon arriving, Patt leads us into his bedroom, which apparently BBKF is well familiar with thanks to being friends with him forever, but was a totally new experience for me.  Every square inch of wall was covered with movie posters, spread from all over the spectrum, from great films like Alien, to awful ones like The Bye Bye Man, to, for some thematically baffling but nonetheless pleasant reason, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.  In the corner there is a wooden cabinet painted white and bloodstained.  He opens it with a meathook.  It is full of slasher flicks of all stripes, once again spanning the gamut of quality to the early classics of Friday the 13th and Halloween, to the awful celluloid abortions that are... well, still Friday the 13th and Halloween, just the modern reinterpretations.  BBKF parks herself on the bed and Patt asks her what she wants to smoke out of.  See, BBKF has smoked like, I dunno, once or twice in the last four or five years?  So she's long out of practice and isn't familiar with his collection of wares anymore.  So the next several minutes are spent with Patt playing Vanna White with his various assorted collection of bongs.  I know stoners have this thing where they name their bongs and/or pipes, but he didn't reveal any names, so I'm going to just make them up.  Highlights include a five foot long purple PVC pipe that I named "Barney's Love Bone", some weird seven-tube concoction he found at a garage sale that the person selling claimed "I don't know I think it's my son's science fair project" that I named "Highence Fair", and one shaped like a massive black dildo that you hit out of the urethra that I named "Your Real Dad".  Ultimately, BBKF chose a pink and purple striped affair that I named "Chanandler".

The two park themselves in their respective seats and I grab a chair and start to observe.  Patt takes a smaller, clear thing that looks like a beaker and hits it.  He no-sells whatever reaction he might have had, I can only assume that nothing fazes him anymore.  The only reason I'm telling this part of the story is for BBKF, who, like I mentioned, hasn't done a whole lot of smoking for several years.  She takes Chanandler and the little, I don't know what it's called, the piece or something?  I didn't know until yesterday that you can just take a little thing with some bud in it and plug it into any bong you choose, that's how fuckin' square I am.  I'm 27 years old.  Anyway, she takes the little golf-tee-looking-thing-with-dro-in-it and takes a big rip on Chanandler.  She then proceeds to hack up a lung for the next year.  She then immediately turns into what I assume Matthew Lillard is like on any given Tuesday, with her eyes fluctuating between barely open no matter how hard she tries to giant spheres she uses to gawk at things while hiding behind a pillow.  She eats a Cosmic Brownie snack that nobody saw her grab.  She holds it with two hands and nibbles on it like a gerbil.  She tells me then that "every cough is like another hit, so really I did like thirty hits so I'm good".  Patt proceeds to take roughly a million more and his demeanor doesn't change one iota, BBKF is a giggling mess after one.  Clearly I'm looking at Wayne Gretzky trying to play pond hockey with Verne Troyer here.

Two Cosmic Brownies later, they decide they're sufficiently high and ready to head back to my place.  It is now that I realize that Patt's boyfriend (who I shall henceforth refer to as "Ruffles") won't actually be there for a few more hours, long after they've passed their peak and listened to the album at hand.  Fuck fuck fuck I'm still not going to get my three.  I scramble, I try to think of somebody, anybody I can hit up and say "Hey, I know you're stoned right now so just load up this album and listen to it really quickly", and the only person that comes into my mind is a girl I'll call Moon Moon, because yes, she is just the human version of that meme.  I text her and send her a link and ask if she can listen.  She says "Yeah sure".  She texts back five minutes later and says "It's great".  You didn't listen to it Moon Moon god dammit you can't fool me.

Patt, BBKF, and myself all walk back to my apartment, where I promptly load up Dopethrone, excited to finally see the album working its magic in real time.  The two plop down on my couch and prepare themselves for some dark fuckin' doomy haze worship.  "Vinum Sabbathi" starts up and the two of them sit there, stonefaced, no reaction whatsoever.  I try to make idle conversation to keep them engaged in some way or another, mostly out of fear that they're immediately hating the noise currently blaring out of my speakers.  Patt says almost right away "I can sorta dig this, it sounds like some dudes just lighting up in the garage and jamming insanely loudly."  BBKF makes a noise that I think means she agrees, but it's hard to tell because she's too busy holding onto a potato chip with two hands and munching on it.  I didn't see her grab a bag of chips.

During "Funeralopolis", Patt draws on his obvious area of expertise and says "You know, I can see this working in a movie.  Like, as the soundtrack to murder.  Like that weird time in the early 2000s when every slasher movie crammed metal songs into them for seemingly no reason."  BBKF sets down a granola bar that I didn't see her grab and announced "Yeah, this could actually totally work in The Groundskeeper!"

