Benea Reach -- MONUMENT BINEOTHAN [Candlelight USA]
It seems like most of the best extreme metal lately is coming from the Scandanavian region -- hardly surprising, given that area's status as the birthplace of black metal -- and Benea Reach (from Oslo, Norway, to be specific) is just the latest example. They're from the hybrid school of metal, with screeching, caustic black metal vocals, doom-laden low end, death metal's propulsive fury and complex riffs / structures, and highly harmonic and melodic guitar work (one of the guitarists is former Extol guitarist Christer Espevoll) straight out of the power-metal playbook. They favor a big, chunky guitar sound and complex start 'n stop riffing with plenty of dynamic changes; the songs explode forward with ferocious energy, even when they slow the pace a bit, while the guitars always remain more harmonically pleasing than abrasive. They're heavy and complex in the manner of bands like Meshuggah and Lamb of God, but they never let their technical dexterity get out of hand and overpower the actual songs -- they like their metal complicated, sure, but they like it catchy, too. At times they approach the sound of martial marching music on steroids, breaking out huge, chunk-style riffs and stop-on-a-dime drums just for the sake of sheer heaviness -- I can totally see a whole stadium full of metalheads moshing up and down in time to tracks like "Pandemonium" and "Torch." Bonus points for the squalling guitar bleating that shows up on a regular basis in addition to the riff-heavy thunder.
Celestia -- APPARITIA - SUMPTUOUS SPECTRE [Paragon Records]
Fans of the eternally obscure may well have heard of this album already; the band's debut full-length after several demos and EPs, it was originally released by Full Moon Productions several years ago in a less-than-stellar mix shortly before the band went on hiatus for several years. Now the band is back, and Paragon has kindly reissued it with a mix more to the band's liking. The band bills their sound as "cold ethereal black metal," and it's definitely that, but more importantly, it's like Xasthur crossed with the second coming of Burzum -- lots of dark and icy ambience courtesy of heavy reverb abuse, marked by lots of trilling, minimalist guitar riffs with that genuinely clotted sound endemic to the early second wave of black metal, not to mention plenty of pained shrieking in the background. This is the kind of black metal I prefer -- simple (but effective) lo-fi compositions of dark, monochromatic mystery, all primitive, minimalist, majestic, and filled with misanthropic dread. This is the sound of midnight in the frozen Nordic wastelands, with the repetitive musical mantras of occult rituals. Blood draining from a corpse in the moonlight is every bit as black as this album. Fans of old-school Norwegian crankiness will want to investigate.
COMA -- ORNAMENTAL URBAN SHRUBBERY [Edgetone Records]
COMA actually stands for California Outside Music Associates, a collective of improv artists who perform around Cali in various configurations (from duo to octet, alone or with dancers and poets, etc.) and revolve around founding members John Vaughn (sax, percussion, theremin) and Dax Compise (percussion). Here they are joined by Zone (aka Jeffrey McFarland-Johnson) on electric cello, bass, and voice. The nine tracks on this disc clock in at just under an hour and were recorded on April 2, 2006 by Zone (and subsequently mastered at Studio 401 by Andrew Scott), and as one might expect by the band's name, they are improvisational in nature and heavy on unorthodox sounds, with transitory structures and a compositional grounding far removed from your standard pop fare. Which is not to say it's unlistenable -- far from it; there's a rhythmic pulse at the core of most of these pieces, over which the other members ebb and flow freely and at their whim, and while they favor decidedly untraditional structures (or compositional strategies that are more about the flow of sound and driven by chance than actual theory), they remain anchored enough to keep from drifting out into aimless doodling. There's a strategy and direction at work, even when it's not immediately obvious, one often built around Vaughn and Compise weaving atypical solos and bursts of sound around Zone as he provides the backbone of the piece. Several of the pieces are more about the spaces within sound and the textures produced by their instruments rather than attempts at melodic or rhythmic progression, but they prove perfectly capable of approximating music with a beat and actual melodic content from time to time, even if it is akin to an exploded-drawing view of the same. Intriguing without being busy or frantic, and prone to interesting displays of unorthodox tones (putting the theremin to work was a really good idea). Having a really nice drum sound never hurts either. Exotic but enjoyable.
