Classic heavy metal from Norway highlights this week in metal
Album of the Week:
Magister Templi, Lucifer Leviathan Logos (Cruz Del Sur)
When it comes to bands replicating the classic heavy metal of the mid-1980s, it’s not that a band has to devoutly follow the lead of one or two influential bands from the era; all we ask is that they honor the sound and aesthetic and try their best to do something that feels more impassioned than derivative. Achieving that can be tricky. As much as a pleasure it is to hear bands like Portrait and In Solitude copy classic Mercyful Fate, in the end the music has to have enough of the band’s own personality to stand on its own without continually referencing someone else’s music.
A lazy writer would describe Magister Templi as “just another Mercyful Fate rip-off band”, but the Norwegian band brings a whole lot more to the table than just some half-handed Melissa homages. Doom, NWOBHM, and European heavy metal coalesce into a spellbinding debut album that contains many reference points, yet refuses to settle on one. You hear Pagan Altar one minute, Candlemass the next, and yet, the great Fate the next, and it’s all held together by musicians that are clearly experienced enough to not let those influences become too distracting. For an “old school” album this record is deceptively varied all the while delighting in occult/Satanic lyrical things. Tying it all together like The Dude’s rug is the brilliantly named singer Abraxas d’Ruckus, who belts out his lines in an authoritative bellow, taking already excellent compositions and catapulting them even further. “Master of the Temple”, “Lucifer”, and “Tiphareth” immediately stand out thanks to some very contagious lead riffs and d’Ruckus’s persona, while the acoustic-tinged “Vitriol” incorporates a pagan, Black Widow influence into a decidedly evil arrangement, proof that Magister Templi are much more than a retro gimmick.
Also out this week:
The Amenta, Flesh Is Heir (Listenable): The Australian band continues to churn out the industrial-tinged death metal on their third album. Unlike so many deathcore bands, who combine death metal and dissonance to create an ungodly racket just to incite mosh pit violence, The Amenta smartly combine the two sides to create music that is not only throttling but actually engages the listener. All the experimentation never comes at the expense of the song, which is a rarity in metal these days, although the Gojira pick scrapes have to go.
Atrocity, Okkult (Napalm): Also known as Liv Kristine’s backing band in Leaves’ Eyes, this is the German veterans’ 12th album, and it continues their latter-day trend of combining death metal with overblown symphonic/gothic influences. Typically, the simpler the arrangement, the better it is (as on the deliriously brain-dead “Death By Metal”), but all too often it’s a cacophonous din of keyboards that distracts rather than create atmosphere.
Delain, Interlude (Napalm): The best “prom dress metal” band working today has released an enjoyable little stopgap album to coincide with their well-deserved signing with Napalm. It’s a mish-mash, but the new songs are terrific (“Breathe on Me”, for instance), there are some good covers (including a reading of “Smalltown Boy” that’s more a cover of Paradise Lost’s cover of the Bronski Beat original), and some fun live tracks. Where other like-minded bands tend to let themselves get lost in lavish arrangements and labyrinthine song structures, Delain keep it simple, always coming through with very strong hooks, letting the charisma of singer Charlotte Wessels lead the way, and the end result is always charming and memorable. Of course, it’s not as strong as last year’s We Are the Others, but fans of the band will be very pleased with this one.
Earthling, Dark Path (Forcefield): I suppose you’d call this Richmond, Virginia band’s debut “blackened thrash”, but whatever the umbrella term, this album creeps up on you, plundering the uglier depths of heavy metal’s misanthropic side to create an effectively savage listening experience. Not too shabby at all.
F.K.Ü., 4: Rise Of The Mosh Mongers (Napalm): An acronym for “Freddy Kreuger’s Underwear”, these Swedes are all about the horror and humor, so much so that it tends to overshadow that they’re actually quite a good thrash band. Although the novelty threatens to wear then the deeper into this album you go, it’s nevertheless some fun, no-frills, Overkill-style metal.
Freedom Call, Ages Of Light (SPV): While Chris Bay and Freedom Call can never be called innovators, their brand of power metal is as good as any other German band out there right now, and this is a very nice 18-track look back at their body of work. I’ll take this over today’s sorry versions of Helloween and Gamma Ray any day.
Gama Bomb, The Terror Tapes (AFM): Another band that plays thrash metal with a sense of humor, Ireland’s Gama Bomb never disappoint, always playing simple mid-‘80s crossover thrash while shamelessly championing their own geekiness. Fast, rampaging, but always with a strong sense of melody, these guys work the formula as well as anyone.
Gloomball, The Distance (SPV): Another European band desperately trying to sound American by playing lazy, pandering groove metal. We have enough of these bands over here, thank you very much. Go away.
Grime, Deteriorate (Forcefield): Not to be confused with the Canadian electropop chanteuse Grimes, this Italian band plays music far more savage and hateful. There’s not much to their brand of sludge, but they get their point across in effective, merciless fashion, bluesy doom riffs countered by some truly deraged screams.
In The Silence, A Fair Dream Gone Mad (Sensory): Sensory always comes through with exceptional progressive metal releases, and this one is no exception. This Sacramento band does a fantastic job combining the dark, gothy tones of Katatonia with ornate, unpredictable arrangements, which results in an unusually brooding sounding prog record. With beautiful, disciplined arrangements, singing that utilizes emotion without getting too maudlin, riffs and hooks intertwining, this is a remarkable, self-assured debut that leaves an immediate impression. What a discovery.
Kingdom Come, Outlier (SPV): 25 years after causing a minor stir with his preening, Zeppelin rip-off debut album, Lenny Wolf is still at it with Kingdom Come (or “Kingdom Clone”, as we called them back in the day) this being, quite incredibly, their 14th album. In the end, Wolf displays just as big a lack of originality now as he did in 1988, this time trying to create a circa-1995 alt-metal album and failing miserably.
