Corrupted -- "An Island Insane" single [HG Fact]
I know the band is really enamored of the color black, but this is a bit ridiculous -- the single (like the companion, "Vasana") is on black vinyl, sports black labels with ghostlike dark gray lettering, and comes in a heavy black open sleeve with two stiff, slick black insert panels, each with more lettering in dark gray (plus the liner notes on the back of the smaller insert are completely in Japanese). Spinal Tap had nothing on these guys in the packaging department, okay? As for the music, it's slow, dirgelike, and ridiculously heavy on the first side, with a guitar sound frequently verging on collapsing into pure wailing feedback; the flip side is more of an dark-ambient noise soundscape accompanied by what could be heavily processed acoustic guitar or piano, not too far removed from the sound of the strange ending of PASO INFERIOR. It's dark and eerie stuff, with a cavernous sound and distinctly alienated aesthetic... in other words, more typical whole-grain goodness from Japan's most ominous export.
Corrupted -- "Vasana" single [HG Fact]
This single has the same kind of packaging as "An Island Insane" (and like that one, is limited to a thousand copies available only by mail from the Corrupted website), but this time the sound is more of a throwback to the morosely minimalist guitar picking of SE HACE POR LOS SUENOS ASESINOS, but this time swaddled in soul-crushing bass drone and mystical, semi-jazzy chording that gives the whole thing a new and distinctly different tone from previous releases. The flip side is more of the same, only with a lot of intensely thunderous drumming buried under the fuzzdrone and death-blurt. Is it heavy? Does the pope shit in the Vatican? This is actually one of the heaviest slices of (relatively) straightforward, slow-motion doom the band has done in a while. It's also the first time in ages that drummer Chew has made his chops so spectacularly obvious. Swank, swank stuff... but what else did you expect of the heaviest band in the world?
Diagnose: Lebensgefahr -- TRANSFORMALIN [Autopsy Kitchen Records]
This is strange, strange shit -- black metal with eccentric, even avant-garde, ideas and execution. It's the work of Nattramn, a former member of Silencer, who apparently made the album with the cooperation of the Vaxjo Psychiatric Ward in Sweden -- what that says about the state of his own mental health is a good question, but that knowledge is certainly interesting, to say the least. The album is certainly disturbed, pointing to a disjointed and scattered mental state, resulting in a series of peculiar and uneasy slices of irrational thought disguised as music -- is it the result of therapy for mental illness, or a concept album about the same subject? It's hard to tell (which is probably deliberate), but if this is calling to mind the likes of those depressive types in Bethlehem, that's probably because this resembles (at least in concept, if not the actual execution) that band's similar album SCHATTEN AUS DER ALEXANDER WELT. The music itself incorporates a wildly diverse palette of sounds -- found sound, unearthly screams, operatic wailing, industrial rhythms, creeping noise, and just about everything but the kitchen sink -- to create an unsettling and highly textured work situated at the far reaches of experimental metal. "Upon the High Horse of Self Destruction" is one of the strangest tracks, with an industrial rhythm, vaguely black metal ambience, and a mildly distorted vocal fed through a Leslie cabinet (or something similar), with morose lyrics that end with him intoning, "Throw my bones to the pigs" over and over. "The Last Breath of Tellus" comes dangerously close to outright techno, and several tracks owe more to the sound collage techniques of Stockhausen than to anything resembling traditional black metal. To say this is "out there a minute" would be a severe understatement, but it's well done and highly unnerving, not the least because there's no way to predict what will happen next -- only that it will be disturbed and misanthropic. Fans of Bethlehem, Ulver, and other left-of-center black metal bands will want to hear this.
Ensiferum -- VICTORY SONGS [Candlelight USA]
I didn't know the Finnish metalheads were down with the Viking metal concept (I thought it was their pals in Norway and the like who had cornered that particular market). Their blinding attack (on the tracks that aren't anthemic displays of keyboard bombast, anyway) draws comparisons to Enslaved, but their stealthy use of traditional Finnish instruments (kantele, bagpipe, bodhrans, etc.) is more in line with bands like Skyforger, and their guitar attack is at times far more akin to bands like Fintroll and Impaled Nazarene. They combine the giddy pomp of pagan war metal with the aggressive sheet-metal guitar and blazing drums of more punk-influenced bands, and the combination works better than you might expect. Despite a fair-sized body of work behind them (several albums, an EP, and a DVD), this is their first attempt at cracking the US market; given the power and strength of this release, though, they should be able to make plenty of progress on that front. Producer Nino Laurenne (Finntroll, Thunderstone) does an excellent job of harnessing the band's brute force and unison vocal shouts into a coherent and blazing blur of energetic fury, and the band proves itself worthy with nine strong tracks of bracing metallic venom. Bonus points for the subtle use of background noise in strategic places along with the crafty deployment of those mysterious Finnish traditional instruments.
