Monday, April 11, 2016

Review of Megadeth's Dystopia

Much has already been made of Megadeth's fifteenth studio album, including the parallels that it has to past achievements like the classic Rust In Peace and the surprisingly satisfying Endgame. Like those two efforts, the recruitment of a new lead guitarist and drummer (Angra's Kiko Loureiro and Lamb of God's Chris Adler, respectively) reignites the energy that had been fading from the lineup before it and results in renewed senses of aggression and technicality. Dystopia may be a retread of an established pattern but it does develop a few tropes that had merely been hinted at through Megadeth's long career.

Seeing how Thirteen and Super Collider got their share of flak for moving away from the standard Megadeth sound, it is interesting to note that Dystopia may be the style dialed down even better than Endgame ever did. Not only are the songs more energetic and Dave Mustaine's vocals tougher, but the songwriting makes use of the structural complexity to extents that haven't been seen in some time. This is most evident in the opening songs as the ultra melodic title track crosses the drive of "Hangar 18" with the closing stomp on "Wake Up Dead" and "Fatal Illusion" dances about numerous tempo changes in a way that recalls "Bad Omen."

But what really makes Dystopia stand out is the heightened sense of drama compared to their other recent efforts. Megadeth has always flirted with backing vocals and classical instrumentation but it's never taken on such a cinematic quality. From the Middle Eastern vocals that open "The Threat Is Real" to the climactic vocal lines on "Death From Within" and building swells on "Conquer Or Die," Dystopia showcases theatrics that haven't gotten their chance to shine in quite some time. Props must be given to Loureiro for working in his power metal influences in a way that Marty Friedman or Chris Broderick never pulled off.

Of course, the album still has its share of imperfections. The heightened technical prowess and polished production job do highlight Dave Mustaine's diminishing vocal performance and less commanding energy. In addition, the attempts at rock & roll attitude on "The Emperor" and take on Fear's "Foreign Policy" end up sounding out of place and close the album on a rather underwhelming note.

While Dystopia isn't a perfect album and I may actually prefer Endgame by a hair, it is interesting to see Megadeth once again assume the role of the strongest band left of the original 80s thrash scene. The songs find ways to be memorable and the overall presentation elevates them to a greater level of grandiosity. Considering the trajectories that occurred in the wake of the band's past successes, it'll be interesting and potentially horrifying to see how things evolve from here...

"The Threat Is Real"
"Death From Within"
"Poisonous Shadows"
"Conquer or Die"

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Local Love: Review of Stone Magnum's Holy Blessings to None

Stone Magnum of Michigan City, Indiana has always been able to bring diverse songwriting to their particular brand of Trouble-inspired epic doom metal. Their third full-length album is certainly no exception and showcases even further evolution to their sound. The result is easily their most varied effort so far.

While past efforts, particularly 2013's From Time...To Eternity, proved that the band could pull off differing moods and tempo changes, Holy Blessings To None pushes them even harder and ends up being their most aggressive effort. Much of this can be attributed to the recruitment of drummer Justin Henry; his double bass work makes the fast jumps on songs like the opening "As I Burn Your World to Ash" even more hard hitting and turn the curiously self-titled "Stone Magnum" into a borderline speed metal tune. The vocals also add to the shift as Rick Hernandez brings in a grittier performance with more unhinged operatic moments.

The diversity is welcome but I do find the songwriting doesn't quite have the same impact as their first two albums. The performances are stellar and the changes keep the songs from getting dull, but there aren't as many memorable riffs or vocal lines to stand alongside past tracks like "Fallen Priest" or "By An Omen I Went." Fortunately, greatness can still be found as "The Illusion of Faith" brings the most stirring moods while the title track closes things out in a wickedly plodding fashion.

Overall, Holy Blessings To None hits harder than their past efforts in terms of style but results in a slightly lesser impression. It may take more time to grow on the listener than usual but should be particularly rewarding for those seeking a more energetic approach to epic doom. From Time...To Eternity is still their effort to top but this is a worthy entry.

"Stone Magnum"
"The Illusion of Faith"
"Holy Blessings To None"

Monday, March 14, 2016

Review of Conan's Revengeance

Things have changed quite a bit in the Conan camp since the release of 2014's Blood Eagle. Guitarist/vocalist Jon Davis is the only member left from those sessions as drummer Rich Lewis makes his debut with the UK trio and longtime producer Chris Fielding has come on for bass and backing vocal duties. The resulting studio album stays true to Conan's bludgeoning caveman doom approach but also evaluates some different takes on tempo and vocal dynamics.

