Bartushka – Hospodi

Do not buy this

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s an embarrassment.

Rating: 13%

Deathspell Omega – Manifestations 2000 – 2001

Re-opening the vault

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 65%

Type O Negative – The Least Worst Of

Hey, it could be worse

(Note: I am reviewing the unedited version of the album, which features ‘It’s Never Enough’ as track 4 and ‘Unsuccessfully Coping with the Natural Beauty of Infidelity’ as its penultimate track, with the edited version swapping the latter for ‘Gravitational Constant: G = 6.67 x 10⁻⁸ cm⁻³ gm⁻¹ sec⁻²’ and dropping the former altogether. As this means the unedited version has more new material, this is the one I recommend.)

This compilation released about a year after World Coming Down is a bit of an odd beast, as far as compilations go. At best this sort of release compiles rarities such as demos, b-sides and outtakes and if pulled off correctly can function as unique albums in their own right; while at worst they have nothing new on them at all and instead present material that has already been heard before on past albums. The Least Worst Of straddles a line between the two, as it mostly offers up alternate versions of past material, with a few rarer or exclusive tracks in the mix as well.

A significant chunk of this album’s running time is devoted to edited versions of songs we’ve heard before, that have either been released as b-sides or are unique to this album. All of them are shortened radio edits, and they all suffer from the same problems. While most of these songs still function, retaining some of the atmosphere and getting the same basic ideas across, they lose a lot of the larger-than-life quality the originals had as they do not flow nearly as well, with transitions from section to section feeling much more abrupt and sections being omitted entirely. The edit of ‘Black No. 1’ in particular is truly terrible and entirely skip-worthy – it doesn’t flow or listen like a complete song at all, sounding more like various sections of different songs stapled together with no rhyme or reason. There’s also the matter of the remix of their version of ‘Cinnamon Girl’, which changes the song for the much worse. The drum machine used previously sounds much more like a sampled electronic kit now, and the guitars and vocals sound similarly processed and electronic due to being slathered in effects. The guitars cut out abruptly at points, particularly for the verses, but otherwise the song remains structurally unchanged. It’s an interesting edit but I feel like removing the spacey, atmospheric sounds of the original album does nothing to help the song at all.

This album only really falls into the best of formula on two occasions. Both versions feature a track from Slow, Deep and Hard as their penultimate song, and while both of these are great, we’ve heard these before. In addition, songs almost always work better in the context of the album from which they came, and as such there’s no real reason to listen to these tracks as presented here; they are inferior due to the context they are in. The other is a ‘remix’ of the track ‘My Girlfriend’s Girlfriend’ – I guess it is a remix but it barely qualifies as it is very nearly the same song; the only alteration I can hear is that the beat during the first few seconds of the song is removed, leaving only the organ before the drums come in anyway followed by the guitars. It’s otherwise identical to the original and therefore totally pointless for the same reasons that the songs from the debut are.

There are however, a few songs that are of more interest. The main draw for me on this album is the three World Coming Down session outtakes, as that is in my eyes one the greatest metal albums ever released. The songs in question are ‘It’s Never Enough’, ’12 Black Rainbows’ and the closer ‘Stay Out of My Dreams’. All are great representations of that album’s sound, with dreary and ugly stretches of riffing being broken up by occasional moments of sheer beauty, sparse but effective keys contributing to these and uniformly hopeless and negative lyrics. ’12 Black Rainbows’ is a shorter, catchier number with an explosive chorus that could have been a single, while the other two are more expansive and progressive tracks, combining crushing doom metal riffs with more atmospheric sections and frequent changes of pace – particularly in the case of ‘It’s Never Enough’, which contains thrashy up-tempo sections that hearken back to the days of Slow, Deep and Hard.

