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 sort of low rent compared 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 sound stronger than they would on subsequent albums as vocal wear and tear hadn’t set in yet. They’re 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%

Type O Negative – The Origin of the Feces (Not Live at Brighton Beach)

Mostly redundant, entirely hilarious

When discussing Type O Negative’s major releases I often forget that The Origin of the Feces even exists. That’s not because it’s bad – far from it, the material here is amazing – but this is the one major release they have where no new ideas are introduced and no progression of any sort is made, to the extent that I don’t even consider this a main studio album despite this being a collection of studio material. It’s more of a foot note in their discography than anything else, and it doesn’t mean a whole lot when divorced from Slow, Deep and Hard and by extension the two Carnivore albums. If it does represent anything, it’s possibly the greatest example of TON’s sense of humour across their entire discography, as this release is literally one giant joke.

The Origin of the Feces is for the most part re-treads of various tracks from Slow, Deep and Hard. ‘I Know You’re Fucking Someone Else’ is ‘Unsuccessfully Coping…’, ‘Gravity’ is ‘Gravitational Constant…’, ‘Kill You Tonight’ is ‘Xero Tolerance’ and ‘Pain’ is ‘Prelude to Agony’, which is about 36 minutes of this 51 minute tracklist. These songs are abrupt collisions of goth/doom and crossover/thrash that bring excellent riffs, keyboard lines and a bitter, ugly attitude courtesy of Pete’s amazing vocals, which range from a hardcore-tinged shout to more conventional singing to go with the more melodic strains of the music. While this material is of quality, this is pretty much the main reason this is their weakest release; though there are differences between the originals and these versions the basic musical foundation here is a straight up rehash of their debut, with no substantial musical progression or new material being presented, merely alternate takes on songs listeners have heard before.

There are differences, of course – these certainly sound more like live performances despite not being live. The sound of the music is as if they were playing in a large room of some sort, with more reverb and space in the sound. The performances differ too, with the riffs and keyboards perhaps having a slightly different sense of melody or the drumming being slightly different in its timing. The vocals are particularly different – Pete often delivers lyrics slightly off the mark or at a different pitch, if he even delivers them at all. The songs are often truncated too, with ‘Kill You Tonight’ being played here as both a two minute track and a 7 minute reprise and ‘Pain’ being a bit under 5 minutes in length. The most notable difference however is the crowd noise found throughout the songs, consisting of fans jeering and booing in a studio to be recorded and added to the songs. Honestly, the back and forth between the verbal abuse of the crowd and Pete is one of the only aspects of this release that truly makes it worthwhile; it’s actually goddamn hilarious. Highlights include when ‘Gravity’ is interrupted due to a supposed bomb threat targeting the venue, the very opening moments which is just the crowd chanting ‘You suck!’ and when the band gets bottled by one of the crowd, but honestly it’s all just one giant laugh.

Beyond the humour, the only other main draw here is the various tracks that are exclusive to this release. ‘Hey Pete’ is a reworking of ‘Hey Joe’ and it’s about as good as a cover could turn out; the band do a great job of making the song their own, turning it from a laid back psychedelic track into a gloomy doom metal number with lyrics to fit Slow, Deep and Hard‘s concept of murdering your ex over infidelity. The reissue features a cover of ‘Paranoid’ (one which lacks much of the faux-live trappings of the rest of the songs here) – the band pull a similar trick here by turning this speedy rocker into a 7 minute morose and downtrodden doom metal song and it goes over amazingly. It beats out most of their material up to this point and is perhaps a precursor to their more overtly doom metal-influenced albums down the road. The sole new original song here is ‘Are You Afraid’, which is a little over two minutes of goth rock, containing the sort of lush keyboard work, gentle bass-baritone crooning mixing with agonised screaming and tender atmosphere that would come to define TON’s later, more famous albums. Critically, all of these new tracks show the band going in a more pure goth/doom direction and as such they are the only times they really undergo any progression from their debut; it’s a shame that they make up less than a third of the runtime.

