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%

Deicide – Once Upon the Cross

Much, much less than the sum of its parts

Any interest I have in Once Upon the Cross has more to do with how and why it manages to fail than any sort of enjoyment from the music. Of all of Deicide’s releases this is the purest representation of the tried and true ‘Deicide sound’ (fast, thrashy riffing, energetic and savage drumming, endless Christianity bashing in the lyrics, lower and more brutal vocals than usual) and contains a number of songs that can be considered classics for the band, and yet it falls short. It’s far from horrible but it’s one of their least memorable albums, and definitely resides in a very low echelon of their discography.

The most immediate flaw of this album is the production, as it makes the music sound less brutal than it should be – in fact as a whole it sounds very plain and dry. The guitar tone is sanded down and lacks edge, which makes the riffs sound less aggressive. The drums take a similar hit, sounding less propulsive than they should be even when the drummer is blasting. Glen’s voice sounds remarkably dry and tired and making the already simple-minded and witless (by Deicide standards) anti-Christian lyrics sound especially unconvincing. It’s a production job that gives a sound concentrated around the mids, and is not suitable at all for music where intensity and energy is critical.

The biggest issue here though is the way the music is performed: though the riffing and drumming throughout the songs is generally of a high quality the way these songs are delivered robs them of their power. The songs feel slovenly and sluggish despite their implied aggression, and for all the blasting drums and fast riffing the performances feel lifeless. Every song manages to have riffs and drum performances that sound very similar, and a similarly unvaried vocal performance. It’s not like wild variation has ever been a quality of Deicide albums or necessary to them, but this album manages to be so same-y that despite being less than half an hour in length the album gets stale after a couple of songs. Of particular note is the vocal performance, which isn’t as low or brutal as you would expect, and as a result Glen also sounds like he isn’t that bothered with putting some intensity into his performance. This problem compounds with the production flaws to make blast-filled, uniformly brutal riff-laden death metal that is wholly lacking in any sort of fire and topped off with a dry and lazy-sounding vocal performance.

There really isn’t much more to say about this album; there’s very little to the music. It sounds like a 3rd string band with poor production skills imitating Deicide when they don’t want to. That said, it’s not like the songs themselves are bad as they sound great in nearly any other setting, just not here. I guess I view this album in the same way certain categorically wrong lunatics view albums like Judas Priest’s S trilogy – it’s a collection of quality songs hampered by sterile production and lacklustre performances. Pick up When Satan Lives instead if you want to hear some of these songs played well.

Rating: 50%

Isis – The Red Sea

‘Fire as far as the eyes can see’

(Note: Whilst most versions of this EP feature their 1998 demo as tracks 4-7, these will be considered separately in a review of said release as I feel the two sets of tracks are different enough to warrant their own reviews. Hence this review will only cover the first 3 songs of the 7 track release, or the only 3 songs on the 1999 vinyl release.)

Isis were always a band in transition – if one wasn’t aware of the artists at work at all they could be forgiven for thinking Celestial was written by a completely different band to In the Absence of Truth, even though they were written by the same 5 people. In general, their adjacent releases sound noticeably different to one another too, as they would evolve substantially with each release. It’s for these reasons that earlier Isis releases would be surprising to many: for one, their earliest work (their demo, EPs and Celestial) sound nothing like what most associate with the band. In addition, the evolution of their sound across this stage of their career was much smaller than say, the leap between Celestial and Oceanic. This brings us to The Red Sea, which exemplifies these traits.

In general, these are among the heaviest and most extreme songs the band would ever produce. It can be easy to forget that before the post-rock and progressive metal/rock influence crept into their music Isis were making searingly heavy sludge metal. Across this release there are many examples of excellent sludge metal riffing whether they’re going for a brutal and chaotic feel that leans towards hardcore, or a tense and droning style that leans towards doom metal. The drums are a similar story – complementing the riffs perfectly no matter what tempo and no matter what atmosphere the band are trying to achieve. The sound of the music is a bottom-heavy and thick one and the instruments sound crisp and loud – the guitar tone is a vast and sludgy mass and the drums crash into the front of the mix, giving the music the sonic clarity and weight it needs. The vocals take something of a back seat in the mix but that doesn’t rob them of their presence in the music. Aaron’s vocal performance here is a distorted, raspy shriek – none of the shouts, growls or cleans heard on later albums are anywhere to be found. He sounds even more intense than what he was doing on Mosquito Control, and matches the sheer power of the instruments.

