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%

Metallica – Metallica

Metallica go through the never

So this is it, the infamous eponymous effort from the band we all love to hate. Some things should be cleared up immediately – this is a sellout by the band (one of the few times that’s really applicable, to be honest) and this did kill off thrash completely (but the bloating it suffered towards the end of the ’80s was the major factor behind that.) However, selling out is a fairly minor sin by my judgement given that the music is the most important part of an album, and really an album can’t be blamed for others imitating it because it isn’t as if another band *has* to change style in the wake of a commercial behemoth such as this. No, this album’s flaws rest entirely on its restraint and lack of ambition.

As the cover art and album title symbolise, this album is very much geared towards simplification and minimalism, and at every turn this album is scaled down from its predecessor. Take for instance the drumming – Lars was at his peak around the last album with at least a smattering of more complex drum patterns, fills and double bass, whereas here his performance consists of simpler straight beats. The soloing has been toned down in technicality as well, with Hammett relying more on the wah pedal and having shorter slots to fit the shorter songs. The riffs for the most part are no longer highly aggressive or technical in the mould of their first 3 albums or droning and monolithic as was the case with …and Justice for All, rather they take on a highly simplified heavy/groove metal character with only a handful of riffs per song. While I can appreciate that all of this was done as they couldn’t take the sound of …and Justice for All any further, it feels as though the band plays it a bit too safe with most of the material, and this shows at just about every turn. The album never really surprises or challenges the listener akin to the more aggressive, thought-provoking and intelligent works, and more importantly the band members never really challenge themselves either.

This restraint also becomes apparent when the song structures and progressions are considered. Just about every single song is built upon a verse-chorus structure with no variation in this regard, and it’s clear that the hook is the focus of any given song. While it again would have been better if the band members had stretched themselves a bit more in this regard, the album doesn’t get stale as to their credit every single hook on this album and the vast majority of the riffs are memorable. At the same time however memorability can be attained through either repetition without progression or writing the best possible material, and unfortunately the band lean too heavily on the former, with a lot of songs being developed in a sluggish and flat manner. For example, the hit singles ‘Sad But True’ and ‘Enter Sandman’ simply don’t have enough musical ideas to justify their 5+ minute running times. The same can be said of ‘My Friend of Misery’ and perhaps even the acoustic ballad ‘Nothing Else Matters’, though the latter does have a rather touching feel to it and a superb solo from James. On his vocal performance – it is one of the only elements on this album that isn’t a considerable regression or otherwise mediocre. He retains most of the grit and bite to his voice but also deals with a fair amount of more standard singing which is pulled off well on a technical level – and as the ballads show his voice can be rather emotive as well.

In fact, it’s songs like ‘Nothing Else Matters’, ‘Wherever I May Roam’ and especially ‘The Unforgiven’ that highlight the flaws of this album more than anything else. These three songs (as well as ‘The God that Failed’) all feature fairly strong atmospheric qualities, with ‘Wherever I May Roam’ being an epic even by Metallica standards, and through these songs one can realise that this album is the first by Metallica to not have an overriding atmosphere throughout, which was present in spades on the last 4 releases. They do shoot for a darker feel across the album through the production, lyrics and sense of melody, and while there are flashes of this at points a lot of the material isn’t quite well written, ambitious or convincingly performed enough to really have an atmosphere in the way the aforementioned tracks do. It is also with these songs that one gets the sense that the band did the best that they could when writing them, which isn’t true of a lot of the other songs. This album is not a consistent listen, and a few tracks like the rather plain ‘Holier Than Thou’ could have easily been dropped to make it a more memorable and concise listening experience. The combination of being midtempo largely throughout and primarily being composed of simple, groovy riffs leaves variation at something of a premium, with about a third of this album’s tracks not really standing out in any particular way and not having enough of a personality to live up to the legacy of Metallica.

Despite me largely thrashing this album though, the band certainly did succeed in one department – solely as a piece of entertainment this is a well done and functional album. On a technical level the band never skips a beat, every single song is enjoyable while it is on (until one starts to think about the repetition or safeness of the material) and the production is perfect. I’ve never heard a metal album with such phenomenal production – everything on this album sounds crisp, as heavy as an anvil and full of life. If only such perfectionism could have been applied to the material, because as it is this album is the sound of an artist not being the best they could be and while it ticks most of the boxes it also reeks of wasted potential. It’s an important release for sure, and it’s not bad by any stretch, but it is fairly disappointing.

