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 totally unremarkable and boring modern metal production style. 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 and robbing the music of a lot of its original power. The instrumentation sounds lifeless and lacks a lot of weight and frankly even by the standards of an average modern metal recording this is subpar.

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 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%

Bartushka – Hospodi

Do not buy this

The title cannot be reiterated enough – even if you like the teaser material for this album, under no circumstances should you buy it from the label. It’s the work of a man who pulled the rug from underneath a genuine artist’s feet to make a cash-grab, and it should not be supported in any way. Bart here may have the legal basis for carrying on with the name, but that certainly doesn’t make him the honest actor in the drama surrounding this album. Should anyone think I’m being unfair by being prejudiced against this release for the drama and not solely focusing on the music, all I have to say is that bringing this external drama up is necessary in judging the album as it would not exist without the drama and like any album its contents have been affected by the context it was constructed in. It’s a lazy cash-grab that truly sounds like just that – it’s a cobbled together load of rubbish that bears no meaningful resemblance to anything approaching a Batushka album.

The common thread that runs throughout is that the material is entirely derivative, lacking any identity or memorability. There is not an original bone in this album’s body; its boldest idea is the mix of choral and harsh vocals, which are ripped off from Litourgiya. The guitarwork is taken from a few sources of inspiration – the astonishingly crappy groove riffs and chugs that pop up from time to time being one example. The unending tremolo throughout the songs makes a lot of the guitarwork here sound like cast off/riffless Nightbringer or Litourgiya material. There are also some references to less riffy symphonic black metal acts, and there are some thrashier riffs at points, most notably on the track ‘Utrenia’ but it’s mostly tremolo-heavy, riffless fluff. Overall Hospodi listens like the work of a coattail riding second-string band with no identity of its own that apes a bunch of different sounds, one of which happens to be Litourgiya. For the most part this doesn’t listen like a Batushka album at all, or a development from Litourgiya, though clearly the band is trying hard to evoke its atmosphere and aesthetics with some very surface-level and forced references to it musically.

Another common factor in the material is that it is almost entirely mid-paced. The band never really picks up the pace or slows down to a drudging crawl; they’re entirely content to sit at a very uniform ‘not really fast but not really slow’ tempo. By doing this the music is erased of any potential points of contrast – there is no chance for a crushing, doom-like passage or a much faster, blast-filled section here. Variation in tempo is not a must for good music but with music this shallow the last thing it needs is to have another layer of potential variation stripped from it. It makes the music even more flat than it would have been, as there is no attempt to alter the mood using the tempo.

Making matters worse is that the songwriting is abysmal. Many of the songs here feature big stretches devoted to building up to something, usually in the form of tremolo and chords atop of double bass and choral vocals borrowed from Litourgiya. The first problem with this is that these build-ups lead to absolutely nothing – in place of climaxes the band routinely delivers an anti-climax in the form of a weak groovy/chugging/slower riff or quiet sections with faint choral vocals and guitars ringing in the background. This has the effect of making the songs feel like parts of the cutting room floor stapled together in the same way over and over again, as opposed to pieces that were actually written as one from start to finish. The second is that the band simply cannot find a way to increase the intensity of their music beyond making it louder with more tremolo, more choral vocals, and more double bass. The music never actually feels more aggressive during these moments, and as a result the buildups that the band spend so much time doing don’t even feel like they’re building up to anything, they listen more like an idea stretched far past the point of being remotely fresh. Tracks will start and end at seemingly arbitrary points, as it feels as if there is no reason why something is happening within them. The tracks don’t build up to anything meaningful, they don’t end in a satisfying way and taken as a whole they don’t even flow properly or feel like a complete journey. This is just about every track on the album, with only ‘Powieczerje’ and ‘Polunosznica’ really feeling like they were written with any care or attention paid to them.

