Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Suicidal Angels - Sanctify the Darkness

Suicidal Angels
Sanctify the Darkness
Sonic Unyon

In the ever-fragmented parlance of heavy metal, the banner Suicidal Angels fall under is “blackened thrash.” From the sound of Sanctify the Darkness, the Greek quartet’s second record and first to hit Yankee shores, “blackened thrash” = “sounds like Celtic Frost after too much coffee.” Guitarist Panos and drummer Orfeas whip back and forth like stampeding buffalo changing direction at a cliff’s edge; bassist Angel anchors the potential chaos with almost subliminal tones and occasional fleet-fingered flourishes. Frontdude Nick’s guttural growl digs deep into the crust, belching out provocative but startlingly legible treatises on Beyond the Laws of Church and The Pestilence of Saints. (The motives behind Child Molester remain unclear.) The Angels eschew Frost’s artsy-fartsy streak, concentrating on straight brutality, but do appreciate their forebears’ experimentation with light and shade. It’s too early to tell if the band is truly something exceptional, but put ‘em on a metal package tour and Suicidal Angels will surely set the headbangers’ locks a-twirling.

- Michael Toland

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Rage - Strings To a Web

Strings To a Web
Sonic Unyon

I’m the hunter and you are the prey, growls Peavy Wagner on Strings To a Web, the latest album from Germany’s quarter of a century old metal trio Rage. Let’s face it, it takes Nüsse of steel to sing lyrics that bluntly cheesy in 2010 and not have your tongue protruding from your cheek. But Rage hails from the land that gave us the Scorpions, after all, and Wotan knows it almost sounds fresh in a field full of angst, sarcasm and inchoate anger. Besides, this is old school metal, when riffs ruled all, string sections made the choruses more majestic and hairy chests, bullet belts and (yes!) melodies were still di rigueur for proper headbangers. All of which sounds like I’m damning the band with faint praise, but what I really mean is this: tunes like Edge of Darkness, Hellgirl and even Hunter and Prey make me wish I had an old Kramer or BC Rich axe to replace the air guitar I’m slashing as I jump around the office banging my head. Even the progressive epics Fatal Grace and Saviour of the Dead and the genuinely pretty acoustic ballad Through Ages inspire swaying, air picking and singing along. Strings To a Web evokes a timeless era of metal magic, no guilty pleasure excuses required.

- Michael Toland
The John Henry's - White Linen
True North

'Hwait, yon verily wandering traveller, note-taker and attention defying audience and dispel fears of a flea-bearded, fleck-shirted folk show their use of the legendary old hammer-yielder's name may imply for, on this third tilt of the tankard, this Canadian coterie crawl through a well-appointed though somewhat barren suburban streetmap of laid-back steel-laden ballads and mild-mannered bar-hymns. They manage to sidestep the cloying self-satisfied pall that cakes West Coast shamericana so prevalent among many unseasoned coast-clingers, yet they miss by a cow'n' a tree or two the Southern soul-suffused, raggedy-assed resplendence and twisted laments of a Deadstring Brothers or Slobberbone are steeped in. Not to suggest it sounds unduly studied or contrived, or they should have a car-boot sale and take the proceeds into town to the Quick!-A-Cliche arcade but it resembles an elder relative absently doing a crossword in the back-room table before dinner's served, as they'd always done. A roll call of many usual names crop up in articles - Tom Petty, Neil Young, Elvis Costello - there's also vague flutterings of The Byrds, The Coal Porters and maybe The Band (without the weight, oh pun me Peter) as well. Ok, that isn't criticism from expecting some cow-punk, bonkersbilly, wonky tonk (and hell, it ain't remotely in Powderfinger's wet keg) or wannabe Tom Waits 'I smoked Marlboro Red for a week once and my voice is all but shot', or expecting anything much to plunge Parsons' canyons of numberless heartaches or the spellbinding narratives Steve Earle used to mop the floor with but some character, essence and presence is deficient, as is a real lyrical largesse that would lift and sear these into your soul or scrape seashells across your sternum rather more stridently. With that it remains to be seen, and evidence casts doubt upon it, if these still waters have any depths.
Stu Gibson

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Gozu - Locust Season

Locust Season
Small Stone

Despite being a roiling hotbed of various riff & roll reprobates (Roadsaw, Cracktorch, etc.), Boston still persists in its rep for being the center of the intellectual rock universe. That’s as may be, but with a combo like Gozu treading the boards, it’s time to exit the classroom and head to the grimiest rock club you can find. Made up of various scene veterans, the quartet blasts out a superior brand of hard rock on its debut full-length Locust Season. Not content to simply rewrite Monster Magnet (yeah, I know, work with me here), the band pays as much attention to groove as to grunge, letting the licks slide across rubbery grooves like massage oil over a curvaceous ass. Frontdude Marc Gaffney occasionally slides into macho bluster, but he’s surprisingly supple on the majority of the tracks, adding a dash of sardonic wit and a soupçon of soul. Better yet, the whole band exhibits a sense of humor rare in neo-classic rock circles. Just try not to grin at titles like Jan-Michael Vincent, Regal Beagle and Kam Fong As Chin Ho – it’s impossible, especially since they’ll be rocking your huevos off anyway. As is usual for acts of this ilk, the record ends with an epic, but, with a soaring melody and Gaffney’s best vox, the nearly eight-minute Alone is more than just an exercise in excess. Locust Season satisfies on a purely visceral level, especially if you love 70s-style hard rock ‘n’ riffola. But there’s potential here for transcendence, and that’s what distinguishes a good debut album from a great one.

