Saturday, January 13, 2018

QUICK HITS: Succumb - Succumb

God help me I need disinfectant

Jesus.  For years, years, I've maintained that the filthiest death metal album of all time is Mental Funeral by Autopsy.  There are other albums that exceed it in weirdness or darkness or insanity (Nespithe, Onward to Golgotha, To the Depths, in Degradation, etc), but nothing could ever really touch just how grimy it was.  Well, I think that 25 year streak of dominance may have been broken with San Francisco's Succumb and their self titled debut.  Mental Funeral still sounds a bit more like a sewer than Succumb, but where the newcomers pull ahead is simply in unremitting dirt and agony.  You might be familiar with the manga author Junji Ito, who is most famous in the west for bizarre tales like Uzumaki and The Enigma of Amigara Fault.  He's not really a great storyteller but he is an amazing artist, and he has a short story by the name of simply Mold.  It's about a young man who rents his house out to a weird science teacher with an obsession with fungus, and upon returning from a business trip he finds the house abandoned and covered in mold that always grows back no matter how much he cleans, eventually unearthing the horrid truth behind the anomaly.  Succumb sounds like how Mold looks.  It's a dilapidated crackhouse, the walls literally alive with crawling filth, humidity only amplifying the creeping decay.  What makes it unique to me is how it manages to sound both hopeless and frantic at the same time, like a doomed man desperately clawing his way out of a drainage ditch while the flesh rots off of his body.  The vocals are very distant and slathered in reverb, rarely chaining more than two words together at a time, nearly always presented in an agonizing, ghoulish howl.  The riffs are dissonant and uncomfortable, and the drumming of the rising star Harry Cantwell (best known for Bosse-de-Nage and Slough Feg's kinda crappy post-2007 era) is a tumbling cacophony that never gives the listener room to breathe.  Not like anybody would want to breathe anyway, what with being in a heroin-drenched toilet bowl and all.  This is just grody, with a thick layer of goop somehow visible when listening.  There aren't many specific highlights to mention, as the album is just one long drawn out overdose, but it doesn't really matter when it sounds like literal death.  Again, refer to the final panel of MoldSuccumb is the sound of your atrophying semi-corpse fusing with its surroundings while you deliriously peel the flesh off from your own bones.


RATING - 91%


 

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

10 YEAR REUNION: Gamma Ray - No World Order!

I'm going to start rewriting my old reviews from late 2007 to 2009ish, because they all suck and I'm only 10% of the tryhard I used to be.

1200 cigarettes and Time to Kill

Gamma Ray had been on one hell of a streak by the time 2001 rolled around.  Starting in 1995 when Ralf Scheepers mercifully left and Kai Hansen returned to his rightful place behind the mic, they started churning out classic after classic, ultimately ending in a streak of five phenomenal albums before Kai's endless Kai-isms started stinking up the joint.  No World Order! stands as the fourth entry in that streak, and it'll always hold a special place in my heart for being the reason I ever broke away from my dumb thrash-only mindset of my early teenage years and embraced the speedy melodicism of power metal.  The high pitched vocals and endless double bass had finally stopped being a turnoff when I heard "Dethrone Tyranny" for the first time as a 14 year old and promptly had my entire cerebral cortex blown off.

And honestly, No World Order! is a great introduction for people who are new to the genre, provided they're coming from a mindset that values thrash and trad metal above all else like I did.  It may not be quite a perfect representation of the clash-of-two-worlds of the cover art, but it is indeed a healthy blend of several influences wrapped up neatly into an accessible package.  It manages to balance stomping vigor on tracks like "Damn the Machine" and the bridge of "Dethrone Tyranny", uptempo brutality in "Heart of the Unicorn" and "Solid" (though the latter is an extremely obvious example of Kai's proclivity towards borrowing riffs a little too blatantly, this time being Judas Priest's "Rapid Fire"), light hearted catchiness in "Heaven or Hell" and "Follow Me", and some just damn solid heavy metal swagger in "New World Order" and "Eagle". 

The quick rundown up there doesn't really do the album justice though, because there's a prevailing sense of chainsmoking attitude that roughs up all the edges just enough to give the album an identity that is uniquely Gamma Ray.  The album's truest strength is simply extremely fucking solid songwriting, with excellent hooks behind every corner, but the crooked-toothed sneer that it's all presented with makes the songs stand the test of time if you ask me.  Take a look at the quasi title track, "New World Order".  On the surface, it's just a good, hooky heavy metal song, but there are a lot of tiny little quirks that make it unforgettable.  The pre chorus that begins on a hard left turn, going from the fairly standard palm mutes of the verse and shifting abruptly to a snarling stomp, surely inducing involuntary headbanging, and culminating with the huge background scream that leads into the chorus, that's the kind of shit that just sticks with me.  The chorus itself is great as well, but that attitude just can't be held back, with Kai's relatively smooth vocals occasionally breaking into deafening badassitude (And ya know it's gonna beeee for-EV-AHR). 

It's sort of a dumb comparison, but I think the anecdote that most perfectly encapsulates Gamma Ray to me is a short little clip from the Hell Yeah!I!  The Awesome Foursome  DVD.  They're on the road, about to load up the tour bus and head out on tour, and Kai stops the cameraman to show him what he's bringing with him on tour.  He opens his bag to reveal several cartons of cigarettes and a Duke Nukem game.  That's Gamma Ray in a nutshell.  Sixty packs of smokes and Duke Nukem.

The album isn't perfect however, "Fire Below" is a very clear filler song, a midpaced hard rock/heavy metal tune that offers absolutely nothing other than an extra five minutes of album runtime, and "Lake of Tears" continues Gamma Ray's tradition of writing really terrible ballads.  This time it's at least at the end of the album, making it easy to ignore, but on the other hand it means a fist pumping anthem-generator of an album ends on a weak bunny fart.  "Eagle" was a great closer already, combining Helloween and Iron Maiden in great fashion (albeit a bit cliche, but Gamma Ray are OG so it's not quite so annoying), we didn't need that lameass ballad at the end jacking up the album's mojo.

Those are minor complaints in the grand scheme of things, because from the pulsing choir of "Induction" up until the apex of "Eagle" is a nearly unbroken string of classic power metal tracks, full of great hooks and loads of attitude.  No World Order! may not be as immediately impressive as seminal records like Somewhere Out in Space or motherfucking Land of the Free, but it's really not far behind, and it's one of the best albums of 2001 without a doubt.


RATING: 88%

Sunday, January 7, 2018

QUICK HITS: Condor - Unstoppable Power

Crispy Zu Skewers

Thrash's not dead??  Nah, it's still more or less a creative dead end in terms of innovation potential, but that just means that the great bands stand out purely for being really fucking good at thrashing.  Condor definitely shows themselves worthy of hype in the Dead Riff Era, because Unstoppable Power is a venom fueled blast of blackened thrash insanity.  I still seem to prefer Power Trip at this juncture, but Condor is ridiculously fucking close behind.  It's especially cool because, like I said, there's nothing inherently mega-creative about the band, it's just Aura Noir styled hyperthrash with smatterings of black metal misanthropy and grit.  It's the exact kind of thing that Witchaven was all about nearly a decade ago that I couldn't stop masturbating over.  The album tends to fluctuate between the balls out black metal-infused tremolo salvos and more traditional bay area thrashing cranked up to 11.  Compare the bestial hunger in "Embraced By the Evil" to the more focused riff assault of "You Can't Stop the Fire".  The stylistic differences between the tracks on Unstoppable Power are almost imperceptibly subtle, but they're there, and it's good to note that the band is quite skilled at handling all of them.  I think the main reason this stands out so much to me despite thrash as a whole being so fucking dull and played out nowadays is because of something very simple that a lot of bands had mastered in the 80s and most of the copycats completely screwed up in the 00s, and that's the balance between intensity and hooks.  Calling Condor "melodic" in any sense of the word is misleading, because this is all about furious blasting helldeath from the get-go, but there's a very 80s sense of riff writing here, because like the earliest outings of Exodus and Sodom, there is a marvelous sense of infectiousness intertwined with nuts-first freneticism in the riffage.  Check out something like "Chained Victims" or "83 Days of Radiation" for an audible example of what I'm talking about, it's excellent stuff.  When Nocturnal Breed crawled out of their hole a few years ago and finally followed up the excellent Fields of Rot, this is the album I was hoping to hear instead of the thoroughly forgettable Napalm Nights.  Norway may be known for black metal, but Condor definitely shows that those frozen buttcicles know how to thrash just as well.  Like Ripper was the underground foil to the mainstream darling Vektor in 2016, Condor is to Power Trip in 2017.