Rating: 75%

Havok – Conformicide

Wake up, sheeple

Another day, another boring modern thrash band releases another boring album. Once upon a time, Havok were a band with promise, but the depths they plumb with this release are new lows for a fairly notable and respected band such as them. This is a release that commits the cardinal sins of anything you might want to be entertained by – it’s boring, unmemorable and grating. I don’t know how anyone who critically evaluates musical substance could get any real enjoyment out of this beyond the primal response of head nodding and foot tapping.

This album has almost nothing going for it in the musical department beyond the most basal qualities of having lots of riffs, being somewhat aggressive and being metal. I expect more from an album than these barest traces of personality and/or identity, and Havok fail to deliver completely. There’s nothing special about the sound Havok employ here in any way, all this album amounts to musically is a restatement of the modern thrash metal template, with chugging yet brisk and slightly aggressive riffing and completely nondescript drumming and soloing, all wrapped up in a slight technical flair. It’s competently executed on a technical level, but that is what any listener would consider to be the pass mark for an album, and at no point does this aspire to be anything more. The album is at its core, completely generic and uncaptivating, which is a theme that runs through it somewhat. The sound of the album is problematic as well – the bass is a bit too prominent in the mix to the point where at times this album takes on completely forced-sounding funk-infused overtones like the first half of ‘F.P.C.’, and in fact the production in general is polished and slick. While the sound isn’t offensive it’s far too tame and sterile, which becomes apparent upon listening to how gutted the Pantera cover at the end of the album is (but any song will demonstrate this.) In addition, given that once again this is the standard for modern thrash albums the production doesn’t help this release in the identity department. The lack of identity and the lack of memorability that results banishes this release to the land of average modern thrash, deep within that oversaturated heap of a genre.

That said, there is one element that is distinctive (for the wrong reasons), and that is the vocal performance. It is far worse than on any album Havok have delivered. The vocals are a weak, thin and throat-splittingly raspy shout that sounds garbled and outright bad. One could argue that he sounds vitriolic and angry but he tries far too hard here and becomes difficult to take seriously. I wince at the pain these shrieks must cause him while performing, never mind the fact that despite the distortion of his voice the lyrics come through quite clearly. The album’s lyricism is intolerable, as the completely non-descript music on this album makes it come across as a vehicle for preaching as opposed to music for the sake of art, and intentional or not this feeling is impossible to shake. The problem is also in the message being delivered – it’s basically tinfoil-chewing new world order conspiracy theorist nonsense that every fractally wrong individual loves to blather on about combined with shallow non-conformist attitudes, and at no point does this album try to say anything remotely intelligent or interesting. The dumb message combined with the album’s condescending and preachy feel, the ubiquity of the lyrics and the blandness of the other performances shoves the lyrics to the forefront. This makes them very hard to avoid, and the album is quite a bit worse for it.

For an album that seemingly prides its own individuality this really does follow the pack; not just in terms of its music, but also in terms of the message it tries to convey as well. It is musically stale and lyrically reads like the ranting of an edgy 13 year old, two things any metal fan on the internet has had far too much experience with long before this came along. This combined with the appalling narrator makes for a listening experience that can be charitably described as ‘dreadful’. This is an unpleasant album that no one should really have to listen to for reasons other than deriding it. It is a totally uncaptivating and inconsequential work; a shameful display.

Rating: 28%

Nokturnal Mortum – Нехристь (NeChrist)

Гітлер любив слов’ян, правда?

I do wonder what the band was trying to achieve when they were writing this album. I’d say it’s a joke, where they’re trying to derive humour from playing music that is intentionally awful but I can’t be certain if this is the case, as so much effort has been put into being dreadful that it’s entirely possible that they actually think this is good music that people wanted to hear. It’s also possible that out of sheer hatred for the listener that they deliberately sought to craft the worst music imaginable. Regardless of their intent, this is a dreadful, offensively terrible album. It’s not so much a step down from the two preceding Nokturnal Mortum full lengths as it is a tumble down 10 flights of stairs from them – it’s a trainwreck which is full of ideas that are either too sloppily executed or stupid to ever work. Shit at its finest, thy name is NeChrist.