- Michael Toland

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Ramesses - Take the Curse

Take the Curse
Ritual Productions

There’s a tune on this, the second full-length album from Dorset, England’s Ramesses, which perfectly describes the band’s sound: Black Hash Mass. Take your average, Black Sabbath-inspired, Luciferian heavy metal, add a quart or so of your favorite hallucinogenic, and presto: Take the Curse. Hardly unexpected, of course, given that 2/3 of the trio rose from the funny-smelling ashes of the first lineup of Electric Wizard. Like Jus Osborn’s crew, guitarist Tim Bagshaw, drummer Mark Greening and bassist/mouthpiece Adam Richardson filter their love of the occult through a haze of freaky Eurotrash horror movies and cheap fright fiction, with sampled film quotes as emphasis. Unlike their former employer, these boys rarely rev up past a midtempo grind, layering riffs thicker than wooly mammoth skulls across drums that traverse the terrain like King Kong on a bender. Richardson occasionally croons like a wolf in love , but mostly digs deep into his own bowels for a landscape-devouring gurgle that makes even the silliest lyrics sound threatening. Iron Saw, Hand of Glory and Baptism of the Walking Dead sound exactly the way you’d guess they sound: like hellspawn tripping on Blue Sunshine and looking to party. As bonkers as the 60s/70s horror era that inspired it, the gripping, goofy Take the Curse is a hell of a good time.

- Michael Toland

Twilight - A Monument to Time End

A Monument to Time End
Southern Lord

Let’s get the housekeeping out of the way first. Twilight is a US black metal supergroup, spearheaded by Nachtmystium leader Blake Judd, Leviathan main dude Wrest and Krieg majordomo N. Imperial. While the first, self-titled album prominently featured Xasthur (AKA Malefic), he proved to be too antisocial even for fellow travelers, so A Monument to Time End replaces him with Stavros Giannopolous of the Atlas Moth, Sanford Parker of Minsk (who also produced, as he’s apt to do when any kind of experimental metal goes down in the Midwest) and Aaron Turner, leader of Isis (!). Robert Lowe of experimental rock act Lichens (not the Robert Lowe who sings for Solitude Aeturnus and Candlemass) figures in there somewhere, too. Got all that?

Maybe it’s because the USBM scene is small and inbred, but Twilight truly equals more than the sum of its parts. The principals take their inspiration from the groundbreaking early black metal acts – if you’ve ever fantasized about a mix of Burzum, Emperor and Immortal, you might want to reach for the tissues after you hit play. Grand, majestic melodies get dragged through enough distortion to choke a dragon, haunted atmospheres get pummeled by drums like a rampaging Visigoth horde and the vocals (mostly from N. Imperial, the Bruce Dickinson of black metal) range from merely savage to purely horrific. Decaying Observer, Catastrophe Exhibition and Fall Behind Eternity are journeys unto themselves, ripping, clawing and biting their way through sophisticated musicianship and a sense of melody derived from less from cacophony than classic rock (however buried under a mountain of toxic sludge). Red Fields incorporates plenty of influences from music outside of the kind that wears spiked wristbands and denim jackets, giving it the accessibility of, say, Opeth. Negative Signal Omega simply abandons any pretense of control, flowing forth like molten lava laced with battery acid, leaving a trail of scorched earth in its wake. Taking the best of its component visions and shaping a whole new monster, A Monument to Time End is brutal and brilliant from stem to stern.

- Michael Toland

Friday, June 11, 2010

Hellbound Glory - Old Highs and New Lows

Hellbound Glory
Old Highs and New Lows

I don’t need to tell you that, on the face of it (i.e. the radio, TV, the charts, etc.), there seems to very little real country music around anymore. The family-friendly arena rock that passes for popular C&W these days is arguably antithetical to the gritty realism of the human condition that’s supposed to be driving the form. But, as anyone who makes a habit of digging under the surface looking for good music knows, there’s plenty of real country treading the boards of the world’s honkytonks, made by artists who still get it.

Hellbound Glory is one of the flamekeepers. Hailing from the unglamorous town of Reno, Nevada, the hard-tonking quartet would probably give Nashville record execs nightmares. Old Highs and New Lows, the band’s second LP, is not a portrait of a band interested in being cuddly or getting a video on whatever CMT countdown show is running right now. Leader Leroy Virgil has no truck with the feel-good sentimentality and up-with-people homilies of Music City – not when he can write and sing about the pain, self-loathing and degradation (most of it the result of frequent visits by John Barleycorn) that hairless apes have a bigger talent for enduring than good vibes. Tunes like Too Broke to Overdose, Why Take the Pain (…when you can take pain pills) and Either Way We’re Fucked (which contains the memorable mash note Let’s close the door, turn out the lights and have a good hate fuck) may sound like filth for shock’s sake. While there’s certainly an element of humor there (as well there should be in good C&W), Virgil isn’t smirking when he sings – he’s simply reporting his characters’ low lives and attempts to escape same by chemical means in as unvarnished a manner as possible. The turns of phrase may crack a smile, but there’s nothing funny about the codependent plea of Be My Crutch, the unconvincing defiance of Hank Williams Records or the spiraling self-destruction of Slow Suicide.

The band backs up Virgil’s soulworn tales with the skill of top session cats (particularly guitarist Nick Swimley), the fire of punk rockers and the sensibilities of guys who’ve never heard a Billy Sherrill production, let alone anything from the 90s. It’s the perfect backdrop for Virgil’s bullshit-free narratives and outlaw outlook, the kind of country & western we need to wash away the stench of air freshener and new truck smell. Hellbound Glory ain’t in it for the corn or the CMAs, but for the songs and the truth.

- Michael Toland
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