When the punk beat kicks in for the opening "Throne Of Fire," it becomes clear that Revengeance will be the band's fastest effort to date. They've always placed the odd upbeat track between the longer drones of amplifier worship, but there's not been much like the driving parts or the borderline black metal blasts on the title track before. Fortunately, the massive guitar and bass chugs keep the various tempo fluctuations consistently weighted.

Faster moments aside, the slower songs remain the most dominant and boast their own variety. While "Wrath Gauntlet" stands out for its sluggish blues rhythm, the second half provides the most earth-shattering cuts. "Every Man Is An Enemy" keeps its activity to a mid-tempo level while "Earthenguard" is a meditative track that recalls classic Om and makes strong use of its near twelve minute running time.

But in a way similar to Mastodon's maturation, the vocal evolution that Revengeance demonstrates is what truly sets it apart from its predecessors. The format is still based on the guitarist and bassist yelling over the riffs but their prominent spot in the mix makes them more articulate than before. In addition, the more fleshed out lyrics make the vocal lines more elaborate than the simple battle slogans and there are more trade-offs between the two singers. I would've loved to hear how previous bassist Phil Coumbe would sound contributing his bellow to this, but there's not much here to complain about.

I may prefer Blood Eagle but Conan's third full-length album will likely leave a deeper impression. Its forays into faster tempos and more prominent vocals work well with their brand of sludgy brutality and may even enhance the ideas behind their barbaric imagery. I don't see them getting as far out there as Mastodon or Baroness, but there is more to their boneheaded formula than meets the eye.

"Every Man Is An Enemy"

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Review of Church of Misery's And Then There Were None

Church of Misery has spent its twenty year lifespan revolving countless lineups around bandleader bassist Tatsu Mikami, but the group usually stuck to its Japanese roots. Now with its sixth full-length album, the Church has opened its doors to create a supergroup of sorts based on the American doom scenes. Thankfully the result is a powerful album that is a worthy addition to the band's serial killer obsessed legacy.

While the production job and musicianship may have more polish than past efforts, And Then There Were None has the band's signature tropes firmly intact. The riffs are executed in a sludgy stoner fashion and the sparse samples run well with the usual lyrical themes of non-fictional sadism, torture, and murder. Mikami's bass lines predictably lead the charge but the other members find ways to leave strong impression. Eric Little's drumming directs the tempo changes well, guitarist Dave Szulkin puts a pummeling stamp on the material, and Scott Carlson's first vocal session since the early days of Repulsion sees him pull off a husky yet melodic growl that channels Lee Dorrian and Earthride's Dave Sherman.

The songs aren't bringing much new to the table but they are satisfying in their variety. The mid-tempo grooves on "Make Them Die Slowly" and "Confessions of an Embittered Soul" are among the most infectious ever recorded and the swing on "Doctor Death" is truly something to behold. Like any doom band, you'll find your share of Sabbath homages as "Suicide Journey" is a "Planet Caravan" style interlude while the shuffle on "River Demon" is a near beat for beat echo of "Wicked World."

The logistics surrounding this lineup may lead to it being a temporary studio venture, but And Then There Were None is more than worthy of being associated with Church of Misery. While it may not be as gritty as some of their other efforts, the excellent riffs and vicious vocals make it a shining example of how this genre should be played. Highly recommended to both new listeners and thoe who thought that Thy Kingdom Scum would be the Church's final sermon.

"The Hell Benders"
"Make Them Die Slowly"
"Doctor Death"
"Confessions Of An Embittered Soul"

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Review of Brimstone Coven's Black Magic

Like many other bands in the 70s inspired occult rock movement, Brimstone Coven's second full-length album works through several different styles. Songs like the opening title track and "The Seers" are led by slow doom riffs, "Beyond The Astral" and "Slow Death" ride classic rock grooves, and "As We Fall" and "The Plague" take trips to more mellow dreamscapes. Everything is unified by a vintage bottom heavy production style and the expectedly diabolical lyrics delivered by vocalist "Big John" Williams.

The variety is welcome and nothing sounds out of place, but it does feel like the elements of each style tend to cancel the others out. The distant production job diminishes some of the impact that the heavier riffs aim for while the looser jams can feel somewhat stilted at times. At first, one may wonder if the band may need to focus more on certain aspects of their sound but it may just come down to a need for more charismatic musicianship.

