The concept of Jon Schaeffer’s Something Wicked saga is somewhat twisting and blasphemous, something us metalheads are always fans of. The original inhabitants of Earth, the Setians are driven out by humans arriving from space, except for ten thousand that hide in the hills somewhere and brainwash the humans into forgetting their otherworldly origins. They then create loads of religions to divide the humans and await the day that Set Abominae, the Antichrist, is born to retake the Earth. After the birth of Set, incidentally on the 6th day, of the 6th month of the sixth year (how deliciously ironic), he is sent to destroy the human race and manipulates kingdoms, rulers and religions to achieve his own godhood. Throughout the ages that pass, Set realises that mankind has great potential and does not destroy them, but warns them that they will destroy themselves if they do not realise their flaws.
Now that that is out of the way, what of the music. Concept albums are generally somewhat lofty and difficult to understand if the music is not of sustained quality. The problem that Iced Earth face here is the change of vocalist between albums that disturbs the flow somewhat. However both vocalists, Tim Owens and the triumphantly returning Matt Barlow, equip themselves wonderfully, and ‘Ripper’ Owens in particular provides some awe inspiring moments in tracks like ‘Ten Thousand Strong’ and ‘Setian Massacre’. He has left his Halford-aping shrieks largely behind and developed into a quality power metal vocalist with a better range. It is however the music that lets the first part of the saga down, Jon Schaeffer’s guitar work appears to be less than his stellar best, some riffing is bland and unmemorable which is very unlike him and it affects the telling of his story. Iced Earth will pull off this kinda thing in their sleep as one of the best in the game but ‘Framing Armageddon’ doesn’t quite match earlier albums’ quality.
It is the Barlow-fronted ‘The Crucible of Man’ that saves the concept from falling under the weight of its own expectations. His performance is devastating in its quality, and Schaeffer appears to have rediscovered the power of his riff. It is nothing against Tim Owen’s contribution, he is a top quality vocalist and I hope he resurrects his Beyond Fear project and continues on producing top quality metal. The man has taken far too many blows for trying to replace two of metal’s finest and iconic vocalists, and he made a damn fine impression in both Judas Priest and Iced Earth. But Barlow is the voice of Iced Earth for so many people and here he feels right at home, tearing through tracks like ‘Divide Devour’, ‘Harbinger of Fate’ and ‘I Walk Alone’ like his life depended on it. The story of Setian life on Earth comes full circle with the epic ‘Come What May’ and the instrumental ‘Epilogue’, which reprises ‘Overture’ from ‘Framing Armageddon’.
Overall its a confusing beast, one with stellar vocal performances and a gradual improvement in the quality of music, but it does take a lot of work to get into to begin with. Schaeffer will no doubt retune this as he did with the original Something Wicked Trilogy, so expect to see Framing Armageddon re-recorded with Barlow etc. Which is a shame because the Ripper was the best part of Part 1, and I fail to see how Barlow will be able to cover up the bland riffs and lack of imagination. Good as an entire piece, disappointing in parts but ultimately worth a listen, as there is definitely sections of quality progressive metal in there and a pretty cool story.
Machine Head were in a bit of a slump pre-’Through the Ashes of Empires’. After exploding onto the scene with ‘Burn My Eyes’, since their second album ‘The More Things Change…’ they had been on a slight creative slide. A shame really considering the potency of tracks like ‘Davidian’, ‘Ten Ton Hammer’ and ‘Block’, but 2003’s ‘…Ashes of Empires’ was a triumphant return to form. Tracks like ‘Imperium’ and ‘Days Turn Blue to Grey’ showed a new maturity and quality in song writing, and the increased length of tracks allowed riffs and musical ideas to flourish. And so to ‘The Blackening’, the newest MH offering and their best work yet. Opening with a 10 minute track is a dangerous idea for a more mainstream band these days but the effortless guitar play makes ‘Clenching the Fists of Dissent’ seem half the length and you never lose interest in it. It’s a work ethic and style that plays out through the album, leaving tracks like ‘Farewell to Arms’ and personal highlight ‘Halo’ as outstanding examples of modern metal played well and passionately. Lead single, ‘Aesthetics of Hate’, written about the hateful article praising Dimebag Darrell’s murder by conservative bastard William Grim, is not only a movingly impassioned defence of the great man but also contains some wonderful guitar work between Rob Flynn and Phil Demmel. Glad to see that this proud metal band has got back to its quality highs and that the impressive evolution on ‘…Ashes of Empires’ has continued.
