Saturday, February 10, 2018

Album Review: Against the Grain - Cheated Death

Against the Grain has stayed true to their vision of Motor City speed rock but they’ve made some modifications to their sound since their 2009 inception. 2015’s Road Warriors included more slow moments than its two predecessors and signing a deal with Ripple Music is enough to make one wonder if the group’s fourth full-length album will feature more stoner rock exploration. Those musings are realized on Cheated Death, but they aren’t as dramatic as one would think.

At the very least, this album is easily the band’s most melodic to date. As if the polished production job wasn’t noticeable enough, the vocals are much cleaner than before and the songwriting also places greater emphasis on defined hooks and mid-tempo blues than before. There’s still plenty of room for the band’s tried and true speed runs but they seem to have more in common with the likes of Monster Magnet and The Obsessed this time around.

It’d be easy to deem this a trend hopping move, but in reality, it reflects how much the band’s combined influences all have in common with one another. Stoner rock’s most primal roots may be in prog and 70s rock, but it was punk that really fed into its most aggressive, fuzz driven urges. Against the Grain has always been a band that was too metal for punk and too punk for metal, so them not being psychedelic enough to be stoner just makes for another fun little descriptor.

It’s also hard to complain when the songs on Cheated Death are this damned catchy. Songs like “High Heeled Woman” and “Into the Light” are sure to be live staples thanks to the energetic deliveries of their infectious choruses. “Devils and Angels” is also worth noting as its more subdued tempo in conjunction with its raspy vocal puts it somewhere between Clutch and Joe Bonamassa.

If Cheated Death isn’t Against the Grain’s best album, then it’s by far their most accessible. It really feels the band has come into its own between this album and Road Warriors. They offer the same mindless fun as past outings but there’s a noticeable effort to work toward a more unique sound. Hopefully this does prove to be a breakthrough for them; it’d be nice to see them blow some bigger acts offstage.

“Last Chance”
“Devils and Angels”
“High Heeled Woman”
“Into the Light”

Final Grade: B+

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Local Love: Drude - Drude

Originally beginning life as Burn the Army, Drude of Indianapolis, Indiana has a lot more going on than the progressive sludge label would suggest. It’s certainly an accurate tag but the trio’s self-titled debut album has a great deal of variety for only featuring five songs. The dynamic shifts and meditative atmosphere show post metal influence, an occasional classic doom riff will occasionally shake things off before returning to the ether, and the vocals deliver the enlightenment through cannabis lyrics throughout a fair ratio of hardcore shouts and Dopesmoker-style chants.

Going along with that, the group’s musicianship reflects a great deal of chemistry. While the guitar draws the most attention due to its dominance in the mix and powerful tone, the drums deserve a lot of credit for making style transitions seamless with their steady mix of tribal rhythms, speed blasts, and pounding buildups. The bass also has a solid presence and helps support the guitar during the most exploratory segments.

But Drude’s songwriting method is what ultimately helps them stand out among their peers. The tracks take on an almost improvisational style with each one showing off a variety of influences but no discernable structure. Riffs come and go, progressions change with no warning, and the band spends the entire time making you wonder if they were making it up as they went along or if it was meticulously rehearsed down to the finest detail. A lack of recurring motifs can make the songs seem less memorable but the album’s transcendental atmosphere and almost twelve-tone technique make it demand to be experienced in real time.

While Drude’s self-titled album may be a little tough to get into due to not relying on traditional catchiness, the voyaging song structures in conjunction with the band’s impeccable chemistry make it worth exploring. Its thirty-six minute runtime also proves beneficial as the songs flow in a way that never feels overwhelming and offers solid replay time. It’s a good album that I bet this scores even higher when listening to it while really high.


Final Grade: B

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Album Review: Power Trip - Nightmare Logic

It’s been four years since Power Trip released their debut album, Manifest Decimation. Such a gap can be detrimental to the momentum of a growing band but the Dallas group seems to have stayed busy in that time gigging and putting out a few smaller scale releases. It also sounds like they’ve been fine tuning their particular brand of crossover thrash; Nightmare Logic not only proves superior to their debut but is already proving to be one of the strongest thrash albums in recent memory.

While Power Trip’s style is still somewhere between Bay Area thrash, hardcore, and the earliest death metal demos, they demonstrate a great deal of progress on Nightmare Logic. In addition to an endearingly muffled production job that recalls classic Scott Burns, there is a greater emphasis on mid-tempo riffs this time around. While this would raise fears of the band venturing into watered down groove territory, this incorporation helps build up tension on the lengthy intros throughout and make songs like “Waiting Around to Die” even more mosh-friendly.

Going along with that, the songwriting is quite catchy for a band with such grimy production and abrasive vocals. “Executioner’s Tax (Swing of the Axe)” is the best track on here thanks to some good friendly violent fun that’s somewhere between Sepultura’s “Inner Self” and Exodus’s “Toxic Waltz.” The title track and “If Not Us Then Who” also stand out for matching militant deliveries with infectious chugs that recalls The Legacy-era Testament.

