Sucker For Punishment: Grand and Morbid

Anguish, Mountain (Dark Descent): What I get most out of the second full-length by the Swedish doom band, aside from the lovably goofy cover and the simple yet enjoyable music therein, is just how well vocalist J. Dee enunciates. It’s a lost art, especially in extreme metal, and even though the lyrics are your usual mystical gobbledygook, it’s nice to understand a harsh vocalist for once. Bloodbath, Grand Morbid Funeral (Peaceville): I used to always wonder why so many people got so excited for Bloodbath when founding members Anders Nystrom and Jonas Renkse created infinitely better music when working under the Katatonia banner. Granted, comparing the sleek, melancholy gothic doom of Katatonia to the ferocious Swedish death metal of Bloodbath is like comparing apples and oranges, but from my own perspective, why get excited for cheap PBR when you have a classy Trappist beer as an option? But you know what? Sometimes PBR goes down beautifully and can scratch an itch that a Trappist just can’t reach, and compared to present-day Katatonia, which seems lost in its increasingly mellow musical direction, the simplicity of Bloodbath hits the spot in 2014. A lot of the credit goes to Nick Holmes of Paradise Lost, who assumes the role previously held by Mikael Åkerfeldt, and shines as the new frontman, charismatically delivering some phenomenal death growls atop some typically raging and rampaging arrangements. In the end, it’s the songwriting of this supergroup that makes this album such a blast, striking a fine balance between hookiness and brutality that only the old masters of the sound can pull off.

Brant Bjork and the Low Desert Punk Band, Black Power Flower (Napalm): What is it about Brant Bjork’s albums that make them so much more likeable than anything by his former Kyuss bandmates? The total lack of pretension? The faithful adherence to that classic desert rock sound? The celebration of musical simplicity? Either way, his solo efforts are always a great pleasure, and this new project – I have no clue who is in the Low Desert Punk Band – is guaranteed to put a smile on the face of anyone who was underwhelmed by that Vista Chino record last year. Anyone who can write a song called “Boogie Woogie on Your Brain” and pull it off convincingly is all right by me.

Burial Hex, The Hierophant (Handmade Birds): The latest by multi-instrumentalist Clay Ruby is a typically spellbinding collection of brooding pieces, this time an eerie yet flat-out beautiful amalgamation of gothic post-punk, krautrock, and dark ambient, experimental in nature yet always rooted in structure, or at least just enough to challenge but never alienate the listener. It might not qualify as “metal” by metal’s traditional standards, but it achieves its grandiose power through extremity nevertheless, and the way it conveys sorrow, anguish, and devastation will appeal to anyone interested in extreme/experimental music in all forms. Purchase the album here.

The Deathtrip, Deep Drone Master (Svart): The new project featuring Aldrahn from Dødheimsgard and Zyklon B boasts that it’s derived from the same avant-garde   minimalist black metal as Thorns – this album was mixed by Snorre Ruch, too – and while that is indeed the case, in no way does it measure up to the work of that band, nor that of Dødheimsgard either. There are some moments that grab you, namely the ones that ditch the speed for simpler, mid-paced tempos, which allow room for Aldrahn’s tremendous vocal inflections, but too much of this album sags to warrant a full recommendation.

Dire Omen, Wrestling the Revelation of Futility (Dark Descent): Rote black/death metal by this Canadian band, stifled by terrible production and made pointless by unimaginative riffs and the usual incomprehensible, gurgling vocals. There’s nothing wrong with being incomprehensible if there’s personality in the music, but that just isn’t happening here at all.

In This Moment, Black Widow (Atlantic): Kudos to this band for capitalizing on a formula that – bafflingly – sells, but the cold hard fact remains that In This Moment’s continuing pandering to the lowest common denominator is one of the saddest things I’ve seen in this business. They used to be a good little band, and although this awful music charts well, it’s all such a waste of their talent.

Monster Magnet, Milking The Stars (Napalm): This is actually a very clever idea by Dave Wyndorf and his band, as they’ve taken the very good 2013 album Last Patrol and completely lre-imagined it all, tweaking songs here and there, adding some new ones, and tossing in a few live tracks as well. This time around the ‘60s psychedelic angle is played to the hilt, which adds a fresh new dimension to the material. This is one rare case where the tired re-recorded album gimmick has yielded something creative and vibrant. Fans of the band, and psychedelic rock for that matter, will love this.

