Thursday 23 May 2013

various metallic objects

Fragarak: 'Crypts Of Dissimulation' (2013)

Fragarak is a progressive death metal band based in New Delhi and frankly, I don't see anything on the horizon that can beat their self-released debut to the spot of best Indian metal album of the year. Remember when Cynic and Atheist were just starting out, or when bands like Nocturnus, The Chasm and Scythe started adding vast textures and expansive musical quests to the death metal template? Fragarak capture that spirit perfectly. They're an accomplished band, but just as importantly they're imaginative and skilled songwriters. The 4 lengthy songs and 2 instrumentals on this album are full of great melodies, captivating musical exposition and brilliantly sustained atmosphere. The roots are old school - the more proggy elements of the early 90s death scene with some latter-day Death thrown in. Maybe a dollop of the more contemplative variety of black metal. The resulting sound is both original and far more mature than many of the contenders in this scene. A band that isn't short on ideas, integrity or identity. Watch out for this lot!

Sacred Gates: 'Tides Of War' (2013)

Okay, this is more like it. I tried a little too hard to find merit in Battle Beast a week back, but Sacred Gates play power metal that's actually not just rooted but totally enveloped in classic metal grandeur. The band used to be a Maiden tribute act, and Iron Maiden is certainly a large part of the blueprint for this sound, but so are other NWOBHM greats as well as a healthy dose of classic US power metal. The vocals are rough and powerful, almost thrashy at times, but able to soar as well. The guitars are equally at ease cranking out headbanging riffs, hooky choruses, soaring twins and flowing solos while both the bassist and drummer do much more than just fill out the line-up. It's true that the sound is just as original as the subject matter of this concept album - the battle of Thermopylae. But what matters here is the quality of the songs, from the fury of 'The Immortal One' or 'Spartan Killing Machine' to the anthemic fervour of 'Defenders', the wistful determination of 'Never To Return' or the epic strains of the instrumental 'The Battle of Thermopylae'. Much more focussed and satisfying than their excellent debut, and I hope it sees them building a larger following among fans of trad/epic/power metal.

Wednesday 15 May 2013

My reviews for Metalspree

I've been reviewing metal albums for the metal ezine Metalspree since March. I've been reviewing a bunch of albums in a variety of subgenres, from black metal to stoner/doom and here's a round up of what I've done so far:

Kongh: Sole Creation: Kongh’s third full-length has all the ponderous poise and earth-shaking presence of its cinematic part-namesake, King Kong, perhaps in a freeze frame, caught leaping from one skyscraper to another in a doomed race for freedom.

Imperium Dekadenz: Meadows Of Nostalgia : This isn’t pig-heads-on-a-stick black metal of the raw variety, but it isn’t really artsy black metal either. It’s a very stark, even one-dimensional kind of sound, but with enough atmosphere and finesse to appeal to audiences outside the hardline black metal contingent.

Spektr: Cypher If you’re at all into the more experimental side of extreme metal, you’ll want to spend many sessions with this album trying to unravel its Cypher and decode its arcane secrets.

Tombstone Highway: Ruralizer This is a good album, but it’s generic. Your appreciation of its merits will depend on how committed you are to that genre and how willing you are to listen to a band that brings nothing new to the table, but knows its craft

Birth A.D.: I Blame You Eschewing the unearned populism of so many wannabe thrash bands, frontman/bassist Jeff declaims ‘we won’t write any songs about thrash/or put it on our t-shirts for easy cash/we’ll never tell you to get in the pit/we don’t give a shit’.

Bovine: The Sun Never Sets On The British Empire  Bovine is a band that has a lot of buzz about it at this point, and I can see their mix of sludge, stoner, grunge and modern rock influences finding favour in a lot of places. Perhaps it’s a measure of my own preference for the more trudging, misanthropic aspects of the sludge idiom and my lack of enthusiasm for the linear qualities of modern rock that make me somewhat less sensitive to this album’s charms.

Samsara Blues Experiment: Live At Rockpalast 2012 It’ll sound equally good as part of a marathon session with the second Blue Cheer session, a later Hendrix compilation album like South Saturn Delta, an early Can or Amon Duul album, Hawkwind’s Space Ritual, Sleep’s Dopesmoker, some Electric Wizard, a selection of Mountain and Ten Years After jams, or best of all, a combination of them all.

Victor Griffin's In-Graved The tone is thick and juicy – vintage Griffin – and the riffs are everything you’d expect from one of the most legendary hard rock/doom metal guitarists in the scene. Griffin’s vocals are assured and powerful, making Bobby Liebling only the third best vocalist of the classic Pentagram line-up.

High Priest Of Saturn A few more stand-out melodies and some vocal hooks would have gone a long way towards creating a more memorable debut, but if you’re in the mood for mystery, melancholy and things seen from afar in half-light, you could do worse than spin this album.

Cerekloth: In The Midst Of Life We Are In Death Tunes that would not be out of place on an ABBA record or at a polka revival, with ruddy-cheeked accordion players in their hordes and big-bosomed dancers in dirndls in attendance, are somehow passed off as metal and blared out to clueless fans who mosh along blissfully and imagine they’re actually into heavy music. Those aren’t the kind of melodies Cerekloth deals in; instead, they take us back to Slayer in their heyday, to Autopsy at their most morbid, dealing out melodies that unnerve and forebode.

Cultes Des Ghoules: Henbane Highlights include the rank ululations and simple yet darkly insinuating guitars of ‘The Passion of a Sorceress’ and the acolyte-march riffage and swooning vocal invocations of ‘Festival of Devotion’

Hexvessel: Iron Marsh Make no mistake, Hexvessel are still playing psychedelic folk music, but they’ve moved from being a potential novelty act into something that has the power and scope to appeal to fans of seminal neofolk acts like Current 93.

