Valence - “He Tried to Kill Me with a Forklift”
Stream and purchase the song here.
Valence is a four-piece instrumental progressive metal band hailing from New Rochelle, New York. Forming in 2010, the group released a debut LP entitled Sleepwalker in 2012 and an EP entitled Laser Baron in 2015. Many fans of the genre caught onto this band with their unique storytelling approach to songwriting. This band has no vocals, but somehow manage to create elaborate narratives through their music. A quick look at the individual songs’ Bandcamp pages reveals a description for each song’s story, making each song like a chapter in a book. Reading into them while listening to the music, it’s amazing how the band pairs the music with the story so well. Valence makes sure every narrative climax gets the powerful, epic crescendo it deserves. As someone who has been working to become an author, this part of the band is super inspiring to me. The band is going to be going back in the studio in December, but until then, they have dropped a stand-alone single entitled “He Tried to Kill Me with a Forklift” to hold over fans.
The story for this single is summarized in one sentence: “What happens when a bunch of prog dudes get into a forklift fight in space? August 18th, you may find out…” Unlike the other songs, this one is much more open to interpretation. While I applaud that idea, I wish there was a bit more distinction between characters--I am assuming that the prog dudes are the band members, but nothing in the song tells us so. They have gone REALLY in depth on previous releases, writing paragraphs on what the song is supposed to represent, but here we’re kind of just given a sentence and left to fend for ourselves. It’s cool that they are allowing us to come up with our own story for the track, but especially because it’s instrumental, I feel like there should be something more.
The song begins with an ominous atmospheric introduction that leads into a nicely constructed prog section. We hear some spacey, melodic guitars, with the drums providing most of the heavy element throughout the song’s six-minute runtime. The bass is a bit hidden, but when it pops up, it has a very nice, jazzy tone. While a bit typical of progressive metal, the song frequently bounces between progressive metal and atmospheric jazziness, but my biggest issue is with the conclusion of the track. It feels like it just ends. These songs are written like stories, so I suppose this would be an open ending. This only adds to my issue with the whole story not being revealed to us. Is this song part of something bigger, making this sudden ending a “to be continued,” or is it actually the end of this story, and this open ending something I am misinterpreting?
Despite a few issues with this track, I thought it was solid, and I am beyond stoked to see what Valence does next, and where they go. The talent behind this band, their playing and their storycrafting abilities, is more than enough to merit a listen. If you’re into instrumental progressive metal and like well-done sci-fi with your music, don’t sleep on these guys.
- Alex Brown
Citizen - As You Please
You can stream the album in full on Youtube.
I’m just gonna say it: Everybody is Going to Heaven was better than Youth. While Youth was a good record, its follow-up was a significantly darker and more mature record from the Michigan band that showed a more careful approach to songwriting beyond the typical pop-punk “My girlfriend left me and I am oh-so-sad” that high schoolers and creepy twentysomethings with beards seem to love. They derived a lot from Brand New on that record, which is a valid criticism, but Citizen’s sincere approach to composing well-written songs with a cohesive flow across the length of an album showed the band’s potential for producing quality music despite their worn-on-sleeve influences.
As You Please might just be Citizen finally tapping into that potential. It’s kind of impressive how the band has managed to write a twelve-song, 48-minute long record that not only never gets boring, but also contains an infectious hook on virtually every track. “In the Middle of It All” and lead single “Jet” best exemplify this, and what’s most striking is how each song is relatively different. “Jet,” the album’s opener, starts with an energetic grunge riff and erupts into an insanely catchy chorus that would sound right at home on the band’s debut. “In the Middle of It All” begins with a pseudo-choir chant refrain that sounds jarring at first, but grows on you really quickly; the song also contains arguably the best chorus the band has ever written. Citizen are firing on all cylinders.
Vocalist Mat Kerekes knocks out of the park, utilizing his full vocal range to guide voice the listener through the emotional rollercoaster of As You Please. His lyrics are a little vaguer than on previous offerings; while it’s evident that they center around some form of heartbreak, the verses aren’t as black and white as say, “The Summer.” In fact, it seems that some of the he he doesn’t limit himself to failed romance, with “World” appearing to reflect the effect (or lack thereof) that being in a popular touring band has had on Kerekes, especially in the somber second verse: “I have had your ears, a younger me loves it / I haven't been around this neighborhood in a few years / Do you feel good? Do you notice it? / There's a crowd in front of me, I just don't care / I hear a thousand people sing, I feel nothing.” It’s not quite profound, but it’s a nice change of pace from the lyrics that the band has employed in the past.