RATING: 88%

Monday, January 1, 2018

BH AWARDS 2017 AND MUCH MUCH MORE

In a world... where I have been doing this for eight years now and have clearly run out of couch gags for the intro to the Album of the Year post, I bring you... The BH Award for Album of the Year!  2017 was, on the whole, a noticeable step down from the last two years, which pumped out nearly a dozen albums between them that could have feasibly been in the top two or three this year.  This blog itself also witnessed me starting the year with a renewed passion for writing that quickly petered out because the fast encroaching void of death is ever approaching and there's only so much I can do to distract myself.  That or I just work a lot in real life and my free time is fairly evenly split between writing, reading, eating, farting, playing old JRPGs, and banging your mom.  Regardless, this is where we are, and it's time to look back on:

THE TOP 13 ALBUMS OF 2017  

As always, the list is exclusive to full length releases only, but otherwise it's all fair game.  Metal or not, as has been the way since 2013 or so.  Walk with me.

13. Hideous Divinity - Adveniens
I've made the point several times over the last few years, but it bears repeating once more: Hideous Divinity came to claim Hour of Penance's crown of brutality, and they crushed their countrymen's skulls into such a fine powder that I'm pretty sure this album's intensity can be attributed to the band snorting it.  I know the hot tech death album this year is the new Archspire album, and I'll spoil this a bit by saying that they didn't place on this, and it's for a simple reason.  Archspire is faster and more impressive (likely the most impressive tech death band in terms of technical skill in history), but they still don't write songs as instantly ear catching as Hideous Divinity.  I stacked the two up against each other, and in the end it wasn't a contest.  Hideous Divinity can't be stopped.

12. Evil Invaders - Feed Me Violence
Another minor spoiler here, but 2017 was a year where basically every genre that wasn't death metal or otherwise something known for pushing the envelope of extremity was kinda weak.  There's no power metal here for the first time basically ever, and thrash, trad, and black metal all struggled to hold my attention, it's just the year of the brutal and gory for me.  Belgium's Evil Invaders is a huge exception.  These guys pretty much tore me the fuck apart with their debut in 2015, and their sophomore effort is a few steps ahead of even that one.  This is, as obviously evidenced by the band's name, insanely vicious speed metal in the vein of Razor.  Squealing shrieks and screaming solos, accompanied by melodic interludes and drumming that never slows the fuck down, this is everything I want out of speed metal.  Restraint is for the weak.

11. SikTh - The Future in Whose Eyes? 
You guys have no idea how excited I am to finally be able to put SikTh on a year end list.  Despite being early progenitors of currently popular genres that I don't care for like djent and whatever the fuck Periphery is, SikTh was always on a whole other level.  Nobody sounded like them in the mid 2000s, and nobody sounds like them now that they've reformed.  This sounds like they haven't missed a step since Death of a Dead Day, enduring the departure of Justin Hill with such finesse that you can barely tell he's gone.  Mikee Goodman is still the most unique vocalist basically ever, the music is the same spastic dissonance with huge emphasis on solid grooves and hooks, basically everything is perfect.  This is the album I've been waiting for for 11 years, and god damn did it deliver.

10. Full of Hell - Trumpeting Ecstasy
FUCK.  This album shreds so hard it fucking hurts.  I won't claim to know Full of Hell's evolution as a band, the point is that I always knew them as a hardcore/powerviolence band and just never really bothered to check them out.  With the rise of metal-friendly hardcore in recent years getting a whole bunch of hype, particularly Nails and Code Orange, I figured it was high time I give Full of Hell a shot as well, since they seem to be getting roughly the same amount of love.  Refer back to the beginning of this entry: FUCK.  This is some of the gnarliest grind I've gotten into in a while, and I haven't felt such a rush of intensity since the first time I heard Rotten Sound's Exit.  I can't imagine anybody doing this since I'm far from an outlier in praising this record, but don't sleep on it.

9. Malokarpatan - Nordkarpatenland
I try not to do this, but most of you know I run the AOTY poll over at the Metal Archives, and sometimes a release I totally missed will pop up on my radar when I see it garnering a lot of votes early on.  Malokarpatan was one such release.  I told myself that even if I loved it, I wouldn't put it on my own list because that would feel like cheating, but I've been listening to this almost non stop for the past few weeks and I'd be lying if I said I didn't immediately love it more than most albums I've heard this year.  I can't even really call this the token BM album to make it on the list, because there are so many other influences that that feels incorrect.  This gets a lot of comparisons to Master's Hammer, but I've never listened to them so I can't say if it's correct or not.  I just know that this is BM + Iron Maiden/Mercyful Fate and I'm in love.

8. Cannibal Corpse - Red Before Black
Everything was wrong with this album before it came out.  The cover art sucked, the title was stupid, they were falling back on old habits by having Erik Rutan produce it again, early reports from friends who got promos were that there were no crawling or crushing tracks and it was all just really fast and aggressive.  Everything felt wrong and I couldn't have been less interested.  Then I decided to give it a shot anyway and learned my fucking lesson.  I don't know why I ever doubt Cannibal, they're one of the greatest bands in metal history and it's not on accident.  Yeah, this is the thrashiest album they've written in 25+ years and it's all cut from the same cloth as "Demented Aggression", but fuck that just means it goes as hard as possible for 45 solid minutes.

7. Power Trip - Nightmare Logic
I thought Manifest Decimation was a cool little unknown slice of thrash with a flair for the old school hardcore.  I spun it a few times and let it sit.  Four years later, Nightmare Logic steps onto the scene and fuuuuuuck.  Power Trip brought riffs for fucking days on this one, and it's pretty easily one of the very few standout thrash releases to be released in this current Dead Riff Era of metal.  The real star of the show here, for my money, isn't even a member of the band, but the producer, Arthur Rizk.  Rizk popped on my radar last year with Sumerlands and Eternal Champion, and this here continues what I've noticed with those albums.  He is unbelievably skilled when it comes to making things sound retro without sounding dated.  Nobody delivers the furious crunch quite like this guy, and he's establishing himself as a premier knobsman for good reason.

6. Craven Idol - The Shackles of Mammon
This is another thrashy band that had a decently well received release in 2013 that I totally forgot about until now.  Allegedly Towards Eschaton is a bit more up my alley, considering this album is seen as a continuation of that sound but with less melody and Motorhead influence, but if that's the case then that must simply mean it's one of the best of 2013 that I skipped over, because I fucking love this album to pieces.  High octane, preposterously intense and ripping black/thrash that so easily lends itself to mediocrity.  Craven Idol found a way to stand out amongst the throng of bands in the genre simply by writing great songs with great riffs and great hooks.  That's exactly the shit I love.  It's not as pummeling as Power Trip, but this is easily my most listened-to thrash album of 2017.  And it's only halfway thrash!

5. Dying Fetus - Wrong One to Fuck With
Why??  There is absolutely no reason this album should be as good as it is.  Fetus hasn't released anything in five years, the title just reeks of a filler release, bringing the old logo back feels like desperation, I just don't get it.  This should suck, but it doesn't.  Not even a little bit.  In fact I'd say this is right on par with Reign Supreme, which is only a tiny step down from Destroy the Opposition.  They are on an unstoppable roll right now, which is insane considering how far into their career they are at this point.  Wrong One with Which to Fuck is a god damned riff fiesta.  It's just banger after banger after banger.  This doesn't have the handful of standout tracks like the previous album did, but I reckon it sits at a consistently higher plateau.  God dammit it just slams.

4. Deathwish - Unleash Hell
You'd think it would be a no brainer considering my taste in music, but I really don't listen to a whole lot of metalpunk.  My listening is split almost 60/40 between the two genres and the very pseudonym I've been using for the past 12+ years on the internet is derived from Motorhead, the band that ties the two genres together.  Well Deathwish seems to be the band that finally made me sit up and take notice, because holy shit there is not one second of this record that I don't adore.  Creativity is at an all time low here, as it's just Motorhead + Discharge and basically nothing else I can tell, but there's nothing else I even want out of this.  This is just adrenaline pumping, pedal-to-the-metal machismo from the opening seconds and it never calms down.  If you can't get enough of meth-fueled warbling and endless d-beats backing meaty riffs, this is your jam.

3. The Black Dahlia Murder - Nightbringers
Black Dahlia seems to have simply reset their age old "good album, meh album" flip flopping, because we're back to another phenomenal release.  Nightbringers stands as possibly the best album they've released since Nocturnal, and at the very least is on par with Everblack for me.  While Abysmal two years ago was mediocre to me and seems to be the template here (with nearly every song in the 3 minute range and sporting ridiculously speedy tempos), this is just better in every conceivable way.  "Kings of the Nightworld" is fighting to be my new favorite song of theirs, and the b-side in general is fucking stunning.  Pretty much nothing flops, and I'd say this is in serious contention for the title of their most consistently excellent record across the board.  Pay attention, TBDM deserves so much more underground respect than they get.

