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%

Megadeth – Countdown to Extinction

‘This is it’

To say that Metallica completely changed the playing field when it came to metal and more specifically, commercially successful metal is an understatement. Its influence on future heavy music aside, it opened the floodgates for multiple genre mainstays and their imitators to release albums that were a drastic change in direction. Following its 1991 release Anthrax went grunge, Sepultura went groove, and Megadeth, in all of Dave Mustaine’s wide-eyed envy, took a similar approach to Metallica for this release. The two explore a lot of the same sonic territory, this came soon after Metallica and at an analogous point in Megadeth’s career, and the two share a lot of the same flaws. And since the two are so similar, I’ll get this out of the way – since people are so hasty to point out Metallica sold out and give the band crap, Megadeth did too. I don’t know what makes people give this album or the band more of a pass for the same sin, as Dave sold out hard here and the music suffered for it.

Like Metallica, this is a drastically simplified and scaled back album from the technical excellence, songwriting prowess and undiluted aggression displayed on this album’s 4 predecessors. Most of the material here is written in a fairly melodic heavy metal/hard rock style, though there are some speedier holdovers. Virtually every song here is simpler in every respect compared to before, being built around a verse-chorus structure with little deviation in that formula, and the songs are more focused on catchy choruses and the vocals than ever. Dave does a lot more melodic and clean singing here and his snarling, nasally voice sounds at odds with the accessible direction the band is going in, mainly as he hadn’t gotten used to singing in a more conventional and melodic fashion yet. He doesn’t really emote much outside of aggression and when shooting for a less aggressive feel he sounds like a fish out of water; not bad but certainly odd and awkward. It’s not a voice that is easy to get used to though once that happens he’s not so bothersome. The drumming and riffs meanwhile are more minimal, simplistic, and less aggressive than before, with the riffs taking on a heavy/groove metal character. The shorter songs means the solos are shorter too, though technically they still are up to scratch as they have a great deal of flash and taste to them. The change in style here isn’t a problem inherently, and unlike Metallica the band certainly don’t extend their songs to the point of tedium on this one. The problem here is another one that dogged that album though – the music reeks of wasted potential as many of the songs here simply aren’t that impressive and don’t serve up much to interest the listener or commit the songs to memory, perhaps caused by deliberate restraint on the band’s part and not being comfortable writing in a more accessible heavy metal style.

Much of the material here doesn’t pan out so well, mostly due to not having interesting instrumentation or vocals – these tracks aren’t bad or even that boring, just very plain and bland. There are a couple of quiet verse/loud chorus hard rock/heavy metal ballads (the title track, ‘Foreclosure of a Dream’) that progress in a very predictable fashion and don’t bring much to the table instrumentally or vocally beyond catchy choruses, which are admittedly some of the best on the album. On the heavier side of things, ‘This Was My Life’ and ‘Captive Honour’ go in one ear and out the other (beyond the latter’s stupid extended intro dialogue.) The band is obviously going for more hook-driven numbers but they don’t bring the riffs, energy or choruses to make the songs stick, and so they aren’t even catchy like the ballads. On the other hand, ‘Architecture of Aggression’ and ‘Psychotron’ clearly had more work put into them, featuring much stronger riffs that are more groove and thrash influenced. This stronger backbone the songs are built upon gives the songs and the choruses the energy and drive needed to stick. ‘Skin ‘O My Teeth’ and ‘High Speed Dirt’ are a pair of uptempo numbers here that take speed/thrash riffing and aggression and inject them into a condensed and hook-centric verse-chorus formula. ‘High Speed Dirt’ feels a tad unnecessary as it covers a lot of the same ground ‘Skin ‘O My Teeth’ did at the start of the album, but by virtue of having more energy, speed and aggression than a lot of the songs here it still remains a highlight.

