Thursday, October 30, 2014

Review of Electric Wizard's Time to Die

Electric Wizard never really had a true fall from grace, but their first album in four years isn't quite the kick in the pants it was supposed to be. The band switched from Rise Above Records to Spinefarm and brought original drummer Mark Greening back in the fold, but recent disputes with Rise Above and Greening have soured this release's presentation. Fortunately, they still got a decent album out despite the unflattering aftershocks.

After a good decade of psychedelic flirtations, Time To Die sees Electric Wizard going out of their way to recapture the old Dopethrone vibe. The mix is dark and bottom heavy, the riffing is rougher, a healthy number of samples are placed throughout, and the lyrics abandon the Hammer horror in favor or a pseudo-concept revolving around the crimes committed by Ricky Lasso during the mid-80s Satanic panic. Of course, the band doesn't quite shed of their more upbeat approach as songs like "Funeral Of Your Mind" and "Sadiowitch" offer more straightforward playing and don't quite have the same misanthropic flairs. They even throw in some keyboards though they're used more for backing than anything else.
And while Electric Wizard has always been known for repetition and occasional riff recycling, they've reached the point where it's starting to work against them. The songs here all sound good but they get brought down by sounding too much like previous highlights. The chord progression on the title track feels like a bluesy update of "Funeralopolis," the drawn out chords on "I Am Nothing" recall "Eko Eko Azarak," and the Black Masses regurgitating gets really distracting on "Sadiowitch." Fortunately, "We Love The Dead" has some solid riffs to it and the two sample heavy interludes manage to sound pretty cool with "Saturn Dethroned" ending with the same sample that opened "Vinum Sabbthi."

Electric Wizard definitely hasn't hit rock bottom but Time To Die shows that they may need to evaluate their approach if they wish to stay relevant in the doom metal scene. Any fanboy's disappointments will likely have more to do with Greening getting the shaft than the musical content, but anyone else would be better off looking into Dopethrone or even Witchcult Today before this one. Maybe they could try bringing Tim Bagshaw back for the next one...

"Time To Die"
"I Am Nothing"
"Funeral Of Your Mind"
"We Love The Dead"

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Review of Rigor Mortis's Slaves To The Grave

As lame as it sounds, it's a miracle that Rigor Mortis's first album in twenty-three years managed to see the light of day. The band's original lineup reunited in the mid-2000s and even got a spot on the 2008 Ozzfest, all the while teasing a comeback that wouldn't be fully realized for a few more years. From there, the story is tragically familiar as guitarist Mike Scaccia died shortly after completing this album and the band had to crowd fund to guarantee its release. Thankfully, the actual music is as far from a sob story as one can possibly get.

With the possible exceptions of Slayer or Hirax, no thrash band has stayed closer to their roots than Rigor Mortis. This album isn't quite as raw as past efforts but many of the band's signature elements are still intact after all this time. The guitar still leads the way with some of Scaccia's most intense playing, the bass keeps a steady foundation, the drums are at a constant burst, the vocals are gruff, the production is dry, and there isn't a single groove in sight.

But upon further inspection, the atmosphere has definitely moved away from the campy aesthetics of the older material. The lyrics are as violent as ever but they have less of a slasher film tone and generally opt for war, fantasy, and more "realistic" looks at the homicidal mind. The music matches the lyrics with its darker feel though some songs have a more dramatic flair that was previously untouched. "Poltergeist" starts things off with three minutes of thrash followed by a elaborately melodic closing segment, "The Infected" opens with some bouncy Maiden gallops, and the closing "Ludus Magnus" is the nine minute gladiator epic that Manowar should've put out decades ago...
Thankfully the superior musicianship is still in tact though the dynamic may be a little off balance. While Scaccia has always been the star of the show, it seems to be at the expense of Casey Orr as the bass is present but doesn't have the same overwhelming pop and his punk rock shouts are never used for more than occasional backing. Fortunately, none of the musicians are slacking and Bruce Corbitt's vocals are still pretty twisted even if his voice has gotten deeper over the years.

A few elements of the classic era are missed, but Slaves To The Grave stays true to the band's sound and may be one of the best representatives of old school thrash in the modern age. It's a damn shame that they've had to split up with Scaccia gone as this seemed to hint at something even better on the horizon. But since the surviving members have regrouped under the Wizards of Gore moniker, perhaps they could still make due on some of that potential.