2. Satan's Hallow - Satan's Hallow 
When I said trad metal was mostly a flop this year, it was with the unspoken caveat that Satan's Hallow was a massive exception.  This sat penciled in at the top spot for most of the year, only talking myself out of it shortly before finalizing this list, and it's for damn good reason.  Guitarist and main songwriter, Von Jugel, explained that his main goal in writing these songs was to cut out all of the fat and release a concise, undiluted, 100% pure punchy experience, not unlike the setlist of a great opening band.  I'd say he succeeded marvelously, because this is an amazing album.  It's 70s/80s Priest and Mercyful Fate for the new millennium, and there isn't one wasted second or filler riff.  Martillo's vocals are obviously going to draw comparisons to Doro/Warlock as well, but for my money this is better than they ever were.  Seriously.

AND THE WINNER IS...

1. Suffocation - ...of the Dark Light 
I'm going to lose so much underground cred for putting a major label release by an established legend above the small time darlings that are Satan's Hallow, but at the end of the day I just can't kill this album.  Suffocation somehow, after over a decade of decent-but-not-amazing releases since the reformation (I know Pinnacle of Bedlam ranked on my list when it came out, but 2013 was a really weak year and it wouldn't have even sniffed the lists for 15 or 16), have finally, finally managed to recover after the loss of Doug Cerrito.  Despite this and Satan's Hallow being neck and neck all year (even garnering the same fucking score when I reviewed them both), I think the reason Suffocation pulled out the victory in the end is simply because of what this represents.  This is an established band, long past their prime, shuffling the deck and restocking their lineup with fresh young faces who had 1000x the fire and passion that the veterans had at the time.  This, to me, signifies the future.  Sure, Terrence Hobbs is still around and it just wouldn't be Suffocation without his style of riffing, but I never would've expected that they'd ever reach these heights again without Cerrito, Smith/Culross, Marchais, or especially Mullen.  Frank may be the vocalist on the album here, but Kevin handles 99% of the live shows and he's a dead fucking ringer for Frank so it barely matters.  Charlie and Eric also decimate their new roles as well, and it just shows how important it can be to introduce new faces into the scene.  These guys are set now as long as they want to be in the business, because they've proven themselves alongside the legends they grew up with.  ...of the Dark Light showcases the death of the tired old trope of replacing veteran members with other scene veterans, because that fiery youth is exactly what made Effigy of the Forgotten so fucking good.  It'll probably take a long time before this practice catches on, but I hope it eventually does, because this is a well deserved, and rightfully fantastic winner of the BH Award for Album of the Year 2017. 

And now for something completely the same!


 HONORABLE MENTIONS  

Get the Shot - Infinite Punishment: One of the most metal-friendly hardcore bands on the planet released another monster this year.  It's not quite the knuckle-to-tooth tour de force than was No Peace in Hell a few years ago, but it's pretty fucking close.  It's thrashy as fuck and all of the riffs sound like punches, and it goes hard from the word go and never chills out.  This just ever so slightly missed the cut for the list, but shouldn't be overlooked by fans of adrenaline filled heaviness.  

Ogarya - Ubiquity: The band that nearly beat Gorod at their own game.  This is just furious blasting death at every turn and deserves all the praise in the world.  I can't wait to see where they go from here, because if it weren't for Satan's Hallow, this would've fairly easily been the debut of the year.

Origin - Unparalleled Universe:  I don't know if I'm just refreshed after not being interested in their last two albums or what, but this heralds a triumphant return for the midwestern tech machines.  It's about on par with Antithesis, arguably their best album, and I can't even really explain why.  It's the same hyperfukt insanity that they've always churned out that made them the band to beat in the tech death boom of the late 2000s, but the hooks and songwriting are just better than they've been in nearly a decade.

Alestorm - No Grave but the Sea:  I was genuinely fucking stunned to discover how much I liked this album.  Alestorm had a whopping one good song prior to this, and somehow they just nailed the hooks this time around.  It's completely idiotic doinky folk metal littered with dumbass accordions and stupid jokes like "Fucked with an Anchor", but god dammit somehow I just had a blast with it.  There's no excuse for me.

Skyclad - Forwards into the Past:  Ever since the departure of Martin Walkyier, the grandfathers of folk metal's output has slowed to a Macabre-esque crawl, this being their first album in eight years.  Like every Skyclad album, it has a bit of a problem with filler and is pretty front loaded, but it starts off with a streak of songs that actually rival their golden era.  If nothing else, "A Heavy Price to Pay" is one of my most listened-to tracks of the year.

Bell Witch - Mirror Reaper:  The token funeral doom album of the year for me.  It may have missed the cut and stands a bit overlong (which is saying something coming from a Monolithe fan), but the guitarless rumbling and massive atmosphere do it a ton of favors and it stands as a worthwhile and unique listen regardless. 

The Outer RIM - Uatism:  This is actually the greatest album ever released, but I helped make it so I won't list it in the interest of fairness.  Y'all should go to Bandcamp and listen to it.


DISAPPOINTMENTS  

Tengger Cavalry - Die on My Ride:  This pains me so much to say, but Tengger's first full length since the infamous move to America is... very not good.  Almost everything I loved about the band previously is conspicuously absent.  The riffs are still simplistic but have much less charisma than they used to, the production is much more flat and static than before, the harsh vocals are completely absent which saps a ton of aggression out of the songs, the songs all sound like first drafts that were written in a matter of days or less, it's just a flop in every way.  There are flashes of the old magic here and there but even then those moments are hindered by the problems listed above.  "The Frontline" starts off as one of the more aggressive and metallic songs they've presented in a while, but with the screams replaced with throat singing and the production sounding so much less bombastic, it just falters.  From the lost Coal Chamber song in "Independence Day" to the awful, awful pop ballad "Ashley", there's really nothing I'd recommend here.  Disappointment of the year and a sad shell of a once-great band. 

Hour of Penance - Cast the First Stone:  I really, really thought they were primed to bounce back from the minor disappointment of Regicide, but I guess not.  I don't know what happened, because on the surface this has everything that made their incredible streak from 08-12 so excellent, but apart from the first and last track just nothing at all stands out here.  Hour of Penance was a perennial favorite who always ranked highly on these lists, and now they're just on autopilot and getting their asses handed to them by Hideous Divinity at every turn.

Ensiferum - Two Paths:  I should've known better that One Man Army was a fluke.  Two Paths sees Ensiferum on the most obvious autopilot they've ever been on, which would suck enough on its own, but they also made the baffling decision to let people who aren't Markus Toivonen deal with a lot of the clean vocals.  Turns out everybody else in the band sucks at it, so it's a bland album with no songs that stand out and tons of bafflingly terrible cleans.  This would've been my disappointment of the year if I didn't sorta suspect it would suck beforehand.

Battle Beast - Bringer of Pain:  Man these guys have fallen off hard.  The previous album grew on me somewhat but was still a noticeable step down from the self titled, and this one just continues the downward trend.  They're clearly aiming for the Sabaton route (albeit more through the Scarface soundtrack and less through bouncy Disneyisms) of pure pop with distorted guitars and it's just not working.  The title track is a solid corker and "Familiar Hell" is maddeningly catchy but the rest of it is forgettable trash.

Code Orange - Forever:  Like Nails and Harm's Way before them, here we find ourselves with a very metal-friendly hardcore band making a ton of waves in the mainstream.  And, less like Nails but exactly like Harm's Way, about half of this is the heaviest shit ever written and the other half is unbearably boring nothingness.  How this took the top spot for both Revolver and Rolling Stone is an absolute fucking mystery to me.  Opening for System of a Down seems to have its perks.


And that's it!  The year is over and that's what we're left with.  My honorable mentions section was a bit longer than usual which would imply this was a strong year, but really that's about it, everything lesser than that section was cripplingly mediocre.  Here's to hoping 2018 is a better year.  I hope you all had a wonderful New Years.  Now back to your regularly scheduled lack of updates!

    Saturday, December 9, 2017

    Winds of Plague - Blood of My Enemy

    GO AWAY

    I've found myself oddly attracted to Adrienne Cowan lately.  No no, I don't mean like I'm stalking her or anything, just that I've found her presence on otherwise bland records to be really welcome.  Light & Shade is a fairly bland power/pop metal band but her wild shrieking that she punctuates nearly every song with quite liberally in stark contrast to her otherwise sweet voice helped give the album a bit of an identity.  Her main band, Seven Spires, is interesting but tends to whiff on execution, with their full length debut this year, Solveig, making the bizarre choice of rerecording the entire earlier EP and sticking it at the front of the album, creating a weird and disjointed experience that starts off underdeveloped and suddenly shifts into a decently okay Kamelot album at the halfway point when the new songs finally start.  The worthy thruline within that experience is once again Cowan, with her soft coos contrasting wonderfully with her insane Doroisms.  She has real personality in her voice, and it helps these otherwise middling albums become quite listenable.  She's looking in line to be the next Jorn Lande; a great vocalist who constantly finds himself in boring bands that he almost single handedly saves from being worthless with alarming regularity.  I feel like I'll be following her career at least mildly attentively in the near future.  I wonder if she's got anything else in the pipeline?

