Saturday, October 8, 2011

Fear Not, Schmitty Lives On

As much as it may seem that I have completely vanished into the mist, this is not the case. An update reviewing a large number of movies in theaters is coming, have no fear.

Sorry for the wait.

Edit as of 1/20/2012: I'm obviously a damned liar. Oops.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Schmitty Raids the Bargain Bin: Episode 1

One of my favorite pastimes is scouring the used bookshelves, the cheap DVD bins, the clearance section of webstores - hunting for the hidden gems in amongst the legitimately undesirable dreck. Sometimes the searches simply lead to finding known commodities on the cheap, other times the low financial risk allows the more adventurous side to take over and an excessive number of blind buys soon follow. The latter certainly results in quite a few "duds," but the occasional diamond in the rough has always been enough to lure me back in time after time. I figured I'd go ahead and share the results with you all - so without further ado, welcome to the first edition of "Schmitty Raids the Bargain Bin."

There was a period of time where I absolutely abused The End Records' webstore - Age of Silence, Deceased, Subterranean Masquerade, Green Carnation, etc. Did I mention these all came at less than $2.50 each with free shipping? Yeah, those were the good old days (sadly, shipping is no longer included). Granted, deals this good can't be had there anymore, but I figured I'd show the distro some loyalty and give them one more go 'round. I ended up picking up three albums before checking out. I'll get into the details a bit later.

Outside of a couple trips in the days leading up to Halloween, I had not set foot inside a Goodwill to shop in several years - I recently decided to change that. I first went to check out the movies and music (naturally) and, well... Let's just say that I would have donated that stuff too, just to get it out of the house. Thoroughly disappointed in the digital media and not in the market for new-to-me clothes, I fully expected to leave empty-handed. That is until I laid eyes on the bookshelves - I ended up purchasing three books. Symmetry is great isn't it?

So yeah, details. Being stalled in the middle of about three other books right now, I don't have much to say about the books I picked up other than their titles considering I've not read any of them so far. But based on my own taste and the word-of-mouth I've noted, I'm sure that I'll be enjoying myself when I eventually get around to The Andromeda Strain (Crichton), Hyperion (Simmons), and The Time Machine / War of the Worlds (Wells). Yay, incoming sci-fi binge!

Moving on, I actually can make some comments on the albums I purchased. First up:

Giant Squid - Metridium Fields

Those in the know might recall that The Ichthyologist broke into my top ten for 2009 albums. Let me say that I obviously put off listening to their earlier material for far too long - this is more metallic and, dare I say, possibly even better than The Ichthyologist. Sludgy, sea-faring, atmospheric, experimental goodness. I mean, there's Hammond organs, crazy vocals and a trumpet on a nautical-themed album - if it isn't a complete trainwreck then, by process of elimination, it must be awesome.

Rating: 9/10

Laethora - March of the Parasite

I found myself lazily clicking around the cheapest CDs, doing something vaguely resembling lazy research when I came across an interesting band name or album title. When I found out that this was the side project of Dark Tranquillity's guitarist, I immediately mustered all of my available enthusiasm and added it to my cart with an excited "Eh, why not?" (If your sarcasm detectors went off, please reset them and return to your seat. This was only a drill.) Anyway, what I got when listening to this album turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Rather than the anticipated slab of derivative Gothenburg melodeth, I was presented with something more akin to Suffocation. The fact that it is viewed through a Gothenburg filter only serves to make this more interesting. Brutal, dynamic, catchy death metal - definitely a diamond in the rough.

Rating: 8/10

Leash Law - Dogface

For every diamond in the rough, there is - well, rough. What we have here is a fairly average US Power Metal album with a singer who is obviously reaching to imitate a power level that far exceeds his own. The problem isn't that the songs are bad - but they never break past the point of "pretty good." The problem isn't that Wade Black is a poor singer - but in order to carry this material on his own would require abilities on par with Dio, Halford or Dickinson (Amen). If you can't get enough USPM, this might just float your boat - for the rest of us, it is just kinda there.

Rating: 5/10

Overall, I'm quite happy with my bargain bin raids for the past month. With all of the above acquired for a total of less than $20 - I'm going to count this as a success!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Album of the Year: 2010 - #1

And the winner is...

Ihsahn - After

Imagine yourself as a little kid watching a magician for the first time - sitting there in absolute awe, mouth probably hanging agape - not understanding what is actually happening but still loving every second of the performance. That essentially sums up my reaction to this album - I don't fully understand the wizardry that holds this show together and I don't much care, I'm just happy to soak it all in. Taking pages from Opeth, Sigh and his own past work in Emperor and other bands, Ihsahn has written an impressively consistent album considering the diversity in mood and texture throughout. This turns out to be one of those wonderful outings that actually earns its title as progressive metal - by no means is this simply technical noodling masquerading as "progressive." How one manages to tie together black metal, free form jazz, and more groove-based doom and make it work is far beyond my ability to comprehend but I'll chalk it up to wizardry. Well, wizardry, impressive songwriting and excellent production.

To say that Ihsahn is an incredible songwriter is to state the exceedingly obvious, but even considering his incredible back catalogue, After seems like quite a stride forward. Both lyrically and musically, After is a much more complex and mature work than anything he has done before. Take, for instance, the riff work on "A Grave Inversed" - the main verse riff gives the feeling of falling through some sort of vortex and that sensation is only heightened when a masterfully incorporated saxophone comes into play. Really, this is the pinnacle of that wizardry I've referred to on multiple occasions - Sigh is the only other band I can recall adding sax to metal with any success and this well surpasses what they have been able to achieve in that realm. Honestly, I'm not quite willing to name this as the best album that Ihsahn has had a hand in during his career, but the mere fact that I'm willing to mention it in the same breath as all-time masterpieces like In the Nightside Eclipse and Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk is pretty impressive for a solo work this deep into a career. Given the strong conclusion to his solo trilogy, I'm very interested to see what comes "after" for Ihsahn. (Oh please, you didn't think you were going to get out of this without the obligatory pun, did you?)