Also of note are two alternate takes of covers from earlier in the band’s career. ‘Hey Pete (Peter’s Ego Trip Version)’ is their version of the popular song ‘Hey Joe’, originally from The Origin of the Feces but without the faux live noise present on that album. The lyrics have been re-written lyrics to fit the theme of revenge against an unfaithful girlfriend present on Slow, Deep and Hard and its aforementioned ‘live’ counterpart. It’s been turned from a laid back psychedelic rocker into a gloomy doom metal number, as is befitting of the new lyrics. ‘Black Sabbath (From the Satanic Perspective)’ meanwhile is their take on Black Sabbath’s classic (originally from Nativity in Black and later on reissues of Bloody Kisses), albeit with lyrics that show the other side of the story told by the original. The song is a great deal heavier and slower than the original, bordering on funeral doom speeds during the verses, and Ozzy’s agonised singing has been replaced by Pete’s bass-baritone crooning. Both of these are great examples of covers, having been translated and built upon properly to turn the originals into different beasts entirely, ones that sound so natural and distinctly Type O Negative that they both could have been written by the band.

A heavily discounted purchase is recommended when seeking this album out. It is an incredibly mixed bag, coming out only slightly positive when factoring in the amount of inferior edits and redundant inclusions present. The radio edits are all inferior to the originals though they’re mostly alright and not entirely disposable, but barring the two covers and the three new originals everything else here is skipworthy or redundant. This album is by no means essential as a whole and it certainly is not a good introduction to the band’s career, but it does have some merit.

For what it’s worth, I do appreciate the good humour needed to put absolute silence on a best of compilation; that alone is worthy of a chuckle.

Rating: 55%

Sepultura – Chaos A.D.

Silence means death

For many, Chaos A.D. marks the beginning of the end for Sepultura – this highly divisive album is seen as their fall from grace and their first step into the pits they inhabit today. While sonically it did pave the way for the slop the band would put out after it, the transition made here is a successful one. On this album, Sepultura underwent a fairly drastic shift in sound to groove metal – obvious comparisons to Pantera can be made, with the riffs here being much simpler than on previous efforts. The band relies on texture, directness, percussive heaviness and simplicity for impact as opposed to an assault on the senses through speed and technicality. Max’s vocals always tended more towards shouting than growling but here he sounds higher pitched, a bit more monotone, consistently louder and more angry sounding. The soloing and drumming meanwhile is in fact more active and technical than on past efforts – in a similar fashion to Pantera the reduced technicality of the riffs means the soloing and drumming has been spiced up to provide more variation to the songs.

However, the feel of this album certainly isn’t merely that of a Pantera clone, as there is a distinct punk spirit running throughout the album, which manifests mainly in the focus of the music. The various songs here are much more stripped down in presentation than even something like ‘Walk’, with a lot more focus going towards big and simple messages and motifs within the songs, with anything else taking a back seat. The soloing for instance has been stripped of most of its melody, and as such they exist solely to serve the song by being a point of contrast within them for some variation. While there are a good few riffs in any given track of varying types, they are the principle motifs of the songs and exist to be as memorable as possible, with the band stripping them down to the bare minimum to make them and thus the songs as immediate and high-impact as possible. The drums exist to accentuate those riffs and give them impact by doubling up their percussive nature. The songs are built around verse-chorus song structures with very catchy, simple choruses usually consisting of just a few words, as well as simpler verses. The vocals are more straightforward too – they are there simply to relay the lyrics and as such are stripped of what little tonal variation they had. Everything exists solely to turn each song into an engaging and memorable vehicle for the band’s anger and their messages – it’s all been stripped down to the bare essentials.