Of Noah, Where Things Grow Without Light (The Path Less Travelled): Here’s an interesting one, a two-track, 35-minute instrumental album by a guitar/drums duo from the country of Georgia. Seemingly minimal, the bass-less pair does a good job creating expansive post-metal together, an undeniable chemistry existing between them. The songs meander languidly, but the changes never feel arbitrary, instead flowing naturally. Stream and purchase the album via Bandcamp.
Sadgiqacea, False Prism (Candlelight): Doom, black metal, and psychedelic rock collide in impressive fashion on this first outing by the Philadelphia duo. There’s plenty of room for improvement – strong lead vocals will catapult this over the top – but as it stands right now these guys with the difficult name have a good thing going. And for the record, it’s pronounced “Sad-Juh-KAY-Sha”.
Sidious, Ascension to the Throne ov Self (Kaotoxin): Cut from the same cloth as Dimmu Borgir, the British band’s debut EP tries to achieve a similar balance of black metal and symphonic adornments, but instead feels overwhelmed by triggered drums, lavish keyboards, and overly loud mastering.
Sodom, Epitome Of Torture (SPV): Tom Angelripper and Sodom have not changed one bit over the years, and nor do we ever want them to. Together with longtime guitarist Bernemann and drummer Markus Freiwald the trio have been on a good little roll, and this is a very worthy follow-up to 2011’s excellent In War and Pieces. It’s a bit dopey in parts (“S.O.D.O.M.” expecially), but otherwise it’s the kind of upper-tier, slightly filthy thrash metal you expect from these German greats.
V8 Wankers, Got Beer? (SPV): Apparently there’s huge demand for joke bands that sing about beer in Germany, because these bands just won’t go away. If that isn’t enough, these guys are constantly trying to act like they’re from the American South, which, as I mentioned above, is even more annoying.
Vicious Rumors, Electric Punishment (SPV): The woefully underrated California heavy metal veterans return with yet another album that remains faithful to their classic, pre-power metal sound, heavy on speed, power, and most importantly, melody. “Black X List” is a scorcher.
Debut album blends dark/gothic metal and progressive rock
I was going through my usual Monday morning routine, sifting through this week’s new releases I hadn’t yet gotten to in preparation for tomorrow’s weekly round-up, when a new album stopped me dead in my tracks. It felt like an interpretation of the polished gothic metal of Katatonia through the eyes of a progressive rock fan, a marvelous blend of brooding atmosphere and adventurous yet disciplined songwriting.
The band’s name is In the Silence. They’re from Sacramento, they started in 2007 led by singer/guitarist/songwriter Josh Burke, and self-released their debut album A Fair Dream Gone Mad last year. They recently signed with trusted prog metal label Sensory, who will be re-releasing the album tomorrow. And it is magnificent, a remarkable, assured first outing that shows potential for even better things. In trying to find the perfect song to introduce you to them, I went with “Serenity”, which Katatonia fans will immediately identify with, but as it goes on you hear this band carving out their own niche by taking the music into heavier territory than the esteemed Swedes. So please, take the time to give this track a listen, and check out the rest of the album when it comes out tomorrow.
Doom band's long-awaited second full-length due in June
Just a month or so ago I was wondering, where the heck is Jex Thoth? The last time we heard from the talented American high priestess of occult doom was on her band’s 2010 Witness EP, as well as contributing lead vocals on Sabbath Assembly’s incredible Restored to One that same year. Mere days after that I learned the Wisconsin singer and her band of the same name are set to release a new album called Blood Moon Rise June 15 on I Hate Records, and the new song “Keep Your Weeds” has been posted on YouTube as a teaser.
While the doom influence remains very much apparent on the new record, as “Keep Your Weeds” indicates that aspect is downplayed from time to time on Blood Moon Rise in favor of a more psychedelic-hued direction. The arrangement on that track in particular is restrained enough to place the sole focus on Thoth’s stunning voice, as she casts a hypnotic little spell on the listener with her dulcet singing. You can’t ask for a better way to kick off your Monday than this gorgeous track.
Identity crisis leads to an all-time low
Have you ever seen a heavy metal band experience unprecedented success yet seem hopelessly lost as Judas Priest looked in the late-1980s? Having won over a new generation of fans with 1982’s Screaming For Vengeance and 1984’s Defenders of the Faith, the British veterans were poised to make a huge commercial splash, and they pulled out – what they thought, anyway – all the stops on 1986’s Turbo, a flamboyant, hook-driven, synthesizer-laden album that downplayed the band’s trademark heaviness for a more blatant pop influence. Although it sold very well, becoming a crossover success and paving the way for a very popular arena tour, Turbo remained a very controversial album among Priest diehards and has gone on to be the most polarizing album in their discography. The fact was Judas Priest was going through a bit of an identity crisis right when they were hitting their commercial peak.
Turbo was indeed a disappointment, but in my opinion time has been kind to that album. While it might not be perfect, it still boasts some of their most underrated moments (I will defend “Out in the Cold” to the day I die), a fascinating example of ‘80s pop excess infiltrating the heavy metal aesthetic. Like any other teenaged Priest fan in 1988, I eagerly anticipated the follow-up, but the first single from the album sure didn’t bode well.
A tie-in with the Anthony Michael Hall vehicle Johnny Be Good – already enough to make a metalhead cringe – Priest’s cover of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” felt far too forced for comfort, its rigid, crunching riffs and slick ‘80s polish stripping the song of all its reckless charm. Rob Halford tried to sell it as well as he could, but it was all for naught. Come on, guys, this is beneath you, was my initial reaction, yet I somehow, foolishly held out hope that the rest of the forthcoming record would deliver.