There are numerous glaring flaws with this album but the one that rises above all is how flat out… bad it sounds. The melodic sense of the riffs and keys is non-existent, with the melodies sounding like garbage throughout. Not a single riff will stick with you but the entire time a track is on they grate with how badly they’re constructed. The keys are a similar story and are literally thrown on top of the riffs with zero regard for how they go together, and indeed they do not mesh in any way whatsoever. The two layers clash against one another in a very unlikable way; it makes for truly ugly music in the worst possible sense. Don’t get me wrong here; I have no issue with amelodic, dissonant or otherwise ugly and abrasive music but this clearly wasn’t constructed as anything along the lines of Obscura and what not; it uses the same stylistic features of folk music and symphonic black metal as their past work while missing out on everything that makes those albums and the style as a whole appealing. Or to put it another way, they took their melody driven style and didn’t write any good melodies for it. Since this is the fabric of the music, it is rendered entirely worthless and awful; the album is a total non-starter.

And even when the keys and riffs aren’t grinding against one another (which seldom occurs) both manage to be wholly forgettable and bland; the same can be said of the overly simplistic, restrictive and generic thrash-inspired drumming (a substantial regression compared to the stellar drumming on Goat Horns) and the much weaker vocal performance that doesn’t take charge in the music as it usually would. On top of this are the folk sections, which sound less like traditional Ukrainian folk music and more like bad Southern American folk music. These sections are all over these tracks and sound terrible every single time. Throw on top of this what sounds like elephant flatulence at some points and shouts of ‘Yahoo!’ at others and the album goes from absurdly awful-sounding to downright comical.

Have I made my point yet? This is complete trash and I never want to hear it again.

Rating: 0%

Iron Maiden – No Prayer for the Dying

The sound of Iron Maiden dying

n spite of what their first seven albums would imply, not even the mighty Iron Maiden are infallible, and actually weathered out the ’90s with very little of their musical worth or dignity intact. While Blaze Bayley is rightfully singled out as the worst thing about the Iron Maiden albums of this time period, don’t think that the two Bruce Dickinson fronted albums from the earlier half of the decade were much better. Far from it in fact; while I’m not too fond of this band’s 2nd Dickinson era albums, it’s also pretty obvious to me that a release like No Prayer for the Dying is a far less creative and (quite amazingly) a more musically stagnant and tired-sounding effort. It represents the band quickly losing creative steam and poorly integrating some outside influence to the proceedings as well. This is easily one of the weakest Maiden albums, as well their most annoying.

The music isn’t especially far removed from their ’80s albums, but the songs nevertheless lack the larger-than-life quality presented on the 5 albums that came before this one; it was a mood achieved through complex songwriting and intelligent riff construction built around the omnipresent guitar harmonies. This is a considerably more stripped back, rock-infused album, and while this regression alone doesn’t make it a write-off the depths the band have plumbed is truly stunning. There is a near-total lack of high quality, memorable and thought out riffs and harmonies, with the guitars mostly playing bland metallic hard rock fodder that lacks any of the energy, atmosphere and intelligence of their older works. It’s very run of the mill and forgettable music, okay while it’s on but out of one’s memory a short while after the album has finished. That’s not to say it’s all bad though, with competent soloing in spite of the loss of Adrian Smith and Steve Harris’ usual bass guitar wizardry, but these plus points alone don’t save the album.

To make matters worse, Bruce Dickinson puts forward one his most irritating vocal performances. While his voice retains its range he too has taken on board some hard rock influence, resulting in a gravelly inflection to his singing. This isn’t a problem on its own, but as a result of this he seemingly can’t hit a good clean note or put melody into his voice, instead simply shouting over the music with little restraint. The relatively banal music no longer accommodates for any gravitas or passion Bruce might have been able to put into his singing, and the music’s lack of intrigue also makes this a more vocally oriented effort, further exacerbating these issues.

However, in spite of the mediocrity of the instruments and the bad vocals in front of them the real killer here is the songwriting, which is both a very large step down from before and bad even when this album is viewed in its own microcosm. The songs are largely flat and unengaging; there’s very little in the way of intelligence or nuance in the structuring of a lot of these songs. They all have a tendency to repeat themselves a lot and not go anywhere. There is a clear lack of focus and development in the musical ideas used in each track, and despite the relatively short lengths of all of these tracks they tend to meander and ride off one idea like a strong intro (you need look no further than ‘Tailgunner’ for an example of this.) There’s very little depth to the compositions or any sort of atmosphere. Few winners emerge from this album as a result; just about everything is simply too dull and shallow – certainly the title track is a decent half-ballad and ‘Mother Russia’ lacks Bruce’s awful singing but everything else is either textbook rockametal or a song with promise that goes nowhere, aside from the hilariously bad ‘Holy Smoke’ which sounds like an overly simplified punkish commercial track gone very wrong.

