Top Ten(ish) Records of 2015

Keeping up with the slow blogging paradigm, my last post was written over three years ago, where I talked about older albums that I’d picked up based on retrospective reviews and the like. WordPress tells me that I created the original draft of this post on January 10th 2016 and then I totally forgot about it for two years. Fucking hell. Anyway, this post is probably going to have a jumble of past and present tenses, plus the original ordering I had in mind has changed around a bit due to albums released late in the year that I then developed a liking for so you’ll have to bear with me…

It’s been an interesting year by the standard of the apocryphal saying. My sister got married at long last, I did a work placement in Japan for two months which led to me finally achieving my long held dream of moving to Japan last November, my Dad passed away and I’m still dealing with that, but without the safety net of family and friends. 2016 could technically be worse than 2015, but it would have to involve a major earthquake destroying Tokyo whilst I’m still in it. For now, let’s just fuck all that off and talk about metal instead.

The “ish” list

#(ish) Kjeld // Skym
Kjeld is very reminiscent of second-wave black metal bands (blatant Emperor moments abound), but in a good way. That said, despite listening to it a ton in 2015, if I’m not concentrating on it closely when listening it tends to pass by without me noticing, so it gradually slipped down off the actual top 10 list and later off my Bandcamp wishlist, so perhaps Kjeld’s next album will be the one.

#(ish) Galar // De Gjenlevende
Putting the black metal into folk black metal, Galar’s second album is melodic, beautiful and emotionally uplifting.

#(ish) Demon Lung // A Dracula
Doom was never really my thing until a few years ago when it felt like Last Rites were constantly talking about Candlemass (plus Autothrall loves the shit out of Nightfall) so I gave the band yet another crack and things finally clicked. Honestly speaking, I’m not sure why I was never a fan as this kind of doom is chock-full of riffs but ever since I’ve been checking out every new (non-funeral) doom release and Demon Lung hits the spot, with its combination of double kick pummelling, riffs and the breathy vocals of Shanda Fredrick.

The actual top 10

10. Vhol // Deeper than Sky
When I heard Vhol’s debut in 2013, I have to admit that I wasn’t a fan (the vocals of Mike Schedit are an acquired taste to be sure), but it grew on me a lot over this year and so I was primed for the band’s sophomore effort. Deeper Than Sky also took time to settle in but the melodic yet slightly off-kilter riffing of John Cobbett are uniformly superb. That all said the bass/drums/piano of “Paino” is jarring and pulls me out of my immersion in the album, despite its fast-paced and otherwise very metal feeling groove. Going back to Cobbett’s riffs, I’ve also been checking out his other bands such as The Weird Lord Slough Feg (former) and Hammers of Misfortune (current and main band, whose 2016 album turned out to be stellar).

9. Pitbulls in the Nursery // Equanimity
All reviews about this album concede that the band name is awful, and I do not disagree. Luckily the music makes up for the band name, being a glorious mash-up of Gojira and Meshuggah with added progressive moments, like the arpeggiated chords in the chorus “The Oath”, followed by a bridge of bass noodling with clean guitar jangling over the top and then a harmonised guitar lead. By rights Equanimity should be a total mess but somehow it successfully marries the aggression of the often monotonous rhythmic chugging verses with beautifully melodic breaks. Criminally underrated.

8. My Dying Bride // Feel the Misery
Opening track “And My Father Left Forever” was written about the passing of vocalist Aaron Stanthorpe’s father, and as a perverse coincidence I first heard it waiting in hospital for my own father to recover after a sudden accident. It occurred to me at the time that listening to the track was inviting bad luck, even though he had been expected to make a full recovery, but I don’t believe in superstition and so I listened anyway. My father never left that hospital alive, and now the song is locked in my memory as a sign of what was to come. Listening to this sorrowful dirge of an album makes me cry even now, three years later, but in spite of the emotion it continues to evoke, the song and the rest of the album feels reminiscent of the riffier MDB that I remember as a teenager in the 90s. I mean, just listen to that grindingly heavy riff that starts at 7:10 and then returns with added double kick at 8:12 for crushnity. That said, I have to admit that I haven’t listened to MDB properly since The Light at the End of the World, so I’m not in a position to call this a return to form, but it certainly feels that way. I’d probably rate the album higher if I could bring myself to listen to it more often, but it is what it is.

7. Crypt Sermon // Out of the Garden
2014 was the year that Candlemass finally clicked, so in 2015 I was keeping an eye out for similarly epic doom, and Crypt Sermon delivered in spades. Riffs and solos for days, and even the lack of full-on Messianic vocals did nothing to diminish the effect. Out of the Garden would have walked the best doom album of the year if not for Sorcerer (see further down)

6. Cattle Decapitation // The Anthropocene Extinction
Is it better than Monolith? The jury is out but it’s still great and crushes and (somewhat soothes) with its mix of grinding brutality and melodic choruses.

5. Agonyst // The Bad Old Days
Agonyst continue to do their thing, which I’m still referring to as SYL-esque (in the absence of a better description) but with more emphasis on extremity and going off into extended jams. It’s still excellent stuff but doesn’t quite hit the heights of their debut album Centennial

4. Sorcerer // In the Shadow of the Inverted Cross
Best doom album of the year without doubt. Crypt Sermon is good, but Sorcerer managed to hold my attention throughout the year.

3. Slugdge // Dim and Slimeridden Kingdoms
Gastronomicon was my top album of 2014 and a nigh-on perfect melding of brutal death metal, with , so I had high hopes for Slugdge’s third album. At first I was disappointed with its lack of immediacy and memorable riffs, but I kept on listening to it even into 2016 and now broadly agree with Zach Duvall’s review on Last Rites, in particularly his view that the album is “not as immediate an album as was Gastronomicon, but it is deeper, more progressive in song structure”. The band continues its brutal progressive death metal and is all the more impressive for coming out a scant year after Gastronomicon. Long live Greatfather Mollusca!

2. Amorphis // Under the Red Cloud
Never a fan of the band, despite autothrall’s love of Elegy, but I tried again with Under the Red Cloud and was entranced. I got to see them live twice in Japan last year (2016, ahem) and they were superb both times, so I guess I’m a convert now.

1. Ghost Ship Octavius // Ghost Ship Octavius
Another band with a terrible name, but what a debut, and something that I only stumbled on via a comment left on either Last Rites or Angry Metal Guy. The main guitarist/songwriter (Matt Wicklund) channels Jeff Loomis so hard that people were leaving comments on the YouTube album stream asking if Loomis was in the band (he only plays a guest solo); GSO is very much a modern metal that has a lot in common with Nevermore, but with more of a power metal vocal style. Almost uniformly excellent, apart from a slightly wanky pre-chorus in “Bloodcaster”, and though I continue to mourn the loss of Nevermore (and later, the untimely death of Warrel Dane in 2018), GSO will do me for now.

(as an aside, I was at the gig during which the video above was filmed in April 2016 , but seemingly managed to dodge every damn camera in the place as I’m nowhere to be seen. Epic fail.)


3. Theory in Practice // Evolving Transhumanism
It’s been 13 long years without Theory in Practice, whom autothrall described as “mind blowing and acrobatic Swedish death metal” and would have been a great success had they continued. Well, they’re back now to show how technical death metal should really be done.

2. Sanzu // Painless
Sanzu use 8-string guitars to play a non-djent form of brutal death metal that sounds like Morbid Angel and Gojira had some kind of horrific inbred baby. Sadly the subsequent album was less good, but we’ll always have Painless. The band’s Bandcamp page appears to have been nuked after signing to Listenable Records for their debut album, so here’s a link to the Listenable Records Bandcamp page, including both the album and the EP.

1. Hath // Hive
Not sure if this counts as an EP at 32 minutes, but it’s a fucking great slab of darkly melodic death metal with a strong Opeth bent to its proceedings (the acoustic sections engage full-on Akerfeldt worship mode) but with added 7-string brutality, such as the absolutely crushing riff that closes out the third track “Swarm”. I have no doubt that the band’s debut album due in 2018 will be killer.