When I bought a cassette copy of Ram it Down in mid-May 1988, it took all of 30 seconds for my optimism to wither away. The savage scream Halford lets out at the beginning of the title track is about as exciting as the entire album gets; after that moment the song not so much launches as limps out of the gate as a limp imitation of older speedsters as “Exciter” and “Freewheel Burning”. The guitars have no bite to them, as Tom Allom’s production saps the band of any energy whatsoever. The lyrics are far too corny, even by Priest standards (“Thousands of cars and a million guitars / Screaming with power in the air”). And worst of all, the drumming, or lack thereof, is deplorable. Even the 17 year-old idiot that I was could tell that drummer Dave Holland was nowhere to be heard on this record, instead replaced by a painfully obvious drum machine even more rigid than Holland’s stiff backbeats.
It all felt like a bad simulation of a once-great band, and to this day it pains me to listen to it. The band repeatedly attempts to assert its metal credibility, but songs like “Heavy Metal”, “Monsters of Rock”, and “I’m a Rocker” feel like Halford, Glenn Tipton, K.K. Downing, and Ian Hill are all trying embarrassingly hard to let their fans know that after Turbo they’re still capable of sounding heavy. The main riff on “Love You to Death” is killer, but the lascivious lyrics are unbearable and borderline hilarious. That damned drum machine dominates the entire album and proves to be a distraction on many a track, especially “Hard as Iron”, but one cannot let Tipton and Downing off the hook either, as their Aerosmith sleaze rock riffs on “Love Zone” rank as the single worst moment I have ever heard on a Judas Priest record.
One song does stand out. The ballad “Blood Red Skies” is an effective one, a moody piece that actually puts the drum machine to good use, which along with the tastefully used synths gives the song a (for then) cutting-edge industrial feel. It’s the kind of experimental combination of metal, pop, and creative production that would have added some welcome depth to Turbo, but on this record it comes nowhere close to redeeming a painfully mediocre piece of work.
Looking back, Priest were trying their best to evolve, but in all the wrong ways. They were using their well-earned clout in the music business to try new things, going so far as to record a series of tracks with UK pop producers Stock, Aitken, and Waterman – the minds responsible for “Never Gonna Give You Up” and countless others – which have never been released, and which I am morbidly interested in hearing, especially the reputed cover of the Stylistics’ R&B hit “You Are Everything”. Come on, guys, release that stuff!
If Priest's 1988 wasn't bad enough, that same year Slayer came along and humiliated their heroes by recording a mind-blowing cover of Sin After Sin's "Dissident Aggressor" that obliterated everything on Ram it Down, instantly rendering Priest passé and irrelevant in the eyes of we headbanger teens. In the end, if there was one good thing to take from the failure of Ram it Down – certified gold in 1988, it has never gone platinum in the US – it just might have been the kick in the pants the band needed, because two years later they’d be back with a great new drummer, a back-to-basics attitude, and a new record that would prove to be one of their very best.
Guitarist's influence on heavy metal was huge
Jeff Hanneman, founding guitarist for thrash metal legends Slayer, has died at the age of 49. His bandmates have posted the following message via Facebook:
Slayer is devastated to inform that their bandmate and brother, Jeff Hanneman, passed away at about 11AM this morning near his Southern California home. Hanneman was in an area hospital when he suffered liver failure. He is survived by his wife Kathy, his sister Kathy and his brothers Michael and Larry, and will be sorely missed.
Our Brother Jeff Hanneman, May He Rest In Peace (1964 - 2013)
Hanneman had been on hiatus from Slayer since 2011 ever since contracting necrotizing fasciitis, likely from a spider bite, and had been temporarily replaced by Exodus guitarist Gary Holt while he rehabilitated.
Hanneman’s influence on Slayer, and heavy metal in general, cannot be underestimated. With Kerry King he helped form one of the most formidable guitar tandems in rock ‘n’ roll history, and most crucially, he was the man responsible for the majority of Slayer’s greatest songs. “The Antichrist”. “Die By the Sword”. “Angel of Death”. “Postmortem”. The legendary intro to “Raining Blood”. “South of Heaven”. “War Ensemble”. “Dead Skin Mask”. “Seasons in the Abyss”. The list, as the song says, goes on and on.
This is a monumental loss to the heavy metal world, and our deepest sympathies go out to Hanneman’s family and his brethren in Slayer.
Unearthing some of the festival's biggest revelations
Black & white photos by Paul Verhagen
As crammed as Roadburn is with so many great bands a music fan might already know, half the fun of attending the festival is walking into a venue and being absolutely floored by a band you know next to nothing about. For yours truly, this year was interesting, as there were a lot of bands whose music I knew well, but I was on the fence about, and upon seeing a couple of them in person at the festival, it finally clicked. But of course, there were a few complete and utter surprises, and I thought I’d share with you six bands that caught me totally off-guard at Roadburn 2013.
Black Bombaim, Thursday, April 18, Green Room: This was the first band I saw at Roadburn 2013, and I knew nothing about these guys. It turns out they’re from Portugal, and as I’d quickly find out their brand of acid rock is awfully good, languid, thrumming jams built around hypnotic rhythm section grooves as an effects-laden guitar wails away. As they played, the more you started to hear a desert rock vibe creeping into the music, with Kyuss a clear influence in places. So impressive was their set that I have since explored their epic 2012 album Titans, and it’s indeed just as strong. Stream and purchase Titans via Bandcamp.
Blues Pills, Thursday, April 18, Green Room: Call this Swedish band the Spiders of 2013. A discovery of the excellent Crusher Records, Blues Pills, like their labelmates Spiders, are deeply rooted in Detroit garage rock and feature one hell of an impressive sounding woman as their singer. I’ve had their debut four-track EP for a long time, but it turns out that a) they’re even better in a live setting, and b) the new songs they have are flat-out brilliant, boasting, as the name implies, a very strong blues influence. Elin Larsson can belt out the vocals, as she proved on the impassioned “Astralplane”, and the crowded room couldn’t get enough of it. Blues Pills made a huge impression at Roadburn, and look for them to blow even more people away when their debut full-length comes out. Listen to “Astralplane” here.
