Friday, December 14, 2012

Lizzy Borden - Menace to Society [1986]

Of all of Lizzy Borden's full lengths, Menace to Society took me the longest to fully appreciate, and I can't quite pinpoint why. It makes no sense, really. After all, it's not as if this is some sweeping musical departure from Love You to Pieces that sacrifices that album's accessibility or metallic direction. If anything, this record is a more fine-tuned offering of the band's meatiest material yet, probably their heaviest album aside from the no holds barred guitar showcase that would be Appointment With Death over twenty years afterward. Luckily my initial indifference wore off, and though I don't like it quite as much as the debut or any of the records from the "golden era" through Master of Disguise, it's still one damn fine onslaught of classic Lizzy Borden finesse.

First off, Lizzy sadly introduces his crew with another unintentionally (?) hilarious cover art. Granted, it's not quite as heinous as the rank sleazefest of Love You to Pieces, but the ridiculous tank-junior chainsaw combo sported here doesn't do any favors for the decidedly serious speed/power metal assault behind it, coming off about as menacing as Dennis himself. More of the lyrical content here is focused around power, glory, and generally fucking destroying everything than on just about all the other Lizzy Borden albums put together, so it would have been nice to see that reflected in the skin enveloping the record itself. Well, I suppose you can't have it all.

As I alluded to, Lizzy and company are set to kill here. Whereas later records would focus on social rebellion and not fitting into the status quo, Menace to Society says fuck the status quo, breaks down the barricades, and turns the rules of society on their head as they torch the nation and utterly discount the merit of our empty 9 to 5 occupational lifestyles. Just feel the seething menace of "Terror on the Town," with its incendiary melodies and its ode to rebellious destruction. While the band plays it rather simple and straightforward for most of the playing time, some of the subtle intricacies to be found on later works can first be sighted here in the form of. "Notorious" is one of Lizzy Borden's finest anthems ever, a wickedly glorious NWOBHM riot that goes for the throat with its Caesar-hailing chorus. Sometimes the band can take its militaristic (and cheese-laden) overtones a little far, as is quite clear in the pointless drum intro to "Brass Tactics." Luckily it isn't long before the surgical riff comes into place to relieve us of our brief misery. The album has a searing speed opener with "Generation Aliens," which is basically "Council for the Cauldron" pt. 2 (albeit slightly less memorable).

For an album with as much traditional metal badassery as this, I would have appreciated a more aggressive guitar tone than what is provided here. The production in general is disappointing compared to the debut, which featured a rough around the edges appeal that added a level of shady nightclub charm to the mix. Things are a bit more polished around these parts, but with inklings of the amateurish sound worn well on Love You to Pieces. This doesn't end up mixing particularly well, giving Lizzy's excellent (if a bit unrestrained here) nasal tones a strange and power-diluting effect. This doesn't sink the record, but it certainly doesn't help. Also, while I'm usually a sucker for Lizzy Borden's poignant and unforgettable balladry (see "Love You to Pieces," "Visual Lies," or "Love Is a Crime"), the boring and sappy "Ursa Minor" just didn't do it for me here, probably the only song I could completely do without of the first four albums. They already gave us the similar (and much better) "Bloody Mary" on this very release, anyway.

For their initial 1985-1989 run, Lizzy Borden could do no wrong, and this is certainly no exception. Menace to Society may be a bit frontloaded with its slew of classic material, and I rarely choose to listen to it over either of its nearest neighbors or Master of Disguise, but it's still an essential listen for those who get their kicks from fine USPM and aren't afraid to get their hands a little dirty in the realms of NWOBHM and glam imagery. The commercial element here isn't quite as prevalent as its predecessors, so Menace to Society may be a good jumping off point for those hesitant to embrace the less metallic side of the speed/power metal scene. In any case, take the plunge. HAIL CAESAR!

