January 30, 2014

Avichi - Catharsis Absolute (2014)

USBM has a long reach, stylistically.  Bands that are labeled as such pull elements from diverse sources.  It is difficult (if not impossible) to convince anyone that USBM as a whole is a singular scene with a discernible "identity". It is the fact that the "scene" is so fractured that gives my country's contribution to the blackened arts its distinctive charm.

In the case of Avichi's latest, the listener will surely notice that Aamonael (that's a hard one to spell without double-checking) has added elements to the overall sound that are foreign and off-putting.  I don't think anyone really expects the presence of keyboards and clean vocals.  That's what we get here. And while they are well-executed, I can't help but think that they are a distraction.

"Repercussion" is a theme played on piano that is further developed and elaborated upon in the title track.  Seeing as these two songs operate as opening/closing of the record, they obviously take on a greater importance.

That's all well and good, but I don't consider piano to be a necessary element of black metal, and if I wanted to listen to piano, I'd choose something more appropriate.

The three shorter tracks are intense blasts that are played at a fairly high tempo and don't lack for energy.  Not surprisingly, I enjoy these the most.

"All Gods Fall", on the other hand, is played at a languid pace.  It's not a bad song, necessarily, but it's a bit directionless and lacks the intensity shown in the previous three tracks.  Also, since there are no engaging rhythms (in addition to the aforementioned lack of intensity), the song really doesn't draw me in like it should.  An epic-length track needs good pacing, solid rhythms, and maybe a touch of melodic content to really shine.  "All Gods Fall" lacks all of these things and basically goes nowhere.

When Catharsis Absolute is really cooking, it is a strong and enjoyable listen. Unfortunately, the variety that most will likely praise turns out to be its undoing to my ears.

January 29, 2014

Bleach 566 - What Is Your Fear?

The newest chapter of Bleach is out.  Back to the battlefield!

Spoilers and fighting stances after the cut.

January 22, 2014

Bleach 565 - God Like You

The newest Bleach chapter is out and it's a departure from the norm.  So let's talk about it!

Spoilers and ruminations after the cut.

January 20, 2014

2014 Championship Round

The Broncos and the Seahawks are going to the Super Bowl in two weeks.

First off, I can't properly articulate how much better this game will be than last year's edition.  Well, to be honest, it could turn out shitty like most years, but at least I don't loathe each team involved as I did when Baltimore took on San Francisco in February, 2013.

The Championship games were fairly well devoid of drama until late in the Seattle/SF matchup.  Colin Kaepernick threw into the end zone; Seattle CB Richard Sherman got his hand on the ball, Seattle ended up with it, and a star was born (or reborn to a larger audience).

Never mind what happened after the game.  That play to end it was something else.

For the record, though, I don't disagree with Sherman's assessment.

The AFC Championship wasn't much better.  Then again, Denver was methodical in moving the ball down the field and getting it into the end zone, something the Patriots couldn't seem to figure out throughout the day.  There weren't a whole lot of explosive plays from either side as Brady was overthrowing the few receivers he had and Manning was content to run the ball for the most part.

I find the running game to be a crashing bore about 90% of the time.  The great runs of 10+ yards don't really happen that often, especially when teams are so bloody unimaginative in the way they deploy their offense.

So I think we know what we'll see in the Super Bowl.  Running the ball about 70% of the time from each side, few throws down the field, and more than the fair share of three-and-outs.  But if it's not a better game than last year, I think I'll have to eat an entire crow for breakfast.

January 16, 2014

Myopic - Beyond the Mirror's Edge [EP] & the Art of Closing the Deal Properly

Myopic's new EP Beyond the Mirror's Edge is a fine example of how to straddle various sub-genres of metal while remaining coherent and still kicking ass.

The closing track in particular is a slice of brilliance that has to be heard to be believed.  But there's a caveat here and it's quite an interesting one.

It turns out that "Lord of Damnation" is a cover, as pointed out on the EP's Bandcamp page.  The track was written by a Swedish death metal band called Carbonized and was originally released in 1993.

What is most notable about Myopic's version of the track is that they take no liberties with it.  There are no grand, sweeping changes in the playing or in the arrangement.  Of course, the song kicks ass, because it's a prime example of how riffs can be weaved together along with some sturdy drumming and adventurous bass.  One of my favorite parts is when the guitar follows the bass while playing different intervals.  They're basically playing the same rhythm, but because the guitar is playing notes with larger "spaces" between them, it creates an interesting dissonance where the listener expects them to play the same thing in concert, but instead they diverge.  It is a fantastic effect.