"Flesh for Flies"
"The Infected"
"Ancient Horror"
"Ludus Magnus"

Friday, October 17, 2014

A Look Back at Rigor Mortis's Self-Titled Debut

Rigor Mortis may have had a secure reputation as the champions of Texas thrash (Suck it, Pantera) but they never truly got their due back in the day. They never could've been a commercial juggernaut but their signing to Capitol Records and having members go on to join Ministry and GWAR has to say something about their talent. Their 1988 debut is the center-point of their legacy and one of the most unique albums in the thrash metal genre.

Hindsight may place this effort in the thrash realm, but it came pretty damn close to death metal when it was first released. The drums are more violent than their contemporaries, the guitars more relentless, the vocals somewhere between a deep crossover yell and a high-pitched death growl, and the raw production gives everything a sharp sandpaper taste. It's comparable to Scream Bloody Gore or Seven Churches, but still has kinship with what Exodus and Kreator had been doing a couple years before.

They must've been taking cues from Alice Cooper or King Diamond since this album is also more theatrical than most thrash groups. From the dramatic intros that pulsate in every track to the climactic song structures and flowing track order, it has the feel of a concept album that really adds to its sinister approach. Throw in some lyrics involving gore, demons, and kinky sex gone wrong and you've got the ultimate 80s slasher soundtrack!

But what really set Rigor Mortis apart was their musicianship. With only one guitarist in their roster, the band runs the risk of sounding thin but Mike Scaccia absolutely dominates the release with his insane tremolo runs and even more manic soloing. In addition, Bruce Corbitt's vocals aren't for everyone but his visceral yet hammy touch makes songs like "Bodily Dismemberment" and "Shroud of Gloom" sound pretty unique. But Casey Orr may be the hardest working member as his bass leads the way on "Wizard of Gore" and "Vampire" while his untrained barks make "Demons" and "Die In Pain" sound even nastier.

The hostile attitude and camp aesthetics make it obvious why Rigor Mortis never hit the big time, but the writing and presentation on their debut album show why they sure as hell would've deserved it. It's a very niche record that people outside of the genre won't revere, but I don't exaggerate when I call it one of the best thrash metal albums of all time. They probably could've cut a song or two but I think the album could only be improved by playing it while watching an old horror film on mute. There has to be some way to sync this up with one of the Texas Chainsaw Massacres...

"Bodily Dismemberment"
"Wizard of Gore"
"Die In Pain"

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Pentagram Week, Part 7: Last Rites

Pentagram's seventh full-length album was the most hyped release they ever put out. Released a long seven years after Show 'Em How, Last Rites is the group's first record distributed by Metal Blade Records and features another new lineup with their prodigal son Victor Griffin returning for guitar duties. The album also came out alongside the Last Days Here documentary, thus giving it the ultimate feeling of having been through hell and back.

Despite the severe time lapse, Last Rites isn't too far removed from its predecessor in that it spends more time reaching back to 70s rock than any doom aspirations. However, it sets apart by using the psychedelic textures to create a more somber, reflective atmosphere. Even the heavier numbers like "Into The Ground" and "Nothing Left" have a more contemplative side that fits right in with the softer numbers.

The band dynamic also seems to have straightened out. The vocals haven't exactly improved but they haven't sounded this good since the 90s and really fit in with the album's melancholic feel. Griffin's tone isn't quite as blistering as before but his presence gives the material some weight and he even performs lead vocals on the wistful "American Dream." No word on how they managed to pry the microphone away from Liebling long enough for them to pull that off...

And once you get to the songs, you'll find this to be Pentagram's most varied album in quite some time. The one-two punch of "Treat Me Right" and "Call The Man" are the album's fastest tracks, "8" and "Windmills and Chimes" provide the most atmosphere, and songs like "Everything's Turning to Night" and "Walk In The Blue Light" have the best of both worlds. "Horseman" and "Death in 1st Person" are admittedly weaker than the others but they are balanced out by the best songs the band ever recorded.