   Overall: 8/10 (Damn Good)

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Centurion - Serve No One [2012]

Most death metal these days seems to glide down one of three paths: straight, no frills OSDM that doesn't venture too far beyond the standard set by the sinister forefathers, more 'extreme' efforts that flirt with added brutality, pristine production or technicality, or hybrids which integrate elements of black metal or other related sub-genres. Serve No One, the sophomore album of Poland's Centurion and their first since 2002, combines the first two methods in the sense that they play the classically constructed death metal of old in the vein of more brutal acts like Suffocation and Litany-era Vader. Combine that with the brute force and blunt songwriting of Deicide, and the essence of Centurion begins to take shape. Serve No One comprises ten consistent tracks of brief, pummeling strikes within the span of less than 30 minutes, resulting in a highly powerful and proficient (if not particularly memorable or adventurous) album.

The name of the game here is speed, and Centurion rarely lets up in this regard. In fact, outlier segments like the atmospheric intro of "Gateways to Condemnation" or the plodding riff devastation in "No One to Serve" are memorable solely due to their rarity in scope against the other haste-dominated 25 or so minutes included. While this attack plan may offer many formidable moments of heaviness and intensity, it unfortunately offers few sections that truly etch themselves into the listener's memory. Occasionally we are offered a particularly tasty, groovy riff section like that in "Ritual Mass Murder," but for the most part, Centurion passably assault the conscious without leaving a deep impact. Part of the fault is in the decently well-performed but monotonous vocals, deeply bellowing in a consistent and occasionally monotonous fashion. The lyrics are a dime a dozen concoction of unimaginative, anti-Christian blasphemies (with a few noticeable English mistakes) that won't offer any new ideas, though I'd hardly expect much better.

Serve No One is a very tight and well-produced album, and the experience of Centurion in the Polish death metal scene is made clear through the proficient, menacing tapestry of riffs laid woven within. However, beyond the bare, bloody essentials, not too much else here is notable. In a sense, though, I get the feeling that this is what Centurion strived for: to provide another slab of old school butchery to a style performed by many and perfected by precious few. Still, this is a trip that might be worth checking out for fans of any of the aforementioned bands if you've already knocked out all the top-tier releases of the genre.

   Overall: 6.5/10 (Fair)

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Backyard Mortuary - Lure of the Occult [2012]

The band name, album cover, and logo should indicate without any doubt the kind of toxic onslaught you're dealing with here. Yep, Australia's Backyard Mortuary is another old school death metal band laying fresh bricks upon the tried and true groundwork cultivated over twenty years ago by the genre's greats. In a world where hundreds of similar discs are tucked away in warehouses nationwide never to be heard from ever again (ET-style), it gets continually more difficult to stand out and put forth a genuinely captivating effort. However, if Lure of the Occult is any indication, this band is here to stay while severing some heads in the process.

No, Backyard Mortuary isn't exactly reinventing the wheel here or even breathing life into an already bustling revitalization, but that makes this record no less pummeling. Every song here is bursting at the seams with bludgeoning riffs aged to perfection. The variation in speed keeps it all flowing, never congealing too heavily into a homogeneous mixture of pacing. Sometimes it busts into flurries of straight-laced speed a la Scream Bloody Gore, only to slow to a sinister grind and summon bleak churns of doom greatness. Just see the eight minute "Demon's Blood", whose initial setting of haste erodes into graduated domination. Personally the mid-paced parts just kill, showing the group settle into its best and most memorable rhythms. Listening to the title track, easily my favorite here with its absolutely crushing progressions, is like getting rabbit-punched repeatedly by Mike Tyson wearing brass knuckles, and most of the other songs channel a comparable level of intensity.

In the vocal department, this group couldn't get any better. Chris Archer's voice, which I would describe as a perfect mix of early Chuck Schuldiner and Martin Van Drunen, is basically the pure essence of death metal. His powerful growls simply envelop this album and bring it to new, tortured heights, with little touches like the demonic laughter in "Mutation" only adding to the morbid spectacle. It'd also be amiss not to mention the shocking production quality involved. This is probably the best I've heard any self-released album sound. Each instrument comes through with an appropriate tone of time capsule antiquity, yet the overall product reaches levels of clarity most modern big label groups could only dream of.