The repetitious nature of the songs does mean a few hooks are catchy (there’s a good reason ‘Bring Your Daughter…’ is a live staple and it isn’t because you want to remember it) but this can be said of any piece of music, memorability derived from good craftsmanship is a far more meaningful indicator of quality. The lyrics on this album are very poor, especially considering the poetry and epic stories Iron Maiden had delivered in the past. The aforementioned pseudo-classic is one case, but the incoherent ramblings of ‘Tailgunner’ or the mindless tripe of ‘Holy Smoke’ will serve as equally apt examples of their failure on the lyrical front – in fact only the title track and ‘Mother Russia’ have decent lyrics. And as a final insult even the production is a step down, with the drums having a dry sound to them and everything else sounding decidedly lifeless and tired. Quite how a band that was a bastion of excellence that redefined metal could crash and burn like this remains something of a mystery. It’s a tragic album this; the downfall of a heavy metal legend. Do not seek this out unless you wish to be irritated or saddened.

Rating: 38%

1349 – Revelations of the Black Flame

A failed experiment

This album marked the exact point where 1349 eschewed everything they had achieved with their previous 4 releases in favour of a drastic change to their established sound. I find this to be a potentially good manoeuvre as they’d taken their blast-filled style of old to its logical conclusion with Hellfire, yet at the same time I think it’s a risky one. As history has proven drastically changing style doesn’t always work for bands with a tried and true craft, because they’ve spent so much time perfecting one craft that a sudden shift often leads to a band playing a style they don’t care about as much (leading to a lack of energy and creativity for the style at hand) or know as much about because they’re newcomers to the style. This risk is amplified by the fact that the new sound displayed on this album is an experimental one, and as we know experiments by their very nature fail more than they succeed, as they’re a charge into the unknown. And it is with all this in mind that I have made up my mind on Revelations of the Black Flame – it is simply a failed experiment. It isn’t a forward thinking and innovative piece and it most assuredly isn’t their best.

As you may have guessed this is an experimental black metal album, with the experimentation being employed in two major ways – the heavy use of crawling dark ambient interludes between the black metal songs, and the unusually constructed, riffing with dissonant chords and an odd number of repetitions used during the black metal portions of the album. For what it’s worth though there isn’t that much that is ‘weird’ on this album; it is a marriage of droning dark ambient with slightly odd sounding black metal. One problem that can be gleaned from this is that these basic ideas are never taken to their conclusion; merely coming across as an aesthetic rather than part of an experimental core to the music. Everything on this album is for lack of a better word, standard. There isn’t a lot of thought or creativity put into this, it is merely an assembly of standard elements dressed up in an unusual way and comes across as shallow and trite. The album offers little beyond these basic elements and makes it very boring and unsatisfying to listen to, knowing that it could have been something more.

A bigger issue though is that the standard issue material at hand here is written in a lacklustre fashion. The songs are played with very little energy, instead being sluggish and droning in nature. The riffs are in fact the worst aspect of the album, because as soon as they come in the atmosphere set by the ambient sections is wrecked in favour of stilted and awkward black metal. Even worse though is that the songs take too long to get going and even at their most intense feel phoned in and tepid, as do the other performances. The pummelling battery Frost once delivered behind the kit is almost entirely gone, and the powerful and commanding voice of Ravn is now wholly irrelevant to the music at large, being simply some noise among the weak riffs and decent ambient. The songs themselves are flat and boring too – not only are they cut off at the knees due to the half-hearted performances but in general they lack a coherent structure or a satisfying conclusion of any sort, instead meandering for the majority of their respective running times and not achieving too much in the process. For songs that are so long, they never really manage to be memorable or have enough good ideas or structural intrigue to justify their lengths.

The whole album lacks any sort of fire or creativity, and at every turn reveals how poorly executed it is. From the structuring and pacing of the songs to the production right down to its very sound it doesn’t work all that well. The band simply didn’t try hard enough, which becomes apparent because while some individual sections are decent the album as one unit fails overall. The ambient parts for instance are good for what they are; if this were a purely dark ambient album it would at least turn out to be mediocre. As it stands though it is simply forgettable and awkwardly written black metal with some somewhat appealing window dressing, and while it isn’t worthless, it sure doesn’t offer much to a prospective listener. Whether this album turned out as it did due to a lack of knowledge or a lack of care when writing it, it stands as a great example of why experimentation isn’t always a good trait in music.