Best Tracks: A Grave Inversed, Frozen Lakes on Mars
Rating: 10/10

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Album of the Year: 2010 - #2

Agalloch - Marrow of the Spirit

"As wandering ghosts pass through the flames
A new age of rebirth lights the dawn"

These lines, taken from "The Watcher's Monolith," reflect my view on this chapter of Agalloch's career in a very interesting way. For, while there are many easily identifiable features (and possibly even an instance or two of self-plagiarism) from Agalloch's past endeavors on this album, the whole picture is seen in a slightly different light. Ghosts of Ashes Against the Grain and The Mantle pass through the flames of a more aggressive approach, filtered through a production not present on an Agalloch album since Pale Folklore. An almost retrospective work which is made to feel like something of a reawakening by the presence of a more pronounced black metal aspect than ever before.

Not sure if that bit will make sense to anyone besides the little voice reading it in my head, but hopefully you are able to catch my drift at least. My attempts to extract meaning from the phrase "it's the same, but different" always seem to end in a tangle of incoherent nonsense. Be that as it may, let's return to the subject at hand.

As with their prior albums, Marrow of the Spirit is woven from the three primary threads of black, doom and folk metal with myriad other influences for added color. Though, as I alluded to earlier, the use of black metal is far more predominant here than it ever has been before. Unlike previous albums which were exceedingly difficult to truly classify, Marrow of the Spirit plays out much more like an atmospheric black metal album than anything else. While other genres certainly remain in the mix, the overall presentation - from song structure and instrumentation to the production of the album - lends itself to a predominantly black metal album. Not to say that Agalloch have been formulaic in the past, but this seems to me to be a fairly noticeable change in direction for the band. Judging by reactions that I've heard, this album seems to have split the fanbase into two camps - based on the album's placement on the list, I think you know in which camp I've pitched my tent. As with all their releases to date, this album weaves a gorgeous tapestry of wintry landscapes and has the distinct ability to conjure a strong emotional response in the listener. With a perfect record coming into 2010, Agalloch have still yet to stumble and look to be affirming their position as one of the most influential and respected bands in the business today.

Rating: 10/10

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Album of the Year: 2010 - #3

Grand Magus - Hammer of the North

Several heavy metal albums have poked their head up throughout this list already - often getting tapped back down for coming off as forced and artificially "retro." Now, Grand Magus is no wannabe band looking to make their name with yet another uninspired Iron Maiden clone (come to think of it, Maiden made an appearance way down at the bottom of this thing already, didn't they?). For those paying attention, Grand Magus have already released four great albums prior to this one, which stood at the three-way intersection of stoner, heavy and doom metal. On Hammer of the North, Grand Magus have done away with much of the first genre, opting to go for a more traditional heavy/doom sound on this outing. As much as I love their earlier albums, I have to say that I like this change. The writing here seems far more focused and consistent than ever before - there really are no weak points in this set of songs. Every track sports crunchy, classic heavy metal riffs and excellent vocal work from Janne Christoffersson.

Speaking of Janne, he may not be nearly as technically skilled as Halford, Dio, Dickinson, et al... but at this point I'm willing to throw my vote his way for inclusion in the pantheon of heavy metal vocalists. Whether he's channeling Rob Halford ("I, the Jury") or Rob Lowe ("The Lord of Lies"), the performance is top notch and perfectly befitting the material. Think about that for a second - how many bands (much less vocalists) are out there today that can channel Judas Priest and Candlemass on the same album and make it entirely their own? I honestly can't think of anyone else off the top of my head, though I would certainly welcome being proven wrong. As much as I've talked up Janne Christoffersson's vocal performance, I really don't want to sell his axe skills (or his band members' performances) short. For the most part the rhythm section isn't doing anything particularly mind-blowing, but they do their job to complement the riffs and perfect that infectious groove that permeates the album. Just for good measure, and to complete the full heavy metal experience, Janne throws some pretty sweet solos into the mix. Grand Magus has gone pretty under appreciated for the early part of their career, hopefully they'll maintain this level of quality and ride their new deal with Roadrunner to the accolades that they richly deserve.

Best Tracks: I, the Jury, At Midnight They'll Get Wise
Rating: 10/10

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Album of the Year: 2010 - #4

Man's Gin - Smiling Dogs

Remember Gin, Cobalt's 2009 effort? (You should, as it was a great album and found its way into my top ten for the year.) Assuming that you are on the right track so far and hungry for more material from Erik Wunder, you're in luck here. Man's Gin takes the lighter part of Cobalt's sound and builds on that with additional American folk elements. While the album is primarily acoustic rock and has its fair share of up-tempo and hopeful tracks, do not mistake this as a complete abandonment of what we heard on Gin. Despite the departure from the realm of metal, Man's Gin still manage to weave a convincingly dreary tapestry for the more lyrically gloomy and pessimistic tracks on this release. Wunder's vocals are surprisingly strong on either side of this coin and show a pretty strong grunge influence - actually, for whatever reason, I get the impression that Wunder is a Meat Puppets fan by listening to his performance on this album. But maybe that's just me.

Whether the Curt Kirkwood comparison is warranted or not, it's certain that Wunder has established himself as a very capable vocalist who has a definite flair to carry this kind of material. Seriously, take a listen to "Nuclear Ambition" and tell me which vocalists could pull that one off as well as he does - go ahead, I'll wait... Just as I commented on Gin last year, this is another piece of work that sounds utterly organic and natural and the vocals play a huge role in bringing it all together. Even at its darkest and most angry, the music is undeniably catchy - and not the "sick to your stomach from and overdose of processed sugar" kind of catchy, but the real honest-to-goodness kind that you'll be happy to have stuck in your head for days. Recommended for fans of Alice in Chains, Meat Puppets, Nick Cave, Dax Riggs, Tom Waits (namedrop much?)... hell, I'll recommend this to anyone. With two top ten albums in two years, I am extremely excited to see what path Wunder will follow with his musical future - if the past is any predictor of the future, it is sure to be quality.