Some of you may be movie buffs and have no idea what The Groundskeeper is, and that's okay, because it's not real.  Patt's forte is obviously in film as opposed to music, and like all lovers of art, he aspires to create his own.  The Groundskeeper is his love letter to the slasher flicks of yore, a film that he scripted but to my knowledge has never been able to film.  I know very little about it, I guess it's heavily inspired by Friday the 13th and tells the story of a bullied kid who dies and... resurrects as a hulking murder-person and... gets a job?  He's a groundskeeper somewhere, and I can only hope the obvious joke that his name is Willie.  Teens invade the grounds he keeps to be drunk/stoned/horny and he murders them all in creative ways, real meat-and-potatoes stuff.  All I really, truly know about this hypothetical film is that my fiance (who is also longtime friends with Patt and actually how I met him in the first place) was cast to play a lesbian, specifically because she "won't stop wearing fucking Birkenstocks".  I hope this film comes to fruition, because the only way I could possibly love her more is if I got to watch her bang a chick and then die.

The "Altar of Melektaus" movement of "Weird Tales" starts to draw to a close, and Patt proclaims that he likes how it's moved from riffs to this droning funeral dirge.  It runs the gamut of many moods, all of which work in at least some sort of way with being massively stoned.  BBKF again agrees, though much less enthusiastically.  She is eating fistfuls of trail mix.  I didn't see her grab my bag of trail mix.

We get to maybe halfway through "Barbarian" when BBKF says "Oh wow!"  I think she's going to comment on the music proactively for a change instead of piggybacking off of Patt, whose mental faculties appear to be functioning beyond "find food and eat it with two hands", but instead she says "These mango slices are expired!"  I didn't even know I fucking had mango slices in the apartment.  Where is she getting all this food?

Another minute passes by and she looks at me with a sad, longing expression, and says "Hey BH, can I be honest with you?"  Curious as to this sudden change in mood, I say of course.  She looks towards the floor, saddened, almost afraid, and says "I'm done listening to this..."  Hey man, that's fine, y'all only needed to last as long as you want to.  I look to Patt and he shrugs, saying maybe he'll listen to it later on his own time and give me another writeup like last year, but he's not really feeling it all that much either.  That's when I hear a mousey voice off to the side.  "...also can you order a pizza?"

Well it looks like that's it!  Guess it's time to pack up and let those two hit the road, Ruffles hadn't even showed up yet, but clearly Dopethrone wasn't hitting the same vibe with these guys as Dopesmoker did last year. That's fine, it's definitely more abrasive and I can see how non-metalheads won't groove with it quite as seemlessly as the Californian nug-men from before.

Now, again you may be wondering why the "4/21" Special has been postponed almost a full week.  The truth of the matter is that all of that rambling above was initially supposed to only be the first half of this review.  You see, after they decided to stop penetrating their eardrums with Electric Wizard, my two stoned compadres didn't leave to go home.  Instead, they got the bright idea that "Holy shit guys we should watch The Craft right now!"  I've never seen The Craft, but I've always known those two loved it, so I figured hey, why not.  The second half of this post was supposed to be a review of The Craft.

The problem is that I'm terrible at reviewing movies.  I tried, I really did.  I started and erased this section like six god damned times trying to perfect it, and I just can't even get it to be passable.  I'm not satisfied with my ability to describe anything that isn't purely musical, so fuck it, I'm not going to postpone this any longer.  There will be no review of The Craft further than these next few sentences:  It's not a bad movie, I thought it was "very much fine".  Skeet Ulrich is named fucking "Skeet".  It's about four misfits who start a coven and gain magical witch powers after a real life witch joins the original trio.  There are some striking visuals here and there (particularly during the ritual on the beach) but the plot itself is kinda thin and most of the characters aren't developed in any way beyond Sarah and Nancy.  Skeet Ulrich is still named fucking "Skeet".  All of these teenagers are in their twenties, and Breckin Meyer shows up a few times and I just want to give him a wedgie.  Neve Campbell is supposed to be hideously deformed but all of her scars are hidden by loose clothing and the parts of her you can see are still Neve Campbell so I mean come on who wouldn't want Neve Campbell in her physical prime?  Robin Tunney just got done filming Empire Records, a movie she shaved her head for, so she's very obviously wearing a wig throughout this and once it was pointed out to me I couldn't un-see it for the life of me.  Who the fuck chooses to be named "Skeet" god dammit.  Vicky Valencourt is probably a legitimate insane person so she killed it as Nancy at the very least.  The part where she kills Skeet is pretty hilarious.  That previous sentence has spoilers in it by the way.  Anyway she kills him by magically pushing him out of a window but before she does it she just starts screeching "HE'S SORRY? OH GOD HE'S SORRY HE'S SORRY HE'S SORRY" while she stares directly into the camera and shakes her head back and forth like a nutjob and I just have to imagine being on set while she's doing this and I couldn't stop laughing internally.  Imagine being the poor intern flicking the lights on and off or the cameraman trolleying back and forth while she's doing this.  It's hilarious to me.  At one point Sarah walks through a room and the words GUSTAV KILMT are just randomly written on the wall and that's the laziest fucking reference I've ever seen.  "Hey Cletus, do you think we should put up a Klimt painting right here?"  "Nah Jethro, just write his name on the wall.  Same diff."  Nobody gets naked.  SKEET 

