Monday, May 14, 2007

sixth wave

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.

Arch Enemy
Regain Records

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
Candlelight USA

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.

Doctor Bob
Edgetone Records

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.

Marcos Fernandes
Mike Pride

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.

Napalm Records

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.

Load Records

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?

Morgue City

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.

Inam Records

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.

Candlelight Records

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.

Public Eyesore

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.

Princess Ugly

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.

Transmission 0
Candlelight USA

Sunday, May 6, 2007

fifth wave

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.

Benea Reach
Candlelight USA

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.

Paragon 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.

Edgetone Records

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.

Translation Loss

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.

Candlelight Records

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.

Lasse Marhaug


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.

Candlelight USA

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.

Ajna Offensive

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?

Noisecore Freak
Ask Heroin Sally
Deadsix Productions

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.

Omnium Gatherum
Candlelight Records

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.

Candlelight USA

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.

Candlelight USA

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.

Napalm Records

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)
Divorce Records

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
Napalm Records

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.

Electric Requiems

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