Best Tracks: Nuclear Ambition Parts 1&2, Doggamn
Rating: 10/10

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Album of the Year: 2010 - #5

Kylesa - Spiral Shadow

On Spiral Shadow, Kylesa hit a near perfect balance between the aggressive, driving sludge metal that marked their early albums and the brighter, psychedelic-tinged material that has appeared more recently in their catalogue. One characteristic that has always identified Kylesa's sound is the dual drum tracks, which are as strong and engaging as ever on this release. The extra percussion serves, not to bury the listener under a full artillery barrage, but to establish grooves and rhythms that both drive the rest of the music forward and provide plenty of hooks on their own. The quality of the percussion is obvious enough on the record, but I can vouch for the fact that it is even more impressive in a live setting - possessing as much energy as you will find this side of a Taiko (linked for awesome) ensemble.

Exorbitant praise for the drummers aside, the rest of the band is certainly up to snuff. Most of these drop-tuned riffs are as big and chunky as ever and, when they do decide to brighten it up a bit, the guitar and key work is nothing short of masterful. On tracks like "Drop Out," Kylesa are able to go from pummeling metal to dreamy atmospheres at the drop of a hat and make it sound as natural as anything. Honestly, with most of this album being so damn perfect, I have to address the one reason that Spiral Shadow "falls" to the #5 spot: "Don't Look Back." I am not a fan of this track, the repetitive chorus is annoying and the rest of the song just seems lightweight and lacking substance compared to the album as a whole. If it weren't for this major negative right in the middle of the album, I may have put this atop the entire list this year. The rest of the album oozes awesome, so don't let that one negative deter you from giving this one a listen.

Best Tracks: Crowded Road, Spiral Shadow
Rating: 9/10

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Album of the Year: 2010 - #6

Melechesh - The Epigenesis

From the opening minutes of "Ghouls of Nineveh" it is obvious that this is going to be a fairly different album from Melechesh's brilliant 2006 album, Emissaries. Rather than the unrelenting black metal of their prior work, The Epigenesis slows the pace down a bit and comes off as quite a bit more experimental. The guitar work overall is excellent and extremely catchy - though you may note that the overall "Middle Eastern" feel has been toned down a fair amount from prior albums. The Phrygian scales and traditional chants still make fairly frequent appearances, but are not nearly so prevalent and ingrained as they have been in the past. Milder Middle East flavor or not, the sound is distinctively Melechesh. The fibers of Sumerian soundscapes and modern metal grooves are masterfully intertwined throughout, resulting in by far the most varied experience from this band to date.

Now, I can see where some "purists" would consider this new direction a step down - certainly, the music has been taken down a notch when it comes to intensity. But where a step may have been taken back there, I feel that it is more than made up for by the massive steps forward in diversity and overall artistry. Besides these, this album also shows marked improvement in the vocal and production departments for the band. The blackened rasps sound fuller and more powerful than ever - whether this is truly advancement by the vocalist or a product of the superior production quality is not entirely clear. The production job here is damn near perfect, clear and crisp with plenty of organic "thud" remaining (the drums sound particularly good). At 70+ minutes long, this might be a bit much to digest in one sitting - but trust me, you want to sample all of what is available here.

Best Track: Sacred Geometry
Rating: 9/10

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Album of the Year: 2010 - #7

Overkill - Ironbound

Overkill? They're still around? Well, surely they've gone the way of almost every other thrash metal band from the 80's and turned to complete and utter crap? Honestly, for the past twenty years or so, they've not been so much "terrible" as merely "unremarkable." But if ever there was a successful return to top form from one of these bands - this is the one. Other classic thrash acts have put out pretty decent albums in the past few years (Artillery and Megadeth come immediately to mind), but fans have been thrilled merely to get these passable releases. Truly great thrash albums have been unsettlingly few and far between - this is one of those truly great albums. What makes this album stand out from the crowd is that it manages to comfortably and seamlessly blend the modern and classic thrash eras - no out-of-touch conformity to the original 80's formulas and no embarrassing attempts by these "senior citizens" to trend-hop, just a pure thrash attack.

In true thrash spirit, this album will punch you in the jaw, kick you to the curb and send you running home to mommy - and you will love it all. This is one of Overkill's fastest albums ever and it rarely lets up - pretty damn impressive (and surprising) from a group of guys mostly north of the age of fifty. Monster riffs, frantic guitar solos, machine-gun drums and Blitz's incredible rasp - it all adds up to an incredibly fun journey at breakneck speeds. In the past, Overkill may have been overshadowed by their more famous peers - but today, they stand tall amidst a crowd willing to settle for just "good enough." For those whose necks are still a bit sore after The Sword, you might want to hold off a bit before listening to this one - that was little more than a warm up round compared to the workout you'll get here. Raise the horns, grab a beer and make sure the sound is at "11."

Best Track: Bring Me The Night
Rating: 9/10

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Album of the Year: 2010 - #8

The Sword - Warp Riders

And so the progression continues - debuting with the solid but rather unremarkable Age of Winters in 2006, smart money was on The Sword falling into obscurity as yet another generic Sabbath/stoner-worship act. Their 2008 follow-up, Gods of the Earth, was mostly more of the same, albeit executed with a bit more maturity and overall skill. But here, on their third album, is where they finally come into their own and prove just how wrong their doubters have been. The change of lyrical scenery from standard fantasy to sprawling space opera comes with a marked improvement in the vocal department - typically weak and buried deep in the mix on prior releases, Cronise's vocals manage to stand their ground with the rest of the instruments here. Speaking of instruments, this album is a veritable buffet of great riffs - mixing a touch of blues into the stoner/doom/heavy blend seems to have really allowed these guys to find their groove. Some of these tracks really remind me of something that Clutch might have put out, and believe me when I say - that is definitely not a bad thing.