The Hidden Hand -- THE RESURRECTION OF WHISKEY FOOTE [Southern Lord]
Guitarist / vocalist Scott "Wino" Weinrich (St. Vitus, Obsessed, Spirit Caravan, etc., etc.) and company return for a third full-length album, this time less about politics and controversy and more a concept album of sorts. The tracks tell a loose story of sorts set in early colonial America and revolving mainly around a mythical character by the name of Whiskey Foote. The lyrics are every bit as mystical as the grinding stonerific psychedelia the band churns out; Wino's swank guitar lines are matched in power and presence by the supple, throbbing bass of Bruce Falkinburg (whose day job as a recording engineer made him a natural choice to record the album, a job he does well here) and steady, energetic drumming of Evan Tanner. One of the band's hallmarks, regardless of the lineups (and there have been several), has been the ability to switch gears abruptly and without warning, all while retaining a vibe firmly entrenched between pure stoner riff rock and outright psych weirdness. Originally formed as a jam band, they are not afraid to wander off in really bizarre directions, and this album is no exception; whereas a lot of stoner rock albums become mired in predictable song structures and pointless, endless soloing, Wino and his cohorts don't have that problem. Wino's guitar tone frequently resembles the gut-wrenching sound he used to get in St. Vitus, while his vocals often hearken back to classic Ozzy (circa the first couple of Sabbath albums), and his blues-soaked guitar playing has rarely been in finer form. I was never a big fan of Obsessed or Spirit Caravan (the band this one most closely resembles), but I've always liked the unpredictable nature of this band and its direction. This album is certainly not a disappointment in that respect.
The Hidden Hand
Kotipelto -- SERENITY [Candlelight USA]
This is the solo project of Stratovarius vocalist Timo Kotipelto, who appears here with a little help from his friends -- Janne Wirman (Children of Bodom) on keyboards, bassist Lauri Porra (Warmen, Tunnelvision), and drummer Mirka Rantanen, among others -- and the album consists of ten slices of melodic bombast, including the lead single "Sleep Well," which is slated for inclusion in a major Finnish film. Kotipelto boasts a highly operatic voice, and he favors uptempo progressive metal song arrangements built around massive amounts of melody (in the vocals, keyboards, and guitars) and a taste for flash. I don't know who the guitarist is, but there's plenty of shredding melodic fever blowing through the guitar lines, and the entire album has a distinctly uplifting, symphonic feel. Fans of grim, frozen, lo-fi metal may find the openly commercial sheen a bit off-putting, but fans of the symphonic metal movement that has taken the European countries by storm over the past few years should really appreciate this.
Magnum -- PRINCESS ALICE AND THE BROKEN ARROW [SPV]
Not exactly a household name in the US, Magnum was formed in Birmingham (home of Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, and Godflesh) in 1972 around the core of guitarist / songwriter Tony Clarkin and vocalist Bob Catley. While the band has been a fixture of UK rock since then (this is the band's thirteenth album), with the exception of a few dates supporting Ozzy Osbourne in 1982, the band has been severely lacking in a US presence. It's too bad, because the band's melodic and vaguely mystical / psychedelic sound -- like a more focused and less stoned Hawkwind, maybe, or maybe even Deep Purple with better songs and a considerably better guitarist -- would almost certainly find plenty of listeners on this side of the Atlantic. This album may go a long way toward rectifying that omission (although it really should have come out a couple of years ago during the big stoner rock movement -- if anybody is going to enthusiastically embrace this band, it will be the stoner rock crowd), despite the fact that it sounds like a full-on throwback to 70s rock; given how shitty the current state of melodic metal is, that is probably considerably more of an advantage than a drawback. Make no mistake, though -- this band's sound has absolutely nothing in common with what most people would recognize as current metal or hard rock (they're much better musicians than the average dope-huffing metalhead in a Korn t-shirt, for one thing). This band has more in common with the early psych-blues of Judas Priest (circa SAD WINGS OF DESTINY) and early Trapeze than anything that passes for modern metal, and that's not a bad thing at all. The band worked hard for a year or more perfecting the eleven songs here, and the results are excellent. If you're not familiar with Magnum, this is definitely the place to start. Note that a limited first edition will be available that includes a DVD with lots of additional material on the making of the album, interviews, and a video for "Dragons Are Real."