To highlight how inconsistent the album gets, it manages to feature two of Megadeth’s best songs and one of their worst. ‘Symphony of Destruction’ is an amazing single, combining a beautifully simple, hard-edged heavy/groove metal riff that is impossible to forget with snarled verses and one of the best sung passages on the album in the form of its catchy chorus and an always welcome set of leads. It’s the best example of the condensed and commercial heavy/groove metal style on the album, and beats out nearly everything else in its field at the time. ‘Ashes in Your Mouth’ pretty much bucks every stylistic change seen here, being an amazing thrash epic that combines this album’s more melodic, hook-driven formula with the aggression and technicality found on the albums that came before it. It’s a very catchy song with an equally memorable and groovy main riff that has multiple phases to its construction, including a set of extended solos that form its bridge. It alone makes this more than worthy of any Megadeth fan’s collection and would not be out of place on Rust in Peace. However, there’s also the laughable and silly ‘Sweating Bullets’ which is inexplicably a popular song for the band. It’s truly a stain on the band’s catalogue; there’s nothing enjoyable about its crappy and tedious stop-start riff, the corny spoken word narration that form the verses or the descending melody that forms its irritating hook.

Ultimately like the album Dave wanted to replicate so badly, this winds up being a perfectly decent if inconsistent foray into commercial waters, and a waste of potential given what had come before it. It contains some of the band’s best and most iconic tracks but has a lot of filler to go with the killer, though even some of the weaker songs here are catchy and pleasant enough to work as mindless entertainment, and outside of ‘Sweating Bullets’ nothing here is skip-worthy. This is definitely essential for any Megadeth fan due to its highlights and place in history of the band and metal as a whole, but be prepared for a less than stellar effort.

Rating: 68%

Deicide – Insineratehymn

Insineratethis

Deicide’s progression throughout their career is a unique one for a band of their type; rather than starting strong with a timeless debut and progressively getting worse they in general write good album after good album, with inexplicable misfires sandwiched between them. There was Once Upon the Cross; a boring dud released in between some of their finest works, and the dead patch in their discography during the first half of the 2000s that preceded their incredible return to form with The Stench of RedemptionInsineratehymn is one of the three albums that occupies this barren spot, and it’s a terrible excuse of an album.

The unduly lauded opener ‘Bible Basher’ is a pretty good snapshot of what the album is like as a whole – a few seconds of promise in the form of a melodic line or a faster section that is then discarded for mid-tempo chugging drudgery and unbearably tedious groove riffing that gets boring really quickly. I’m not opposed to groove riffing or chugging in principle but the band seemingly can’t make it work given how unmemorable and bland the guitar work is. The good part then makes a return at some point during the song, only to be discarded again for more groovy boredom. In addition, any sort of wit and intelligence to the lyrics has been tossed out of the window. Every song is like this, only the later tracks typically have some decent soloing here and there. There isn’t really any point on this album that will strike the listener as being… anything, really. It’s very bland and uninspired music, with the only real sense of identity coming from Benton’s deep barking which to his credit is as strong as it was on Serpents of the Light. However, this does little to save the album due to the uninspired music behind the vocals.

The music is also very still, with not enough development of ideas in a given song. Again, ‘Bible Basher’ makes for a good summary of the songwriting. While it does carry a few distinct sections they never manage to do anything with these ideas, simply coasting off of them for an arbitrary length before switching to something else. They manage to run out of ideas about halfway through and simply recycle past sections with little or no development. The songs range from 2 to 3 minutes and yet they still manage to become tiresome because of how stagnant the music is. A short song can coast off of a few ideas with enough energy but that just doesn’t happen because again, the music is burnt out and lazy. To make matters worse none of the music is memorable even with this level of repetition because of how lacklustre all the performances are, so after a song finishes boring you to death with the same set of chugs and boring grooves you can’t even take anything away from the experience.

Like all Deicide releases there’s very little variation in the general delivery and atmosphere, yet because of how weak the delivery is and because of how little atmosphere there is the album manages to overstay its welcome even though it barely breaks the half hour mark. There’s a reason this is known as one of their throwaways; it’s a dreadful album. The band also knew how much of a mistake this direction was, given that they started to add more and more of their classic style with subsequent albums instead of moving forward with the sound presented here. If that isn’t a good indicator that this album should simply be forgotten then I don’t know what is.