Well, maybe a strong word for it, but anyone who does this will understand my issue I am having at the moment. In order to create, not a portfolio as such but I suppose it could be described as one, but a balanced way of reviewing music, and especially of such extreme stylings, it is important to me that I don’t come across as overly positive all the time. I like to think i could create a review of an album that if people bought they could either agree or at least see where the thoughts came from. But I found, as I looked at my past writings, that almost all have been of an album I have greatly enjoyed and only one was anything that really approached a negative response. My problem is this; that if I don’t enjoy an album, a band or a genre of music, than I don’t listen to it. I’d much rather sit through a metal album that captured my attention, challenged me and more often than not, kicked some ASS! If an album doesn’t grab me within the first, say, 3 or 4 tracks then I start to wonder whether it is worth listening to the rest.
And yet I have come across a number of albums in my time that grow on me over time, or that get better when the later tracks start. Its a conundrum for someone who would really like to do this kinda thing for, well maybe not a living, but certainly as a hobby, because as you know, when you come across an album that truly gets to you, truly speaks to you and influences you to check out a band or a genre, its a great moment. Everyone can remember the albums that got them into certain styles, no matter what it is. Death metal was unattractive to me until I heard Lashed to the Slave Stick from Nile’s Annihilation of the Wicked cd (2005). I subsequently heard the rest of the album and was awestruck by the power, ferocity and above all the inventiveness of the band in such a previously unopen genre to me. I then began with their work and moved onto more stuff, and now own a massive collection of death metal cds. Its all about albums that strike you, but if an album doesn’t, is it fair to stop listening and declare it shit before you evaluate the whole piece?
I review albums I enjoy listening to because that’s what music is about, what you enjoy, what invigorates you, speaks to you, for you, what can brighten your day or simply make you wanna bang your head and jump into a pit with a large group of sweaty folks and go nuts. It doesn’t even matter what makes you do it, as long as it does. Maybe I’ll be able to put something up soon that was a proper disappointment to me, and that I wouldn’t necessarily recommend to people. But in the end its all subjectivity. You may think an album that I love sucks, and vice versa, and therefore opinions almost seem redundant in such a field. On the other hand, most people get into bands due to a recommendation from a friend or magazine, so maybe subjectivity has some life in it yet…
Grindcore albums tend to scream past listeners with the force of a glass tornado, tearing apart everything within a two mile radius of it until, generally about half an hour later, it ends. I’ve tried to get into grind more recently. I read the Improbable History of Death metal and Grindcore, an excellent history of the two most extreme genres of music and after some test purchases of Pig Destroyer, Nasum and Napalm Death, decided to get more. This is a very odd little album. With titles mainly stolen from Goosebumps novels (kiddy horror books which I was a big fan of as a child), Dr. Acula have crafted a truly insane blast, spliced by hilarious movie quotes, ear shredding screams and inhuman gurgles. Monster Blood opens with a charming little ditty before exploding into some truly insane grind, and the maniacal vocal performances continue on How I Got My Shrunken Head and Cuckoo Clock of Doom. This vocalist is clearly a bit out of whack, but instead of being annoying, it adds an element to the music that hurtles between full force grind, slower death metal and occasional clean sections. The addition of the deathcore trademark ‘pig squeal’ vocal appears to be more ironic than as a serious employment but to be honest, its a bit difficult to tell. Imagine Strapping Young Lad fighting with Pig Destroyer. A bit mad for the uninitiated but ultimately insanely worth it.