    *checks her artist profile on MA*

    OH GOD SHE'S IN WINDS OF PLAGUE NOW WHY GOD WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS??

    *socks blow across the room*

    So in all honesty, I thought Winds of Plague was dead at this point.  I was reviewing their discography as it was released a few years ago out of some sense of odd fascination/obligation, but by the time Resistance rolled around I just couldn't bring myself to give a shit.  That one was a lame hardcore album with synths popping in occasionally, if nothing else I give them credit for finally picking a style and sticking to it, it just wound up being the one they're the worst at.  After this the band went quiet and just disappeared from my radar completely.  So now four years have passed and the entire lineup has been replaced apart from the vocalist, and Blood of My Enemy has quietly dropped, and it's... kinda good?

    This band pisses me off so much, they seemingly can't nail down their strengths for the life of them, but this is their second album now (the other being The Great Stone War) that actually manages to be fairly solid despite their ever present songwriting woes.  Instead of the endless idiotic genre hopping marred by some of the worst lyrics ever penned, this one focuses mostly on epic atmosphere with chugging melodeath riffs helping things along without being intrusively stupid.  The main strength of Blood of My Enemy is simply that it's not awful, which is admittedly a pretty terrible benchmark to work towards.  You can get the gist of the album after the first track, "Nameless Walker".  It starts of with some killer blast beats and punctuated keys, sounding exactly like the kind of band I always wished they'd become, but near the end it just devolves into slow non-riffs with sweeping keys over the top with gang shouts piercing through occasionally.  That's what most of the album is, slow non-riffs with needless keys.  They're back to trying to do everything at once, though not nearly as sloppily as they were on Decimate the Weak.  So you get a band trying to be epic through the lens of hardcore, which just a completely different approach to how metal does it, and it ends up being wonky and stupid most of the time.  The gang shouts and brochoirs are just out of place and weird every time they show up.  Even weirder is that, paradoxically, they sorta fit perfectly, because no other style of vocal would fit there.  It's just kind of a testament to how they're still peddling a style that just fundamentally doesn't work.

    I lead into this talking about Cowan, but she really doesn't have any real effect on the band beyond a short vocal spot in the title track.  In fact, I don't know if any of them do, because it was almost entirely the same band that released The Great Stone War, the one oddly okay one, in between all the terrible albums.  Every last one of them has been replaced barring ol' Johnny, and yet here we are reverting back to the sound of an album that was already notably different.  This boils down to me assuming that, throughout everything, he must be The Guy behind the band, and whichever sound they decide to focus on depends entirely on what kind of mood he's in come writing time.  As a result, even though this focuses on atmosphere more than any others, there are still some straggling hardcore-isms.  The most notable offender is "5150", which is basically a random ass Slipknot song shoehorned into the album, and "Dark Waters" and "Snakeskin" do the same thing in spots, with the former finally giving way to the kind of massive dumbass breakdown the band is so fond of and did such a good job of holding back from throughout the album's runtime. 

    Overall it's just... odd and disjointed, which has always been the band's problem, but it's a little bit more cohesive here.  It's best summed up as The Great Stone War with more chugs and less melodeath.  Which doesn't sound great, and in truth it's really not, it's just middling and forgettable.  For most bands this is almost worse than just being flat out bad, but with Winds of Plague it's actually commendable for how remarkably awful their worst albums are.  When it comes to this band, a weak and forgettable release is a huge step up from an actively annoying trainwreck.  So they've failceeded once again.  Congratulations?


    RATING - 49%

    Ogarya - Ubiquity

    They really don't need two vocalists though...

    Maybe it's the French origins and the fact that Ogarya sports a female drummer, but the one band that really jumps to mind when listening to Ubiquity is Gorod.  Don't take this as a knock against the band or some kind of accusation of them being unoriginal hacks, because they're not, it's just that I'm actually really excited because the world needs more bands like Gorod.  Those Bordeaux Brainiacs hit a real sweet spot in their prime, churning out adrenaline pumping death metal monsters that were both technical and progressive without going so overboard as to be classified exactly as either tech death or prog death, while also being unique enough to have just straight "death metal" sound inaccurate as well.  Ogarya hits that same sweet spot, with subtle synths and odd structures coming in at times to keep the prog fans on their toes, off kilter rhythms and shredding solos to pull the rug out from under those toes, and straight ahead pummeling brutality to beat the rug-tripee senseless while they lay on their backs disoriented. 

    Most of the tracks found here are within the 3 minute range, which I always say is a clear indicator of formulaic sameness, but Ogarya bucks that trend a bit here.  You could argue that it's still true, considering the songs all share the same elements from track to track, but that'd be selling the creativity of how they put it all together rather short.  There's a sense of cohesive identity throughout Ubiquity, which makes it sound more unified than one-note.  The winding melodies fly by at breakneck speed while the riffs manage to stay in the foreground ahead of the frantic percussion and Origin-style vocals that never back off.  Admittedly this does lead to the mix being pretty cluttered, with everything being as in-your-face as possible.  It's not exactly a problem since it doesn't sound like everything is fighting for attention, just that it's all attacking you at once in a big cartoon fight cloud.

    Few songs individually stand out, but the album as a whole is remarkably solid, and that's what's kept me coming back to it all year.  It's not one well suited to picking and choosing individually great moments, but that's okay.  It's a "big picture" album, and it works really well for what it is.


    RATING - 86%

    Nailblack - Envied

    Painted fingernails are so edgy

    Black/thrash is an easy style to get right, but a hard style to make interesting.  Ohio's Nailblack are a good example of this phenomenon, because their debut, Envied, checks all the boxes that makes the style worthwhile without being exceptional in any way.  Cycling through mid paced thrash beats, slightly more uptempo d beats, and high octane blasting, this is pretty much the definite example of a redundant release. 

    The band's biggest mistake is simply that they don't go for the throat all the time, because they're definitely at their best when they put the pedal to the floor and just tear out at full throttle.  Tracks like "The Wolf" and "Another Holy War" are ripping riff fests that satiate the unwashed thrasher in all of us, but don't stick around for long afterwards, while "Promises" and "Step Into Infinity" just stroll on by with no consequence, opting for more churning mid paced tempos and a few feeble attempts at acoustic atmosphere.  When they're at their least interesting, aping cliches the hardest, they're at their most enjoyable.  Nailblack are the type of band that's really frustrating to listen to and critique, because there's nothing inept about them or this release, it's just the kind of thing that doesn't need to exist when D666 is still around, ya know?  They have everything a fan of the style needs: trebly production, raspy and throaty screams, subtle sense of sinister melody within simplistic riffs that are basically one part German thrash and one part Swedish BM (more on the thrash side, natch), it's just that none of it is particularly engaging.  It's about on par with any random no-name release you can find on Hells Headbangers.  There's nothing particularly wrong with Nailblack, but I can guarantee you I won't be coming back for another round once this review is published.


    RATING - 55%

    Friday, October 27, 2017

    LADDER MATCH: Blind Guardian vs. Candlemass

    Hi everyone, Ripthony Offtano here with a new feature on Lair of the Bastard.  It's not a secret that once again my production has slowed to a crawl.  Even with me normalizing my short one-paragraph Quick Hit pieces, I just find myself with as much of a lack of motivation as I do a lack of time nowadays, so I'm constantly coming back to the blog every week and staring at a blank document for an hour before declaring "fuck it" and turning around to play NHL18 again.  So, like always, I decided I needed some sort of project to focus on to keep my long standing hobby of music critique fresh for myself.   As the opening sentence alludes, I got this idea while watching one of The Needle Drop's several dozen features, specifically the "Worst to Best" series, where he dissects a popular and long running artist's entire discography and just ranks all of the releases as he sees fit.  Because straight knockoffs are boring, I decided I wanted to spruce it up a bit and decided to fuck my life up by doing two at once and pitting them in a bloodsoaked fight to the death in my new series, LADDER MATCH.  The point of this series is to take two completely unrelated artists with expansive discographies and rank them concurrently against each other, ultimately deciding which of the two  bands has the better discography by weighing hardest hits and the biggest whiffs across their career.

    The rules are simple: I rank the albums of the two bands against each other and assign points down the line.  So for example, if there are 15 albums for each band, the best record of the bunch will get 30 points, the next will get 29, after that will get 28, and so on down to 1.  The winner will obviously be determined by whoever has more points, so in this arbitrary system it's better to have a more consistent career on the whole.  Say Band A has the five best albums and also the bottom ten, they'll end with 195 points, while the band that sweeps spots six thru twenty will end with 270.  And also, since I like to make shit contradictory and complicated, if the bands do not have an equal number of records, the band with more albums will have their middlemost album excluded from ranking, because if I do a list with Morbid Angel, you bet your ass I'll want Illud Divinum Insanus to count for the same reason I'd want Abigail to count if I was doing King Diamond.  You don't get to sweep your mistakes under the rug here on Ladder Match.  This is how I balance consistency with spikes in quality, deal with it, chumps.