Pentagram's albums never reached a quality in need of a traditional comeback, but Last Rites showcases a band that feels revitalized, reflective, and perhaps even a little ready for the future. It's probably on the same level as the post-Death Row material before it but it may be easier to get into for newer fans. We can only hope for a better balance between rock and doom in the future now that Victor Griffin's back in the fold; the "All Your Sins" reprisal has to be hinting at something...

"Into The Ground"
"Everything's Turning to Night"
"Walk In The Blue Light"
"Nothing Left"

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Pentagram Week, Part 6: Show 'Em How

 It is easy to see why Pentagram's sixth album is considered to be their rock bottom release. It's certainly the most contradictory album; the band was basically just Internal Void backing Bobby Liebling instead of their normal frontman and the songs are almost all 70s tracks that the band hadn't gotten around to recording yet. The mainstream rock world was starting to catch onto the band's influence via the First Daze Here compilation yet didn't have the incentive to see what they had to offer this late in the game. And yet, Show 'Em How still ends up being another solid edition to their discography.

While Review Your Choices and Sub-Basement were also quite reliant on old songs, Show 'Em How could be their antithesis in terms of presentation. The tone is still fairly heavy and the vocals are about the same as before, it's a stretch to call this a doom metal album. The songs chosen for it as among the most psychedelic in their repertoire and even the three new songs have more in common with Captain Beyond worship than anything Hasselvander or Griffin put together. In short, it is their lightest, most upbeat, and maybe even most accessible release to date.

The band also has some decent chemistry and fits the material well enough despite the disjointed pairing. The guitars and drums offer the usual Pentagram tricks and the bass puts on some surprisingly strong performances on songs like "Starlady" and the rocking "City Romance." Elsewhere, the vocals retain their character but seem to be a little more energetic as Liebling whoops, hollers, and throws his voice around more than usual. He was stoned out of his mind and trying a little too hard, but the presentation sounds better than one might think.

With that said, one's opinion on Show 'Em How will likely depend on how you feel about First Daze Here and other compilations that have the original recordings of these songs. The actual compositions haven't been altered all that much over the years but there is a certain spontaneity lost that could be a deal-breaker. The ongoing vocal decay will also be a pretty big turnoff though there is a certain beauty to hearing the rendition of "Last Days Here" when you think about everything that's happened since the song was first recorded...

Like Sub-Basement before it, Show 'Em How is surprisingly solid but not an immediate recommendation for first time listeners. The absence of doom makes a tricky sell for metalheads and 70s fans may find the performances inferior to the originals, but the songwriting still makes it worth checking out. I'd say to go for the First Daze Here collection and Interval Void's songs as you may find those to be more accessible ventures.

"City Romance"
"If These Winds Could Change"
"Show 'Em How"
"Last Days Here"

Friday, October 10, 2014

Pentagram Week, Part 5: Sub-Basement

Pentagram's fifth full-length album seems to parallel Day of Reckoning in some ways. The second of the two collaborations between Joe Hasselvander and Bobby Liebling, it was released just two years after Review Your Choices and shows the duo getting a little more comfortable with their circumstances. It's not quite a classic but it just might be the band's most underrated venture to date.

Pentagram's image and style haven't changed all that much but Sub-Basement is one of their most upbeat albums. They've certainly had faster songs before but "Drive Me To The Grave" has a borderline thrash execution previously unseen and the songs are much more chorus-oriented than before. These two factors are best demonstrated on the chugging verses and sing-along hooks on "Bloodlust," but even the slower songs like "Go In Circles (Reachin' For An End)" will get stuck in your head before you know it.

This is further reinforced by the improved production and performances. The production is still pretty heavy but it is cleaner and gives the guitar a looser feel than the previous album. Of course, the vocals are still pretty worn out but they don't get as distracting this time around.

It also helps that the number of songs is the lowest it's been since the 80s, seemingly giving the duo more to work with on each one. There are still a bunch of old songs presented but they fit in better with the tone as the grooves on tracks like "Tidal Wave" and "Target" don't sound as forced. They also keep trying new things as "Buzzsaw" throws out a few quirky vocal effects and the title track invokes an odd ambient intro before the riffs kick in.

Sub-Basement isn't on the same level as their classic efforts but it is still a surprisingly good album. Some elements still make it tricky for new fans to get into this but there are solid songs for those who do seek it out. But in the Pentagram fashion, another dramatic shift kept its ambitions from being fully realized...

