Sucker For Punishment: Sweven Ways to Win

Three new albums stand out above the rest this week, and what makes it particularly fun is just how completely different from each other they all are. From happy Germans, to grim Swedes, to avant-garde Brooklynites, this week’s Sucker For Punishment has got you covered. Power metal is the one metal subgenre that’s the most difficult to perfect. You have to create just the right balance of hooks, charisma, and energy, and there are so many factors these jugglers have to keep in the air that once one drops, the music can come across as overwrought, shallow, or worse, cartoonish. The interesting thing about Germany’s Freedom Call, though, is how consistent they’ve been over the years, yet never are the recipients of the kind of accolades other power metal bands receive. They’ve been on a particularly strong run in recent years, 2012’s Land of the Crimson Dawn a delightful, enormously catchy record.

Wait, delightful? Absolutely. What separates this band from their peers is their overt reliance on the major key, which lends the songs an overwhelmingly positive vibe, so much so that it comes as a shock to those more accustomed to the more morbid side of heavy metal. And do they ever flaunt this self-described “happy metal”. Freedom Call albums are fun. Their shows are joyous, where you can’t help but drop your inhibitions and smile, for crying out loud.

Led by singer/guitarist Chris Bay, the foursome’s eighth album Beyond (SPV) finds them in prime form, the record absolutely crammed with shamelessly hooky choruses and swift tempos that hearken back to the glory days 27 years ago when Helloween was a great band. 14 tracks is a lot for any listener to take in, and it’s rare to come across a power metal album that can sustain such momentum over a running time of an hour, but does Beyond ever deliver. It is relentless. “Union of the Strong”, “Come on Home”, “Among the Shadows”, “Journey Into Wonderland”, “Follow Your Heart” merrily alternate from gallops to speed metal paces, laden with gloriously cheesy horn synths and lines specifically catering to big, drunken sing-alongs. All the while Bay sells the hell out of pure fantastical gibberish that reads like a power metal version of the nonsensical pizza box poetry of Mastodon and Matt Pike: “Stand tall and believe in the light of the day / When shadows appear and ghosts walk the land.” Metal’s not always about negativity, and as freedom Call prove time and again, it never hurts for a grim metal fan to step out into the sun, smile, and enjoy life for a little while.

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From shameless happy metal to a band with the gall to name itself after Crohn’s disease, Sweden’s Morbus Chron releases their second album, the Middle English titled Sweven (Century Media) this week to much fanfare, and I’ve been trying to pin down what makes this death metal album so unique. It’s ferocious, but in a sinewy way rather than robust, riffs bending melodies in an almost playful way, songs undulating in an elastic way that’s so alien to ultra-rigid death metal. And then it hit me: these guys are doing exactly what In Solitude did on their 2013 masterpiece Sister, simply eliminating the bulk of distortion, adopting more of a 1970s sense of minimalism and sticking that into a death metal context. It’s a monumental improvement over 2012's comparatively bland Sleepers in the Rift, and the overall effect is like Virgin Killer with blastbeats. It sounds gimmicky, and there is definitely an air of novelty to this album, but the stripped down approach clears room for a lot more dynamic range, which the band executes in stunning fashion on “It Stretches in the Hollow”, veering away from straight up death shtick into purely melodic progressive rock, which comes into full bloom on the gorgeous closing instrumental “Terminus”. In addition, there’s so much room for Robert Andersson to really stretch out his tortured vocal delivery and make it sound as unique as possible. It’s so interesting how a simple tweak in production style can transform a band, but just like on Sister, it has worked wonders for Morbus Chron, and this album is a revelation.

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Death metal, prog, and minimalism is one thing, but Brooklyn’s Psalm Zero offer a hybrid sound that’s completely different, a lot more challenging to absorb, but ultimately proves to be very rewarding in the end. A collaboration between avant-garde musician Charlie Looker and Castevet’s Andrew Hock, The Drain (Profound Lore) sees the duo striving to find middle ground between the pulverizing, martial sounds of Godflesh and the melancholy strains of Katatonia. And I should probably recommend you read my full review in the March issue of Decibel for more details, but the fact of the matter is I wholeheartedly endorse this record, which starts off sounding a little uncertain before coalescing beautifully. Listen and purchase via Bandcamp.

Also out this week:

Acheron, Kult des Hasses (Listenable): Never exactly an upper-tier band, these guys have nevertheless been churning out music for more than 20 years now, and their latest serves up more of the same blue-collar death metal. What makes this record a little different, however, his how comfortably catchy it is. They don’t try anything bold, only focusing on creating songs that are as throttling as they are engaging, and the end result is a surprising blend of power and melody. No, it’s not album of the year material, but for a fix of straightforward American death, you can’t go wrong with this one. Check out a preview of the album, posted by fellow Deciblogger Jeff Treppel yesterday:

Bigelf, Into The Maelstrom (InsideOut): Has it really been six years since the last Bigelf album? Either way, the LA psychedelic rockers are back in splendid form on album number four, their hazy heavy rock jams once again adorned with a cool glam rock veneer, like Ziggy Stardust sitting in with, oh, let’s say Pentagram and Badfinger. This time around, though, quality of the songs is very strong as Bigelf has loads of fun with their stubbornly retro sounds. The dreamy “Mr. Harry McQuahe” is a particularly noteworthy surprise, highlighting a record that, had it been on Rise Above – where they’d be a perfect fit – would have people clamoring for overpriced vinyl. As it stands, this is one album fans of psych/stoner/prog should not miss out on.