Rating: 33%

Dimmu Borgir – For All Tid

For Ass Tid

In general, Dimmu Borgir is a divisive entity. As well as receiving praise for their symphonic take on black metal, they’ve earned scorn in several circles (generally those of a more purist persuasion) for going against the genre’s ethos; a band with the intent of making relatively accessible and polished metal draped with superficial black metal influence. However, these same individuals will routinely point to For All Tid and its successor Stormblåst as being the definitive Dimmu Borgir albums. Frankly I don’t see it this way at all – as shallow and safe their later albums are, they are least competently executed, polished and well-crafted, which is more than can be said of their first two albums. This in particular easily stands as the worst Dimmu Borgir album, and while it isn’t an abomination it certainly isn’t worthy of its classic status. It has its moments but it almost seems as if the band stumbled upon these good ideas by chance given the general sloppiness and poor musical execution displayed on this album. It reeks of inexperience and overshooting one’s mark.

The production on this album is very poor – though lo-fi production is a common trope of the genre, there’s a certain degree of intelligence to giving an album raw production. If we look at say, Transilvanian Hunger, that album sounds as though the songs were written and performed specifically so the production can add to and complement the album’s atmosphere, with everything being drenched in static as to make the drums, vocals and riffs sound otherworldly and cryptic. The issue here is that like a lot of amateur black metal musicians, Dimmu Borgir made a serious blunder regarding the sound: the mistaking of a bad sound for a raw one. The guitars are overly thin and gunky, sounding sterile and vague all at once, as well as being too quiet. The drums are inconsequential in the mix, being a thin hissing click that blends into the background. The keyboards sound cheap, like a bad ’90s video game soundtrack. The bass and vocals are both too loud, with both obscuring the riffs with the continuous plugging of the former and the all-consuming reverb of the latter. As a result of this the album comes across as dated, unlike the timeless classics this band’s fellow countrymen were churning out around this time.

The band plays a friendlier and softer take on the black metal sound, with highly melodic riffs that don’t carry a lot of aggression and a notable keyboard presence that serve to sweeten up the package. However, despite this being an album built around guitar melodies few of them tend to be memorable, much to the detriment of the album. Partially this is because of the aforementioned obscuring of the riffs by the surrounding instruments but mainly this is down to them simply not being that well written or captivating. The same can be said of the keyboards, which are sadly underused on this album, despite being present throughout. They too play largely forgettable and uninteresting lines; which isn’t helped by the fact that they are simply an undercurrent to the rest of the music, one which can be ignored most of the time. The vocals are serviceable croaky black metal rasps, even if as stated they are mixed too loudly. The drumming however is simply awful, being uncertain and out of time. The drummer simply cannot blast for any given length of time, and completely wrecks any consistency this band might have achieved in a song.

The atmosphere on this album is an odd one; there’s a very distant and melancholic feel to some of the keyboard lines and melodies, particularly those in the title track or ‘Under korpens vinger’, which are the only songs which consistently retain a mood. The rest of the music, despite being fairly overwrought in aesthetic, evokes no real mood at all due to little meaningful use of the keyboards and not playing much worthwhile content to begin with. It is therefore no surprise to find that these two are the best songs on the album, along with the 5 minute intro ‘Det Nye Riket’ with its simple yet effective piano lines and sombre and low spoken word passages. ‘Glittertind’ is another clear highlight due to both its quality and it being an instrumental, as it can therefore escape the overly loud mood-wrecking vocal performance. It should be stated however that these are highlights relative to the rest of the album, and aren’t in any way standouts in the pantheon of black metal or this band’s own discography.

The real area where this album falls is the frankly nonsensical structuring and pacing of the songs. All of the songs on this album, even its standouts, seemingly meander about for the majority of their duration. The band generally shoehorn in a lot of differing passages at once, from the keys to rapid, blasting passages to bizarrely bouncing punk riffs and dissonant, traditional black metal riffs which don’t mix with the keys or the mood of the album at all – there are even synthesised flutes and other such effects that sound comical and ruin any atmosphere the music might otherwise have. Despite throwing several ideas into every song the band simply lack the expertise and vision to execute any of them with a particular level of finesse or compose any structured songs out of them. The performances feel uncertain and haphazard, as do the transitions from one passage to another. Songs never really reach a satisfying conclusion or resolve in any meaningful way and tend towards being two-dimensional, with no real intense or climactic passages to speak of. The band never gets their act together outside of a few solid songs, which are still marred by most of the aforementioned flaws.