Overall, Nightmare Logic sees Power Trip climbing to the top of the modern thrash hierarchy with only the subtlest evolution on display. You’ve heard bands like this before and I’m sure their energy alone would be enough to make them be able to blow anybody else off stage, but the memorable songwriting is what makes them truly stand out in the scene. Nightmare Logic may not be an “important” game changer like any given Vektor album but you’ll have a hell of a time listening to it.

“Executioner’s Tax (Swing of the Axe)”
“Nightmare Logic”
“Waiting Around to Die”
“If Not Us Then Who”

Final Grade: A-

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Album Review: Witherfall - Nocturnes and Requiems

2017 seems to have been a year for posthumous releases in metal. Several established bands like Pagan Altar and Bell Witch have put out albums in which a featured musician died after a recording was finished but before it could be released. It’s not the sort of trend that explicitly “starts” by any means but Witherfall’s debut album was where I sure took notice, as drummer Adam Sagan tragically passed on shortly a couple months before its release. I hate to associate the band with such a tag, since Nocturnes and Requiems is a strong debut by a group of musicians that clearly knew what they were doing.

Considering how Witherfall is masterminded by former White Wizzard vocalist Michael Joseph and current Iced Earth lead guitarist Jake Dreyer, the music on here is more complex and perhaps deeper than those associations would suggest. Comparisons can be immediately made to Nevermore or Control Denied as the crunchy guitar tone allows for a mix of shredding solos and elaborate riffs, the percussion is as lush and flexible as it is hard hitting, and the vocals always retain their melody whether they opt for mid-range bellows or layered falsettos.

These influences also reflect in the often elaborate songwriting. With a majority of the songs reaching over six or seven minute durations, a lot of ground is covered as songs like “Portrait” and “What We Are Dying For” go from chunky speed metal to Opeth-esque acoustic segments and back again without feeling at all haphazard. The exploration is made consistent and even enhanced by the album’s dark tone and conceptual narrative, though I’ll be the first to admit that I have no idea what said narrative is about.

As with many power prog hybrids, the degree of catchiness in the songwriting (or minimal amount thereof) may be this album’s biggest concerns. There’s definitely purpose in the compositions and tracks become distinct with further listens, but tracks like “Sacrifice” can feel a bit long-winded due to the rather hook-free approach. Fortunately there are still plenty of memorable moments with “End of Time” leaving the deepest impression due to the gorgeous acoustic work in the beginning, commanding gallops, and climactic choruses. “The Great Awakening” is also worth noting thanks to some ominously melodic guitar work that could’ve come straight out of the first two Testament albums.

While Witherfall’s debut may take a bit too much absorption time to be seen as an immediate classic, it is a powerful album that’ll no doubt leave a strong impression on fans of prog and power metal. I’m glad that the band has chosen to carry on in the wake of their loss and I think they’ll become a major player once they get more experience under their belt. With the degrees of confidence and control that are already on display here, the sky’s the limit.

“What We Are Dying For”
“The Great Awakening”
“End of Time”

Final Grade: A-

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Album Review: Cardinals Folly - Deranged Pagan Sons

Cardinals Folly seems like a pretty typical Finnish doom metal band on their fourth full-length album. Deranged Pagan Sons is here barely a year after their last album, Holocaust of Ecstasy & Freedom, and offers much of the same occult-friendly traditional doom. As with their previous efforts, Reverend Bizarre emulation is the order of the day with fuzzy-driven riffs, prominently groovy bass, and operatic yet untrained baritone vocals on full display.

However, this album does offer a grittier approach to influence its songwriting. There isn’t anything on here like the black metal undercurrent of Our Cult Continues, but songs like “Dionysian” and the title track show off some Celtic Frost inspiration in the faster tempo breaks in combination with the buzzing guitar tone and the vocals’ frequent growl slippage. Of course, there are tracks like “Three-Bladed Doom” where there is more focus put on good old fashioned Pentagram worship and even a couple where one can hear a bit of Kyuss seeping through.

But like Cardinals Folly’s previous efforts, the songwriting isn’t that memorable. The songs themselves are varied and tracks like “Suicide Commando” and “I Belong in the Woods” put in some strong riff sets during the album’s second half, but the compositions barely miss the mark that would make them classics. Something feels a little off but it’s tricky to tell if it’s a matter of song structures or the musicianship behind them.

Overall, Deranged Pagan Sons is one of Cardinals Folly’s most accessible albums and may even be their best so far but I’m not sure if the band is quite at the point of being a major staple in the doom scene. The style shifts and song variety are enough to keep them from being yet another Reverend Bizarre clone but the less memorable songwriting still makes it difficult for them to stand out on their own terms. I could see this improving with further listens, especially the second half, but it may not have much appeal to anyone but seasoned doomsters.

“Three Bladed-Doom”
“Suicide Commando”
“I Belong in the Woods”
“Secret of the Runes”

Final Grade: C+