Fell Voices, Saturday, April 20, Stage 01: This is the kind of Roadburn discovery I just love. I was merely walking from venue to venue in the neat little maze of hallways in the inner reaches of the 013 building, and when I opened the door to get inside the Stage 01 room, I was greeted with some of the most insane, fastest black metal I’ve seen in a long time. Subtly melodic and very abstract, this was atmospheric black metal that was simultaneously trance-inducing and visceral, and I couldn’t take my eyes off what I was seeing. Although I kept thinking, I hear lead vocals, but where’s the singer? All I saw was a bassist mouthing the lyrics. About 15 minutes later it dawned on me: the bassist is the vocalist, he’s just not using a microphone. Now if that wasn’t one of the most cvlt displays I have ever seen. Their new album Regnum Saturni comes out in June on Gilead, and it’s every bit as good as what I witnessed in person. Listen to “Emergence” here.
Photo by Christian Ravel
Gold, Saturday, April 20, Cul de Sac: Van Records boss Sven Dinninghoff first told me about Rotterdam band Gold a year ago, and they’ve been slowly growing on me ever since. Led by former The Devil’s Blood guitarist Thomas Sciarone and singer Milena Eva, Gold specialize in 1970s hard rock that’s not as dark as the “occult rock” trend but still with plenty of mystique to it, and they played a special 45-minute showcase set at the nearby Cul de Sac bar on Saturday afternoon. A very taut band live – “Antebellum” and “North” sounded scorching – it all revolves around Eva’s persona, whose piercing glare and magnetic yet aloof presence shows this band is more than capable of captivating a room. Leasing the way on “Love, the Hunter” and a brilliant cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon”, the fiery Eva commanded the room’s attention throughout, hammering home the fact that Gold are a band to watch. Watch the video for “Antebellum” here.
Satan’s Satyrs, Saturday, April 20, Het Patronaat: This trio from Virginia are not unlike Midnight, playing a ragged combination of heavy metal, punk, and rock ‘n’ roll heavily influenced by Satan, booze, and bikers, and their deliriously sloppy set at Het Patronaat, in front of a crowd that was mostly there to see Asphyx next, wasted no time in getting people going. By far the filthiest and sloppiest band at Roadburn, it was a welcome dose of frenetic energy and pure, speed-riddled rock ‘n’ roll fun. Listen to “Sadist 69” here.
Nihill, Sunday, April 21, Green Room: It’s not as if Nihill are an obscure band; after all, the Dutch black metalers have been impressing listeners for years with their releases on Hydra Head. And I’ll admit on the fourth day of the fest, the annual “Afterburner”, my weary self was going to skip their set in favor of getting something to eat and taking it easy for a bit, but when I found out this was to be Nihill’s first live show ever, I had to check it out. At the urging of pal and writer extraordinaire Kim Kelly, I snuck into the tiny backstage cubbyhole in the Green Room to witness the carnage from up close, and was subsequently blown away by the sheer, primal intensity of it all. The venue awash in dense smoke, frontman Michiel Eikenaar spewed his vocals in confrontational fashion, by far the most outward display of malevolence at a festival best known for being laid back. Coming near the end of the fest, it was a big, obnoxious gob of spit, a welcome, awe-inspiring dose of extremity and sonic violence that served as a fitting climax to the entire Roadburn experience for yours truly. The main bands that followed, Spiritual Beggars and Ihsahn, impressive as they were, just didn’t measure up after that experience.
Irish band highlights a bevy of noteworthy new albums
Album of the Week:
Altar Of Plagues, Teethed Glory and Injury (Profound Lore)
As big a sucker as I am for heavy metal music that shows an appreciation for its roots, I’m also in constant search for new music that tries to take the genre somewhere new. Irish band Altar of Plagues have long intrigued me with the way the band bridged primal, atmospheric black metal with the more introspective side of the post-metal trend, going back to 2008’s Sol EP and their subsequent full-lengths White Tomb and Mammal. In guitarist James Kelly they have an extraordinary songwriting talent, and as good as Altar of Plagues’ music has been over the years, it always felt like the proverbial tip of the iceberg as far as where this band could potentially go on subsequent releases.
While no one could have predicted just what direction their third full-length would head in, Teethed Glory and Injury is the exact kind of bold statement I’ve been hoping for from Kelly and his band all this time. Audacious to the point where you wonder just how much Kelly is enjoying trolling the black metal purists out there, the album approaches black metal in a fashion quite similar to Liturgy’s Aesthethica and Deathspell Omega’s Fas – Ite, Maledicti, in Ignem Aeternum. Not that it’s at all like those records musically speaking, but its mindset is very much the same. The new songs avoid conventional song structure altogether, while Kelly experiments with dissonance and unorthodox cadences, and even strips down the music to the point where it resembles Suicide more than a black metal record, a perfect example being the stirring, experimental “A Remedy and a Fever”. Melody, atonality, contemplativeness, and savagery all intertwine throughout this record, and the way it creates a sense of unease in the listener, never allowing them to know what’s lurking around the next corner, is extraordinary.
Ultimately what makes this album work so well is how that unease eventually gives way to much deeper emotional resonance than your usual extreme metal evokes. Teethed Glory and Injury might be very unsettling, but although it seems like it’s keeping you at an arm’s length at first, immersion in the music eventually reveals a stark beauty you rarely come across in the genre. Never mind the fact that Kelly does not bother to include the lyrics; his anguished screams tell you all you need to know. It’s not exactly cool to use the word “transcendent” when writing about metal these days – it now leads to Hunter Hunt-Hendrix-referencing scorn – but great metal records do achieve a sort of transcendence in their own way, and Altar of Plagues have done so in spectacular fashion, exceeding expectations, completely outdoing their past work, surpassing their peers, and creating music that’s genuinely moving in a genre not exactly known for doing so, and is bound to appeal to anyone who enjoys experimental music outside the metal realm. That, kids, is true musical transcendence.