    So without further ado, let's meet the competitors (via MSPaint)!


    So the first matchup is against two weighty institutions of metal, both with huge strings of classics to their name that are consistently rated amongst the best in their respective genres.  I chose them mostly because I already know every album fairly intricately and don't have to do any extra work for my first installment of the series.  Anyway I've spent too much time blabbing so let's get to the point.  The album count stands at 10-11 in favor of Candlemass, so according to my own rankings, Death Magic Doom will be eliminated as the median album.  Anyway LETS GO!


    20: Candlemass - Dactylis Glomerata
    I think it was probably obvious to most people that the Flodkvist era of Candlemass was gonna find itself near the bottom here.  It's just canon to basically every Candlemass fan that this middle era was their lowest point creatively, and to me was more or less just Leif + cronies, as it's fairly well known that this album was more or less intended to be the second Abstrakt Algebra album (it even features the entire band minus Mats Levin on vocals), and the only reason Candlemass even came to exist again in the mid 90s was because no labels wanted anything to do with the new band and Leif had to just give up and bring Candlemass back for the sake of name recognition alone.  It really shows, because while this album isn't exactly bad, it's notably a few staircases worth of steps down from their classic era.  It's probably unfair to knock the record for this alone, but it's simply not Candlemass.  So many of the classic elements of the band are missing.  Bjorn Flodkvist is a fine singer but one of the defining traits of the band before and after this era was ridiculously over-the-top vocals from magnanimous and larger than life characters.  The album as a whole is just too passive and uninteresting to really stand alongside the thundering megaliths the band had produced previously.  When your most unique feature previously was how unapologetically epic you were with your pomp and composition, a more streamlined and simplistic affair simply isn't going to resonate with fans and that's all there is to it.
    BLIND GUARDIAN 0 - CANDLEMASS 1



    19: Blind Guardian - A Twist in the Myth
    On paper, all of the elements that made the more overtly symphonic era of Blind Guardian worthwhile are here, just for some reason none of them are put together in such a way that's really all that effective.  Like, Andre Olbrich and Marcus Siepen's blisteringly trebly harmonized lead guitar tone is here, the choir of 200 identical Hansis hit some of the most impressive notes they've ever reached, the songs are structured creatively and there are undeniably some strong hits here, but nothing really seems to go over the edge here.  To me, this album has always been "The one with 'This Will Never End' and 'Fly' and a bunch of other songs."  Not even the longtime fan favorite "Another Stranger Me" does much of anything for me.  There is more of a focus on guitar here, which I think was a conscious decision thanks to the backlash the previous album received and how stark the differences were between those songs and the extremely popular live album that immediately followed, but the focus is still honed in entirely on the keys and melodies so at the end of the day, A Twist in the Myth is just kind of a confused album that was trying to please everybody at once and failing at both.
    BLIND GUARDIAN 2 - CANDLEMASS 1


    18: Candlemass - From the 13th Sun
    Pretty much everything I said about Dactylis Glomerata up there applies here too, but From the 13th Sun is a bit more interesting of a record so it's easier to get behind.  There's a droning, spacey atmosphere layered atop the album and on the whole it's much less "riffs that don't go anywhere or mean anything with vocals that are just there" and more "riffs that laser focus on Sabbathisms with vocals that are just there but at least thematically fit much better."  They're less afraid to pick up the pace on this one, which is more in line with the galloping machismo found on the 80s records, but some of the slower and more bleak tracks just overall work much better, most notably "Tot", one of the only songs from the Flodkvist era that I can confidently say stacks up to the rest of their discography.  Tracks like "Elephant Star" also work as a fairly accurate representation of where they were going to go post-2000 in the second reunion era.  So even if it's easily one of their weaker albums, it's infinitely more interesting than the completely pedestrian Dactylis Glomerata.
    BLIND GUARDIAN 2 - CANDLEMASS 4


    17: Blind Guardian - At the Edge of Time
    When I said that A Twist in the Myth was an album that tried to please everybody, I was being somewhat facetious, because I knew At the Edge of Time was coming up next in their chronology.  While A Twist in the Myth was sort of unfocused and fillery, At the Edge of Time absolutely knew what it was doing.  This was a deliberate throwback to their classic era and it was painfully transparent.  "A Voice in the Dark" is obviously trying to recapture the lighting in a bottle that was "Valhalla" more than 20 years prior, "Tanelorn (Into the Void)" sounds like one of the more aggressive tracks from Imaginations from the Other Side, "Curse My Name" sounds like one of the ballads from that middle era, it's just very clearly an intended retread of ground they'd already covered, which is a shame from a band that spend the previous 25 years or so constantly pushing themselves.  That's not to say an album that is ostensibly just Imaginations part II is going to be bad by default, because the original is a stone cold classic and this album isn't exactly bad itself, but it is a bummer.  That said, it's still not their worst album because there are undeniably some great songs here.  The slow, booming symphonics of "Sacred Worlds" has definitely endeared it to me as the live staple it has since become, "War of the Thrones" is the best ballad they've penned since the 90s, and "Ride into Obsession" is one of their most underrated tracks ever.  Despite the lack of creativity that permeates most of the album, the high points are still high enough to make it a fun listen from time to time, it's just in the lower echelon of their albums as a whole.
    BLIND GUARDIAN 6 - CANDLEMASS 4


    16: Blind Guardian - A Night at the Opera
    I hated this album so much as a teenager it's almost embarrassing.  I've come around to it somewhat, but it's known as the Thomen Killer for a reason.  This is easily the biggest departure from any previous sound they've ever undertaken, and the heavily symphonic and more or less riffless approach to songwriting is a shame, but if we're being honest with each other, Blind Guardian was never about the riffs, they were always about the melodies, and A Night at the Opera is undeniably loaded with excellent melodies.  The problem is that the songs are mostly completely missing the beefy undertone that this sort of metal needs to truly thrive.  The riffs are buried so far under the leads and vocals that it wouldn't even surprise me if you had told me this was initially intended to be a side project.  The real problem with the album is oddly enough highlighted on the live album that came out the following year, which featured four tracks from this album, none of which I count as "the good ones", but they sound so much better with that full live sound, with meaty guitars underneath them to highlight some of the heaviness that was sorely absent on the studio recording.  Therefore the biggest issue the album has is simply that it's not as cool as it should have been, because the three great songs ("And Then There Was Silence", "Battlefield", and their #1 most underappreciated track, "Precious Jerusalem") work beautifully in the context of the sound the album had, but all the rest are improved a thousandfold with a better sound.
    BLIND GUARDIAN 11 - CANDLEMASS 4


    15: Blind Guardian - Nightfall in Middle-Earth
    Yeah I know, this is their signature album, their most popular by a long shot, the one that dominates every live set, Nightfall is the Blind Guardian album.  And yet, I just really don't like it all that much.  Where they set out to be ambitious storytellers, they fell flat on their face by utterly failing at reaching anything resembling consistency as a musical endeavor.  Nearly every track is broken up by a pointless 30 second interlude of a creature roaring or a crackling campfire underneath a completely superfluous narration that means nothing.  I know what they were going for, but it makes the album flow like a babbling brook of patio bricks.  The fact that the actual songs themselves almost rigidly adhere to a "metal - ballad - metal - ballad" flip flopping just makes the entire thing hopelessly uneven and difficult to listen to.  And yet somehow, despite the thing being presented and arranged in such an unfathomably stupid way, Nightfall somehow contains like six of their best songs.  "Into the Storm", "Nightfall", "When Sorrow Sang", "The Curse of Feanor", "Time Stands Still", and especially their most popular track (and one of my personal all time favorite metal songs period) "Mirror Mirror" all make this album worth owning despite the drudgery of "Thorn", "Blood Tears", and "Noldor".  The album's biggest flaw is merely that it's just super frustrating, because there's really no way to fix what's presented.  If you take the interludes out, the album is even more obviously uneven thanks to the constant flip flopping in tone, and if you just take the best handful of songs and make a pretend EP out of it, you'll find yourself salivating for a full length interpretation of this style, blissfully unaware of the confounding monstrosity if it were to come to fruition.  Despite this being the album I have listened to in full the least by a gargantuan margin, the good songs are so good that it became a seminal classic for a reason.  I can't dunk on any album with both "Mirror Mirror" and "When Sorrow Sang" too horribly hard, no matter how frustrating the entire experience is.
    BLIND GUARDIAN 17 - CANDLEMASS 4

