Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Death Metal Tuesday - The End Complete

Obituary's third album, The End Complete is certain to divide camps among old school Obituary fans. It is arguably their most commercially successful release, their most instantly accessible, and the first album to feature full lyrics for each song. After the underground success of Cause of DeathObituary returned with original guitarist Allen West replacing Cause's James Murphy at the lead guitar. By 1992, the band had firmly established themselves as one of Florida's most seminal among Morbid AngelDeicide, and Death. They had also managed to carve a fairly distinct sound for themselves which presents them as instantly recognizable among their peers thanks to two factors: the guitars with tone knobs turned all the way to bass and John Tardy's ridiculously over-the-top voice which sounds like he's vomiting each syllable.

The other key component was Obituary's lack of traditional song structure which changes drastically onThe End Complete. At the very opening notes of "I'm in Pain," it is clear that Obituary has refined to verse-chorus-verse song structure along with straightforward and somewhat boring lyrical content. Tardy's voice is also somewhat affected by being preoccupied with enunciation rather than just making ghoulish noises. Thus the polarizing factor is this: do you think the refinement of song structure and the addition of conventional lyrics help or hurt the band?

"I'm in Pain" will likely do little to sway anyone either way, but "Back to One" is decidedly savage and full of new found energy. And though Obituary could hardly be placed among the fastest of OSDM bands, they are certainly one of the most adept at hanging a slow groove, which they obviously became acutely aware of on this album. "Back to One" starts with a punk-like charge which eventually settles into a 6/8 chug that truly highlights what is so great about this band. They also have a tendency to just sit back and jam on a riff, without vocals or leads, until the song comes to its natural end - few other OSDM acts were so patient in their approach. Halting breakdowns and tempo changes throughout show that Obituary had a firm grasp on their appeal. The riffs are among some of the best in the bands catalogue here and Allen West's leads easily outdo anything he did on Slowly We Rot. John Tardy also delivers, as one expects, with doubled up vocals and savage force. Yes the actual lyrics do change his dynamic, but the jarring change lets up after the opening track.

Towards the latter half of The End CompleteObituary really seem to find their niche. After the somewhat forgettable "In the End of Life," "Sickness" announces the albums second side which all but erases side one. Atypical for most releases, the best tracks on here lie towards the end. The absolutely groovy "Killing Time" may just be one of the band's tracks that they ever wrote. This along with the album's single and title track are the most convincing moments of this release.

The production is adequate, though a paper-thin and overly compressed snare plagues Donald Tardy's machine-like performance. That guitar sound may also be wearing a little thin, as the heightened production values elsewhere really show how weak a sound it truly is. 

Production flaws aside though, The End Complete made a strong statement for Obituary's place in OSDM history. This is what a third album truly should be: a combination of the rawness of #1 and the compromises of #2 which creates a logical step forward in musical maturity and artistic progression. The follow up to this would be a rather hard pill to swallow, so this may just be the band's true peak as a death metal giant. Being one of the founding fathers of death metal, it's good to see the boys are back to writing traditional DM, some 20 years after this release... Man, that makes me feel old! 4.5 out of 5.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Death Metal Tuesday - Khaos Legions

Guitar player Michael Amott was a key factor in Carcass' morphing from Goregrind to melodic death metal. After his departure from that band, he formed Arch Enemy in 1995, playing a similar sounding breed of melodeath  that easily compares to the early In Flames and Dark Traquillity stuff. Along 2000, the band acquired a female singer named Angela Gossow, and suddenly they got a great deal of attention. The reason for this, is Angela sounds plenty brutal - her gender difference nearly undetectable by the uninitiated. My beef has always been that her vocals sound overly processed - like they doctored them up to sound more "male" in the studio. 

Stepping away from the vocal gimmick for a second, Arch Enemy is a Swedish melodic DM band with a allegiance to the heavy aspects of the genre. While their genre mates were going softer and softer, Arch stayed allied with the thrash and DM camps. This brings us to the 2011 album, Khaos Legions. By this point, the band were a commercial success and thus in the crosshairs of critics and genre purists. I can't profess to be an expert on this subgenre, particularly post 2000, because I haven't heard enough of it. That being said, there are enough old school nods to make this particular record enjoyable. There are guitar flourishes juxtaposed with good ol' fashioned thrash riffs (similar to that mid-era Carcass stuff, come to think of it). Amott is a guitar hero in the traditional sense - playing leads that would work on a Skid Row or Motley Crüe record. The cool part is when they go from that to a ripping riff like the openning riff on Vengeance is Mine

I will never like Angela's voice, but I think the band gets far too much hate / love based on her - there is certainly more going on here. This is definitely market-friendly with an aim to please the mainstream metal audience. It is instantly accessible and appealing. What I like about this over a great deal of other recent melodeath, is that Arch aren't afraid to kick the speed up. Hell, is that a blastbeat on Cult of Chaos? Yup. On the other side of the coin, there are plenty of market-friendly songs here - No Gods, No Masters, Secrets, and Through the Eyes of a Raven are all bit much for me. Again,  Khaos Legions  is mainstream metal made for the masses, but I still find it more palatable than anything In Flames has done in the past 10 years. Those lush leads alone are enough to warrant a listen or two. 3 out of 5.  