Best albums of 2015 not released in 2015

Vhol // Vhöl
As mentioned above, I had been aware of Vhol’s debut since it came out in 2013, but I couldn’t quite get into it. During the two months I spent in Japan from February to April as an initial tryout, this and Orlog were the two albums that I listened to the most and I am most certainly a fan now.

Necrophobic // Hrimthursum
Plundered from one of Autothrall’s many lists, I tried out Necrophobic and discovered that almost their entire back catalogue of satanic blackened death metal was worthy, and in particular Hrimthursum.

Orlog // Elysion
Another one to thank Autothrall for. Both of Orlog’s Germanic black metal albums are pretty good, but of the two Elysion is the one I keep on coming back to.

Antigama // Meteor
Never the biggest grind fan, but Antigama’s take on it has enough of a death metal flavour (not to mention actual song length) to keep me engaged.

All new (old) music, all the time

Looking back over the two decades plus since I first started listening to metal, it’s interesting to see how my methods of discovering new bands and albums has changed over time.

My sister introduced me to metal (Iron Maiden, Metallica, Megadeth, Judas Priest) via her A-Level Chemistry classmates, then friends I made at school recommended other bands (Anthrax, Slayer). Next was reading magazine reviews in Kerrang! (Carcass, Sepultura and Entombed) and Terrorizer (Death, Morbid Angel, Dissection, My Dying Bride) and watching music videos on Headbanger’s Ball (Type O Negative, Paradise Lost, Corrosion of Conformity, Kreator) and Noisy Mothers (Strapping Young Lad), and then new friends at university made more recommendations (Vader, Meshuggah, Gorguts, Anata).

At some point the Internet became a thing, and so I turned to metal review sites such as Digital Metal (now defunct – all hail the Wayback Machine) and Metal Review (now Last Rites); more recently places like From the Dust Returned, No Clean Singing, Angry Metal Guy, Teeth of the Divine and Sputnikmusic.

If you were thinking that those sites provide more than enough metal to be getting on with each year, you’d be absolutely right, and yet I find myself still hunting down more new music, specifically albums that I might have missed due to ignorance or a lack of interest at the time.

So, here are five albums that I’ve only “discovered” in the last few years thanks to Autothrall or Angry Metal Guy. I left out albums if I was already familiar with a particular band and already owned another album by that band (so Samael’s Ceremony of Opposites didn’t make the cut since I already own Passage, but I gave Tiamat a pass because I was familiar with them, despite not buying an album) and tried to cover a variety of genres. Some of these choices are obscure whilst some are heralded classics that I never got on with when they first came to my attention. Sometimes you just need someone to badger you about a band/album before the recommendation eventually takes hold.


Artillery – By Inheritance (1989)

Technical thrash of the highest calibre, combining headbanging riffs with a distinctive sound that is tinged with Eastern melodies. The wailing vocals let down the music in my opinion, but the music compensates more than enough. Thrash to me is signified by rhythmic acrobatics and shredding solos, so 1:03 of “Khomaniac” gets me every time, along with the intro to “Beneath the Clay (R.I.P.)”, the intro lead to “Bombfood” and indeed all of the leads and solos. If “Khomaniac” doesn’t get you headbanging, then nothing will.


Powermad – Absolute Power (1989)

If you’ve seen David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, you might recognise the first track “Slaughterhouse” as it’s the song that plays in the club scene at the start of the film and it’s on the soundtrack. I remember liking the track a lot but mainly for the great build-up at the start and didn’t go any further than that. Angry Metal Guy did a retrospective review and it turns out that Autothrall rated it pretty highly too which was all the prompting I needed. I had a listen and it’s an absolute corker – a solid thrash foundation with excellent melodies, harmonies and leads, a bit like Megadeth but without a rubbish douchebag vocalist.


Tiamat – Wildhoney (1994)

To give you an idea, Grymm at Angry Metal Guy described the album as being dark metal akin to The Gathering, Moonspell and Samael. I remember hearing a radio edit of this song, either as a video or on a Terrorizer cover CD and liking it a lot but feeling that it wasn’t heavy enough (which is what I thought about The Gathering, even though I loved Moonspell’s Irreligious and Samael’s Passage at the time. Go figure. I’ve since grown to love The Gathering). My tastes have since changed – one might even say “matured” – and now I think that the whole album is beautiful. Tasteful synths add atmosphere, the infrequent leads add colour without dominating the song and there is a great balance between the heavy distorted guitars and acoustic guitar sections. Each song flows into the next with motifs passed on, leading to an ensemble that makes for a superb album.


Unmoored – Indefinite Soul-Extension (2003)

In spite of his contribution to a ridiculous number of metal bands, Christian Ävestam is almost always cited as being the ex-vocalist of another decent but far less interesting band. I would prefer it if he were known for his original and best band, Unmoored, where he first combined “high and low growls, with clean vocals”. The band’s third album is progressive death metal, which means it falls into that awkward sub-genre all bands are dumped in when they feature clean guitars and clean vocals in addition to the standard death metal. I described the band to a like-minded colleague as being akin to At the Gates but with more brutality (the grinding palm-muted chords in “Commit to the Fire”), blasting (the opening track “Unspeakable Grief”), clean vocals (dotted throughout, but last track “Final State Part III [Posthumous Writings]” is sung entirely clean) and synths (“Spit Forth from Failure”). Hmmm. So not much like At the Gates at all…

In amongst the riffage, a point that I’d like to highlight is how smoothly the band transitions between different riff and vocal styles, as that is something which many progressive death metal bands try and fail at doing well. For more coherent thoughts on the album, Autothrall enthused about it a great deal.


Funeral – From These Wounds (2006)

I picked up this album on the strength another Angry Metal Guy retrospective review and listening to some tracks on YouTube. Vocals are an airy melodic croon for the most part, with occasional low-register Pete Steele-esque baritone moments in songs like “Red Moon”. Keyboards are scattered throughout each song, and there are strong dynamic shifts conveyed through riff style – “softer” sections are conveyed by strummed chord progressions whilst the heavy moments are signified by palm-muted chords. It’s slow and mournful music to listen to, and has a definite Type O Negative and My Dying Bride vibe to it. It’s more dark than doom to these ears, but have a listen and decide for yourself.


Top Ten(ish) Records of 2013

One of the many things that I started writing about and never finished was my favourite albums from 2013, so here it is a year after the fact. *facepalm*

The ordering of this list was mildly arbitrary until the last three which are probably the albums I’ve listened to most in 2013. Although I’ve changed my mind about both Obliteration and Carcass over the course of 2014 (to the point where both would have made it into the top ten), I’ve preserved the list as it was when I scribbled down some notes last, ahem the year before last. I’ve attempted to write something coherent about each album, but I’ve included full album streams where possible so the best thing to do is to ignore the writing, listen to the music and make up your own mind.

(#ish)Aosoth // IV: An Arrow in Heart

(#ish)Obliteration // Black Death Horizon

(#ish)Vulture Industries // The Tower

(#ish)Gorguts // Colored Sands

(#ish) Carcass // Surgical Steel

(#ish)Suffocation // Pinnacle of Bedlam


10. // Augur Nox
I only became aware of this year, despite having listened to the guitarist's other projects Binah and Blutvial. The push to listen to came off the back of an Arcturus binge and the knowledge (at the time) that Arcturus weren't recording new material. can be described as avant-garde, which is shorthand for "this band is kind of black metal, but also includes a tonne of other genres and sounds a bit like Arcturus". To be fair, not many bands are able to sound like Arcturus without coming across as massively wanky (Arcturus being a victim of their own success and out-there-ness). Whilst Vulture Industries have a vocalist to match Garm and ICS Vortex, but not quite the songwriting, has all of the necessary elements: a superb singer who can flip from black metal screech to operatic vocal acrobatics, epic songwriting and the riffs to back it all up.