Even though this is their shortest ever release – a mere 15 minutes comprised of 3 tracks – there is a surprising level of variety across them. ‘Charmicarmicarmicat Shines to Earth’ is a noisy intro piece that is reminiscent of ‘Emission of the Signal’ from Sawblade: it’s less than 2 and a half minutes of a very slow and ringing sludge metal riff while Aaron shouts over it in a distorted, booming voice. It’s a powerful way to set the stage for what’s to come and a very intense track in its own right. ‘The Minus Times’ begins with a rather fast and frenetic passage before settling into a crushing mid-tempo groove that still brings frequent change-ups in the riffs. It listens like a much better produced and more refined version of a track from their demo, and is the single most brutal thing the band has ever written. By contrast, the title track is an epic that is akin to the more elaborate and atmospheric style witnessed on Celestial. Starting with a slow, droning riff it progresses to more mid-tempo territory over the course of 3 and a half minutes before suddenly giving way to a lone acoustic melody. Samples are slowly faded into the music before the band comes crashing in again, with the guitars playing an electric rendition of the acoustic melody. This continues to the end of the track and makes for an impactful ending to both the track and the EP. This song also marks one of the earliest examples of their music focusing more on atmosphere than outright heaviness, making it a very important track for their musical development.

The Red Sea is probably the most transitional Isis release despite its brief duration, bringing together a more refined form of the style used on their demo and the style that would set the stage for their later, better known albums. This gives the release a pleasing circularity to it – being a final send-off to that older style while initiating the transition to something new. It may not have the same level of sonic and conceptual unity of other Isis albums but it does contain two of their finest songs and it’s a watershed moment in their discography. If these aren’t good enough reasons to get this I don’t know what is.

Rating: 93%

Isis – Sawblade

An interesting artefact

Sawblade was always something of an oddity in Isis’ discography, which pertains to its nature and purpose. Unlike anything else they’ve done this was never intended to be a main part of their discography, having been thrown together to be sold during a 1999 tour with Neurosis and Candiria. And when I say ‘thrown together’, it really has been: there’s no cover art at all and it’s more a compilation of unreleased tracks they had at the time – two covers from The Red Sea sessions and two demos that were recorded at home. Hence it’s a collection of unrelated songs as opposed to a unified piece of work, something else which sets it apart from the rest of their discography.

The two demos bookend this release, and due to their experimental nature they may put some people off. The opener ‘Emission of the Signal’ is 5 or so minutes of a singular chugging sludge riff, with higher-end guitar noise coming in later, timed to the riff and contrasting with it, as well as sampled thudding in the background of the track. It’s quite good in its own way, being a sort of build up to the meat of the EP, but the problem is it’s too long – it could easily have been cut down to 3 and a half minutes and the effect would have been the same. The closing track is ‘House of Low Culture’, an 11 minute ambient/drone piece. Its first 4 minutes consist solely of rumbling sound effects which then give way to a guitar melody. The guitar work becomes less melodic with time as it shifts to heavier, more droning territory before fading out somewhat and allowing a sparse keyboard line to take over. It’s a very good song, remaining interesting throughout and creating a tranquil, reflective atmosphere, however its sparse construction and sluggish progression may make it less immediately accessible to some.

The other two tracks are covers of absolute classics – Black Sabbath’s ‘Hand of Doom’ and Godflesh’s ‘Streetcleaner’. Both of these tracks were recorded during The Red Sea sessions and as such they have a polished, crisp and loud sound to them with a very pronounced low end. The drums in particular are quite loud and the guitar tone is immensely distorted, sludgy and massive even by Isis standards. This goes some way to making both of these tracks improvements on the originals, but it complements ‘Streetcleaner’ much better as the power of this rather claustrophobic, intense production style can be felt more on a pummelling track like that than the comparatively laid back ‘Hand of Doom’. This is partially why ‘Hand of Doom’ is the lesser of the two covers, with the other reason being that they don’t do a whole lot with it. Aaron sings in a similar style to Ozzy, and whilst the song is a little slower than before, it’s in a similar vein to the original. It’s good and all but it’s sort of unremarkable, and it can easily be argued that the track loses some of its character by replacing Ozzy’s distinctive voice with what amounts to a solid imitation.

