Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Amiensus - Restoration

I find it interesting to see how many bands Amiensus is compared to. I’ve seen them compared to Borknagar, Agalloch, Oak Pantheon, Woods of Ypres, Abigail Williams, Opeth, Dimmu Borgir, and even (quite puzzlingly, I might add) Blind Guardian. While I do understand where most of these comparisons come from, Amiensus is definitely more than just a cut-and-paste of a half dozen different bands. It’s certainly difficult to pin their sound down with any degree of exactness due to the way Amiensus has combined so many different musical stylings. If I were forced to give a succinct genre description to Restoration I would probably say progressive/melodic black metal, kind of like Borknagar meets Agalloch, with more of a thematic tendency towards the latter. However, that’s a misleading description because it leaves out the fair amount of post-metal styled riffing and even the bit of melodic death metal that appears on “Become the Fear”. It’s an eclectic mix of genres, that’s for sure, and it makes one wonder. Whenever a band uses so many different styles, asking whether the band pulls it off is a valid question. Has Amiensus succeeded in combining their various influences into one coherent album? Well, for the most part I would say yes.

I first came across Amiensus while trawling Bandcamp. It’s definitely not the best way to discover music, but sometimes you’ll stumble upon some real gems. And that’s initially what I thought Restoration was; a gem, a veritable diamond in the rough. But that’s not exactly what I think of it now. No, though I wouldn’t quite consider it a gem, it’s not too far from it. What I mean by that is, initially, everything comes across as brilliant and wonderful. The harsher yet-not-too-harsh blackened sections contrast nicely with the softer, folky parts and this really highlights the band’s ability to use two very different ideas without sounding random and haphazard. And that, besides the vocals, is the band’s main strength. For the most part, they do manage to make things work for them, especially in the album’s first half. But upon later listens, small flaws and imperfections become apparent like awkward transitions between the harsh, metallic sections and the softer ones, or the tendency to stick to a formulaic song structure.

Most of the song on Restoration follow the format of a soft, finger picked guitar or acoustic intro, followed by alternating sections of black metal parts and softer parts. These harsher sections are why Amiensus gets categorized as a black metal band. They’re usually of the heavier, slower variety than the typical, blazing tremolo streams black metal is often associated with. The harsh black metal styled vocals definitely contribute to the classification. The softer, folky sections are where the Agalloch comparisons stem from, though they often have keyboard melodies accompanying them. That’s not to say that this is the outline for the songs on Restoration, but it is noticeable and I would have enjoyed a couple more adventurous tracks. As mentioned previously, the transitions between the harsh and soft sections are sometimes lacking. Nice, calming sections of introspective acoustics and keys are occasionally brought to an abrupt and disconcerting end by the metallic ones.

Both the harsher and calmer parts are quite good when taken separately, but when Amiensus combines the two styles is where they truly stand out. Many of the harsh sections also use clean vocals, acoustics, and keys as well, and the combination of heaviness and lighter parts lends a keen sense of melody to the entire album. These sections will utilize heavier rhythm guitar, melodic guitar, acoustics, drums, harsh vocal, clean singing, bass, and keys, sometimes all at the same time. This may sound like a recipe for disaster, but Amiensus pulls it off unquestionably. Such a thing would be difficult for bands with many years of experience, so Amiensus’s success is even more impressive for that. Credit must be given to the post-production work this album received, because the mixing allows every part of the combination of sounds to shine through. Quality of recording is somewhat of a controversial topic for some people. Some claim that rawer production adds atmosphere and authenticity to a performance, while others claim that shitty recording is just shitty. In this case, having such clear production further allows each instrument to be heard, which can only be considered a plus.

Now, the album’s other main strength is certainly the vocals. Interestingly enough, every member of the band is listed as having performed vocal duties, if only for a little while. Amiensus often uses a hoarse, blackened rasp along with the black metal styled sections, and switches to multilayered cleans for choruses. As I mentioned previously, the sections where they use cleans combined with the harsher vocals is where Amiensus shines brightest. I do feel the need to mention that the weakest section vocally was Ken Sorceron’s (of Abigail Williams) harsh vocals during his guest appearance on “Millenium”. His cleans are pretty cool, but someone from Amiensus should have taken over for him on the harsher sections of the song. He did do the fantastic mixing and mastering for Restoration, so his less than stellar vocal performance is forgivable here.