9. Hail of Bullets // III: The Rommel Chronicles
Towards the end of the scale is where I had the most trouble picking albums. Suffocation had released possibly their best post-reformation album, Carcass had released a new album eighteen years after Swansong, I discovered the avant-garde metal of , not to mention the long awaited "Colored Sands" from Gorguts following 2004's "From Wisdom to Hate". Then I heard III. I've been aware of Hail of Bullets since its inception, liking individual songs here and there but not entire albums nor even an entire EP. It's a common assertion in metal that adding double-kick drumming improves even the blandest of riffs. A corollary assertion is that adding Martin Van Drunen improves any death metal record, however boring the riffs (Asphyx being a prime example, because the band otherwise bores me to tears). III however crushes right out of the gate and doesn't let up until the final song. The transition between old-school death metal and the slow doomy moments is much smoother than before and doesn't take me out of the music as previous albums were wont to do. It's not original, it's not on a par with classic albums of the early 90s and doesn't set off on its own path like latter-era Bloodbath - it is simply well written old school death metal that pays homage to classic Swedish death metal with modern production values.

8. Satan // Life Sentence
After releasing two NWOBHM albums in the 80s, Satan split up before reforming thirty odd years later with a comeback album written and recorded as if no time had passed at all other than better production. Not a throwback or a homage, but a band continuing with their established legacy with an album that is packed with twin-guitar harmonies, gallop riffs and of course dramatic vocal stylings. It's the best traditional metal album I've heard since Pharaoh's Be Gone in 2007, so if this style floats your boat then you really need to check this out.

7. Voivod // Target Earth
Voivod were one of those legendary bands that I'd known about for years, even so far as buying a few of the band's late 90s albums, but I have never truly "got" them. Then I saw the band at Bloodstock in August 2013, having listened to the expected classics alongside songs from the new album (sadly there was no rendition "Batman") and it all just suddenly clicked. I went out to get copies of Killing Technology and Dimension Hatröss and also Target Earth. Daniel Mongrain (aka Chewy, currently of Martyr and formerly of Gorguts) acquits himself incredibly well, filling the gap left by the untimely loss of founding guitarist Denis D'Amour with music that pays homage to Voivod's classic output whilst etching out his own place in the band with more technical leads and flourishes. Space thrash for the win!

6. Nero Di Marte // Nero Di Marte
A combination of Gojira, Gorguts and Ulcerate, combining the accessibility of the first with the twisted atonal riffing of the latter pair, plus vocals that sound quite strikingly similar to Joe Duplantier. Whilst the riffs are convoluted and arranged in complex structures, the band is far more listenable than Ulcerate and Gorguts and so the album comes highly recommended for anyone who likes or wants to like Gorguts or Ulcerate but has bounced off them in the past.

5. Trials // In the Shadow of Swords
A new challenger approaches! Reviewed by Angry Metal Guy at the very end of the year as an apologetic and retrospective inclusion for his own best of 2013 list, Trials plays a style of modern metal (is that even a thing?) that is mainly thrash with occasional groove nods and hints of metalcore. Trivium hints at Gojira with the stomping chorus riff of "Believers in Black", Trivium in the mix of brutal and clean vocals (perhaps an unfortunate comparison as the vocalist really does evoke Matt Heafy on a few songs), and even the technical melodic death metal of Darkane. A stunning second album from a criminally unsigned band. Get it now via Bandcamp!

4. Svart Crown // Profane
Purveyors of the style of blackened death metal epitomised by the mighty Immolation, Svart Crown have since carved out their own niche. Atonal melodies and fill-heavy drumming punctuates the black-tinged death metal riffs and rasping vocals. There's a brief interlude towards the end of the album, but otherwise Profane is an unrelentingly aggressive bludgeoning. My only concern is that the album is so immediately listenable that I wonder about whether it will have staying power.

3. Sulphur Aeon // Swallowed by the Ocean's Tide
Like many of the albums on this list, I am thankful to autothrall and the From the Dust Returned blog for bringing Swallowed by the Ocean'ss Tide to my attention. Hailing from Germany, a country predominatly known for thrash and power metal, Sulphur Aeon play a fairly brutal style of melodic death metal but with a gloriously filthy guitar sound more redolent of death/doom bands such as Incantation or Disma. The profusion of melody combined with that tone make for an initially uncomfortable listen, but give it time and it'll work its dark magic on you. There is a slight fall-off in awesomeness as the album progresses, but overall it's a quality release and I look forward to hearing more hymns to the Ancient Ones from this band. Also, just look at that beautiful artwork!

2. Byzantine // Byzantine
Now the choice between two and one on this list was tough. Byzantine became one of my favourite bands after reading a review on a now-defunct metal blog extolling the virtues of the band's second album And They Shall Take Up Serpents. I'd actually listened to the band's first album "The Fundamental Concept" before but ignored it due to a rather overt Meshuggah influence (if only I knew what was to come with the advent of djent as an actual sub-genre). So in 2006 I checked out the sophomore album. Holy shit dude. Holy shit. The first song alone has more great riffs in it than most bands manage in an entire album, but that's just one of many excellent songs. The solos are melodic and tasteful, yet shred where shred is required. The band split after the release of their third album due to piss-poor promotion from Prosthetic Records. Needing to actually feed their families, the band split up and moved on.

A few years back, the band reformed for some reunion gigs (minus lead guitarist Tony Rohrbough), then set up a Kickstarter to found a new album, this time with Tony on board. I wanted it so badly I paid them the maximum reward ($100 got me a signed copy of the album, a tab book, a signed poster and a shot glass fact fans. I'm a fucking mug) and it got funded! Woo! Playing groove metal, with a strong thrash foundation, the emphasis of this band is on riffs. Riff after riff after motherfucking riff. Riffs that summon the dark ones who possess you and make you headbang uncontrollably until you actually give yourself a brain haemorrage (that actually happened to a guy at a Motorhead gig incidentally). Not quite matching the heights of And They Shall Take Up Serpents, but definitely on par with Oblivion Beckons. A great album, but one just pipped by....

1. Extol // Extol
(aka yet another bloody self-titled album in the top ten list)
I've been listening to Extol since the release of Synergy in 2003 (acquiring sample tracks via Napster!), then back tracking to Undeceived and Burial, but even then my appreciation was limited to individual songs. It wasn't until The Blueprint Dives in 2006 that I really got into the band (curiously, both original guitarists had left by this point, so the band featured two completely new guys and the music style was very different and yet familiar), then of course the band split up. Again. It's like I jinx these people or something.

Andy Synn's retrospective of the band in 2011 made me revisit those earlier albums, and he later blogged that Extol were making noises about a documentary which hinted at a reunion and then the new eponymous album. The band has crossed genres with abandon, from the black metal of Burial, to the progressive black/death of Undeceived to progressive thrash of Synergy and the less heavy, more poppy Blueprint Dives.

The new album covers absolutely all of these bases, a summing up of the band's history and a statement for the future, a band that has managed to create a distinctive, recognisable style of extreme metal, and a comeback album that isn't a retread. Released back in March, even then I knew that it wouldn't be beaten.

Best album of 2013 not released in 2013:

Klabautamann // Merkur
Another one to chalk up to autothrall. I found a review of Merkur whilst trawling through a list of albums awarded the "Epic Win" rating and realised I'd stumbled on a hitherto unknown classic. One of Germany's best kept secrets for sure and something that will appeal to fans of Emperor and Enslaved alike.

Best (metal) of 2014

All right, I didn’t quite finish this in time for the end of 2014, so here it is now (I’ve still got an unfinished best albums of 2013 kicking around somewhere that I should really get around to completing).

Normally I feel like I have a reasonable grasp of what has been released over the year and so have a decent foundation on which to make my own best-of list. This year I’ve been reading some best of 2014 lists thinking “Who the fuck is that?” or “I remember reading about that but never got around to listening to it”, or “People liked that album? Wtf?”. Still, it’s been a few years since I’ve managed to compile a list, so that’s some kind of improvement even if I do feel like I didn’t have enough time to take in all the quality releases there have been. Meanwhile, I still don’t get all the fuss about Pallbearer.

