Tuesday, November 26, 2013

!T.O.O.H.! – Democratic Solution

August 13, 2013 • self-released

!T.O.O.H.!'s 2005 album and their last before disbanding Order and Punishment is something of an underground classic of death metal, and they've probably been one of the highest-regarded bands from the Czech Republic. They reformed recently to put out one more album, and it's debatable whether it was worth it; it's definitely an interesting listen, though.

The band's style has shifted considerably from the technical death metal of their past to something more in line with mid-2000s avant-garde metal bands, with the odd folky influences and grind bits. As I don't really care for most tech death, this probably made it an easier album for me to listen to, as things are a little bit simpler and a bit less dissonant.

On the other hand, it's difficult to judge the album on its songwriting merits simply because it sounds so awful. With the exception of the decent (if unoriginal) drumming, about every instrument sounds totally wrong. Guitars are played through an AM receiver and the bass is just guttural farting noises. The vocals are a mixed bag; it's all clean singing, and some is decent but most feels really off (the end of "Boubelovo životakončení" is a good example of singing that really should have been left out). The keyboards are a nice touch, though, if a bit overdone.

So if you can get past the odd production, there's a half-decent metal album in here. It's not great, and I don't know if I'd call it good, but it's not as awful as some people would have you think. It's going to be a bit too weird to please most people, for sure; it has some cringey moments but definitely some redeeming ones as well. Just try not to take it too seriously, I suppose.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Panopticon – Kentucky

June 2012 • Handmade Birds

I don't make it a secret that I really despise American country music—and not for lack of trying, either. Of course I'm going to be a bit skeptical about any attempt to shoehorn it into some other style. Even still, I was immediately interested in Kentucky just because it sounded so bizarre; atmospheric black metal and bluegrass? And it's not a parody album? And it's... well, it's not bad, I'll say that.

I already considered myself a mild Panopticon fan after hearing quality self-titled debut: thick, intense, grinding atmospheric metal. For the most part, Kentucky doesn't stray far from the style, so in a lot of ways it's like many of its ABM contemporaries. And in that vein, it's good stuff; nothing fantastically mind-blowing, but good enough to listen to several times.

And then comes the country. Banjos, folky vocals, the lot. The bluegrass elements aren't really fused with the black metal that seamlessly; it's more like a regular black metal album with bluegrass intros and outros, with the exception of droning fiddles during some of the songs, so I find myself not really enjoying a lot of these bits; I guess they're decent for what they are. I do, however, enjoy the audio clips that help add to the concept and thematics of the album.

Overall, I'm not totally sure if this style really works, but at the very least it's one of the most interesting listens in extreme metal that I can think of from the last several years. It's still worth listening to just for the black metal, and if you liked earlier Panopticon you'll like this. And maybe it's an opportunity to get a little bluegrass into your music diet, if that doesn't sound too unappealing.

Friday, November 22, 2013

KEN Mode – Entrench

March 15, 2013 • Season of Mist

I guess I'm kind of obligated to review this album now, having enjoyed Venerable and seeing this band play twice in the last year. I don't mind, though; KEN mode hasn't let up on quality and Entrench is a pretty darn awesome album.

They're back with the same sort of frantic-metalcore-meets-sludge sound ("sludgecore" isn't a thing yet, no matter how hard I try), though the noise rock aspects have been toned down for a more post-hardcore-oriented approach. Like before, the band is heavy and gritty as hell but the occasional softer moment; the pounding rarely lets up throughout the album but it does switch a bit from fast-paced punk-tinged sludgecore to some slower doomier stuff and an almost alt/post-rock like buildup on "Romeo Must Never Know". There are still a lot of surprisingly catchy moments as well without suffering from breakdown overload ("The Promises of God" is especially great in this regard), while at the same time the technicality of the performance has been dialed back a bit in favor of just rocking out. And that's great.

I could probably go as far as to say that I'm liking this more than Venerable right off the bat. I can't really think of anything they didn't do just right. Absolutely a great and worthy followup (yeah at some point I really should check out their first three albums...) and definitely recommended to anyone who's a fan of sludgecore in general.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Inferni333 – I'm Still the Doctor

September 1, 2013 • self-released

Inferni333 is an acoustic-indie-rock band from Missouri. They also have an unhealthy obsession with Dr. Who.

Standard folk rock tropes apply (drums, acoustic guitar, bass, vocals) and the instrumentation is quite well-done. The drumming especially stands out as the EP's strongest point, and there are some good guitar moments as well (in the songs' intros, mostly).

But the songwriting itself is a bit simplistic and unchallenging; even with the short-ish runtimes it is all too easy to get bogged down in the repetition (especially "Death of the Ninth Doctor", which is the same four bars for over five minutes). Props for the string ensemble bits, like on "Bad Wolf", for mixing things up, though. I also can't get over the incredibly cheesy lyrics either, but then again maybe I'm just taking this way too seriously.

For what it is, this EP isn't bad. It's not really my style of music so I don't feel like I really should be any authority of whether it's any good or not. That being said, it's still free to listen to all over the place, so it's easy to decide for yourself.