Rating: 28%

Mastodon – Crack the Skye

Impressively terrible 

This album is a travesty. It is well known at this point that Mastodon took their music in a completely different direction on this album; I have no problem with artists changing style, provided they pull it off properly. Nonetheless, albums like this are always risky – while I appreciate that some bands feel that they can’t take a sound any further, or their preferences can change, jumping into a completely new style after spending several years forging a niche in a completely different one rarely works out, as history will demonstrate. Even with this in mind though, it’s surprising that this album manages to be as bad as it is; as it has almost no redeeming qualities. What makes this even more disappointing is that this album follows Blood Mountain, which was honestly Mastodon’s entry into the pantheon of metal’s all-time greats.

On this album the band ditch their ballsy, riff-driven and energetic style of progressive/sludge metal in favour of a psychedelic, atmospheric and noodling approach to progressive rock/metal. There’s nothing inherently wrong with changing styles or this particular sound, but as you may have gathered that doesn’t happen here. The most crippling flaw to the music is a severe lack of focus and a drop in songwriting quality – songs never really reach a satisfying conclusion and dwell on ideas for too long with little development. The music lacks energy and can be very sluggish and plodding, with songs noodling too much and ending right where they began, as well as being too long for how little they manage to do. Songs take a long time to really get going at all, and they feel flat even when they do finally pick up any sort of steam. As a result this album is quite a chore to actively listen to, because it never presents enough ideas to keep you interested and even more damning is that it doesn’t allow the mind to wander in its atmosphere because the instrumentation and song structures are too limited to allow for an atmosphere. It’s too active to fade into the background but too boring to be focused on; unlike the prog-infused jams of past albums which had a lot more going for them in terms of activity, progression, dynamics and performances.

Not only is the music structured and paced in a flat and uninteresting manner, but the performances themselves manage to be completely dull at best and flat out irritating at worst. A common theme with the instrumentation is that it’s boring, with nothing captivating happening outside of the occasional aggressive riff. The music doesn’t really allow for the spastic drumming of old albums but here Brann goes too far the other way – there’s almost nothing to spice up his bare bones, unremarkable performance on this album. None of the riffs strike me as being particularly well written or interesting; certainly none stick in your memory and are nowhere near as aggressive as before, instead they’re utterly anaemic and flat. They occasionally play around with more psychedelic and hypnotic styles of riff which would be interesting if like the rest of the guitar work they weren’t run into the ground.

The most actively annoying element however is the vocal performance; the harsh vocals of their older material are completely gone and instead clean vocals are used throughout. In the past, Mastodon’s clean vocals were basically never used entirely throughout a song and the music was so active that they never became a particularly large part of the music as they weren’t exposed. They also wrote good vocal melodies to make the verses and hooks stick after just a few listens. However on this album, the band don’t manage a single good or memorable vocal melody outside of ‘Quintessence’s hook, which is a problem when the vocals take centre stage and are far more integral to the music at large. With the vocals being this upfront, it also shows just how bad the singing really is – the vocals sound really mushy, weak, whiny, nasally and blown out, almost like a bad impersonation of any number of modern hard rock/post-grunge/alt metal vocalists; Chad Gray comes to mind. As there’s no change-up in vocal style to speak of this becomes a big problem as the album wears on.

This is an awful album. It’s bad on its own terms and a colossal disappointment given what preceded it. The music feels very superficial too – at no point does it ever really develop or do anything of note. You might get some psychedelic noodling here and there but it comes across as though the band is just pandering to a more highbrow audience, and as a result the music reeks of fakery. It feels like the band is trying too hard to be something they’re not, and at the same time aren’t trying hard enough with the music itself. Compared to the hugely fun and energetic albums of old this comes across as tired and dull, and the band sound like they’re phoning it in. I’ll never know what they were really thinking, but given all the talk of wanting to make their music more fun with subsequent albums even they find this boring, and it shows. It’s shallow, annoying, unmemorable and dull, and I hate it.

Rating: 20%

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