Honourable mentions:

• Dead Congregation – Promulgation of the Fall
• Voices – London
• Stephan Forte – Enigma Opera Black
• Destroying Divinity – Hollow Dominion
• Near Death Condition – Evolving Towards Extinction
• Calm Hatchery – Fading Reliefs
• 1349 – Massive Cauldron of Chaos

Top Ten of 2014:

10. Godflesh – A World Lit Only By Fire

Despite having friends who worship this band and being fully aware of Justin Broderick’s wide-ranging influence on extreme music, Godflesh were simply one of those bands that I couldn’t get into. Then I heard this album and was pretty much blown away. Perhaps it’s the added heaviness of 7-string guitars, or simply that my taste in metal hasve broadened enough to encompass Godflesh’s singular vision, but I think I finally get it.

9. Sanctuary – The Year the Sun Died

To be honest, after my favourite fucking band split because Warrel Dane had a falling out with Jeff Loomis and decided to try recapturing some former glory with Sanctuary, I really really wanted this album to be rubbish and unsurprisingly that’s exactly what I thought on my first few listens. It was Nevermore-lite at best. Then I listened to it some more and gradually realised that Dane’s voice is still as great as ever (the fact that he was never going to hit the insane highs of the first two Sanctuary albums bothered me far less than it did for more dedicated Sanctuary fans) and the riffs and melodies evoke Nevermore pretty heavily (the chorus of “Let the Serpent Follow Me” is a fairly clear example). The soloing is obviously not the neoclassical shred of Jeff Loomis, but it’s still decent, and you can even hear the bass from time to time which is frankly shocking with an Andy Sneap production. Much as it pains me to say it, The Year the Sun Died is significantly better than Warrel Dane’s solo album*, and better than Nevermore’s two worst albums (The Obsidian Conspiracy and Enemies of Reality), which means it’s actually pretty good. Fuck.

* I’ve heard that he’s working on a second one. Here’s hoping it doesn’t use recycled Soilwork riffs like the first one

8. Hoth – Oathbreaker

If I needed a reminder to keep notes throughout the year, it’s the fact that I have no idea how I originally came across this album (the somewhat overblown Chronicles of Chaos review?). Anyway, let’s all give thanks to Bandcamp for helping another unsigned band get its music out there. Opeth is a definite reference point in terms of dynamic shifts within songs, but Hoth lean more towards black metal in vocal style and a more extensive use of tremelo riffs, along with the occasional symphonic moment such as the chants in the middle section of “Serpentine Whispers” and the cello opening of “Acolyte of the Tenebrous Light”. As noted in the CoC review, Hoth uses motifs extensively throughout the album, establishing a riff or melody that in continued in a lead part, or in a contrasting riff.

Additional kudos for the Star Wars references (the album’s concept is based on the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker) and the logo that looks like a TIE Fighter.

7. Conquering Dystopia – Conquering Dystopia

At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, it was tough facing up to the fact that Nevermore was, uh, no more. Whilst Jeff Loomis’s first solo album Zero Order Phase was shred-tastic in the extreme, I was bitterly disappointed with the follow up Plains of Oblivion (who the fuck adds vocals to an instrumental album? Jeff Loomis and Marty Friedman apparently. Idiots) and wondered where Loomis was going next*. I should have known better. Opening track “Prelude to Obliteration” begins and it’s moreorless Zero Order Phase with added blastbeats – Loomis and Keith Merrow crank out riff after riff after motherfucking riff and then Loomis breaks out into his particular brand of neoclassical shredding**. Alex Rüdinger on drums adds a more technical flair to the drumming seen on Loomis’s other instrumental albums, including the aforementioned blasts, and allegedly Alex Webster provided bass but damned if I can actually hear any in the mix. Commence headbanging motherfuckers! \m/

* I don’t think anyone predicted he would wind up in Arch Enemy as a touring guitarist

** From what I can see of the playthrough videos, Merrow’s contribution is restricted to rhythm guitar, which is faintly odd as he’s an excellent lead guitarist in his own right, but I honestly don’t care if it means more shred from Loomis

6. Thantifaxath – Sacred White Noise

Bugger. Another band I cannot describe very well, other than to say the music is something that you might get if Voivod did black metal. Black as fuck tremelo riffs are mixed with proggy interludes and dark psychedelia, with surprisingly bright melodies providing a contrast to the otherwise unrelenting bleakness (like Bölzer but different). I think I would have rated the album much higher if not for the momentum killing five minute interlude placed slap bang in the middle, but the album is still great and I look forward to hearing more from the band.

Many thanks to Ewan at Lunatic of Blog’s Creation for pimping this band, otherwise it would have completely slipped past my radar.

5. Execration – Morbid Dimensions

Evoking a 90s feel but without recycling ideas from that era, Execration’s third album is packed full of riffs and mild experimentation that treads the middle path between devout retro worship and the Progressive Pit of Tedious Bullshit that has most recently claimed Morbus Chron and Tribulation. “Cosmic Mausoleum” gives no fucks whatsoever, taking over three minutes over a slow atmospheric intro before the pace picks up with distorted chords and blastbeats and then a harmonised tremelo riff. The production is quite dry and occasionally a little weak sounding, but it adds to the spacey sounding riffs and is a refreshing change from the usual Boss Metal Zone abuse that one expects from a retro band. More importantly it just works. The only negative point I can think of is that the album is an hour in length which is far too long for any death metal album worth its salt, but when the riffs are this good it’s hard to remain annoyed

4. Decapitated – Blood Mantra

In my reckoning, Decapitated peaked with Organic Hallucinosis so it was a disappointment that the first post-Vitek album was so stripped down and simplistic that there was nothing left worthy of attention. Blood Mantra isn’t vastly different and yet I find myself listening to the album over and over again. Whether it’s the beautifully simple tremelo riff that opens “Exiled in Flesh”, the hypnotic repetition of “Blindness”, the beautiful tapped solo of “Nest”, the full on thrash riff that concludes the title track (“Nation on Fire” anyone?), or bonus track “Moth Defect” evoking Meshuggah’s “Acrid Placidity”, the album is full of great moments and great songs and a far better successor to Organic Hallucinosis than its predecessor Carnival is Forever.

3. Arsafes – Ratocracy

Judging from the number of times I’ve listened to this album since its release, it should been the winner but Vyrion and Slugdge appeared late in the year and bumped Ratocracy down a bit. For anyone still mourning the demise of Strapping Young Lad, Arsafes pays homage to Devin Townsend’s old band with an added touch of 8-string djent to keep matters out of clone territory. The mammoth riffs, mosh-tastic grooves, synths and samples will be immediately familiar, but the vocals tend to be more on the death metal side of things with a lot of blasting to match. The fact that this all the work of a single man, Roman “Arsafes” Iskororstenskiy),makes me want to give up and weep when I consider my own pathetic musical talent.

2. Vyrion – Geo

I freely admit that I had never heard of this band until Vasilis Xenopoulos mentioned them in a comment on a Last Rites Staff Infections post, and holy shit this is excellent. “Aggressive progressive Australian black metal” is the band’s own description and it’s spot on and a darn sight better than some of Enslaved comparisons I’ve seen floating around. Okay, we’ve got black metal rasps, tremelo riffs, tempo and dynamic shifts aplenty, but Vyrion are more brutal and less proggy. At some point I feel like I need to write a dedicated review, but if you’re a fan of the progressive end of black metal such as the aforementioned Enslaved or Emperor, then you owe it to yourself to have a listen.

1. Slugdge – Gastronomicon

Metal and gimmick bands have been a thing for years, but many bands seem to concentrate on making jokes at the expense of writing decent songs. Slugdge’s concept of several giant slugs that rule over multiple universes* leads to pun-tastic song titles (“Salters of Madness”) and faintly bonkers lyrics (“The Grand Vizier to the Sultan of slime / Beholder of he whose face is the void”), but the songwriting is impeccable. There are nods to Emperor and Anaal Nathrakth in the soaring clean vocals, riffs that evoke bands like Morbid Angel et al (plus that blatant Napalm Death build-up in “Slimewave Zero” at 2:52), but overall the duo have nailed a fairly distinctive style. In spite of my complete inability to describe the album, I haven’t been able to stop listening to Gastronomicon since I stumbled across it a few months ago, so it’s worthy of its place at the top of this year’s list. Best progressive death metal album about intergalactic slug overlords ever? Hell yes. All hail Greatfather Mollusca!