In a way, this album reminds me quite a bit of Crack the Skye from 2009 - both are concept albums, both pay proper tribute to the almighty riff, both show substantial improvement in the vocal department and, most importantly, both represent the bands really finding their own respective sounds. The one thing that stops Warp Riders from landing as high on the rankings as Crack the Skye did is its relative lack of atmosphere. In case you haven't noticed, I'm a sucker for music that oozes atmosphere. While this album is certainly a fun ride and brilliantly performed, it never becomes an "experience" for me - just an excellent album of music. I'm sure that last bit is very vague to any reader that isn't me, but I'm not sure how I could put it any other way without sounding ten times MORE pretentious. Pretentiousness aside, throw this one on and prepare to headbang (should commence with the very first riff of the album, if my own research holds true).

Best Track: Arrows in the Dark
Rating: 9/10

Monday, May 9, 2011

Album of the Year: 2010 - #9

The National - High Violet

Where Arcade Fire fell a bit short with The Suburbs, The National pick up the slack and then some. On High Violet, The National manage to do something that many bands (particularly in the indie rock scene) attempt, but very few are able to execute - lamenting the fate of your average, middle-class citizen. So many bands attempt this and come off feeling overly angsty and grating or, perhaps even worse, seem to not be entirely in earnest. The lyrics are beautifully written and Berninger's melancholy baritone infuses them with a sense of disillusionment and gravitas that far exceeds the majority of the band's peers. "With my kid on my shoulders I try / Not to hurt anybody out loud / But I don't have the drugs to sort / I don't have the drugs to sort it out" - I can't think of many other bands out there that could pull this lyric off, but The National manage to build a very emotional song around this chorus.

As depressed as the voice of this album is, the songs are also extremely catchy. With as good as the lyrics and vocal performance are, it would be easy to look right past the work the rest of the band has put in here. While it is true that the other members take a backseat to the singer most of the time, it is also true that the drums are what actually make many of these tracks catchy and the guitar/piano/strings/horns perfectly set the mood for the lyrics to have the impact that they do. Certainly the most relatable album to crack the top ten - this is still another album that will not yield up its fruits easily, a bit of investment is required from the listener to unwrap the full experience.

Best Track: Afraid of Everyone
Rating: 9/10

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Album of the Year: 2010 - #10

Lantlôs - .neon

As good as Alcest's latest album was, it is not the best album that Neige helped to create in 2010 - no, that honor goes to this release, .neon from Lantlôs. Not unexpectedly, Lantlôs is a very similar project - combining post-rock and black metal into a foreign, yet somehow friendly and uplifting, soundscape. The sound meanders and shifts through lighter and heavier phases - though even the heaviest sections where black metal roots surface in harsh screams and double bass rhythms are still made bright by the chord selection and layered production that keeps things feeling lush and full. The lighter sections are highlighted by jazz-inspired rhythms that work amazingly well in smoothing out the entire listening experience. 

To be honest, the best description of the music here is post-rock with black metal and jazz elements - because, while we have jazzy interludes teamed with blast beats and Neige's harsh wailings, the song structures and overall approach to music are distinctly post-rock. This is an album that I will definitely label as a grower - the beauty in this marriage of sun and shadow, joy and melancholy may not be readily apparent. It may take a few listens (and certainly the right mood) for the emotional impact of this release to shine through; but believe me, it is well worth the wait. An excellent release that has me excited to listen to Neige's work for years to come.

Best Track: Pulse/Surreal
Rating: 9/10

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Album of the Year: 2010 - Storming the Gates

Well, the "weekly" gap between postings turned into a month that time. Sorry about that. March Madness distracted me and then I revived my addiction to Oblivion (heavily modded, of course, vanilla is terrible). Yeah, we all know what they say about excuses, but there's mine. Either way, we're back and after this - only 10 remain.

Anathema - We're Here Because We're Here
Starting out in the early 90's as a doom/death metal band, evolving into progressive rock by the turn of the century - this album marks the point where the last remnants of Anathema's metal origins are stripped away and they now stand as a purely alt rock outfit. Possessing a bit of a post-rock vibe, the music is light and beautiful exuding a very airy atmosphere. In contrast with the heavy and sorrowful mood of their prior works, this release is peaceful and even uplifting. The aesthetic changes lead me to feeling like this album lacks some of the emotional punch Anathema once possessed, but the performances are far too strong and the music far too pretty for me to rate We're Here Because We're Here any lower.
Best Track: Summernight Horizon
Rating: 8/10

Alcest - Écailles de lune
Alcest's 2007 album, Souvenirs d'un autre monde, is certainly a very tough act to follow - being one of the most beautiful and nostalgic sounding albums in recent memory. No doubt this album suffers a bit from arriving in the lingering shadow of that full-length debut, nonetheless this is a wonderful release in its own right. The sound from Souvenirs... is still very much intact, though now shifted ever so slightly away from the extremely hazy shoegaze sound and reviving some of the harsh vocals found on the earliest works. Neige has once again created a very emotionally evocative album as, in my experience, listening to this record stirs feelings of isolation and longing that very few other musical works are able to do. If I didn't already know how amazing an Alcest album could be, I might have rated this higher (not necessarily fair, but what can I say?).
Rating: 8/10

Amplifier - The Octopus
This thing is an enormous beast of a double album. Clocking in at just over two hours, this is the definition of a prog rock epic. So, do they have the material to support an album of this length? Shockingly, the answer is "yes, for the most part." Sure, in a two hour timeframe there is material that could probably be trimmed - but there is a surprisingly low amount of fat here. Under the umbrella of prog rock, Amplifier is able to draw influence from a variety of sources, ranging from traditional heavy metal to psychedelic rock to classic prog bands. Given the sheer volume of music on display here, The Octopus is a bit difficult to digest in one, two or even three listens - however, the variety spread throughout almost guarantee that you'll find something to love on one of these discs.
Best Track: Interglacial Spell
Rating: 8/10