There are really no glaring flaws to point out, though a couple of the tracks don't leave as deep of an impression upon the memory as riff monsters like "Demon's Blood" and "Lure of the Occult" do. That's pardonable since this album still creates an awesome web of sounds even when it isn't directly knocking you out. At the end of the day, we have more resolute, old school bloodshed to bask in the glory of, and that's not an offering I'm willing to turn down. Lure of the Occult is one of the better debuts from a year already replete with worthy first efforts Add it to the shopping list along with the newest efforts from Horrendous, Pseudogod, and Undergang, and you'll be good to go until the next ritual arrives.

   Overall: 8.25/10 (Great - drink from the chalice)

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Lizzy Borden - Love You to Pieces [1985]

You know, I think I've been fairly grounded in my criticism of Lizzy Borden to this point. That could have to do with the fact that neither their debut demo nor Give 'em the Axe were exquisite examples of this band's potential, or that I was consciously avoiding doing so to maintain some amount of credibility for when the rave inevitably began, but that all ends here. Yes, I'm a pretty serious fanboy of the band in question, and yes, with Love You to Pieces, all bets are off. My indifference effectively died roughly three seconds into "Council For the Cauldron" with the intricate and wickedly beautiful guitar melody that erupts into a speed metal riot of the highest order. That would be the first of many, I would come to learn, as this is only the first in a series of anomalously good albums; and while I may prefer the spotless Visual Lies, it's hard to fault their full length debut for not being so absolutely perfect.

First and foremost, we must address the travesty that is the cover. Let me give you some personal background. I didn't live a second in the eighties, so the whole glam image has never seemed as repugnant to me as it might have to those who had to suffer seeing "I'll See the Light Tonight" juxtaposed with "Every Rose Has its Thorn" on MTV. I never cared for most of the music the scene produced (and I absolutely abhor much of it), but the actual image has always kind of appealed to me in a retro sense. It's almost like fascinating history that raises curiosity and interest because I didn't get the chance to experience it myself when I would have very much liked to. However, even with that said, what in the unholy hell is this mess? It's like wrapping a bar of gold in a used tampon. The only thing missing is the sticker demanding, "HEY! YOU! DON'T BUY THIS!" Imagine Ample Destruction or A Skeptic's Apocalypse with this artwork. What could possibly be the benefit of scaring the target audience of the music with an image that probably emasculated metal fans everywhere and stole the functioning of their ever-scarred eyeballs?

That was basically Lizzy Borden personified, though. With their ridiculously flamboyant image and terrible album art, as well as their confrontational attitude when looking at society, they were basically begging not to be liked. Luckily, if this was their mission, they failed miserably thanks to the fact that the actual music is utterly astounding. Granted, they're still quite an acquired taste. Lizzy himself was probably the biggest love/hate factor the band had, for his helium-addled shrieks and wails put quite a pain in the eardrums of many an unwilling listener. I for one love his vocals to death. His purity of voice (which has persevered to this day) and instantly distinguishable accent never fail to thrill me, as do his high pitched cries and outstanding phrasing. You never forget a Lizzy Borden vocal line. It just doesn't happen, and the lyrics, though somewhat typical and reflective of the time, are made outstanding due to their flair for simplicity and their eternally memorable nature. Themes of rebellion, love, anarchy, and power reign supreme in this vibrant musical setting, one marked by timeless melodies of both the vocal chord and the axe.

Many unsuspecting glam fans lured in by the AIDS-ridden pictorial hook were probably taken aback by the sheer amount of instrumental talent involved here. The group still had its most dynamic duo of guitarists at this point, with both Tony Matuzak and Gene Allen at the helm. In flurries of rollicking NWOBHM riffing, blue collar US power influences, and quick spouts into early speed metal (see "Godiva") these guys pave a complex web of guitar-work that remains accessible and even slightly radio-friendly. The latter factor would become prominent as the band consciously moved into more commercial territories and acquired a crystal-clear production, but that can be traced back to tunes like the excellent "Save Me," whose simple hooks, melodic leads, and swinging chorus instantly engrave themselves into the memory. Look elsewhere to find unforgettable pieces like the galloping "Warfare" and "American Metal." I would deem the latter as one of the best metal anthems ever composed, soaring high and marching triumphantly under the star-spangled banner. Usually I find any song involving the US to be a pandering and ill-advised propaganda campaign, but the passionate delivery, gang-shouted chorus, and piercing vocal summoning all create a spine-chilling serenade to the music we love.

