Thursday, January 31, 2008

Best of 2007 - from #70 to #66(6)

70. viaje a 800 - 'estampida de trombones'
[review published on issue #159 of Terrorizer magazine]
After a long silence, Spaniards Viaje A 800 return with their unusual take on stoner rock. Despite the relative conventionality of their music, very clearly influenced by Black Sabbath, Hawkwind and Kyuss, it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly sounds different about them. Indeed, the Spanish lyrics give it an air of exoticism that is rare in this sort of music, but the riffs are hypnotic enough for the language to be quickly forgotten after a couple of songs. Perhaps it’s the fact that Viaje A 800’s songs are more direct, less hazier, less stoned if you will, than your typical stoner rock. They not only avoid the drugged out, long repetitions common in some other bands of this kind, but there’s in fact an almost punk-like immediacy in the rockier songs like ‘Zé’ or ‘Patio Custodio’ that is very satisfying. ‘Estampida De Trombones’ is the chance to listen to an example of how to give a tired genre a new, subtle twist, while still rocking the house down.

69. yakuza - 'transmutations'
[review published on issue #163 of Terrorizer magazine]
Shape shifting isn’t the half of it, as each song on ‘Transmutations’ twists the album further into uncategorizable territory. There’s the dreamy jazzy structures of the sax-lead ‘Egocide’ exploding halfway into Patton-esque metal cabaret, the Neurosis worship of ‘Raus’, the pitch-black doom of ‘The Blinding’ or the devastating 2-minute death metal blast of ‘Steal The Fire’. Just to name a few. Call it a mess and give it 5/10, right? Well, wrong. It sounds crazy when write descriptions of each song like that, but when you’re actually listening to it, it doesn’t feel that insane. Yakuza aren’t a crazy grind band shooting in all genre directions just because they have ‘jazz influences’, and all the songs have the band’s very distinctive mark on them, regardless of their stylistic clothing. It will take some listens, but you’ll eventually discover a subtly structured record that knows when to chill out and when to go for your throat. A great record that is both brutal and intelligent.

Yakuza - 'Egocide'

68. unsane - 'visqueen'
The somewhat hard-to-define, vicious post-hardcore sound of Unsane has been slowly but surely developing, and all of their albums have been a challenge to fans, who don't expect anything less from this NY-based band. 'Visqueen', their first album for Mike Patton's Ipecac label, goes some way to taking the Unsane sound to a new extreme, as the creepy desolation that was always present on their past records is very emphasized here, but all without losing their trademark rumbling power. Take opener 'Against The Grain', where everything that makes Unsane great is represented - the song is intimidating in its relentless and incisive heaviness, but also releases a quantity of unease and razor-sharp angst that makes it feverishly intense. The rest of the album falls a few inches short of this genius opening blast, but stays close enough to make all of it mandatory both for Unsane fans and for those who like uneasy aggressive music. To top it all off, Unsane throw a last-gasp curveball with 'East Broadway', an eight-minute almost ambient piece that'll scare the shit out of you and makes the wait for the next album a very exciting one.

Unsane - 'Against The Grain'

67. trap them - 'sleepwell deconstructor'
No big review needed for this. 'Sleepwell Deconstructor' is the sound of the pissed off, the frustrated, the angry. It's what you put on when you've had enough of all the shit in the world and you want to start breaking things. It's no surprise that there are members of December Wolves in this ('Completely Dehumanized' is one of the most vicious albums ever) and that the original name of the project was Trap Them And Kill Them. The feeling of letting out aggression is nearly palpable because this isn't just random noise, it's uncontrolled aggression released in a controlled form, much like Pig Destroyer's awesome 'Phantom Limb' (more on that a bit further up the list...) it bashes your head in with minute-long death-crust-grind missiles. All of the songs are highlights, and then there's the equivalent to that last untitled song on 'Phantom Limb', or even Converge's 'Grim Heart / Black Rose', in the form of the five-minute long 'Deconstructioneer Extraordinaire', the one rest in pace in the middle of all this chaos, that nevertheless keeps the violence-inducing levels way up there anyway. A crazy album that'll tire you just by listening to it.