Irepress -- SAMUS OCTOLOGY [Translation Loss]
This instrumental quintet from Boston may be a metal band, but only in the sense that King Crimson was occasionally capable of being "metal" -- they have their heavy moments, to be sure, but mainly their bag is in creating complex compositions that have more in common with 70s art rock than traditional metal and hard rock. This is metal for fans of Tool or Mouth of the Architect, music that's more about chops, composition, and musical skills than the simplistic pleasures of "rocking out" (although they do rock, just not in a conventional manner). There are some mighty crushing riffs on this album, and the occasional burst of jagged speed, but those moments are largely subservient to the prog-rock vibe -- old-school metalheads may well find the band's approach severely frustrating, and may not be able to wade through the long stretches of proggy noodling to get to the crushing parts. Listeners more hep to the progressive tip (or less worried about the crushing riffs and metal mania) will probably find this more satisfying, especially since they have a sophisticated grasp of dyamics and are all accomplished players. Fair warning, though -- if you're not down with prog-rock and its more metallic variants, you're probably going to have a real hard time getting into this.
Manes -- HOW THE WORLD CAME TO AN END [Candlelight Records]
Give them this much: Regardless of what you think of their abrupt shift from black metal to electronica after their stunning classic UNDER EIN BLODRAUD MAANE, they certainly aren't about playing it safe. VILOSOPHE (and its shift in musical direction) alienated a lot of their early fanbase, but it was hardly a bad album in retrospect (just not a black metal one); this album is even better, and despite the fact that it's actually much further out in left field, it's also a lot more listenable, even (o the horror!) catchier. It's still definitely not black metal, but there are at least elements of black metal, trip-hop, noise, opera, and more mixed in with the electronic bleating and techno rhythms. It's also much weirder this time around -- like Ulver, the band they most closely resemble at this point, they are not afraid to channel old folk and proto-jazz into their beat-heavy postrock deconstruction act, and a lot of their sound borders on the genuinely unclassifiable. Like NIN poisoned by the spirit of black metal or Coil on a hallucinogenic bender, their vision of techno-metal is surrounded by peculiar sonic washes and experimental ambient sound, and their attention to detail and the juxtaposition of truly strange and different sonic textures keeps their often epic compositions from deteriorating into empty exercises in progressive twaddle. The one thing the new Manes still has in common with the old Manes is a talent for composition that's less minimalist than it initially appears, as well as a flair for discovering and implementing simple but really effective melodies and riffs -- their method of attack and the instruments they use may have changed, but not the intent or the vision (okay, maybe that has changed just a tad). This is a highly complex and provocative collision of metal, jazz, techno, and hip-hop, with the kind of sound and epic scale that Trent Reznor reached for (but failed to successfully sustain) on THE FRAGILE -- and they were economical enough to manage to reach that sonic plateau with just one disc, not two. Even if VILOSOPHE scared you off, you should come back and check this out.
Lasse Marhaug -- THE GREAT SILENCE [PACrec]
The title is either a great joke or an enormous stab at irony, because this is anything but silent. No, this disc consists of three long tracks of brain-frying noise screech generated by guitars, amps, pedals, mikes, junk electronics, and who knows what else -- maybe they hired out giants to shake the studio vigorously while they beat the equipment to death, who knows? This is crunchy, crunchy stuff, recorded in a professional studio (not that you would ever guess -- it's got all the raw violence of a homebrew recording) and mastered for maximum sonic ugliness... but even at high volume there's plenty of dynamic range happening, with lots of sawtooth gear-grinding and electronic teeth-gnashing. There are plenty of nice, harsh textures at work here, and in the second piece, lots of rhythmic violence as well to go with the squeaking and shrieking. The third (and title) track is anything but quiet, with lots of filthy amp hum, hissing white noise, and grunting caveman electrodeath. Textured explosions of noise and sonic depravity with the occasional bass action capable of making your speakers levitate (if not implode) -- this is proof that you can punish without being maxed-out from start to finish. Crushing, ear-shattering stuff.