As if the original cover of Pete’s hairy anus wasn’t enough of an indicator, this is obviously not meant to be seen as a serious work from the band at all and indeed it isn’t for the most part, being a rehash of their old songs for a joke. This does have some value for the sheer humour on offer and the few new tracks here are certainly interesting, but otherwise this is one of the only non-essential and unnecessary releases in their catalogue. It’s fun for sure but most of these songs were done better a year prior, and honestly this makes far more sense as an addendum to their debut than as a standalone release. All this said however, it is quite a testament to the quality of TON’s music and sense of humour that they can just play their old songs more sloppily on a new release while getting fans to tell the listener that the band suck and still have it turn out better than most artists could even dream of.

Rating: 70%

Isis – Mosquito Control

‘Poison egg, the implement…’

Isis’ label-backed debut EP Mosquito Control is in retrospect highly reflective of their transitional nature. This is not the sound that we would hear on Panopticon, which says a lot when 3 of that album’s 5 performers also made this. It’s also an early peak for the band, being a very consistent and complete work for such a young band’s debut EP. It’s not what the band became famous for innovating or that original but it shows off an outfit that clearly had the talent needed become something even more, something truly special. And that’s not to take away from this release; it may not be what put them on the map but it’s still a fantastic listen.

Mosquito Control is a crop of tracks that are some of the heaviest and most crushing in Isis’ entire catalogue, with the band playing a rather mid-tempo sludge metal style with a lot of hardcore worked in there and some shots of doom metal at points. ‘Life Under the Swatter’ is a noisier, somewhat faster track and very frenetic that has a lot more hardcore influence and is laced with a jittering, busy drum performance and the hisses of the mosquito swarms alluded to in the lyrics, while ‘Hive Destruction’ sees the band throwing in more groovy, traditional sludge metal riffing while keeping the pace up. Whatever the band go for they have the chops and ideas to pull it off; the guitarwork is consistently busy, interesting and helps drive the song forward with the drums playing a supporting role by matching the complexity, texture and tone of the riffing. The vocal style here is unique to this release in their discography; Aaron Turner’s vocals here are a powerful and intense shout/rasp/shriek that matches the searing instrumentation behind them, and they’re some of the gnarliest vocals he would ever deliver.

The band varies up each song nicely, bringing in multiple contrasting sections such as the tense ambient bridge of ‘Life Under the Swatter’, the groovy doom/sludge breakdown of ‘Hive Destruction’ or the acoustic intro of ‘Poison Eggs’, as well as a good number of riffs and changes in tempo. Critically, the band can weave all of these together and progress effortlessly from one part to the next in a controlled fashion, not coming across as incoherent or choppy which would subtract from the crushing, oppressive atmosphere found throughout this release, which is generated through a combination of excellent songwriting and strong execution of the music (especially the riffs.) The production is great too; everything sounds very large, clear, crisp and heavy. The low end of the bass consistently rumbling away in the background gives the music more weight, while the drums pound hard and the guitars have a thick and sludgy tone to match. It’s all mixed well too (the guitars are slightly above the drums but below the vocals), helping to bring out the most in the music.

There’s also a good amount of variation across the track list; every song here has an identity of its own with the epic, more melodic opener ‘Poison Eggs’ setting the stage with its fantastic build-up from its acoustic intro to the meat of the track, where the band cycle through the main riff and slower breakdown sections along with an ambient build-up to a heavy finish. ‘Life Under the Swatter’ and ‘Hive Destruction’ are shorter in both size and stature and while they are the lesser songs here, they do still keep the energy up and bring their own aforementioned ideas into the fold. ‘Poison Eggs’ and its more epic, atmospheric scope is in retrospect a hint towards their future direction but a much larger hint is the closer and my personal favourite track ‘Relocation Swarm’. It’s an experimental epic that dwarfs even the opener at nearly 12 minutes in length, one that in both structure and feel foreshadows their later post-metal material. The first 4 or so minutes consist of ominous, chugging doom metal verses laden with barely audible sampled narration and brief, sparse vocals from Aaron, before a drop-out section featuring more samples gives rise to another chugging doom riff and agonised shouts from Aaron as the band pile on more and more noise, continuing on for the remainder of the song until the band is consumed entirely by this noise. It’s a gargantuan finish to this amazing EP and this song is honestly one of Isis’ very finest; up there with the likes of ‘Altered Course’ in terms of scope and impact.