All told, Myopic does the song justice and it closes the EP in a satisfying way. In fact, for those who might not appreciate the impudent genre-jumping (and occasional non-metal moments, i.e. the riff around 7:30) of previous track "Backstitch", "Lord of Damnation" is perfect.

I don't think it's a coincidence that the band chose "Lord of Damnation" to close the EP.  In addition to my opinion on the role of atmosphere in metal, I have a strong opinion on track sequencing.  I think each album/EP/split/what have you ought to have a strong opener and a strong closer.  It basically works like this: a strong opener draws in the listener, and a strong closer leaves the listener feeling satisfied, or blown away, or some other feeling that resembles contentment.

There are many ways to develop a strong opener/closer tandem, of course. And for as long as metal has been around, bands have tried all sorts of avenues.  But what really makes an opener/closer strong is the same thing that makes any song under the banner of metal a quality offering: guitar riffs. "Lord of Damnation" has them in spades and the players (whether those of Carbonized or Myopic) play them with the requisite force and passion required to keep the listener attentive and head-banging.

Really, all I want is to be engaged by quality writing and playing.  Myopic has done that, and I hope that they continue to do so.

Myopic - Beyond the Mirror's Edge: https://grimoirerecords.bandcamp.com/album/beyond-the-mirrors-edge
Carbonized's "Lord of Damnation": http://t.co/Hcj7LzZ6OC

January 15, 2014

Bleach 564 - Red-Bristled Kings

The first Bleach chapter of 2014 is out.  So let's talk about it!

Spoilers and assorted hilarity after the cut.

January 14, 2014

Hexis - Abalam (2014) & the Role of Atmosphere in Metal

Hexis' new LP Abalam is one of the first releases of 2014 to get notice and acclaim.  So, naturally, I was inspired to listen to it as I'm always on the lookout for the best new releases of a given year.

After a single listen, I am convinced of two things: I never want to listen to Abalam again, and something is wrong with metal in 2014 if this is an acceptable example of the genre.

To be perfectly clear, I do not consider Abalam to be a bad album.  How can it be good OR bad?  Nothing happens through its 30+ minute run time.

The above is one of those cryptic statements that I'm fond of, but one that would get me in trouble if I were writing for anyone but myself here on NHC.

So what do I mean, exactly?  On Abalam, there are no riffs or ear-grabbing rhythms worth mentioning that are played on guitar.  Hence, to my ears, nothing happens.

This is all well and good if you're operating in a genre that isn't reliant on the instrumentation to convey moods, tones, melodies, or rhythms.  But this is metal we're talking about (even for a release as peripherally attached to "metal" as this one), so I naturally expect some kind of effort on the part of the players to write and play something that intrigues me.  And to be bluntly honest, I don't hear anything like that here.

The above brings me to the main point of this piece, which is the role of atmosphere in metal.  Frankly, it's run amok over the last few years.  Metal's traditional emphasis on rhythm as main musical device has been lessened in favor of atmosphere.  There are other things being emphasized too, but for the point of this piece I'm restricting it to atmosphere.

Atmosphere can be expressed in the context of a metal album in (at least) two ways.  The first is to write a riff in such a way that it evokes a certain feeling or set of feelings.  The greatest example of this is undoubtedly "Black Sabbath".  The second is to anchor a riff among other instruments that are played in such a way to evoke a feeling or set of feelings.  Usually, this is accomplished via keyboards, the odd piece of percussion, or samples. The best example of this method is Ă†vangelist.  They layer sounds meticulously to produce a genuinely creepy and provocative atmosphere that surrounds and envelops the riffs that are being played.

I suppose there's also a third route, wherein the guitars concentrate on playing in an atmospheric way while the drums and bass play their usual support role.  But to me, if there are no riffs being played, there's no point in bothering.  Sadly, Abalam goes with this route, which leads it to be ineffective in drawing my interest.

When I was first learning how to play guitar, my teacher imparted a phrase upon me that continues to stick almost 20 years later.  That phrase is: rhythm determines melody.  I apply this phrase in a broad manner; that is to say that everything that is not the rhythm being played is secondary.  If I'm being a real jerk about it, I would say that everything that is not the rhythm is irrelevant.

You can imagine, then, why I reacted to Abalam the way I did.  But I want to emphasize again that it is not a bad album, merely an ineffective one.

After all, it's not Illud Divinum Insanus.