So anyway now we're done!  Thank you all for playing along, thank you to all my participants for being good sports about listening to obnoxious metal.  I'll do this again next year like always and hopefully I won't kneecap myself by telling myself I'll also review a movie at the same time because man I'm really bad at it. Thanks again!  Legalize Drugs and Murder!


Monday, April 2, 2018

Off With Their Heads - In Desolation/Home


I feel like I need to tackle this as a twofer, which is kinda silly considering there's really nothing linking these albums apart from a general theme.  It's not part of a continuing narrative or concept or anything; Off With Their Heads doesn't play a style that's even remotely conducive to such a thing in the first place.  But for me, their second and third albums, 2010's In Desolation and 2013's Home are inextricably linked in my mind.  I can't hear one without the other, I can't talk about one without also reaching towards the other, they're two sides of the same coin, two representations of the same idea, with enough variation between the two to work both as separate entities and companions to one another. 

I've touched on my own depression a handful of times within the context of my reviewing career (Tyranny's Tides of Awakening, Insomnium's Since the Day It All Came Down, and most notably Strapping Young Lad's City) and, fair warning, this is going to be another entry in that loose series I've been weaving over the years, and once again it's barely going to be about the music itself.  Off With Their Heads has an incredible knack of cutting right through the bullshit and punching me directly in my soul, and even when I'm in a good place mentally I find myself drawn to these albums as some sort of sombre reminder of how bad shit can be.

I'll touch briefly on the music itself, because I obviously like it.  This isn't metal at all, so it's a bit of a break from what I usually write about.  It's really simple sub-three-minute four chord punk rock in the vein of The Ramones and some other more obvious bands I'll probably completely misappropriate since my usual brands of punk are the much faster and more technical skate punk/melodic hardcore styles.  They seem to be frequently tied to Banner Pilot and Dillinger Four, I dunno, maybe they share some members or something, admittedly I've never looked it up.  OWTH exist in a vacuum to me, their influences and connections are irrelevant to me, they're a safe place of sorts where the rest of the musical world doesn't exist.  They're generally mid/uptempo and abrasive punk rock with a melodic edge and a penchant for great hooks, that's all I know and that's all I care about.  This is why I usually talk about metal, because that's a style I've been so deeply embroiled in for my whole life that I can pick out every tiny nuance and describe it with obtuse metaphors to keep from repeating myself.  Here?  Nope, it's loud punk and I like it, I don't know anything else, fuck off.

There's one thing I can highlight though, and that's Ryan Young, the vocalist/guitarist that acts as the nucleus of the entire band.  The main thing that attracted me to the band in the first place (apart from the excellent hooks) was his voice.  Fucking hell man, he sounds like he's been smoking a pack a day since he was a toddler and yet he maintains a soulful melodicism to his extreme rattle.  He has the kind of voice that comes from years of sadness and self abuse, the kind of guy who gargles razorblades and washes it down with Everclear and Ambien.  I can't get enough of it, everything he says is tinged with this sorrowful frustration, like he's pouring his heart out with every line but also doing everything he can to keep himself from completely falling apart. 

Don't wanna feel like this, anxious and angry and hopeless and upset all the time 

Anyway, the real core of what brings me here, writing this dual review in the first place, is the lyrical themes that tie together all of OTWH's releases.  Young has always been very open about his myriad mental illnesses, and it's reflected in his writing, and it's why I connect with his material so much.  Nearly every song is in some way reflective of his depression and anxiety, constantly crying out for help as he slowly self destructs and loses his sense of identity.  He has a goofy side that comes out outside of his music itself (see their music videos to see one of the most brutally depressing and emotional songs written in the last decade coupled with visuals of him getting pied in the face over and over again), but trust me when I say it's all the real deal.  The band had to drop off a tour with The Flatliners a few years ago after he suffered a nervous breakdown on the road, he's since started Anxious and Angry, a podcast that regularly discusses mental illness (also a webstore/small label(?)), the guy's got fuckin' issues, and it resonates with people who've been there.