Trap Them - 'Swine Into Silk'

66(6). the howling wind - 'pestilence & peril'
[review published on issue #164 of Terrorizer magazine]
Killusion could have released ‘Pestilence & Peril’ under the guise of Thralldom still, and it wouldn’t shock anyone, since The Howling Wind is a direct progression from the oblique take on black metal that was the trademark of Thralldom. However, it also makes sense that this should be an entirely new project, since that progression leap is indeed a large one. ‘Pestilence & Peril’ is more obviously black metal than Killusion’s previous work in Thralldom, but not black metal in the orthodox kind of way. The spaced-out feel of the guitars actually recalls that dead stump in the genre’s evolutionary tree that is the late 90s Moonfog releases such as Thorns’ debut or Satyricon’s ‘Rebel Extravaganza’, but much dirtier and murkier. The closest comparison to ‘Pestilence & Peril’ is Aura Noir’s ‘Deep Tracts Of Hell’. There is the same alternating between quasi-doom (some Unearthly Trance there too!) stomping horror and faster songs, but always maintaining that greenish, menacing toxic haze. In what seems to be quickly becoming a norm in Profound Lore releases, this album feels dangerous. There is an underlying viciousness to all these songs that projects the intended atmosphere of terror with great effectiveness, but the main factor for that is the caveman-like muffled production. A bit like the label’s previous release, Portal’s ‘Outre’’, ‘Pestilence & Peril’ doesn’t sound either necro or crunchy – it sounds like you just put your ear to the ground and heard the bestial roar of an unknown beast miles beneath you. Animalistic it might be, but the album is also very well structured. Take a song like ‘Virulence 33’, for example, in which the relentless , abrasive pace that shreds your face for five minutes is abruptly cut short half a minute from the end, leaving you all alone with a few discordant sounds that segue into the spooky interlude, ‘Southaven’. When you’re finally feeling safe, the mid-paced hell of ‘Stealth Eugencis' wrecks your nerves all over again. You’ll be on edge for the duration and you’ll love every minute of it.

The Howling Wind - 'Stealth Eugencis'

Best of 2007 - from #75 to #71

75. mael mórdha - 'gealtacht mael mórdha'
It's not only Primordial doing the Irish epic thing - Mael Mórdha (which is the name of an ancient Irish king from the 11th century, in case you were wondering) also evoke images of standing on windswept moors beating your chest in the rain. While Primordial have transcended that and turned into something quite unique over the past few years, Mael Mórdha are younger and keep their music closer to the Irish folk-metal style of something like 'Journey's End', but there are a few twists to their style as well, namely their doom influences, which help turn this album into something a bit special too. The epic, mournful tales owe as much to the Bathory's viking heroics school as they do to Cathedral or Candlemass riff-of-doooom school, and all this mixed with the folk elements and the captivating historical storytelling makes 'Gealtacht Mael Mórdha' a mandatory release if you're into this sort of thing. What about a Mael Mórdha / Primordial gig, eh?

Mael Mórdha - 'A Window Of Madness'

74. ghost brigade - 'guided by fire'
'Guided By Fire' is one of those records that sound pleasant but unremarkable at first. Their dense Katatonia-esque melodic metal brings to mind a whole bunch of other Finnish bands that play the sort of dark metal one usually associates with the country, with traces of both the old (Amorphis) to the new (Dark The Suns) being clear on 'Guided By Fire'. The subtlety of the compositions, however, begins to unveil itself as the melodies get more and more familiar, and then 'Guided By Fire' opens up as something quite wonderful, especially considering this is a debut album. It's essentially the sobriety of the whole affair that does it, as the overall sadness of the songs doesn't sound overbearing or contrived but keeps the melancholic intensity, something that is much helped by Manne Ikonen's excellent, diverse vocals. One of the most promising debuts of 2007.

Ghost Brigade - 'Rails At The River'

73. sigh - 'hangman's hymn'
It's thrash this time! Sigh continue their own devil-may-care tortuous path, that has included black metal, psychedelia, classical music and many more genres, in a fusion unique to this Japanese troupe. 'Hangman's Hymn' is one of the most violent Sigh albums so far, as the classical-trained genius that is main-man Mirai saw it fit to pay hommage to his German thrash obsessions after the milder, stoned environment of the eerie 2005 effort 'Gallows Gallery'. The result is a bombastic cacophony of symphonic blackened thrash, divided in three acts, with tons of intricate details to discover. If you like wimp shit like Dimmu Borgir, then check out 'Dies Irae / The Master Malice' for an example of how symphonic elements should really be used in extreme music.