January 7, 2014

Inquisition - Obscure Verses for the Multiverse (2013)

First things first: listen to Obscure Verses for the Multiverse on Bandcamp.

There is often a sense of relief in hearing a new record from a band a listener enjoys.  That relief can be intertwined with surprise that the record didn't flop like a fish as so many others from once-promising bands.  Indeed, Inquisition remains promising of greatness to come and show no shortage of it on Obscure Verses for the Multiverse.

That said, it might be a bit jarring for anyone who listens to the band (casual or die-hard) when "Force of the Floating Tomb" kicks in.  This record sounds really good, despite having production that seems diametrically opposed to what one might expect.  Guitarist/vocalist Dagon explained in an interview with Invisible Oranges that Obscure Verses... is the result of what happens when serious, ritualistic preparation and performance meets good audio.

Still, it's not difficult to be skeptical.  And that's fine.  But for once, the production (or good audio) isn't a hindrance to what the band is trying to accomplish.  Far from it, actually, as it augments Inquisition's typically weird and off-putting musical attack.

The elements that one would expect are all here: Dagon's croak, the double-stops, string bends, plenty of blasting and slower rock beats.  The croak is the one thing that really divides people about the band.  Otherwise, they would appear to be the best in a scene that is still finding its footing and searching for a greater sense of acceptance.  No matter the thoughts on the croak (which I enjoy as an element of distinction that separates this band from all others like a guillotine), the music behind it remains as quirky and individualistic as on previous standout Ominous Doctrines....

What might confuse listeners further are the new sounds that one hears. There are numerous instances of guitar noise (it sounds like Dagon is pulling up on the whammy bar, but I can't be sure), pinch harmonics, and even palm muting.  These things are far from the realm of orthodox black metal guitar playing.  But this is one of the things that makes Inquisition great; Dagon is not afraid to use other sounds/guitar techniques to get his point across.  He creates a new context for black metal with his playing, proving once more that it is possible to work in the sub-genre without being constrained by its stifling and limited palette.

Put simply, Inquisition is one of the better bands working in black metal, regardless of location.  Listen and judge for yourself, but be prepared to embrace the croak and be blasted into a new cosmic sphere.

January 6, 2014

2014 Wild Card Weekend

So that happened.

When you pick the results straight up and then go 1-3, I would say there's bound to be some disappointment.  Especially when San Diego and San Francisco are among the teams moving on.  Also, what's up New Orleans? You couldn't do a damn thing on the road (and the first half was similarly vomit-inducing), and now you're world-beaters.


I didn't even watch a second of the SF/GB game, as I've been battling insomnia and the rampant concern that the sky is falling onto my head.

My issues aside, let's take a quick look at these four games and see what, if anything, we can learn from them.

The first game was obviously the best.  KC went into Indy and a shootout ensued.  This despite the fact that Alex Smith was one of the quarterbacks and Indy has been without their best WR, Reggie Wayne, since Week 7. This is one reason the playoffs are so damn frustrating and unpredictable.  Crazy nonsense like this happens and you might as well go along for the ride, because once the games start, the predictions are moot.  I certainly wasn't expecting Indy to go down 28 and then come back to win.

And yet, here we are.

As it turns out, that was the highest scoring game, despite having the lowest margin of victory.

In Cincinnati, the Bengals performed about as well as expected in losing to a San Diego team that probably shouldn't even be here.  In fact, if KC kicker Ryan Succop had made a not-terribly-difficult FG last week, it would have been Pittsburgh in the position that San Diego was in: sitting cozily in a leather recliner, just waiting to throw the ball that dumped Cincinnati into the dunk tank.  Looking back on it, I can't really point to a moment that I thought San Diego wasn't going to win the game.  Even when Dalton was keeping it clean, I wondered aloud when the inevitable INT's were coming.

And what do you know, two of them came in the second half!  Luckily for the Chargers, they were in a position to capitalize...sort of.  They ended up being more lucky than good, really, as their performance after turning Cincy over was pretty abhorrent.  They gave up easy 4th down conversions in order to punt (after letting the play clock run to 0, of course) and ran in an unnecessary TD to give the Bengals the ball back after they had used all their timeouts.

One might ask if the above really means anything.  The answer is no, this week.  Next week, they need to tighten it up.  We'll see if Ryan Mathews is available.  If not, it's up to Ronnie Brown and Danny Woodhead to run the ball.