Mosquito Control is an excellent first volley from an amazing band. They’d make more innovative music down the road but the purity of vision and the near-perfect execution of it on display here is something to behold. Even the lyrics are a cut above most bands, with the band’s visions of mosquito swarms alluding to human societies and how they can be controlled and crushed. This EP is not something to be passed up on – it’s essential for any fan of Isis to see where they come from artistically and any fan of sludge metal or hardcore.

Rating: 95%

Ministry – Filth Pig

‘He sleeps with both eyes open…’

Filth Pig is an understandably maligned and divisive album as it is by no means an easy listen. It marked a considerable departure from the three albums that preceded it, which were fusions of industrial music with rock and metal that had earned them critical praise and commercial momentum. Filth Pig meanwhile was met with negative reviews, a disappointed fan base and poor commercial performance. It could be called a trend-hop given some of the influences present and the departure from their trademark industrial metal sound, though other influences present and the resulting complete package points more towards an experiment that many would argue did not pan out. On the contrary, I firmly believe this to be a very successful shift in the band’s sound and one of their very finest albums; even if it isn’t iconic or influential like what preceded it.

There are a few different influences that run throughout the music here, but the foundation is essentially a significantly slower take on the industrial metal of Psalm 69, though Al’s vocals remain a uniformly distorted, harsh shout and there is little sampling to be found here. The pounding of the drum machine here occurs at a significantly slower tempo and the thrash-inspired guitar riffs of old have morphed into droning, lumbering sludge riffs, replete with guitar feedback, tremolo and a sense of melody that ranges from traditional to off to non-existent. Comparisons to Streetcleaner-era Godflesh can be made in how uncompromisingly heavy, slow and brutal the music is, though it possesses a significantly more melodic and human touch and a sense of groove that wasn’t present on that starkly mechanical effort. Sludge and alternative metal are the influences responsible for this – on many tracks here there are significant nods to Alice in Chains and Crowbar. Most of the music operates with this blend; a sort of heavy/sludge/industrial metal hybrid that is uniformly slow, droning and crushing. Following on from these influences the atmosphere here is relentlessly negative and dark, being a combination of the bitter world-hating of Eyehategod and early Godflesh as well as the drug-addled and meaningless self-loathing of Alice in Chains (fitting, given that Al’s heroin addiction fuels the darkness on display here.) Ultimately this combination is so effective thanks to simple yet evocative instrumentation and similarly blunt and effective lyrics. The songs here are haunting and powerful; conveying perfectly what was going through Al’s head at the time from laser-focused hatred of those who wronged him to unhealthy obsession with a past lover to drug-fuelled nonsense.

The album is remarkably consistent in terms of quality, tone and style, and throughout the album the production is excellent with the music boasting a massive, sludgy guitar sound and heavy, pounding drums that give the music a lot of punch, along with a great mix that lets everything come through clearly while not making the sound too mechanical or clean. ‘Gameshow’ stands out as being the most atmospheric, melodic, depressing and drawn out song on the album, even featuring one of the few instances of Al’s forlorn clean singing. This is clearly by design – to overload the album with strung out sorrow would reduce the impact of it. Most of the remaining tracks here are less sorrowful, harsher, more direct and more atonal takes on the same sound, most notably ‘Crumbs’, ‘Lava’, the title track and ‘Useless’. The opener ‘Reload’ is an even more direct and blunt take on this sound; it’s a fairly brisk and noisy track with a particularly crackling beat and a ruthless, vengeful attitude espoused in the lyrics.

A few songs towards the end here do have some other influences worked into them, however – ‘Dead Guy’ has an almost-rapped cadence to the vocals and a very Helmet-esque groove, and while it has the potential to be a tacky and misguided trend-hop it goes over very well, sacrificing none of the feel or songwriting quality present here. ‘The Fall’ is in some respects more in line with their older material, with its booming drum machine and less sludge-influenced riffing, though the gigantic guitar tone and the blunt, defeatist lyrics still makes it fit snugly into the album. Bob Dylan’s ‘Lay Lady Lay’ is transformed from a quaint country rock song into a coke-fuelled obsessive plea for a woman to stay the night – it stands out for its remarkably joyful riff during the chorus and the prominent acoustic guitar line during the verses, and is about as good a cover as can be as the band really make it their own, fitting in well here both thematically and musically. ‘Brick Windows’ is an uptempo psychedelic industrial/alternative metal track that juxtaposes its negative lyrics with its bizarrely upbeat, melodic main riff, giving a bittersweet and hypnotic note to end the album on.