The uniform tempo and equally uniform (lack of) songwriting highlights the next big issue with the album, which is that it is unbelievably copy-paste and very short on ideas. Once you’ve heard one song here you’ve basically heard them all, as the band has nothing to offer beyond rejected Litourgiya non-riffs, Eastern Orthodox-inspired choral vocals, one style of black metal rasp and some utterly flat meandering passages that give way to anti-climactic points, all at one tempo. Ideas get drawn out to the point of becoming stale within songs as the band clearly have no idea how to develop these ideas, and across the album the same tropes get repeated over and over meaning that songs will bleed together as the album wears on and the listener’s mind wanders as they wait for a song to end. Needless to say the songs are far, far too long for how flat and musically bankrupt they really are, and just a few tracks in you’ll be reaching for the pause button. This kills the atmosphere the band spend so much time trying to evoke, and while listening you’ll struggle to feel anything from the music because nothing about its composition or substance is inspiring enough to do that.

This is a miserable failure of a release. It’s obvious when listening who the brains behind Litourgiya was – sure that release was flawed but the regression displayed here is stunning. What few ideas the music presents are inferior copies of other people’s work that then get drawn out to oblivion across every song and the album as a whole. On top of all of this, there is no reason for it to exist beyond cashing in on the clout of an idea that wasn’t Bart’s at all. If you want a new Batushka album, go and buy Панихида, and stay miles away from this, because it’s a waste of time for anybody who chooses to listen to it. This is nothing but an effortless cash-grab; a lazy work that was cobbled together to get another release with the Batushka name on it out of the door. It’s vapid, shallow, soulless and thoroughly devoid of anything interesting.

It’s an embarrassment.

Rating: 13%

Deathspell Omega – Manifestations 2000 – 2001

Re-opening the vault

Manifestations 2000-2001 was one of two compilations released by DsO back in 2008, along with Manifestations 2002. It is comprised of material previously released on a couple of splits and a V/A compilation from the early part of the ’00s, as the title suggests, with the songs coming from two distinct recording sessions. It’s an interesting look at the pre-Aspa phase of DsO’s career – a time before they had truly found their sound or any notability in the metal world at large – and despite being overshadowed by its more notable and consistent sibling, is still of note to fans as it is a neatly packaged collection of material that would otherwise be scattered across multiple obscure releases.

The music itself is very typical of this phase of DsO’s career, to the extent that this material could easily have fit onto Inquisitors of Satan. It draws heavily from the likes of Darkthrone (mostly Transilvanian Hunger) insofar as it relies on the generally speedy repetition of melodic riffs atop a straight-forward blast beat-driven drum performance, but the nods to thrash in some of the riffs and the alternation between these and more typical second-wave inspired material points to Gorgoroth as a notable influence too. The vocals are very redolent of these influences – Shaxul’s unchanging rasp lies somewhere between Nocturno Culto and Hat and fit the music well. There are a lot of high quality riffs and they’re strung together well, they don’t dwell in one place for too long with songs consistently pushing forward (which is needed when every song breaks the 6 minute mark) and the band does well to craft an atmosphere with such basic and well-worn tools, a testament to the quality of the music.

As stated these 6 tracks are from two recording sessions – the first two come from an early 2001 session while the last four come from an early 2000 recording session. This is relevant as there is a very clear divide between the two; not so much in style but in recording quality. The first two tracks feature a typically clear, cold sound with prominently mixed snares and a somewhat delay-heavy guitar tone – very reminiscent of a crisper, higher fidelity version of Inquisitors of Satan‘s sound as well as the sound on Pentagram. The latter four meanwhile feature lower fidelity, noisier production with clickier, thinner drums and similarly thinner, hazier guitars, though these tracks ultimately sound much cleaner than anything from Infernal Battles which came out a few months after their recording. The former plays more to the strengths of the music by giving it more punch and clarity, while the more atmospheric production of the latter 4 tracks makes them less effective by doing the opposite.

The basic problems here are the same with everything else the band were doing before Mikko Aspa joined the fold and Si Monumentum… came out, in that while the material is good it isn’t that remarkable in the end, with a distinct lack of identity and therefore memorability. It also suffers from the same curse those first two albums do, in that there’s not much reason to listen to it outside of historical curiosity. What followed this and related material set new standards for what could be achieved by the band and modern BM bands in general, making them immediately less relevant on a purely musical level. Another problem is that the compilation is incomplete; DsO’s side of their split with Clandestine Blaze from around the same time is nowhere to be found here, which is a pity as those tracks are also exclusive to that split and stylistically would fit right in with this crop of tracks.