Sigh - 'Dies Irae / The Master Malice'

72. shining - 'v. halmstad'
No misleading anyone with that record cover, so no, Shining haven't lightened up yet. Suicide is still the main topic of the day for these Swedes, with the highly debated suicide rumour of vocalist Kvarforth (unfounded, by the way) surely adding some anticipation prior to this release. So this album is not a walk in the park, unless it's an abandoned part at 3am and you intend to go there to slash your veins open with a rusty razorblade, by the moonlight. The angst and the void of emptiness that emanate from this release feel real, even if the music itself has gotten progressively cleaner, from the gritty filth of the first album to the jazzy melodies that the icy terror is infused with on this, their fifth record. Overall, the predecessor 'IV. The Eerie Cold' was slightly stronger, musically, but for that feeling of black emptiness, all of Shining's records are essential.

71. scandinavian music group - 'missä olet laila'
Yeah, a pop album among all this darkness, but it's how pop should be done. Scandinavian Music Group are a band from Finland, formed in 2002 with a few people that used to play in Ultra Bra. Originally a four-piece, the line-up has expanded to seven people, which allows them to explore all the possibilities of harmonies with pianos, pedal steel guitars and vocals. It's hard to pinpoint what exactly makes SMG so appealing, but maybe because we're all so jaded with tremendous metaphorical explanations in reviews that sometimes we overlook the basics - brilliantly written, simple, melodic music that you remember and feel like listening again long after you put on the record for the first few times, all this achieved without any big fanfares or "easy listening" tricks that ruin mainstream pop music these days and turn it into the disposable crap that it is. Take a song like 'Itkevä Lintu', that consists of little more than piano, some effects and Terhi Kokkonen's beautiful, softly sung voice but manages to become enormous in your mind by the effect of the infectious melody, a bit like the best Azure Ray songs. The song structures aren't always verse-chorus-verse obvious but manage to keep all the hooks in place, and even the more conventional-sounding ones like 'Naurava Turskan Kallo' keep a strange, morose feeling to them, a bit like the environment you get from a Black Box Recorder song. If you can't understand Finnish, do find someone to translate some of the lyrics to you, because they're an integral part of the experience. On the wonderful 'Mustana, Maidolla, Kylmänä, Kuumana', the best song on the album, Terhi sings in her native Finnish you talk a lot / for such an early morning / I can listen carefully / but my memory is useless / I might call you tomorrow / ask if you'd like to meet up / do you want to kiss / my neck in the hallway / or then I'll make coffee like it's nothing / and forget / black, with milk, cold, hot / I drink it in whatever the way. If you only buy one pop album this year, make it this one.

Scandinavian Music Group - 'Mustana, Maidolla, Kylmänä, Kuumana'

Friday, January 18, 2008

Best of 2007 - from #80 to #76

80. amorphis - 'silent waters'
Vocalist Tomi Joutsen was part of what helped make Amorphis' 2006 album 'Elegy' such a resounding come-back for the band. I manifested my love for it on these very pages and gave it a very respectable spot on my best of 2006 list, at the time. His deep, soulful yet powerful voice carried those wonderful compositions even beyond their original brilliance and put a band that was more or less fading right back on the map. This is all good, but it created a huge anticipation for this follow-up, which naturally takes away a bit of the impact that it might have had otherwise. Therefore it's natural that you'll feel somewhat underwhelmed on your first sessions with 'Silent Waters', especially considering the subtlety of the album. There is nothing as catchy as 'Brother Moon' or instantly live-set-material like 'House Of Sleep' here, as this record is much less direct. After this initial adaptation, however, the rich melodic tapestry becomes apparent, as does the fact that Joutsen still has a few tricks up his sleeve. Well, throat. The quiet, emotional 'Her Alone' represents well this relative shift of direction, with several other songs in this sombre, melancholic vein. It's not all quiet emotion though, as the album also offers a few rocking numbers like the bruising opener 'Weaving The Incantation'. Above all, the most notable thing about this finnish band is that, 17 years after their inception, they are still mutating, creating and innovating.