    14: Candlemass - Psalms for the Dead
    I'm going to be completely honest with you, as much as I love Candlemass, the entire Rob Lowe era tends to blur together into one big album to me, with Death Magic Doom standing out a bit to me simply because I like some of the songs a bit more (though I recognize I'm in the minority on that one).  So really, Psalms for the Dead is functionally tied with King of the Grey Islands for me, but for the purposes of the Ladder Match, I'm going to put the band's studio swansong a little bit under the debut with Lowe.  For a band that ostensibly invented an entire subgenre of doom metal, this final record here is actually one of the most "regular" doom albums they ever penned.  Songs like the title track and "Waterwitch" are almost agonizingly slow dirges that build a quite macabre atmosphere, and it's a neat change for a band that previously reveled so much in excess.  Some of these downtempo stompers are better than others (I don't care for "Waterwitch" or "Siren Song" too much but "The Killing of the Sun" (which takes the main riff of "Iron Main" just blatantly enough for me to notice but it's just cool enough for me to not care) and especially "The Lights of Thebe" absolutely crush), but they're most definitely the focus this time around.  The grand atmosphere that defined the classic records is mostly absent here, replaced with a more oppressive, skull squeezing heaviness.  It works fairly well, for what it's worth, and it makes the handful of speedy tracks that do appear ("Prophet" and "Time is Black", most notably) hit that much harder.  It's a good album, but it's kind of weird for Candlemass to bow out on an album that only sort of represents their signature sound.
    BLIND GUARDIAN 17 - CANDLEMASS 11

    13: Candlemass - King of the Grey Islands
    As previously stated, this is more or less a complete tie for me with the previously listed album, but if you put a gun to my head and forced me to choose the superior album, I'd go with the 2007 entry into their oeuvre.  King of the Grey Islands, like all of the Lowe records, is a bit more overtly doomy than the Messiah era, but this one stands a bit above the other listed mostly because Lowe sounds much more inspired (he was infamous for his alcoholism and lazy live performances, which hindered him greatly later on and eventually led to his ousting, so this first album catches him while he's still in top form) and because it, on the whole, sounds more like a Solitude Aeturnus/Candlemass mashup.  I know I ragged on the Flodkvist albums for not sounding enough like the Candlemass I had grown to love, but the cross with SA works remarkably well for fairly obvious reasons.  Not only was Robert Lowe the iconic vocalist of the American doom legends, and not only did Solitude Aeturnus play a remarkably similar style to Candlemass in the first place, but Beyond the Crimson Horizon is actually my all time #1 favorite doom metal album ever recorded.  So yeah, obviously anything that reminds me of those first three SA albums is going to be a hit with me, and the slightly more epic and esoteric take on the more straightforward rocking doom that Leif has been writing from the mid 90s up until today works incredibly well with Lowe's husky and grandiose vocals.  There's a deceptive amount of variety on here, with "Clearsight" sounding like it could have been on Tales of Creation with no editing, "Of Stars and Smoke" taking a more mysterious approach, and tracks like "Demonia 6" and "Devil Seed" just going for the throat and cutting like a sacrificial knife.  This is the sound of the undead reigning over a long forgotten castle nestled in a perpetual fog somewhere in the northern seas.  It's got great atmosphere and killer riffs, what more do you really need from a doom album?
    BLIND GUARDIAN 17 - CANDLEMASS 19

    12: Candlemass - Candlemass
    Finally we start to reach the Messiah albums.  Though this may not be classic-era Candlemass, their 2005 return with the classic lineup was such a huge breath of fresh air for most fans.  The Flodkvist stuff was fine I guess, if uninteresting, but the triumphant return of the wild haired and pudgy madman was exactly the kind of thing the band needed to breathe new life into their fast-stagnating existence.   Getting Bjorkman, Johansson, and Lindh back certainly helped as well, because that classic 80s lineup had a boatload of chemistry that the Abstrakt Algebra goons could never even dream to match, but Messiah brought so much overt theatricality to the band that nobody after him ever came close to matching..  And so here, the band ostensibly picks up where it left off after the famous live album in 1990, and they haven't missed a step.  This is a bit more modernized in some of the straightfoward rocking songs like "Black Dwarf" and "Born in a Tank", but the epic atmosphere is finally back in spades.  If it wasn't for the somewhat dull stretch between "Copernicus" and "Witches", this could easily be a couple spots higher, because everything else is an undisputed winner.  "Black Dwarf" will always hold a special place in my heart for being one of the first Candlemass songs I ever heard in full around the time the album dropped in 2005 (which was twelve fucking years ago holy shit) and for just simply being one of the best straightforward riff monsters they've ever written, and "Spellbreaker" should probably go down as one of their most underappreciated modern tracks.  It's just an all around very good album, with all of the elements that made the trio of late 80s albums so iconic, updated for the heavier modern era.  This is what Candlemass truly sounds like, and it's the first time on this list that we've gotten a true taste of that inimitable swagger they carried underneath sweepingly epic atmosphere.  While relistening to everything a second time after forming the rankings (simply listening to everything necessary is teaching me that this Ladder Match feature is ridiculously fucking time consuming), I realized that this album is actually quite clearly better than Death Magic Doom, and therefore should've been the album to hit the middle of the rankings and been excluded, but I decided not to rewrite it because DMD would have been in this spot anyway so the point totals wouldn't have been different, and frankly I just really don't want to write about all three Lowe albums in a fucking row.  Deal with it.
    BLIND GUARDIAN 17 - CANDLEMASS 28

    11: Blind Guardian - Battalions of Fear
    Well it took us until the tenth entry to get here, but we're finally starting to sniff the 80s in this countdown.  Blind Guardian's legendary debut is most well remembered for one thing, and that's for giving the world one of the songs most beloved by fans and most reviled by the band, the eternal speed metal classic, "Majesty".  Marcus Siepen mentions in the liner notes on the Century Media reissue that his least favorite memory of this album is even writing "Majesty" in the first place, since the band finds the song to be too amateurish and they routinely get frustrated with crowds at every live show for the past 30 years incessantly chanting for them to play it, despite their dogged insistence to avoid playing it as often as possible.  Marcus is a dingdong, because "Majesty" is a heralded classic for a damn good reason, it's quite possibly the most incredible speed metal song ever written.  There's a lot more to this album than that legendary opener, but it does stand as the clear highlight regardless.  This early era of the band isn't quite as expansive and magniloquent as their symphonic era, but raw and furious German speed metal is one of the greatest short lived subniches in the history of heavy metal and Battalions of Fear showcases why with aplomb.  This is one of the few albums in their discography where the riffs are on equal footing with the melodies (which has always been the band's strong suit), and it only serves to make the album beefier than it logically has any right to be.  The insane speeds found on tracks like "Guardian of the Blind" and "Wizard's Crown" have yet to be matched in the ensuing years.  Right away the band had perfected their brand of hooks and Battalions of Fear meshes them with sheer, uncompromising speed, and that makes it a phenomenal record, if a bit rough and unpolished, and the small number of full length songs helps preempt the band's eternal issue of album bloating that started around 1995.
    BLIND GUARDIAN 27 - CANDLEMASS 28

    10: Blind Guardian - Follow the Blind
    As great as the debut is, I give the edge to Follow the Blind mostly because it's just that little bit tighter, just that little bit more refined, and just that little bit more hard hitting.  It's only ever so slightly less ferocious than Battalions of Fear but even more melodically sophisticated.  This is the album where they started to really nail their signature sound of bombastic epicness and speedy, razor sharp metal.  They were obviously still firmly on the speed metal side of the equation at this point, but the choir effect in the choruses of classics like "Banish from Sanctuary" and "Valhalla" really telegraph the direction they'd further pursue.  Don't let that statement fool you though, this is still 100% molten fucking metal, loaded to the gills with enough uncompromising riffage to satisfy any wayward Slayer fan to stumble across it.  Despite the aforementioned two songs being the only two tracks from their speed metal era to still reliably make it into any current live set (apart from the occasional track from Tales from the Twilight World or sometimes throwing fans a bone in the form of "Majesty"), pretty much every track is a classic in my eyes.  "Damned for all Time" absolutely smokes, "Beyond the Ice" is an incredible speedfest instrumental, "Hall of the King" makes me headbang myself into a coma without fail, basically everything except for the title track, oddly enough, is amazing.  Even the goofy cover of "Barbara Ann" tacked on at the end works as a fun cooldown after 35 minutes of non stop riffage.  Honestly, it's pretty indicative of how amazing both of these bands are if I have nothing but good things to say about an album and we're only just barely breaking into the top half of the rankings.
    BLIND GUARDIAN 38 - CANDLEMASS 28

