Arch Enemy -- BLACK EARTH [Regain Records]
I'll bet this is what Slayer would sound like now if they'd let Jeff Hanneman write more of the songs instead of Kerry King -- loud, fast, brutal, and completely obnoxious, yet possessed of mountains of melody and swinging buzzsaw riffs of pure eternal death. There's certainly a heavy and obvious Slayer influence happening here, that's for sure, especially in the guitars and vocal delivery, but the pure blinding aggression is on a level Slayer haven't achieved in many moons now. (It also helps that they string together better, heavier riffs, and their drummer is just about as heavy and complicated as Dave Lombardo.) The songs are consistently fast 'n heavy, with the occasional half-speed breakdown (all the better to showcase mosh-worthy riffs), but even when the tempo turns everything into a monolithic blur reminiscent of a jet skidding sideways down a runway, they never get sloppy with the technical riffs and they remain fiercely melodic. Heaviness incarnate, yes, but it's a highly listenable form of heaviness -- they may not win points for sheer originality, but they make up for it with brute force and lots of uncompromising heaviness. This is actually the band's first album (the band was formed by ex-Carcass guitarist Michael Amott) and was originally released in Europe in 1997 (which is pretty funny, since it sounds a lot more fresh and energetic than a lot of current metal product); this reissue contains three bonus tracks and a video for "Bury Me An Angel." Note that this feature's the band's original vocalist Johan Liiva; current singer Angela Gossow didn't join the band until their fourth release.
Baroness / Unpersons -- A GREY SIGH IN A FLOWER PARK [At A Loss Recordings]
The flowery (literally) psychedelic artwork of the cd packaging is a tad misleading (deliberately so, I suspect), because this is no hippie lovefest -- no, this heaviness qua HEAVINESS, starting with the two startling, soul-crushing tracks from Baroness who merge the sick aggression of Buzzoven with the ridiculous dexterity of Don Caballero or The Fucking Champs, and maybe a nod or two in the direction of King Crimson. The only thing you can expect is the unexpected, as the band bulldozes through a dizzying series of shifts in tone, texture, and dynamics, all without losing their forward momentum (or the beat). The band stretches out for over twelve minutes on "cavite," giving everybody the opportunity to display both weird prog-rock chops and a severely metal attitude in equal doses -- the initial onslaught of crushing nastiness periodically gives way to fusion-drumming breakdowns, radical shifts in tempo and dynamics, and even proto-blues guitar that turns into splintered fragments of shrapnel before the band comes together again as one to fry your neurons with filth-encrusted sonic rage over hyperkinetic drumming. Throughout the two tracks, the only real nod to traditional metal or hardcore stylings is in the full-bodied roar of guitarist / vocalist John Baizley (also, as it happens, the guy who did all the amazing artwork -- talk about a man of many talents); he is the anchor around which the jagged cyclone rages. This is the band's third release, and if the other two were like this, I frankly have no idea why they aren't beyond huge already. Hopefully this release and their forthcoming full-length will do something to change that....
Unpersons, another band from Savannah, GA, is just as direct and powerful and "out there" in a completely different way -- the band favors a wild noisecore approach, largely blazing away (with a few stops for quiet hypno-riffing before launching back into the full frontal assault), but their main secret weapon of "otherness" is the singer, who lurches through wildly different vocal styles like a man possessed by deep internal demons as the band goes off in a dozen different directions. The nods toward prog-rock are considerably more buried (but they're still there, believe me), as the main fixation here is on power and chaos. Their songs (four of them, to be exact) are shorter, but they pack a lot of action into those brief bursts of fury without ever becoming safe or predictable. They have a penchant for more dissonant riffing (this is a good thing), and while their drummer is every bit as hyperactive as the skin-beater in Baroness, the rest of the band is more about thick explosions of sonic violence and cyclone guitar; at times they approach the territory of white noise, with a resulting sound that ebbs and flows in waves of shredded metal angst. Powerful and often inexplicable, just like life, only with louder guitars.