Amorphis - 'Her Alone'

79. middian - 'age eternal'
Some of you might be familiar with Yob, a very unorthodox doom band that released four fascinating albums (if you're not, here's a good place to start) and then disbanded back into the aether where they seemed to have come from. Well, some aeons stuck around in the form of guitarist Mike Scheidt, who formed the Middian entity shortly after, and 'Age Eternal' is their first discographic step. Despite some similarities in the overall feeling of the sound, there are important differences between the two bands. Middian approach their songwriting in a more dynamic fashion, varying the tempos much more and even going outside the dooooom of Yob for several interesting loud/quiet interactions. The riffs are huge, the vocals are downright scary when they leave the cavernous roar for something quite otherwordly and the entire package feels oppressive, intimidating and above all very heavy. A very promising debut in the life of a band that has since been troubled by some band from Milwaukee who are just out to hurt them and get money because of the band name. Support them in any way you can, they deserve it.

Middian - 'Dreamless Eye'

78. sear bliss - 'the arcane odyssey'
It's great that this Hungarian band is finally starting to get the recognition they have fully deserved for years. Yes, 'The Arcane Odyssey', their sixth full-length, is their best album yet, but not by a very wide mile. Records like 1998's 'The Haunting' or 2002's 'Forsaken Symphony', just to name a couple of examples, have already been very noteworthy and essentially original releases. Most people with a vage knowledge about Sear Bliss will know them as the band with the trombone, but it goes so far beyond that. The brass instruments they use, trombones and trumpets, are merely there to give these songs an extra air of vastness, of epic cosmic proportions, of space, just like the keyboards that avoid the Dimmu complex of carrying a song and ruining it and are used for texture, for ambient. But none of this would work if the songs themselves weren't written like that - vast, mournful yet very black monsters like opener 'Blood On The Milky Way', the Naglfar-gone-orchestra 'The Venomous Grace' or the dark folk of 'Path To The Motherland', among many other highlights, combine to make 'The Arcane Odyssey' a truly unique experience. When someone tells you black metal is stagnated, play them this.

Sear Bliss - 'The Venomous Grace'

77. anaal nathrakh - 'hell is empty and all the devils are here'
'Hell Is Empty And All The Devils Are Here' is a straight-to-the-point fucking blast of hatred and bile, and both for the break-the-furniture impulses it'll raise in you and the band's devil-may-care mock-the-trve attitude it would deserve a much higher placing on this list. Vitriol's (aka Dave Hunt or, well, Dave Cunt) vocals keep evolving too, to the point of bringing to mind the great Simen Hestnaes on the huge 'The Final Absolution'. Thing is, despite all the great things about this blackdeaththrash assault, this is Anaal Nathrakh we're talking about, and the face-ripping assault of 'The Codex Necro' or 'Domine Non Es Dignus' still remains completely unrivaled. By all means go out and get this right now if you have any kind of interest in aggressive music, but get those two instead if you don't have them already.

76. ministry - 'the last sucker'
Farewell albums are difficult beasts to tackle. Either they're great and worthy of being the final memory of a good band, or they're half-arsed releases that focus more on their circumstances than on their music. Happily for all Ministry fans, this happens to be a case of the former. Not that Al Jourgensen's mighty gang would need it, as Ministry will be more than remembered for deflagrations like 'Psalm 69', 'Filth Pig' or 'The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste', among many others, like this late string of hate-fueled anti-Bush administration records. The approach to 'The Last Sucker' has been the right one - throughout these eleven songs (including an unbelievably pitch-black Doors cover, 'Roadhouse Blues'), Ministry offer their fans everything that they have loved about the band in these decades of their existence. The buzzsaw guitarwork, the kick-ass groove, the harsh industrial environment, Al's trademark vocals snarling all over the place and the gung-ho rock'n'roll feel of it all will leave everyone drooling for more, and that's the proper way to bow out. A special note to the participation of the great Paul Raven, who passed away recently. His typically thunderous bass is the final piece of a final puzzle that concludes a brilliant band in style.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Best of 2007 - from #85 to #81

85. helrunar - 'baldr ok íss'
Enslaved have long moved on to grander and more all-encompassing things, but if you still long for some straight-up viking black metal in the vein of Bathory and, indeed, old Enslaved, Helrunar, along with bands like Helheim or Kampfar, are one of the best prospects available right now. 'Baldr Ok Íss' works great especially because it's a very balanced record - although these Germans never go all widdly on us, even offering some harsh and more traditional black metal like in the ferocious 'Schwarzer Frost' or 'Íss', they do know when to get down to acoustics and old-man-storyteller mode ('Winter'). The rest of the album is the typical chest-beating epic style, and the whole mix is yet another perfect soundtrack to some conquering and pillaging while wearing a horned helmet. Not terribly original, but it sounds great anyway.