Zuul - Out of Time
Many of the bands in this so-called "heavy metal revival" movement fall flat because they are trying to copy Number of the Beast. Zuul start with a leg up on most because if they are aping the style of an Iron Maiden album it is one of the earlier (and superior) albums where Maiden still had a bit of a punk edge. This no Killers, but it shows that same style and energy - galloping riffs, prominent bass lines, catchy solos and gang vocals abound. Zuul show that they really "get" what made heavy metal awesome before it became overly obsessed with being "epic." Fun and energetic - I imagine that this material would really shine in a live setting and hearing it while sitting at a computer really doesn't do it justice.
Best Track: Out of Time
Rating: 8/10

Immolation - Majesty and Decay
Okay, so it's no Close to a World Below, but that is a ridiculously high bar that Immolation set ten years ago. Still, this is a great release in its own right. The riffs here are classic Immolation - slithering, groovy and yet utterly dissonant. The performances are top-notch as always, the guitar work is crisp and the drumming eschews the typical 150mph technical death metal performance, instead taking a more varied and accent-based approach. From the songwriting to the production, this release seems quite a bit more streamlined in many aspects - as such, it would probably make an excellent starting point for people who maybe aren't familiar with this band (though if you are a death metal fan at all, you really ought to be).
Best Track: A Glorious Epoch
Rating: 8/10

Dawnbringer - Nucleus
Mix one part Iron Maiden with one part Motorhead, stir in a pinch of Bay Area Thrash on high heat - once blended, let simmer for forty minutes - serve with a garage-rock garnish. Dawnbringer succeed here because if you didn't know any better, this album would sound right at home among early 80's heavy metal releases. Catchy riffs, gravelly vocals and acrobatic solos keep things very interesting throughout the length of the album - though the quality does flag slightly after an opening trifecta that's as good as any this year. One might complain about the rather pedestrian vocal performance; but to me the Lemmy-esque vocals really seem to complement the music, adding to that classic underground / garage sound.
Best Track: So Much For Sleep
Rating: 8/10

Negura Bunget - Vîrstele pamîntului
Yet another artist on this list that released a great album this year that is simply overshadowed by the masterpieces already in their catalog. In Negura Bunget's case that masterpiece is, of course, OM, an absolute gem of black metal. On this latest release, they've shifted their focus and become more of a blackened folk band, rather than a black metal band with folk influences. Depending on your view of each of these genres, this change may be seen as a marked improvement or a staggering disappointment. Attempting to take genre bias out of the equation - the quality of this album is still extremely high, though probably not quite "masterpiece" status. I have found this album to be a definite grower, so don't judge this one by its cover.
Best Track: Ochiul Inimii
Rating: 8/10

Triptykon - Eparistera Daimones
This may have been released under a new moniker but make no mistake about it, this is most definitely a follow up to Celtic Frost's last album, Monotheist. This album is insanely heavy - from the monolithic guitar tone to the pounding bass to the wooly mammoth that passes for a drum track, there's enough weight behind this one to grind the listener into a fine powder. Similar to Monotheist, this release is also hard to tack down to a specific genre - I suppose one could label it doom metal, but there are enough black and gothic metal touches to pretty much throw labels right out the window. The only slight problem I have with the album is that the music can be a bit too repetitious at times. Had a pair of editor's shears seen some use, this might have reasonably landed atop my list for the year.
Best Track: Goetia
Rating: 8/10

Intronaut - Valley of Smoke
If I gave out AOTY awards based solely on the performance of a rhythm section, this album would win - hands down, no contest, any argument is a complete joke. Sludge usually lends itself to some fairly entertaining drum performances, but when you kick it up a notch and add in progressive/jazz fusion elements... just listen to the album and then try to find your jaw, I think you might have accidentally kicked it under the couch. Honestly, the vocal and guitar work is pretty "middle of the road" for the genre - serviceable, but certainly not spectacular. I never really paid much attention to this band before, but tracking down any recording that Joe Lester and Danny Walker have contributed to has climbed high on my musical to-do list after this.
Best Track: Elegy
Rating: 8/10

Rome - Nos chants perdus
Another year, another very good album from Rome - just like clockwork. On this album, they've taken a slightly different direction - toning down the martial industrial side of things in favor of a more straightforward folk approach. In doing so, this new material lacks some of the grandiosity that made Flowers From Exile and other prior works so impressive. Even so, the writing is still quite impressive and Jerome once again shows why he has one of the bast voices in the genre. Because of his vocal delivery, this much more down to earth and personal album still carries with it a serious weight and importance. Stripped down and simplified, the lack of bells and whistles might lead one to believe this a lesser work from Rome, but that quality core is still very much intact.
Best Track: L'Assassin
Rating: 8/10

Stargazer - A Great Work of Ages
While Intronaut can lay claim to the best performance by a rhythm section, the individual award for bassists goes to Damon Good for his part in A Great Work of Ages. Imagine Steve Harris, Tony Choy and Steve DiGiorgio combining to form one enormous super-bassist and you're on the right track. Riffs, leads, fills and mellow interludes are all masterfully executed in an impressively technical yet deliciously smooth display. My drooling over this performance aside, I do consider this album to be a step down from their debut (which should show the high regard I hold that album in). Still, the sound of this album remains the unique blend of black/death/heavy/prog that they so neatly carved out in their previous release. That step down is thankfully a very small one.
Rating: 9/10

Deathspell Omega - Paracletus
Paracletus is the final installment in DSO's trilogy of albums and definitely lives up to the quality of the first two. The cover art is a perfect representation of the music contained within - a dark, writhing mass that never comes into perfect focus and feels all the more sinister for that fact. Time signature changes, dissonant tremolo riffs and a complex drum performance contribute to the chaos - a precise vision from the band that nonetheless keeps listeners off balance and feeling a step or two behind on early listens. As with the two prior albums, DSO has once again pushed the boundary of what black metal is capable of achieving. From an artistic perspective, Paracletus is just about as "important" as any album released in 2010.
Best Track: Dearth / Phosphene (cheating a bit here, but they need to be heard together)
Rating: 9/10