Anciients: Heart Of Oak Perhaps the prog aspirations will prove to be Anciients’ saving grace, compelling them to move away from the fortuitous but somewhat shallow pool of zeitgeist influences they’re currently channeling.

Battle Beast: s/t (2013)

Power metal is a genre that has so consistently failed to deliver on the expectations raised by its roots in the kind of epic, dramatic traditional metal fare that was my initiation to the world of heavy music that I generally just write it off as a dead end for true heaviness. I love the classic US power metal sound of bands like Riot and Helstar and even parts of Iced Earth's catalogue. I enjoy some of the earlier iterations of Helloween's catchy speed metal and I even have an abiding affection for Virgin Steele. But the bulk of power metal released in the last couple of decades has simply been too cheesy, too focussed on catchiness and image and insufficiently grounded in the truly otherworldly, epic vision of someone like Ronnie James Dio, or the sheer heaviness that he always dealt in musically, even on a relatively light and tuneful album like Dream Evil. Dream Evil, incidentally an album I like a lot, is what I imagine is the template for much of modern power metal, along with The Last In Line, of course (I love the Holy Diver album too, but musically it's often just a step or two above generic boogie metal with Dio's vocals and lyrics being the main epic element - which is not to say it isn't a brilliant metal album). Instead, you get rubbish like Hammerfall and Nightwish.

Still, I keep giving power metal a second chance, and it's hopefully just my lack of immersion in the genre that ensures that, when I'm not being crushingly disappointed, I find stuff like the Finnish Battle Beast's sophomore album - just catchy enough and nearly metal enough to make me care, and piled with enough cheese to make me kinda wish I hadn't. I'd previously heard a cheesy but satisfyingly heavy song by the band, but the singer was Nitte Valo, a Xena-esque brunette with killer pipes. This time around, it is one Noora Louhimo who, to be fair, has a great voice too, but the album lapses into AoR-laced, synth-saturated pop metal too often. 

Things start well enough with the uptempo 'Let It Roar', a gem of a song that underscores all the guilty pleasures of the genre with its catchy riffing, lush keyboard layers, almost over-dramatic vocals, catchy chorus and totally over the top soloing. If the rest of this album were on similar lines, I'd be happy to think of this as a big ball of heavy metal cotton candy; and indeed a number of them do live up to the album opener. 'Out Of Control' reminds me a little of the last incarnation of Rainbow, specifically the song 'Black Masquerade' whose aura of mystery and menace the song seems to be channeling, albeit with a more extroverted, arena-friendly refrain. Short and to the point, 'Raven' is a soaring, infectious slab of power metal glory, something the band would have done well to stick to more consistently, as is 'Machine Revolution', one of the most convincingly epic songs here despite the sometimes silly lyrics ('torture and mutilation/extremely painful death'...who wrote these lyrics, Glenn Tipton?). 'Kingdom' and its synth intro, 'Golden Age' are pure RPG metal.

Despite keyboard layers that seem to be channelling the spirit of Judas Priest's 'Turbo', 'Out On The Streets' is actually rather nice - it sounds like a more metalised version of something Starship would put out, if not actually like a metal song in itself. 'Neuromancer' suffers because the keyboards take up too much of the sonic space, decreasing the impact of the riffing. 'Into The Heart of Danger' tries to be menacing but the arrangement is too steeped in pop-rock sensibilities that would not be out of place on a Foreigner album for this to really work. It's an engaging song, but one of too many that reduce the impact of the album.

I realise this is a matter of personal taste, but the constant, upfront presence of poppy keyboards starts to tire me out after a while. The keyboard player is working very hard to make each song bright, shiny and catchy and after some time I wish he'd stop vomiting out so much varnish over songs that were never really so grainy in texture to begin with that they needed this much sheen slathered over them. Many of these songs would have worked a lot better if the keyboards and the AoR/80s pop metal tactics had been dialed back a bit in favour of a more classic metal approach. Others were never that strong to begin with and the efforts to make them accessible bleed them of any power they may have had - surely not a good thing on a power metal album?

So, once again, I am confronted with a power metal album that isn't consistently powerful enough, and is metal in a very arena-friendly, bubblegum sort of manner. That makes it sound worse than it really is, perhaps, and I can imagine spinning this album again when I'm in the mood for something effervescent and laced with metal attitude, if not enough actual metal crunch, and of course lots and lots of wonderfully attention-seeking guitar and keyboard solos. A generic slab of modern European power metal, no more and no less.

Edited to add: After writing this, I listened to Battle Beast's debut, 'Steel' in it's entirety, and holey leather jockstraps, it's everything I wanted the sophomore album to be. Ideally, Valo will return to the band and propel them back to the heady metallic glory of this incredibly powerful and still pleasingly cheesy power metal album. 

Wednesday 1 May 2013

yeah so I wrote another fucking poem

Gliding high above the sweaty crowd
The stink of popcorn and children’s breath
Cloying grip of sugar candy palms
You dance with gravity
You’re a glittering shard of fantasy
But when you return to your own world
You’re only either dead or alive
I feel like you, I really do
I feel like a virtuoso of vertigo
Graceful, godlike when I defy gravity
To make them squeal and clap
But less than human
When I come down from this spotlit
Pivot of air and momentum

They'll pick up their lives outside the bigtop
And we’ll shed ours backstage
With our makeup and our tights

We'll lie twitching on boards,
Pinned in place
Until we laugh and play with death again
Just to be seen