Despite its incompleteness and derivative nature, it’s a solid collection of tracks – a worthwhile curio for fans of the band, but only if they actually enjoy the first phase of their career; those who don’t need not apply, obviously. Those who thoroughly enjoy either of their first two albums (especially Inquisitors) will find plenty to enjoy here, and for those who haven’t heard either of their first two albums this is worth a few listens to get a sense of where the band were coming from with SMRC. Not essential by any means, but good.

Rating: 65%

Gruesome – Twisted Prayers

Death metal’s Greta Van Fleet

The revival of old school death metal has, in a similar fashion to modern thrash, yielded a few gems in a sea of redundant, bland, toothless and copy-paste bands that offer nothing new at all, and Gruesome is perhaps the most notable and blatant example of how creatively bankrupt this wave can get. Their music isn’t an Encoffination-type ordeal, where the band fundamentally misunderstand what made their main point of reference appealing to begin with, but more a straight up facsimile of something that’s been heard before with absolutely no twist or spin on it to speak of. I can give it to the band that the baseline level of competency (songs that progress, tight playing, decent and clear production) has been met but that’s really about it as far as positives go.

Gruesome, for those who’ve never heard their music, is a carbon copy of early Death, put simply. They play a very thrash-influenced, very simple and highly riff-driven style of death metal. The longer songs and more frequent changes of pace within them point towards the band drawing more from Leprosy and Spiritual Healing, with the latter obviously being an inspiration for the thematic content of the lyrics and cover art. The problem with zeroing in on a singular inspiration here is that at no point do the band do anything to the basic template at all; this album is literally an inferior copy of those two albums (which really says something as Spiritual Healing is one of my least favourite Death albums) with no positive unique traits to it at all. Literally the only distinguishing features this has from either of those two Death albums are notably worse and less memorable riffs and production that strips the music of intensity, due to being more polished. Not helping matters is that Spiritual Healing has had another impact on the music, which is that the music itself isn’t as intense or savage as it could have been as to not remove focus from the somewhat more intelligent lyrics. This is the main problem with Spiritual Healing, and so on an album that is worse in every respect it is an even more notable problem. These flaws result in an album with longer songs that feel much, much longer than they actually are because the few basic ideas presented by them get stale in the first minute or two and were never played convincingly to begin with. The album is tired, dull, stale and boring and the only redeeming qualities it has beyond basic competency are the decayed remains of the work of a much better band.

There really is nothing else to say about the music, it’s that vanilla and plain. If all new music was as uninspired, worn-out and cliché as Gruesome’s work, there would be no reason to listen to new music at all as every genre would be a dead end that never challenges or intrigues the listener at all. Fortunately, Gruesome truly is an exceptional case, as there are very few bands out there that ride the coattails of larger acts as hard as they have done. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with drawing heavily from classic artists – some of the greatest modern albums in multiple genres would not exist without those kinds of influences – but zeroing in on one or two albums by one band and doing nothing with those influences at all, and not even trying to live up to them quality-wise? That is inexcusable, not only because it’s unbearably lazy but also because the end result of such a process sounds unbearably lazy. Even the earliest of Death clones, Massacre, were so far above this album I feel bad for comparing them to Gruesome, and at least the people behind From Beyond actually had a hand in the sound of early Death. If you want good music in this style, cut out the middleman and go straight to the source, as there is no reason to listen to this over any of the far superior albums that inspired it.

Rating: 25%

Iron Griffin – Curse of the Sky

Stop it

This album is a patience-testing and extremely redundant affair. It’s almost insulting with how nothing-y it actually is, and how people are actually receiving this positively (I know someone who is considering this to be an album of the year candidate and it’s only March) is beyond me. Before getting into the music it will be stated outright that only check this out if you like piss weak trad metal with almost nothing going for it at all.