Saxon -- THE INNER SANCTUM [SPV]
For those keeping track, this is the version of Saxon with original vocalist Biff Byford at the helm (but not original bassist Scott Dawson, the inspiration for Harry Shearer's performance as Spinal Tap bassist Derek Smalls); as far as I know, the "other" Saxon (formed around the former members who abandoned Byford in the mid-90s) is still around, creating confusion for everybody. I was a fan of the band's initial releases, despite the band's tendency toward vapid metal cliches, but they pretty much lost me after DENIM & LEATHER, when they started sanding down the raw edges in a (mostly failed) attempt at commercial respectability. This album probably isn't going to do much to bring the original true believers back into the fold, with its overly slick production (which includes uncredited keyboards, surely the kiss of death for a band who were one of the original proponents of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal) and continuing reliance on cliche subjects (check out titles like "Need For Speed" and "I've Got To Rock (To Stay Alive)," but it's at least a respectable effort in all other respects -- Byford sounds good, better than he has in years, and when they're not wading through the obligatory power ballads, they have a significantly high energy level and a good sound. How much the album will move you probably depends on how attached you still are to the original sound of NWOBHM and your fondness for old-school hard rock / metal guitar diddling. This may not be the second coming of WHEELS OF STEEL, but it's probably the best thing the band has done in ages, if you can hang with the overly commercial sound. The digipak release comes with a DVD with additional material; the jewel case version comes with an extra track. Choose your poison; choose it well....
Stalaggh -- PROJEKT MISANTHROPIA [Autopsy Kitchen Records]
Hey, any album that opens with people screaming like they're being disemboweled with a rusty potato peeler and angry lunatics breaking shit is okay by me. We're talking serious, highly perverse Abruptum-style weirdness here, with lots of howling and shouting and smashing stuff and pure sonic ugliness over the course of one long track clocking in around thirty minutes. The band members like to remain anonymous (although they are supposedly well-known musicians from the Dutch and Belgian extreme metal scene), and they claim their vocalist to be a madman who murdered his mother at the age of sixteen (they want all that psychopathic rage to be real, see), although I'd take that tidbit of info with a grain of salt. One thing is unquestionably clear, though; this is a seriously demented work of anti-commercial art, and one of the most deliberately obnoxious sonic endeavors since the first masterwork from Abruptum. It takes a good five or six minutes for the track to resolve into anything resembling music (and then it's mostly fuzzed-out guitar hell and primitive drumming), and even then the musical content is strictly touch 'n go... but the wailing, screaming, and near-ritualistic gnashing of teeth never lets up. Bonus points for the truly gross-sounding bass that shows up about ten minutes into the track and the moments of pure white noise (not to mention all that endless screaming). It's nice to see I'm not the only one who still worships Abruptum, even if the band is loath to admit as much.
Autopsy Kitchen Records
Unsane -- VISQUEEN [Ipecac]
I don't know which is stranger, to see the band on Mike Patton's label or to see them still putting out albums after all this time. I've been hearing a lot of grumpiness from fans of the band's early work regarding their last album (BLOOD RUN) and this one -- the big complaint seems to be that the band keeps doing the same thing, no progression, blah blah blah. I think it's probably more accurate to note than with a band like this, "progression" happens in small doses and subtle ways; to that end, this is a good record, if not one the naysayers are likely to find spectacular. People who weren't impressed with BLOOD RUN won't be impressed with this one, either, although if you ask me it's the best album they've made since SCATTERED, SMOTHERED AND COVERED -- there's plenty of the usual gutshot intensity, sure, but more subtle and unexpected moments like the atypical intro to "Against the Grain" and the bluesy solo that ends "This Stops At the River," not to mention the swirling sheets of sound and knitting-needle guitar lines of "Windshield" and the subterranean deathcrush of "East Broadway"; meanwhile, the sound all over the album is absolutely vast, monolithic, and all-encompassing, like being swallowed by a NYC sewer while bulldozers duel on the crumbling concrete overhead. And let's face it, even if you think the songs aren't varied enough (and that would probably be a fair assessment; the band has always been more about grinding doom and attitude than actual songwriting), they sound like they really mean business and the band (especially singer / guitarist Chris Spencer) are as intense as a gun in your face. You can dis 'em if you like -- it's not going to stop them, you know? -- but me, I'm just going to play the damn thing again....
Vorkuta -- INTO THE CHASMS OF LUNACY [Paragon Records]
Hungary is not exactly the first place that leaps to mind when thinking of cold, grim, relentless black metal, but they must know something I don't, because Vorkuta (originally known as Fjord, who released one demo before changing their name) definitely know how to channel the spirit of original greats like Burzum, Bathory, and Darkthrone while retaining their own furious sound. It helps that they are an actual band (even if, in the true spirit of old-school black metal, they employ a session drummer -- in this case Nihilist, whose pounding aggression does a lot to propel the band into new realms of fury), and the band is tight and focused. They use keyboards effectively from time to time (as on 'Stardust" and especially the eerie, dissonant drone of "Within the Fortress of Melancholia"), in a style distinctly reminiscent of early Burzum, and incorporate a lot of found sound and atmospheric noises into the intros and backgrounds, but the best moments are when the fizzy, distorted guitars kick in and vocalist Blizzard shrieks like one of the guys in Abruptum just bit him on the leg (see "Gargoyle" for an excellent demonstration of such ravishing grimness). This is the band's debut, and given how good it is, one can only wonder how much more terrifying they'll sound a couple of albums down the line.