Though I do mention that Amiensus is most consistently at their best when combining the harsh sections with their softer ones and layering cleans over everything, the best song on the album is “I Am”, an almost completely calmer song. From the cello intro to the constant guitar melodies and synthy keys, from the soft, rumbling drumming to the introduction of the harsh, post-metal riffing of the second chorus, the entire song is utterly fantastic. It’s been far too long since a song gave me chills like this one, but that’s another frustrating thing about this release; though “I Am” demonstrates the amazing ability this band has, they never again come close to reaching the heights “I Am” does. Even though the least metallic song on the album is the best, their other song with the least black metal in it is the worst on the album. “Healer” is only four and a half minutes long, but it drags on in that unbelievably boring way that Opeth is so famous for. Even though “I Am” is the best song on Restoration by far, “Healer” is not too dissimilar to it, which is why I said that Amiensus is most consistently best when mixing the harsher black metal styled with the folky sounds and clean singing. It’s kind of strange that I liked Restoration best when it was at its least metal points, but also disliked it most at some of these points too. They can obviously do this extremely well as “I Am” demonstrates, but I’m afraid that if they abandon more of their metal leanings they’ll end up more like “Healer”.

To continue with that gem analogy, Restoration isn’t a perfectly cut gem by any means. It has its flaws and rough edges like many albums, but the parts that do work, work so well that it’s impossible to deny that the band has a great deal of talent and passion. Restoration is more like a semiprecious stone; it is very cool and all, but it’s easy to overvalue it and get swept away by its shininess. I certainly enjoyed the album and it will be interesting to see how Amiensus develops over their next full lengths. This was perhaps too ambitious for a debut full length, but their split with Oak Pantheon was excellent and they ironed out many of the kinks that held this release back, so I’m hopeful that they’ll only improve. In any case, this is certainly something to check out for fans of the numerous bands mentioned and well worth your time.


Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Fine Red Mist - Depressive Holocaust

I don’t know about you, but I tend to associate depressive black metal with places like Norway, Sweden, Canada – places with shitty winter weather and short days. Florida certainly isn’t a place I’d consider, but that’s exactly where Fine Red Mist originates from. To be honest, I’m not too sure what there’s to be depressed about in a place as pleasantly warm as Florida. Too many old people maybe? Anyways, I haven’t exactly been subtle about my general disdain for one man bands. Sure, it’s awesome when it works, but most of the time the band member can usually only play one or two instruments with any degree of competency. The best option for a one man band is something simplistic and repetitive, which is exactly what Fine Red Mist’s Depressive Holocaust is.

Depressive Holocaust’s sound is built around the repetition of just a few heavily distorted, lethargic riffs over usually slow, muted drum work and low and distant moans. Think a slower, less skilled version of Burzum’s “Dunkelheit” and you won’t be too far off. There are occasional diversions from this formula, like the short section of more aggressive drumming and some surprisingly adventurous riffing on “Blight the Earth”, but these are pretty infrequent. The thick guitars create a dense wall of noise that envelopes the listener. It’s somewhat trance inducing, and even though the album is just half an hour long, it feels much shorter than its already short length. KaosChrist makes use of synths throughout the album, but it’s hardly distracting or overbearing most of the time. The high pitch does grate a bit on “A Fool’s Game”, but for the most part it furthers the trance like atmosphere of the music.

The music in Depressive Holocaust is hardly what one would call skillful or difficult, but it has that mysterious ability to make time disappear. While listening to this album I’ve found myself missing turns while driving, forgetting to take food off the stove, and simply standing around several times. Not because of fantastic musicianship or technical displays of skill that leave me struck dumb, but because of how utterly consuming the music is. It’s all too easy to forget yourself while listening to Depressive Holocaust, but that’s really all the album has going for it. There’s more than a hint of depression in the instrumentals and vocals, which one would expect given the name, but it’s not of the in your face – kill yourself variety like Xasthur or Silencer, but more of the distanced and emotionally empty type; nice for the rain and snow of winter, which Florida lacks incidentally, without going overboard.

