Sabaton – The Great War


There exists a certain kind of terrible album. Not just albums that are bad or annoying, but albums whose core concepts and ideas are so fundamentally idiotic and broken that they were always going to fail. Albums that are so thin on anything worth engaging with on any level that they aren’t even worth deep, genuine consideration in the way most albums, no matter how bad they may be, are. The Great War is one such album; not only is it terrible, but it is a flat out non-starter. Just spelling out what it is at its core perfectly sums up why this is the case – it’s a bombastic, cheesy, formulaic pop/power metal concept album about the horrors of the First World War. There is no possible way a concept like that could ever have been executed right, it is that bad of an idea right out of the gate, an idea so bad that any attempt at will not only sound mindblowingly stupid and self-defeating, but also genuinely repugnant and difficult to listen to. Of course, this is nothing new for Sabaton, with much of their back catalogue focusing on the topic of war (with their last few albums being concept albums) and their music as of late tending towards the safer side of power metal, but it’s really with this album that their schtick finally rubbed me the wrong way enough to talk about it.

As stated, on a musical level this is not a significant departure for the band, which is a very big problem when The Last Stand was one of the most formulaic, sterile and tepid metal albums of 2016. In fact, this album sounds nigh indistinguishable from their last album, not just in style but in the individual ideas used, and thus the flaws of that album carry over too. The guitarwork, a seemingly endless series of the chord progressions we’ve heard before with not much punch or weight to them with not many riffs in sight, is one of many problems that plagued their last album and it’s just as big of a problem here. The marching, mid-paced drum beats across the album are a similar story; they all sound incredibly similar and get tiresome very quickly. The synths too like last time, are just layered and layered and largely bury the guitars in a wall of generic, uninteresting and flat-out annoying bombast. The production is of course incredibly glossy and sands whatever edge was left from the instrumentation, giving it a level of sheen reserved for a pop album, one that would doubtless be 400x better than anything on display here. All the songs follow the same predictable verse-chorus structure, and there are basically no twists and turns to be found in the performances or the writing. Pretty much the only saving grace are the vocals, which are gruff but can still carry a good melody; not something you hear very often, and it is appreciated here.

Of course, all of this by itself would make for an album that is pretty terrible, but not absolutely useless and loathsome. The problem is that this entire musical foundation has been built up to serve this idiotic concept; not just the specific WWI theme going on with this album, but the general approach to music Sabaton has had for years now, where they write this bland, sugary music to set lyrics about real life conflict to. Any positive statements one could make about the music – a catchy hook or melody here and there, the vocals, the general competence of the entire arrangement – are rendered entirely moot as it is nigh impossible to derive any enjoyment from them when put into the context of the album. And of course, the flaws become far more annoying when viewed through this lens, as how safe and boring and dolled up the music really is just feels so out of place. This highlights the ultimate issue with the album really – Sabaton do not and have never had the tact or investment to give the topics they cover the respect and proper context they deserve; their music for quite a while now has sounded like pure glorification of the conflicts they cover. Setting lyrics about real people in real conflicts that ended and ruined real lives, lyrics that try to convey the horrors of war but just end up glorifying battle and ‘our heroes’ to this Disney metal is… disgusting. And this is not me saying that every album about war has to be this grim, pulverising extreme metal opus; there are many straightforward trad metal bands that have covered war successfully, but their music has actual bite, tact, substance and grit to it, be it in the performances, the song and lyric writing, the production, the atmosphere etc. – all of which Sabaton’s music entirely lacks.

And then one has to consider not just Sabaton’s general schtick, but how it manifests on this album, where they chose to write about the First World War. One of the most grim, dark, bloody conflicts in all of human history. A conflict that until recently had people that survived to recount it. A conflict started by imperialist powers that did not like one another and were willing to forcibly sacrifice millions of their own men (and many more men from societies they colonised and brutalised) to settle their differences. A conflict that ancestors of myself (as British subjects in India) and my friends would have fought in and/or lived through; I’m sure many reading can say the same. It is a conflict that for these reasons strikes a real chord with me emotionally (I found 1917 to be a tearjerker.) This is the conflict and Sabaton decided to focus in on, and due to their tactlessness and detachment when making music on this matter they end up glorifying it all. And despite how detached these songs and the band members themselves may seem from the conflicts they write about, their entire schtick is anything but apolitical, as intentional or not, whitewashed, uncritical stuff like this basically entirely feeds into the glorification of the military and war that is so prevalent across many societies and a lot of history. I cannot assess the personal character of the band here; they certainly seem interested in war and well-read, but no matter how they feel about the topic the songs they end up writing just turn into these jolly singalongs that glorify some of the darkest points in human history, with seemingly no self-awareness. There is no grit or fire or ugliness to the presentation of it all, rendering this entire package to be the equivalent of casting Will Ferrell as the lead in 1917 and scoring it with that cutesy ukulele stock music we’ve all heard a billion times; it’s an absurd album that is revolting in how disrespectful it is. It is truly detestable and without question the worst metal album of the previous decade.

Lest We Forget.

Rating: 0%

Mastodon – Remission

‘Coals under foot, burst into flames…’ 

Given how much of their career Mastodon have spent refining, polishing, smoothing out and mellowing out their sound, it’s pretty jarring going from any of their post-Crack the Skye material to anything they before that album. That said even sticking to their early career, this still sounds wild and unhinged next to the still much more refined Leviathan, say. Remission is the sound of a hungry and ambitious band with a decent amount of experience on their respective instruments, and in many ways is a peak performance in their lengthy career. It’s not quite their best album overall but it easily contains a lot of their best moments, songs, performances, etc. and still stands as a landmark album for both sludge metal and metal as a whole.