It’s a shame Filth Pig is such a criticised album; it is understandable that many would be turned off by music that is so bitter, hopeless, self-loathing and otherwise negative but the sheer strength of the material here clearly never shone through for most. This is easily one of Ministry’s best albums: it’s an atmospheric masterpiece and a landmark album for the band and metal in the ’90s. This is not an album that grows on a listener quickly (it certainly didn’t for me), but give it time and plenty of listens and the music might just win you over.

Rating: 100%

Kataklysm – Temple of Knowledge (Kataklysm Part III)

When knowledge isn’t power

I suppose Temple of Knowledge demonstrates a couple of things – for one, all the passion and technical ability in the world mean absolutely nothing without taste. It also demonstrates that flaws can come in all different shapes and sizes – sometimes an album is a grand failure due to a whole host of negative qualities coalescing into something diabolical, and other times as demonstrated here a singular flaw can be so massive it utterly ruins an album. There is plenty of praise to give to Temple of Knowledge, and on paper it only really suffers in two departments – but the music is so wounded by these flaws the album manages to be one you can skip out entirely.

This is a straight-ahead death metal album instrumentally, and a very technical one at that. The music walks a very fine line between incoherent and highly technical. Every song is loaded with riffs, with every track shifting between them every few seconds – they range from having a dark undercurrent of melody to being more straightforward and thrashy to being more orthodox and atonal to being more grooving and bouncy. Regardless of style however the riffs here are consistently memorable and strong and keep the energy of the songs up, and the variation in styles stops the album from running together or a song from stagnating or becoming one-note. The drumming is similarly active, with the drum performance here being loaded with fills, blasting, double-bass and more conventional straight beats to suit the riffs and pace of the song. This consistently shifting instrumentation is a demonstration of incredible restraint and songwriting talent on the band’s part, with nothing ever devolving into a total mess or losing focus. A song will flow from A to B in a chaotic but ultimately structured and coherent fashion, going through enough twists and turns to qualify the music here as being progressive. On an instrumental level this is a truly savage and ruthlessly aggressive effort, but getting past this is where it falls down. A minor quibble I have is the production; everything sounds dry and flat, the guitars sound muted and the drums and vocals are a little too loud. Certainly, this doesn’t sound nearly as heavy or crisp as Sorcery did, which is a shame as it doesn’t do the material here justice. While the riffs are aggressive and strong the guitar tone saps them of their impact somewhat, and the guitars are buried a bit by the rest of the band.

To get to the elephant in the room however – Sylvain Houde sounds like garbage. Euphemisms like ‘insane’, ‘psychotic’ and ‘inhuman’ get thrown about when describing his performance here and in sense that’s true – you’d have to be utterly insane to record vocals this poor and consider them worthy of being on a studio release. He pukes, rants and growls incoherently over every last second of the album with no restraint, taste or regard for timing; he totally throws off the coherency of the music by endlessly ranting over it. Compounding his lack of timing is that multiple vocal tracks are frequently used, with growls being layered with shrieks or rasps in such a way that the vocals have even less of a sense of timing. His performance itself is very weak too – his low growls sound haggard, his rasps sound thin and strained and these are accompanied by occasional utterly comical sounding yelps and similarly weak hardcore barks (these sound especially horrible when he tries to throw in a vocal melody of some description.) Admittedly he isn’t helped by the dry sound of everything but at the end of it all he still sounds terrible, and as he’s mixed so loudly and never shuts up his voice is totally inescapable. He sounds so bad he turns what could have been a stellar and savage slab of death metal into a mess, as well as burying the guitars due to the mixing. He turns the album from being something that has to be endured for the right reasons to being an endurance test for all the wrong ones.