Music this focused and stripped down requires a great deal of passion and creativity to get by, in a similar fashion to punk and alternative rock, and it is here where the band succeeds. They have a knack for making things stick by picking only the most memorable riffs to put in a song, as well as penning the most memorable lyrics (this album’s lyrics are full of earworms and quotables – this review’s title being one example.) The solos, while noisy, atonal and technical, never go overboard and start noodling or otherwise detracting from the focus of the songs. The drums are hit hard, and despite the simple nature of the music the drum performance is loaded with lots and lots of interesting fills (often influenced by tribal music) to back the riffs up. The guitars sound heavy, textured and thick, and the riffs are played with a great deal of conviction. The vocals too sound righteously angry, with Max making for a convincing, truly captivating frontman. It sounds as if he put his heart into the messages he is shouting forth which makes it much easier to take them seriously, and the general passion of the performances all around results in songs that feel very crucial, as if the band have to get their sounds out there. The band also does well to mix it up in songs too, with very few tracks ever stagnating on one idea for too long. There’s always a faster thrash/hardcore influenced section, breakdown, solo or some other contrasting section around the corner, with each part consistently bringing its own memorable ideas to the table (a riff, a set of lyrics, a drum pattern or another idea entirely.) For all the deliberate stripping down Sepultura’s music has undergone, most of these tracks are as energetic and dynamic as before and due to their simplicity have a much more immediate impact on the listener as the band waste no time in getting to the meat of a song’s ideas and messages.

The album mostly remains within the realm of hardcore/groove/thrash, with some songs leaning more towards one or two of the three. The opener, title track and most famous song here ‘Refuse/Resist’ is a perfect mission statement for the album as a whole. The song drips with a rebellious, angered spirit that translates into how furious and strong the performances are, with its mid-tempo verses and undeniable hook backed up by a set of fantastic groove riffs, before the band break into a speedy bridge as Andreas solos away like there’s no tomorrow. Tracks like ‘Territory’, ‘Nomad’ or ‘Amen’ go for more mid-tempo, crushing grooves while ‘Biotech is Godzilla’ is excellent and to-the-point crossover thrash song and tracks such as ‘Propaganda’ and ‘Manifest’ mix up faster and more mid-tempo sections. ‘We Who Are Not As Others’ in an interesting, mostly instrumental, piece that continuously builds up from a slow groove riff to the climax of the band shouting the title, with an increasingly frantic drum performance, strings and leads accenting the song nicely. The New Model Army cover is a successful translation of the song to the album’s style, creating a rather dark track that thematically fits in quite well and provides some variety to the album. Another interesting track is ‘Kaiowas’ – an acoustic jam with pounding tribal percussion that functions as a protest song of sorts, one that fits in perfectly with everything else here in spirit if not in style.

Whatever it may have represented for the band and metal as a whole, Chaos A.D. will remain as a truly remarkable milestone and one of the genre’s crown jewels for years to come. It’s an extremely creative, potent and cohesive blend of aggression, memorability and passion, one that remains virtually unrivalled in metal to this day. It’s not for everybody, but giving it a chance and allowing it to grow on you might just turn out to be very rewarding.

Rating: 90%

Gruesome – Twisted Prayers

Death metal’s Greta Van Fleet

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

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

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

Rating: 25%

Ulver – Nattens Madrigal – Aatte Hymne til Ulven i Manden

Snore

It’s very obvious that Ulver haven’t wanted to play black metal for many years (having not played anything approaching it after this album, and having dropped it and Bergtatt from their live shows altogether), but honestly this album has me firmly believing that the band didn’t really want to play black metal even when they were playing it. It’s already telling that of the two metal albums they have, Bergtatt stands out more for its less aggressive and softer moments, but it’s even more telling that this, the purest example of black metal in their catalogue, still stands as an album so fundamentally flawed that it listens almost like a parody of what was going on at the time. It’s also quite possibly the worst album of their entire career, even after more than 20 years since its release.