Slough Feg - The Animal Spirits
Slough Feg may just be the most consistent band in the business of heavy metal - over the course of twenty years and eight albums, none of their albums deserve less than a "very good." This album continues that streak by stepping back a bit from the sound of Ape Uprising! to something more in the style of Traveller. As I said, they are nothing if not consistent, so if you know Slough Feg there are no surprises here. Scalzi's awesome and distinctive vocals, classic metal riffs and some ripping solos. The only reason that this one doesn't break into my top ten for the year is that it lacks those standout classic tracks that can be found littered throughout their back catalogue.
Rating: 9/10

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Album of the Year: 2010 - The High Road

High on Fire - Snakes for the Divine
Another very solid album from High on Fire - big surprise, I know. Like previous albums, this is another pure shot of testosterone, sure to put hair on your chest and drop your voice an octave - as such it should been taken with care. Seriously though, despite being undeniably High on Fire, the band have drifted slightly off the mark with this one in my opinion. They seem to be going a more thrash route on the songwriting here, withdrawing somewhat from the more sludge and post-metal inspired previous albums - as such you lose some of the tension and build toward climax, in exchange for a bit more instant gratification. Comes down to personal listening preference I suppose, but for me it is a slight misstep.
Best Track: Bastard Samurai
Rating: 7/10

Accept - Blood of the Nations
This album was perfectly set up to be an embarrassment and a terrible stain on an otherwise pretty solid heavy metal career - reunion after fourteen years, replacing an iconic vocalist? Oh yeah, no way that could end well. Shockingly enough, it ended up being pretty damn good. It certainly isn't going to top Restless and Wild or Balls to the Wall, but Blood of the Nations is certainly a very worthy addition to the catalogue. Catchy riffs that drive like a tank, vocals that challenge Udo's classic gravelly howls and choruses that demand a fist in the air and vocal cords stretched to the limit. It's nice to see classic bands come along and show you they still remember how it's done - I just wish they would have edited this beast down a bit before release.
Best Track: Beat the Bastards
Rating: 7/10

Blind Guardian - At the Edge of Time
I think they are finally getting a handle on this new direction after their last couple of disappointing albums. They've run an interesting course from speed metal to symphonic, but I was beginning to fear that their days of being a good band in ANY subgenre were done. Fortunately, At the Edge of Time seems to indicate that the ship has been righted and the Guardian has not given up the ghost quite yet. Like I said, for the first time I'm convinced that they truly have a handle on the full-blown symphonic sound - seriously, check out "Wheel of Time" if you doubt me. This is the Blind Guardian I'm used to - Hansi spinning epic tales like the bards of old and power metal that will get the blood pumping. I just wish the middle were a bit stronger overall.
Best Track: Wheel of Time
Rating: 7/10

Chronic Decay - Justify Your Existence
Oh man, this album sounds like it is straight out of the early 90's... wait, what? It was recorded in 1994 and only just released? Well, that makes a lot of sense then. Fortunately, someone had the good sense to pull this little death/thrash gem out of the archives and finally let it see the light of day. Darkness Descends meets Pleasure to Kill and we witness the unholy union through the filter of the old Swedish death metal scene. Certainly stuff that deserved to be unearthed after all these years. The vocals, though certainly energetic, leave a bit to be desired and I'd really like to see these guys develop some of these songs more fully (only one of the thirteen tracks breaks the four minute mark), but overall well worth a listen if you like death/thrash of the old school.
Best Track: Mirrors of Death
Rating: 7/10

Inquisition - Ominous Doctrines of the Perpetual Mystical Macrocosm
I really don't know if I will ever get used to the croak that passes for vocals in this band (it's like someone parodying Abbath, honestly), but the music is just way too damn good to let a silly thing like that turn me off completely. After a while, they even start to blend in and make sense - but I still would take the most generic scream in their place any day. Enough about the stoned frog - what could possibly allow an album featuring those vocals to score this high? Well, their blackened thrash sound is a bit like a mix of mid-era Immortal and Absu - riffs that will break your neck, soundscapes that call to mind vast mountain ranges and enough technical skill to blow you away at any given second. Now if only that swamp creature would shut up we'd really have something special here.
Best Track: Astral Path to Supreme Majesties
Rating: 7/10

Mar de Grises - Streams Inwards
A death/doom album that is extremely melodic and shows quite a bit of progressive influence, Streams Inwards captures the mood of beauty and sadness that Insomnium has nearly perfected in their works. As with Insomnium, the true strength of this album is in the mastery of elements that somehow manage to simultaneously contrast and complement each other - the sparkling, pleasant haze of guitar and keyboard melodies alongside roaring vocals and double bass. The atmosphere exuded by this album is not unlike that of a storm - the rain and dreariness of the now gives glimpses into the blooms and beauty that will naturally follow. As well executed as the atmosphere is, there really isn't a whole lot of variety or dynamic to this album which can make it drag just a bit by the end.
Best Track: Shining Human Skin
Rating: 7/10

Star One - Victims of the Modern Age
How many more times will Arjen be able to tread this exact same musical ground and how many more times will I sit here and gobble it up? These questions remain unanswered, because this is nothing we haven't heard from Arjen before (whether it was in Star One, Ayreon, Guilt Machine, etc.) and because, once again, I'm quite enjoying myself. Honestly, while he is still putting together some quality music, I might have finally gotten a bit tired if it weren't for the fact that he's got an absolutely amazing lineup singing on this one again - Russell Allen, Floor Jansen, Damian Wilson and Dan freakin' Swanö. So good. Your standard Arjen fare of "spacey" prog rock/metal with some of the best vocalists in the business lending their talents.
Best Track: Digital Rain
Rating: 7/10