The main arguments for this album appear to be derived from metaphors and aesthetics rather than any sort of meaningful musical elements. The songs wander about like someone who’s lost – but any sort of memorability and meaning to the majority of the material is lost due to the arcane structuring of the songs. The production may be hazy but it also sounds terrible and actually works against the mood in a lot of cases with its easily obscured guitars and poor mix. There’s almost nothing in the way of musical texture due to the overly sparse and underused keys as well as the forgettable riffing and the all too vague guitar tone. The wonky performances, particularly the drumming, leave the listener feeling as confused and uncertain of the album as the band obviously was while performing. It is clear that a lot of the more lacklustre material here could have been fairly solid songs had they been written by competent musicians (and similarly the decent songs here could have been made great) but any quality is simply lost in translation here. There’s better wandering and melodic black metal out there; don’t waste your time with this.

Rating: 30%

Dark Tranquillity – The Gallery

Too much!

Dark Tranquillity are basically the stalwarts of melodic death metal, being the oldest and longest lived of any bands in the genre, as well as remaining in the confines of their style unlike some of their fellow countrymen. It can also be argued that they’re probably the most consistent band of their type too, having never put out a stinker in all their years in the business. However in this particular case that isn’t a good thing. For my money, I’d argue that DT have never really put out a good album (outside of Character, which honestly seems like a fluke), with every single one suffering from pretty much the same problem: They’re boring. In later cases this is down to writing songs that dither about without integrating any memorable hooks or leads, or indeed not performing with any real energy, but on earlier efforts like this the issue is down to something far more frustrating.

This album is archetypal melodic death metal, and it basically set the template for a lot of the more orthodox bands in the style that would come about later. It’s full of, and I mean *full of* melodic leads. Riffs of the more normal death, thrash or even groove metal persuasion are virtually nowhere to be found, literally all the guitar work on this album is a lead, and there isn’t a moment on this album that isn’t absolutely sugar coated in a melodic lead of some kind. The guitars have almost no distortion on them at all (much like a lead tone, unsurprisingly) and the bass reminds me a lot of what Steve Harris would do, given that it complements the guitars very well with its rather notable plugging. It’s easily the best thing about this album, if only because it reminds me of Maiden so much.

Obviously saying that this is exactly like Iron Maiden isn’t really correct. There’s the obvious difference of Mikael Stanne’s growls, which are typical melodeath vocals in that they’re like less abrasive and more intelligible death growls. As far as the style goes he’s worlds above Anders Fridén, being entirely serviceable if perhaps a little unremarkable compared to what Tomas Lindberg could do around this time. That said however, the comparison to Maiden is, to be blunt, a massive insult to Iron Maiden. That band had two things Dark Tranquillity completely fails at – the first of which is restraint. As stated, Dark Tranquillity completely let loose on the melody here with no let up and it becomes unbelievably tiresome after approximately two minutes into ‘Punish My Heaven’, with its constant noodling that sounds nice at first, but simply grates. The problem is that there’s a melody every 5 seconds, since a more simplified album like The Jester Race is notably more effective despite being just as melodic. That album works much more effectively because it develops one or two melodies over the course of a song, making for a more flowing, measured and coherent listening experience. Here, the guitarists simply noodle away or throw every idea they can at you in order to impress and dazzle in a flurry of sugary technicality, but it simply fails.

There’s also a second, more serious problem here, which largely stems from the first. While the band had the right idea on this album, that being throwing in melodic hooks into the songs to keep them memorable, they overdo it so much that rather than being a recurring motif in a song they are the body of the song. This has the added effect of a dearth in memorable riffing as it is overtaken by the lead work. This is a problem in and of itself because the guitars are noodling constantly, rather than playing something memorable. Hence the songs tend to meander and lose focus and tend not to be very memorable. In fact, it’s normally the bass that prevents the songs from devolving into a blur when trying to recall them. And perhaps worst of all, the songs themselves are totally flat and one-dimensional. There aren’t really any climaxes or overtly emotional moments (apart from some pretty poor female warbling at times, along with Stanne’s decent cleans), there’s very little in the way of an atmosphere; it almost sounds as if the songs were hastily assembled to be vehicles for some soloing. Very few memorable ideas are offered up by a song during its running time, forcing one to focus intently on largely shallow and irritating music.