At this point in their career, Mastodon played a heavy as hell sludge metal sound that they’d already displayed on their previous material, and they really turn it up a notch here and continue to do their sound justice, with the music being even better crafted and performed and some new ideas being attempted. Remission‘s tracks can be sorted into one of two groups according to their songwriting style – the first consists of generally shorter, more energetic groove/sludge numbers that are essentially a denser, more chaotic and refined version of what was present on their early demos and EPs. The other half meanwhile consists of the longer, more melodic and drawn out progressive/sludge metal numbers with more mellow acoustic/lead-driven sections and sparser vocals. What’s consistent throughout the album though is its production, which sounds amazing. The drum kit sounds thunderous and full, the guitar tone is very dense, thick and big, the overall sound of the album is polished and rich and heavy but not too even as to prevent instruments from bleeding together a bit or sanding the music of its abrasion, and the mix lets everything come through clearly. It’s another obvious step up from their pre-album material which sounded pretty good but does not compare to the professional and monstrous presentation here.

There are other elements consistent to both types of song here, one of them being the vocals, which are performed by bassist Troy Sanders and guitarist Brent Hinds. The vocals here are perhaps the strongest of any Mastodon album; while they are inherently less varied as little clean singing is utilised here, the beefy hardcore barks throughout the album are still commanding, aggressive, rapid-fire and powerful, standing up to the grinding, and crushing heaviness of the instrumentation behind them. And then of course there is the drumming, which is probably the most famous aspect of Mastodon’s earlier career; hearing these songs, it’s easy to see why. Brann’s drumming is absolutely frantic; these songs are machine-gunned with bouts of showboating fills and other assorted flashy techniques and patterns. He doesn’t forget his role as the timekeeper and rhythmic skeleton of the music of course; and that’s perhaps the best thing about his performance. In spite of the technical flair he manages to roll all of his fills into the framework of the music, meaning the drums and guitars never fit together awkwardly as he never throws off the timing of his drumming. Rather than taking away from the music he only adds to the cacophony, dynamics and chaos of the music by interspersing his more restrained moments with fill after fill. For this reason I think it’s incorrect to say Brann has no restraint or taste, as I find his drumming in general to be far more tastefully applied than say, Derek Roddy’s unending blasting or the constant double bass of some power metal drummers.

As stated, the shorter songs here are very dense and somewhat chaotic; they’re not overtly technical, speedy, dissonant or noisy in the way mathcore or grindcore can be but there is still an emphasis on frequent change-ups in the riffs and drums. The aforementioned excellent drumming from Brann is especially notable on these tracks; he really adds a lot to the chaos, flow and tension of these tracks with his flashy yet tasteful performance. The riffs meanwhile are crushingly heavy, groovy, rapid and percussive with just an undercurrent of melody, locking in perfectly with the drums – from the instantaneously memorable grooves of ‘Crusher Destroyer’ and ‘March of the Fire Ants’ (note also the latter’s beautiful melodic break halfway through) to the churning of ‘Where Strides the Behemoth’ to the choppy thrashing of ‘Burning Man’, a great majority of the guitarwork here hits much harder and is much more memorable than what was on their older material. The riffs really anchor and drive these songs forward, ensuring they become and remain some of most memorable and exciting songs of their entire career, as well as the stronger set of songs on the album.

The lengthier tracks here are slower, more patient, droning, atmospheric and progressive – and they’re easily the less exciting breed of song here, even though they are more indicative of their later direction. Whether in isolation or in the context of the album, they’re merely solid as opposed to absolutely stunning; they’re nice enough while on but they definitely drag the momentum of the more energetic songs down once they start. The rhythm section on these songs is a lot more restrained; the riffs are less technical and choppy, being of the more pure and drawn out sludge variety than anything groovy or thrashy. Brann’s drumming is a lot more measured on these songs with fills coming far less frequently and his beats in general being slower to match the slower pacing. They’re still some of the better lengthy songs they’ve written however; with the crushing sludge riffs aided by the big guitar sound driving the songs forward more than anything from Crack the Skye, and the all too sparingly used vocals and technical drumming going with the riffing nicely. Also of note are the more melodic leads and acoustic guitars found in them (this is especially prominent during ‘Elephant Man’.) These elements being worked into songs alongside their sludgy sound is predictive of what would come to fruition on Blood Mountain and are some of the better moments on the album in general. That said, it’s clear from these songs and most of their later albums that restraint is absolutely not what Mastadon are good at; that the best songs here are no holds barred bangers that throw everything at the wall is not a coincidence.

Despite the inconsistent quality and flow of the tracklist, this is still overall a great album and one of the band’s best. The drumming, riffing and vocals are some of the best performances the band would ever churn out, and this still has the best production of any of their albums. The shorter songs are some of their best tracks ever and the longer songs, while weaker, are still pretty good and at least show a band that was willing to try new things and vary up their music. They’re also proof that they needn’t flush the quality of their music down the toilet by trading in uncompromising heaviness for progression and atmosphere, something they would learn on the next two albums and seemingly unlearn in the years following those. All that aside, this is a very good album; a sludge metal classic that should be heard a few times by any metal fan.

Rating: 90%

Triptykon – Eparistera Daimones

Excessive, uninspired and misguided

Monotheist was the unexpected second wind in Tom G. Warrior’s lengthy and storied career – a peerless, bold and unique album from one of metal’s most influential and iconic artists. But with internal tensions splintering Celtic Frost, it was destined to be a singular flash in the pan, a one-off that stood as an incredible epitaph but also a comeback story being cut tragically short. That is, until Tom came roaring back into the spotlight with Triptykon and this album, a new project made to keep the momentum built up on Monotheist going. It’s a third wind of sorts, and at the time must have seemed like a truly rousing second comeback. The presentation of the album – the absolutely maximalist production, its roaring opener, even the H.R. Giger cover art which is of course a subtle nod to Tom’s glory days – only furthered this feeling, and at the time it must have been a truly exciting development in metal to see a veteran artist come back with something so vital and world-destroying; not only had Tom seemingly lived up to Monotheist, he’d even exceeded it – or so many of us thought.

