Sucker For Punishment: Go big, or GTFO

This past week I was lucky enough to have young Baltimore thrash phenoms Noisem roll through my part of the world, and while I was already an admirer of the band – Agony Defined is the best thrash album of the year – I was curious to see how their intense yet riffy brand of thrash translated live. The poor folks gathered on the floor of the club, they didn’t know what hit them. They arrived early to see Skeletonwitch and the Black Dahlia Murder, and found themselves face to face with a crazed singer who broke the fourth wall in total hardcore fashion, pacing back and forth on the floor, screaming in people’s faces. There’s none of that in metal, that’s a hardcore thing, I thought derisively, but egads did it have an effect. A few startled people drifted away, but more were drawn by the psychotic spectacle and drifted closer to the stage to experience this band’s blistering music head-on. For a 25-minute opening set it was enormously impressive that a band could summon that much energy and rage at 8:00 in front of 30 people, but Noisem did so in convincing fashion. These kids are for real. Sadly there’s no thrash this week that even comes close to the quality of Agony Defined, but there are a few good new releases this week, highlighted by the one album that’s been climbing my year-end list the more I hear it.

This week’s essential album:

Vaura, The Missing (Profound Lore): By now everyone should be well aware of the continuing, strangely symbiotic relationship between black metal and post-punk. Either you love it, or you’re sick to death of it. If you’re of the former opinion, Vaura’s second album will blow you away. Led by singer/guitarist Joshua Strawn (formerly of the excellent and woefully misunderstood goth band Blacklist) and written in collaboration with guitarist Kevin Hufnagel (who’s played on an incredible number of great albums in the last couple years), Vaura finds a remarkable middle ground between the two musical styles and combines them in a way that hasn’t done since the dearly missed Amesoeurs did on their first and only album. And incredibly, there’s no compromise on either side: the black metal passages go big, and the gothic melodies, which Strawn has a real gift for, go big. These aren’t shy, melancholy goth hooks like early Cure; there’s some serious, full-blown, Sisters of Mercy/Simple Minds/Gene Loves Jezebel melodrama going on here. We’re talking high-gloss 1986-’87. Gigantic melodies, which, when mixed with the metallic undercurrent, Strawn’s rich singing voice, and his propensity for provocative lyrics, makes for gloomily majestic crescendos you just want to drown in, as on “Incomplete Burning” and “Mare of the Snake”. Because it’s so black and white, so unabashedly devoted to a less “cool” period of post-punk a lot of listeners might ignore, it could be a challenging listen, but like the best metal bands, Vaura does it big, and that daring grandiosity – right down to the gorgeous art design – makes it an enigmatic yet beguiling experience.

Also out this week:

Astrakhan, The Pillarist (self-released): Western Canada is in the midst of quite a metal boom as of late, especially Vancouver, and Astrakhan is the latest to attract attention. Cut from the same cloth as Kylesa, the foursome serves up a confident combination of sludge, prog, and garage rock on this two-song EP, swaggering and throttling one minute, capable of cool psychedelia the next. A very promising band.  Stream and download (name your price) via Bandcamp.

Brutal Truth/Bastard Noise, Axiom of Post Inhumanity (Relapse): If you want to make a record of nothing but racket, just make sure the racket gives listeners the impression that it’s going somewhere. Otherwise you’re just dicking around. With all respect to Bastard Noise and Brutal Truth, whose stature in extreme music is fully deserved, this unbelievably long split CD is 98% dicking around. “Preemptive Epitaph For the Living” is kind of creepy and cool, but that’s it. If you’re a completist for either band, then go ahead buy it, but if not, don’t be a sucker. It's one of the worst albums of 2013.

Cronian, Erathems (Season Of Mist): The guy from Borknagar teams up with the guy from Vintersorg for a collaboration that should have Viking metal fans salivating, but it turns out to be a compositional mess. Songs feel arbitrarily arranged, unimaginative melodic passages pop in at random moments, with lots and lots of instrumental melodrama and histrionics happening. From the band name, to the artwork, to the music therein, this is utterly, hopelessly forgettable.