Overall there are just too many highlights to name, like the inspiring balladry of the title track, which never goes stale. I really like the production here, which plays rough for the style but remains clear enough to discern each element in the mix. This was band with a vision to share and to cherish, and a sound strong enough to permeate all the hairspray and makeup and leave a permanent impression in the mind. The sudden leap from their somewhat plain traditional metal beginnings to a true force to be reckoned with can seem quite dumbfounding, but the music here proves to be just as sharp as the blades on the band's legendary logo. Listening to this, it's hard to believe Lizzy Borden would only hone their songcraft further and serve up an even better platter of melodic perfection just two years later. The rest, my friends, is history.

   Overall: 9.25/10 (Outstanding)

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Lizzy Borden - Give 'em the Axe [1984 EP]

Immediately after recording their demo and picking up a deal with the budding Metal Blade Records, the Borden family blitzed the studio to record this scrappy little EP. I always imagine them in full, ludicrous attire, probably falling down drunk, and using that pathetic, little chainsaw from the Menace to Society cover to break off the lock only to find that the door was open all along. Lizzy himself then proceeds to toss out the unfortunate band cowering inside. In this case, it's John Arch and company recording Night on Bröcken, but you know Archie; he typically takes it well, temporarily returns to his work as a lumberjack, and, not being one to waste any storytelling potential, secretly recounts the tale backwards through the course of The Spectre Within. Yeah, it's in there. Trust me. Meanwhile, all the goofing off stops when the 'record' button is pressed...

Okay, so maybe I let my imagination run a bit wild there, but that just about reflects the energy ever apparent in Lizzy Borden recordings. There's a feeling of controlled insanity with these guys in their early output; you know that any minute they could fly off the handle and start burning stuff, and they have the equipment and mental state to do so. However, their unquenchable thirst for destruction isn't so much threatening as it is brought on by their love of fun and partying. This factor would become more evident lyrically on the band's full lengths, but the energy is still present right here on Give 'em the Axe even if their impeccable brand of melodic mastery wasn't quite reined in yet. This follows the path of the demo, featuring the same style of brief tracks with NWOBHM-influenced guitar melodies and Lizzy's always perfect vocal chords. In terms of content, it isn't exactly bursting at the seams, but I was relatively satisfied nonetheless.

The EP begins with the title track, which was destined to become a lead in at concerts with its direct nature and themes involving the band's titular character. The main riff is a bit plain for my tastes, but the song still succeeds thanks to strong performances. Of all their tracks, "Kiss of Death" probably embraces the band's traditional metal influences the most, busting out a riff Iron Maiden could have utilized on Killers. No, it isn't quite as good as the Fates Warning rendition (Archie's revenge!). "No Time to Lose" closes out the original material, which is speedier (and better) than the other songs. The chorus is excellent, easily the catchiest thing here. I've never cared for Lizzy Borden's covers, but "Long Live Rock 'n Roll" entertains thanks to the strength of the source material. I must say that Lizzy's voice doesn't really fit here, though.

Lizzy Borden's non-album releases have never thrilled me (especially the dismal Terror Rising EP), but I'd easily call Give 'em the Axe the best of the few, a worthwhile purchase for NWOBHM loyalists and fanatics of the band's early work as well. It serves more of a purpose as a crucial cog in their natural progression and history than as a highly enjoyable listening experience in my opinion, since this group wouldn't quite arrive until their full length debut, but I can't discredit it for what it was: a nice little taste test for the four course feast to come. It also delivered the first sight of one of the most awesome logos ever forged forth from the lair of self-aware 80s cheese, although (ahem) I prefer its later incarnations of green and yellow or the USA flag's colors. That was the time, though, when the most outlandish victims of style could still possess substance behind them.