Honestly, Depressive Holocaust isn’t all that unique or special. After the first minute or so, you’ll know exactly what to expect from the rest of the album and if it’ll be something you’d enjoy. If you’re a fan of DSBM you could certainly do worse than listening to Depressive Holocaust. That said, you could do far better as well. In any case, it’s not something to obsess over; there are plenty of higher quality releases you should pick up before this one. It’s not a bad album by any means, but where there’s so much out there more deserving of your money, why bother?


Sunday, December 15, 2013

Deafheaven - Sunbather

When I first heard about Deafheaven’s Sunbather I was awfully excited. It seemed to be gathering near universal praise from critics as well as substantial support from fans. There were a few detractors, but they were often dismissed for being “close minded” or that they just didn’t get the musical genius contained within the album. I rarely find myself disagreeing with the community at large; if something is generally well thought of, I can usually enjoy it. Even better, I’d heard them compared to Alcest, which I adore (well, Écailles de lune anyways). So it’s with no small amount of disappoint I find myself after listening to Sunbather. If Deafheaven is like Alcest, they are only related in that they are somewhat similar in terms of musical style, yet leagues apart in terms of musicianship and overall quality. Just like Wonder Bread is similar to a fresh croissant, or Kraft singles are like Roquefort, or how Franzia is like champagne, or… Well, you get the picture. 

I suppose the best place to begin when describing this disappointment is the music, though they get bonus points for having one of the shittiest album arts of the year. Deafheaven plays a mixture of black metal and post rock, and throws some shoegaze into the mixture. It has plenty of blast beats and tremolo but this is most certainly not black metal. Not good black metal anyways. Imagine yourself as a newcomer to black metal and have just heard In the Nightside Eclipse. Now, assuming you aren’t suffering from a debilitating brain injury you’ll only naturally go seek out more. But then imagine that instead of checking out Immortal, Mayhem, or Darkthrone, you somehow find yourself listening to Zarach Baal Tharagh or newer Dimmu Borgir. Since we’ve already assumed you aren’t suffering from a brain tumor that ruins your ability to reason, naturally you’ll dislike this, and it might even put you off from listening to anything else. That’s kind of the experience that I’ve had after listening to Sunbather. I’m certainly no purist or kvlt master, but this album has certainly soured my views on post-rock/black metal/shoegaze combinations. “If something like this gets rave reviews, then what’s the worst of the genre like?” I find myself wondering. Indeed, if this is one of the better of the genre’s offerings I’ll likely stay away from it in the future. 

And back to the music now; like I said, this album has a large amount of black metal influence and contains a fair amount of tremolo and blast beats, but it’s just incredibly boring. The riffs are stale, shallow, repetitive, boring, etc. etc. It’s not actively terrible in the way that pop or country are, but it’s just completely pathetic, weak shit. There’s no real variation in the songs, and there are two different styles; loud black metal inspired parts, and quiet, acoustic or finger picked guitar sections. That’s it. That’s the extent of these Californians’ creativity and songwriting ability. Hard to see why they’re being praised for such an unexciting effort. On my fourth or fifth listen, I suddenly realized that I remembered exactly zero riffs or anything. The entire album is just a forgettable, misshapen, poorly-cobbled-together mishmash of genres that fails at every level. On top of the mediocre guitars and songs, the vocals are just abysmal. Sure, George Clark screams his little heart out, but it’s just poor. The vague, distant shrieks are neither wrenching or stirring, and at most conjure up mild annoyance. And to cap all of that, the lyrics are a joke, and have more in common with teenage angst ridden metalcore lyrics than actual metal lyrics. To be fair, Alcest’s lyrics might be like this too, but since I can’t speak French (I have testosterone in my body) I can’t really complain about that. 