When people realise we’re all the same scared little organisms trying to make sense of something that makes very little sense, then maybe a cosmic slug that lives outside of our physical perception is the best option for everyone. Mollusca also doesn’t mind what you do with your alone time!

* read more in an interview here

The best of the rest

  • Best gig of 2014: Meshuggah at the Roundhouse, 22nd December 2014

Last time I saw Meshuggah was at the Kentish Town Forum for a joint headlining gig with the Devin Townsend Project. I was seated on the first floor and just nodded my head in appreciation for around an hour. I wasn’t able to get a decent seat this time, so decided to stand instead and it was a very different experience. As before, the rhythms and grooves are hypnotic and crushing, but I couldn’t stop headbanging for the entire gig. Still gutted about the lack of “Humiliative” though. 😦

  • Best Comeback: Sanctuary (The Year the Sun Died – see above)
  • Most Overrated Album: Horrendous – Ecdysis

I’ve tried listening to this repeatedly, but I just don’t see the appeal. The more mellow and melodic parts are devoid of aggression and I just switch off when the album is playing. Meh. Perhaps it needs more time but with all the other great albums released in 2014, I don’t feel like I’m missing out on much

  • Most Underrated Album: Vyrion – Geo (see above)
  • Biggest Disappointment: At the Gates – At War With Reality

It wasn’t bad, but frankly it wasn’t the stone cold classic the hype train had been promising. It has been said in various places that the legion of imitators that appeared in the nigh-on two decades since Slaughter of the Soul undermined any success this album might have had, but imitation didn’t harm Carcass and Surgical Steel. That all said, At the Gates provided a stripped down template that was very easy to copy whilst no one has ever really captured the songwriting genius that is Bill Steer, so perhaps the two bands/albums do not make for a simple comparison.

• Album I didn’t listen to enough: Nero Di Marte – Derivae

I have a limit for that particular brand of dissonant, sonically dense music that bands like Gorguts, Pyrrhon, Ulcerate et al produce, and Nero Di Marte are at the extreme end of that tolerance (Ulcerate and Pyrrhon being past that limit). And so whilst I am able to appreciate the technical prowess of their music, I simply didn’t devote as much time to their sophomore album as I did their self-titled debut. I tried again and it’s a little more impenetrable than the previous album. Oh well. Understanding and appreciation will come with time

Best albums heard in 2014, but not released in 2014

  • New Keepers of the Water Towers – Cosmic Child

Proggy like Pink Floyd, sludgy like Alice in Chains and occasionally a teensy bit like Opeth and Mastodon. It’s excellent and would undoubtedly have been my favourite album of 2013 had I heard it in the right damn year. Better late than never I guess.

  • Paradox – Heresy

This was released in 1989? Nineteen eighteen fucking nine?! Why the fuck did no one tell me about this band sooner? I was oblivious until I stumbled on a retrospective review by autothrall written back in 2010, and just wow. If you like melodic technical thrash, then buy this album. Fuck it. If you like metal, then just buy this album. Oh wait, good luck finding a copy as its availability is on a par with hen’s teeth (assuming one ignores that Greek guy on Ebay who seems to have about ten copies and is clearly selling knock-offs). I’ll bide my time, but meanwhile you can listen to the entire album on YouTube

  • Wargasm – Suicide Notes

Like many people in the UK who got into metal in the early 90s, I can thank Headbanger’s Ball for introducing me to many metal bands, one of which was Wargasm, I remember seeing a video for “Dreadnaught Day” ( in the mid 90s and thinking “Yeah, this is pretty good”. However, mail order shops only had an EP for the band which I couldn’t be bothered with and so I forgot about the band almost completely until Angry Metal Guy did a retrospective review of Ugly which led me to the band’s third and final album Suicide Notes. Apart from that one riff that sounds so close to “Five Minutes Alone” it jars me every time I hear it, Suicide Notes is a great album. Since I can’t seem to find any tracks on YouTube anymore, here’s a playlist for Ugly instead.

Hell Train by Christopher Fowler (Solaris, 2012)

England, 1966. American screenwriter Shane Carter has arrived in search of work and approaches Hammer Film Productions. Beset by competitors and subject to a waning interest in horror, Hammer needs new blood and so commissions Carter to produce a script in just five days, instructing him to set the story on a train and to include Hammer’s trademarks, “an exotic setting, young lovers, fearsome creatures, a dire warning, rituals and curses, and dreadful consequences.” (p16).

Carter accepts the challenge and sets his story in the fictional country of Carpathia (a stand-in for Romania) during the Great War. Four people board the Arkangel in order to flee the approaching front line, ignorant of the train’s final destination and the horrors within – the roguish cad Nicholas, the village girl Isabella, the vicar Tom and his wife Miranda. Each in turn will be tested by the train and those that fail will be damned to ride the train all the way to Hell itself.

Your enjoyment of Hell Train will greatly depend on your familiarity with Hammer Horror films and tolerance for homage. In the main story aboard the Arkangel, Fowler deftly employs Hammer’s archetypical characters and the aforementioned trademarks with verve, briefly sketching out each of the principal characters’ backgrounds, motivations and flaws before throwing them under the train (quite literally in one instance). Keeping the plot moving along briskly through the use of short, punchy chapters punctuated by cliffhangers, the fun comes from seeing what horrors Fowler will unleash next, rather than out of curiosity as to how each character will endure their tests.

It’s not a huge spoiler to state that Nicholas learns to care for people other than himself, Miranda is consumed by her greed and Tom’s faith is exposed as hypocrisy. Isabella is the one character who gets an interesting arc, a minor deviation in Fowler’s homage, noting via the voice of Carter that “Hammer had relegated their female leads to scream-and-faint roles for too long [..] he wanted his leading ladies to be as indelible as the men.” (p165). Thus in spite of being the ‘ignorant’ peasant girl, Isabella is the only one who survives her own test without aid and who ultimately saves the day.

The healthy dose of gore employed in the form of some very gruesome deaths at the hands (and mouths) of ghouls, succubi, war-crazed soldiers and ravenous insects is tempered by the occasional present-day interlude focusing on Carter as he searches for inspiration, embarks on a fling with assistant and muse Emma Winters, and meets Hammer’s most illustrious stars. Despite being a fundamental part of Hell Train‘s structure, lampshaded by Fowler as a “portmanteau approach with a traditional script, and add[ing] a wraparound framework set in the present day” (p167), these interludes are a very abrupt shift in feel and serve as unwelcome distractions from the far more compelling train-bound thread.

I’m torn about Hell Train, because it is clear that I do not have the prerequisite depth of knowledge to truly appreciate what Fowler has achieved. So, as originally stated, it comes down to your familiarity with Hammer’s film output. Fans will lap this tale up whilst those less familiar may be left wondering what all the fuss is about.

This review was originally published in Vector 273 (October 2013)

Misspent Youth by Peter F. Hamilton (Pan Macmillan, 2002)

In a relatively short space of time Peter F Hamilton has established himself as one of today’s bestselling British SF authors, due in no small part to the Night’s Dawn trilogy. This success has given him the freedom to explore new territories, and his latest novel marks an admirable departure from his usual fare. Unfortunately enough, Misspent Youth isn’t very good.

Misspent Youth tells the story of an aged scientist, Jeff Baker, who is chosen as the first recipient of a newly developed rejuvenation treatment. Baker’s work on data storage technology led to the creation of the Internet’s successor, the Datasphere, and so he is considered to be worthy of the extravagent expense that is entailed. After eighteen months in a German clinic, Baker emerges as a seventy year old man in a twenty year old’s body and is determined to make the most of his regained vitality. His teenage son, Tim, bears the brunt of his inconsiderate actions and must deal with the consequences of Baker’s wish-fulfillment. Set against the background of a federal Europe under threat from separatist terrorists, the Baker family’s upheavals may have further reaching consequences than anyone could have predicted.