   Overall: 7/10 (Good - bullets start to fly)

Lizzy Borden [1983 DEMO]

Lizzy Borden spawned amid the beginning of metal's most important transitory era. The once fervent flames of the NWOBHM were beginning to burn out as most bands were either striving to become more aggressive and technically proficient (resulting in the formation of thrash), or progressing their songwriting to new heights and penning melodic ideas far exceeding the confines presented by metal's 'first wave'. The latter group, during the oft lauded golden period of US power metal, would spawn the Fates Warnings and the Crimson Glorys of the world, and with them would arrive perspective-changing masterpieces like The Spectre Within, Awaken the Guardian, Transcendence, and Hall of the Mountain King.

Then there was Lizzy Borden, who plainly distanced themselves (or himself) from all that psychological stuff and delivered a hot slab of traditional metal riffs, hard rock energy, and showmanship finesse with a seemingly endless supply of charm. I'll save the outright worship for later, since their first two releases (the demo and EP Give 'Em the Axe) aren't exactly exemplary examples of this band's brilliance. However, I can't stress enough how impressive of a release this demo truly is. Released the year of the band's conception, Lizzy Borden already noticeably had it going on. Most of the tracks here would go on to appear on the ensuing EP and the group's incredible full length debut, Love You to Pieces. "Warfare" and "American Metal", two of their most persevering and enchanting anthems, appear here in prototype form with remarkably few changes from the professional versions to come.

Unfortunately, a couple glaring flaws keep this from classic demo status and push it closer to a 'hardcore fans only' type of release. Most notable, of course, is the production. I mean, wow. If Lizzy Borden managed to pen their deal with Metal Blade so quickly purely on the basis of this recording, then I'd like to honor Brian Slagel with a full salute and hug him for the output this pairing would soon produce. The sound is muffled nearly beyond any comprehension, almost as if it was a live bootleg that was recorded by a kid too young to make it into the gig. The lead guitar is almost nonexistent in this stew of ambiguity, and the natural power of Lizzy's pristine shrieks is reduced considerably. For lack of a better word, it just sounds bad. Amateurish, even, which a shame considering the professionalism and obvious talent of the band.

The second (and less significant) caveat is that the band is still in the development stage here, which is more of an interesting flaw than a detrimental one at the demonstration stage. Aside from the aforementioned classics and "Psychopath", these tracks wouldn't quite be up to snuff to appear on any of Lizzy's full-lengths. They were still in their stage of producing almost exclusively three minute songs, treading the line between the mid-pace material of British influence and outright speed metal in the way of Agent Steel or Exciter. Of most interest to fans here will be the two tracks that never saw the light of day on any official release by the band: "Over Your Head" and "Hungry For Her Love", two very brief numbers that put on an electric show of Maiden-esque guitarwork. They reflect the material soon to arrive with the EP, though only the titular "Give 'Em the Axe" would make the cut (ha!) for understandable reasons. Neither is particularly memorable, putting the pedal to the metal put rolling over the ear with little impact.

What we're left with is more of a curiosity than an essential listen. Only the unhealthy Lizzy-heads like yours truly will be able to decode the opaque haziness of the production, and the rewards found after doing so are merely "interesting" at best. Fans of the band's early era will want to experience it for historical significance or the sheer thrill of digging into the vault, but I'd suggest skipping it entirely and combing the glorious treasure trove on the horizon. The commercial potential of the band hadn't quite emerged from the primordial dust at this point, and neither had their more refined songwriting. The power and hunger is there, but it lies buried in sound constraints and youthful roughness. The fog would soon, but not immediately, be lifted...

   Overall: 6.25/10 (Fair)

Friday, June 8, 2012

Blood of Kings [2011 DEMO]

The packaging of the debut demo from Seattle trio Blood of Kings is rather off-putting in the way that it looks like something an alternative group from the 90s might have released. Luckily for us, the old cliche wins out again, as 'don't judge a book by its cover' is quite the moral of the story here. This band is a metallic force, channeling many influences to create a cohesive mix of thrash, speed, and blue collar US power metal. It's grounded in the fundamentals of the aforementioned styles without becoming an anachronism or aspiring to imitate the sound of one particular legend. I hate to milk the old nostalgia cow, but there really aren't enough groups like this anymore, and it's refreshing to know that there's one more band championing the classic heavy metal sound amid a world of numerous European fairy outfits, thrash revivalist clones, and deathcore oven fodder.