However, as the years have drawn on and the dust has settled, I can’t help but feel this album sounds a lot less spectacular than when it was first released. I wasn’t around at the time to listen to it so I can’t say for sure, and this album’s extremely strong performance in MA’s end of decade poll is strong evidence to the contrary, but nevertheless once I’d actually grown acclimatised to Tom’s Monotheist era sound, that album and this album’s successor Melana Chasmata have both risen to be some of my favourite metal albums ever made. This on the other hand, never really reached those heights for me. It’s absolutely a decent, extremely professional and laboured over album, but it falls far short of the bar set by Monotheist. And with the release of Melana Chasmata, I think the flaws of this album are more evident than ever – indeed, directly contrasting that album’s musical contents, presentation, overall ethos and goals with this one’s pretty clearly illustrates where Tom missed the mark here.

A rundown of the style here is necessary of course, especially as it is a very unique one even after all these years. First employed on Monotheist and extended through longer, more winding songs and a more extreme tinge with Triptykon, Tom’s particular brand of goth/doom is one that really reduces the guitarwork and metal in general down to a very simple, primal state, and then amplifying the entire affair to galactic proportions. The riffs consist of gigantic, crushing yet catchy chords and grooves played through with a mind-bendingly big and heavy guitar sound played across lengthy compositions that are draped in a suffocatingly thick, dark and gothic atmosphere. Tom’s vocals range from croons to wails to whines to barks to growls, all the while deeply impassioned, pained and tortured. Subtle flourishes such as horns, pianos and strings round off and embellish a sound that is absolutely gigantic in presentation and heavily focused on sheer atmosphere, emotional weight, guitar texture, compositional power and of course crushing heaviness. What results is a one-of-a-kind, terrifyingly dark, deceptively complex and multi-faceted sound that is the sound of metal’s most basic elements animated with the most potent occult magic.

The biggest overall problem with the album is the mentality that Tom was working under when making this album, or at least the mentality that can be inferred from the various creative decisions here. To put it simply, this album is striving to be ‘Monotheist but more’, because at every turn it’s obvious that Tom is striving to outdo his immense efforts on that album, which really harms the finished product in numerous ways. This is so apparent that it’s perfectly represented just by contrasting the different guitar tones used on the three albums, which are vital components to the style employed as it is so driven by texture and atmosphere. While on every album they sound absolutely massive, truly heavy and crushing, there is a distinction to be made between the smoother, heavier, more percussive sound on Monotheist and the thinner, crunchier and even more textured sound on Melana Chasmata. On this album however, he goes for exactly the same tone as Monotheist‘s but louder. This really does encapsulate the differences between the three; the elder and younger siblings are subtly different beasts in their own right, while the middle child here seeks to ape and outdo the elder with no subtlety to speak of. The production in general is very much in line with this as well – Monotheist was loud and polished but the music was still spacious and everything came through great, while Melana in general sounds a bit thinner and tighter to make the entire arrangement a bit more visceral and direct. This album meanwhile just sounds like Monotheist but even louder – the guitars, drums, bass, all of it – and critically a lot more cluttered. The drums take up more space than they need to, and the resulting lack of clarity makes the music less nuanced and a bit messy as the instruments start to bleed together a bit too much. On first impact – as in, once ‘Goetia’ first bursts into life – it sounds even more extreme and insane than its predecessor but 11 minutes and one track in it simply gets tiresome, never mind the numbness felt when the 70 minute mark is reached.

Compounding the issue of less dynamic production is that the album as a whole isn’t varied nearly as much or as successfully as those other two albums. Monotheist and Melana Chasmata both have numerous softer, more tender and emotional tracks all over them. They serve to spice up the album with some eclecticism and break up the tracklist’s doom metal crushers and make them all the more impactful by enhancing the atmosphere of the album as a whole and preventing the listener from growing numb to them due to an overwhelmingly heavy tracklist, as 75+ minutes of this sort of material would do to anyone. On this album however, the only softer moments present are the first half of ‘In Shrouds Decayed’, the sub 2 minute interlude ‘Shrine’, the piano break on ‘Myopic Empire’ and the 5 minute ambient interlude ‘My Pain’. These moments are a smaller fraction of the runtime compared to the other album’s softer moments, and they still don’t achieve much of what those other moments did. While they are a much needed break for the listener, these are honestly some of the least interesting moments on the album and routinely just grind things to a halt instead of carrying over the tension from the heavier songs like those other albums could. ‘Shrine’ is nondescript ambient filler that never amounts to anything significant, and while ‘My Pain’ has more meat on the bone in the form of vocals and more instrumental layers it still feels like an extended interlude and not a full song. Meanwhile the first half in ‘In Shrouds Decayed’ is Tom talking over reverby clean guitars that isn’t interesting at all, and the break in ‘Myopic Empire’ is a bizarre artefact that betrays the Monotheist era’s origins in the infamous Prototype demo. It’s also an unfitting and unnecessary tonal shift that kneecaps the song; this should have been a kink that was worked out of the song in the 8 years it took to see a proper studio release.