    9: Candlemass - Epicus Doomicus Metallicus
    The six tracks that started it all.  There's a reason you see that cross-impaled-demon-skull thing on all of their merchandise, almost everything about this album became a Big Fucking Deal.  This type of doom was all but unheard of in 1986.  This kept the gloom and misery of most downtrodden metal at the time but slathered it all in massive, destructive riffs and esoteric atmosphere.  Candlemass always had the atmosphere element of metal in a stranglehold during this time, and their debut here is an exemplary example as to why.  This is actually going to be a very short entry because fuck, really what can I say about it?  It's one of the most legendary releases in all of 80s metal for what it signified and every song is a killer.  "Solitude" is one of the band's signature songs for a reason, "Under the Oak" and "A Sorcerer's Pledge" are practically inescapable, and "Crystal Ball" will always hold a special place in my heart not only for having such an impossibly cool main riff, but also for actually being the very first Candlemass song I ever heard (back in the Limewire days of high schol when it was mislabled as "Epicus Doomicus Metallicus").  This heralded the "invention" of epic doom metal, and it's absolutely earned every modicum of notoriety it's carried in the 30+ years since.
    BLIND GUARDIAN 38 - CANDLEMASS 40

    8: Blind Guardian - Beyond the Red Mirror
    It might seem odd to place Guardian's most recent album so high on the list, above even the seminal classics that are the first two albums and their most popular album, but I honestly think this is actually the first time they've truly perfected their more drawn out and epic style that started a whopping twenty years prior, proving that Imaginations from the Other Side wasn't just a fluke.  Whereas the previous four albums were all noticeably flawed in one way or another, Beyond the Red Mirror really just delivers ten remarkably tight and well crafted songs that showcase everything that makes the band so legendary.  I don't know what it was, maybe it was the simple switch to seven string guitars or the departure of Oliver Holzwarth (though unlikely, since he was always shafted as a full member because "Oh maybe Hansi will want to play bass again someday, so you'll just be a guest member for the next fifteen years and get no credit and never get to write any songs"), but everything just came together beautifully on this one.  "The Ninth Wave" and "Grand Parade" effectively rendered their counterparts of "Sacred Worlds" and "Wheel of Time" obsolete, "The Holy Grail" is by far the most aggressive and propulsive song they've written in two decades, with "Twilight of the Gods" really not too far behind, "Ashes of Eternity" sounds like a lost A Twist in the Myth song that was actually super fucking good, it's just a remarkably tight and solid outing for a band of nerds pushing 50.
    BLIND GUARDIAN 51 - CANDLEMASS 40

    7: Candlemass - Ancient Dreams
    Finally, finally after thirteen entries we reach the legendary triad of Messiah albums from the 80s.  This era is so revered for a damn good reason, this was simply epic doom perfection, that only Solitude Aeturnus matched in the 90s and beyond.  Absolutely nobody else did it as well as the masters did.  The album art is actually a fairly good illustration of what the music brings to the table.  It's very bright and majestic, like an inconceivably gorgeous palace far off in the distance, with a sort of lurking sense of ardor beneath a sheen of optimism.  The themes of death are just as prevalent as they always were during the band's early days (this doesn't feature tracks like "Incarnation of Evil" for no reason), but it's presented with sweeping grace and class that they've honestly never matched, and it's filtered through a lens of creation, building vast temples of white upon a strong foundation of brooding riffage.  If there's an real flaw with this album, it's simply that some of the songs are just too long.  Four tracks breaching the seven minute mark logically shouldn't be a problem for a band that operates with this scope and tempo, and to be fair none of the longer songs are bad, but every single song underneath the bar of seven minutes is better than the ones that surpass it.  The rolling gallop of tracks like "Mirror Mirror" and "The Bells of Acheron" are exciting and evocative, and the more gloomy oppression of "Epistle no. 81" and especially "Darkness in Paradise" just work better with an ever so slightly more concise execution.  Candlemass was always great at injecting some extra vigor into their riffs, and it shows here.  Bonus points go to the excellent Black Sabbath medley included on the CD version, paying homage to their obvious heroes with an excellent mashup of undisputed Ozzysabbath classics "Symptom of the Universe", "Sweet Leaf", "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath", "Into the Void", "Electric Funeral", and "Supernaut".
    BLIND GUARDIAN 51 - CANDLEMASS 54

    6: Blind Guardian - Imaginations from the Other Side
    I've namedropped this album like ten times leading up to this spot, and that hasn't been by accident.  This legendary 1995 album provided the blueprint for all epic power metal bands to follow for decades to come, with nobody, not even the band themselves, ever truly matching the splendor that explodes from this masterpiece of metal supremacy.  That raw, youthful exuberance of the band up to this point has been almost entirely replaced with a class and maturity hitherto unheard of in the genre.  There's a reason so many melodic power metal stalwarts (Sonata Arctica, Stratovarius, Rhapsody, etc) either didn't start or didn't hit their stride until after this album.  Yeah yeah I know Helloween is a bigger influence on all of those bands but the point stands that Imaginations was a total game changer.  I joke often that no power metal band should bother trying to write ballads unless they're Blind Guardian, and while their best ballads are coming up later in this list, this album is an excellent example as to why I think that.  "A Past and Future Secret" and "Mordred's Song" are both phenomenal quiet emotional songs (and for bonus trivia, for any wayward rap fans reading this, the latter song was sampled by OuterSpace for the track "Lost Battles", and it works incredibly), and even the lighter quasi-ballad of "Bright Eyes" is stunning.  The title track is a mid paced and evocative masterclass of songwriting, and despite this being the clear start of their more epic style and the last stronghold of their pure riff infused speed metal, there are still a few holdovers that are injected with massive doses of melody and bombast, which huge choirs backing pummeling double bass and fiery excitement.  So yes, "I'm Alive", "Born in a Mourning Hall", and most especially "Script for My Requiem" are among the best songs the band ever wrote.  There's really nothing not to like about this album, and I've yet to meet a power metal fan who didn't damn near worship the ground it walked on.
    BLIND GUARDIAN 66 - CANDLEMASS 54

    5: Candlemass - Chapter VI
    This is sort of the "lost" Candlemass album, tragically doomed to be the oddity at the end of the classic run and just before the breakup and Abstrakt Algebra fiasco, featuring a much more subdued and soulful vocalist who logically was more well suited to traditional power metal and hard rock styled music than the endlessly entertaining oversinging we had all gotten used to thanks to the inimitable Messiah Marcolin for the past several years leading up to this (he does great in Dark Illusion, Stormwind, and Therion).  Frankly, that's an absolute fucking shame, because Chapter VI is every bit as magical as the Messiah Trilogy in the 80s.  While it may not be as over the top and theatrical as the most well known stuff, it's definitely among the most well written and evocative.  The opener, "The Dying Illusion" is probably the strongest indicator of the heavier motifs they'd employ from 2005 and beyond, but pretty much every song here is a worthy classic.  It's certainly the darkest album they've recorded, which is kind of odd considering the non-stop Sabbathisms of the Flodkvist era and the leftover brightness of the Messiah era, but it's true.  There's a lot of black splendor to be found here on tracks like "Temple of the Dead" and "Black Eyes", and the subtle synths that appear relatively frequently give the album a character unlike any other Candlemass album.  But despite the more grounded effort here and Vikstrom's solid attempt at filling some of the biggest shoes in metal, this is every bit as good as the classic era, and there are two songs that showcase why: "Where the Runes Still Speak" and "The Ebony Throne".  The former is often cited as the lost classic from this album that could have fit anywhere on the more visible albums and the one that makes the best use of Vikstrom's voice, but for my money, "The Ebony Throne" is the true forgotten classic of the band's career.  Worthy of any setlist and featuring one of the best choruses the band would ever pen, do yourself a favor and check out "The Ebony Throne" if you're only familiar with the Messiah and Lowe eras of the band.
    BLIND GUARDIAN 66 - CANDLEMASS 70