Demonical, Darkness Unbound (Metal Blade): We metal writers lit to toss around adjectives like “relentless” and “merciless” willy-nilly, using the words in a positive light, but this is one example where an album is far too relentless for its own good. Severely lacking variety and boasting some truly obnoxious production, the latest by the Swedish death metal band exhausts one’s ears.

Endstille, Kapitulation 2013 (Season Of Mist): When a cover of Sodom’s “Blasphemer” is the only remotely memorable track on your new album, you’ve got a problem.

Epica, Retrospect (Nuclear Blast): It was cool of Epica to stage a lavish, three-hour 10th anniversary concert for their fans, but not surprisingly, as a live album/DVD this is one draining listen. Musically the Dutch band is still very much a work in progress, capable of first-class symphonic metal one minute and agonizingly tedious operatic epics the next, so hearing them plumb the depths of their inconsistent early career gets a bit arduous. Still, when they’re great – yes, Decibel readers, this music can be great – Epica can be tremendous, and tracks like “Unleashed”, “Chasing the Dragon”, and “Storm the Sorrow”, with Simons backed up by a full-blown orchestra, showcase the band at their best.

Exivious, Liminal (Season of Mist): Pretentious, meandering Dutch instrumental prog of the wankeriffic variety that might intrigue technicians but is torturous to the casual listener. With a name like that you’d expect a nod to the old arcade game music, but nope.

Glorior Belli, Gators Rumble, Chaos Unfurls (Agonia): I’m normally not a fan at all of European bands that make obvious attempts at sounding American. We have enough bands over here trying to milk that Southern sound, so why even bother? Just be yourselves. Yet time and again French band Glorior Belli prove to be so good at melding New Orleans-style sludge and black metal, that I find myself begrudgingly making an exception for them time and again. Their fifth album is no different, a furious, entertaining collection of songs that’ll have your head bobbing in no time. Sure, they work that shtick a little too obviously at times (one song references alligators, another crocodiles…pick one, guys), but do so convincingly.

Heart Of A Coward, Severance (Century Media): The second those Meshuggah rip-off riffs kicked in, I was ready to shut this thing off. But the more I let it play, the more I realized the English band brings enough musicality to their brand of deathcore to at least stand slightly above the rest of their sorry-sounding peers. Touches of Deftones creep into the music, they show decent restraint in the aggressive parts, and in the end is a good balance of heavy and melodic. Not too shabby at all.

Lamb Of God, As The Palaces Burn (Razor & Tie): While just falling short of classic status, Lamb of God’s second album remains their best work, one that’s very near and dear to their fans. However, there’s no denying it always sounded a bit odd compared to everything else that came out in 2003, and the reasons why are explained in great detail on the bonus DVD that comes along with this terrific 10th anniversary reissue. Painstakingly restoring and remixing the original tracks, which were severely affected originally transferred from the original hard drive a decade ago, new life has been breathed into this album: drum triggers replaced by Chris Adler’s original recordings, while the guitars and bass have been beefed up significantly. It’s a much more muscular sound – and while the band hates it there’s something to be said about the weird, thinner original mix – but at the same time it doesn’t take away from such Lamb of God masterpieces as “Ruin”, “11th Hour”, and “Vigil”.

Man Must Die, Peace Was Never An Option (Lifeforce): This band’s combination of grindcore vocals, pulverizing Dying Fetus-style death, and melodic death metal always strikes me as disjointed. It’s nimbly performed, but always leaves me feeling the music would be a lot better served if they chose either path instead of both at the same time.

Nocturnal Graves, From The Bloodline Of Cain (Hells Headbangers): The Australians deliver a searing hybrid of thrash, death, and black metal, but it’s all smartly done, mindful of dynamics rather than full-on blasting and shredding non-stop. Consequently, those moments where they do shred – of which there are many – have an even more devastating effect. This is a real gem from Hell’s Headbangers.

Obliteration, Black Death Horizon (Relapse): Here’s the best death metal album of the week. Blasphemous and filthy, yet well arranged and brilliantly paced, with a very strong melodic sensibility underscoring the Norwegian band’s ragged primitivism, which is a bit of a red (pickled) herring in the end. It’s murky, reverb-drenched classicist death metal, bringing absolutely nothing new to the table but showing more passion and vitality than most of their peers do. A fetid pleasure.

