I don’t issue perfect scores to new albums very often. As Craig Hayes so eloquently wrote a couple weeks ago, positivity and over-praise is a plague in metal criticism, so much so that some publications so constantly hover in the 7 to 10-out-of-10 that a 6 is a negative rating. Ratings, to be honest, are so arbitrary, and I’ll actually let you in on a little secret of mine: whenever I have to issue a rating for Decibel magazine or any other outlet I write for, I always deduct one point from what I instinctively think it should be, because in the long run that’s eventually how I’ll feel about the record after the initial wave of enthusiasm has worn off. The TEN, however, is a rating I only reserve for something I deem to be a classic, an essential album that represents the pinnacle of an artist’s career and exemplifies the very best of whatever genre it represents. I last gave a ten to Mastodon’s Blood Mountain in 2006, and I’ll readily admit now I jumped the gun there. It’s a great album, but more of an eight. There are so many albums coming out every year, so much mediocrity and so little true excellence, that I simply could not envision many metal albums at all, if any, from the last eight years that qualify as a “classic”. Lots of very good, a few truly excellent, but nothing earth-shattering, if anything a reflection of the period of stasis the genre is in right now.
That said, the worm seems to be turning. Sure, the ratio of “must buy” new albums and the rest of the lot is still miniscule, hovering around one out of every 20, but the standouts in the first half of 2014 have been exceptional. And lo and behold, this week sees the release of an album I confidently feel is a perfect ten.
After Celtic Frost’s astonishing final album Monotheist in 2006, my reaction to Eparistera Daimones, the debut album by Thomas Fischer’s new band Triptykon was more measured than a lit of critics. I was thoroughly impressed but not enraptured, the album feeling like the man was still trying to get used to his new role, even though musically Triptykon is basically an extension of the Monotheist sound. The haunting and dynamic “Shatter” from 2012, however, really hammered home what this band could be capable of, and in my mind restored hope that this band could knock the next album into the stratosphere.
Nothing has changed in Fischer’s approach on Melana Chasmata, only that the execution is sublime, powerful, and dare I say, immaculate. More than anything, this album is a perfect encapsulation of all musical strengths in Fischer’s arsenal: doom, death, thrash, and gothic, four of the many styles of extreme metal he had an enormous impact on. “Tree of Suffocating Souls” and “Breathing” are examples of Fischer at his most outwardly brutal. The expansive trio of “Auroræ”, “Demon Pact”, and “In The Sleep Of Death” form a stunning centerpiece as the music becomes less pulverizing and claustrophobic, while “Boleskine House” ranks as one of the most sublime pieces he has ever written, in which ugliness and beauty interweave in sultry fashion, his ragged singing juxtaposed with a soothing woman’s voice in Leonard Cohen-esque fashion. It’s foul, it’s beautiful, it’s colossal, it’s seductive. And it’s perfect.
Also out this week:
Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell, Check 'Em Before You Wreck 'Em (Rise Above): These English heavy rockers blew me away a couple years ago with Don’t Heat It…Fear It!, and the follow-up confidently continues the ferocious, Budgie-meets-Sir Lord Baltimore momentum of that record. This is no mere aping of circa-1973 heavy rock either; these guys know how to write engaging songs, and this album not only scratches that retro itch that only Rise Above can deliver, but there’s genuine nuance on these tracks, not to mention an enormous sense of fun on such standouts as “Do It Now”, “Shaker Your Head”, and “The Thicker the Better”.
Black Sabbath, The Complete Studio Albums (1970-1978) (Rhino): There’s essential, and there’s mandatory. If you do not own these albums, then check your metal cred at the door. However, it’s better late than never, and it’s great to see these remastered Black Box reissues repackaged into a much more affordable package. Sure, two albums are, erm, less than consistent, but the other six contain some of the greatest music ever recorded.
Gamma Ray, Empire Of The Undead (Armoury): I’ve been spouting the same complaint about Gamma Ray for years and years: Kai Hansen is one of the best songwriters power metal has ever seen – the man is responsible for Helloween’s seminal work after all – but as a singer he is poorly suited, with a voice far too thin for a style that demands power and charisma. With a Michael Kiske or Ralf Scheepers singing his material, it sounds fantastic, but since 1995 Hansen has led the way, and Gamma Ray’s music has suffered all the while. Still, they remain inexplicably popular, and at the very least this 11th album is the band’s most consistent in years. So if you don’t mind hearing Hansen struggle his way through an otherwise rampaging song like “Hellbent”, then please, by all means enjoy.
Hedvig Mollestad Trio, Enfant Terrible (Rune Grammofon): I was a big fan of this Norwegian band’s combination of Melvins-style grooves, shredding, and jazz on the 2011 debut Shoot!, and this follow-up to last year’s All of Them Witches is their best effort yet, thanks in large part to a dirtier tone and slightly more aggressive approach. While technical death metal bands elicit the “jazzy”, this is one album that truly understands that aspect of music, feeling meditative and experimental, rocking out all the while.
Impetuous Ritual, Unholy Congregation Of Hypocritical Ambivalence (Profound Lore): This project might not want to be compared to Portal, but seeing how it features current and former members of the band and plays pretty much the exact same style of death metal as Portal, they’re going to get the comparison no matter what. And no question, Impetuous Ritual is dearly missing the enigmatic quality of Portal, but musically this is still staggering stuff, the kind of suffocating, claustrophobic death metal that leaves you gasping for air. The pace on this album is relentless.
The Oath, The Oath (Rise Above): It’s easy to instinctively dismiss The Oath as just another band jumping on the retro bandwagon, but give singer Johanna Sadonis and guitarist Linnea Olsson, in relatively short time they’ve created something distinct. The music, which straddles hard rock and classic heavy metal is more lean than robust, allowing room for Sadonis to step to the forefront as a frontwoman. Compared to other women singers, whose approach is often more detached in this form of music, Sadonis’s approach is far more alluring, which works brilliantly on songs like “Night Child”, “Leaving Together”, and the outstanding “Psalm 7”. Meanwhile, Olsson proves her mettle on “Black Rainbow”, which owes a great deal to early Mercyful Fate. From the very start The Oath has had a distinct persona and sound, and this debut arrives fully formed and confident, a real bright spot for metal in early 2014.
Thantifaxath, Sacred Noise (Dark Descent): Give these Canadians credit, they can create a kind of black metal sound that nobody’s really heard before. Note patterns twist and bend reminiscent of Frank Zappa and King Crimson, and “The Bright White Nothing at the End of the Tunnel” it’s absolutely jaw-dropping. The anonymous, hooded cloak-wearing trio still has plenty of work to do, as this debut album too often relies on rote black metal sounds, leaving listeners hungry for more music as adventurous as that one track, but this is nevertheless a strong start.
Tuomas Holopainen, The Life And Times Of Scrooge (Nuclear Blast): Good for the Nightwish main man for doing a project he feels passionate about, but if he and Nuclear Blast expect people to be as interested in Scrooge McDuck as he is, they’re deluded. As for the music, it offers nothing that will appeal to Nightwish fans, only orchestral arrangements as overwrought as a Michal Kamen film score.