What makes this technical failure so frustrating is that everyone here is clearly talented. The guitarists, while not very good at reining it in or writing, can clearly play their instruments well, the bass is great, Mikael is a solid vocalist and the drummer is good as well. It’s just that the guitarists went so overboard with their Iron Maiden worship as to forget about writing something memorable and with adequate riffs. I also have another minor quibble – there isn’t really that much aggression to this album at all. The guitars are very sugar-coated in tone and substance, with only a modicum of aggression coming from the vocals. Otherwise the whole album is overblown, melodramatic and shallow, as well as being like a bad parody of Iron Maiden musically with decent growls on top.

Rating: 40%

Napalm Death – Diatribes

Far Beyond Time Bomb A.D. 

The ’90s was a time of reckoning for a lot of classic ’80s metal and punk bands. Usually said bands jumped onto a trend and lost any of their identity, stuck to their guns only to fall flat, or ended up producing a magnum opus. Napalm Death were odd in that they not only managed to jump onto a trend (hardcore/groove metal) but then actually made a very respectable transition with Fear, Emptiness, Despair. Sadly though, they couldn’t keep up the momentum of that album and in 1996 dropped their worst album. Mind you, for a nadir it’s hardly awful, being more forgettable than anything.

To sum up most of the album’s contents it falls squarely into the Chaos A.D./Time Bomb/Far Beyond Driven style, that being a hardcore-informed strain of groove metal, albeit with death growls in place of shouting and nods to other NYHC bands like Helmet or Snapcase. Barring one bonus track on this 2CD (‘Antibody’) as well as the title track, there are no remnants of the band’s classic death/grind hybrid sound at all. None of that darkened, hazy atmosphere of the preceding album is anywhere to be found either – this is probably the most stripped down of ND’s groove albums (distinguished by their modern logo), with the riffing being repetitive and textured, clearly designed to be the brutal yet rhythmic and memorable motif of a given song. There aren’t even any solos; the riffing as well as the beefy death growls of Barney are the main focuses here.

And it’s with this stripped down focus that the album largely fails. Barney is his usual self, with a particularly hardcore-infused take on the death growl with a percussive quality that this style demands, so he isn’t at fault. The real problem is the music itself. Now, while I can appreciate that some time was spent crafting this album, with everything being meticulously performed and the energy levels remaining high throughout, I can also say that the music here pretty much falls flat. Very few of these riffs, and therefore by extension these songs, are memorable at all. Nothing really sticks, which is a big problem for a riff-driven album like this. The most memorable part is in fact the drum performance; what it lacks in blasting it makes up for by being a continuously rolling, shifting mass that dictates the direction of the music that also manages not to distract from the main show (the guitars and vocals.)

It’s not all bad though, and some tracks clearly stand out to me in one way or another. This album marks the first time the band would throw in a ‘dirge’ – a slower, experimental song which is akin to ambient music in its construction (layers being added and removed over time, slowly evolving the song) that features dissonant, sustained chords. In this case said song is ‘Cold Forgiveness’, and it manages to work to this album’s strength of textured, monolithic riffing, as well as featuring a much needed change of pace in both the music and Barney’s spoken word performance. And in spite of myself, the rather infamous ‘Cursed to Crawl’ is a winner to me as well, having some of the most memorable and well-written riffing on the album and a more varied vocal performance (even if it is quasi-rapped(!)) The opener is quite the shock as well – with its bright, melodic and memorable riffing as well as its catchy nature ‘Greed Killing’ is probably the single best song ND made during this period and is easily their most distinctive.

However, apart from other songs like ‘Self Betrayal’ (another dirge on the 2CD) and ‘My Own Worst Enemy’ (which has fairly distinctive riffing and rhythms) this album simply doesn’t work all that well. For something so focused on being memorable and textured very few of the songs actually achieve this goal. Nothing on the album is bad, but at the same time not a lot of it is inherently good given what the band were going for. It’s well worth it for ‘Greed Killing’ and even ‘Cursed to Crawl’, and the album is pretty cool while it’s on but ultimately it leaves you wanting of something more than the wall of stock groove riffs and death growls it constantly pushes to the forefront.