Also out this week:
Across Tundras/Lark's Tongue, Split (Cavity): I’m a longtime admirer of Across Tundras, and they’re in fine form on this new split, creating the kind of spellbinding, Americana-infused psychedelic jams they’ve been doing since day one. Of the two songs, the thudding “Crux to Bear” is the keeper, with the band’s Neurosis influence creeping to the surface a little more without coming at the expense of that expansive, dustbowl feel. I know nothing about Lark’s Tongue, other than that they feature a couple of former members of the fine band Minsk, but they’re definitely cut from the same cloth as Across Tundras, with a little more emphasis on vocal melodies and progressive arrangements. Either way, this is a welcome return by a great American band and a fine introduction to a talented new upstart.
Agrimonia, Rites Of Separation (Southern Lord): The Swedish band’s sound is next to impossible to pin down, but that’s a good thing. A great example is the 11-minute “Talion”, which kicks off their third album, as it veers from pensive melodies, to post-rock, to typical Southern Lord crust, to moments of sheer devastation led by vocalist Christina. The song lengths might be long, but this is very involving music, with enough of a progressive air to it that will attract those who have gotten sick of the label’s recent crust punk obsession. In fact, this might be my favorite Southern Lord release since the reissues of Sleep and High on Fire last year.
Amorphis, Circle (Nuclear Blast): They might be responsible for one of the best metal albums of the 1990s in Tales From the Thousand Lakes, but if you ask me, the best thing Amorphis ever did was hire Tomi Joutsen as their lead singer. Ever since they did that the Finnish band has experienced a creative resurgence like few other bands, and Circle, their fifth with Joutsen at the mic, is their best yet. Nothing has changed with regards to the band’s formula – “Hopeless Days”, “The Wanderer”, and “Nightbird’s Song” have the band working that gothic-tinged folk metal formula to near perfection – but the songs are so strong this time, each one playing to all the band’s strengths, the best of which being Joutsen’s versatile voice, which can switch from clean melodies to a formidable death growl on a dime. Amorphis are a band that tends to be taken for granted, but not this year. This album is year-end list material.
Arsis, Unwelcome (Nuclear Blast): For those who were wishing that Arsis would ditch their obsession with melodic metal and get back to the brutality of such stellar albums as A Celebration of Guilt and United in Regret, then this new album should make them reasonably happy. That said, as decently done as it all is (“Carve My Cross” is excellent) Unwelcome brings nothing new to the table and ultimately feels like a regression for the talented band, marred by the distracting and unnecessary cover of Corey Hart’s “Sunglasses at Night”. Sorry, guys, ‘80s pop, blastbeats, and screaming don’t go together.
Avantasia, The Mystery Of Time (Nuclear Blast): Tobias Sammet is back with a new Avantasia record, and while I always prefer his work with Edguy, this is nevertheless a gleefully flamboyant, cameo-laden rock opera of hooky power metal from one of the best songwriters in the genre. A total pleasure.
Beastwars, Blood Becomes Fire (Destroy): The New Zealand band improves mightily on the follow-up to their promising 2012 debut with a one-of-a-kind version of sludge metal that juxtaposes colossal, churning guitars with AmRep bass tones and rigid, almost martial drum beats. A true diamond in the rough, this is great music from the other side of the world that deserves to be heard. Stream the album via Bandcamp.
The Body, Master, We Perish (At A Loss): The ambitious Rhode Island band is back with a new three-song EP, and once again, my same old complaint with them hasn’t changed: for a band so musically talented, it’s a real shame that ambition doesn’t carry over to the lead vocals, which are delivered in a boring, unoriginal shriek. Instrumentally, however, this is spellbinding as always.
Bone Sickness, Alone In The Grave (20 Buck Spin): From Olympia, Washington comes this savage mix of death metal, grind, and punk. Fast, filthy, and perpetually on the verge of careening completely off the rails, this is a record that cannot be overlooked in a very busy week for new metal releases.
Cathedral, The Last Spire (Metal Blade): So this is it, the (apparently) final album by the British doom legends. And unlike their last couple albums, which dove headfirst into vintage progressive rock, this is a complete return to the classic, plodding doom arrangements of old. While longtime Cathedral fans will delight at the heavy sounds, to me The Last Spire lacks the inspiration and vitality of an album like The Guessing Game. Songs like “Pallbearer” and “Tower of Silence” feel like second-rate Cathedral, which is a shame because it would have been gratifying to see the band go out on a high note instead of sounding as tired as they do here.
Cauldron, Tomorrow's Lost (Earache): I raved about this fine album of catchy heavy metal by the always-great Canadian trio last year, but apparently it’s finally out in physical form in North America today. So if you haven’t heard it yet, by all means, do so.
Coliseum, Sister Faith (Temporary Residence): It’s gotten to the point now that it doesn’t make much sense to review the new Coliseum album on a metal blog, but even though the Louisville band’s music has surpassed its hardcore roots on Sister Faith, it’s so good that it’d be a shame to ignore it simply based on genre bias. Guitarist Ryan Patterson has taken all those past influences and morphed his music into a unique hybrid that can only be described now as great rock ‘n’ roll, and that’s all that matters. The shadows of Jawbox, Drive Like Jehu, and Killing Joke loom over this album, songs like “Love Under Will” and “Black Magic Punks” discovering a new side to Coliseum’s music, where aggression and accessibility find a perfect middle ground. In the end the fact that it cannot be confined to a single musical niche is Sister Faith’s greatest asset. It’s music for everyone.