The failures of these quieter moments are smaller examples of a couple of other major problems that really, really bring the album down. The first of them is that the material written for this album simply isn’t as strong as what was presented on the other two albums. For all the extremity implied in the production, most of the material here is a lot more plain than anything on Monotheist or Melana Chasmata, heavy or soft. The softer moments of ‘In Shrouds Decayed’ fall totally flat unlike the moody, forlorn but still tense verses of ‘Boleskine House’. ‘Synagoga Satanae’ is a nightmarish and terrifying journey while ‘The Prolonging’ is a slog. There are no truly memorable and visceral grooves or riffs here like on ‘Domain of Decay’, ‘Breathing’ or ‘Tree of Suffocating Souls’, nor is there much catchy, flashy or dynamic drumming like on ‘Aurorae’ or ‘Black Snow’. With a handful of exceptions, none of the tracks here stand up in any way to their counterparts from the other two albums. In the pursuit of ‘Monotheist but more’, Tom has Flanderised his sound on this album and stripped it of subtle yet essential elements like tension building, hooks, and generating atmosphere, all in the name of extremity – and all that’s led to is an album that is viscerally appealing on first impact when it’s loud (but mostly doesn’t stand up to repeated listening or as the album wears on) with some half-hearted, boring breaks along the way that grind the album to a halt instead of keeping the tension and energy up. The only times this album truly succeeds and stands up to those other albums in terms of the material being played is the aforementioned barnstorming opener ‘Goetia’ (which remains one of Tom’s best songs ever) and the devilishly simple ‘Shatter’ which is on par with ‘A Dying God Coming Into Human Flesh’ and ‘Aurorae’ for how ingeniously it uses such simple elements to make an incredible song.

The second problem is related to the first: a distinct lack of an atmosphere, which is a massive problem given how much atmosphere is integral to this sound. Critically, both albums that bookend this one have extremely strong atmospheres generated from the music that are very distinct from one another. The way I hear it, Monotheist is this inhuman force of nature. It’s the equivalent of taking a vacuum or the void, somehow giving it mass and density and blowing it up to be the size of a galaxy. Listening to it is staring into an abyss totally devoid of light – you know something is there because you can feel it in and all around you, but you can’t see anything. The sole human voice in the album is Tom’s vocals; which are the whines, wails, groans and shouts of a weary old man who has spent aeons wandering this abyss as it torments him – the instrumentation (critically, the massive guitars) being the calls from the abyss doing just that. Melana Chasmata with its thinner, crunchier guitars, less spacious sound and more ragged, strained vocals leads to an album that feels a lot more human and direct. Instead of being this inhuman force of nature that is all around us, it’s a decayed and occult darkness that originates in our minds, as exemplified by the miserable introspection of ‘Aurorae’, the sheer resentment of ‘Altar of Deceit’ or Tom’s utterly tragic, pathetic whines and growls into the night over a lost loved one’s memories tormenting him on ‘In the Sleep of Death’. On the other hand, this has no feeling to speak of to me – apart from the impassioned rage of ‘Goetia’ and the catchy and entrancing ‘Shatter’, this is all a load of loud noise that is viscerally appealing but leaves no lasting impact, or boring quiet parts that break up the album a bit but also kill the energy of the album and aren’t atmospheric at all. By trying to be ‘Monotheist but more’, the essential nature of that album’s atmosphere, along with the need to balance beauty with brutality and integrating quieter moments into the album’s flow properly is completely lost in favour of being really loud and aggressive. It’s a truly tragic regression that harms most of the album’s ability to stand up to repeated listening, as the initial excitement of the heaviness of the song wears off and it becomes a load of excessive and meaningless noise.

With all these problems in mind another more minor issue becomes apparent – the length of the songs themselves. Taken as a whole and with bonus track ‘Shatter’ in tow this album is about as long as its siblings (77 minutes for this album vs. 75 for Melana and 80 for Monotheist) but while its predecessor had 14 full length tracks and its successor had 10, this only has 9 (discounting the short interlude ‘Shrine’) – so the songs here on average are a fair bit longer. It’s simply too much to hit a listener with an 11 minute rager of an opener in ‘Goetia’ and a near 20 minute crushing penultimate song in ‘The Prolonging’ and then for the rest of the album to be so overwhelmingly heavy and also not that interesting or varied. All of this said, one will note that my score still lies on the positive side of 50%, indicating that I still enjoyed this album in spite of these numerous flaws, because there are many things to appreciate here. For instance, taking one or two of the heavier songs in isolation shows that the material is a cut above most metal out there, with all the performances being top notch (Tom’s vocals and lyrics in particular) and the songwriting being generally solid, even if on these fronts they still fall short compared to anything from this album’s siblings. Messiness aside the production is certainly very high grade and far above most metal out there, and the presentation and aesthetics of these songs is incredibly grand and larger than life. The problem is that consumed as a pack and put into the context of Tom’s career, this is a very underwhelming album.

To my mind, Celtic Frost splintering was a minor setback; Tom was not going to be stopped from carrying on what he started on Monotheist. Rather than the band’s breakup potentially killing the momentum that album generated, I’d wager that *this* album is what did that, being an excessive, uninspired and misguided facsimile of what came before it. It’s not up to the standard of what came before or after it; in the pursuit of surface level, visceral extremity Tom wrote out all of the essential nuances that made those other albums so great. Melana Chasmata is Tom’s true third wind; it’s a recovery from this sophomore slump, the truly worthy successor to Monotheist on a quality level, and a genuine evolution of that album’s sound by being closely related to it stylistically yet still being its own unique beast. I realise I’m probably alone on my opinion of this album but still; I’d encourage anyone curious about this era of Tom’s career to check out Monotheist and Melana before this, maybe giving this one a chance afterwards if you can’t get enough of this sound. If you checked this one out first and were disappointed, give those other two albums a shot as they’re much better.