At their heart, Blood of Kings thrives with riffs, and there's a hearty feast of them to be had here. The penchant for melody and technical proficiency found in the more traditional guitar parts fondly reminds me of American heavyweights Pharaoh, which can never be a bad thing. However, their hybrid of similar genres more closely resembles the balance struck upon Metal Church's self-titled debut, never quite going with blistering speed while also not settling into the mid-pace. This allows the music and vocals to be versatile and consistently interesting. Extensive stretches of instrumental variation serve to differentiate the song structures, as do a unique duo of vocalists. The more frequent belter bears a gritty but somewhat nasally and high-register voice, while another supplies growled snarls slightly reminiscent of Kreator's Mille Petrozza. All in all, they prove a worthy team, even if I didn't quite find the vocals to live up to the music.

This demo consists of four tracks of considerable length, with each longer than the song before it. They fire right out of the gate with "People of the Light,"  a simple barnstormer that immediately shows the listener what Blood of Kings is all about: furious NWOBHM spirit with just a bit of thrashy vitriol and a flair for rocking fun. "Force Fed" is easily my favorite offering among the contents, once again giving me Pharaoh vibes with a complex opening riff that I'll have a hard time forgetting. The chorus is to die for, slowing down only to pound another gorgeous guitar melody into the depths of your brain. "Heart for the Land" is a galloping and grinding beast that unexpectedly pulls out some Mercyful Fate stylings after its midpoint. Finishing things off is the seven minute "Derailed," which begins simply enough but builds up in speed and intensity as it goes on, becoming a blistering wave of thrash by its sudden conclusion.

If I have one major complaint, it's that after a half dozen listens or so, some of the vocal lines began to grate on my nerves a bit. This is especially prevalent on side B, when the singing becomes less varied. However, this is really only a minimal flaw in the grand scheme of what I'd consider a great release. Blood of Kings have created a (thankfully) well-produced demo which bears mature and compelling songwriting on their first try, one that would best many of the myriad power/thrash metal bands recording their sixth full length as we speak. It succeeds on both a 'work' (serious) and 'play' (party) level, never stroking its own metallic ego or lowering itself to a goofy, banal joke. I'd easily pay full price for a full-length offering of this quality, which the band is apparently working into forging later this year. For now, submit this tape to a deck near you for a killer afternoon.

   Overall: 7.75/10 (Good)

Morbidity - Pits of Eternal Torment [2012 DEMO]

I love the fact that these bands are still releasing demo tapes, still channeling archaic evil in their crude cover arts, and still laying bludgeoning bricks upon the foundation of death metal built so sturdily in the late 80s. With my tastes firmly grounded in the old school of this particular genre, raw production values have always been preferred because they unlock a new power in a release's sound and truly reflect the grim and morbid subject matter at hand. However, sometimes a sound is shrouded so far into obscurity that its roughness can only be detrimental, and that's exactly the problem with Morbidity's first demo, Pits of Eternal Torment. The band has obviously got chops, but the quality here is hampered by the difficulty required to recognize it through the hazy veil of mist.

If it's not already obvious, Bangladesh's Morbidity play old school death metal in its purest form. The riffing strides the same lines as early Death and Autopsy but with a Swedish air for malevolence. This demo (which runs at a mere eleven minutes) doesn't offer a heaping amount of content to go off of, but the goal is relatively simple here: produce short but sweet bursts of speed while supplying the standard gutturals and lyrics of pain and torture. The latter is a particularly strong component of this release, covering familiar ground fluently and compellingly. Sadly, it's all buried in denser fog than one might find on a Mantas rehearsal tape. Each individual instrument is nearly impossible to make out, and sometimes even riffs take a backseat to feedback and distortion. The vocals suffer the most, reducing their force to little more than what sounds like a death 'shout' of sorts.

I hate to criticize a group for circumstances that were probably beyond their control, but the simple fact is that this demo won't provide an entirely satisfactory experience with the hollow production it bears in its current state. Morbidity has plenty of potential, sure; the frenzied drumwork and time-tested style are ample evidence that if this band would enter a studio, they might come away with a full length not far from an average Dark Descent or Hell's Headbangers offering. As it stands with the scant content, amateurish sound quality, and questionable vocals, however, Morbidity isn't quite up to code just yet. Their live cover of Nunslaughter's "Killed by the Cross" indicates that they'd be pretty fun to see in person, though.