Corsair, Ghosts of Proxima Centauri (Shadow Kingdom): Corsair’s self-titled debut is one of my favorite albums of the year so far, and now Shadow Kingdom has re-released their 2011 EP. While it’s not as fully fleshed-out as the new album, it nevertheless shows you just how promising this Virginia band is. It’s a work in progress, but it’s one that’s always interesting.
Deep Purple, Now What?! (Eagle Rock): What a pleasure it is to not only have Deep Purple still around performing, but making vital new music as well. Their first album since 2005’s Rapture of the Deep sees the legendary band continuing to age gracefully while still showing signs of ambition, as well as rocking mighty hard every once in a while. Guitarist Steve Morse continues to prove to be a valuable contributor, while Don Airey honors the late Jon Lord’s legacy with keyboard work that remains faithful to that core Deep Purple sound, but in the end it’s Ian Gillan’s charming persona that makes this record so winning, always showing a wry sense of humor while captivating listeners with his tasteful singing. In fact, “A Simple Song” is as good a song as they’ve written in the last 26 years, “All the Time in the World” is a surprisingly sweet ballad, while “Vincent Price” closes things in imposing, moody fashion. If this winds up being their last studio album, they’ll be going out on a high note.
Heaven Shall Burn, Veto (Century Media): There aren’t many metalcore bands I have the patience for anymore, but Germany’s Heaven Shall Burn will always be one of them. They might stick to a set formula, but the contrast of extremity and melody is always impeccably done, and their thoughtful, often history-inspired lyrics are a cut above the usual boring fare metal bands churn out these days. Highlighted by such standouts as “Godiva”, “Land of the Upright Ones”, and “Fallen”, these guys are in peak form. While a band as bland as As I Lay Dying continues to sell well, it’s an absolute shame Heaven Shall Burn aren’t regarded in the same light. They deserve to be huge, and this album deserves to be heard.
Hessian, Manégarmr (Southern Lord): Black metal, hardcore, and crust all come together on this highly intense new album by the Belgian band. It’s one of those cases where a band futilely tries to equal the visceral power and songwriting chops of Converge, but while that doesn’t happen, Hessian more than hold their own on a surprisingly dynamic record.
Howl, Bloodlines (Relapse): The Rhode Island band sound like they’re in the midst of a transition on their second album, which often makes a point of venturing into the groove metal territory forged by Pantera and worn down by scads of imitators. They do try to make it fairly original by instilling the music with a strong sludge/doom influence, and that alone makes it likeable enough for yours truly. It’s nothing great, but still a lot better than most mediocre metal music I have to listen to week after week.
Lair Of The Minotaur, Godslayer (The Grindhouse): It might be only two songs, but is it ever great to have new music by Lair of the Minotaur. Their first release since 2010’s Evil Power, this single is the kind of fist-bangin’, rampaging heavy metal the band has excelled at for years now. Predictable, but satisfyingly so. Hopefully a new album is on the horizon.
Melvins, Everybody Loves Sausages (Ipecac): No band, save for perhaps Metallica, has as much fun covering other bands than the great Melvins, and this new collection of covers is not only a total blast, but it shows just how shockingly versatile the band is. Sure, King Buzzo, Dale Crover, and mates hold their own on such heavier material as Venom’s “Warhead” and Tales of Terror’s “Romance”, but it’s in the surprises where the most fun is had, such as Buzz’s take on Divine’s classic “Female Trouble”, The Fugs’ garage rock classic “Carpe Diem”, the strangely sincere reading of Queen’s “You’re My Best Friend”, and the rollicking rendition of Ram Jam’s classic rock radio staple “Black Betty”. It’s eclectic, fun, and highly recommended.
The Ocean, Pelagial (Metal Blade): This is an interesting conundrum. The German collective’s sixth album is mercifully much more focused than their recent sprawling output, but it gives the listener two options: to listen to the album with lead vocals or as an instrumental piece. And if you ask me, Pelagial works much, much better as an instrumental. All you have to do is what I accidentally did and listen to the instrumental disc first. The post-metal arrangements are so beautifully refined and involving and never for a second tedious, which is so rare when it comes to instrumental post-metal. When you listen to the album all over again with Loïc Rossetti’s lead vocals, it quickly becomes apparent how superfluous they really are. Nothing against Rossetti, mind you, he does a good job singing atop the pieces, but it never feels like a comfortable fit. Consequently, Pelagial With Vocals is good, but Pelagial the Instrumental is exemplary.
Purson, The Circle And The Blur Door (Metal Blade): After well over a year of teasing – the brilliant Rocking Horse single, the revelatory performance at Roadburn 2012 – Rise Above’s new darlings Purson have arrived with their debut full-length. Led by singer/songwriter/lead guitarist Rosalie Cunningham, the London band specialize in the kind of psychedelic heavy rock their label loves to unearth, but in a way that’s decidedly English, from the Fairport Convention and Black Widow influences that creep into the music, to the band’s carefully honed, 1960s London attire. Led by Cunningham’s prim yet seductive singing, it’s an appealing package, which in turn sets listeners up for Satanic themes brilliantly masquerading as playful lyrics (look up exactly what Purson is, and the song “Leaning on a Bear” takes on an entirely new meaning). Whimsical, sinister, mysterious, this is one of the most enticing debuts of the year, highlighted by such tracks as “Spiderwood Farm”, “The Contract”, and “Tragic Catastrophe”.
Revelation, Inner Harbor (Shadow Kingdom): The latest album by the Baltimore progressive rock veterans doesn’t pack any surprises, and the lead vocals will take getting used to for those new to the band, but this is another solid outing that bridges 1970s prog and classic heavy metal, the songs meandering but tastefully written and arranged.