Starting off with In Desolation, you'd be forgiven for thinking this is going to take a bit of an optimistic look at things, since the opening tracks sorta veer that way.  "Drive" is about running away from your problems, true, but as somebody who used to clear his mind by just driving aimlessly at night, it immediately speaks to a part of me that understands the cathartic release of just taking off in a random direction for a few hours.  "Their Own Medicine" follows, being another uptempo rocker, with lyrics that basically say "Everybody who fucked with you in the past can be dealt with today by knocking them the fuck out", it sounds like the album is going to be something of a primer for dealing with your problems.

Then the rest of the album happens.

I hate every second of the god damned day / gimme anything you got I don't care, it's all the same 

Starting from "Trying to Breathe", the album just slowly descends further and further down a hole as Young starts to lose hope and basically fall back on his old mantra of "I don't want to be like this but I fucking hate myself so I'm just going to do a shitload of drugs until I die".  "Trying to Breathe" basically sounds like a play by play rundown of having a particularly brutal anxiety attack, pleading to make it through unscathed but also just sort of accepting that this might be the end.  Everything from here on out reads like a cry for help or a screed of hatred directed squarely inwards.  From deep seated familial issues and frustration with inheriting his crippling depression in "Old Man", to the stress of life driving him to medicating himself into as perpetual of a sleep as he can manage in "All I Can Do", to idle thoughts making everything worse in "Spare Time", each passing song is just another uncomfortably relatable bodyblow to anybody who has felt helpless and trapped in their own mind.

One thing that I always mention about depression is that it's not as romanticized as it is in popular media, with the weepy days of grey overtaking life.  There are a variety of moods you experience, just like any human being, it's just that the bad ones tend to take precedence.  City covers this better than pretty much any album ever written, but there's another common theme that pops up throughout In Desolation, and that's that there's somebody that Young clearly cares about more than anything.  There are shades of it all over the place, but it's addressed more specifically in "I Need You", "I Just Want You to Know" and most obviously "My Episodes", where he expresses endless thanks to some unnamed person for keeping him as grounded as he possibly can be.  It's actually kind of heartbreaking when put in the context of everything else he says throughout the album, because as much as this person does for him, he's still a hopeless wreck who seems to constantly flirt with just giving up on life entirely.  And god damn if I don't understand that personally.  I'm in a good place right now, I have a wonderful fiance who makes every second of life worth living, but you can't ever make the bad shit go away entirely.  I have bad days/weeks all the time, I can't even begin to count the amount of times I've wanted to just fucking bail on everything and drive until I hit a coastline and then dive the fuck in.  This shit is hard, it never goes away, no matter how good your life is at any given moment, it could always come back when you least expect it.  I keep it inside most of the time, I try to be as strong as I can, but it's not easy, and it's extremely draining.

I think that's why the final track, "Clear the Air" has so quickly rocketed up the rankings of what I'd consider to be my all time favorite songs.  It so clearly captures my greatest fear, pouring my heart out, laying everything bare for the world to see, and in doing so scaring away the only person who keeps me sane.  The track plays out like a confession, with Young spilling his guts in a way that's so personal and understandable, and it builds from a quiet acoustic song and ultimately climaxes in an explosion of of emotion.  Every single line is something I've said to myself at some point, something I've practiced and ultimately pussed out of admitting to anybody, every admission of irrationality and broken plea for help has played out in my head as some hypothetical conversation with my loved ones verbatim.  When the song finally explodes, you can feel every ounce of desperation, frustration, hopelessness, sadness, and confusion in his voice when he finally switches from his calming clean voice that he seemingly struggles to maintain to his trademark rattle as he screams "God DAMMIT I'M FALLING APART".  It should be cathartic, but instead is desperate.  "Don't leave yet / I haven't gotten to the part that explains it all", it sounds like it was all in vain for him.  Instead of finally making everything make sense, this person who does so much for him just... can't take it anymore and leaves.  Holy shit that's terrifying to me, I can't imagine being in a situation like that, it's one I'm always afraid of experiencing myself.  Even though I know damn well that my special someone will stay by my side, because we've been through so much shit in terms of dealing with our own personal demons and have only come out the other side closer than we were before, I'm always waiting for that other shoe to drop.  "Clear the Air" is the narration of my nightmare scenario, and yet it's become one of my favorite songs of all time for the same reason I love The Catcher in the Rye so much.  I see a lot of myself in Holden Caulfield, and it doesn't paint a pretty picture.  I see a lot of myself in Ryan Young, and it's a really fucking dark reflection.