I can appreciate that people might enjoy the vocals for what they represent – unhinged insanity – which makes how they sound easier to stomach, and that combined with the incredibly savage and no-holds-barred instrumentation it would make for a unified package, but it just isn’t doing it for me. There’s no way around the fact he sounds utterly terrible by any measure and honestly no amount of excusing his performance as ‘brutal’ and ‘insane’ will change that. This album has many merits, but its major flaw is so fundamental and inescapable that it becomes a complete write-off.

Rating: 40%

Annihilator – Alice in Hell

A technical exercise

Alice in Hell is the album upon which Annihilator’s reputation rests for many; hailed as a speed/thrash classic in the genre’s waning years, it is seen as their creative zenith before a gradual descent toward the bottom of the barrel. Despite this however, it’s an album that consistently failed to elicit any sort of reaction from me. It isn’t that there isn’t quality here, because there most assuredly is, but more that there’s an intangible factor to it that is fundamentally lacking, something that prevents me from connecting to the music at all. To give a brief run-down of what that music sounds like, this is a technical speed/thrash metal album. It isn’t technical in the sense of it being loaded with shredding, unusual time signatures, off kilter drum patterns, odd song structures or the like, but more that the riffs on this album are pretty much speed/thrash riffs that jam as many notes as possible into a given space. This may sound superficial or not that impressive but quite honestly, the riffs on this album are remarkably detailed, varied, and well-constructed, and there are quite a few in a given song. Pound-for-pound this album is up there with the likes of Rust in Peace or Killing Technology for masterful, flawless guitarwork; it is truly a milestone for thrash riffing.

Where this album falls down is the feel of the music – for all the technical mastery going on here riff-wise, the music leaves the listener cold. It is a remarkably sterile album, more so than most others in the tech or prog metal realms, and for all the aggression and energy here the music inspires nothing in the listener beyond a detached appreciation for the riffing. The problem is that these songs really do not feel like songs, or at least they don’t feel like they were written as songs. What this sounds like instead is a glorified guitarist’s riff tape, one that somehow got distributed by a label and features accompaniment from a backing band. Despite the guitarwork being fashioned into structured songs with verse-chorus structures, every track here feels like an arbitrary collection of riffs. It’s not that the album is guitar-focused, as most metal is driven by the guitars, but more that the guitars here aren’t just one part of a collective unit. Instead, they *are* the entire band, and not even in a fashion similar to shred as on a good shred album there’s an emotional experience that is conveyed by the guitar theatrics on offer, whereas there is no journey to be had here.

These songs exist as vehicles to deliver riffs, and while in a sense that’s what a lot of good thrash metal does here it’s done in the most mechanical, unsatisfying way possible. Something like Rust in Peace has riffs woven into actual songs and have drum parts, leads and vocals to suit them and add to their impact. Meanwhile the drumming, solos and vocals here are serviceable but they could be removed and the impact of the music would be the same. The vocals are gritty shouts and shrieks with a level of expression and flamboyance typical of ’80s metal; Randy here is certainly an entertaining frontman but even with the guitarwork to back him up he feels entirely extraneous to the album. The same goes for the drumming, which for all its double bass and fills and general sense of energy adds nothing to the album. Neither of them contributes anything to the music, because honestly it feels like there is no music here. There are structured songs, into which riffs are placed, but they leave the listener so cold they flat out do not come across like them – it feels like you could swap the places of the riffs in two given tracks and the effect either track had would be the same. This isn’t a problem with production and/or performances either; everything certainly sounds clear and punchy and everything is delivered competently enough – the vocals even being rather exuberant – and it isn’t as if the music is lazy. It certainly takes a lot of creativity, passion and talent to make riffs like these, the problem is they aren’t put together in an interesting way.

I realise I’m in the minority on this album, and that the criticisms here might be arbitrary and point to something vague, but there is no other way to convey what is wrong here – it has both the style and substance of any number of classics from the time but it still manages to lack something. Music should elicit some sort of emotional response in the listener, and this album never does that. For all its shrieking vocals, double bass, wild soloing and endless stream of riffs, this fails to feel like anything more than riffs arbitrarily plugged into 8 identically structured arbitrary compositions. It manages to be so sterile it doesn’t even feel like music; it merely feels like a technical exercise from a talented guitarist. I can absolutely recommend this to any metal guitarist who wishes to hone their technique or learn how to make some truly amazing riffs, but beyond that there is no enjoyment to be had out of this. Alice in Hell is one of the greatest collection of riffs in all of metal but as music, this is truly an unmitigated failure.