On ‘Streetcleaner’ however, they very much don’t go through the motions: the drums are live as opposed to a drum machine, the guitars don’t drone as much, and the production as stated is fuller and louder than before. The 40 second spoken word intro from the original has been cut completely, as has some of the outro. As a result the track, while perhaps less mechanical-sounding than before, is made even heavier and more direct, with the band upping the intensity to levels while still managing to create an equally hellish, if less mechanical atmosphere. The riffing is more brutal and tense than ever and Aaron’s coarse, powerful shouts replace Justin’s booming, effects-laden reverberating spoken word, adding to the song’s newfound heaviness and directness. It’s not often that a song becomes a classic for the band covering it, but Isis succeeded in doing so; it’s an amazing rendition of an excellent song. While it can be argued that the loss of the drum machine and overall machine-like qualities to the sound makes the song less distinctive, this is undeniably a more remarkable and interesting cover than ‘Hand of Doom’ as they do something a little different with it.

This is a good release as you’d expect (though also uneven, as you wouldn’t expect), however I would highly recommend you don’t buy it, as its limited number of copies makes it a collector’s piece with elevated prices. The CD releases start at around $38 and can fetch as much as $320, while the vinyl releases start at about $70 and go up to over $325. To my mind no singular album, no matter how good it may be, is ever worth this much and that’s especially true for a half hour, 4 track EP comprised of two covers and two demos. It can’t be stressed enough: either buy these tracks on Bandcamp, or if you wish to own them in physical form, the two covers (but not the demos) can be found on Temporal, along with many other rare tracks. These are much more cost-effective ways of obtaining this material, and are very much preferable options to buying the EP on its own.

Rating: 80%

Soundgarden – Badmotorfinger

Hits like a Phillips head into the brain

If ever there was an overlooked classic, this is it. When Badmotorfinger is actually remembered it’s largely known for being one of the lesser grunge albums released in 1991 (commercially being overshadowed by Ten and Nevermind), and the album that preceded the smash hit Superunknown – and even then the songs that stick in the minds of most are the three singles: ‘Rusty Cage’, ‘Outshined’ and ‘Jesus Christ Pose’. I’d say there’s a lot more to this album that meets the eye; to my mind it’s an excellent metal album and one of the greatest albums of the era, and it remains the band’s best album, in my eyes. I also feel that there are some musical characteristics to this album that often missed, perhaps a side effect of only 3 of its tracks remaining in the memories of most.

In general this album is rather dense, varied and inaccessible take on heavy metal, with it exploring multiple strains of the genre as it filters in different influences and songwriting styles. For example, in the first 3 songs the tracklist goes from ‘Rusty Cage’, a speed metal song with a crushing doomy ending, to the catchy mid-tempo heavy metal/hard rock influenced ‘Outshined’, to a foreboding and torturously slow doom/sludge metal dirge loaded with shrieking in ‘Slaves and Bulldozers’. This is a trend that continues throughout the album; it’s comprised almost entirely of curve-balls with no real pattern to anything and it makes for a very interesting and satisfying listen. Through the various twists and turns the album takes by featuring these very different songs one after the other, as well as the odd nature of the music itself, Badmotorfinger quickly reveals itself to be one strange album.