"Drive Me To The Grave"
"Go In Circles (Reachin' For An End)"
"Tidal Wave"

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Pentagram Week, Part 4: Review Your Choices

Bobby Liebling may be his own worst enemy but you can't accuse him of giving up for too long. Having been coaxed out of a drug-induced retirement by drummer-turned-instrumentalist Joe Hasselvander, Review Your Choices is the band's fourth full-length studio album and the first of two to feature only two musicians as Hasselvander plays all the instruments that accompany Liebling's tortured warbling. It's a ballsy move for a group of their reputation though it still results one of their more unstable efforts.

In a way similar to Sabbath's Born Again, Review Your Choices is one of Pentagram's heaviest albums and also one of their most poorly produced. Like the debut before it, the sound is quite raw but it doesn't have the same balance. Hasselvander is a more than competent guitarist though his tone is rather stilted when you consider the more rhythmic approach combined with its overwhelming presence in the mix. Bobby's voice was also pretty shot at this point, resulting in an odd drawl that sounds less like a doomy Dickie Peterson and more like a really stoned Ian Anderson.

The band was also really starting to use the 70s material as a crutch at this point. While the tracks are pretty well written and always proved to be strong additions to previous efforts, they worked best when challenged by great songs written with the current lineup or when the production suited their inclusion. The title track fits in really well with its more laid back approach but classics like "Forever My Queen" and "Living In A Ram's Head" are given a big disservice by this production job.

And like Be Forewarned before it, there may be a few too many tracks though most of them are pretty decently written. There is a little less variety than before as the songs are evenly divided between fast rockers and longer doom tracks. "Burning Rays" and "Mow You Down" are among the best entries though the oppressive riffs on "Gorgon's Slave" and "Downhill Slope" are also worth mentioning. A few songs like "Change Of Heart" and "Megalania" have some catchy riffs though the structures fall a little short of an essential status.

Pentagram has never made a less than solid album but this is where they really got tricky to recommend. You gotta give props to it and its successor for getting finished at all when you consider the absolute hell Hasselvander went through to make them, but it may be one of their weaker efforts. Whether you like this album or not will likely depend on your feelings on the production job. I can certainly get behind it but newcomers will need to review one of their earlier choices first.

"Burning Rays"
"Gorgon's Slave"
"Review Your Choices"
"Mow You Down"
"Downhill Slope"

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Pentagram Week, Part 3: Be Forewarned

Released seven years after Day of Reckoning, Be Forewarned is at an odd spot in Pentagram's discography. It still features the lineup that made their first two efforts so legendary but came too late to capitalize on their momentum. It isn't exactly obscure but it sets the band up for obscurity as Victor Griffin and Martin Swaney would immediately depart upon its release.

Like Day of Reckoning before it, Be Forewarned bares a great influence from Black Sabbath. But while that album mostly channeled the Ozzy era, this effort has more in common with what Sabbath was making around the same time in the early 90s. The guitar tone reminds one of Dehumanizer, most notably on "Bride of Evil," while the title track could've found a place on Dio's Strange Highways. Of course, the band's old school flair is still at full force with "Too Late" and "Frustration" serving as more light-hearted rock numbers and "Vampyre Love" riding an excellent Hendrix-style swagger.

The band dynamic also seems to have gone through some changes between albums. The vocals are more restrained than before and the chunky guitar tone seems a bit darker, but these factors aid the atmosphere rather than bring it down. Elsewhere, Joe Hasselvander's drums keep their jazzy feel and you can hear the bass a little better than before.

But with there being thirteen tracks on here comes the thought that there may be a bit too much. You've certainly got your classics and "Nightmare Gown" is the only song that is less than great, but songs like "The World Will Love Again" and "Wolf's Blood" don't quite have the same excitement as past anthems. Fortunately, you still can't accuse them of lacking variety as "Live Free And Burn" starts things off on a speedy note while "A Timeless Heart" is a lonely acoustic instrumental that builds up to the title track in a melancholic fashion.

Overall, Pentagram's third album is rockier than past efforts but still has a lot that makes it worth checking out for doom fans. It would've been better if it had come out three or four years before it did, but it still gives the Death Row era a good send-off. Sadly, this is the last album that I would safely recommend to new fans as even the diehards found it hard to keep track of the ensuing decline...

