Category: music

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.)


EPs

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.

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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” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JY4St3-yDPQ) 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.

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. Blistering.com 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.