Rating: 60%

In Flames – Clayman (Re-Recorded)

Inconceivably worthless

Rarely does a band re-recording their older studio material go well. There are instances where it makes sense of course; wanting to give older material the benefit of new production, wanting to re-interpret the material within the framework of a different style, wanting to show off a new vocalist who was substantially different to the one who performed on the old material, and so on – all of these cases would produce re-recordings that have a purpose by serving a need the original could not provide, even if it turns out ultimately redundant and inferior to the original. This however has no reason to exist at all, being a note-for-note rehash of Clayman‘s title track that adds nothing whatsoever to the original song. Every change made here is one for the worse, and what few positives this track does have is carried over from the original and has nothing to do with this version specifically.

The production, which on Clayman was and continues to be a gold standard for modern metal, is not copied or improved upon here. The thunderous sound of the drums, the slick and heavy guitars, the vocal layering, precisely none of that is present. Instead, the band chooses to use a remarkably weak and pacified production style, as if it was a practice session for a bar band. Sure it’s still slick and what not but it sounds so much limper than the old song, lacking a lot of the low end, volume and punch the music had and robbing the music of a lot of its original power. The instrumentation sounds lifeless and lacks weight and frankly even by the standards of an average modern metal recording, let alone the original song, this completely fails to cut the mustard.

The instrumentation is performed 100% faithfully – while many would see this as a good thing I believe it serves only to make this recording more redundant than it otherwise would have been. Later In Flames traded its layered guitar harmonies for increased keyboard presence, but the band doesn’t even choose to adapt the song into their more modern formula – while this wouldn’t have made it better it’d at least give it somewhat more of a reason to exist, instead of being a facsimile that pales in every conceivable way to the original. And then there are the vocals; Anders Fridén has generally never been a particularly good vocalist, harsh or clean, but at least backed up with the massive production of Clayman and with some vocal layering, his growls and cleans fit with the instrumentation well and weren’t the focus of the song. Here, with its anaemic recording and unsuitable vocal mixing, all of his vocals are pushed to the forefront and as you would expect he doesn’t sound good at all. His growls sound weak and his cleans are as awkward and whimpering as ever, with his performance here really topping off how useless this entire endeavour is.

There are many failed re-recordings in metal – Let There Be Blood springs immediately to mind – but at least on that album Exodus wanted to give the original album heavier, modern production and show off a new vocalist that, while in the same lane as the the original, could still offer something different. As bad as that album is, at least it makes sense as to why Exodus chose to record it, and while I didn’t care for the changes made on that album, that can be put down to personal taste. This on the other hand is inconceivably worthless and devoid of any distinguishing positive characteristics – every change made on this version is objectively inferior to what was on the original, and the band do nothing to substantially change it in a way that could be seen as some sort of reinterpretation of the original. As bad as this band’s post-Clayman output is, they’re still better off sticking to what they’ve been doing for nearly 2 decades instead of pointlessly rehashing the past.

At least this should put to rest the delusion that this band will ever turn it around, because with all the lineup changes from their glory days it will never happen, as demonstrated here.

Rating: 0%

Serpent Column – Endless Detainment

Wars Waged in My Privates lol gottem

Look man I’m just gonna make this a short one.  I’m not reinvigorated by the Covid like most of you are, I’m alternating between pointlessly going to work anyway and spending a week at home being fidgety and annoyed at my housemates for simply existing.  I thought I was gonna review during this downtime to help keep myself sane, but it turns out I hate doing that too but dammit I’m gonna try FUCK

Serpent Column has been something of an underground sensation over the past few years, with Ornuthi Thalassa coming out of nowhere in 2017 to destroy listeners with the main dude whose name I can neither spell nor be bothered to look up’s signature brand of spiraling black/death intensity.  Since that debut their profile has only grown, with last year’s Mirror in Darkness managing to rank in the Top 30 across all genres on RYM, and the subject of this review, Endless Detainment, currently sitting at the pole position in the EP category for this year.

Each release has gotten more and more chaotic, and the current result of that ever-unfurling sonic degloving is an album so twisted that it eats nails and shits corkscrews.  There isn’t even really a thematic thruline I can use within the context of this review to help it make sense, because around every new turn in the music is a new ghoul, a new trap door, a new falling rock.  Everything is a trap and it’s a confusing and violent nightmare.  Take a look at “Arachnain”, likely the best example of this album’s utter distaste for the safe and familiar.  It starts off with the closest thing to a “normal” riff you’re going to find across the entire twentyish minutes of Endless Detainment, with a quick trill and a few chugs, you can’t help but feel like this is an illusion.  Nothing up to this point has been so simple and groovy.  After the whirlwind of broken glass that was “Violence Aesthete”, there’s no way Mr. Column even has the impulse control necessary to stick to something catchy.  And he doesn’t, because before you know it, that simple riff is accompanied by bass and percussion that feel juuuuust a bit wrong, and by the time you can likely comprehend what the interplay between al the instruments is supposed to be well surprise now you’re careening down Willy Wonka’s Boat Ride to Hell.

A lot of people around the ‘net (as the kids say) have been citing a huge uptick in influence from mathcore, particularly Dillinger Escape Plan.  I’m unprofessional as fuck and only have a surface level knowledge of what mathcore even is, so I’m just going to parrot that citation and hope it’s correct.  I can understand it from what little knowledge I have though, as “Pantheoclasm” sounds dangerously close to what genre purists accused Deathspell Omega of being when Circumspice first dropped.  That influence is definitely there, and the first handful of songs in a row all exemplify that sort of dutch-angled firing-squad of riffage, “Manure in Pearls” specifically being the one that crushes my brain the hardest.

I’ve forgotten how to review and I’m going to abuse my reputation to post this rambling bullshit anyway.  The point of all this is that Serpent Column is extremely good, and if you look outside of MA you can tell that it’s really catching on elsewhere.  Hopefully someday the largest and most historically important website for metal culture catches up, because this fucking rules. 