Using the perspectives of both Tim and Jeff to narrate the story, with occasional interludes from Tim’s girlfriend Annabelle, Hamilton contrasts the angst of Tim’s teenage years with the hedonism of Jeff’s second youth. Jeff has been there and done that before, and this time around he is fully intent on enjoying himself without the crutch of inexperience. Tim has no such wisdom to his name and so lurches from crisis to crisis as he desperately strives to be accepted as one of the guys. In the initial stages this works quite well and it’s enjoyable to watch Tim adapt in the wake of the havoc wreacked by Jeff and to empathise with his concerns, even if they are of the teen soap variety.

In comparison, the character of Jeff does not bear up so well in the face of close scrutiny. Jeff’s reaction to his new found youth is limited to alienating his old friends and sleeping with every woman he meets, including many of Tim’s classmates, who are as one-dimensional and devoid of substance as Jeff himself. His attempt to rejoin the scientific community and continue his research is sketched out almost as an afterthought, whilst his musings over his earlier success imply that science is more about luck than hard work and dedication and so there’s no point to it once you’ve made your money. The description of Jeff’s life after rejuvenation centers wholly around sex and only scratches the surface of what could have been achieved with the premise of a man in search of a new purpose to his extended life. After a few chapters of Jeff’s exploits, it becomes clear that the plot is going to center around Jeff and Tim falling out and their reconcilation. Other than the lurid sex scenes, this pretty much sums up the entire story.

One of the advantages of using a near-future setting is that less effort is diverted towards the worldbuilding and so one can concentrate on the characters and the story. This does not mean that the background can lack credibility in any way and this is the case here and it is doubly so when the characters and story lack depth. Hamilton’s vision of a United Europe domineering over an isolationist United States just does not ring true and is largely in the background until the closing chapters of the book. The characters opposed to the United Europe, such as Tim, merely regurgitate nationalistic rhetoric commonly heard today and no effort is made to show the flip side of the coin. Hence readers must endure a polemic diatribe on the evils of a European Union that is frankly insulting.

If this was truly intended as a social comedy, then Hamilton wasted countless opportunities to show up Jeff’s outmoded way of thinking and social graces amongst the younger generation. The only interesting fact about Baker is the real reason why he refused to patent the data crystal technology, though it is well in keeping with his character. As a result, even when Baker starts to change his ways, one is sceptical of his motives and a special effort is required to feel any sympathy for him when things all start to go wrong. Misspent Youth might have been salvaged if the story had been told in its entirety from Tim’s perspective. This would have meant losing the viewpoint of Tim’s girlfriend, including the hilarious moment where a romantic encounter between Tim and Annabelle is shown from both sides, but as this is the only highlight of her contributions it would have been a bearable sacrifice to make.

To give Hamilton his due, he is trying out new areas and this is to be applauded in a time where authors are more comfortable finding themselves a niche and plundering it for all its worth rather than take any chances. It’s just a shame that he attempted to write a character drama and neglected to create a cast of people that the reader can empathise with. A leash on the polemic ranting about the evils of the European Union would also have been useful.

At 368 pages, Misspent Youth is practically a short story by Hamilton’s usual standards but this should be viewed as a positive aspect. It’s all over very quickly, with Hamilton’s fluid writing making strangely compelling reading, though more in the manner of watching a train wreck than due to any inherent tension or an unpredictable plot. Hamilton has done far better than this in the past and one hopes that his next book will mark a return to form, whether in the far reaches of space or somewhere else.

This review first appeared in The Alien Online (March, 2003)

Desultor – Masters of Hate (Abyss Records, 2012)

A friend once remarked that late-era Nevermore is death metal in all but vocal style. Clean singing combined with death metal riffing is a form of extreme metal that has crossover appeal, albeit one that has remained relatively unexplored. suggests that this is because “few can figure out how to do it properly” and I have to agree with this assertion. Even the progressive death metal masters Opeth saved clean vocals for clean/acoustic guitar passages, which is all the more disappointing when “The Lotus Eater” (from Watershed) demonstrated that Mikael Åkerfeldt was capable of the more jarring mix of clean vocals with full-on death metal. At least until he disappeared up the prog arse of the Universe with Heritage but that’s a rant for another time.

Meanwhile Sweden’s Desultor has taken this potential and run with it, producing an accomplished debut album that skilfully layers traditional heavy metal vocals atop pummelling riffs and blast-beats. The earlier Nevermore citation wasn’t an idle one as vocalist/guitarist Markus Joha evokes Warrel Dane on numerous occasions, such as during the chorus of “Another World”, with a hint of Fracture‘s Paal Strand [1] in the background. The vocals aren’t always an unqualified success, such as the shrieks that wobble all over “Black Monday” without hitting a proper note until the pre-chorus, but by and large Joha utilises his range to great effect. There are occasional snarls that will help those coming to Desultor from a more brutal background, but his clean vocals are front and centre as both the biggest selling point of the band and the greatest potential hurdle to overcome. I have to admit that it took me a great deal less time to adjust to the idea as I have no issues with clean singing, despite mainly listening to death metal these days, and I’ve also listened a lot to the rather excellent Satan’s Host album By The Hands of the Devil (which can only be described as power black metal and comes highly recommended).

Elsewhere the riffing doesn’t let up at any point, smoothly shifting between aggressive thrash, melodic death and black metal tropes. Tremolo picking is mostly used, along with Gothenberg-esque palm-muted pedal riffs and the odd chord progression. It’s not overtly technical but then it’s not all that varied. Whilst he’s not on the same level as Nevermore’s former guitar god Jeff Loomis, Joha’s soloing is both tasteful and melodic, which is more than can often be said for the excessive guitar acrobatics of most power metal. Michael Ibrahim’s drumming is tightly in step with the music, providing a solid foundation for the rhythm guitar work, albeit confined to two modes of playing: a fast double-kick assault and blast-beat battery. These aren’t necessarily bad things, but I would have preferred either a wider range of basic patterns or more creative fills.

At 34 minutes, Masters of Hate doesn’t outstay its welcome and is refreshingly free of bloat, but I remain unsure as to whether an album this immediate will have staying power. There is little in the way of intricacies to be teased out with repeated listens, and if one ignores the short but largely redundant instrumentals, there are only eight proper songs that mainly sit in the three to four minute range.

That said, this is a great debut and will appeal to any fans of progressive death metal, or indeed those who enjoy death metal music but can’t be having with grunted/growled vocals. Here’s hoping Desultor find their niche and go on to bigger and better things.

[1] Blistering cites Communic‘s Oddleif Stensland, a band which I’m not all that familiar but both Communic and Fracture hail from Norway.

Gears of War 2 (Epic, 2008)

With over two years of development time, unbridled hype from producer Cliff Bleszinski, and a number of zeroes usually associated with Hollywood blockbusters attached to the budget, expectations were high for a bigger and better sequel. After all, the original was a massive hit on the 360 and the cover-and-shoot core mechanic made a refreshing change from the glut of first-person-shooters that threatened to drown the console in a sea of gaming excrement; for the most part, Epic have succeeded in making a worthy successor to Gears of War.

Playing like a console version of a Michael Bay SF film, Gears of War 2 sees you assuming control of Marcus Fenix again in the war against the Locust. Following the events of the first game, the attempt to wipe out the alien Locust horde has failed and the remaining COG forces are under siege in Jacinto, the last human stronghold. Fenix and the rest of Delta Squad are ordered to mount a major offensive to take the battle to the Locust and… wait, who plays these games for the story? The important questions are these: is it still all grey, is the friendly AI better, is chainsawing enemies in half just as fun as it was before, and did anyone fix those irritating-to-the-point-of-controller-defenestration multiplayer glitches? (No, mostly, yes, yes, yes).