The Saints did the improbable and unlikely, going into Philly and pulling out a late win.  As the sixth seed, they are the road warriors; they cannot host a game throughout the playoffs because they finished below all the other NFC teams.  So far, that's not a bad thing.  Next week they head to Seattle, where they utterly failed to show up from the word "go" just a few weeks ago. Suffice it to say that Drew Brees has to play well on every possession he gets.

San Francisco also pulled out a late win on the road.  Since I didn't see the game, I can't really say much more than that.

I'm guessing Aaron Rodgers goofed somehow.  Either that, or Green Bay's suspect defense got gashed (as usual).  In any case, I am starting to wonder about the legitimacy of Rodgers' "elite QB" status.  At the moment, it's not looking like an accurate descriptor, seeing as they finished 8-7-1 (thanks to him getting injured, to be fair) and losing another playoff game at home to a team with little offense.  When I say little offense, I mean that SF is entirely inconsistent in their passing attack.  Kaepernick can barely throw the ball down the field.  And yet, he slices through GB's defense.  Hot knives scare the shit out of butter.  Et cetera.

What's on tap for next week?  Glad you asked.  Indianapolis heads to New England.  San Diego, as the sixth seed in the AFC, gets the unenviable task of breaking the tie with Denver, as the two teams meet for the third time this season.  San Francisco heads to Carolina, while the Saints, as the aforementioned sixth seed in the NFC, head to Seattle.  To say that it's tough sledding for the teams that won this weekend is understating it just a bit.

That said, I would wager that Indianapolis has the best chance of pulling the upset.  Then again, it might be San Francisco.

In any event, I'm not betting on the Saints.  Maybe that will do them well.

January 1, 2014

Best Metal Albums of 2013

2013 wasn't a great year, for me or for metal.  At some point around May or June, I wasn't even sure I would have a top ten worth trumpeting to anyone.  It was that bad the first six months.  Then, surprisingly, things started picking up.

But I have to emphasize that 2013 was not a good year for metal.  Not only were there disappointments, but there was a lot of overrated crap too.  I won't name-check them, for obvious reasons.

I'll just say that my list probably doesn't look much like any other that's been posted so far.  There may be a couple albums shared between mine and the rest of the metal critics out there.

Now, to the list.  First, a short explanation of the criteria I used to pick these specific albums: riffs and enjoyment.  As a guitarist, the only thing I really listen for (or notice, in some cases) is the amount of riffs the bands in question are throwing into my ears.  Some that other people like, I don't get. I can shrug my shoulders at them and move on to something that I'd rather listen to.  I think enjoyment is also key.  These ten albums are what I really enjoyed listening to most.

But there's also a bit of intuition involved.  For example, the top five were albums that I was damn certain would be there.  This is especially true for the album that ended up being my #1.  More on that below.

That's enough of the generalized rambling.  Let's get a little more specific, shall we?

Best Metal EP's of 2013

Since 2013 is ending, I figured it was time to toss my hat into this year-end list nonsense.  First up, ten EP's that I enjoyed this year.  It is by no means comprehensive and the only reason there are this many is that I couldn't really find a reason to leave any of them out.

Ash Borer - Bloodlands
-Two solid tracks of black/doom/whatever else they're throwing into the cauldron.  I reviewed it at Metal Bandcamp.

Deceptor - Chains of Delusion
-An engaging slice of thrash with some soaring vocals.

Fuck the Facts - Amer
-Another one that I reviewed at Metal Bandcamp.  Fuck the Facts brings some serious energy and gets a bit experimental too.

The Gates of Slumber - Stormcrow
-This one is most notable for being the band's final (?) release.  It's free as it was offered by Scion A/V.

Grayceon - Pearl & the End of Days
-The first great release of the year and one that would have charted in my top ten albums, were it padded out to that length.  I reviewed it here at NHC.

Hexvessel - Iron Marsh
-The Finnish folk band led by Kvohst redoes a tune from the first album and generally slays with melody throughout.

Lord Impaler - Babylon Whore
-A destructive blackened duo of tracks from a band whose next release ought to be looked out for.

Mitochondrion - Antinumerology
-A teaser for the black/death band's next LP.  Filthy and atmospheric, just like Parasignosis.

Serpents of Dawn - Burnt Offerings
-First demo from a band featuring current/former members of Acephalix and Vastum.  Doom, if you can believe it, done quite well.

xRepentancex - Demo 2013
-The wild card of the bunch, and one of the few releases to punch me right in the face from the get-go.  Fierce.