Rating: 88%

Lovebites – Battle Against Damnation

Just gimme a 1/3rd of an album pls

The first draft of this review opened with a lengthy thinking-aloud segment where I opined on how exploitative the idol industry treats women in the Far East, and how desperately I hoped that this wasn’t the case with the current wave of all-girl J-metal bands that have been sweeping the nation in recent years.  But before publishing, I (for once in my life) had the good sense to hold off on spouting Epstein Brain bullshit and actually just talk to some people who actually understand the culture in which these bands spawn and thrive.  The good news is that it isn’t nearly as cynical as I was dreading, with basically every one of these bands being a genuine creative effort from talented women who are seizing a cultural shift that sees the women of Japan no longer being demure and submissive, and using this newfound power to express themselves in ways they previously never really did.  The important one here, obviously, is forming metal bands.  Early progenitors of this specific wave like Aldious and Destrose helped pave the way for the Mary’s Blood’s of the world to break from their cultural chains to dress like cute anime girls while simultaneously ripping listeners to shreds with honest-to-god future metal classics without playing into dumbass pop stereotypes, which helps differentiate this scene from the more cynical marketing moves like Babymetal.  Of those early examples, my clear favorite is Destrose.  Not just because I had mostly found them on accident when doing a shallow dive into Touhou bands and actually reviewed their sole full length years ago before I really knew how much this scene was going to blow up, but because three of the best current bands in the style were all formed by former members.  We’ve got the steampunk fever dream of Fate Gear, the powerhouse of Mary’s Blood, and the deceptively dangerous power metal maniacs hiding behind a saccharine image (and the subject of this review), Lovebites.

The reason I so badly wanted the dystopian hellscape of idol culture to not hold sway over Lovebites is because they absolutely fucking rule.  I could’ve guessed that this band contained members of Destrose (the bassist and drummer, if you were curious) based entirely on the fact that the rhythm section here is equally as menacing and powerful as their previous band.  Lovebites tends to be, as a rule, less traditional and more power metal with regards to their songwriting when compared to their origins (apart from Clockwork Immortality, which (smartly) leans a bit more into AOR at parts, but this was (unfortunately) abandoned with Electric Pentagram), and as a result everything they write tends to be a fuckload faster.  Their sense of melody is completely awe inspiring, with breathtaking choruses peppering every song they’ve ever written and never shying away from an extended dueling guitar solo.

I’ve been speaking in generalities and not really focusing on the release at hand, so I suppose the question needs to be asked why I’m choosing to review their second EP, Battle Against Damnation, instead of any of their other myriad releases.  The reason is simple: this is basically the only release I ever really go back to and listen from front to back.  Lovebites is an incredible power metal band with a bewildering skill to weave between high speed rippers and melodic singalongs without ever delving into pop influence the way stereotypes would have you expect, but their three full length albums have enough material to fill out like four and a half LPs.  There is no reason for their albums to be as long as they are, especially when their songwriting so rarely deviates from their winning formula.  They don’t really fuck around with ballads or interludes, so their albums tend to be completely overwhelming due to the constant barrage of double bass and shredding.  Don’t get me wrong, I love double bass and shredding, but Battle Against Damnation is their strongest release entirely because they only assault me for 20 minutes instead of 70.

The EP kicks off with “The Crusade”, which I’d say often jockeys for the pole when it comes to deciding my favorite song they’ve written, despite (or maybe because of) the fact that it’s basically just a rewrite of Iron Maiden’s “Aces High” but even faster.  The other three tracks more or less stick to their “Galneryus meets Stratovarius with an injection of Megadeth” formula, but the fact that there’s only three of them is a huge boon to the release’s enjoyment.  That… really is the secret to Lovebites’s success I think, they just need to trim the fuckin’ fat and deliver their best cuts instead of bloating everything to absurd proportions.  “Break the Wall” and “Above the Black Sea” are completely dominating power/speed metal typhoons with balls-forward thrash gallops that could even make Persuader blush, and I’d say I want a full album of this but I already know what a full album would be like (totally overwhelming).

I know I keep harping on the length of their LPs and using that as a reason to say their EPs like this one are significantly better, but that’s honestly the truth.  Lovebites writes some absolutely thundering power metal with an impossibly meaty riffset underneath, complemented by powerful, soaring, and crystal clear vocals and absolutely fucking feral guitar solos, and they’re at their best here when they’re restricted and unable to do the same thing too many times in a row.  Just give me a quick, bite-sized morsel of your genius and then take a break.  To the Western Hemisphere folks who see the band of cute girls in white dresses with the word “love” in their name, absolutely do not sleep on Lovebites.  They will absolutely fuckin’ wreck your neck.

Rating: 89%

False – Portent

Thumbing my nose at the True Believers

(I’m not going to bother moving all 500+ of my reviews over here because I am a lazy man, but I’d like to herald my entrance to Review Lads with an album that I love that I also know Thumbman hates.)

If Bell Witch can be held responsible for anything at all, it’s introducing the metal world to Mariusz Lewandowski, apparently the only human being in the galaxy capable of accurately emulating Zdzislaw Beksinski’s iconic art style. Since painting the stunning cover of the aforementioned Mirror Reaper, this nearly sixty year old painter has suddenly found himself one of the most in-demand artists in the entire metal sphere, and one of the bands that won the Lewandowski Lottery this year was Minnesota’s False, a band finding itself scrutinized fairly hard by those in the know. This midwestern sextet seems almost lab grown in how they hit every single nerve when it comes to soaking up alternative press adoration as the token “metal band we’ll allow ourselves to like”. Gorgeous cover art, female vocalist, pristine production quality, easy to absorb and understand music, inspiration from modern styles of metal, signed to Gilead (home of Smart Person BM heavyweights like Yellow Eyes, Mizmor, Falls of Rauros, and Krallice (and previously Fantano mainstays like Imperial Triumphant and Thou)), they blacked out the Internet Metal Journalist bingo card before a note was even heard. I can absolutely understand the skepticism from the underground when a band hits a meteoric rise like False did when every single element seems like the closest thing to an industry plant that metal can muster.