On this album, Ulver go for a very minimal and raw take on Norwegian black metal. It’s clear that Transilvanian Hunger was a point of reference; I’m aware this is a common comparison but it is common for a reason. The music is primarily built upon the basic repetition of just a few melodic black metal riffs (though this album is less droning and hypnotic than the Darkthrone album) atop an endless stream of blast beats and with an unchanging and serviceable (if unremarkable) black metal rasp. The riffs here are consistently good or even great: they are aggressive and memorable, and keep the energy of the music up as the band flow from one riff to the next – ‘I’ in particular has some truly stellar guitarwork throughout it. There are also some brief, tranquil acoustic breaks in a few of the tracks; Ulver had already proven themselves with this style on the previous two albums so they are the standout moments on the album. The drumming does get rather monotonous after a while (even Transilvanian Hunger had more going on in this department) and Garm sticking to harsh vocals when his singing is what made him stand out is a shame, but aside from this the substance of this album is up to scratch; these aren’t especially major flaws. However, where this falls down is that this is clearly music that requires atmosphere to be effective, and the sound of this album pretty much wrecks any chance of one being built.

Much has been made of this album’s production and with good reason – it is its most crippling flaw. For those who haven’t heard what it sounds like, it is under-produced to the point of ruining the listening experience. Every note of the music is buried under a layer of static and all but the treble frequencies have been removed entirely. Now, it’s clear that raw production would benefit the material but the way it’s been carried out here completely ruins the music. The material does not benefit from this sound; it doesn’t come across as primal or distant or cold due to the production, rather it goes against everything the band wanted to achieve here. It’s hard to tell if this is actually is a high-fidelity recording that was made raw after the fact but it listens like it; the rawness stands out as being incredibly forced and artificial as for all the implied hostility and darkness of the sound it does not make the music feel that way at all. Instead, the music sounds sterile and utterly passionless due to being so under-produced, which totally wrecks the atmosphere. As this is an album that is reliant on said atmosphere it pretty much kneecaps the music and renders it largely ineffective. Another problem is that the sound is so piercing that even after several years I still cannot listen to this at a reasonable volume with my headphones in, and frankly it’s still a grating chore to listen to even on my PC speakers. It is a uniquely horrible and unbearable listening experience as it is an unending stream of trebly riffing – not even power electronics, harsh noise or notably trebly metal albums like …and Justice for All prove to be this grating at a reasonable volume – the sound only furthers the disconnect I have with the music.

It’s no use warning people off this, any black metal fan has heard it at least once and they know if they like it or not, but Nattens Madrigal is truly one of the biggest ‘the emperor has no clothes’ metal albums for me. It’s the sound of a band throwing out what they’ve proven themselves to be good at (folk music and laid back melodic black metal) and instead forcing a sound they clearly did not have that much interest in to begin with, judging by the quality of this and how quickly they jumped ship from metal altogether. It has its redeeming qualities for sure but overall it is simply not good, and a colossal disappointment from a band that had delivered and would continue to deliver a lot of great material.

Rating: 35%

Metallica – …and Justice for All

Mechanical, yet human, fury

I understand that a Metallica review today might be one of the more redundant exercises in writing about music, but hear me out. If there was a Metallica album that was in need of more reviewing, this is it. Not part of the much lauded holy trinity of thrash that preceded it or the string of sharply polarising and much derided works that followed, …and Justice for All is neither famous (aside from ‘One’) nor infamous – it’s simply there for most listeners, an odd diversion by the band that led to nothing. Which is a shame, as it’s easily my favourite Metallica album. I firmly believe it to be one of the greatest metal albums ever conceived, and an incredibly unique one at that.

It’s probably the most controversial and legendary aspect of the album, and to my mind the most important: the production. It really is as dry and sterile as everyone says – there is no warmth to the sound at all. Everything sounds very thin and trebly, and while there are bass frequencies to the sound there is indeed no bass guitar to be heard. I know for a lot of listeners that this is a major turn-off (though I’ve never had a problem with the way the album sounded, this may be because it was one of my first metal albums and as such the sound didn’t strike me as especially odd, no stranger than the albums that came before it), however I can’t imagine this album without it, and I highly doubt the album would benefit from a more normal sound. It’s not an accessible or indeed objectively good production style at all; however it casts every single second of the songs in a new light, by stripping the instrumentation of any human touch they may have had. What would be a warm, reverby drum kit is now a stark, clicking yet thudding timekeeper that marches in the background, and the guitars turn into serrated, thin razors that grind away endlessly. And while it was terrible of the band to haze Newstead by turning him right down, I do believe the removal of the bass guitar only furthers the coldness of the sound – the album is better for it.