One of the major criticisms levelled at the original game was that it was too grey. Grey streets, grey skies, grey caverns, grey character models, grey everything, and when compared to the positively psychedelic Halo 3, Gears of War looked very drab indeed. This is not a criticism that can be applied to the sequel. The graphics are simply astounding, featuring sprawling gothic palaces, epic outdoor landscapes full of autumnal colours, and underground lakes of the almost fluorescent yellow Immulsion fuel. It’s one of those games where you can spend an age wandering around, staring in awe at the attention to detail, which is a good thing because in the early stages of the game you’ll find yourself in a number of situations where there is simply nothing to shoot at.

In Epic’s efforts change the game’s linear progression of walking-bit-shooting-bit-walking-bit-on-rails-bit-walking-bit-shooting-bit-repeat-until-abrupt-end-boss, they seem to have missed the point that the game was all about those confined, shoot-outs where you had to advance from cover to cover, flank and create cross-fires, and not the set-pieces. The opening hospital siege nails the feel of the first game perfectly, as does the final two acts, but in between the pace goes up and down like yo-yo. Those colourful wide landscapes? Wide and colourful they may be, but they are part of a long on-rails level where every so often you get to shoot things whilst marvelling at all the pretty. The vehicle section is better than the original’s – for one you can move and shoot at the same time – but goes on forever, there are too many on-rails sequences, and the final boss makes Raam look like a masterpiece of game design.

Luckily it’s not all bad. On the friendly AI front, there has been a vast improvement. In the original’s Kryll levels, where one had to stay in lighted areas to avoid being killed, computer-controlled Dom would invariably wander into a dark area and get torn to shreds, necessitating a restart and some choice curses at the appalling AI. Alternatively, in certain pitched battles, your entire team would get downed in the first ten seconds leaving you to finish off all the bad guys. Dom now takes cover properly and is capable of proper support. In fact, he’s so much better that if you hang around for too long admiring the scenery, Dom will mop up for you. This is good, because he’s no longer a complete liability, but also bad as it occasionally feels like the AI is doing all the work and you’re just standing around for show. Don’t worry though, there are still moments of complete ineptitude where Dom will get stuck in cover or refuse to budge, leaving you to struggle on alone to the next checkpoint. Huzzah!

Whilst not exactly an essential part of the original game, the ability to chainsaw an enemy in half was hilarious. It’s still just as fun as it’s always been, though now when two Lancer-wielding characters going for a chainsaw kill at the same time, they will clash in a duel and have to hammer the B button until one wins. Or you can cheat and get a teammate to chainsaw your opponent in the back which will automatically win the duel, compared to before when you’d have to wait until you’d been sawn in half before your teammate could engage. Not only are you able to chainsaw someone from behind (starting from the groin up!), there is now a whole series of unique executions. Instead of simply curb-stomping a downed enemy, you can now punch their face in, kick their head off, or use specific execution weapons which have their own animations (it’s a crying shame that Epic took out what would would been the ultimate in humiliation – ripping the enemy’s arm off and beating him to death with it). Hmm. This is probably the point where one should be made aware that this game features graphic violence and bad language, and is thus unsuitable for minors. Just so you know.

Alternatively, you can pick up a downed enemy and use him as a “meatshield”, wielding a pistol in your other hand. This is the first of many additions to your armoury. Others include the Mulcher heavy machine gun, a flame-thrower (more fun to use than its Halo 3 equivalent), the Boomshield (a metal shield carried by melee Boomers that can be planted in the ground to serve as cover) and the mortar, which rains parabolic-instant-death from the sky. There’s also the ink grenade which can be used to make an area of cover unusable, and all grenade types can now be tagged to walls to act like claymore mines.

The original game had multi-player added as an afterthought, but proved so popular with gamers that Epic resolved to patch as many glitches as possible. However, a number remained unresolved and all of these appear to have been fixed for the sequel. The “shotgun roll”, where rolling effectively makes you impervious to gunfire, is out, and the horrific advantage enjoyed by a match’s host has been mitigated. Unfortunately,the new weapons that work perfectly well in single-player unbalance multi-player quite badly. The mulcher is able to mow down entire teams with ease, and the mortar is as powerful as the Hammer of Dawn but without the warning beeps telling you to dodge or get under cover. Being able to grenade tag walls is fine in principle, except this can be mercilessly exploited by teams placing grenades on the inner doorway of a room with one entrance and just waiting for the opposing team to rush in [there was also the joy of smoke grenades knocking you over but this was later taken out]. It’s an incredibly unsportsmanlike way of playing, but years of Live experience have taught me that no one plays fair unless forced to do so.

Making criteria for the new achievements applicable across any game type is a good thing as it will remove the tendency for idiots in ranked (now referred to as “public”) matches to screw their team over. However it does give lazy people the opportunity to rack up most of them by setting up matches with the newly included bot players. Bot difficulty can be set between the game’s standard difficulty levels of Casual, Normal, Hardcore and Insane, and are useful for training or for a quick match, but the AI is….variable to say the least. A hardcore bot will be stupid enough to stand out in the razorhail on the Hail level and effectively commit suicide, whereas a bot on Insane might do exactly the same one round and in the next take out the last two members of a team using only a pistol. AI has a long way to go before it can offer the same challenge as a human player, but it’s getting there. Slowly.

Game type-wise, the existing complement of Warzone, Execution and Annex gets three new additions. The first is Submission (or Meatflag), which is similar to a standard capture-the-flag type game – two teams have to compete for a single flag and bring the flag back to their base. Except the flag is a computer-controlled human who must be downed before he can be picked up as a meatshield and carried to your base. Next is Wingman, where five teams of two compete to be the first to fifteen kills and is about as chaotic as you imagine it would be. Then Guardian, a kind of VIP-type game where one member of the team is the leader and must be executed by the opposition to win the round, and finally, the simply awesome Horde mode.

Horde mode is a co-operative multi-player game where you and up to four friends take on up to fifty waves of increasingly difficult Locust. A common tactic is to find a spot with few access points that be easily defended, then settle in and let them come. Initially, you can flank enemies and make runs for ammunition and weapons easily, but on later waves, breaking off from the group is suicidal. The tension slowly mounts up as ammunition becomes scarce and you have to weigh up the risks of making a run for ammo run or a dropped weapon for a better chance at surviving the next wave. Horde mode can be played on any of the multi-player maps and at any of the game’s five difficulty settings. Getting to Wave 50 on Normal alone will take some seriously co-ordinated effort (and possibly an exploit or two of the map’s layout), so it’s a crying shame that the achievement for surviving all fifty waves can be gained on any difficulty and no such achievement exists for the Insane level (it would have been ridiculous though. To give you an idea, I assembled a crack team of skilled players to give wave 50 on Insane a go and we lasted all of 38 seconds with zero kills. On our second attempt, we managed to inflict some damage before being wiped out again). When the single-player campaign has been done to death and playing randoms on Xbox Live becomes tiresome, Horde mode will keep you coming back for more.

If that wasn’t enough for you, downloadable content is available right now in the form of updates of the most popular multiplayer maps of the original, with the added bonus of being absolutely free. Even if you weren’t a fan of the original, Gears Of War 2 gets far more right than it gets wrong, and Horde mode alone constitutes one of the best multiplayer experiences you’ll have this year. A worthy sequel to the original and one of the best games released this year.

This review first appeared in slightly different form on the Herts & Essex Observer website (December 2008)

Condemned 2 (Sega, 2008)

Nominally a first-person-shooter, Condemned 2 could be more accurately described as a first-person-mystery-survival-horror-homeless-person-beat-em-up-with-occasional-gunplay. Which just goes to show that accurate description acronyms don’t roll off the tongue as easily as FPS.

As former Serial Crimes Unit investigator and now homeless alcoholic Ethan Thomas, you are press-ganged by the SCU into hunting the killer of your former colleague, Malcolm Vanhorn. This generally involves exploring dimly-lit buildings armed only with a torch, and soiling your underwear every time a homeless guy jumps out and proceeds to bludgeon you to death with a rusty pipe, which has much in common with survival horror games such as Resident Evil (replacing ‘homeless guy’ with ‘brain munching zombie’).