I feel as if with every listen that As You Please becomes more complete. Nick Hamm and Ryland Oehlers’ guitars emit a punky energy on songs like “Fever Days,” a Brand New-like guitar harmony on “Control,” and a newfound solemnity on “Flowerchild,” a song that could merit a review all its own. Eric Hamm’s bass isn’t as prominent as on Everybody is Going to Heaven, which is a bit of a disappointment, especially taking into account how well it was utilized on that record. A lot of the record’s sound can be attributed to the ever-present Will Yip. I’ve been critical of his production style in the past, but he fits the band well, sharing a relationship akin to that of George Martin with the Beatles in the sense that he serves as a guiding influence for the band as they finally decide to stop trying to be Brand New, and just be Citizen.
And that’s ultimately why As You Please is Citizen at their absolute best. It’s a record with a sound that, in spite of its obvious influences, is 100% their own, seeing them finally mature from their awkward college years into a band who know what they are and what they want to play. They’re not the group of kids that wrote Youth four years ago: they’re Citizen, finally content with being Citizen, just as they please.
- Cesar G,
My Ticket Home - unReal
Rating: 7.9/10 | 8/10 | 9/10
My Ticket Home have taken their fans on a ride in the four years since Strangers Only. Receiving little to no support from their label, the band put their heads down, severed ties with Rise Records, and set about the two-year job of establishing--and reestablishing--a fan base with back-to-back tours and self-promotion. They began teasing new music along the way, signed to Spinefarm Records, hunkered down to record, and then scrapped what they had and started over, attributing this abrupt change of heart to a general feeling that they were no longer the same people who wrote Strangers Only.
My Ticket Home were right: this is not the band we heard in 2013. The vivid blend of nu-metal, alternative, and metalcore that defined Strangers Only has cooled into something less definable as the band shed most of their former nu-metal trappings for a different set of them--on a scale from Iowa to Morning View, for illustration’s sake, the meter is much closer to the moodiness of Around the Fur and the catchy angst of Year of the Spider, tempered with an influx of mid-nineties grunge influences and punchy alternative rock. For the most part, Nick Giumenti’s scream is a thing of the past as he makes use of his much-improved singing voice, complementing Derek Blevins’ tenor with his gritty counterpoint. Despite a lack of radio hooks, the changes My Ticket Home make on unReal are ironically similar to what most nu-metal bands did to keep afloat commercially while the aggro-rock ship sank in the early ’00s; but where those bands ended up at the bottom, My Ticket Home sail by on a timely mix of hindsight, experience, and a scene inundated in the same nostalgia for the period My Ticket Home are so fond of referencing.
There’s an anguished chill running through the album that manifests as a lot of fairly daring experiments, from the Katatonia-isms of “Joi,” with its black-cloud vocals and rainy disposition, through the lush gloom of “Down Life,” “We All Use,” and “Melancholia.” The band’s mastery of atmosphere is unReal’s real draw. In particular, the guitar tone on “Cellophane” stands out--like the sound of Dale Cooper peeling the plastic back from Laura Palmer’s face transmogrified into a sinister rock riff, it’s unlike anything they’ve done before, which can also be said of the druggy “Down Life” and “We All Use,” the latter of which lobs a curveball of a chorus just when it seems poised to dive into melodic treacle. These songs shows us the extent to which My Ticket Home are in control of their influences, but every so often, it does get away from them. It’s telling that the least exciting songs on unReal are the ones that take inspiration from the same font as Strangers Only. Case in point: while both “Flee the Flesh” and “Flypaper” are good heavy songs in their own right, the latter almost on equal footing with “Painfully Bored” or “Teenage Cremation,” they lack the detail of “Gasoline Kiss” and “Down Life,” better examples of what My Ticket Home can accomplish with an aggressive angle on this sound. “Redline” fares the worst with its lifeless riffing and pseudo-antagonistic vocals. It’s hard to take seriously, but rescued from total skippability by its chorus.