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Death Metal Tuesday - Children of the Scorn

One of Finland's earliest DM exports was Funebre, who produced just this 1991 full length before vanishing into obscurity. The early Finnish stuff is pretty damn cool as it carries obvious influences from the developing Swedish scene, along with east coast American DM. 

Funebre are fairly derivative, but at the same time, they're rather ambitious. Their songs are dynamic with tons of changes and plenty of good riffs to go around. Their drummer is constantly mixing things up and keeping the songs interesting. The key deviation from the more standard Swedish offerings, is their technical prowess and progressive songwriting. Listen to the broken tempos at the onset of "Congenital Defeat," or the triplet mashing in "Shiver." The openning moments of "Waiting for Arrival" are pretty kickass too, when the guitars drop out and the drums remain alone. They jam a lot more riffs into a song than many of the other bands at the time - there is a bunch to discover in this album in other words. It demands repeated listens. 

Children of the Scorn is one of those hidden gems from DM's history that could easily go overlooked. The vocals are a tad generic and the production is a bit thin, but they satisfy every old school craving I can think of. The only caution would be the technicality probably makes this album a little but less instantly accessible than a lot of other 91 releases, but that can be a good thing too. 4 out of 5. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Death Metal Tuesday - Pinnacle of Bedlam

Death Metal Tuesday:
Among the myriad of technically over-the-top DM bands available to us nowadays, it's quite reassuring that the inventors of the sub-subgenre are still dishing it effectively out. And not just effective mind you, but with a certain flair lacking among their younger peers. I speak of, in my mind, the most important New York DM band of the genre's history (yes, over Cannibal), Suffocation.

The original core of Mullin, Marchais, and Hobbs has remained, despite 2-3 year-long breaks here and there, consistently churning out the silly-named "brutal" death metal for 20+ years. Having talked about a recent Cannibal Corpse release a few weeks back, I can say with confidence that New York neighbors Suffocation's 2013 album is several times more inspired and engaging than Cannibal's output over the past ten years - and it doesn't sacrifice any brutality or genre-faithfulness. The key difference, is Suffocation has not forgotten how to write a memorable hook. It also doesn't hurt that Mullin is a much stronger vocalist than Fisher. 

This isn't a Suffocation vs. Cannibal Corpse article however, so let's discuss Pinnacle of Bedlam. The stop-and-start tempos of old-school Suffocation are still the norm, as are the atonal riffs. There is, however, an abundance of melody and fairly structured parts as well - somewhat more so than in the past. Check out that middle breakdown in the title track or the (gasp) clean intro of "Sullen Days." Hobbs and Marchais still know how to structure a proper DM tune, obscuring structure and melody below the surface to be discovered after repeated listens. The broken rhythms of "My Demise" can slip by you if you play this album in the background, without fully attending to it. They manage to make music that holds together subtly, while sounding like a complicated mess to the uninitiated. 

The formula that Suffocation solidified on "Pierced from Within" remains consistent in their music, but so many other bands took their sound to soulless technical extremes, that it is nice to hear the fathers of the genre can still blend technicality with brutality and competent song writing. I'm also just stoked that these guys still rock this hard after almost 25 years. It gives me faith in the future of the genre. 4.5 out of 5 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Death Metal Tuesday - Torture 2012

25 years and 12 albums worth of death metal is an impressive achievement in itself, but the fact that Cannibal Corpse has remained so consistently dedicated to the genre that they helped make infamous back in 90-91 is something else all together.Cannibal is basically death metal’s answer to Slayer: year-after-year, album-after-album, they never risk alienating their original fan base. I can appreciate this, as Cannibal has never made me suffer through a Illud Divinum Insanus, or a Swansong, or aInsineratehymn. At the same time, it is starting to feel rather redundant and lifeless. 

I was skeptical when Barnes parted ways in 94, but Corpsegrinder finally converted me with Bloodthirst and then Gore Obsessed in 2002. It think Owens’ departure in 2004 has left a bigger hole in the band however. How do they keep things fresh and avoid repeating themselves? Well, the simple answer is: they don't. Cannibal fans expect consistency and that is what they get. Torture is Corpse-by-the-numbers with no real surprises. Starting with 2006’s Kill, I’ve started to feel like they keep writing the same album over and over. I just find it hard to imagine anyone in the pit before their show saying “man, I hope they play tons of shit off of Torture.” And I wonder how Mazurkiewicz and Webster feel when, after a block of new stuff live, Corpsegrinder announces “Skull Full of Maggots” and the crowd acts like the headliner finally took the stage.