Mithras -- BEHIND THE SHADOWS LIE MADNESS [Candlelight USA]
Don't let the proggy, instrumental opener fool you; once you get past that, this is epic, crushing death metal. To be sure, there are some progressive elements, especially in the often ornate guitarwork, but those elements are present only to provide space between the power-mad bursts of excessive drumming and riff-heavy hate. Their obsession with blinding speed and complicated parts point to an obvious Emperor influence, but the machine-gun drumming is straight-up blistering death metal, as are the hoarse, shouted vocals. Titles like "Under the Three Spheres" and "Awaken Man and Stone" make it clear that they're ambitious, but they have the chops to back up that grandiose vision, especially where guitarist Leon Macey is concerned -- his spiraling leads frequently come closer to resembling the work of King Crimson or the Mahivishnu Orchestra than anything in metal, and it's nothing short of amazing that bassist / vocalist Rayner Coss can keep up with the relentless drum assault (provided by Macey, whose rapid-fire drumming skills are every bit the equal of his guitar prowess). This is a powerful cross between technical death metal and guitar-heavy prog rock, and not all of it is a blasting thrashfest -- tracks like "When the Light Fades Away" are complex (both technically and melodically speaking) exercises in stretching the boundaries of metal and fusion without collapsing into empty displays of virtuosity. If you like your metal heavy, ornate, and absurdly technical, this is the album for you.
Mortuus -- DE CONTEMPLANDA MORTE [Ajna Offensive]
Mortuus is a mysterious duo from Sweden who produce what can best be described as occult black metal with death leanings; the hefty booklet is festooned with obscure occult symbols and gloomy photographs that are both foreboding and darkly sensual, just like their music. The first track, "Penetrations of Darkness," is a slow, brooding dirge anchored by minimal drumming and blackened, simple riffs awash in reverb; more so than most black metal bands, there's very little happening here -- and in a good way; the lack of clutter lends a vast sense of space and darkness to the majestic but primitive riffs. By contrast, the song that follows it, "Astral Pandemonium," is full of blazing fury that drops back into brooding, mid-tempo primitivism and a droning wash of fuzz before making an abrupt (and brief) shift into pure death metal territory, only to return to the epic drone and then back to pounding fury. The rest of the album continues in a similar vein, with a guitar sound heavily influenced by the second wave of Scandanavian black metal and a pechant for mordant simplicity. The one constant is the vocalist's misanthropic, guttural howl, a voice that remains both commanding and impressively sinister throughout the length of the album. This is the way atmospheric black metal is supposed to sound -- raw, bleak, unadorned, and steeped in resigned dread, yet horribly potent. This album is highly reminiscent of early Manes, an extremely good thing in my book.
Noisescore Freak / Ask Heroin Sally -- APATHETIC INFANT SKULL [Deadsix Productions]
You want intense? This is your disc. The first three tracks are by Noisecore Freak, and those are all pounding, noise-encrusted slices of filth and fury laced with caustic samples, like Ministry and any random harsh-noise band battling to see who can break the most stuff in the studio and whose drum machine can play the fastest. The beats sound more like a machine-gun going off, the guitars sound like steel dumpsters being slammed together, and head freak C. Stepniewski rants like he's completely possessed by rage. Industrial hyperrythms, knitting-needle metal guitars, and plenty of noise all make for an extremely hostile listening experience, to say the least. The songs are relatively short, which is probably because it doesn't long to break shit. The other three tracks (by AHS -- Stepniewski again, with a somewhat different aesthetic to go with the new name) are more like a grinding wasteland of seething ambient noise and industrial cyclone scraping -- less metal, more noise, with bleaker and slower beats to go with the trash-compactor sound. Much crunchiness abounds in the chaos and diseased sonic atmosphere. From psychotic industrial raveups to a trip through dark, dank dungeons of sonic grue, this is punishing ugliness. And you know it's all about the ugliness, right?
Ask Heroin Sally
Omnium Gatherum -- STUCK HERE ON SNAKES WAY [Candlelight Records]
Finland's Omnium Gatherum stir an extremely interesting mix of disparate elements into their complex metal brew -- intricate neo-classical acoustic guitar passages, highly listenable power-metal melodicism in the vein of Judas Priest or Iron Maiden, intense drumming and frenzied riffing (and rasped vocals) more consistent with the extremities of death metal, and breaks for technical virtuosity that never get in the way of their burning need to thrash. The band likes to move in wildly different directions through the individual movements of the songs, but they do it without stopping to shift gears and without stopping the breakneck pace. Essentially blistering thrash metal with plenty of progressive digressions and serious nods to both old-school metal and extreme sounds, the band is surprisingly listenable for something so intense, buoyed by a superlative rhythm section and a lead guitarist obviously weaned on the best parts of classic, melodically superior metal. It's complicated stuff that manages to be both brutal and technical at the same time, no mean feat, and tracks like "The Third Flame" sound like an updated version of 80s power metal on fast-forward locked into post-metal's stop 'n start crush groove. Powerful, impressive stuff.