To get the main issue with the album out of the way: it is totally, 100% unexciting on the instrumental front. At no point during this album’s half hour duration do the instruments do anything of note. The riffs are the most basic, derivative, and trite trad metal riffs possible; the kind of thing anyone versed in this sort of metal has heard hundreds of times already. They have no energy or drive to them, the guitar tone is weak and thin so they lack any sort of weight, and there’s just no skill put into them beyond ‘the guitars are in tune’ (and frankly, messing about with that would make this album substantially more interesting.) This is pretty much the album’s biggest problem; the main body of the songs have nothing in the way of personality or memorability – they don’t engage you even while playing and certainly don’t stick with you afterwards. The other instruments are the same story really. No interesting bass parts, no good drum patterns or fills, nothing at all.

Earlier it was stated that this album had almost nothing going for it at all, as the album’s one saving grace is the singer. Maija Tiljander’s performance is spectacular, to put it simply. She’s like a life ring to cling onto to prevent drowning in a sea of wallpaper paste – i.e. the only thing that makes this album even vaguely tolerable to listen to. She wails and sings her heart out and it’s truly astonishing how much power and energy goes into every last lyric, especially when her voice is as smooth as it is. She has a great vibrato and despite being incredibly expressive with a lot of that wailing vibrato she still manages not to overdo it. Each song has so many vocal acrobatics and other otherwise interesting and amazing vocal lines that it’s insulting that she’s paired with the talentless hack making all that dull noise behind her.

Really, there is no reason for this to exist. Outside of the vocals nothing on it is done in a fresh or exciting fashion, and there is no vision to the backing music. The instrumentalist is normally the drummer for Mausoleum Gate – and frankly that is where he should have stayed. Instead he somehow managed to rope in a great singer and cobble together this completely pointless album that manages to be a taxing chore despite only being thirty minutes long. The instrumentals are almost insultingly bland given how wide the gulf in talent is between the two members, and while the vocals mean sitting through the album isn’t impossible, they definitely don’t save it. Put Maija in front of some players who actually know what they’re doing, because she deserves so much better than this.

Iron Griffin would be better if they were a different band.

Rating: 35%

Rivers of Nihil – Where Owls Know My Name

Bleh

This album wouldn’t even be worth talking about were it not for the fact that the band has their priorities all wrong. The way to make boring music more interesting is to write more interesting parts – better riffs, more imaginative beats, perhaps throw a curve ball in the songwriting. This simple concept is one that is lost on Rivers of Nihil, because in their attempts to make their sub-standard modern extreme metal formula more interesting they’ve managed to turn what would otherwise be a not at all noteworthy mishmash of extreme metal styles into a stupid, annoying album.

At its core this album is what I just said: a really boring, below par mix of modern brutal death metal, technical death metal, deathcore and progressive metal to create a sound that falls under the vague ‘extreme metal’ banner. Everything about the music is impressive on the surface but leaves zero lasting impact. The triggered drum performance that’s all too common is as rapid fire as a minigun and as precise as a sniper rifle, but it sounds mechanical and lifeless. The same can be said of the guitars, which play really uninteresting and unmemorable ‘extreme’ riffs, tedious mid-paced chugging (reaching a high point on the boredom scale during ‘Subtle Change’) or run of the mill tech death leads. Admittedly the leads are technical, but again they aren’t really emotive at all and don’t impact the listener beyond ‘wow this must be hard to play’. The vocalist’s harsh styles alternate between serviceable rasps and a somewhat barking growl; he’s probably the standout performer simply because it’s hard to make vocals sound mechanical and shallow like every other performance here. The production is pretty standard for this type of music too; it sounds compressed and overly loud and the instruments on the album are so polished that they sound synthetic. All of the edge to the guitar tone has been stripped and none of the instruments ever bleed together or sound organic at all.