Rating: 50%

Megadeth – Youthanasia

‘And they’ll set me free…’

Given the more commercially-inclined, tamer and safer nature of Countdown to Extinction compared to its predecessors, along with its somewhat scattershot and transitional nature, it would only make sense that Youthanasia would be a more concrete change in direction, which is very much the case. Youthanasia is a more consistently accessible and streamlined effort than its predecessor, but this move did in fact pay off both quality-wise and on a commercial level. Youthanasia is not only a stronger effort than its predecessor, but it outshines nearly all of the stylistic diversions other ’80s metal mainstays underwent in the ’90s. It’s a remarkably successful experiment and shows that the band was capable of making good and even great music that didn’t rely solely on aggression and complexity. I’d even say that to this day it remains Megadeth’s last truly high-quality album; Cryptic Writings has enough good material to be worthwhile, but nothing they’ve done since comes close to even that.

Youthanasia takes the most melodic, mid-tempo heavy metal strains of Countdown to Extinction and runs with them for the entire album; there are no leftover thrashers like ‘Ashes in Your Mouth’ or ‘Skin O’ My Teeth’, this is a heavy metal/hard rock album the entire way through. The songs here are some of the simplest, traditional and most stripped down they’ve been up to this point; but not stripped down in a fashionable ’90s alternative rock sense – more by having very orthodox ’80s hard rock tendencies. Verse-chorus structures, groovy metal/hard rock riffs, straight beats and simpler drumming all around, classical and melodic soloing and a very traditional sense of melody underpin the meat of this album. It would be easy to see this as a regressive, tepid and dated attempt at commercial hard rock based on that description but there’s a lot more to it than that.

Underpinning this album’s success is that *every last riff* here manages to be excellent. Despite, or perhaps due to, sticking to such a tried and true, traditional sound, every last riff is simple yet effective – evocative and ear-catching melodies are all over these songs, as are the memorable grooves these riffs have. For all their simplicity, the riffs here are remarkably intelligent in their construction, to the extent that they have the same sense of being crafted to perfection like the guitarwork on Rust in Peace does. Possibly the best example of this is the principle verse riff and chorus riff of ‘Addicted to Chaos’ – it’s as if they were crafted with keen attention paid to the classic metal and rock riffing styles from years gone by. The leads throughout the album are rather old school; with a keen ear for melody and being flashy without overdoing the technicality or going on for too long, they consistently form excellent contrasting sections within songs or act as interesting details when scattered throughout tracks. The drumming is a similar story too; it seems simple on the surface but it complements the grooving of the riffs and is laden with interesting patterns here and there – this is evident from the very first seconds of the opener ‘Reckoning Day’. The drums sound heavy and powerful and the guitars have a thick and meaty tone that serves this style of less nimble, heavier and more percussive riffing well.

Another consistently remarkable quality of the album is that every last song manages to be very catchy – in their adherence to verse-chorus structures and by writing the best hooks possible these manage to be easily some of the catchiest songs in the band’s discography. Critical to this quality is that Dave Mustaine’s singing here is genuinely good, possibly the best it has been and would ever be. Up until now his voice has never been good but it managed to work on the early Megadeth albums as thrash really just needs attitude, power and energy from a vocalist, while on the more vocally orientated and melodic tracks Countdown to Extinction he definitely sounded quite odd, though anyone at this point is used to his strange voice so it still wasn’t an issue. Here however, no such excuses have to be made; while his distinctive snarling and kooky nasality is still present he can really hold a tune and pulls off plenty of great vocal melodies here. The album also shows off a new found emotive range and versatility to Dave’s voice, with him pulling off gritty anger as well as he has before but also more sorrowful and passionate moments too, all while not relying on attitude alone to get by. The verses and especially the choruses here make great use of this, and while some hooks stick more than others every single song has memorable lyric after memorable lyric and excellent vocals all around.