The only thing about this album that saves it from being a complete loss is the drumming. Sure, it’s not outstanding or anything, and it certainly won’t make you forget about how terrible the rest of the album is, but it gets the job done. But that’s not something that can really get Deafheaven any praise because it was done by a session drummer. It’s most definitely not a good thing that the best performance on an album was done by a session member, especially when it’s not done by a well-known musician (i.e. Hellhammer, who will apparently do drums for a six pack of Heineken, so I don’t know why they didn’t hire him). The mix might be helping me view the drumming in a more positive light than it deserves though. Everything is thrown together and compressed to the same depth within the songs, and it all blends together. Perhaps Deafheaven realized how weak the guitars and vocals were so they simply make the decent drumming louder in an attempt to mask this.

As far as failures go, this is definitely not the worst they can get. Sunbather isn’t the worst album of the year or anything quite so drastic. It’s quite a disappointment to be sure, but to rank it as the worst album of 2013 would give it more attention than it deserves. Indeed, this is one of those releases that should be allowed to die a quiet death. It’s too forgettable and boring to do anything else. It’s not something that will make you rage at how terrible it is. No, it’s more like one of those releases you check out on YouTube, listen to for a minute or two, shake your head, and move on to something more enjoyable.  


Sunday, December 8, 2013

Yfel - The Depths of Hell

It’s somewhat refreshing to hear a release like The Depths of Hell. With so many bands playing atmospheric/folky/shoe-gazey/whatevery black metal (yeah, I’m looking at you Wolves in the Throne Room, Agalloch, Deafheaven, and the like), coming across an album like this feels new and exciting, despite it being unabashedly old school. There’s nothing wrong with expanding and stretching the boundaries of a genre when done with good taste, but sometimes it’s nice to listen to something that says, “Fuck all that nonsense, I’m going to play black metal!” – and that’s exactly what Armon, Yfel’s sole member, has done with this release.

Yfel. The very name means evil in Old English, and in that respect The Depths of Hell doesn’t disappoint. In addition to some decidedly evily titled tracks like “Baptized in Demon’s Blood” and “The Depths of Hell”, the album artwork depicts people being cast into hell; perfect for a filthy, evil sounding band like Yfel. Apart from the brief piano intro to “The Might of Lucifer” and the slower instrumental “A Cold, Dark Fog”, the album assaults your ears with pure, aggressive, orthodox black metal blasphemy with some resemblance to the Greek scene. Armon puts emphasis on the rather bass heavy, almost thrashy at times, riffs in The Depths of Hell and for good reason; the riffs carry the album and create for some very memorable tracks like “The Might of Lucifer” and “The Power of Understanding”. The atypically high in the mix bass adds depth to these riffs and is another of the albums strengths. It, combined with the already solid guitar work, make the chorus of “The Might of Lucifer” irresistible to headbang to and for likely the best part of the album. It’s refreshing to hear bass in black metal, especially when it’s done well. 

That said, The Depths of Hell does have some weaknesses that prevent the album from reaching its true potential, namely the vocals and drums. Yfel makes use of a drum machine, which is fairly common in one man projects. It’s programmed well enough to prevent it from being a serious liability to the overall sound. Still, the addition of a drummer could only do good for Yfel. The other thing that holds the album back is the vocals. Armon’s vitriolic, throaty rasps are far from bad and do a fine if unassuming job, but when compared to the guitars there’s a clear difference in quality. Additionally, there’s no real variation in the vocals, a definite letdown given the album’s other strengths. 

Complains aside, The Depths of Hell’s other strong points are the songwriting and mixing. The album flows well and the short, punchy tracks keep the pace going quickly. Indeed, save for the final track, none of them reach six minutes in length. This furthers the epic nature of the closer, “The Black Seas of Infinity”. The addition of the slower “A Cold, Dark Fog” keeps the album from running out of steam too quickly from the other, faster tracks. The mix is clear, despite the somewhat rawer guitars, without becoming sterile and losing the album’s atmosphere. It’s somewhat of a surprise, albeit a welcome one, given that it’s Yfel’s first album and was self-released. Indeed, I have nothing against raw production, but this would likely have been a hindrance given the quality of the guitar playing.

When it comes down to it, The Depths of Hell achieves what it sets out to do, and the aggressive black metal takes its listener on a journey to the depths of hell. The tracks catapult riff after riff at you and force you to submit to their power. It isn’t new or adventurous or anything like that, but due to the sheer power and strength of its riffs it succeeds. It does have a couple noticeable flaws, but its strong points far outweigh the weaker ones and makes for a greatly satisfying and pure black metal experience.