Helrunar - 'Schwarzer Frost'

84. gravetemple - 'the holy down'
Take Stephen O'Malley (Sunn O))), Khanate, Burning Witch, you name it), Attila Csihar (Mayhem, Tormentor, Aborym, and indeed Sunn O))) sometimes) and experimental multi-instrumentalist Oren Ambarchi, and you have one of the most musically warped-out trios that you can conceive already. Now, ship the lot of them off to unstable, war-torn Israel in the summer of 2006, and have them perform screwed-up dark ambient droning doom improvisations. Are you scared yet? You should be, because the result of all that insanity is captured in this one-track, 60-minute disc and it's not an easy ride at all. The atmosphere is always unsettling, sometimes drawing you into a state of almost calm, with slow-burning hisses and bleeps, only to lash out at you when you least expect it into bursts of sonic violence, with chanting, growling, electronics, drumming and guitar feedback going at each other like a pack of rabid wolves, or as if Mayhem, Khanate, Sunn O))) and Whitehouse were all playing at the same time. My first listen of 'The Holy Down' happened during a 200km road trip with a friend, and I can tell you that our state when we arrived felt more like we had driven 20000km than 200. Mindfuck at its best.

83. amber asylum - 'still point'
There's a reason why Kris Force, Amber Asylum's frontwoman, has collaborated with my official Best Bands In The World, Like, Ever, which are Neurosis and Swans. In all Amber Asylum releases, there is the same underlying sense of earth movement, of some deeper, bigger thing than all of us that is being touched upon with these sounds. Not that the music itself is in any way similar in form, as Amber Asylum operate within a neo-classical framework, with Kris' remarkable soprano voice being a constant presence, but the images evoked by each artist's work is entirely similar. Although 'Still Point' is mostly operatic, sometimes even bombastic, the use of flutes and cellos and the entirely non-obvious nature of the compositions make it sound like one of those records to put on, on that day when they will say on the news that this is it, folks, the apocalypse is coming and tomorrow will never come. On that day, you will sit on your porch looking at the red horizon, and you will have Neurosis' 'Through Silver In Blood', Swans' 'Soundtracks For The Blind' and maybe 'Still Point' playing on repeat, and somehow, everything will feel meant to be.

82. blood of the black owl - 'blood of the black owl'
[review published on issue #159 of Terrorizer magazine]
Blood Of The Black Owl’s self-titled debut starts out rather misleadingly, as the first track ‘Kills The Timber’ firmly sets expectations for a slow-paced ride through harsh Darkthrone territory. Sole member Chet Scott must enjoy surprises, because that’s what you get as soon as the following song, ‘The Thunderous Hooves Of Two Goats In The Sky’, kicks in. Well, it slithers in more than kicks, as the sound of the rain and the spooky atmosphere start to envelop and consume you. When you least expect it, some dirty, gritty guitar has started to permeate through this gloom, settling into a repeating, hypnotic riff. The album see-saws like this throughout, impressively seamless in its transitions and changing dynamics, offering its fair share of pitch-black highlights after a few listens, the most fascinating one being the tribal horror of ‘Uwwalo’. Negură Bunget for the spiritual approach and Orthodox for the ritualistic feel are two good comparisons, but Blood Of The Black Owl is promisingly original.

81. akercocke - 'antichrist'
Considering the devastating live show that Akercocke put on and the totally individual personality that each of their records so far have shown, 'Antichrist' is a difficult album to tackle at first. Even before you start to listen to it, there's that terribly cliché title to contend with, and after the first couple of listens the whole thing seems to pass you by somewhat, very bland by comparison with the savage 'The Goat Of Mendes' or with the rich and complex tapestry of 'Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone'. Let it settle, however, and the dark pleasures of Akercocke will unveil themselves to you. The face-pounding violence of ''Footsteps Resound In An Empty Chapel', the gloriously ambitions 'My Apterous Angel' and a lot of subtle little innovations in the band's sound such as the jazzy elements of 'Axiom' or the unexpected electronic work in 'The Dark Inside'. Although it doesn't have the same impact as some of their previous, revolutionary work, 'Antichrist' is the sound of a band in constant evolution, and it becomes so catchy as you listen to it more and more that it might well end up as one of the Akercocke records that you will listen to more often.

Akercocke - 'Axiom'