   Overall: 6/10 (Fair)

Friday, June 1, 2012

Anhedonist - Netherwards [2012]

Y'know, I think everybody has an Anhedonist experience every once in a while. Netherwards is that album I bought with deaf ears and an unhealthy urge to spend money I didn't really possess after reading only one random positive review on the internet. I waited for it to arrive, got it, listened to it once with only mild interest then put it on the shelf where it would gather dust for roughly one entire month. Then, out of random chance and serious boredom (possibly with some procrastination in there too), I picked it back up only to discover one of the most massive and intensely rewarding musical encounters I'd ever experienced. It's happened before, it'll happen again, and I always freaking love it. So it goes.

Anyways, now that the life story is over, enter Anhedonist, a recently formed death/doom juggernaut. Imagine that movie 127 hours condensed into forty minutes of equal pain, except that you've gotten your arm lodged into a dark underwater cavern and the nightmarish dwellers of said purgatory are tearing you limb from limb, allowing you to live only to suffer. Yeah, it's kind of a downer. In musical terms, it's not so much horribly abrasive as it is devastatingly painstaking. With each crawling, desolate riff, it drains the lifeforce of the listener faster than the band plays its music. People love to throw words like 'atmosphere' around--I've been guilty, sure--but when you're enveloped by these melancholic tomb-like tones, tortured bellows and screams in tow, then you might consider acquiring an extra nightlight. So, book a psychologist in advance and lets get rolling...

Netherwards is made up of just four tracks, thoroughly lumbering through various shades, most of which evoking dark and evil feelings. The simple but effective lyrics obsess upon death and hatred of an elegant nature, never devolving into crude gore lyrics or the standard joys of killing. Interestingly, sorrow plays third fiddle to horror and ancient prose in these parts, directly contradicting the emotionally haunting music itself. However, that's not to say that Anhedonist never dwell upon terror in their auditory summoning. The faster paced bits, most prevalent in opener "Saturnine," wreak exceptional havoc in this way, and I'd be remiss not to mention the paralyzing last two minutes of "Carne Liberatus," which instantly cause the temperature in the room to drop by fifty degrees as V.B.'s woeful moaning depicts a dying giant's return to the bitter soil. Holy hell, excuse me while I get a blanket.

Anhedonist's most successful composition is ironically its only foray into undiluted depression. "Estrangement" is a highlight within a homogeneous concoction of highlights. It's unbelievable. Breathtaking. Building on an almost Warning-like melodic riff (which can never be a bad thing), the sweeping sorrow is immediately evident. It wavers on before reaching an even darker state of misery, searing with leads that rival the archaic antiquity of Septic Flesh's early records. Despite this, it only climaxes halfway through when the vocals break into eerie, bloodcurdling shrieks and the unforgettable chorus proceeds to possess your soul. The band manages to break into a sudden burst of speed whilst remaining depressive, something I've rarely found in doom metal. Once again, V.B.'s vocal hybrid of brute force and emotive lyricism creates an unearthly aura, transforming a simply kick ass song into a spine-chilling masterwork. "CAAASST INTO IMAGINED EXIIILE!" Unforgettable.

And to think that's only one fourth of the material included. Had the entire record been replete with quality of the same ilk as "Estrangement," surely the space-time continuum would have unraveled and I wouldn't be writing this review right now, but I shouldn't take any credit from the rest of the proceedings. "Saturnine" brings the record to life slowly with ripples of water, from which emerges the murky, decrepit initial riff. The song explodes into haste before settling into the pace at which most of the rest of the album moves. "Carne Liberatus" is relatively short and sweet compared to the other tracks, and it also bears the simplest structure apart from the aforementioned lurk that awaits you near its conclusion. Those praying an easy departure from this test of endurance will have to think again, because a staggering fifteen minute beast only known as "Inherent Opprobrium" will have you praying for the dismal end. Of course, I mean this all in the best way possible, though the weak of heart may grow weary of this monolith's relentless doom and gloom.