Friday, December 6, 2013

Amiensus & Oak Pantheon - Gathering

When I first heard of the then upcoming split between Amiensus and Oak Pantheon I was more than a bit excited. Needless to say I preordered the album right away, even forgoing the chance to listen to the album digitally so I could get the full experience from a proper speaker. It’s all too easy to be disappointed, especially with expectations as high as mine were. I’m immensely pleased to report that my expectations were met and even surpassed.

As much as I loved Amiensus’s debut album, Restoration, it suffered slightly from the transitions from blacker sections to softer, Agallochy, folk influenced ones. They seem to have rectified this on their half of the split, a single song titled “Arise”. For those unfamiliar with Amiensus’s sound, they combine a number of elements to form beautiful walls of metal interspersed with acoustic and folk passages. Acoustic guitar, melodic lead guitar, heavier rhythm guitar, synths, harsh vocals, clean vocals, bass, and drums are all used, and occasionally all at the same time. This may sound eclectic and like it wouldn’t work, but in reality, everything comes together perfectly and creates moments of pure beauty. “Arise” is quiet like the material on Restoration, but perhaps better written and more mature. As I said previously, on their debut album there were moments where the transitions from metal to folk weren’t done very well. “Arise” has none of those moments, and transitions from metal to folk perfectly and integrates both seamlessly. It’s a fantastic song and likely the band’s best at this point.

As “Arise” fades out and the rush turns to a lead guitar over bass, we come to the Oak Pantheon half of the split, “A Gathering”. Oak Pantheon began as a very Agalloch influenced band with their EP, The Void, but began to find a more unique sound with their debut full-length, From a Whisper, as they incorporated more black metal and post-metal into their sound. “A Gathering” contains no folk, a healthy amount of post-metal, and just a bit of black metal. It’s very lead guitar focused and the riffs are more post-metal than black metal, and if it weren’t for the vocals, I’d be hesitant to call it black metal at all; only the end of the song sounds wholly black metal with its tremolo riffs and blast beats. In spite of Sati’s deranged breathy shrieks, the purer black metal section sounds very uplifting and joyous, and is very fitting with respect to the rest of the songs. And yet again, the band's best song to date. 

This split will hardly appeal to metal purists, mostly because of the Amiensus part of the split, but that’s certainly not the goal of either Amiensus or Oak Pantheon, given this split and their previous works. For more open-minded listeners, however, Gathering is likely to become a late year favorite. The harmonious chaos and beauty of “Arise” and the pure infectiousness of “A Gathering” are sure to please, and they leave the listener wanting more from both bands. For now though, we’ll have to be content with leaving this on repeat. 


Monday, December 2, 2013

Altars of Sin - Servant of Evil

For the most part, the saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover” doesn’t apply to metal. Sure, there are some very deceptive albums covers out there (Depresy’s A Grand Magnificence, anyone?), but for the most part, metal albums proudly wear their genres and themes on their sleeves. Colorful artwork with disembowelments and zombies and gore for death metal; black and white forests, demons, and pentagrams are common in black metal; vikings, ravens, and runes are hallmarks of folk metal; etc etc.  

Altars of Sin’s Servant of Evil gives further weight to this claim. You’d be daft to expect anything other than filthy black metal of an album with black and white artwork of a virgin being sodomized with an inverted cross by the horned one on an altar. Further, you’d expect that it’s not going to be fancy, symphonic, folky, or anything like that. It’s going to be pure satanic black metal. Well, as it turns out that’s not quite what Servant of Evil is, but not far off at all. Altars of Sin plays some old school blackened thrash. That works both ways here in that it’s part of the albums charm, but also part of why it’s really nothing special. 

Like I said, Servant of Evil contains fairly typical black/thrash metal, but nothing more than that. The low, bass heavy guitar work is very thrashy and is only rarely tremolo. It isn’t especially good, and other than the riffs on “The Bloody Stench of War”, it’s pretty forgettable. The bass generally accompanies the guitars and goes about its business unassumingly. The drumming is also pretty average. There are plenty of blast beats, double bass, crashing cymbals, and the occasional fill, but it never surprises or impresses. Kakorot’s vocals are the only part of the album that stand out on their own. I wasn’t a fan of the deranged shrieks at first, but they grew on me with subsequent listens. The sound quality is somewhat dirty, but not particularly raw or abrasive.