Rating: 63%

Dream Theater – Train of Thought

A trainwreck

Before I begin, I’d like to come clean: I have zero experience with Dream Theater’s music. I’ve never sat through one of their albums prior to the preparation for this review, and I’ve wiped my slate clean of all expectations. I have heard of this album as being heavier than past albums by the band, but that is ultimately meaningless because I don’t know what is deemed as being ‘heavy’ for this band. Aside from this I’ve also heard of the usual critiques of this band – ‘they noodle aimlessly and James LaBrie sounds awful’ says the detractors and ‘they’re progressive and visionary’ says the fans – so I genuinely had no idea what to expect.

Unpacking the performances reveals that Dream Theater had a pretty clear train of thought when writing this album – the words ‘progressive’ and ‘metal’ are quite blatant misnomers, and the character of the riffs and especially the vocals puts me in mind of that breed of alternative/nu-metal that was quite prevalent in the world of rock back in the early to mid ’00s. The idea that this album is in any way heavy is a purely aesthetic observation – the guitars on this album largely play very little of substance, opting instead for hypnotic and repetitive 2 to 3 note fragmented riffs mixed up with the occasional groove and some outright chugs that are about as far removed from any sort of metal as is possible. Any heaviness comes through only in the muddy nu metal guitar tone, as opposed to any quality riffing.

As the album unfolds a clear pattern emerges in the instruments – repetitive and worthless instrumental sections with some really blatant window dressing thrown in. Said dressing can range from very short melodic leads between chugs to short drum solos to lengthy leads. To be fair, no single song contains one very large reservoir of wank, with it being spread fairly evenly throughout – with the exception of ‘Stream of Consciousness’, an 11 minute load of technical masturbation that doesn’t go anywhere. Any technical chops exhibited throughout this album are utterly negated by the incoherent non-arrangement and misdirection of said chops. Even more obvious bouts of compensation come about with the usage of keyboards, which simply follow what the guitars are doing and are never given a chance to soar at all. I suppose the effect was to layer the music and give it an air of grandiosity but it falls flat given the utterly comical and broken nature of what is playing beneath them.

Another one of this album’s annoying characteristics is the tendency towards vocal orientation. There is clear pattern of the redundant faeces being played when James LaBrie keeps quiet being thrown out for a tuneless atmospheric interlude as in ‘As I Am’ or totally boring and uninvolved mechanical chugs that are as redundant as can be, with the rhythm either complementing the vocal line above or, as ‘Honor Thy Father’ demonstrates, deliberately being syncopated to give a quasi-rap cadence to LaBrie’s singing. All of this would be fine if the void left by the instruments could be filled with something compelling but this isn’t the case, given that James appears to have listened to one too many Creed albums. His voice has taken on that slightly gravelly radio-rock tone that is both completely inappropriate given that the music has more in common with nu metal than it does any sort of post-grunge drivel that steeped the airwaves of the time, and grating given that he sounds awful anyway. His voice suffers from that same vaguely tuneless and whiny tone that is common in this style of music, and the similarly anti-melodic vocal lines only compound this problem. The surprisingly hook-y nature of this album (with a lame radio rock hook being shoehorned into every song) makes this problem even worse than it needs to be, along with the needless electronic distortion done to his voice on songs like ‘This Dying Soul’.

The worst thing about this album though is simply that it carries almost no structural intrigue with it at all. The number of times the band will repeat a riff throughout a song is quite astounding. Individual sections of songs are never developed at all, and every monolithic chunk of the song doesn’t flow into the next part. A random atmospheric part will follow a loud hook, which will then be followed by a fit of directionless soloing which leads into another revolting quiet verse. The songs are simply far too long given that they carry so few ideas, and even fewer of quality. Every song rigidly adheres to a distinctly stagnant structure, which is the exact opposite of what progressive metal should be – a series of flowing ideas that are dwelled upon for long enough and developed in said time. This idea that this is somehow an experimental return to form is completely nonsensical. Even though I’ve never heard another album by this outfit I refuse to believe that they ever wrote drivel like this before this album. There is almost nothing of worth here, with any good bits being negated by bad parts and all of it being wrapped up in structures that are simplistic, lazy and overly dogmatic yet completely incoherent. It is simply a tragic misfire of an album that is a waste of everybody’s time.

Rating: 18%

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