Starkill, Fires Of Life (Century Media): With a name like Starkill and a cover with a Viking dude atop a mountain I was hoping for some good, old-fashioned heavy metal in the traditional sense, but instead it turns out to be a mishmash of Children of Bodom and Dimmu Borgir. Which is all well and good, these kids seem to do it decently enough, but in the end this album is scattershot to the point where it simply lacks personality.
Woe, Withdrawal (Candlelight): While there wasn’t anything particularly wrong with Woe’s previous recorded output, the Philly band’s latest album is revelatory, all the pieces finally coming together to create a record that leaves an immediate impression. Granted, the music still operates strictly within the confines of the US black metal template, but it’s performed with such energy, the immediacy and – yes – melody leaping out on song after song that it’s easy to forgive its predictability. Plus any black metal album that includes shredding guitar solos is okay in my book.
Rob Zombie, Venomous Rat Regeneration Vendor (Zodiac Swan): All the ingredients for a good Rob Zombie album all seem to be there on his fifth solo album, save for one: the hooks. Only sporadically does Venomous Rat Regeneration Vendor even start to click, like on “Behold, the Filthy Little Creatures!”, the rampaging “Lucifer Rising”, and the irresistibly silly “Ging Gang Gong De Do Gong De Laga Raga”, but it’s nowhere often enough for a musician of this caliber. Even the cover of “We’re an American Band” falls flat. This is a really unfortunate step down from Hellbilly Deluxe, Vol. 2, which is a real shame because I’m usually a total sucker for Zombie’s shtick.
The best music festival in the world delivers once again
All photos, unless otherwise noted, by Paul Verhagen
From April 18-21 I had the pleasure of attending the Roadburn Festival in Tilburg, Netherlands once again. The best music festival you will ever come across, the festival serves up a wide array of underground music that ranges from doom, to psychedelic, to black metal, to anything in between, each day a crazed, 11-hour bacchanal that has some three thousand people scattered among four very different venues to hear some incredible bands. Whether it was the 2,000+-capacity main theatre at the 013 Poppodium, the small “Green Room” annex and the even tinier “Stage 01” hidden away in the same building, or the gorgeous, perpetually full Het Patronaat church annex across the narrow, alley-like Veemarktstraat, there was always something happening, each day’s schedule so packed with exceptional artists that it’s pretty much impossible to see them all. Consequently, two people can attend Roadburn and have completely different musical experiences.
Every Roadburn devotes its Friday to one special guest curator, and this year it was Jus Osborn of UK doom greats Electric Wizard, who along with headlining that night with a fantastic performance, organized “The Electric Acid Orgy” at the 013, featuring a doom-heavy bill featuring Cough, Witchsorrow, Dream Death, and Moss, along with some interesting, diverse choices in Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats, The Pretty Things, and Sabbath Assembly. Meanwhile, the festival’s “Artist in Residence” this year was French singer-songwriter Neige, who along with his band Alcest performed with his friends in Les Discrets and Lantlos.
It’s as physically taxing a festival as you’ll ever attend – finding the time to even feed yourself, let alone sit, is a challenge with so many outstanding bands playing at any given time – and you’ll be guaranteed to miss at least one band you really wanted to see (Sabbath Assembly, for me) but overall, the schedule was as good as it could possibly get, at least for yours truly. And better yet, everything seemed to go off without a hitch. I had a nice chat with Artistic Director Walter Hoeijmakers on Day Three, and he was beaming at how stress-free this year’s event was for organizers. The friendliness of the festival organizers rubs off on the entire event, creating a much more laid-back mood than you’ll see at any other metal festival. The music might be extremely intense at times, but you can watch a band play up close without the threat of physical harm, which to any North American, is unthinkable these days. There would be always something happening, whether in the four venues, out on Veemarktstraat where everyone converges, or across the street in the V39 building, home to merch tables (this is a vinyl junkie's heaven, believe me), a film festival, and panel discussions, and wherever you went, you always felt welcome.
Here’s a list, in my humble opinion anyway, of the ten best bands I saw over the course of four days at Roadburn 2013:
Alcest, Saturday, April 20, Main Stage: The French band has come a long way since playing their first live show three years ago. Although it remains very much the brainchild of singer/guitarist Neige, the Alcest that people saw at Roadburn this year was confident, hardened, refined as they played last year’s majestic album Les Voyages de l’Ame in its entirety. With guitarist Zero providing some superb backing vocals, Neige and his foursome sounded sublime on the big main stage, songs like “Beings of Light”, “Summer’s Glory”, and the added treat “Souvenirs d’un Autre Monde” proving to be every bit as transcendent as on record. This was a perfect, understated way to kick off Day Three after a couple of exhausting first two days.
Ash Borer, Saturday, April 20, Green Room: I was told that when they were asked to play Roadburn 2013, Ash Borer requested they play the smallest room possible, which turned out to be a brilliant move. The much-ballyhooed California black metal band not only had the cozy Green Room filled to overflowing, many watching the set from outside, on tiptoes trying to peer through the doorway, but the blinding atmospheric black metal they churned out was made even more intense in such cramped quarters. Aided brilliantly by a fantastic light show – USBM with a little production value, how about that? – this was a performance that left people’s collective jaws on the floor. Those who could get in, anyway.
Goat, Friday, April 19, Het Patronaat: The most memorable set of the entire festival, it had people clamoring to get into the Het Patronaat venue – the lineup to get in was huge – and had people buzzing about the performance afterward. It was the most full I have ever seen the room, as hundreds crammed in to see this strange Swedish band that’s been on people’s minds since last summer. It’s easy to see their costumed, mask-clad, Afrobeat shtick as a gimmick, but what’s wrong with a gimmick when it leaves as big an impression as it did on this night? Besides, musically this band proved to be phenomenal, delivering an hour-long jam that delved into krautrock and psychedelic rock while at the same time getting people dancing and singing along. Goat unquestionably stole the entire festival.