The technical aspects and the production of this album is solid. My true hangup with the newer Corpse stuff is the sterility - it is so precise and technically sound, that it really lacks a personality. The songs are delivered with surgical precision and are plenty rocking, there are choice riffs, brutal vocals, and plenty of change ups. “Encased in Concrete” has some life, but then there is “Scourge of Iron,” “Intestinal Crank,” or the serialism of “Rabid” that just sounds like they’re stringing notes and words together out of habit more than anything else. I

Again, the Slayer metaphor is appropriate: You can’t knock a band that has stayed true to form and vision for 20+ years. So, I’m not knocking them, I’m just bored, and I feel like it’s their boredom that’s the problem. It also might be a deeper, philosophical issue regarding aging. Seeing my adolescent heroes grow old and tired, reminds me that I’m growing old and tired. Torture isn’t awful - I can put it on and not turn it off out of frustration, but I also won’t notice anything until it stops playing and my attention is drawn to how quiet it is now. 2 out of 5.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Death Metal Tuesday - Jester Race

In Flames is a band that has received a ton of flack for their change in musical direction. Over the years, they’ve enjoyed a sizable surge in popularity which inevitably alienated their original fan base. In Flames fans are polarized into two camps - pre or post 2002’s “Reroute to Remain.” That album marks the band’s completed shift to a more commercial sound - abandoning their melodic death metal roots for a more “groove metal” approach. 

If you’ve read this blog before, it is probably no shock that I tend to fall into the first group of fans - believing their death metal sound was superior. I understand bands need to evolve, but I just can’t hang with that new stuff. The personal affront that some fans take at the band’s shift, speaks to the strength of their earlier material. 

As Swedish death metal was evolving and splintering off into other sub genres, there was talk about the emerging “Gothenburg sound” which combined the traditional elements of Swedish death metal, with the melodic guitars of more traditional metal forms (specifically, Iron Maiden). This sound would eventually become what we call “melodic death metal” nowadays, but the key bands (At the Gates, Dark Tranquility, and In Flames) had no idea what they were starting - as far as they were concerned, they were just playing Swedish death metal with a twist.

In Flames’ debut, “Lunar Strain” has a rough production and menacing vocals from Michael Stanne (sounding akin to At the Gates’ Lindberg). On “Jester Race,” they clean up the sound, boost the lows, and bring in Anders Friden for vocals. All the elements that made “Strain” effective are enhanced and bolstered here, but the song writing is the real key. Opening track, “Moonshield” starts with acoustic guitars and transitions into a riff that is more harmonious and melancholic than heavy. There is immediately a noticeable departure from anything that could be construed as traditional DM, however the guitars are still crunchy as hell. There is an emphasis on catchy, traditional metal melodies that makes it sound both old school and fresh at the same time. Check out those major scales on "Goliaths Disarm Their David's," or the instrumental, "Wayfaerer." This is the most positive and upbeat sounding death metal there is - it's a crazy contrast. Of course, now this shit has been done to death, but in 96 this was revolutionary stuff. 

Every once in a while, a band gets in a spot where they are in the zone and simply can’t do anything wrong. In Flames’ 1996 sophomore effort, “Jester Race,” is one of those albums. This is on par with Metallica’s Master of Puppets, Slayer’s Reign in Blood, Death’s Symbolic, or Atheist’s Unquestionable Presence. It is re-playable to a dangerous degree (perhaps annoying others). After this one came the mighty Whoracle which is great, but not as consistent. After that… It was a somewhat rocky trip downward. 5 out of 5.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Death Metal Tuesday - Inbreeding The Anthropophagi

First off, this album has one of the coolest titles ever - a reference to a hideously gory Italian film from the early 1980's. You gotta love that these guys are into obscure, low budget horror flicks. This is their second full length, released in 1998. A California band, Deeds sound quite a bit like New York's Suffocation - ultra fast, with technical and atonal riffing and crazy stop-and-start drumming. The first few times through, everything sounds the same - full tilt brutal DM with a nice double vocal attack and relentless, through-composed brutality. 

Fans of Suffocation should eat this up, but those longing for a hook or two may find it hard to stomach. This is very atonal stuff with very little to grab onto in the way of melody. This is an athletic offering - I imagine these guys sweating buckets on stage just trying to keep this intensity. Because this album is so full-throttle, all of the time, I can only take Deeds in small doses. I like to throw 1 or 2 of these on a playlist, but taking this album down in one sitting can be a challenge that most casual DM fans would likely fail miserably. Only for the die-hards, it gets a 2.5 out of 5.