I thought I'd get older and it'd go away / but it only gets worse and causes more pain 

Three years later, after that emotional tour de force, the band returned and delivered their third album, Home, and... fuck it's so much more bleak.  For as much as In Desolation was content to wallow in its own self pity, there was always a sense of a light being at the end of the tunnel.  There were songs about being saved by a loved one scattered throughout, even if it ended on the brutal down note that is "Clear the Air".  That's not present anywhere on Home.  No, Home is just an endless dirge of misery camouflaged somewhat by the uptempo and catchy punk rock.  Pay attention to the lyrics even medium-hard and you'll see almost immediately that Young's mental state hasn't improved in the slightest, if anything it's only deteriorated.  His voice even sounds more broken, being a bit deeper on the whole and much more throaty and gurgly, his rattle is more extreme than it's ever been.  He sounds like a weathered man compared to his barely younger self from only one album ago.  The fact that the only song that's even marginally optimistic this time around is "Focus On Your Own Family", which acts as a sort of "Don't worry, we've got your backs" to the LGBT community, tells me that he's dealt with some shit between albums. 

There are two themes that seem to recur most often throughout the duration of this one, and one is the concept of "home" and what it means to Ryan, which could be viewed through the lens of a punk rocker always on the road with no permanent place to lay down for the night, but personally I view it through the lens I view all OWTH with, that being depression.  On my worst days, I can find myself laying down in my own bed, in my own bedroom, with my only thought being "I want to go home".  That's been an experience I've dealt with my whole life, from being an angsty teenager with then-undiagnosed dysthymic disorder to being a grown-ass adult living in his own apartment with the woman he proposed to.  I think that's because "home" is, to me, and I suspect to Ryan as well, a place where none of this shit matters.  A safe space where you can finally be happy.  Depressive thoughts and ideation is like a haunting, a demon that you can never truly escape.  It will always find you, no matter how far you run or how happy you are, it will always catch you.  It will always find where you are and it will snatch you in its clutches and refuse to let go until your brain stubbornly acquiesces and produces the proper chemical to eradicate it for a time.  I can be "home", and still want to go "home", because "home" is a place where I've finally eluded that haunting for good.  Everything that makes me happy is here, but I'm only "home" like 60% of the time.  I never know when I'm going to want to cut ties and run to some elusive nowhere that finally acts as the "home" I've always dreamed of.  The sad reality is that "home" may not be a physical space, and as long as I have this stupid abnormal depression-brain I will never truly be there.

The other recurring theme is that of repeating the past, usually in the form of self destructive habits.  This one I can't relate to quite as strongly on a personal level, since despite my storied history of bad decisions, I've always managed to avoid any sort of drug dependency or addiction to self harm, which is what most of these references seem to allude to, but it's hard not to place yourself in Young's shoes here.  There are countless references to things being so much worse than last time, or being unable to keep from bad habits, or thinking you'll finally get it right this time only to be disappointed, and each time he sounds more broken than the last.  Young is not only struggling to find his "home", he's struggling to even keep himself alive and coherent enough to truly care about finding it.  Like always, there are moments of clarity where it seems possible, like for example "Come Find Me", but more often than not he finds himself wallowing and lost, like "Stolen Away" and "Shirts". 

It's not the same as it was last time / It's so much worse, it's something that drives me out of my mind 

Like I mentioned, In Desolation is so brutal because he recounts all of his demons in painstaking detail despite having an outlet of hope right next to him, but it's also a stark contrast to the band's earlier work as well as this one.  Their previous releases (particularly the EP Hospitals and debut LP From the Bottom, as well as the ten quadrillion splits they appeared on around 2007) were all equally as hopeless and despondent as Home, featuring cheerful ditties like "Die Tonight" and "Fuck This, I'm Out", which also helps keep the theme of returning to past pits, most especially thanks to the track "Janie", which originally appeared on one of their millions of 7" splits six or seven years prior. 

