In Flames – Clayman (Re-Recorded)

Inconceivably worthless

Rarely does a band re-recording their older studio material go well. There are instances where it makes sense of course; wanting to give older material the benefit of new production, wanting to re-interpret the material within the framework of a different style, wanting to show off a new vocalist who was substantially different to the one who performed on the old material, and so on – all of these cases would produce re-recordings that have a purpose by serving a need the original could not provide, even if it turns out ultimately redundant and inferior to the original. This however has no reason to exist at all, being a note-for-note rehash of Clayman‘s title track that adds nothing whatsoever to the original song. Every change made here is one for the worse, and what few positives this track does have is carried over from the original and has nothing to do with this version specifically.

The production, which on Clayman was and continues to be a gold standard for modern metal, is not copied or improved upon here. The thunderous sound of the drums, the slick and heavy guitars, the vocal layering, precisely none of that is present. Instead, the band chooses to use a remarkably weak and pacified production style, as if it was a practice session for a bar band. Sure it’s still slick and what not but it sounds so much limper than the old song, lacking a lot of the low end, volume and punch the music had and robbing the music of a lot of its original power. The instrumentation sounds lifeless and lacks weight and frankly even by the standards of an average modern metal recording, let alone the original song, this completely fails to cut the mustard.

The instrumentation is performed 100% faithfully – while many would see this as a good thing I believe it serves only to make this recording more redundant than it otherwise would have been. Later In Flames traded its layered guitar harmonies for increased keyboard presence, but the band doesn’t even choose to adapt the song into their more modern formula – while this wouldn’t have made it better it’d at least give it somewhat more of a reason to exist, instead of being a facsimile that pales in every conceivable way to the original. And then there are the vocals; Anders Fridén has generally never been a particularly good vocalist, harsh or clean, but at least backed up with the massive production of Clayman and with some vocal layering, his growls and cleans fit with the instrumentation well and weren’t the focus of the song. Here, with its anaemic recording and unsuitable vocal mixing, all of his vocals are pushed to the forefront and as you would expect he doesn’t sound good at all. His growls sound weak and his cleans are as awkward and whimpering as ever, with his performance here really topping off how useless this entire endeavour is.

There are many failed re-recordings in metal – Let There Be Blood springs immediately to mind – but at least on that album Exodus wanted to give the original album heavier, modern production and show off a new vocalist that, while in the same lane as the the original, could still offer something different. As bad as that album is, at least it makes sense as to why Exodus chose to record it, and while I didn’t care for the changes made on that album, that can be put down to personal taste. This on the other hand is inconceivably worthless and devoid of any distinguishing positive characteristics – every change made on this version is objectively inferior to what was on the original, and the band do nothing to substantially change it in a way that could be seen as some sort of reinterpretation of the original. As bad as this band’s post-Clayman output is, they’re still better off sticking to what they’ve been doing for nearly 2 decades instead of pointlessly rehashing the past.

At least this should put to rest the delusion that this band will ever turn it around, because with all the lineup changes from their glory days it will never happen, as demonstrated here.

Rating: 0%

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%

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%

Carcass – Surgical Steel

The blades are rusty

Reunion albums are never an easy thing to pull off; there’s a lot of expectation riding on them especially when they’re from a much loved artist, and they can go one of a few ways. Sometimes you get an actual improvement due to experience taken from the intervening years like Black Gives Way to Blue, producing something fresh and new. Sometimes you get something totally and completely removed from the past that can lead to mixed results, and other times you get albums like this. Surgical Steel represents probably the most disappointing route a reunion album can take, a safe and inoffensive rehash of past material that amounts to a career summary by a decent tribute band.

The sound displayed on this album is derived almost directly from Heartwork, with some nods to Necroticism and Swansong. Much like Heartwork the album is very riff-driven, with it being full of grooving, mid-paced to fast and chunky melodic riffs, generally a small handful per song, that proceed to work their way into your head and become the principle motif of the track. The songs are largely simple in construction as is the way on that album, having distinctly rock-based structuring. The hints of the more progressive Necroticism only really shine through during a contrasting bridge section that mixes up the basic formula at work here, while Swansong is audible during some of the more rock-infused stop-start riffing and indeed the more rockish lead work. The vocals are the same hoarse rasps of their ’90s albums and are executed well; I’d say the vocals are the best thing about the album because they actually measure up well to their classic albums.

The problem I have with albums like this is not that they don’t expand their sound, but more that they seek to emulate their classic albums while not doing as good a job. This album pretty much emulates Heartwork, and it does sound a lot like that album, but without any of the memorability and impact. The guitar tone isn’t as slick and heavy as it was on that album but more importantly the riffs simply aren’t as good. None of the riffs here stick in my mind like the riffs to ‘Heartwork’ or ‘Carnal Forge’. One problem is that the band now sounds like an imitator of that specific sound rather than the trendsetter. The riffs sound stale and rather weak in their delivery, in fact this whole album does. The blasting sections are similarly lifeless, for instance, and the drums themselves don’t feel nearly as energetic or hammering as they did before, despite playing a similar sort of straight beat. It feels like that the band only play this sort of stuff to please the fans, because at no stage does this album strike me as especially inspired or passionate.

And then there are the general problems this album has. The extended and unusual bridges inherited from Necroticism feel totally unnecessary and shoehorned in. The lyrics, which are the surgical themes of their gore era, similarly feel completely out of place amongst the melodic riffs and the rock bounce some songs exhibit. I’m not the biggest fan of death’n’roll, but the rock influence at least makes sense on a purely death’n’roll effort like Swansong, however the cheesy rock noodling on this album feels really inappropriate given the mostly groovy and modern melodeath riffing and the general aggression. All this said though, the songs are fine while they’re on and the album remains of a consistent quality throughout. Barring these blemishes there’s nothing wrong here at all. The songs are constructed well for the most part, the riffs are decent and the vocals are good – but that’s it.

The point I’m trying to make here is that it’s one thing for an album not to blaze new trails, but it’s another for it to go along old trails while not blazing at all. Everything on this album feels like it’s there only to please a certain portion of the fan base, not because they wanted to play stuff like this or write lyrics like them. And for all I know maybe they did want to play this sort of stuff, but if so they’re being lazy about it and should try harder. If they did something to progress their sound then at least they wouldn’t be able to look entirely to the past and have to provide a fresh spin on their sound and challenge themselves. As it stands however, like At the Gates on At War With Reality Carcass here have run out of ideas, and created a skippable, disposable album unworthy of their career.

Rating: 50%

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