At A Loss Recordings
Diskreet -- INFERNAL RISE [Siege of Amida / Candlelight USA]
Topeka, KS seems like an awfully strange place to be spawning such a chaotic, dissonant variant of extreme metal, but then Iowa spawned the likes of Slipknot, so what do I know? Here's what I do know: This is chaotic, heavy stuff incorporating elements of death metal at its most technical and the senseless blast-beat overdrive of prime grindcore, with the result being songs that sound like barely-controlled explosions sending hot metallic fragments flying in all directions. This is the musical personification of violent, incoherent rage, frequently sounding like someone pressed fast-forward on the tape deck and then beat it to death with a sledgehammer. Prone to truly excessive bursts of speed, they often play so fast that the drummer must look like a hummingbird flailing away at the drums, with guitars so sped-up that they resembled the terrible blur of a sawblade jumping out of the table-saw housing. The seven tracks here speed by with the wild cacaphony of possessed homunculi dueling with rivet guns on a speeding conveyor belt, working up an impressive head of pure blinding fury. (It helps that their vocalist sounds like an angry psychopath being electrocuted.) I can't imagine how they're going to manage to play entire sets live without dislocating their shoulders or going into convulsions; it must take a ridiculous amount of stamina to play such such infernally fast and obnoxious metal. Seriously, this makes pretty much everything but Abruptum and Stalaggh look like pop music. This is the sound of metal being pushed to the point of disintegration -- can you handle it?
Siege of Amida
Doctor Bob -- DARK TIMES [Edgetone Records]
Even for a release on Edgetone, this is a pretty bizarre concept. "Doctor" Bob Marsh and David Michalak combine voice, electronics, cello, and lap steel guitar (!!!) to create surreal-sounding abstract soundscapes that straddle the uneasy boundary between electronica and dark ambient without ever fully becoming one or the other. Marsh invokes the spirit of Bertoit Brecht on the opening title track, while coaxing nightmarish drones and bee-like sounds from his cello as wailing groans from the abused lap steel lurch around the cello bleatings; disturbed vocal samples and off-kilter electronic frippery only adds to the unnerving intensity. The rest of the disc unfolds in similar fashion, with tracks constructed around the entirely unorthodox use of cello and lap steel to create sawtooth drones and unearthly wailing, then bathed in liberal amounts of diseased incidental sound and grotesque, often processed vocals. This is the sound of mental patients doodling with unfamiliar instruments, or perhaps Abruptum minus the screaming and obvious metal context -- there's definitely nothing soothing about this exercise in anti-music, which is all the more interesting given the minimal use of instruments and the relatively subdued nature of the sounds. Deeply unsettling stuff that relies more on a deliberately cerebral approach to the craft of horrific sound rather than cliched, played-out tropes like shrieking and horror-movie samples, this is the sound of a disorganized mind trying to piece the shattered fragments back together again. They get a million or so bonus points for dragging the godlike Karen Stackpole into the diabolical proceedings to provide mutant percussion on five of the eleven tracks here; her minimalist percussion drubbings are the perfect rhythmic accompaniment to the uneasy sounds slithering through the studio here. This disc is just more proof that it is indeed possible to achieve an unsettling musical vision with a minimal set of tools, provided one has an overabundance of demented vision.
Marcos Fernandes / Mike Pride -- A MOUNTAIN IS A MAMMAL [Accretions]
Long-time readers of DEAD ANGEL will recognize both of these avant percussionists with a long string of quality releases between them, releases focused on the exploration of sound; this latest document, a collaboration between the two players, is no exception. They met in passing in 2005 while they were both touring separately in Tokyo, and subsequently met up again in New York to record these three duets. The first one, "welcome whom find it becoming," is one of the more subtle ones -- it takes a while to heat up as they ease their way in, playing quietly, almost tentatively, until they start to swing with a clatter, playing around each other with growing abandon and the gradual inclusion of more non-percussion elements. The second piece, "a little more dangerous," is also just a little bit longer at over 27 minutes, in which they branch out in as many directions as humanly possible, from subtle moments of minimalism to episodes of sonic vengeance in which they hit as many things as possible to create a chaotic swirl of rhythmic sound; even in the most chaotic moments, though, there is a clarity to the recording (and to their playing) that makes it possible to tell exactly what is going on. Given the length of this piece, it's almost inevitable that the energy and textures ebb and flow; just when the thunder threatens to become too much, they both pull back to explore less pummeling directions, and occasionally employ the use of phonography and electronic manipulation to add additional layers of texture. When they lay back, it offers them the opportunity to explore the sound of the space in which they are recording, and the room sound becomes more obvious when they work with more subdued methods as the rhythms become fragmentary and then dissolve entirely into the process of exploring the actual tones and timbres of the individual pieces of their kits and percussion tools. Eventually, though, this gradually turns into a clash of intense rhythms again, with the piece ending in an emphatic and decisive manner. The last piece, "is anything more than everything," returns to a shorter format and makes more use of found sound, electronics, and ambient noise; what little percussion exists is largely relegated to the background, while the electro-frippery is very much upfront, providing a new series of sounds and textures, some of them surprisingly rhythmic in their own right. The two percussionists work well together and their improvisational activity achieves interesting results.