Of course, the band members themselves need the musical chops to pull off the various musical ideas, and indeed they do. The album is filled to the brim with excellent guitarwork, with riffs that draw from heavy, doom, stoner and sludge metal, with some nods to hard, psychedelic and alternative rock in the simpler, groovier and noisier style the guitar riffs sometimes take. They even play with unconventional time signatures and alternative tunings throughout the album in a way that feels natural – it feels as if they’re doing so to give the music a strange and off-kilter feel as opposed to showing off. The drumming is always appropriate and engaging, ranging from the steamrolling aural assault witnessed on ‘Jesus Christ Pose’ to a timekeeper that drives the band forward on the rocking ‘Drawing Flies’. The leads are tasteful, emotive and technical, and highlight the classic rock influence that occasionally rears its head on the album. And of course there’s Chris Cornell’s singing – the man really is one of the greatest rock singers of all time, because he has it all: an astonishing four octave vocal range, superb emotive and expressive capability, attitude, personality, and sheer sonic power. He also shows incredible versatility, ranging from a foreboding, booming mid-range to fiery and passionate wailing and on several songs (‘New Damage’, ‘Room A Thousand Years Wide’, ‘Slaves and Bulldozers’) throwing in some truly unhinged shrieking to go with the equally unhinged music.

Obviously having a lot of ideas and being able to pull them off is one thing, but they also need to be backed up with varied and interesting songwriting: this is the real strength of the album. The culmination of this is ‘Jesus Christ Pose’, with its controlled and effortless progression in structure and riffing and its extremely dense atmosphere. Across the rest of the album, whether it’s a short, fast song (‘Face Pollution’), a more psychedelic song (‘Searching With My Good Eye Closed’ or ‘Somewhere’), or an absolute crusher (‘New Damage’), the band always manage to keep it fresh with change-ups in the riffs and the basic verse-chorus structure (sometimes dispensing with it entirely) and never following a formula from song to song. In the process the band show themselves to be versatile musicians who can expand upon a basic template of Sabbath-inspired metal in multiple ways. Another thing to commend is its consistency; every song, even the less popular and well received songs towards the album’s end, are excellent examples of the band’s unorthodox approach to their style. Pretty much the only bad idea across the entire tracklist is the ridiculous and pointless intro to ‘Searching With My Good Eye Closed’, which serves only to draw out the song longer than it needed to be while being stupid at the same time.

One of the best examples of what this album is about is the aforementioned ‘Jesus Christ Pose’. In its 6 minutes it wastes no time in establishing itself as a seriously frenetic number with thrash-like, rolling riffs over a similarly rolling and pummelling drum beat and yet another stellar wailing/shrieking performance from Chris. It never lets up in its momentum or establishes a hook for the listener’s mind to return to, flowing effortlessly from one riff to the next with no let up. Then of course there’s ‘Room a Thousand Years Wide’, which may be an even better example of how odd this album is: it is 4 minutes of one chugging doom metal riff with its final minute being consumed by a blaring saxophone solo and more of Chris’ shrieking; it really is as absurd and wonderful as it sounds. I think these two tracks kind of sum up the album as a whole; it’s weird, wonderful, seriously creative and just a little left of field. Don’t let its quirks put you off, give it some listens and over time its wonders will be revealed to you. This is one of the greatest metal albums of all time; essential for any metal fan.

R.I.P. Chris Cornell (20th July 1964 – 18th May 2017)

Rating: 98%

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%

Machine Head – The More Things Change…

Difficult to fathom

Of every album in Machine Head’s catalogue this is the most forgotten, and with good reason. The band manages to write some of their most confused and unfocused material for this album, and as a result this is their least consistent and most uneven work. On top of that, given the band in question it’s naturally a grating, 4th tier exercise in amplifying the worst aspects of whatever sound they’re playing this time round – in this case the band stopped being an imitator of Pantera with a penchant for half-ballads and down-tuning and instead started moving towards playing nu-metal.

In truth the sound on this album isn’t really nu-metal, but the alternative rock influences present on Burn My Eyes are now consistently pushed to the forefront of the music. The grooves are simpler and muddier than before, and there is an increased reliance on two note drones and more percussive chugging. None of the riffs or guitar lines on this album are really memorable or interesting – at no point are any real hard-hitting, massive grooves or any kind of thrash-influenced riffing attempted at all and any grooves on the album amount to nothing more than rejected Chaos A.D. material. There is some usage of the alternative rock chord strum for more melodic material, particularly when clean vocals are used. Another feature of the music is the heavy usage of guitar squeals, which are supposed to create a tense atmosphere of sorts but simply grate on the ears and make songs like ‘Ten Ton Hammer’ truly painful to listen to. This mish-mash of techniques and confused sound makes for an uneven listen, because it’s never clear what the band is going for in any one song – are they trying to be percussive or atmospheric? Melodic or atonal? Driving or droning? It’s very confused music that has no clear objective or focus.