The title track starts things off in a heavy fashion and the following songs are pleasant enough to listen to, but the second half is where things really get interesting. "Slow Death" is easily the album's biggest highlight as its bluesy Deep Purple swing brings in a great deal of energy and the rhythm section shows off some strong chops during the jams. "The Seers" and "The Eldest Tree" also do a good job of standing out thanks to their more powerful riffs and memorable vocal lines.

A greater sense of conviction would make Brimstone Coven's second full-length album a modern classic but the solid songwriting and their genre's inherent listenability still make it worth checking out. The numerous styles that are presented here give the band a lot to work with and greater potential for even more interesting efforts in the future. In the meantime, Black Magic is a safe listen for fans of all things doom and 70s rock.

"Black Magic"
"Slow Death"
"The Seers"
"The Eldest Tree"

Friday, March 4, 2016

Local Love: Review of Zephaniah's Reforged

Though Reforged is Zephaniah's first album since their 2008 debut, it stays close to the power/thrash metal template that that album had established. The songs are as melodic as they are speedy, the structures avoid convention, and the musicianship provides a great deal of energy and technicality. However, the time between releases has resulted in a more mature effort as the songs are longer, the tone gets darker, and the lyrics seem to take themselves a smidge more seriously.

But while the band members put in stellar performances and every instrument is frequently able to be heard, the production does feel a bit off balance. Cody Johns' nonstop drum attacks provide plenty of power but also feel rather cluttered at times. Logan Detwiler's vocals are more confident than before but he still seems to finding his footing in the grand scheme of thing. Fortunately, the guitar harmonies are the subject of many shining moments and bassist Ian Bender's bass constantly demands attention at a rate not seen in power metal since classic Helloween.

The songwriting also makes up for any flaws in the presentation. After two solid opening tracks, things get interesting as a trilogy of songs based on the Mad Max series comes blazing through. "Mad Max" and "Road Warriors" offer the album's most focal points of thrash influence while "Thunderdome" is a mid-tempo fight song complete with infectious battle chants, dark rhythms, and a couple appropriate samples. From there, "Quest For The Holy Crown" is a righteous nine minute track and "Battle Hymn for the Victorious" fades out on an epic Manowar inspired refrain.

Overall, Zephaniah's sophomore effort makes up for the time since its predecessor by outdoing it in just about every way. While the production feels jumbled, the musicianship and songwriting are impressive enough to make them a noteworthy entry to the modern American power metal scene. Here's hoping their third album doesn't take as long and also manages to shove a tune about FUry Road somewhere in time...

"Mad Max"
"Road Warrior"
"Battle Hymn of the Victorious"

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Local Love: A Look Back at The Gates of Slumber's Suffer No Guilt

For the majority of their career, The Gates of Slumber jumped back and forth between slower than molasses doom and energetic gallop-friendly traditional metal. With the exception of the instrumental interludes and the mid-tempo yet shred friendly “Dweller in The Deep,” a line seems to have been drawn on 2006’s Suffer No Guilt as the songs consist of either droning marches or Maiden-style speed runs.  While the seventy minute run time can make Suffer No Guilt an exhausting listen at times, its open display of the Indianapolis trio’s various influences makes it one of their most satisfying listens.

Though contemplating which tempo is more enjoyable will likely depend on a listener’s individual preference, the faster tracks are the easiest to get into. “Angel of Death” in particular makes for a strong start for the album as its upbeat guitar riff leads into a rough but catchy vocal delivery. However, the album’s most powerful moments come when the drums slow down and rung out chords take over. “God Wills It” may be a demanding listen at twenty minutes long, but the title track’s memorable riff and the majesty on “Riders of Doom” make them impossible to deny.

The band members’ consistent performances also keep the various styles on the album from sounding out of place with one another. The production job is cleaner and Karl Simon’s vocals aren’t as rough as they were on 2004’s …The Awakening, but his guitars have the same power and adhere to bare bones rhythms despite the tempo. In addition, drummer Chris Gordon adjusts to the changes well and bassist Jason McCash justifies the trio format by keeping the rhythms flowing during the solos.

While Suffer No Guilt could probably stand to have a few song lengths edited and an interlude or two taken out, its strong songwriting and tempo dexterity make it one of the The Gates of Slumber’s most definitive achievements. Doom fans are advised to go for The Wretch and traditional metal fans will likely find Hymns of Blood and Thunder more to their liking, but this album does make for a good go between once an overall appreciation for the band has been established.

“Angel of Death”
“Suffer No Guilt”
“Riders Of Doom”
‘Dweller In The Deep”