Deftones - Diamond Eyes
Fifteen years and six albums into their career, we've finally got a great starting point for people who haven't listened to Deftones before. Their most accessible and catchy album, Diamond Eyes permits glimpses into the various evolutionary stages of the band's career - bits of the angry nu-metal early years collide with the more droning, layered sound of their middle years and the more experimental path they've taken since then. Big, chuggy riffs fill out the massive wall of sound as Moreno gives what might very well be his best performance - brooding, melancholy croon or classic scream, it all sounds fantastic. This one definitely blindsided me a bit with just how good it really is - despite a couple obvious fillers, this one should please old fans and new acquaintances alike.
Best Track: Diamond Eyes
Rating: 7/10

Cloudkicker - Beacons
Cloudkicker is an instrumental project that I've loved since I was first introduced - the music mixes the rhythmic mastery and guitar tone of a band like Meshuggah with a sense of atmosphere, beauty and texture found more often in post-rock. What we have here is essentially a lyric-less concept album, the music and song titles tell the story of a plane crash. I must admit that this is pulled off much better than I anticipated, some of the passages are pretty emotionally impactful. The approach to music leads to quite a bit of repetition and dwelling on certain riffs, sometimes lingering a bit too long for my taste. Nonetheless, this is a very good piece of instrumental music and since Ben Sharp is one of those guys that puts up his albums with a "pay whatever you want" deal, you've got nothing to lose giving this one a listen.
Best Track: Amy, I love you.
Rating: 7/10

Force of Darkness - Darkness Revelation
Sometimes you have a craving for downright evil and vicious blackened thrash - it's a bit like White Castle sliders in that you know there is no way that this could be possibly be healthy for you, but there is no denying that hungry beast inside you. Consider this your crave case of evil for 2010. The rhythm section causes the earth to quake and the guitar creates a swarm of devouring insects; meanwhile, the vocalist recites incantations that will summon demonic powers whose evil has been sealed away since the most ancient of times. Sounds pretty badass, eh? Well, it is. The only reason this doesn't score higher for me is that sometimes this badassery seems to come with too large a serving of cheese. But if you are able to stomach some dairy, this one just might cause you to break your neck.
Best Track: Summoning the Black Arts
Rating: 8/10

The Dead Weather - Sea of Cowards
Well, it appears that Jack White and his partners in crime picked up right where they left off on 2009's Horehound. This one never quite reaches the same highs as tracks like "Treat Me Like Your Mother," but overall I'd call it a bit more consistent and the fact that it rocks harder certainly isn't going to cause me to subtract points. This is some of the most aggressive and blues rock I've ever had the pleasure of hearing, with the guys absolutely beating the hell out of their respective instruments. In addition, Alison really seems to have hit her stride on this album - she has a real edge to her performance that sells the songs even when the lyrics might be lacking. As good as the Stripes were, this group is looking like it has the potential to become Jack's greatest project.
Best Track: Die by the Drop
Rating: 8/10

Orphaned Land - The Never Ending Way of ORwarriOR
Six years removed from one of the best progressive metal albums of the past decade, my expectations for Orphaned Land's new album were absolutely sky high. While I don't think this one will go down in the history books like Mabool did, it is a very strong album in its own right. For the most part, this picks up right where their masterpiece left off - you'll be able to instantly recognize that blend of mid-paced death metal, middle eastern folk and insanely awesome vocal melodies from the moment "Sapari" starts. Be warned, Orphaned Land do not take their music lightly - as such, their albums are epics and made up of exceedingly dense material. An initial listen will not reveal the true quality of this album, an attentive ear is key. The production by Steven Wilson is also worthy of note, the album sounds incredible.
Best Track: Sapari
Rating: 8/10

Enslaved - Axioma Ethica Odini
I must admit that Vertebrae had me very scared about the future of this band as they seemed to be taking a step too far into the prog/psychedelic rock arena, abandoning black metal and along with it, much of what made them a truly great band to begin with. Suffice to say, my fears have been calmed for the most part. While this album is certainly not a return to the pure black metal of Vikingligr Veldi or Frost, no one expected that. No, it seems that the band has taken the lessons they learned from Vertebrae and has incorporated the better parts into something more akin to Isa or Ruun. Still not my favorite era of Enslaved's sound, but one I like much more than the weak and muddled path they seemed they might have gotten lost on after the last album. A wonderful return to form and probably the second best "comeback" album of the year in my book.
Best Track: Ethica Odini
Rating: 8/10

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Album of the Year: 2010 - The Middle of the Road

Angra - Aqua
About on par with their previous album, Angra once again manages to fall short of the bar they set with 2004's Temple of Shadows. The material is fairly solid overall, but it never achieves anything greater than slightly above average. A pleasant enough listen, but nothing sticks with you afterward. Another problem this album faces is the production - prog/power metal like this calls out for a rich, syrupy sound; however, this album sounds a bit too thin and crystal-clear. Shard of ice rather than a torrent of water, if you will. Fans of the genre should enjoy this, but there are much better examples out there - even in Angra's own catalogue.
Best Track: Arising Thunder
Rating: 6/10

Electric Wizard - Black Masses
Increased psychedelic rock influence, a faster overall pace and more focus on leads and vocals - certainly not bad things in and of themselves, but in the context of Electric Wizard's established sound they represent cracks in the foundation. Dopethrone, Let Us Prey, Come My Fanatics... etc. are hulking beasts made of stoner doom riffs, slowly heaving their way through layers of fuzz and static. Black Masses stacks up as a featherweight among heavyweights when viewed alongside the rest of Electric Wizard's monolithic catalogue - despite the fact that it is still a fairly solid record.
Best Track: Satyr IX
Rating: 6/10