From the guitar tone lacking the same bite it had on Burn My Eyes to the the reduced presence of the riffs in favour of guitar noise, the bass or silence, the band are obviously trying to make their music more atmospheric in a nu-metal sort of way, and then marry that to their heavier groove metal sound but it falls very flat, as the way the band go about it here makes for a dreadful compromise. They haven’t fully taken the plunge into nu-metal territory so the music is more guitar driven than you’d expect; the guitar tone is more percussive and has more impact than most nu-metal and yet the reduced presence of the riffs means the guitarists play very static, uninteresting material. As a result of this the band spends most of any given song trying to be heavy and aggressive but not having the riffs to do so, resulting in a lot of the album being very bland. Because the guitars are the focus of the music, any time they drop out of the music it completely breaks the flow of the song and any time they start squealing it becomes unbearable because the noise is too loud. This is the result of the indecisiveness on the band’s part; a set of musically confused songs that fail at everything they attempt to do.

Complicating matters further is Robb’s vocal performance, which serves to completely ruin any semi-decent moments the band might stumble into once in a while. His hardcore influenced shout lacks punch and impact much like the music behind him, and as a result he doesn’t actually sound all that aggressive. This further robs any power from the album’s heavier moments as he doesn’t have the commanding, powerful voice needed for this kind of music; contrast this performance with Phil Anselmo on Far Beyond Driven and decide who does the better job of being aggressive. His clean vocals are even worse – used during the quiet and melodic moments of the music, they are particularly whiny and weak and ruin the mood. It doesn’t help that they are far more exposed than the shouting, so they are the only focus of the music. His distorted whispering to the sound of guitar squealing is perhaps the worst though, as at these points the music stops being grating and actually becomes painful to listen to.

The songwriting makes matters even worse, as the band see fit to try and be ‘progressive’. While they don’t hover around the 7-10 minute mark for the entire album like they would later on, every song on the album is still too long and contains only a handful of ideas, each largely unrelated to one another. They tend to dwell on a given idea for most of the song while sticking to verse-hook structures with poorly placed ‘atmospheric’ sections and other assorted nonsense for good measure. None of the songs really flow, rather every track feels like a grab bag of assorted ideas as the band meander from one hook to the next. None of the songs are terribly catchy despite their attempts at accessible hooks, mostly due to bad singing and lacklustre vocal lines.

There’s no real reason to listen to this album. Everything the band tries to do falls flat due to numerous deficiencies in performance, production and songwriting, every song manages to be grating and boring, nothing really sticks out for a positive reason and the whole thing just lacks focus. It’s a mess, one which makes The Blackening look positively cohesive and properly written.

Rating: 8%

Wintersun – The Forest Seasons

Do not buy this

I’d like to clear something up right away – under no circumstances should you buy this album new. Even if it was a good album I’d be saying to pick it up used or pirate it, because by buying it directly from the label you are supporting the petulant, entitled manchild Jari Mäenpää and all of his ridiculous antics. Buying this new means you are saying that the very notion of releasing an album purely out of spite because you couldn’t have your own studio built for you, or releasing half of an album after 8 years, or refusing to release the music you promised until a studio is funded by your fans is somehow acceptable.

Bringing up non-musical matters in this case is not only absolutely fair but also completely logical, necessary and above all, honest. To ‘focus on the music only’ is flagrantly disingenuous, as this album exists entirely because of Jari’s unbelievable sense of entitlement. He had no intention of recording this originally, but made it only so he could fund the construction of his own studio. Make no mistake people, this album is a stopgap released only so Jari could make more money to fuel his delusions. It is a piece of commercial fodder, and examining its musical contents reveals just how lazy and effortless it really is.

