Annihilator -- METAL [SPV USA]
For those not hep to the old school, Annihilator is basically Canadian guitarist Jeff Waters plus whoever he can talk into playing with him for a record or two, and the band's reputation rests mainly with their first (and best) release, the 1989 album ALICE IN HELL. Since then, the band's output has been very much hit or miss; Waters is an unquestionably enthusiastic ambassador for metal, but his judgment has been called into question more than once, usually with good reason. This album, though, is a bit different than most Annhilator albums in that it's largely a concept album about the glory of metal, and -- more importantly -- one that invites a great many guests to the party, which brings a reasonable level of variety to the tracks, especially where vocals and solo are are concerned. Said guests include Alexi Laiho (Children of Bodom), Michael Amott and Angela Gassow (Arch Enemy), Corey Beaulieu (Trivium), William Adler (Lamb of God), Jeff Loomis (Nevermore), Jasper Stromblad (In Flames), Steve "Lips" Kudlow (Anvil); in addition, the backing band includes not only Dave Padden on lead and backing vocals, but Mike Mangini (Steve Vai, Extreme, Annihilator) on drums. So there's plenty of potential for whole-grain metal goodness here, and for the most part, the concept does bear fruit... although how tasty you find that fruit will depend heavily on how entranced you are with 80s metal, because this definitely sounds like a throwback to 80s thrash, which has its good and bad moments, to be sure. The songs themselves are no great shakes -- with titles like "Clown Parade," "Operation Annihilation," and "Army of One," you can quickly get the idea that this will not be a highbrow experience -- but with the possible exception of "Couple Suicide" and its near-disastrous attempts at funk, they aren't awful either (damning with faint praise, I know, but given Annihilator's songwriting history, this is a big improvement over some of their late 90s and later albums). The playing, though, is another story -- highly aggressive and thrashy, with plenty of guitar solo madness, all of it soldily rooted in the headbanging excesses of 80s thrash. It's also true that the band's approach to thrash is somewhat generic-sounding at times and the lyrics are nothing to write home about, but if you grew up with the sounds of early 80s thrash, that just sort of adds to the album's twisted charm. Ultimately all the guest appearances do little more than add seasoning -- if you're not already clued in as to who's doing what, it's unlikely you would notice most of the time -- but a little bit of seasoning, along with an interesting concept / gimmick (depending on how you choose to view it), goes a long way with a band like Annhilator. It's not the instant classic some of the press would have you believe, but it's not the awful disaster some reviews make it out to be, either; it's ultimately just Annhilator with some guests making a yet another album rooted in 80s thrash. It's also quite likely the best album the band's made in ages, so if you were down with Annihilator at any point early in the band's career, you might want to give this a listen.
Deadlock -- WOLVES [Lifeforce Records]
German exports Deadlock do a pretty good job on this album of combining elements of goth and technical metal with a highly melodic bent. Their secret weapon is second singer Sabine Weniger, whose divine, gothic vocals make an effective counterpoint to the harsh barking of the band's other vocalist, Johannes Prem. It helps immensely that they've managed to find an excellent balance between the wildly divergent sounds of gothic keyboards, aggressive drumming, and guitars that alternate between highly technical riffing and more folky passages. Sure, plenty of bands have tried their hands at combining goth and metal, but few have done it in such an ornate and unpredictable fashion, or with such explosive results; the band frequently shifts gears without warning, something that's more difficult than one might think when blasting off from one genre into another one so radically different. The gothic moments are truly gothic, even symphonic, and the metal moments are truly extreme and technical, while the passages that bridge the two extremes create an interesting, atmospheric sound in of itself. Such extreme attempts at cross-pollinating between such different genres rarely works, but here it works extremely well.
Harlots -- BETRAYER [Lifeforce Records]
Listening to this is an exhausting experience; the band is harsh, dark, and unrelenting in its heaviness for the most part, with a sound that combines the more complicated technical fetishes of extreme metal with the face-stomping violence of hardcore. Compressed and diabolically focused songs speed by, propelled by complex and extremely hyperactive drumming and ornate guitar riffing buried in a wall of sound, and narrated by a howling, angry vocalist whose barks and shrieks are the perfect accompaniment to such turbulent sonic excess. It's not all just blind, brutal pounding, though; "Dried Up Goliathan" slows the pace down a bit to accomodate near-jazzy guitar before eventually launching into a wall of noise and pained shouting, and "The Concept of Existence" opens with white-noise guitar like a sonic landslide before shifting gears, growing progessively faster and more metallic. The album's final track, the lengthy and progressive "Suicide Medley," is practically an interstellar psych jam that evolves from highly melodic guitar passages into more blunt expressions of abject heaviness. Buried in all the frantic chaos is a lot of exceptional guitar work and highly impressive drumming; the band is nothing if not highly disciplined, although the sheer ferocity of their attack tends to make this somewhat obscure upon first listen. This album is proof that it is indeed possible to combine a progressive, at times even baroque, musical vision with obsessive speed and spine-crushing brutality.