Graboids -- INFINITE DELAY [Stick Figure / Mole End]
Hailing from Charlottesville, VA, the Graboids play a vast-sounding and efx-riddled form of ambient space rock in the vein of bands like Bethany Curve, Lockgroove, Sciflyer, and King Black Acid, one that's largely instrumental (save for one track featuring guest vocalist "Jeremiah") and built around compelling rhythms buried under the acid-fried spaciness. While much of their sound is transcendent and possessed of an eerie, twilight beauty, they are not afraid to turn up the distortion pedals from time to time and bathe in white-noise guitar. What distinguishes them from many post-shoegazer bands of this nature is the prominence (and excellence) of their rhythm section and the ability of the guitars to play well without overplaying. The guitarists also get lots of bonus points for being able to easily shift from beautiful, celestial-sounding chordal modes into fuzzed-out washes of efx-laden noise with considerable aplomb; they also make tasteful choices in the use of their pedals as well, seguing from one cosmic tone to another without getting swept around into the dreaded territory of overwrought pedal abuse. They have swell songwriting chops too, always an important distinction in a genre where too many players substitute piling on ridiculous layers of efx in lieu of writing tunes that actually go somewhere and say something. Each song is its own miniature journey through a shifting fog of texture and dynamics that never grows stale or repetitive; their grasp of dynamics includes both the employment of gradual, growing layers of sound density and the ability to shift into significantly different levels of volume and texture without having any of it sound forced. This sounds very much like a band that works in the rehearsal space to refine and hone their sound, as opposed to making it up as they go. And yes, as their title suggest, the reverb pedal is most definitely their friend. Space-rock devotees will definitely want to check this out.
Stick Figure Distribution
Intense -- AS OUR ARMY GROWS [Napalm Records]
This is straight-up power metal from the UK with blazing twin guitars and a warbling, near-operatic singer plying their metallic trade over galloping drums; they cite Iced Earth and Nevermore as specific influences, which may well be true, but I also hear an awful lot of POWERSLAVE-era Iron Maiden at work here. There's plenty of acrobatic riffing to go with the soaring vocals, and it may well be the melodic interplay between the two guitarists (and their enthusiasm for soloing) that reminds me so much of Maiden; the rhythm section rocks hard as well, keeping up a frantic pace most of the time. They have a chugging rhythmic style and a melodic chromaticism that kind of fell out of favor around the time nu-metal stepped on the idea of solos in a metal context, but it's a style that's making a comeback, and their highly energetic approach certainly makes them credible defenders of the faith. It doesn't hurt that their lead guitarist leans toward a baroque classical feel at times that's highly appropriate for such ornate, technically proficient music, or that the band is remarkably tight for one so obsessed with running through the hills. They do slow down from time to time, and when they do, a rooting in bluesy guitar becomes more evident; there are also nods to classical guitar stylings that would have been right at home on any of the early Metallica albums. For the most part, however, they are supremely focused on galloping bursts of speed and the metallic miracle that is the uniquely British-sounding twin-guitar attack. Displaying both enthusiasm and plenty of melodic, propulsive muscle, this is a more than respectable entry in the power metal sweepstakes.
Monotract -- TRUENO OSCURO [Load Records]
The mighty (and inscrutable) Monotract return with a confusing sonic mess built around fuzzy acrobatic guitars, unpredictable drumming, and noise-clotted laptop electronics. Strange hollow noises and near-ambient sound turn into violent cyclones of sonic fury without warning; aimless clattering percussion abruptly shifts into pounding tribal hell; disembodied guitar fuzziness resolves into monster riffs that disintegrate again; and over it all, vocalist Nancy Garcia warbles and moans like a demented banshee. Noise, free jazz, diseased electronica, and metal from another dimension meet in a hallucinatory mind-meld of chaos and disruption. This is warped, quixotic stuff that couldn't be any stranger if the band started disassembling their instruments while playing (come to think of it, maybe that's what they're doing in the first place). Unlike a lot of noise-laden ventures of this kind, though, there's a lot of rhythmic action going on here -- highly repetitive action, to be sure, but the rhythmic pulse keeps it from being pure noise. The closest analogue that springs to mind is the last Coughs album, and even then this is way more disjointed and deliberately obscure, not to mention every bit as dependent on the grotesque laptop fury as the perverse percussion. The rhythms and overall aesthetic owe as much to early no-wave as anything else, while Garcia's near-schizoid ranting takes the confusion to a new level entirely. There's some truly spectacular noise hell happening in the mix at times, but that's more for texture than anything else -- mostly it's about those whacked-out drums and the post-Clara Clamp wailing. When the noise, guitar, and drums all pile in at once, they make an almighty din; the rest of the time they're swimming in a sea of barely-coherent, noise-laden drone 'n groan soup designed to mimic the effects of powerful psychotropic drugs. Deranged, unhinged, and totally out there, sure -- but surprisingly more "together" than initial appearance might indicate. Bonus points for Nancy's mind-melting primitive art on the cover and inside the layout.