High on Fire, Thursday, April 18/Saturday, April 20, Main Stage: A year ago Matt Pike played the biggest set of Roadburn 2012 as part of Sleep’s epic, two-hour performance, and soon after would be in rehab to deal with his alcoholism. Now he’s feeling great, looking great, and best of all, sounding great, and he and his band High on Fire treated fans to two colossal sets. Thursday’s saw the band tear through their excellent, sludgy 2000 debut The Art of Self Defense, many of those songs having not been played in many years. Saturday, though, had Pike and company hammer out a decidedly more metal-oriented set that featured classic after classic. It was a triumphant return by one of the best guitarists and most likeable dudes in heavy metal.
Jess & the Ancient Ones, Saturday, April 20, Green Room: Having been a huge admirer of the Finish band over the past calendar year, this was one of my personal “must-see” sets, and the seven-piece band did not disappoint one bit. Their blend of psychedelic rock, occult rock, and early heavy metal might be in keeping with many other similar bands right now, but they way they’re growing musically over the course of their recent album and EP shows potential of long outlasting the trend. Led by the commanding presence of singer Jess and the shaggy, perpetually headbanging guitarist Thomas Corpse, the band played such standouts as “Sulfur Giants”, “Astral Sabbat”, and “Prayer For Death and Fire”, captivating the packed room, and enigmatically, perfectly leaving the stage without a word.
Kadavar, Friday, April 19, Het Patronaat: There’s not much to the German trio’s music, just another faithful retread of vintage proto-metal from 1970, but if there’s one place where that formula is money in the bank, it’s Roadburn. Consequently their afternoon performance in the Het Patronaat was in front of a massive, enthusiastic crowd. I liked their 2012 debut and love their new album Abra Kadavar, but this is one of those cases where the band is so much better live than on record. Guitarist/singer Lupus Lindemann churned out the riffs like a maniacal combination of Sir Lord Baltimore and Grand Funk Railroad, while drummer Tiger throttled away on his kit like Animal from the Muppets. 90% of us crammed into the sweltering room could barely see anything, but with such potent music coming out of the PA, that hardly mattered. Everyone was enthralled.
Pallbearer, Thursday, April 18, Main Stage/Sunday, April 21, Green Room: The Arkansas doom band became American metal darlings in 2012, and their first visit to Europe was met with great interest, first at their festival-opening performance on the main stage, and then three days later in the much smaller Green Room. While I’ve been careful not to heap too much praise on the young band – Sorrow and Extinction was a terrific debut but there’s an even better album in them yet – they proved to be an enthralling live act. While it was great to hear them in the immaculate-sounding main theatre in front of a couple thousand people, onstage they seemed a bit lost with all that space to deal with, so it wasn’t a surprise to see them looking much more at home on the cozier Green Room stage, where they also sounded even bigger. Their music is imposing, but more enveloping than impenetrable, and they made a lasting impression on many on this weekend.
Royal Thunder, Thursday, April 18, Het Patronaat: Expectations were through the roof for Royal Thunder’s Roadburn performance on Day One, and they were exceeded by a spellbinding set, led of course by bassist/singer Miny Parsonz. Boasting one of the most powerful voices in metal today, Parsonz belted out in commanding fashion such tracks as “Whispering World”, “Sleeping Witch”, and the classic-in-the-making “Parsonz’ Curse”. Any doubts as to whether Royal Thunder could match the potency of the CVI album were immediately forgotten. My personal memory from this set: taking it easy in the plush choir loft, having flown into the country that morning and been awake for 24 hours, realizing I still had eight hours in the day to go, and being blown away by this band’s performance.
Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats, Friday, April 19, Main Stage: Going into Roadburn 2013, if there was one band that was circled as a must-see for most attendees, it was the mysterious British foursome who won a cult following with 2011’s Blood Lust and have just released the very, very good follow-up Mind Control in Europe. While the band looks as normal as any other group of retro-rockers – singer/guitarist Uncle Acid even speaking in a regular deep voice, in contrast to his helium-huffing vocals – they still effectively kept the huge crowd at an arm’s length, backlit and featuring some amazing film clips to go along with each song they played. New songs “Mind Crawler” and “Poison Apple” held up well alongside older cuts like “I’ll Cut You Down” and “Over and Over Again”, but “Valley of the Dolls”, with its accompanying visuals of Sharon Tate and Charles Manson, made the most lasting impression. A lot of hype surrounded this performance, and the band more than lived up to it.
Witch Mountain, Friday, April 19, Het Patronaat: The Portland, Oregon band have quickly established themselves as one of the best doom bands in America right now on the strength of two outstanding recent albums, and that reputation was hammered home during their hour-long set at Roadburn. Led by the diminutive Uta Plotkin, whose awesome voice infuses the music with so much power that it feels towering, the band worked their way through such bluesy tracks as “Lanky Rae”, “Beekeper”, “Aurelia”, and the stunning “Bloodhound”. It was interesting how this festival was highlighted by so many charismatic frontwomen – compared to so many comparatively introverted guys – and Plotkin was the best of a very impressive lot.
The Psychedelic Warlords, Thursday, April 18, Main Stage: Technically this was little more than a tribute band led by former Hawkwind bassist Alan Davey, but they way he and his band faithfully performed Hawkwind’s classic Space Ritual live album in its entirety was one of the most memorable, fun moments of Roadburn 2013, and fully warrants mentioning. Taking great care to replicate everything about that timeless live album, from the Dik Mik style synths, to the Michael Moorcock-written spoken word pieces, to that essential Lemmy bass tone, the band nailed it all, especially on the scorching space rockers “Orgone Accumulator”, "Space is Deep", and “Master of the Universe”. No, it’s not classic Hawkwind, but for a lot of us it’s as close as we’ll ever get, and everyone in attendance had an absolute blast.