With this, Netherwards reaches its fatal end, not that my enjoyment of it ever will. Two more elements that only enhanced my adoration for this album are its unexpected level of truly catchy moments and the speed at which it seems to fly by. Seriously, you'd expect such a record to deliver the goods in painfully long increments of time, but in my experience, the treasures of Netherwards are distributed in a continuous flow. Therefore, it never becomes boring for a second. 'Old school' is a classifier I've consciously avoided, since its use always causes a divisive discussion in today's metal scene (which I've frankly grown tired of). Anhedonist does fit into this niche thanks to their suitably raw production values and noticeable influences, yet they offer so much more than another simple tribute to past legends. Components like atmosphere and emotion may be subjective in music, but for what it's worth, this album delivered for me in every conceivable aspect; and for the love of your imaginary deity of choice, at least listen to "Estrangement" just once.

   Overall: 8.75/10 (Great - forfeit the body)

The Foreshadowing - Second World [2012]

Gothic doom metal albums often fall into a safe lull of mediocrity, never really excelling or overtly failing at what they do. The formula is simple: apply simple but effective riffing, a guitar tone that straddles the line between accessible clarity and distortion, some formulaic A-B songwriting, and an "emotional" low-range vocalist (or if you want to get really stereotypical, a male/female vocal hybrid), and you're basically done. The Foreshadowing, a relatively newer group of this sort, isn't exactly reinventing the wheel here with its third offering. However, while Second World features many of the predictable traits listed above, it delivers them with a quality far above the norm and an appropriately otherworldly atmosphere without forgetting to compose some (but not all) great songs in the process. Thus, a must-have for fans of the genre has officially been bestowed upon us.

The most notable point of interest is the excellent sound at play here. Second World depicts its apocalyptic overtones in every forlorn, desperate note. The multi-layered tracks often dwell in a haze of ambiguity, as if the sun is just coming over the horizon and the world is stuck in limbo as the silhouetted figures (zombies? warlords? emaciated survivors?) stare beyond the screen with unseen eyes... okay, so maybe I'm taking the cover art a bit too literally, but it is particularly sweet and does portray the all-consuming mood of the record very well. One is subjected to a well of conflicting emotions here: the dreary sense of loss, the convincing hope that vitality will be restored, the universal fear of death, and the pathos of rage are all explored here in opulent quantities. And who better to explore such realms of thought than the amazing Marco Benevento, whose romantic and moving voice could sell out a stadium for a mere reading of a dictionary? Seriously, this guy would make the album even if the atmosphere didn't.

The one factor that just barely restricts Second World from masterpiece status is the occasionally repetitive and unimaginative songwriting style. Don't get me wrong; there are still plenty of catchy tracks and excellent melodies here, but some more variation could have gone a long way toward letting this one compete with the greatest greats of the genre. With that said, the majority of the record is made up of winners. "Havoc" builds the silkiest verse rhythm of the album right out the starting gate, with Marco's similarly rich voice gliding effortlessly above. The title track delivers a desolate and beautiful musical portrait and one of the best choruses on the album. Of all the tracks, "Ground Zero" has the most classically driven bombast, forging a sound most reflective of classic Gothic metal sounds. It's also memorable as all hell. "Colonies" escalates in tension and emotion, and "Friends of Pain" closes it all out with a dreary, miserable, and slow display of despair.

The only thing really missing from The Forshadowing is a bevy of noticeable emotional highs or lows. Thus, a few of the tracks fail to make much of an impact. All in all, however, Second World succeeds thanks to the excellent vocals and a mystery-provoking atmosphere. Add in highlights like "Ground Zero" or "Colonies" and you've got quite the hit on your hands, easily the best entry of this genre I've yet heard this year. Fans of the style are encouraged to pick it up, but those less tested should probably try it on before buying. This is certainly one to revisit during winter, curled up by the fireplace with a cup of coffee and The Foreshadowing's velveteen music simmering through the air. I'm not sure which element would be the most successful warming agent.

   Overall: 8/10 (Great)