If this was all that was wrong with the album then I wouldn’t be writing about it; basically all modern metal that falls under the category ‘extreme metal’ has these problems. What really makes this album stand out as being bad is that Rivers of Nihil saw fit to ‘improve’ their sound by adding a lot of outside influences. Sometimes they draw from progressive rock and metal in the form of tranquil acoustic/keyboard driven sections and rather expressive, passionate leads that are of a much higher quality than the ones found in the metal portions of the songs. Other ideas they throw in are the gratuitous and aimless saxophone a few minutes into ‘Home’ or the bland attempts at electronica they’ll dive into in an equally pointless fashion. Aside from being masturbatory and flashy rubbish, the problem with these sections is that they’re jammed into the songs with no rhyme or reason; the band never really weave the metal and non-metal components of their sound together, and as a result one track feels like a mashup of two or three songs, and it makes the album an incoherent and uneven listen. The songwriting in general is pretty piss poor, with any one section of a track dragging about and not really going anywhere to the point where these bloated compositions get tiresome very quickly. You can’t improve bland music by jamming in unrelated sections into the music in an attempt to have a progressive and open minded approach to songwriting. It throws off the pacing and consistency of the album and actually makes the music more unmemorable than it otherwise would have been; which is quite the feat given the base of lifeless ‘extreme’ metal the band were building off of to begin with.

Bleh. Don’t bother.

Rating: 20%

Encoffination – O’ Hell, Shine in Thy Whited Sepulchres

Onward from Golgotha

Let it be known that I have no problem with drawing heavy influence particular style of a band or album. Provided no direct plagiarism takes place, some sort of spin is put on it and the newer band can pull off that sound convincingly, there isn’t really a problem there. What I can’t forgive is when a band goes out of their way to copy something they plainly don’t understand or aren’t very good at, and that’s exactly what’s going on with Encoffination’s work. There’s no reason to listen to this band’s work at all – not because they produce inferior facsimiles of a classic sound but because they miss the point of that sound entirely and end up making music with not much going for it at all.

On the off chance you haven’t worked it out from the band’s name and logo or indeed from the title of this review, Encoffination play Incantation-worshipping death metal, specifically zeroing in on Onward to Golgotha, as they try to recreate the cavernous sound of that album here. As I’ve mentioned however, they’ve rather missed the point of what made Onward to Golgotha such an immense, planet-sized album. The ridiculously massive and slightly degraded production that album has is part of what makes it special. While Encoffination clearly realised this, having achieved a guitar tone that approaches Monotheist or Realm of Chaos in its sheer heaviness, the overall sound of the album doesn’t stand up in the same way. The guitar tone and drums are too clean and polished to bleed together into a wall of sound as they did on Onward to Golgotha, and as a result while this album is undeniably extremely heavy the sound doesn’t have quite the same impact as the Incantation album. In the grand scheme of things however this is the least of this album’s problems.

Where the band completely fall down is that they get far too carried away with crafting an atmosphere and aesthetic. Onward to Golgotha had loads of giant riffs to go with its giant production, while on here the guitar work is extremely bland. The guitar parts on this release are written to serve the atmosphere as opposed to being written to drive the songs and create an atmosphere through the progression of a song. The consequences of this are what kill the album: the songs are virtually motionless in the way they are written, with songs ending right where they started. They’re specifically trying to recreate one aspect of Incantation’s debut: namely it’s slowest, most crushing moments, and they achieve this by playing very slowly. As a result there are virtually no changes of pace, climaxes or twists in the songwriting as there would be with Incantation; all the band do here is play slow, ringing/droning guitar parts and very bland riffs that never grab the listener’s attention, all in the pursuit of heaviness at the expense of everything else. The drummer plays equally slow and dull beats with very little change to speak of, and the vocalist sort of sits there in the middle of the music, not impacting the motion or intensity of the songs at all. His growls are nowhere near as deep or powerful as Craig Pillard’s performances with Incantation, sounding much more like a run of the mill death metal vocalist, one that can’t even match the heaviness of the songs.

The music gets very boring very quickly and after about 45 seconds or so you’d wish they would do something more with the music, but it never comes to pass. The sheer unexcitement of the music kills any atmosphere they go for as the listener’s mind will start wandering shortly after the first song starts because there’s nothing engaging to focus on while listening. This is totally pointless music: it’s Onward to Golgotha worship that misses the point of Onward to Golgotha. It’s atmospheric death metal with virtually no atmosphere. It’s death metal with no intensity to it. It’s metal with no good riffs.

It’s shit.

Rating: 0%

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