Friday, November 15, 2013

情報デスクVIRTUAL – 札幌コンテンポラリー

April 20, 2012 • Beer on the Rug

In theory, nothing about vaporwave should have been successful. Cheesy, generic stock music, shamelessly ripped off and re-purposed from the awful corporate mood music of the '80s and early '90s, music that should have stayed on the Weather Channel and home shopping networks. I can't explain why in 2010 it suddenly came back out of nowhere, wanting to be taken semi-seriously, even. But I still have this odd fascination with 札幌コンテンポラリー, and it's definitely an album worth knowing about.

There's a lot going on all over this album, though it's hard to notice at first. The cheesy MIDI arrangements are just a distracting surface element; just underneath that are some actually well-arranged and well-performed smooth jazz and ambient pop tunes. There's a surprising amount of diversity, too, like the African-sounding influence on tracks like "iMYSTIQUE エジプト航空「EDU」" or the downbeat, droning "HB☯ PORN". And yet there's nothing very challenging about the album, because it all stems from a place that's at least a little bit familiar to people who were around during that time (or at least experienced the bits of its culture that this music comes from).

It kinda goes without saying at this point that 札幌コンテンポラリー is not for everyone—not by a long shot. Even if you can get into the aesthetic of the album as a whole, the tracks themselves can vary quite a bit in quality and listenability (take "CONTEMPORARYセーター", which sounds like it comes from an awful soap opera, or the disgustingly-saccharine soul of its successor "HOTEL TAIWAN WELC☯MES U") and the album does feel somewhat too long (at one hour and twenty-seven tracks). Personally, I can't bring myself to hold it any higher than a novelty act, but at the same time it's still a pretty good novelty act, one that makes you stop and think for a minute. It's so unlike anything I'd ever naturally listen to that I just have to like it, even for just a little bit.


Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Vallendusk – Black Clouds Gathering

April 20, 2013 • Pest Productions

I love hearing metal from outside of Europe and North America. There's usually some sort of regional influence seeping into the music that gives it a really cool cultural flair that's unique to that band. Unfortunately, I know nothing about traditional Indonesian music or even their culture in general, and Vallendusk isn't helping; while Black Clouds Gathering is a pretty good modern black metal album, there isn't much to it that really stands out.

The album is fairly typical post-2010 atmospheric black metal / blackgaze composition and aesthetics, with jangly distorted guitars, relentless double-kick and blastbeat drumming, generic but well-performed vocals, and lots of major-key riffs. It's the kind of thing that's been popular lately in the new black metal underground but Vallendusk does it relatively well. The music has a great feel to it, constantly driving forward, and the melodies are pleasant enough with the right amount of edge to fit the style.

Unfortunately, like many ambitious metal albums before it, Black Clouds Gathering tends to drag a bit. And it's an incredibly long album, too: at around 67 minutes, it's a bit more than my attention span can handle, especially when the band doesn't really do a lot to shake things up. It feels a bit like listening to the same exact song seven times in a row, which I have mixed feelings on—yes, it's a good song, but I'm going to get bored with it if you keep it up that long.

That being said, I would still recommend this to anyone else who's been following the trajectory of black metal over the last couple of years, as this is a good example of how good modern stuff can get. Yes, it's a bit disappointing that there wasn't any of that folk in it that I was promised, but I guess I can live with that. Maybe next time.


Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Clipping – Midcity

February 5, 2013 • self-released

I haven't really been listening to quite as much music recently. Not totally sure why (probably work-related), but I've felt the need to experience things in smaller, more intense bursts to try to get everything in. Midcity has been out since February so I'm way behind on everything I wanted to listen to, but at least this falls under the "intense bursts" I guess I'm going for.

Noise and hip hop—two genres I've liked for a while, and two genres that you don't often see together (at least, not at this level; Dälek or Death Grips come near it but still aren't in the same league). Clipping's style almost forgoes the standard styles of hip hop entirely, opting for harsh static, glitch, junk noise, anything dissonant they can get their hands on. It's a really interesting contrast to the more standard rapping that's comparable to a lot of modern rap; against the backdrop of the noise beats it becomes something entirely different. It's still pretty rhythmic music (most of the time), but hearing those rhythms made with static and sound effects instead of drums and samples is offputting, to say the least.

Production aside, it still comes off as a pretty solid album when it comes to hip hop. There's some great scratching (something sorely lacking on a lot of hip hop I hear) and sometimes the beats can get a little catchy on their own. The rapping is quite good too, even if it is a little typical (and I could go without hearing "swag" ever again). They aren't very aggressive at all which provides a nice balance to the head-pounding production—whereas Death Grips beat the listener by shouting relentlessly, Clipping opts to take a more subtle approach to alarm the listener, and it works.

Overall, it's a really cool aesthetic, and I'd be excited to hear more extreme hip hop like this. Midcity is best served in short chunks, though, if the listener wishes to retain their sanity.


Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Darkthrone – Sardonic Wrath

September 6, 2004 • Moonfog Productions

Darkthrone seems to get a lot of crap for anything released after 1995's Panzerfaust but I have to say I never agreed with those sentiments; sometimes, they can be just as good as they were in the early '90s. Case in point: Sardonic Wrath one of my favorite later-era albums of theirs. You wouldn't think a band like Darkthrone could pull out anything interesting or relevant in 2004, and you certainly could argue for that, but I have to admit I have a soft spot for this album.

Sardonic Wrath's biggest strength for me is probably rooted in its production, which is somewhere between where most modern black metal bands were and old-school-death metal style. It's mot too raw, and has a really ferocious edge to it (especially those fantastic buzzsaw guitars). The playing has a real sense of purpose and drive to it; unlike some of their other late albums where they sound like they're sloppily going through the motions, this album feels a lot tighter.

The songwriting is surprisingly good here, too—most bands would be totally burned out after eleven or so albums but, after having heard most of them by this point, this one still sticks out to me as being relatively fresh. They went for a good mix of different styles overall, combining straight black metal with some simplistic punk rhythms and a bit of the death and thrash they started their career with. Often it come off as quite catchy, even (see "Sacrificing to the God of Doubt" for a good example). It's definitely nowhere near the far more atmospheric and bleak sound of Transilvanian Hunger et. al., but I like that about it. It doesn't sound like a different band, just one that's moved on a bit.

Darkthrone did a lot of favors to the black metal genre from '92 to '95, but even though most people have moved on I'm glad they stuck have around and not gone totally to crap like one might have expected. I won't say Sardonic Wrath is an absolute-must-hear by any means, more like a personal favorite, albeit one still worth listening to.


Monday, November 4, 2013

Esmerine – La Lechuza

June 7, 2011 • Constellation Records

I don't have a clue how I found out about Esmerine—something to do with their association with Godspeed, I'd guess, but even ignoring that it's hard to find something bad on Constellation's roster. I'm a bit annoyed I haven't heard of this group sooner; out of every Godspeed side-project I've heard this one is by far the best, and yet they seem to be pretty unknown.

I don't really know the difference between minimalism and post-minimalism, but I'm pretty sure La Lechuza falls somewhere in there. Arrangements are sparse, focusing on a small handful of string instruments and various percussion, both chromatic and folky. It's almost like if early Godspeed was conducted by Arvo Pärt, and the result is somber, personal, introspective, bittersweet—in parts, anyway.

It's all about beauty in simplicity; just a basic chord progression on xylophone with cello and you're set. (It certainly helps that they use a lot of what I'd consider "favorite" instruments, like the two I just mentioned, so the aesthetic already really appeals to me.) Other tracks take a more layered, complex approach that works equally well, just trying to do something a bit different. One part that particularly gets to me is "Trampolin"'s optimistic, childlike style, with a more upbeat rhythm and flowing melodies. It's a fantastic mix of moods on display in this album, and it's fortunately delivered in a way that really clicks.

If I had to complain (and of course I do) I'm not a huge fan of the vocals and to me they really take away from the experience that the instruments delivered just fine; fortunately they only appear on a couple tracks so it's not a huge deal.

Anyway. Esmerine makes some damn beautiful stuff, and it's absolutely worth listening to for anyone remotely into chamber music, minimalism, and post-rock-influenced music. Or even if you aren't. It's great either way.


Friday, November 1, 2013

Altar of Plagues – Teethed Glory & Injury

April 30, 2013 • Profound Lore Records

Ladies and gentlemen, it's here: the next innovation in black metal. Irish band Altar of Plauges put out two albums (and a bit more) of relatively standard-fare 2010s-style atmospheric black metal before dropping this monstrosity on the world and then vanishing. As far as final albums go, few are so intent in their finality as Teethed Glory & Injury is: hugely experimental, broadly scoped, and pretty good too.

Anyone familiar with the band's older work will definitely be surprised by how this album is composed, as I was. The diversity of sounds on this single album is incredible, and it shoves the listener right into the thick of it with no warning. There's industrial-electronic soundscapes reminiscent of Ben Frost, the dissonant grinding avant-garde metal of Sigh, droning doom passages, a little bit of their expected original sound too, all shrouded in this very dark, alienating, cold atmosphere that's surprisingly easy to fall into.

While the band has always been good at what they do, they still manage to fall into the easy trap of trying to do too much. With so much going on it's inevitable that the album doesn't sound as cohesive as it should; even though the tracks are mostly good individually, the flow feels all wrong and everything falls apart when taken in as a whole. It's kind of like they knew what they were going for in terms of overall sound and mood, but couldn't incorporate it with their existing songwriting chops very well.

That being said, I find Teethed Glory & Injury to still be a relatively enjoyable album and it deserves the credit and praise it's received so far. I don't think I'd ever pick it over their first two for black metal, or over contemporary drone / ambient / noise artists for what is presented here. And I'm not really sure it is the next innovation in black metal after all (you can't tell these things ahead of time anyway). But I can definitely appreciate the album for what it is—an adventure, an experiment, a unique experience. And for what it's worth it's got at least a couple good spins in it.