Morgue City -- SOULLESS [The Noiz Temple]
Houston's Morgue City are metal, yeah, but metal by way of old-school power-pop goth, with bass lines you'd expect to hear on a Joy Division or Bauhaus album, and a sheet-metal noise guitar aesthetic largely lifted from early Love and Rockets -- apparently I'm not the only one who still listens to all that whole-grain 80s goodness. In fact, the album frequently sounds like a lost album from that era overlaid with a more modern fondness for metallic guitars and heavy layers of distorted noise. With a rhythm section that's both tight and fluid and a twin-guitar attack that's heavy on texture and fuzzboxes, there's plenty of full-on metal power to the their sound, but at the same time, tracks like "The River" -- a song that wouldn't have been out of place on a Peter Murphy album -- make it clear they're coming from a distinctly un-metal background. They have plenty of goth's drama and bombast (not to mention plenty of those spidery bass lines), but the face-peeling guitars save them from turning twee, and their fondness for bands more rhythmically and tonally diverse than your average metal band ensures that there are plenty of good grooves happening throughout the album. It also doesn't hurt that they write actual songs, as opposed to stringing together riffs and pilfered sounds -- even though a lot of their influences are extremely clear, they still manage to integrate their influences into a cohesive new sound of their own. They even reference Coil, in a fashion, through the use of odd sound pieces that often serve to begin or end songs, always a welcome development in a band largely devoted to heavy music. I'll bet all the young pups weaned on screamo and nu-metal find them utterly confounding, but that's okay -- more bands should be this confounding, dig?
Olekranon -- NECROPOLIS ep [Inam Records]
Talk about limited releases, this short burst of droning, scratching noise and hacked beats (from Bobcrane members and possibly other mysterious, unnamed humans) comes in a run of 49 hand-numbered copies. Clocking in at just under 25 minutes, the four tracks here are ghost-noise soundtracks filled with hypnotic rhythms built on static, hum, and drone -- there are processed, heavily-tweaked beats as well, but the sound is so repetitive and rhythmic that the beats are almost unnecessary (which is not to say they don't sound good, because they do). This is zone-out music for the noise generation, soundtracks for sleeping power lines; the beats keep it from being purely ambient music, but those beats are so minimal and repetitive that they merely become part of the flow of sound, something to keep it anchored rather than propelling it forward. The drones are low-key and eerie, even beautiful time, and the spare beats do nothing to detract from that feel. Mysterious, compelling stuff, and worth seeking out.
Onslaught -- KILLING PEACE [Candlelight Records]
Originally formed in Bristol in 1983 and heavily influenced by punk bands like the Exploited and Discharge, Onslaught quickly morphed into a punishing thrash band that was one of the highlights of the UK thrash scene until they disbanded in 1991 after internal problems and label hassles. The band reformed a couple of years ago, and now their fourth full-length release proves that time has not rusted their hinges -- this is pure blazing metal madness built on power, punishing speed, and near-incoherent ranting from vocalist Sy Keeler. It's not all just about the speed, though; there are plenty, plenty bone-crushing riffs and stinging, melodic solos along with plenty of fancy drumwork. But make no mistake, this is a band that built its reputation on playing at a superhuman pace -- some of this material is so ridiculously fast that you have to wonder how mere mortals can play it without passing out -- and the few times they slow down a bit, it's mainly to showcase some baroque riffing and give your spine a rest before they launch into even faster parts designed to make your neck snap in two. As for the sound, the production is great and the band's aesthetic is a complete throwback to the gory, glory days of pure, unmitigated thrash -- there are no nods to "modern" concepts like nu-metal or anything like that here, just the kind of total blinding heaviness that defined the genre back in the late 80s. An excellent return to form that should please the band's original fans while gaining them plenty of new converts as well.