I haven't outright said it yet, but once we hit their biggest hit song here, "Nightlife", it's impossible to avoid any longer.  Part of the reason that these lyrics hit so close to home is because there is precisely zero pretension involved.  Absolutely nothing is dressed up in flowery metaphor, it is all just blunt, brutalist realism spelled out in plain language.  You could argue that something like that just constitutes bad lyricism, but really it's just Young cutting through all the bullshit and getting straight to the point.  These lyrics may not be clever, but they're no less powerful.  "Nightlife" is probably the best example of this besides the monumental "Clear the Air" from the previous album.  The song is already potentially the tightest two and a half minutes in modern punk, but the plain nature of the lyrics just cut straight to my fucking core.  It's another plea for help, presented like an admission yet again, like most of their songs, and even though there's an implicit admission of "I can't stop drugging myself to death" here, I still know I've said and felt every last syllable of what he's laid out here.  It's just... I dunno, fucking simple and relatable.  It hits a wide target and cuts deep.  "I wear it all on my sleeve and everyone sees no matter how hard I try / I've never felt worse in my whole life".  It closes on him just repeating over and over and over again that he feels like this every night, and it rips me apart because fuck so do I.  No matter how happy I am, I'll never shake that defeatist misery.  I'm good now, I know I am, but there's that niggling little fuck in the dark recesses of my brain that just wants to get up and abandon everything.  I've never buckled, and I don't think I ever will, but at least once per night I'll have to subconsciously tell myself to shut the fuck up and allow me to be happy. 

I know I'm sick, and I'm not right / I'm so fucking tired of living this life 

One of the few musical points I can accurately point out is that Home finds itself just as sonically downtrodden as the lyrics at times.  Yeah there are some uptempo hook generators here in "Seek Advice Elsewhere" and "Start Walking", but there's also a lot more downbeat and mellow, and dare I say, minimalist, tracks here as well.  "Don't Make Me Go" is an out-and-out ballad, "Always Alone" and "Come Find Me" are much slower interpretations of regular old punk songs, and "Stolen Away" takes it as far as it can feasibly go, being a very slow song consisting entirely of minimalist percussion and slow palm mutes.  If sped up to 2.5x speed it might sound like a normal song, but here's it's just a sad confession on quaaludes, and really fits the despondent lyrics as well as any punk song ever could.  It's kind of interesting in it's execution, but I do admit that it saps the momentum of the album a bit.  So if we're going to stay on the surface and look at this purely as an album to listen to as opposed to an expose on the depths of depression, Home is weaker than In Desolation on this front.  It's no less tight, but it's there.

No plans for children, no plans for growing old 

At the end of the day, I lied a little bit when I said I listened to Off With Their Heads as a reminder for how bad it can be some 3200 words ago.  Really, that's not true.  I listen to City as a litmus test to see how I'm doing and to remind myself of high school, I listen to The Crimson Idol and Since the Day It All Came Down just as a soundtrack to mope, but I listen to In Desolation and Home because it reminds me that I'm not alone.  There are other people out there who feel the same way I do, and they're still chugging along.  Ryan Young is a disturbed individual who clearly struggles to get by every day, but he still runs a successful band/label/podcast and is able to share his story in a way that most people can only dream of.  He fights his demons, and sometimes he loses, and that's okay.  It's okay to fail sometimes, it's okay to show your weaknesses and spill your guts.  Life is unfair, but it's worth living.  People are there for you, I'm here for you, I've gone through this shit too and I don't want anybody else to suffer through this shit with nobody to reach out to like I did for so long.  I think this is why Chester Bennington was so revered and why his suicide hit his fans so hard.  He spoke to them the same way Ryan Young speaks to me, and if Young ever loses his fight the same way Bennington did, I'll probably react the same way Linkin Park fans reacted.  The point is that Off With Their Heads manages to speak to a terminally depressed person like me in a way that acknowledges the problem, and while they offer absolutely no respite or ways to finally escaping it, they let me know that I'm not crazy, I'm not broken, I'm not a faulty human being.  I'm merely that, a human being.  And so are you, and so are all of us.  We can get through any of this shit, but it's okay to delve deep into why we're so fucked up and be honest with ourselves.

I love all of you, stay strong, nothing is unbeatable.

RATINGS: Obviously not important%

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Victorius - Dinosaur Warfare - Legend of the Power Saurus


When I was seven years old, a friend and I decided that we wanted to make comic books.  The combined brainpower of two elementary school boys fueled by Mountain Dew and raised on Sega and Saturday morning cartoons came up with the idea of a crack squad of cybernetic dinosaur mercenaries, a creative midpoint between X-Men and Dinosaurs for Hire.  Neither of us could draw, we didn't have any colored pencils so it was just pencil outlines of squiggly vaguely dinosaur-with-machine-gun shaped blobs fighting each other.  We christened our creation "DINOSAUR EXPLOSIONS".  We made maybe two "issues" of this storyline before our sugar rush wore off and we fucked off back to playing Clay Fighter or Road Rash or whatever the hell it is that seven year olds do, but our foray into comic books always stuck with me.