Every once in a while, you come across a body or a blood trail that must be examined using your array of forensic gadgetry that includes a UV lamp and a sound spectrometer. Multiple choice questions are asked that must be answered based on your examination of the crime scene. Whilst this occasionally requires more knowledge that can be reasonably expected of a non-CSI addict, this is a surprisingly fun part of the game. Accurate assessments are rewarded with upgrades such as brass knuckles for additional melee damage, or a flak jacket for protection against bullets, though irritatingly there is no opportunity to retry a failed investigation short of restarting the level.

Guns do feature, but ammunition is often limited and soon you’ll have to fall back to Condemned 2‘s main violence dispensing mechanic – melee combat. Melee techniques are now de rigeur in FPS games, usually consisting of a single attack. Condemned 2 however features a complex system involving left or right punches, kicks, blocks, and devastating combos that can be used to stun, knock down or finish off an opponent with a Mortal Kombat-esque fatality. In addition, a wide variety of weapons can be picked up and wielded or thrown, ranging from bricks and baseball bats to more esoteric choices such as prosthetic arms and even toilet seats.

The learning curve is steep and even seasoned gamers may find themselves dying frequently until they become accustomed to the timing necessary to block and counter-attack effectively. There is an unfortunate level of inconsistency in the amount of effort required to down an enemy – some glass-jawed enemies can only take a couple of punches, whilst others seem to shrug off attacks from a sword! Nevertheless, the hand-to-hand combat is visceral and strangely enjoyable, as is the addition of “environmental kills” as quick time events, whereby Ethan can finish off an enemy by throwing them head-first into a television or through a window.

There is a palpable feeling of tension as you explore the urban decay of Ethan’s nameless city, and the game’s developers use every opportunity they can to freak out a player, from having monsters hanging on the ceiling that grab you, to enemies rushing you from behind an unexplored door in a seemingly empty room. This is one of those games where having the lights on could be considered acceptable.

Naturally multi-player gametypes are included, playable online via the PlayStation Network or Xbox Live, and supporting up to eight players. The usual suspects of Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch are present and correct, as well as Bum Rush in which a team of SCU agents have to defend against the Influenced (ie the enraged homeless guys) for as long as possible. The fourth gametype is Crime Scene which again pits the SCU agents against the Influenced. The Influenced have to hide two cases of evidence which the SCU agents must find and scan before their time limit runs out. Unfortunately, latency makes a mockery of the combat system to the point where blocking becomes meaningless and the entire multiplayer aspect feels it’s been crowbarred into a perfectly adequate single-player game.

All in all, this is a highly enjoyable game. Well, assuming one gets used to the combat system, is prepared to forgive the overly cryptic puzzles that crop up every so often, doesn’t mind not being able to jump (which leads to some absurb situations where progress is blocked by a one-foot high cardboard box), and can accept the frankly bonkers SF angle that the game takes in the last few levels. That might sound overly critical, but Condemned 2 could have been a truly excellent game rather than just very good. A word to the wise: the playable demo available on Xbox Live is not a good indication of the game as a whole. Try renting the game first if you weren’t convinced, as it does get a lot better when the investigations kick in.

This review originally appeared in slightly modified form in the Herts & Essex Observer (May, 2008)

The Goblin Corps by Ari Marmell (Pyr, 2011)

After spending centuries on a cunning plan for world domination, the Charnel Lord Morthûl is foiled by sorceror Ananais duMark and his group of meddling heroes. Out of spite Morthûl murders the only daughter of duMark’s liege, King Dororam, who in turn assembles all the armies of the Allied Kingdoms in an effort to end the threat of Morthûl once and for all. Morthûl has no intention of being destroyed by mere mortals and plots a counterstrike that involves forming an elite Demon Squad for a top secret mission. Thus Cræosh the orc, Katim the troll, Belrotha the ogre, Fezeill the doppelganger, Gimmol the gremlin, Gork the kobold and Jhurpess the bugbear are thrown together and expected to get along on pain of an extremely torturous death (or merely the prospect of joining the Charnel Lord’s legion of undead servants). At any rate, they have other things to worry about, like the historic survival rate for Demon Squads being on the low side and not having a clue about the finer details of the mission. Or, indeed, any of them. If the group can survive for long enough and avoid killing each other then perhaps they’ll be the ones who will save the day, albeit for the forces of evil.

Telling a fantasy story from the point of view of the villains is nothing new. Mary Gentle was one of the first almost twenty years ago (Grunts!) and more recently Stan Nicholls (the Orcs series) and Jim C. Hines (Jig the Goblin) have had a crack. So what does Marmell bring to the table with his effort? Subverted tropes, complex characters and plotting? You wish. What you get is course-grained characterisation and relationships predicated on gross racial behaviours, layered with bad slapstick comedy married to a plot ripped out wholesale from a roleplaying quest. That is to say that the Demon Squad go looking for various magical items, during which the big guys (the orc and troll) pick on the small guys (the gremlin and the kobold) whilst the ogre and the bugbear provide comic relief by being really fucking stupid. Some of it is even occasionally amusing:

A keening war cry rose to the uncaring heavens, and it took the startled Cræosh a moment to realize that it had come from the gremlin!
“For King Morthûl! For the Demon Squad!” Gimmol shouted, eyes gleaming with fervor and anticipation – and then glistening blade a shining beacon above his head, he charged madly in the wrong direction.
“Gremlins,” Fezeill observed as the stunned party watched him go, “do not have particularly good night vision”

There is a fair amount of shit-wading to be done to get to those rare moments and there are many more instances of dwarf kobold/gremlin tossing, insults on a par with ‘your Mum’ jokes, ‘funny’ bullying and narrative missteps, deliberate or otherwise. Cræosh uses nicknames such as Nature-boy for Jhupess (because he’s simian and lives in a forest), Dog-breath for Katim (trolls in this world have hyena heads) and Shorty for Gork (because he’s…you get the idea). Oh do stop, Mr Marmell, my sides are splitting.

The repetitive nature of the comedy makes reading the book a complete slog, assuming you are able to survive prose that describes a serpent-like creature as moving “with the speed (unsurprisingly) of a striking snake” or a character losing his balance and staggering “sideways in a clumsy dance as his entire center of balance became, well, uncentered”. There is a later example of such poor narration that is lampshaded as being the fault of the character’s exhausted state; fair enough but this would have worked better if Marmell had done it much earlier and, more importantly, knew the difference between a simile and a metaphor. With wordplay chapter titles such as “Elf Care” and “Ogre and Under”, the book elicited a binary response of Picard-style facepalms and wanting to punch the author in the face.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the pacing is completely broken. It takes 200 pages to find out about the Demon Squad’s mission, the aforementioned magical item hunt, carried out on behalf of Morthûl wife, Queen Anne (one would never have guessed that Marmell got his start writing material for Dungeons & Dragons). There are some sub-plots added for variety, such as Gimmol’s secret talent and from the introduction of dark elf Nurien Ebonwind who wants information on troop movements, but they also take so long to play out that they all collapse under the weight of expectation. Once those all wind up, we’re onto another secret mission that finishes all too quickly before the epilogue and the shocking, shocking I tell you, twist. James Barclay thinks that having fantasy stereotypes thrown in your face is entertaining and fun. I think he’s talking rubbish.

Few and far between they may be, there are occasional glimmers of worth buried in the dross. Genuinely amusing scenes occur from time to time and Marmell’s decision to start proceedings after Morthûl’s grand defeat is an interesting take on the trope (although, again, this was done first by Gentle). Also in its favour is the fact that the book is a standalone and the cover is gorgeous, even if it won’t appeal to fans outside of the genre.

In many ways, I’m surprised that there is still so much shit fantasy published when the genre has been elevated to higher standards. Back in the Nineties, I read far too many Dragonlance novels as a teenager and I would probably have lapped up The Goblin Corps. In the meantime Joe Abercrombie and Scott Lynch (amongst a good many others) have had fantasy works published that do witty dialogue and black humour a damn sight better and have got fantasy trope subversion down to a fine art. In short, go and read Abercrombie et al instead.

This review first appeared in Vector #269 (February, 2012)