However, sometimes the Hipster Hype Train gets it right. Maybe, just maybe, it was purely by accident/coincidence that False has all of those aesthetic bits that made them media darlings so quickly (though it may be worth noting that they’ve existed for nearly ten years without a lineup change before finally hitting it big with their sophomore release here), because none of that shit should even matter in the first place, and allowing it to cloud your judgment of the album obscures some fantastic songwriting.

I’d be lying if I said Portent was something radically new or unique, but I’d also be lying if I said this was a shamelessly derivative copypasta. It’s pretty close to impossible to listen to any random snippet of this album and not be reminded of Emperor’s full lengths from the 90s, but their personal twist on it is that they’re paradoxically hypermaximalist while taking heaps of influence from drawn out minimalist atmoblack of the Cascadian variety. It’s no secret that I love overly busy maximalism, I am one of the last dudes still loving obnoxious tech death after all, and I think putting such an idea into the context of extremely lengthy and atmospheric black metal creates a sound that should be a total disaster but somehow works marvelously. For example, synths are featured on the album, but they’re never “prominent” in the sense that they’re carrying the melody. They’re settled back playing simple chords to accent the atmosphere, unlike the Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk style of hammering you over the head with doodly melodies. The guitar instead takes the lead when it comes to these things, and they restrain themselves only insofar as they aren’t playing shredding Yngwie Malmsteen arpeggios, because they’re doing everything else they can to be the star of the show here. Occasional bursts of major key triumph pepper the landscape laid out on Portent, and they never let these moments go by without drawing attention to them. Take a look at the 3:37 mark in “A Victual for Our Dead Selves”. That right there is an abrupt shift in mood from slow, agonizing death into a bombastic victory fanfare, and it’s done without a reliance on tooting keys at all. It’s just pure, unadulterated, fist pumping metal slicing through the darkness.

Almost all of the buzz surrounding the album, positive and negative, has done well to describe the music accurately, with the only real difference being the qualitative assessment thereof. If you don’t like the idea of especially busy atmoblack, then False was never going to appeal to you to begin with, and that’s fine. For me though, this is superb. Imagine Wolves in the Throne Room or Altar of Plagues except the drums almost never slowing down and the melodies less floating in the upper spaces and more being shot out of a bazooka. Portent is forceful in its expressiveness, very much taking background elements and exploding them into the foreground. My only real complaints are ultimately pretty nitpicky, those being that the vocals aren’t nearly as impressive as the rest of the band and “The Serpent Sting, the Smell of Goat” is 100% just two separate songs smashed together, complete with fifteen seconds of silence between the two halves. It’s such an oddly pointless thing to do and I wonder if somebody insisted that every song needed to be over ten minutes or else the album wasn’t getting released. Pure speculation, but whoever had that idea is a doofus.

So the hype train took a stop in Minnesota and picked up False, but I’m happily hanging onto the caboose like a filthy transient, pumping my fist and hooting the whole way. Portent just hammers you over the head with riff after riff after melody after riff and I adore it. Maybe it’s overbearing for those who can’t stop huffing the fumes of burning ravens and slashing their wrists with their bullet belts, but for those of you who, like me, wished atmoblack as a scene would stop pumping out so much drawn out mediocrity and finally let something fucking happen for a change, Portent is a godsend.

Rating: 94%

Munarheim – Willens & Frei

Hokiest shit you’ll hear all year

If the combination of the goofball renaissance fair style band pic, that they have nine musicians including two flautists, and the fact that they play folk metal while being from Southern Germany isn’t a massive red flag, I really don’t know what is. I only discovered this because I was obligated to listen to it for an internet thing, and this is hands down the lamest metal album I’ve heard all year. Everything about this is just so incredibly hokey. From the constant faux-bombast of the keyboards to the generic power metal leads, from the saccharine non-riffs to the corny choirs, this is a total cheesefest and has essentially nothing in the way of redeeming qualities.

A lot of the riffs are non-entities, existing solely to back up the Disney-esque keyboards. Many of them would also fit in with a flowery europower band, and I really don’t have much to say about them because I forget them the millisecond they’re over. The rhythm guitar is generally mixed fairly low in the mix, because the point of this is really the ever-present bombast-lite of the keyboards. The showy lead guitar is ripped out of the europower playbook and I’m not surprised – the intent here is the exact same as the cheesiest band of that ilk. The same can be said for the keyboards, which are really grating. Like virtually everything else with Munarheim, they exist to fulfill a self-conscious quest to sound “epic.” We could go on about the flutes, the cheesy choirs, the big kitschy choruses – but all you need to know is that Munarheim are the musical equivalent to a shoddily written young adult fantasy novel.

The most inexplicable ingredient in Munarheim’s saccharine mix is the vocals. You do have some clean vocals in the big dorky choruses, but most of what we get here are death growls. Does anything of what I’ve described about the band so far seem like something that would have death growls? I’m surprised too, but here we are. Do they work? The short answer is no. They feel incredibly out of place and I’m not sure what the rational for including them was. That said, I’ll take them over the cheesy falsetto abuse that often accompanies this sort of music.