Pestilence, Obsideo (Candlelight): You had to think Pestilence’s mediocre 2011 album would be a mere aberration, and that’s indeed the case, as the Dutch death metal veterans have stepped things up considerably on the follow-up. Not only are the songs crisper and surprisingly hooky, but Patrick Mameli brings in small hints of the jazz sound that his band became known for. No, it’s not an opus on the level of Surgical Steel or Colored Sands, but it’s nevertheless a welcome return to form by a respected band..

Satan's Wrath, Aeons Of Satan's Reign (Metal Blade): The Greek band arrived with a fair amount of hype a year ago, but to this day I remain cautious about their music. All the ingredients are appealing – plenty of Venom, Bathory, and Mercyful Fate influences can be spotted, and the cartoonish Satanism is a delight – but just like the last album I keep waiting for the songs to grab me like those three aforementioned bands always did, and that’s just not happening often enough. However, “Only Satan is Lord” and “Die White Witch Die” again hint at the potential of very good things to come.

Valkyrja, The Antagonist's Fire (WTC): Valkyrja’s latest album sneaks in under the radar this week, a far cry from the hype machine of their former Metal Blade, but it’s totally worth looking for, more of the good, straightforward Swedish black metal they excel at.

Vastum, Patricidal Lust (20 Buck Spin): I’m a huge fan of metal bands that actually make an effort to explore lyrical themes that buck convention, and Vastum do just that, delving into sexuality and eroticism in a way that outclasses most ham-handed metal lyricists. The trouble is, we writers, whose job is to assess the music fairly, are always provided with only the music, rarely if ever given the lyrics. So while Patricidal Lust is described as exploring “the anguish and confusion associated with sexual abuse and incest and the blurry area where eroticism and madness vaporize into an unrecognizable fog of horror,” all I can hear is unintelligible death metal grunting and glurping. Musically, this follow-up to 2011’s Carnal Law is excellent, a fairly minimal, almost primitive exploration of the genre with a good balance of melody and murky physicality, but with this band that’s only part of the equation. While I’d like to say the lyrics are provocative and creative, sadly I have no way of knowing. Stream and purchase it via Bandcamp.

Weekend Nachos, Still (Relapse): Hearing an album like this makes you realize just how few hardcore bands there are that create a truly palpable sense of rage in their music. Stylistically Weekend Nachos don’t do anything new at all – the songwriting is actually quite rote – but oh my, does this fourth album ever make a listener want to run through a brick wall.

YOB, Catharsis (Profound Lore): I’m often conflicted about which YOB album is best. I’ve always leaned a little more towards 2005’s The Unreal Never Lived, but Profound Lore’s new reissue of the 2003 breakthrough Catharsis just might have convinced me once and for all. Newly remastered and sounding better than it ever has, Catharsis was the moment Mike Scheidt’s brand of doom took a turn towards the towering and the mystical, a multihued, three-song journey through not only doom, but the blues and Asian themes as well. At times it rivals Sleep’s epochal Dopesmoker, but with much more thought-provoking lyrical themes, and accentuated by Scheidt’s soulful, Hendrixian solos. This album has long been out of print, but not only is it important for metal fans who haven’t heard it to get their hands on it, but longtime fans will love how this classic album has been made even better.

Not metal, but worth hearing:

Wooden Shjips, Back to Land (Thrill Jockey): There’s a lot for metal fans to like in Wooden Shjips, especially those who have a weakness for the more psychedelic side of rock. Musically they’re a cross between the Velvet Underground and Can, the simple, hypnotic yet insistent drum beats coming across as motorik as played by Moe Tucker, and always underscored by a steady drone. That backdrop sets a terrific foundation for some wonderfully lugubrious guitar improvisation, not to mention the hazy, mumbled vocals by Ripley Johnson, which have an unmistakable Michael Karoli vibe to them. If Wooden Shjips have a fault, it’s that they don’t make more of an effort to experiment like the Velvets or Can did 45 years ago, but as complacent as they are to just rehash that kaleidoscopic sound, they do it very well, and it’s fun to get temporarily lost in those warm, fuzzy grooves.

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