If you need context why I love Victorius's new EP so god damned much, Dinosaur Warfare - Legend of the Power Saurus, it's entirely because I thought of this idea already twenty years ago and nothing thrills me more than seeing it come to life.

Victorius has been kicking around for neary fifteen years now, releasing four full lengths that have languished in moderate obscurity (though not totally unknown, they all have a handful of reviews on MA with good scores), but nothing about them has ever really been superlative.  They're a solid second-tier power metal band from a region that is overflowing with solid-yet-forgettable power metal, there's never really been a reason to seek them out prior to this release.  They needed to do something to finally stand out, and by golly did they do that.  Not only did they land on the idea of the most outwardly absurd concept album in recent memory (an epic sci-fi struggle between cybernetic dinosaurs fighting against hostile alien invaders), but they also managed to finally accompany this brazenly dorky idea with the best music they've written to date.  Seriously, the chorus of "Legend of the Power Saurus" is like the part in the painting when God's finger touches Adam's.

The EP starts off decently enough with the semi-title track, "Dinosaur Warfare", sonically landing somewhere between the raw energy of Gamma Ray and the over-the-top silliness of Sonic Firestorm era Dragonforce (with notably less explosive guitar theatrics, of course).  It's a good, fun track that sits fairly well in line with what I remember of their previous work.  Solid power metal but nothing particularly superlative.  It isn't until the next track that the record reveals its true genius.  The three track stretch of "Legend of the Power Saurus", "Lazer Tooth Tiger", and "Razorblade Raptor" are three of the most ludicrously fun power metal songs in the last handful of years.  Something here just clicked with the guys, because all three are rabidly infectious tunes that mix massive, soaring melodies with some serious rough-and-tumble ferocity in the rhythm section.  The opening riff of "Lazer Tooth Tiger" is so fucking vicious that I can barely describe it, and it blends so well with the comparatively light chorus that just flies over the metaphorical battlefield with style and grace.  You'd be amazed, but there's an astounding amount of class and dead-eyed seriousness with the care given to these songs.  Despite the childish lunacy of the deep voiced pre-solo call to battle of "IT'S MORPHIN' TIME!" in "Legend of the Power Saurus" and the sheer ridiculousness of a song about a character named motherfucking Razorblade Raptor, there's no indication that the band took the task of writing these tracks as a joke.  Lyrical absurdity aside, these tracks all sound like lost Gamma Ray recordings that  hypothetically existed somewhere between Power Plant and No World Order!, and any power metal fan worth their salt should know how much ass Gamma Ray kicked during that time period.  It's meat and potatoes power metal devoid of flittery synths and booming orchestral patches.  It's built entirely on riffs and vocals and that's all it needs to be.  It's so fucking silly to say out loud, but a chorus that ends with a triumphant, booming tenor shouting "MIGHTY LEEEEGEEEEND OOOOF THEEE DIIIIIINOSAaAaAUuUuUR" is actually the benchmark for great choruses this year.  This is the mark that all power metal bands need to push themselves to surpass in 2018.  It would literally be amazing if I was kidding.

However, there is a bit of a mammoth in the room, that being the closing track, "Flames of Armageddon".  It's more on par with the opening track in terms of quality, but for some reason it's a thematic break from the rest of the album, being instead about some generic apocalypse story invoking traditional ideas of saints and sinners.  Man I hate to be that neckbearded fuck to say this, but come on man give us more dinosaur shit!  How can you give us such a brilliantly stupid premise and then neglect to give it any closure?!  I feel like I just got the rug pulled out from under me, we were robbed of more goofy awesomeness.  Where's my track about Terrordactyl?  Triflareatops?  Assault Archeopteryx??  If nothing else, "Flames of Armageddon" does at least uncover an uncomfortable truth about Dinosaur Warfare, that being that the lyrical absurdity may truly be the thing that makes it as awe inspiring as it is.  I don't want to admit it, I don't want to stan for a dumbass gimmick but I feel like it can't be solely coincidence that the only track that breaks from the gimmick is a disappointing track, despite it being musically every bit as good as the preceding ones.