Reek of Putrefaction is one of those albums classed as legendary or influential due to its proximity to the start of a specific genre or style, or one that’s been copied so widely that the original idea is almost lost within reams of copyists and wannabes. Carcass would later create some essential death metal cuts, such as Symphonies of Sickness and Necroticism, but their debut reeked of grind, and ugly grind as it was. Its sound is truly horrifying, a cauldron of gurgled growls and screams, played over a raw, hurtling soundtrack of grinding riffs and thundering blastbeats. Carcass members have been notably disdaining of their first offspring, Jeff Walker describing it as ‘great for what it is, which is shit’, and you can understand their point; the production is very murky, its a sludgy mess of noise in general and possibly wouldn’t even be released widely in today’s polish-and-play market but yet you can traces its heritage through the racket of modern grind, and anything that gains a bit of cult following because of the so-bad-its-good production style. It almost singlehandedly spawned the goregrind subgenre of extreme metal, and its eerily knowing song titles just add a bit more to the pot to create such a hellish brew. Ultimately it is the grimy, swampy blast of inspiration that creates the magic, creates the inspiration that it has provided to countless bands. We have seen old records produce so much in the scattered and crowded fields of metal bands these days, and many don’t have the shiny production that we are so used to today, and perhaps in that lies the answer. Would this be as revered if its production were clearer? Who knows, but again who cares, as its still a hell of a sound and a hell of an album. If its great cause its shit, then shit it shall be, but I still revere it as a classic, even if the band doesn’t! Plus, its perfect to scare these emo kids off our metal lawns!
Now this is an album I’ve been meaning to get round to for a while. JFAC are best known as a Myspace phenomenon, with umpteen thousand friends and a sickeningly young average age. But this impressive following, youth and admitted technical ability has left them derided as a metal flash in the pan that couldn’t possibly have the longevity of older death metal bands who did it the old tape trading, touring way. Now the whole merit of Myspace debate is one I care not to get involved in, as I see both sides of the argument having valid points. Yes it allows any old group of kids with the Internet, some instruments, and the spare time to crack out any old guff but it is also key in the creation and spread of new music, regardless of the genre. The debate will rage on, but as long as music can be spread this way, there’s always going to be great finds. Back to the album, there’s nothing particularly offensive about it, it has its moments of impressive beatdowns, excellent guitar play and some crushing chugging sections, especially in the opening ‘Bearer of the Serpent’s Lamb’ and ‘Martyrdom Unsealed’, but such high points are tempered by two completely throwaway instrumental parts that must have seemed important to include because they were a bit ‘different’, calmer and more eerie. Unfortunately it breaks up the flow and would have been better cast down on the cutting room floor. JFAC are certainly a competent band, there’s no doubting the musical ability or the enthusiasm for the product, but its a shame that its not a great product. Job for a Cowboy have some good ideas and there’s plenty of potential here for improvement, the players are adept but you can find better modern death metal in the hands of All Shall Perish and Dead Beyond Buried. One for the curious and general listener of death metal, but nothing too captivating for the hardened death-head.
Immolation are veterans of the death metal industry, releasing solid and generally magnificent death metals since their ferocious debut Dawn of Possession in 1991. They’ve refined their brutal technical and unwavering blasphemy spewing music into something we can rely on. Unfortunately I feel they can be regarded as rather underrated, even though they rarely put a foot wrong musically. When you think of death metal, they’re not in the top 5 that instantly pop to mind, but in terms of consistent quality, they probably should be. After reading a review and hearing a promo version of their newest release, Shadows in the Light, I decided to invest in their back catalogue. The first record I decided to pick up was 2000’s Close to a World Below, an excellent slab of death metal with appropriate Christ baiting cover with a crucifixion scene in the fires of hell and a crowd of damned souls. Musically Immolation were firing on all cylinders here, the twisted riffing of Robert Vigna is instantly recognisable, a thunderous chugging section that winds Lost Passion to a close is perfect for a bang of your head, and the blasting starts to both Furthest from the Truth and Put My Hand in the Fire show that Immolation can still blow most death metal bands out of the water. Overall Close to a World Below is a great record, one that kept Immolation at the top of their game and solidified their position as one of the flagbearers of extreme metal to this day. Lets hope their newest can finally get them the worldwide recognition their individuality and style warrant. If this is the soundtrack to the world below, count me in…