Carnifex, Die Without Hope (Nuclear Blast): You know the drill, this is as boring as the Black Dahlia Murder. The band, not the actual murder. The murder is actually a fascinating story. And James Ellroy wrote one hell of a neo-noir novel based on it. Though Brian DePalma's film adaptation of it was atrocious. As atrocious as this Carnifex album, it so happens.

Ektomorf, Retribution (AFM): Another overwrought attempt by the Hungarian band to relive mid-‘90s groove metal. Lots of Cavalera rip-offs, Jamey Jasta-level empowerment shtick, lots of “fuck you”s, a few sensitive-guy choruses, an acoustic Staind-style ballad, and a whole helluvalotta boredom over the course of a seemingly interminable parade of 14 songs.

Mount Salem, Endless (Metal Blade): After the Chicago band released their demo last year to surprising success, Metal Blade wasted no time in signing them. And rightfully so, as Mount Salem pull off the doomy, occult rock sound well. Led by singer/organist Emily Kopplin, whose style echoes the clarity of Jex Thoth, tremendous promise is shown on this new reissue of said demo, which includes a pair of new songs and a revamped track listing. It’s far too soon to tout this band as the next big thing, but this is a very enticing first effort thanks to such standouts as “The Tower” and “Hysteria”, and they’re definitely a band to keep your eyes on in the coming year.

Nothing, Guilty Of Everything (Relapse): The first question that springs to mind upon hearing this album is, “Why is this band on Relapse and not 4AD?” And then you realize, “Wait, 4AD and Creation already put this stuff out 25 years ago.” Unfortunately, not only is the Philly band slavishly mimicking the layers of guitars and dreamy singing made famous by Ride and My Bloody Valentine, but they’re doing so with far less imagination than those shoegaze progenitors. It’s nice, but this is imitation instead of homage, and compared to more creative shoegaze revivalists like Ringo Deathstarr, this rings far too hollow to give two licks about. And for goodness’ sake, make sure you know Loveless and Nowhere inside-out before heaping praise on this record. Listen and purchase via Bandcamp.

Therion, Theli (Deluxe Edition): Heavy metal and classical music have often complemented each other very well, from Deep Purple to Yngwie Malmsteen, but Therion’s 1996 album was a game-changer. Instead of using classical elements as window dressing – as several Scandinavian bands were doing at the time – Christofer Johnsson decided to go full-bore into classical composing and arranging, emerging with a strange hybrid sound on Theli that combined the more progressive side of extreme metal with Wagnerian bombast. Not only would it play a major role in establishing symphonic metal as a legitimate subgenre – countless bands would follow the path Johnsson forged – but Theli would go on to be Therion’s best known album thanks to the strength of such songs as the maniacal “To Mega Therion”, the Middle Eastern themed “In the Desert of Set”, the gothic “Nightside of Eden”, and the brilliantly simple and incessantly catchy “Cults of the Shadows”. Therion’s outlandishness might not be “cool” enough for many metal folks on this side of the Atlantic, but their influence on metal in the 1990s was undeniable, and it’s great to revisit this classic album on this deluxe expanded reissue, which includes three bonus tracks and a live DVD.

Wild Throne, Blood Maker (Brutal Panda): The Bellingham, Washington band formerly of the loathsome name Dog Shredder has blandly renamed itself Wild Throne, but no matter how awful or forgettable the band name, this trio is capable of an exciting hybrid of metal, rock, and hardcore. In fact, this three-song EP is the best work I’ve ever heard from them, very intense yet accessible songs that hint at crossover appeal, from the Interpol-style vocal melodies of “The Wrecking Ball Unchained” to the Dillinger-copping intensity of “Shadow Deserts”. Preview on Bandcamp.

Wolves Like Us, Black Soul Choir (Prosthetic): Just as much as American metal/postpunk/indie crossover darlings Coliseum are revered, Norway’s Wolves Like Us are ignored, despite doing exactly the same thing, and just as well. Blending robust, metallic riffs and drumming with the churning, lurching grooves of the great Drive Like Jehu, it sounds immense yet always makes sure there’s plenty of room for the singing to carry the song, and this new album delivers on all fronts. If there’s a bone to pick, it’s that it’s not quite as hooky as 2011’s excellent Late Love, and “Lovescared” is an unfortunate yarl-ballad, but that one mis-step doesn’t ruin an otherwise strong follow-up. Listen and purchase via Bandcamp.

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