Old Man Gloom, The Ape of God (Profound Lore): There’s been a lot of capital-D dumb in 2014, from sun wheels, to accidental overdoses, to 11 friggin’ grams of meth (get well, Wino!), and for a few minutes the stunt Old Man Gloom pulled with regards to the advance review version of the new album The Ape of God felt like the proverbial last straw. I’d been thoroughly digging what I was hearing, but when the band revealed that the promo was merely a fake in order to hoodwink writers and weed out leakers, I didn’t appreciate being jerked around and having my precious time wasted by a bunch of smug musicians who think they’re being funny. Besides, Profound Lore uses Haulix, nearly all metal labels use Haulix, and with that promo platform a band or label can easily track down the person responsible for an album leak. The “fake promo” idea might have been clever a decade ago, but not in 2014.

In actuality, The Ape of God, even more confusingly, is two separate albums of the same name, and the only way to tell the two apart is by the back cover art and the gatefold color schemes, one yellow, one green. And when all is said and done, in the end these boys, led by Isis/Hydra Head honcho Aaron Turner, have done a great thing in providing not one, but two quality exercises in the noisier, more dissonant side of sludge metal. The yellow Ape of God I – as iTunes categorizes it – is the more direct of the two, and the most immediately appealing, as tracks like “Fist of Fury” and “The Lash” focus more on aggression and speed. Meanwhile, the green Ape of God II is much slower paced, consisting of only four tracks, three going well past the ten-minute mark, and ultimately it’s this album that’s the most rewarding as the band tinkers with dynamics a lot more, employing even more drones and feedback to offset the moments of crusty, distorted fury. “A Hideous Nightmare Lie Upon the World” has a tremendous Harvey Milk feel to it, benefitting immensely from Kurt Ballou’s trademark tone. As for that “fake” version, it’s merely The Ape of God in edited form, featuring some complete tracks, some excerpts, and perhaps a couple alternate versions, and actually gives critics a very good idea of what these two records are all about. But trust me, the real thing is totally worth your time. Check out both via Bandcamp: Volume I is here, and Volume II is here.

Owl, The Last Walk (Zeitgeister): I was fascinated by Owl’s Into the Absolute, which came out back in May, and now the German band has retuned with another EP, this time in the form of a single 25-minute composition. Like the previous release, the unpredictability of the music is half the fun, this time veering between ambient drone and melancholic, early-‘90s British gothic doom, all done with admirable skill.

Satan, Trail of Fire: Live in North America (Listenable): This live document of Satan’s triumphant return in 2013 is energetic enough, and the band’s classic NWOBHM material remains fantastic, but the sound quality is terrible for a live album. You can hear better audio on YouTube video clips.

Sonata Arctica, Ecliptica Revisited: 15th Anniversary Edition (Nuclear Blast): This re-recording of Sonata Arctica’s classic debut album would be utterly pointless if it didn’t sound so damn good. The boys revisited their old material for fun, and prove they can still pull it off brilliantly. It’s not an essential album, but a neat little exercise, so good for them for rediscovering that classic sound their fans love so much.

Soulburn, The Suffocating Darkness (Century Media): Created by a couple of former members of Asphyx, Soulburn tosses in a strong black metal element into the death/doom hybrid folks might expect. It’s clear the guys are going for somethnig more along the Bathory/Celtic Frost vein, but despite sporadically coming up with engaging moments, there’s little here that even comes close to even stand in the shadow of those two formidable bands. It’s not bad, but not special, either.

Thanatos, Global Purification (Century Media): The Greek deathy-thrashers (or thrashy-deathers?) are back with their first new album in five years, and it’s exactly how you’d expect a thrash album with death inclinations to sound. Why do these bands even bother? Don’t you want to sound unique? Do you have any personality to put into your music?

Threshold, For The Journey (Nuclear Blast): My main complaint with Threshold is always that the UK prog band’s music can feel a little sterile after a while, but there’s something about this tenth album that connects a lot more than 2012’s painfully long March of Progress ever did. The melodies feel warmer, the running time is much more tolerable, and songs like “Watchtower on the Moon” and “The Box” work in their nerdily proggy way, Damian Wilson’s singing sounding arch yet soulful at the same time.

While Heaven Wept, Suspended At Aphelion (Nuclear Blast): The criminally underrated Virginia band doesn’t attract the kind of American press it deserves primarily because the music they play is so unrepentantly nerdy, too nerdy for many Stateside tastemakers. But for those with a serious jones for some European flair, some prog/power flamboyance in their doom metal, you can’t go wrong with this fifth album. Moving gracefully from piano balladry, to some gliding Sonata Arctica-style speed metal, to the mournful melodic doom they’ve excelled at from the get-go, it skillfully avoids both schmaltz and overindulgence, always knowing when to say when, a surprisingly classy record.

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