Ihsahn can comfortably be defined as a musical genius, a virtuoso and progenitor of 4 of the finest metal albums ever to appear on the radar of this writer’s musical experience. Every Emperor release was a masterclass in technicality, atmosphere, arrangement and inspiration. ‘In the Nightside Eclipse’ is a cornerstone of my listening evolution, the black metal album that got me into it, as its scope and delivery was just so impressive to me. But what since Emperor’s self-inflicted demise? Samoth and Trym went on to form death metal juggernauts Zyklon who also appear to get better with each subsequent release, showing that there was an excellent creative collaboration in Emperor, but Ihsahn’s first solo album, ‘The Adversary’ was met with mixed reactions and disappointment by many as it appeared to be as if Ihsahn was free to reign, but he was almost unwilling to fully release his visions. And yet it was still an excellent album of potent material, which always begged that question: what if it went further? Well thankfully he has returned with his second proper solo work, and what a work it is. Not only has he fully released his incredible talents, but Ihsahn has that uncanny ability to go into all regions of extreme metal, from harsh black to progressive and yet it never feels disjointed. Opener ‘Misanthrope’ unleashes with a bombastic roar and Ihsahn’s instantly recognisable vocal stylings remind you of prime Emperor album openers like ‘Curse You All Men!’ Opeth’s Mikael Akerfeldt makes a passionate appearance on ‘Unhealer ‘and adds depth to a melancholic, powerful track that could go down as one of the great collaborations in extreme music. It contains beautiful pastoral clean guitar sections, great death vocal interplay between the two men and comes across as an essential mix in the album, not just a showy collaboration intent on bringing in Opeth fans etc. ‘Thredony’ possesses a vulnerability in its acousticness, and Ihsahn’s progressive streak appears in full force in ‘The Alchemist’. His hired hands on bass and drums, Lars Norberg and Asegir Mickelson from Spiral Architects, keep the performance tight and and natural, and play admirably. Its important not to forget that contribution but the star as always is Ihsahn. His performance is nothing short of magnificent, his impassioned vocal work on the verses of ‘Emancipation’ and his technical, flowing guitarwork that punctuates every song on the album is a delight to behold. Finally we have the kind of work anyone who knows what he can create has expected, and it has been more than worth the wait. Long may the Emperor reign…
Well, this could have gone very wrong couldn’t it? A ’supergroup’ of sorts, Swedish death and black metal stalwarts from such metal icons as Entombed, Dark Funeral and Grave, come together to put out a ‘proper’ old school Swedish death metal album. You can almost hear the critics rampaging to the front of the pit, ready to storm the stage and yell ‘nay’ to this idea. Well hold on a second, because this is rather special. The Entombed/Grave sound comes through straight away, and Vicious Art put most of their effort into writing solid death metal tunes that are straightforward in their structure and yet supremely brutal. The black metal fury of Dark Funeral is also thrown into the mix, and creates a death/black hybrid that creates a solid foundation for the album. Tombstone Grind, the album opener, is an absolute stormer of a track and it goes to show that if you want top quality death metal, you can always rely on the old guard. You don’t necessarily need to go to the new deathcore squadrons for proper heaviness. Pick Up This Sick Child is a great slab of old school death metal that doesn’t require too much brainpower, only neck power to properly bang your head to. Sick or not, you should definitely pick this bad boy up if you like your death brutal, straightforward and classic.
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Oh welcome back the full force of Mikael Akerfeldt’s death metal growl! As much as I love the winding paths of Opeth’s magnificent progressive death metal, I always wanted that inhuman growl, almost like a hurricane wind on its longer roars, to last longer. Luckily Bloodbath can provide me with this! Put together in the early 00s as a side project for Akerfeldt to create a properly old school death metal band, they released two awesome albums then split, as Opeth was to become Mikael’s main focus after ‘Resurrection Through Carnage’. Peter Tagtgren of Hypocrisy did well on ‘Nightmares Made Flesh ‘but ‘Resurrection…’ was the better album. Any death metal fan worth his salt has at least one of them in the collection anyway. So it was great news to hear that they are back and Akerfeldt is back too. This four track EP is hopefully only a taste of what to come, but it comes across more as force fed rather than a delicate sampling. ‘Blasting the Virginborn’ comes hurtling out of the gates like a tidal wave of awesome riffs and roars, a thunderous drumming performance only adds power and Akerfeldt’s voice displays a more malevolent side to his Opeth work. The other 3 tracks are of a similar quality, with ‘Weak Aside’ highlighted by an awesome solo and ‘Mouth of Empty Praise’ ending with a choral flourish to really ensure that you don’t forget it. An excellent release, if a little short, but hopefully it will leave enough anticipation for the new studio album, hopefully released asap!! I can’t wait…