Munarheim are the type of mega-cheese that could only gain traction in Germany (don’t get me wrong I love a lot of German black metal and the classic Krautrock scene had lots of cool stuff, the country just seems given to certain strains of cheesy metal). They essentially exist for the Wackencore circuit. You know how the preposterous campiness of Twilight Force comes off as Disney europower? In the very same manner, Munarheim come off like Disney folk metal. I’m running out of synonyms for corny here, so I’ll just end by saying this is the most aggressively lame metal I’ve heard all year.

Rating: 20%

Obsequiae – The Palms of Sorrowed Kings

A formula that works and continues to work

It’s one of the weirder things that this formula works so well, and continues to work so well in this album. As a whole the album’s themes make you intuitively want to think this band should be playing the stereotypical ‘medieval’ music – the flutes, the harpsichord, the tin whistle – but that’s not the case here. With Obsequiae, the formula is a simple matter of album structure; instrumental tracks built on the wonderful work of the talented Vicente La Camera Mariño and his use of the medieval harp act as natural breaks between more standard, melodic black metal tracks. You won’t find the hyper use of folk instruments or the occasional awkward folk sampling; that’s just not the type of music this is.

Instead, in spite of its medieval themes, Obsequiae have consistently relied on the use of stringed instruments that make its instrumental tracks seem more ancient than medieval. And, it’s in the instrumental tracks wherein that element is isolated and on show. Set among sounds of nature, the stringed instruments – particularly the harp – are elegant, graceful, and frankly beautiful. They’re also undeniably meditative with melodies that transition into subsequent tracks with the same level of grace in which they are played.

Likewise, the melodic black metal tracks raise the bar with each and every subsequent song. Guitars rise above the rest and appear to drive the music with soaring chord progression. The bass and drums create and hold that triumphant rhythm while giving the vocals a thick atmosphere for them to complement, not take away from the rest. Compared to the instrumental interludes throughout the album, these melodic black metal tracks have a similar elegance while still being uplifting, fast-paced and energetic. They’re undeniably fun, but not in the hokey, cheesy sense. This is serious music, but music that also doesn’t shy away from wanting people to find it enjoyable first and foremost.

Although, for the most part, The Palms of Sorrowed Kings sticks to that tried and tested formula, there are some areas or moments in which the band have opted to experiment and try new or different things. This is most evident towards the end of the album, with “Lone Isle” and “Emanations Before the Pythia.” Both tracks feature guest artists, notably women, providing either narration, screams, or clean vocals, which have the effect of emphasizing the storylines of those particular tracks. Although I appreciate this move, I somehow feel those guest artists could’ve been better utilized; their addition almost feels like an afterthought. That’s my only complaint though with that. Doing things like this makes for good progress, and I hope they continue doing so in the future.

On the whole, and overall, the album is a great continuation of the band’s take on melodic black metal, and without a doubt is one of the better albums of this year simply, if not only, because that same formula that led to the band’s success is still on display here in all its glory. My own feeling of disappointment is that, and I can’t really explain it, the album just doesn’t feel as novel and exceptional as the previous two felt for me. I always worry a little about bands that focus too exclusively on the same formula, in that they can often end up – for the lack of a better term, albeit a movie-related one – ‘Marvelizing’ themselves; in essence, creating good, satisfying products, but not necessarily great works. I don’t think Obsequiae has gone that way with The Palms of Sorrowed Kings, and this album deserves praise, but it’s a lingering thought in the back of my mind. It’s a bit of a mystery.

Rating: 90%

Also published on The Metal Archives.

Yellow Eyes – Rare Field Ceiling

What the hell is a Rare Field Ceiling?

Yellow Eyes’ fourth album Immersion Trench Reverie was one of my black metal highlights of 2017, so I was pretty excited for the follow up. Rare Field Ceiling (what does that even mean lol) is a much thicker mixture of dissonance than its predecessor. While it’s a good effort, I can’t help but be left a bit cold, if only because of the weight of expectations. Rare Field Ceiling eschews the alpine atmosphere that kept me coming back to Immersion Trench Reverie. While I’ve enjoyed it each time I’ve listened to it, this one hasn’t become a staple in my black metal listening diet the way its predecessor has.

The Skarstad brothers, who lead the band, have said that leading up to the album there have been a series of devastating health crises in their family (God, I wish that wasn’t so relatable), and that it couldn’t help but have a big impact on the album. I think this makes a lot of sense. While you still have some subtle melody, as well as samples of bells, women’s choirs and the like, this is a much darker album than Immersion Trench Reverie. The production is intentionally rough and muddy and they lean much harder on their dissonant side than their melodic one. While Immersion Trench Reveries brought to mind images of forests and mountaintops, Rare Ceiling Fan almost has the atmosphere of an industrial wasteland. Actually, it reminds me a lot of the movie Stalker where it’s still in sepia and they’re sneaking through the industrial section leading up to the zone.

Yellow Eyes have long had an obscure streak, but I find the song titles to be particularly amusing here. With song titles like “Light Delusion Curtain” and “Nutrient Painting”, thematically they can be as obscure as the music sometimes proves to be. The production here is raw and muddy, the songs structures atypical and everything kind of congeals into this thick, molassesy stream of dissonance. We do have some off-kilter melody penetrating the murk, and it’s a welcome inclusion. Mike is as good as always on the drums, and the rasps are strong and pained. The album is a very dreary affair that kind of ends up blurring into one experience, rather than there being standout songs.

It’s pretty funny that one of the brothers takes on gigs like making commercial Christmas music for Reese Peanut Butter Cups commercials. The swirling shroud of dissonance that comprises Rare Ceiling Fan is about as far away from that world as you can get. While this does not reach the towering alpine peaks of Immersion Trench Reverie, it is still a welcome addition to the Yellow Eyes discography. Featuring a much more dreary and opaque vibe, it is good at what it does an still one of the stronger black metal albums I’ve heard out of 2019.

Rating: 80%

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