But then again, maybe it's a good thing that we really only got four songs about this concept.  If Kung Fury has taught me anything, it's that reaching for the most intentionally absurd gags really runs out of steam quickly, as that movie stopped being funny less than halfway through and it's only a half hour long.  So I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth, Dinosaur Warfare is one of the most fun, tight, and well crafted collection of riffy power metal songs with stellar choruses assembled in the last while.  It's so bizarre to say, but it's totally true.  Perhaps it's because of the brazenly stupid gimmick, perhaps it's in spite of it, but regardless of the reason, this is one of the best power metal EPs you're going to hear in 2018, and that's not a joke.  DINOSAUR EXPLOSIONS lives on forever.

We are soldiers of the buuuurning sun!
With fire in our song!
Mighty leeegeeend oooof the diiiiinosaaaauuuur!


Saturday, March 10, 2018

Nile - What Should Not Be Unearthed

It's a Nile album, and that's okay

Nile's career trajectory is fairly well known at this point, but I think it's worth noting that their decline after the thundering megalith that is Annihilation of the Wicked has been oddly enjoyable.  They're in a strangely enticing funk as of now, not unlike the smelled of burned bacon.  It's not what you wanted, and it's definitely inferior to how good it could have been, but it's still fine if you have a certain taste for it (or an affinity for bad cooking).  Ithyphallic and Those Whom the Gods Detest are kinda controversial in their standing with the general fandom, with most people agreeing that there's really nothing wrong with them on the surface, but there's just... something missing.  Some undefined intangible that made the previous records so great that just isn't quite present here.  The only true misstep so far as been At the Gates of Sethu, which cleaned up their awesome unique wall of sound and amped up the technicality to previously unseen levels.  As a result, a lot of that steel-fisted ferocity was lost, and their penchant for badass hooks went out the window.

And that's where What Should Not Be Unearthed comes in, because this is about as good of a mea culpa we could have possibly asked for.  It's clear they're never going to go back to their darkened shrines any time soon, so seeing them return to their detesting gods is wholly welcome for me.  This album's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness, that being that it's basically a return to the sound from two albums ago.  On one hand, this means we're getting exceptionally solid hyperdeath again, rife with the same Egyptian scales Karl is so in love with, Dallas handling the lion's share of vocals still, and George still hasn't learned how to play a beat slower than 40000bpm.  On the other hand, the band isn't challenging themselves in any way and are just resting on their laurels, releasing a safe album that sounds identical to previous albums that were already proven to be successful.

For all of Sethu's faults, I could at least appreciate that the band was trying to evolve.  That's not the case on Unearthed (pardon the truncating of the album titles, you can understand how annoying it is that they keep naming shit full sentences), where Nile instead just safely goes back into their comfort zone and make no effort to advance further.  Maybe this has ultimately been the bugaboo holding the last few albums back, and Sethu just finally made it obvious.  They've been chasing the mighty shadow of Annihilation for over a decade now, and when they tried to do anything else, it turned out they weren't all that good at it.  Rehashing Annihilation is what they do best.

And frankly?  I'm okay with that.  Really, Unearthed may not be pushing any boundaries but it's a showcase of a band playing to their strengths.  Basically every song here powers forwards at extremely high tempos, backed by relentless blasting and meaty tremolo riffs, highlighted with that sexy Middle Eastern flavor and gale-force bellows from Dallas and deep gurgles from Karl.  That's exactly what they're good at, so it's nice to hear them quit fucking with the noodly technicality and jump headfirst back into explosive riffage again.  Nile has always basically just been regular old death metal played three times faster than necessary with a unique sense of melody at their core, and tracks like "Liber Stellae Rubeae", "Rape of the Black Earth", and the massive "Call to Destruction" showcase that with aplomb.  There's the token traditional interlude with "Ushabti Reanimator" and some slow crushing sections like the back half of the title track as well.  It's nothing you haven't heard before but it's just as good as it's always been.  The only thing it's really missing is a super long song, being the first album not to see a track break the seven minute mark since the debut (though the title track falls only a second or two short).  It's a Nile album.  That's really all the explanation it needs.

So ultimately, Unearthed is both disappointing and satisfying.  It's disappointing that it's regressive fanservice dressed up as a heralded return to their roots, but it's satisfying because they're still really god damned good at that sound.  Clearly, the satisfaction outweighs the disappointment.  Personally, I thought Detest was a great album, and Unearthed is pretty much exactly on par with that one.  So however you felt about them two albums ago is exactly how you'll feel about this one.  Sure, they still haven't written anything as pulse-pounding and exciting as "Lashed to the Slave Stick" or as epic as "Unas, Slayer of the Gods" in a long time, but they can keep giving me replacements like "Papyrus Containing the Spell..." and "4th Arra of Dagon" as long as they like if they're going to stay at this level of quality.