"Live Free and Burn"
"Vampyre Love"
"A Timeless Heart"
"Be Forewarned"

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Pentagram Week, Part 2: Day of Reckoning

It has been said that you have your entire life to make your debut album but only a couple years to make your second. Pentagram is a leading example of this trope with their sophomore full-length album coming out a mere two years after their very long-awaited debut. Fortunately, one can't accuse them of rushing too much as Day Of Reckoning just might be their greatest release.

The guys in Pentagram have always stated that they were more inspired by the likes of Blue Cheer than Black Sabbath, but Day Of Reckoning is where they went all out with an album that the Birmingham giants should've released between Master of Reality and Volume 4. The groovy "Broken Vows" and "When The Screams Come" are uncanny counterparts to "Supernaut" and "Snowblind" right down to the Iommi-aping guitar tone. They even lift a couple lines from classic Sabbath with "Evil Seed" invoking the opening line from "Sweet Leaf" and the pulsating "Wartime" mirroring a cry from "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath." The songwriting quality keeps things from being too derivative and the fact that Pentagram was one of their contemporaries certainly helps.

The diversity that encompasses the seven songs on here also adds to their enjoyment. While a good half of the album consists of groovy mid-tempo doom, the title track and "Madman" offer a more fuzzy, energetic approach. In contrast, "Burning Saviour" is one of the darkest Pentagram songs out there thanks to its shifts between foreboding acoustics and pounding outbursts all set to a nine minute dirge. On the flip side, "Wartime" may not be as gripping as the tracks before it and the bass still isn't that prominent, but these factors are easy to overlook.

Thus, Day of Reckoning is not only Pentagram's best album but one of the strongest that doom has to offer. The band retains the chemistry seen on Relentless but also trumps it by giving an improved production job to the perfect balance between their 70s heyday and the heavy Death Row sound. Sadly, the band folded before they could release a timely followup, leading one to wonder if they could've released something even better...

"Day Of Reckoning," "Evil Seed," "Broken Vows," and "When The Screams Come"

Monday, October 6, 2014

Pentagram Week, Part 1: Relentless

Pentagram has had some terrible luck over the course of their forty year history. While their influence over doom metal may be second only to Black Sabbath, they will always be remembered as the 70s band who never got their due thanks to the antics of one Bobby Liebling. Hell, their 1985 debut wasn't even intended to be a Pentagram album, as the group of musicians had originally recorded it under the Death Row moniker. Either way, Relentless has become a true classic in the doom metal canon.

Seeing how this was originally recorded as a demo in 1982, it isn't too surprising that this is one of Pentagram's rawest efforts to date. The sound could be compared to Venom's first couple albums in that it has a dirty tone while allowing a balance between instruments. Martin Swaney's bass can barely be heard but Victor Griffin's guitar and Joe Hasselvander's loose drumming set a grim foundation set for Liebling's macabre delivery.

In a strange bit of irony, this fixture of doom is actually one of the band's faster paced albums and largely lacks the 70s flair that they're otherwise famous for. You sure won't find any speed or thrash metal on here, but songs like "The Deist" and the title track seem to take more cues from Judas Priest than Captain Beyond or Blue Cheer. There is also a touch of classic metal influence as a band like Manowar could probably match the gallops on "Death Row" if they took enough downers.

But even if Relentless is one of the band's odd ducks stylistically, it does contain the best songs they ever put out. "All Your Sins" is the quintessential Pentagram anthem as a groovy drum roll gives way to a blistering set of mid-tempo riffs and catchy vocal lines. From there, "Sign of the Wolf (Pentagram)" is an infectious romp and "The Ghoul" offers a percussive yet gloomy taste. 70s diehards will also appreciate the inclusion of "You're Lost, I'm Free" and the classic "20 Buck Spin" though they don't quite the same power as the tracks before them.

It may have taken forever for Pentagram to get its first full-length album out there, but the result is worthy of its legendary status. It may not be the band's best album, but it is one of their strongest and truly showcases their lineup at its best as a unit. The albums Saint Vitus and Candlemass released around the time may be better examples of 80s doom as we know it, but this one is essential listening.

"Death Row," "All Your Sins," "Sign of the Wolf (Pentagram)," "The Ghoul," and "The Deist"