While most of this album does sit firmly in the realm of mid-tempo heavy metal/hard rock, there are a couple of outliers to give a little variety. ‘À tout le monde’ is the token ballad here, and while it can be considered a shoot for radio play (one which paid off) what results is a very poignant and touching ballad. Dave’s lyrics while simple, hit hard and his singing is genuinely emotionally compelling; this song is perhaps the best example of the versatility he displays on the album. The song features an earworm of a chorus along with lush acoustic guitars and excellent soloing as ever, and despite its lack of reliance on heavy and hard riffs the song remains engaging throughout. ‘Victory’ is a more up-tempo track and the closest thing to a thrasher here – it’s a fun little song that displays the same strengths as everything else, and its lyrics refer to numerous titles from the band’s back catalogue up to this point. It’s a more blood-pumping track that makes for a good note to end on.

It’s easy to write off this album as yet another commercial effort in the wake of Metallica, or just Countdown to Extinction but with no holdovers from the old days. However, I think a better way to look at it is a refinement of Countdown to Extinction‘s formula to produce a more consistent work that succeeds where its predecessor sometimes fails. It’s the sound of a band using their raw talent as well as learning from the past to fully transition into a new genre, while sacrificing none of the music’s quality or personality as well as improving in some regards. Do not skip this one out, if you’re after a really good heavy metal album this is it.

Rating: 88%

Obituary – The End Complete

Lame

While The End Complete may be an album that sold very well in its day, and is fondly remembered as one of the band’s better albums, to me it’s always listened like a pale imitation of the successes Obituary had before it. It’s the sound of a band running into a creative brick wall as they attempt to replicate their older albums with little success, resulting in a mediocre and redundant effort that signalled the start of an incredibly long barren stretch in the band’s discography. It’s a totally uninspired (and uninspiring) album that offers nothing to challenge the listener at all, whether they’ve heard their older albums or not.

The End Complete is very much a stylistic replica of Cause of Death, which is what holds this release back. While that certainly isn’t a bad formula to copy (though Slowly We Rot is the superior of their two genuine classics) the execution leaves something to be desired. The same style of Celtic Frost-inspired brutal, tense, atmospheric and mid-tempo death metal is attempted here, but the band does not have any fresh riffs to put into the songs or any new and interesting ideas or song structures to progress their formula, and what results are 9 inferior and redundant retreads of what the band had done before. The songs here never challenge or excite the listener by doing anything beyond alternating between boring mid-tempo riffs and slightly less boring faster riffs over and over; there are no curveballs here to speak of. None of the riffs are really ear-grabbing or interesting (certainly not nearly as much as past efforts) and the band can’t even get by on aggression alone as nothing is performed with much intensity or vigour. When the band speed up the music develops some kind of pulse but the mid-tempo drudgery that defines a lot of this makes the album very boring to listen to on the whole.

Quite amazingly, given that the preceding two albums are some of the most atmospheric OSDM albums ever recorded, this thing has no atmosphere to speak of – a consequence of the lacklustre material being delivered in a tired-sounding way. The band simply go through the motions here and deliver an uninspiring take on what should be a foolproof formula; even those who haven’t heard Cause of Death would find this to be a severely underwhelming and also-ran album. The production doesn’t help either, with everything sounding remarkably quiet and soft. There’s no low-end to the sound at all, the drums sound like plastic and have no real impact, which is a shame as the drum performance here isn’t bad; it just has to complement substantially inferior material. The guitars meanwhile sit in the middle of a lot of space with a tone that isn’t terribly thick or distorted. It makes the music sound more tired and stale than it already is, as well as even less heavy or intense than it could have been. The production woes combined with the lack of good material and performances makes for music that sounds very meek, which isn’t a word I’d ever thought would describe a death metal album. The only aspect that really holds up is John Tardy’s vocal performance; his distinctly disgusting, high-pitched puking growls that are splattered all over the music are as strong as they were before.

The End Complete is a creatively stagnant bore of an album that offers nothing to actively engage the listener. At best it is death metal-flavoured background noise, or something that sounds like the work of a third-rate Obituary clone. The band do nothing to further their sound here, it’s as if they tried to make this sound as mediocre and same-y as possible. Amazingly, their following album World Demise is a step up from this; at least something new was attempted there, even if it doesn’t always work – this meanwhile sits in their discography like Cause of Death‘s malnourished, deformed twin. There is nothing of interest here, move along.

Rating: 48%

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