    4: Candlemass - Tales of Creation
    Likely the fastest and most upbeat of all of Candlemass's oeuvre, Tales of Creation stands as the glorious conceptual sendoff to the classic era, rife with classic after classic after classic.  The hints of splendorous creation that ran underneath the excellent Ancient Dreams are hammered over the listener's head in the most hamfisted way here, but fuck I wouldn't change it for the world.  The bright vibrancy is at an all time high, with more melody and more speedy tempos than the band would ever feature before or since, and it's a very exciting and wondrous journey as a result.  Even the dark and heavy doom that the band never failed to feature prominently despite the more colorful approach of the Messiah records is more uplifting and exuberant than ever before.  "Dark Reflections" is another one of the first songs I'd ever heard from the band, and the pulse pounding and muscular gallop of the verse riff still stands as one of the highlights of the band's career.  "Tears" features one of the most hard hitting choruses they'd ever write, "Through the Infinitive Halls of Death" is both a dark and oppressive slab of monstrously heavy doom and an adrenaline filled romp, the closing title track brings back the opening riff from "Prophecies" as a great coda to tie the whole experience together, the rerecording of "Under the Oak" is phenomenally heavy, basically everything about this album is sheer perfection.  I absolutely have to highlight the most out-of-left-field moment of the band's career though, there's no way to overlook it.  "Into the Unfathomed Tower" is a ferocious blast of high speed neoclassical shred/power metal that comes out of absolutely fucking nowhere and completely rips me apart every time.  It's sort of just a fun instrumental throwaway in the middle of the album to help break up all the doom in the grand scheme of things, but I love it so much because it showcases how little of a fuck Candlemass gave about "the rules" at the time.  They were writing the rules, and it didn't matter if they were four full lengths into their run, if they wanted to put in a vibrant and high speed melodic powerhouse of shred, who the fuck was going to stop them?  I'm willing to bet that almost nobody else had the sheer testicular fortitude to take the subgenre most constricted by rules and ethos behind only thrash metal and say "Fuck all of you, we're going to put an Yngwie Malmsteen song in the middle here and none of you pricks can stop us."
    BLIND GUARDIAN 66 - CANDLEMASS 87

    3: Blind Guardian - Tales from the Twilight World
    Blind Guardian was almost unstoppable in their speed metal era.  I see Tales here often shuffled near the bottom because it supposedly ends on a whimper compared to the monstrously strong opening streak of songs, but anybody who believes that is a numpty.  "The Last Candle" is one of their all time greats, opening with that iconic mantra of "GAH-DYIN GAH-DYIN GAH-DYIN OF THE BLIND" from two albums prior sets the stage for a definitive statement of speed metal insanity, and the rest of the song lives up to it with aplomb, ending with a classic out-chant.  Even the two short interlude style songs ("Weird Dreams" and "Altair 4") are among the band's best, never slowing down or kicking down the intensity for a second.  But really, the true strength of the album really is that opening string of classics.  From "Traveler in Time" to "Lost in the Twilight Hall", the album just delivers anthem after anthem, never stopping fuck around with mid tempo nonsense outside of one of their all time great classic ballads, "Lord of the Rings".  The fact that this album seems to have been mostly phased out of live sets is a huge shame, though I do understand why.  It's by far the most intense album they've ever penned, with more vigor and fury than they've ever mustered before or since.  "Traveler in Time" and "Goodbye My Friend" are woefully forgotten monsterpieces of fiery speed, and "Welcome to Dying" seemed to hold out the longest in terms of setlist mainstays and that's a great thing because it's an amazing song.  "Lost in the Twilight Hall" marks the second appearance of former Helloween and future Gamma Ray frontman, Kai Hansen, and his comparatively shrill screech is a perfect foil for the full voiced masculinity of Hansi Kursch.  The song also features one of their best choruses, which even at this early stage in their career has always been their strength.  The balance between hooks and aggression is tilted a little further towards the latter end still, but it's all coming together nicely, hinting at the direction they'd eventually take ever so subtly.  "Lord of the Rings" would have easily stood as their defining singalong ballad if not for the obvious one coming up on the followup album, but it acts here as a nice breather before barreling headfirst into the frantic insanity of "Goodbye My Friend".  There's really nothing bad I can say about this album, even the forgotten final three songs are amazing and would have stood as easy highlights on any other speed metal album from 1990.  Tales from the Twilight World is so good that it somehow manages to convince its own listeners that it's weaker than it is, and I can't even begin to explain how that even makes sense.  It warps reality itself, that's all there is to it.
    BLIND GUARDIAN 84 - CANDLEMASS 87

    2: Candlemass - Nightfall
    Did you really think for even one second that any other Candlemass album could've come out on top as their best?  Nightfall stands after 30 years as their magnum opus, and as much as I love Chapter VI and Tales of Creation, they never even stood a chance.  This was the world's introduction to the man himself, Messiah Marcolin, the iconoclastic vocalist that I've mentioned several times but never really expounded upon.  His voice was unlike anything else in metal at the time, taking the theatricality of Johan Langquist and ratcheting every single aspect of it so far past eleven that I stopped counting somewhere within the opening minutes of "The Well of Souls".  His vibrato is absolutely insane, and his command of the human voice is almost unmatched.  Every single time he opens his mouth I find myself just in the palm of his hand, transported off somewhere beyond the ether.  "Magical" is an adjective I find myself using to describe this run of albums in the late 80s, and Messiah is a huge reason why.  He's completely inimitable, and no other vocalist they've featured has ever touched his accomplishments with the band.  Candlemass has always been Leif's band first and foremost, but Messiah was the X-Factor that took them from "excellent" to "undisputed legends".  Even beyond his personal brand of perfection, the songs themselves here are the best they'll ever be.  Like five of the songs here are consistently rated among their best and I can't really dispute any of them.  "At the Gallows End" is a seminal classic, with one of the most simplistic-yet-perfect riffs ever written and a massively anthemic chorus (RIIIiIiIiIING BROoOoOoOTHER RIIiIiIiIiING FORrR MEeEeEeEe), "The Well of Souls" introduces Messiah with some of the most ear splitting high notes he'd ever reach, "Bewitched" is quite possibly THE classic Candlemass song behind "Solitude", there isn't one single negative thing I can say about this album.  Yeah it may lack the uptempo skippiness of Tales of Creation or the guitar mastery of Ancient Dreams, but this was their undisputed peak of songwriting and majesty.  Candlemass could make fucking anything sound incredible in 1987, just look at "Samarithan".  It's just a sweet, wholesome song about a man who takes in a homeless beggar for a night and is thusly rewarded by becoming an angel years later upon his death.  Like, holy fuck no metal song should ever be about something so saccharine, but here's fucking Candlemass churning out an uplifting doom song about exactly that.  This is about as close to a perfect album as you can get, and it's an eternal monument to Candlemass's complete mastery of music in the late 80s.
    BLIND GUARDIAN 84 - CANDLEMASS 106

    1: Blind Guardian - Somewhere Far Beyond 
    And finally coming in at the top of this heap, one of my Top 10 All Time favorite albums ever, in any genre.  I know it's a bit of a cliche but there are really two types of transitional albums when a band undergoes a major stylistic shift, those being either an awkward mishmash of two disparate styles, or a gorgeous "best of both worlds" affair.  Somewhere Far Beyond obviously sits firmly as the shining example of the latter category.  I think the word I've been looking for to describe all of Blind Guardian's post-1995 work but haven't been able to land on is "ambitious", because this perfect blend of their earlier primal rawness and later polished majesty absolutely sounds like the most ambitious speed metal album ever crafted.  There are smatterings of symphonics scattered around, most notably on the title track and "Theatre of Pain", along with some of their most well written speed metal monsters with "Journey Through the Dark", "Time What Is Time", and "Ashes to Ashes".  The choirs and choruses have never been better than they are here, every single idea they toy with just hits bullseye.  The ballad half of "The Bard's Song" is the most iconic metal ballad of all time, the church bells that punctuate the chorus of the title track send shivers down my spine even to this day, the intro of "Time What Is Time" still wrecks me, "Ashes to Ashes" is probably their best forgotten song, just... god dammit I fell in love with this album well over a decade ago and it still hasn't lost one single bit of it's luster.  I know I just went on a huge rant about how much I love Nightfall and I can say with confidence that I love Somewhere Far Beyond even more, but the problem is that I don't really know what to say about it.  All I can do is point to certain aspects of it and descend into gibbering lunacy about how good it is.  If nothing else, it has one of my all time favorite "special thanks" sections in any metal album outside of some of Morbid Angel's more classic ones, sprinkled with boundless love for Iced Earth and tons of weird little asides ("Soccer rules!", "Game Boy rules!") and a shoutout to Jon Schaffer punctuated with "Poor Raiders fan, the Bucs rule!", which tells me that Super Bowl XXXVIII must have been an incredibly hostile time in the Demons & Wizards camp.
    BLIND GUARDIAN 104 - CANDLEMASS 106


    And so!  With a final score of 106 to 104, the winners of the inaugural Ladder Match stand as...


    CANDLEMASS!  In total honesty, I didn't tally the points out before I started writing this and just added them up as I went along, so I genuinely didn't know who was going to win until the last couple entries started making it easier to calculate, and I'm actually surprised.  I obviously love the shit out of both bands, but I've always considered Blind Guardian to be one of my all time favorites, consistently hitting about the third spot below only Bad Religion and Running Wild/Gargoyle/whoever I feel like at the time.  I knew it would be close, but I didn't expect Candlemass to actually take the throne.  It was so close that basically any shuffling around of any album would have altered the score in some significant way.  Congrats to Candlemass, you've won a completely meaningless contest run by some dork with far more free time than important shit to do, way to go!

    So that's that!  Was I way off base?  Who would you like to see face off next? 

    In the meantime, LET'S STOMP!