Helloween -- GAMBLING WITH THE DEVIL [SPV USA]
I was never a huge fan of this band during their initial period of success in the 80s, but I never had anything against them, either; I just didn't particularly care for their distinctly European brand of power metal (or, for that matter, their fondness for shrieking, falsetto-obsessed singers). Since then the band has been through some serious ups and downs (not to mention numerous lineup changes and at least one truly disastrous change in direction), and the current lineup only contains two original members (guitarist Michael Weikath and bassist Markus Grosskopf), so I could understand where old-school Helloween fans might approach this with some sense of trepidation. Fortunately, the current lineup's sound has far more in common with the band's original sound than some of the previous lineups, and this is a really good album that sounds more like a return to the glorious excess of 80s metal than anything that's currently fashionable. Even better, relative newcomer Sascha Gerstner, the band's latest second guitarist, meshes extremely well with Weikath; their tight, blazing power adds plenty of punch to the more aggressive songs, especially on "The Saints," which has one of the most impressive twin-guitar passages since the days of Iron Maiden or the heyday of classic-era Judas Priest. There are softer, more obviously commercial moments as well, such as the obvious single "As Long As I Fall," but even those manage to be radio-friendly with descending into soppiness, and the rest of the album is frantic, aggressive, and full of power without sacrificing their taste for melody. I'm personally not so keen on the operatic vocals -- the only singer in metal who does that right, in my opinion, is Rob Halford, and while Andi Deris is good, he's not Rob Halford -- but they're appropriate for the material, and he certainly doesn't embarrass himself. The biggest reason to embrace this, though, remains in the rock-solid drumming, the sharp riffing, and the o-so-very European guitar solos. Fans of old-school Helloween should be happy to hear this; fans of old-school power metal will want to check it out as well.
In Battle -- KINGDOM OF FEAR [Candlelight Records]
Hailing from Sweden and sounding very much in the vein of violent, speed-obsessed bands like Marduk, this is the band's fifth release (including a four-track ep released in 2003). As the band's name, logo, and cover make clear, this is forbidding war metal at its most intense, but since this is a Swedish band, after all, there's a fair bit of melody hiding in the chaos. They're not exactly breaking new ground -- this is the same kind of revved-up blackened thrash that's been streaming out of Sweden and other nearby countries for the past decade or so -- but they're good, with plenty of serrated high-speed guitar action and intensely powerful drumming (although it's mildly disconcerting that for such a quintessentially Swedish band, their singer sounds an awful lot like the singer for Finland's Impaled Nazarene). The album is well-produced -- I have no idea who was in charge of capturing the sound, but the band's sound is clear and distinct throughout, despite being raw and violent, which is no small feat. Aside from a few moments here and there (and those moments tend to be really brief) where they slow down into a grim, crushing groove, the album is mostly a high-velocity affair; the drums in particular are ridiculously fast and relentless, just what you'd expect of a band that's currently on tour with Marduk. Fans of intense, aggressive war metal will not be disappointed.
Tor Lundvall -- THE SEASONS UNFOLD sampler [Strange Fortune]
This four-track sampler from ambient-drone artist Tor Lundvall is an advance taste of his forthcoming four-cd set THE SEASONS UNFOLD, and if the rest of the set sounds like this, it should be a worthwhile listening experience indeed. The four tracks here are an intriguing mix of ambient and minimalist pop, haunting and mysterious, beautiful-sounding music that's heavy on the atmosphere and light in almost every other respect. This is music to play on the stereo while lying in bed on a rainy day, especially "29," the sampler's best track, a simple and hypnotic piece of drone-pop buoyed by a repetitive bass line and a spiky piano motif that could be a lost track from the TWIN PEAKS soundtrack. Much of this, in fact, greatly resembles the work of Angelo Badalementi, only with more emphasis on the ghostly ambience and leaning more in a drone-pop direction. All of the tracks are excellent, with some more airy and ambient than others, but all anchored in minimalism, ambience, and drone, with instruments drenched in reverb. The sampler cd is available for free to anyone ordering from the label's web site, and given that the label's releases include albums by Coil, Current 93, and Sol Invictus, that's probably good enough excuse to go shopping just to pick this up as well.
Olekranon -- s/t [Inam Records]
The ever-prolific Olekranon returns with six more ice-cold explorations of the joyous union of processed guitar drone and minimalist beats, and the results are every bit as impressive as the consistently excellent releases that came before this one. This is drone-disco for the chill-out generation, with repetitive, near-static guitar frippery floating like fog over shifting, spidery techno beats; the guitars are more about noise and texture than actual music, sounding one moment like drifting fog, then like the distant hum of cyclotrons, as relentless beats come and go. Even when actual riffs appear (as on "Bubonic"), they are repeated like a loop until they merely become part of the sonic landscape, accenting and never detracting from the hypnotic machine beats. On "In Celebration," clouds of drone fade in, growing and swelling, accompanied by electronic glitches, until thudding beats arrive along with a bright, simple (but effective) melodic pattern; more skittering, chittering noises surface on "Spillage," along with a watery clanking riff and heavier beats. The overall effect is that of a dark, cold wind spilling through an abandoned city in the process of being rebuilt -- a soundtrack for construction by way of beat-happy robots and a wind with a mind of its own. Excellent, as always, and limited to 49 copies.
Vopat -- s/t 3" cd-r [Inam Records]
The latest transmission from Vopat is short but potent, with six songs in just over twenty minutes; oceanic sound, in the form of layers of heavily reverbed and processed guitar, is the major motif here. The mesmerizing "Find Something" opens with a sound much like My Bloody Valentine after listening to stacks of black metal albums, with wave after wave of dark, droning guitar cycling through different tonal registers, only to finally evaporate in an extended wash of celestial ambience. "Calico File" opens with a lonesome, melodic guitar line that turns into crushing guitar and an ornate riff that is only the beginning of a series of shifts in dynamics; "Shrift" is driven by eerie tremelo guitar like the sound of cicadas from another planet and a wave of drone that rises and falls, all of which segues into the slow, majestic riff of "Opius," a melodic and melancholy riff that goes through several subtle permutations over a shifting bed of bright, harmonic drones and eventually an interstellar solo of sorts. It's all instrumental, all possessed of a deeply cosmic vibe, and all excellent. It's also -- like all Inam releases -- an extremely limited press run, limited to 100 copies. Get it while you can, this is good stuff.