This album is in a similar style to his last album, that being fairly standard melodic death/power metal with a lighter but still prominent usage of synthesised orchestrations and an attempt at an epic atmosphere. This in theory is a good blend but it simply never comes together whenever Jari has a stab at it, because he never sticks to what he’s good at: high tempo short songs loaded with excellent hyper-melodic riffing, blasting drums and incredible guitar soloing with an optional usage of keyboards as a background instrument. He can’t pull off anything lengthy, slow or atmospheric because he can’t write good riffs in a slower, more grandiose style or compose keyboard parts that are interesting enough to be the focus of the music, and these songs are no exception.

Every song plods along with below average and sluggish riffs that are totally boring and unmemorable, with similarly bland drumming. The attempt at a darker and more stripped sound here means virtually no good soloing, removing the only saving grace of his weaker material. This also means that Jari’s substandard riffing has taken centre stage, compounding the issue of dull music by making its core completely unengaging. To make matters worse, while the keyboards are dialed back to a tolerable level they’re never used to great effect, with very few notable melodies or effective attempts to accent the music, instead chiming along with no consequence. The vocals aren’t up to the task either, as he sounds very bored when singing or growling. Even the worst of the last two albums had a better vocal performance from him, and it is a suitably boring performance for such boring and empty music.

In spite of the totally boring performances what kills this album is the approach to the songwriting. Given the mess that was Time I it is safe to say that Jari believes in the principle of ‘more = better’. This seems to be the only way he can work a climax into a song, because to do so he’ll just throw in some choirs and have more keys chiming. There’s no actual dynamics here, at least not in the sense of building and releasing tension through appropriate usage of instruments. He just increases the volume of all the bells and whistles, and it doesn’t work at all, as the music feels flat and dead whether it is loud or quiet. It’s a completely artificial approach that demonstrates why more layers and gloss can’t make up for good songwriting and atmosphere. There in fact is no atmosphere as a result of all the instrumental and structural deficiencies. The songs don’t even feel evocative of the seasons they represent, which is simply laughable.

Another issue is that the songs are *far* too long – each song could have each section cut in half and the effect would be the same. To compound this issue, riffs are repeated too much and not varied enough and songs ultimately go nowhere by the time they finally end, because they don’t conclude in a resounding or interesting way. However, the worst part is that it sounds as if each section of any song is just there so it ticks off a checklist. This is down to the fact that Jari can’t actually write long songs, because when he does he throws any idea he can think of into a song without making it all flow properly or fleshing each idea out, and the end result are songs that feel like a collection of unrelated ideas. There’s no rhyme or reason for a quiet bit or a choral part to be in the songs at all, other than because songs usually have them. Nothing really stitches them together, it all feels bizarrely disjointed and makes the songs tedious to listen to as they arbitrarily run through a set of tropes.

Ironically this album benefits greatly from not being recorded in a world class studio, because unlike Time I this isn’t completely drenched in overdone keyboards and the music doesn’t sound anywhere near as processed, digital and hollow. Instead it sports a typical modern sound, with slightly clicky drums and a fat and crunchy guitar tone. While the production means that the music doesn’t jump out at the listener at all, by the same token it isn’t obnoxiously noisy and actually has a relative sense of dynamics, which in turn makes it a little easier to take in. It must be stressed that this is all relative however – this is still a chore to sit through on account of the boring music as well as the abysmal song structuring. The album still has no dynamics in terms of mood or tension, only in terms of pure volume and layers.

I think Jari has his priorities all wrong. Given the decent production achieved on this album a new studio isn’t needed. Instead, Jari should use the money he extorted to hire some session musicians who can actually write some good music, because he clearly can’t anymore. It’s either that or he really didn’t try with this album because as mentioned previously it exists only so Jari can take more money to release music he should have released 5 years ago, and that is perhaps the most revolting thing about this album. It is one thing to make an album that is a cashgrab, but it’s quite another to make a cashgrab album that sounds like a cashgrab. It’s completely dull and effortless music by a spiteful, bitter man. Hopefully after this dreck and the entire crowdfunding fiasco we can forget about this idiot forever. What a colossal waste of time this album is – avoid.

Rating: 20%

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