Paganize -- EVILUTION HOUR [Candlelight USA]
Whoa -- it's like the 80s never went away! Paganize, a five-piece band from Norway with Trym (Zyklon, Emperor) on drums, sounds like a modern, updated answer to the straightforward, riff-laden metal of classic bands like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, complete with a singer obviously influenced by Rob Halford and squealy, blues-based soloing. There's nothing particularly new here -- if you're looking for progression, experimentation, or digressions from the true nature of metal, you've come to the wrong place -- but what's here is remarkably good, a throwback to classic power-metal played by guys who obviously worship the genre and know what the hell they're doing. Talk about retro, the album makes it sound like black metal, grunge, and electronica never happened -- you could easily pass this off as an obscure "lost" album from twenty years ago and nobody woulod be any wiser. As for quality, it's certainly better than anything Judas Priest did in the 80s after SCREAMING FOR VENGEANCE (or Iron Maiden post-POWERSLAVE), and with much better production than most of the lesser-known bands of the era who were flogging this sound on labels like Metal Blade, Lightning to the Nations, and Combat. This is the band's debut (it was released overseas last year, and is just now showing up in the US), which means they might actually develop this sound further as the band grows, but in the meantime, it's a pleasure to hear a modern band playing old-school metal with this much vigor and reverence.
Pantheon-I -- THE WANDERER AND HIS SHADOW [Candlelight USA]
Catastrophic, blinding black metal fury from Norway featuring former 1349 guitarist Tjaive -- this is black metal with punk / rock roots and a tendency toward furious overkill. The cornerstones of the band's attack are punishing double-bass drumming, harshly croaked vocals, and blurry, trilling guitar lines, but there's more to them than just that -- when they ease up on the blinding pace, as they do from time to time in "Coming to An End," the guitar riffs turn surprisingly melodic, and there are even passages of clean, operatic singing. Their passion for blurry sonic violence is offset by moments of epic grandiosity, but for the most part they like to blaze, spitting out fast, serrated riffs and squiggly guitar bleating over an avalanche of thundering, hyperkinetic drums. And by fast, I mean FAST -- some of the songs are just a streaming blur of motion only occasionally broken by half-speed breaks that usually last only a few measures before speeding back up again; on "My Curse," the fast parts are nothing less than frantic, although when they slow things down a bit the heaviness gets positively crushing (and they even throw in a nifty melodic bass break, a nice touch). Try headbanging to the fast parts on this album and you'll end up with a nosebleed, if not a broken neck -- especially on the closing track "Chaos Incarnate," in which they play so fast that they resemble a bullet train about to leap off the rails and go tumbling into the abyss. The entire album is an energetic, spine-snapping roar that eases up on the tempo occasionally just enough to keep it from all turning into an endless roar of metallic hummingbirds. Bracing nastiness, indeed.
Sinamore -- A NEW DAY [Napalm Records]
The band themselves describe their sound as "Katatonia meets HIM while gangbanging Jon Bon Jovi," and who am I to disagree? What that means, in more straightforward terms, is that they start with catchy pop structures and vocals, then throw in shattering melodic riffs with the constant driving guitar blur of black metal but with a much poppier sound. This is gothic metal with plenty of drive to match the melancholy and arrangements that border on prog-rock without wandering completely out of pop-metal territory. They keep things from getting stale with the judicious use of textured sound in places like the end of "Sleeping Away," and some of their guitar melodies appear to be coming from a distinctly un-metal place -- nods to old-wave goth bands like the Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees show up on songs like "My Rain," for instance -- but they rarely stray for long from the fuzzy guitar attack that keeps them squarely in the metal tradition. They can be pretty and mournful as well -- see the intro to "A New Day," before the crunch kicks in -- and turn right around and launch into driving metal anthems like "Drama For Two." Versatile, melodic, and with just enough crunch to keep bringing the rock, their sound is something goth-metal fans will want to check out.