City of Satellites - Machine is My Animal
Part shoegaze, part dream pop - this shows flashes of great promise but ultimately falls a bit short. The problem is that, despite being similar in goal, the two genres have a fairly different way of getting there - fuzzy haze versus smooth and shiny tones. I believe it is possible to mix these to great success; however, City of Satellites approach often tends to neuter both sides, leaving us with a muddled style. Shoegaze reverb disturbing the dream pop sheen which in turn stifles the rock energy when it tries to emerge. It seems the kids just aren't hitting it off here.
Best Track: BMX
Rating: 6/10

Enforcer - Diamonds
If you are looking for originality, I would certainly advise looking elsewhere. This is retro heavy metal done by the book, line for line. You've heard every riff, every lead, every gang vocal a thousand times before - but they've done their homework and gotten it right. If nothing else, this album is an incredibly fun listen. The tracks are reasonably varied, despite not being particularly original, and are all extremely well performed. One thing is for sure, Olof "Enforcer" Wikstrand would sound right at home amongst the top wailers of the 80's.
Best Track: Roll the Dice
Rating: 6/10

Briton Rites - For Mircalla
Traditional doom metal that basically plays like Witchfinder General worship? Should be good for a spin or two. You can basically take the review right above this, swap any references to "heavy metal" with "doom metal" and you'll not be far off. Once again, a very well executed retro/worship album, but not a whole lot in the way of originality. At over an hour is starts to drag a bit, but the material is generally strong enough to overcome that problem. If you're suffering severe doom withdrawal symptoms, I can prescribe this album - it's not a cure, but it should satiate your immediate cravings.
Best Track: Vampire Hunter, 1600
Rating: 6/10

Barren Earth - Curse of the Red River
The problem with supergroups is that many fans of the individual members tend to build up utterly unreachable expectations and doom the project to fail from the start. I must admit that I probably fall into this category in regards to this particular release - with members from Amorphis, Moonsorrow, Kreator and Swallow the Sun coming together, how could it not be incredible? By being passable, but wholly unremarkable melodic death metal. Sure, there are some very cool passages here and there - but nothing compared to the earth-shattering material the mind conjures when glancing through the lineup.
Best Track: Curse of the Red River
Rating: 6/10

The Black Keys - Brothers
The album is a bit overlong and gets pretty thin during the second half, but the first fifteen minutes put some fantastic blues rock front and center. Much like their fellow two-piece garage rockers, The White Stripes, this band really excels when they pare down their sound to its most simple, straightforward roots. This is the case during the first five tracks - simple, rocking riffs and some of the band's best vocals equate to a very enjoyable opening act. Unfortunately, they start to lose their way after that - meandering, experimenting and generally losing the listener's attention. They might very well end up running away with the "Most Original Album Art of the Year" award though.
Best Track: Tighten Up
Rating: 6/10

Asteroid - II
Some nice retro-sounding stoner rock on a moderate dosage of psychedelics, this album is just missing something to kick it to the next level for me. I think one thing that prevents the album from sticking in my mind is the guitar tone. Something about the guitar leaves me with an impression of it being soft and rounded, rather than having the edge needed to really drive these riffs home. Another problem I have is that the album shows a consistent, if only slight, decline in quality from beginning to end - this doesn't really generate a desire for repeat listens.
Best Track: Garden
Rating: 6/10

Wuthering Heights - Salt
This is no Far From the Madding Crowd, but even on an off-album, Wuthering Heights are still leagues ahead of many of their contemporaries in the power metal scene. The musicianship is as excellent as ever, guitars and keys complementing each other exceedingly well and creating a lush canvas for Johansson's vocals. The vocal performance itself is also fantastic; however, the lyrics seem to have taken a step down in quality and the choruses in particular feel weak on this album. One of the best things that power metal generally has going for it are the fantastic sing-along choruses - take those away and the entire product is weakened significantly.
Best Track: The Field
Rating: 7/10

Gravity - Midnight Sonata
Gravity have shown on their first two recordings that they have the chops to play with the big boys in prog rock/metal and the good sense to show some restraint when needed. On this album they display yet another important characteristic that shows their maturation as musicians - cohesiveness. More than either of their prior releases, Midnight Sonata sounds like a single entity rather than a collection of songs. The guitar and keys are both up to the challenge of taking center stage and both really soar as they trade riffs and leads. Some great material here that will only get better as the band further refine their sound.
Best Track: Nightmare Sonata
Rating: 7/10

Ares Kingdom - Incendiary
This is the second album from the death/thrash outfit and shows some signs of a sophomore slump. The slump is certainly not in the execution of the guitar work as the tone, riffs and solos are as excellent as the debut. My only complaint in that department might be that they are slightly less focused than on the debut, though that certainly is more the fault of the songwriting itself rather than the actual guitarwork. Not much here that we didn't hear in the 80's/90's from bands like Possessed and those that followed in their footsteps - but that doesn't take away from the fact that this album is really fun and will certainly start your head banging.
Best Track: Gathering the Eagles
Rating: 7/10

Ludicra - The Tenant
Melodic and melancholy, Ludicra have managed to establish their own unique black metal aesthetic without resorting to outrageous gimmicks. The lead work on this album is wonderful and the sense of loneliness and abandonment are quite strong. A bit less consistent than the albums that came before, The Tenant hits its low point in the center of the album, but the songs coming before and after "The Undercaste" are easily strong enough to cover for this weak point. While I would rate their other albums a bit higher, this really does nothing to tarnish their track record.
Best Track: Truth Won't Set You Free
Rating: 7/10

Alter Bridge - III
When it comes to "radio rock" these days it seems that Alter Bridge and Shinedown are pretty much alone in their competition for the top spot. After The Sound of Madness, it looked like Shinedown had taken a convincing lead, but Alter Bridge apparently isn't going down without a fight. Just as good if not a touch better than Blackbird, III's only offense is that at over an hour it can get a bit same-y. Fortunately, that just means that it is consistently above average. You'd probably do best taking these mid-paced rockers in small doses, but they really are very good. Can Scott Stapp be gone for good now, Mark? Please?
Best Track: Isolation
Rating: 7/10