Poormen -- S/T [Public Eyesore]
This three-inch cdr contains 16 short (often very short) bursts of glitch electronica, pedal abuse, tortured squeaking, and other sonic ugliness augmented by lots of pained shrieking. Certainly one of the most psychotic-sounding things ever to emerge from the label, most of these short pieces start and end abruptly, jump-cutting into bursts of fractured audio violence that cut off in the middle of noise motifs and phrases. The "songs" are so short and fragmented, so totally non-linear and deliberately anti-musical, that they are more like random movements in a longer glitch-oriented piece. The whole thing is sort of like Boredoms and any given free-jazz / glitch band truncating their entire musical belief system into short spasms of twisted, truncated madness. Did I mention there's a lot of really disturbed yelling and shrieking on this album? Bizarre, intensely (and deliberately) unfathomable stuff.
Princess Ugly -- WE KNEW IT WAS PERFECT [Emergent Records]
What we have here are ten tracks of brooding, melancholy indie-pop, highly evocative stuff rooted in pre-LOVELESS shoegazer dreaminess and executed with sparse but catchy arrangements built around simple drumming, brooding keyboards, and subdued vocals filled with yearning. This is throwback to the era of bands like Sebadoh, the Magnetic Fields, Heavenly, early Liz Phair, and even early Love and Rockets -- simple but well-arranged music, probably recorded in a darkened bedroom, designed to reflect the confusion and desire of the young in a cold and detached world oblivious to their hopes and needs. This is homegrown twee-pop that works best on the downbeat songs with the dreamy, gauzy sound, where they successfully evoke the sound of fragile souls too defeated to do more than stare at their feet (they call it "shoegazer" music for a reason, you know). The production is somewhat lo-fi, but that's okay -- this is bedroom music, the kind of sound lo-fi was designed to capture, with the kind of private and confessional feeling that tends to evaporate in the confines of a professional studio. The rhyhmic bedrock is minimal but effective, with haunting melodies and smart choices about the use of incidental sounds and instruments from track to track. Even the uptempo tracks are beautifully depressed, and the blissed-out guitar fuzz is dark enough to always keep the dream hovering on the edge of a nightmare. Fans of all that is bleak yet beautiful about dreamy shoegazer pop would be well advised to investigate.
Transmission 0 -- MEMORY OF A DREAM [Candlelight USA]
This Dutch band are among the latest in the wave of oceanic metal experimentalists to follow in the wake of Godflesh, Isis, and Neurosis, and they're definitely one of the better ones. Their proggy, technical inclinations are buried in vast waves of all-encompassing sound and thundering, beat-heavy breakdowns; when Michael Gira talked of his desire for the Swans to make music that completely enveloped and enslaved the body, this is exactly the kind of sound he was talking about. With a rhythm section that sounds rooted in techno and industrial as well as metal and loud, loud guitars obsessed with both hypnotic, otherworldly riffs and pure headache-inducing crunge, the band's sound is the living definition of smothering heaviness. (Excellent production by Today Is The Day guitarist / mastermind Steve Austin doesn't hurt.) The judicious use of dark keyboard drones only helps to make the crushing waves of sound that much thicker. They favor slow to mid-tempo rage and grinding, repetitive rhythms, often sounding like a much more heavily-layered Godflesh circa PURE or SELFLESS, but also steeped in the vast, epic sound pioneered by Neurosis. I don't know how many players there are in this band or what instruments they're using from one track to the next, but they certainly manage to achieve startling levels of volume and density in their sonic architecture; just when you think they can't get any louder or the sound any thicker, that's exactly what happens. At the same time, they know how to pull back and let the music breathe from time to time (and to give them room to introduce new motifs and textures). For a band so heavily encrusted in sheer amorphous sound, they are intensely rhythmic; often the miasma of swirling sound resolves into moments where everybody begins to follow the beat, piling on polyrhythms one by one until they're all swinging a mighty rhythmic hammer in unison. One thing that sets them apart from most of the oceanic metal and its minimalist leanings is that their song structures are surprisingly complex; the roar may be immense, but it's not monochromatic -- there's plenty of movement in that glacial, commanding pile of textured sound. They also have a talent for effectively employing some unusual chord voicings and gritty textures, especially when those unusual tones become the primary source of rhythm. More than anything else, though, this is a band built on an immense, forbidding rhythm section, with a sound and fury big enough to fill stadiums (and I have no doubt that was the goal). Imagine if the Psychic Paramount had deeper roots in metal and an angry singer weaned on prime-meat Godflesh -- that's the quality and density of sound at work here. Impressive, punishing stuff, and one of my favorite releases on Candlelight so far -- no small feat, given the label's obvious commitment to quality metal.