This harsher, colder backdrop fits perfectly with the vocal performance, which is another notable aspect of this album. Never before did James ever sound this angry, or bitter, or resentful. He easily delivers his harshest, heaviest and *best* vocal performance here, without question, and is given a rougher edge by the production. Paired with intelligent but still memorable and concise lyrics on environmental destruction, corruption in the justice system, wanton psychotic violence and the horrors of warfare, and you have the righteous anger of a man disillusioned of the world delivered over the most aggressive sounding riffs and drum beats Metallica would ever write. Slow burning, almost grooving tracks like ‘Harvester of Sorrow’ or ‘Eye of the Beholder’ become relentless crushers that flatten all in their path. Already supercharged barnstormers like ‘Dyers Eve’ or ‘Blackened’ become some of the most intense thrash ever written; the former in particular still floors me to this day with its rapid fire gun-like double bass and unbridled resentment.

It’s not as if the instrumentation is merely a backdrop, either. More often than not it takes centre stage, and even peering behind the vocals reveals incredible performances all around. As has been mentioned, some of the band’s most aggressive and destructive riffing comes through here (‘Dyers Eve’, ‘The Shortest Straw’), and even during the more mid-paced moments the riffs still shine as being highly memorable, with the band working some monolithic grooves into their songs (‘Harvester of Sorrow’ or the descending riff of ‘The Frayed Ends of Sanity’; a nice fit to the theme of the song) and lacing these slower moments with chugs, giving rise to a drudging heaviness not unlike doom metal. The same can be said of the drum performance; when Lars isn’t functioning solely as a timekeeper several of the patterns and fills on here are quite technical, and on the whole Lars pounds away on the kit relentlessly, particularly with that distinct pattern on the title track or the incessant double bass of ‘Dyers Eve’. The soloing is at its most technical too, it’s not a major point when they occupy relatively short slots in these much longer songs but they do serve to give a little variation to the album, a brief respite from the endless onslaught of riffing.

A complaint this album often receives is the sheer repetition of the material, and a general sense of the album being too long for its own good. To my ears however, this is part of the reason for the album’s potent atmosphere. The riffs repeat for relatively long stretches of time, as do the drums. In doing so, combined with the sound and atmosphere already present, they take on a very mechanical and almost… industrial feel to them. The likes of ‘Eye of the Beholder’ or ‘To Live is to Die’ really build on this with a principal chugging, groovy riff being repeated for most of the song. Instead of making the riffs or beats stale, the repetition adds to their power, by turning them into a principal reference point that guides each song to keep them on track. It keeps the songs direct and focused, even when they approach 10 minutes in length. It also adds to the coldness of the backdrop the lyrics are set against; there is no natural variation to be found, only unyielding repetition of guitars and drums grinding against one another.

The feel of this album is unlike one I’ve ever encountered. At times sorrowful and touching (the halfway point of ‘To Live is to Die’ or the first half of ‘One’), and at times driven purely by rage – many thrash albums can do both, but none make it quite as visceral as this. That in and of itself is quite an achievement, given what they’re working with; they’ve turned one of the most mechanical sounding albums into one that conveys human emotion better than so many others. They made a focused, energetic album with a handful of riffs when some bands don’t manage that with 246. This is without question one of the greatest metal albums, and one that has aged so gracefully as to be more effective now than it was 30 years ago – perhaps due to general resentment towards the world increasing since then, but also because nothing since has come close to achieving what it has, a fact that rings more and more true with each passing day. A forgotten experiment this may have been – but certainly not a fruitless one.

Rating: 100%

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%

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