Twenty plus years after black/thrash’s founding, it takes something truly special to stand out amongst the thousands of releases. What Servant of Evil is lacking is that something special. It’s not lacking quality instrumental work or vocals or the addition of keys or anything like that; there are plenty of simplistic yet fantastic albums out there. What’s lacking is the emotional response that all good metal is supposed to give its listener. Whether it’s hatred, melancholy, or joy doesn’t matter, just that it evokes emotion. Servant of Evil certainly isn’t lacking emotion, that’s for sure. The vocals, frenzied guitars, and drums are full of hate and energy, but something is lost in translation from speakers to ears. Altars of Sin have plenty of emotion, but it just doesn’t quite reach the listener. 

Perhaps I’m being a bit unfair with my description of the music so far. It’s largely forgettable but gets the job done. There’s nothing in the twenty minutes of this release that will offend or anger you, and there are a few times where everything comes together and works quite well like the riffs of “The Bloody Stench of War” and the disconcerting ending of “Hail Goat Lord” with female groaning and gasping along with bleating goats over guitar feedback. But these moments are uncommon and for the most part, Servant of Evil doesn’t excite. If it had been released twentysome years ago it would likely have become a cult classic. But sadly this is not the late eighties/early nineties. In 2013 this just comes off as uninspired. Perhaps a few more memorable riffs would have saved it. Perhaps more adventurous songwriting. As it is, Servant of Evil is pretty lackluster.


Monday, November 25, 2013

Neglektum - Blasphemer

It seems that as a band ages, the more likely it is for them to take other genres and influences and incorporate them into their music. In the case of Blasphemer, the opposite is true. For their debut album, Sweden’s Neglektum has abandoned the progressive leanings of its demo and come to embrace a purer, fairly melodic form of black metal.

Blasphemer isn’t groundbreaking in anyway. It’s resplendent with melodic tremolo riffs, blast beats, and rasps we’ve all heard before, but they’re done so well it’s impossible to ignore. From the crunchy opening riffs and mournful, ending solo of “Blasphemer” to the triumphant, charging tremolo leads of “Infernal Declaration of Hate”, Azargoth’s guitar work takes the front seat as is only right. His tight riffage and highly competent solos are executed with the skill of a veteran and carry the songs. His chosen vocal style is typically a hoarser rasp tinged with a hysterical edge, which is all fine and dandy, but where he really stands out are his screams, which are unfortunately only featured on “Babalon”, an otherwise run of the mill track. Isedor shows he can handle a drum kit as well as anyone and changes from blast beats to slower, rhythmic and almost tribal sections with ease. His bass work is largely inaudible save for short passages when the guitars take a break. It’s not particularly adventurous, but then again the entire album isn’t either. It’s all about playing black metal and playing it right, which these two Swedes pull off with aplomb.

The production is surprisingly good for a self-released debut and the mixing is done very well, save for slightly too loud snare hits. Blasphemer shows a good understanding of pace and songwriting, and the general mid to fast pace of the album is broken up by slower parts of songs and the aptly named acoustic track, “Salvation” as well as the short piano piece “Dies Irae Pt.1”. The flow from the previously mentioned track to “Pt.2” isn’t very smooth, but the melodic riffs catch your attention and quickly cause you to forget about your momentary discomfort.

Neglektum’s Blasphemer is one of those special albums that does nothing new, but because it’s done so well you can’t help but to like it. The only real issue is consistency. While most of the tracks are great, “Begotten Son (Forgotten)” and “Babalon” are fairly average and hold the album back from reaching its full potential. Thankfully, “Infernal Declaration of Hate”, “Death’s Curse”, and “Dies Irae Pt.2” more than make up for the weaker tracks and make for a great album overall. All in all, Blasphemer is a release Neglektum can be proud of and is made all the more impressive for being a debut, and is sure to please fans of more melodic black metal.