Torso / Unicorn -- split cd [Divorce Records]
Now this is just what the doctor ordered -- two excellent artists and eleven amazingly loud slices of droning noise hell nirvana, housed in a swell Thumbprint Press stiff paper package. The first five tracks are from Torso, the rising dark star of Canadian noise (one Sandy Saunders, hailing from Nova Scotia); the remaining six are from Unicorn, the solo ambient drone project of Bill Nelson (Bastard Noise, Sleestak). Both employ handmade, custom-built electronic gadgets to create their impenetrable walls of sonic grue, and both favor minimalist drones augmented by other sounds. Torso favors fuzzy analog noise generators for its mind-blowing wall of sound, and while the tracks are not all full-on bursts of insane power and eternal drone, they do all form around the building blocks of warm analog distortion, the sound you generally get only from tube equipment and non-digital sources. Unicorn, on this recording at least, is less prone to the total immersion effect and more interested in strange, repetitive sounds and the spaces in between them. There's still a heavy drone quotient in several of the Unicorn tracks, however; they may not be as loud, thick, or dense as Torso's tracks, but they're no less interesting and often far more eerie. Unicorn leans toward a disquieting sort of creeping minimalism, an aesthetic that gradually singes your nerve endings one neuron at a time, as opposed to setting your entire central nervous system on fire at once (that's what the Torso tracks are for, natch). This release is an inspired pairing of two noise / drone artists at the top of their game, and totally essential listening.
Unicorn (at Trogotronic)
Visions of Atlantis -- TRINITY [Napalm Records]
Austria's Visions of Atlantis were originally formed around the band's collective interest in Atlantis mythology, although they have since branched out into other interests and lyrical areas. In a growing sea of symphonic metal bands fronted by female singers, their not-so-secret weapon is in the operatic talent of soprano singer Melissa Ferlaak, formerly of Aesma Daeva -- she has a range rarely heard outside of opera circles, and her sonorous voice glides neatly over bombastic songs filled with looming keyboards and sharp metallic riffing. They lean toward severely uptempo compositions marked by complex layers of sound and highly dynamic arrangements, although there are slower, lusher moments like the ballad "The Poem," in which second vocalist Mario Plank trades off and harmonizes with Ferlaak. This is definitely keyboard-heavy music, but distorted metal guitar and relatively straightforward drumming gives the symphonic sound muscle and heft. Whether they play slow or fast, they break out catchy riffs and sophisticated melodies that keep the songs from becoming too ethereal; at the same, the slower parts allow them to make effective use of keyboard washes and softer sounds, and throughout it all, Ferlaak's vocals are truly beautiful and haunting. These are epic, uplifting symphonies of fire and ice, narrated by a voice from the heavens.
Visions of Atlantis
Wereju -- THROUGH THE DEPTHS OF UNKNOWING [Electric Requiems]
Eerie, droning ambient soundscapes from Ireland, of all places -- two cds worth, in fact, although the total running time is under an hour. (Yes, I know that doesn't make sense -- don't look at me, I'm an innocent bystander here.) The sound falls somewhere between the more abstract work of Aidan Baker and the epic fall-of-drone works of Fear Falls Burning -- it's all gliding instrumental melancholy and heavily processed guitar, dark soundscapes that resemble the ambient sound of waves crashing on a distant shore while trawler horns bleat in the fog, or perhaps the hollow and disquieting sound reverberating through the subterranean tunnels surrounding the river Styx. There's a soothing quality to the depressed drone, though, with pleasing sonorous tones and an elegaic feel to most of the material, a sound that's every bit as intriguing as it is meditative. This is music for mystical journeys through darkened inner landscapes -- with stark and brooding artwork to match -- that should hold plenty of appeal for droning dark ambient enthusiasts.
Jack Wright -- AS IS: SOLOS FROM BEIRUT & BARCELONA [Spring Garden Music]
The latest (I think -- it's been sitting in the review queue for a while now, ACK) release from improv saxophonist Jack Wright collects three live tracks on one disc in a bare-bones format, with minimalist packaging that mirrors the minimalist solo music (plus an interesting essay entitled "The Solo Is the Self Alone" that does much to explain Wright's approach to both playing and the "business" of music in general). The first two tracks (one featuring soprano sax, the other alto sax) were recorded at the Irtijal Festival in Beirut, Lebanon in April 2006; the third (soprano sax again) track was recorded at the Saladestar in Barcelona a week later. In accordance with his earlier works, the tracks are all improvisational explorations of the possibilities of sounds that can be generated with one instrument being tortured in an unorthodox fashion, as well as studies in flow and space. Despite some self-deprecating guff in the liner notes about "imperfections in the recording," the sound is generally clear and direct, and the sounds to be heard are strange and often arresting, not to mention naked in their total lack of accompaniment -- this is improvisation at its rawest and fullest, just one man with one instrument making things happen on the fly before a watchful audience. Good stuff, in other words, and well in line with the aesthetic championed on his previous releases.
Spring Garden Music