Elsewhere, “Time Kills Everything” starts out so eerily reminiscent of Holy Wood-era Marilyn Manson that you half-expect to hear his patented croak, and while moderately entertaining, the song goes nowhere and winds up sounding more like an extended introduction to “Hyperreal” than a proper song. “Hyperreal” is a good single that works best in context and conveys the gist of the record well, lifting the mood and expanding the sonic palette early on with its update of Meteora-era Linkin Park, but it’s hard to say why it merits the distinction of the [almost] title-track. Finally, as evocative as “Visual Snow” is, both as a song and a phrase, it’s so focused on fulfilling its role as a hushed, pensive moment that it’s over before it’s quite begun. Like “Thrush,” it not a bad song so much as a misplaced one; but in the context of the album, its opener and closer put unReal in a strange limbo. It’s a record that doesn’t start or end nearly as well as it follows through.
That’s where My Ticket Home are, now. Musically, they can’t seem to sit still, and they’re fortunate to have gotten so far on this creative restlessness. The way the band continue to build on past successes in the pursuit of more personally meaningful music should be celebrated and admired, even if unReal is more a step toward their future than it is a step into it.
- Brian L.
Strangers Only is one of those very few albums that latches onto you instantaneously, takes you through every beat without fail, and when it finally lets go at the last second, you beg for more. Saying it’s incredible is selling it short, because in every way imaginable, I believe Strangers Only is perfect; every song has been my favorite at one point and I could never pin any as the weakest. The four-year wait since has been agonizing, with news that a follow up had been recorded but scrapped when My Ticket Home’s contract wasn’t renewed. Even more frustrating was knowing that it was essentially going to be Strangers Only 2.0 since I had managed to hear some of those songs live. But something happened in the last two years: the band grew as people and musicians, and were vocal about that when unReal was announced.
Where Strangers Only revitalizes the breakneck and disgusting side of nu-metal, unReal shows they’re moving toward a more trippy, mesmerizing, and emotional material. “Flypaper” opens with a whiplash-inducing riff that seems as if it may have been lifted from the abandoned album. There are still moments of calm and explorative guitars, but it brings a crushing, oh-so-familiar bite in contrast to songs like the slower and lower “Time Kills Everything,” which is more evident of the change with its layers of sound and drawn-out melodies. Nick Giumenti shies away from his old style completely as he favors a lighter, more wandering tone that conveys a sort of mellow depression.
These two songs are emblematic of the range the album, but they’re right next to each other in the track listing and don’t sit nicely together. The first half of the album has a lot of the higher-energy and fun tracks like “Thrush” and “Hyperreal,” while “Cellophane” and “Melancholia” make up the album’s moody, cathartic underbelly. The evolution of tone over the course of the album undeniable, but it feels as if the album is built around the singles. “Thrush,” the first single, is also the first track, but doesn’t work as well as something like “Hyperreal” might. “Flypaper” is sandwiched between “Flee the Flesh” and “Time Kills Everything,” which make it sound arguably heavier by contrast, but interrupts the flow of the album.
This aside, almost every song is strong and varied, keeping unReal fresh throughout. The constant snare, deep minor guitars, and the whispers before the chorus give “Gasoline Kiss” a panicked, angsty feel, like bursting through a dark cloud. “Down Life” is dark, moody, and so damn catchy. Really, you could go down the list and say something different and positive about every song, which saves the album on a macro level even if it doesn’t quite work song to song.
There will always be the festering parasite of “what if” in the back of my mind. Many people, myself included, have heard at least two or three songs from the scrapped album, and they definitely biased me against the singles from unReal when they premiered. I wasn’t totally on board at first, but I’ve more than warmed up to them and to the album in time for the full release. I love the album, and it’s still growing on me, but I’m tempted to put it onto a playlist and mess around with the song order until it works for me. It’ll be interesting to hear these songs next to tracks from Strangers Only live, but they all make great picks, so I’m not worried. As much as I didn’t want My Ticket Home to change, I’m excited for where they’ll go next.
- Alex B.
My Ticket Home is one of those bands that immediately resonated with me with Strangers Only, which instantly became an all-time favorite record. It’s no surprise that unReal is sticking with me too, although “Thrush” is a weird place to start. Released as the first single and up first, it seems a little out of place, although it’s hard to think what would make a better opener. I want to say “Hyperreal,” but in context, it really does fit in as the fourth track.
It took a long time before the album dropped to be okay with My Ticket Home’s change of sound, but I just had to remember that even though unReal isn’t Strangers Only, it’s just as meaningful in a different way. “Flee The Flesh” is usually where I start since I overplayed “Thrush” while I waiting for the full release, but I can say “Flypaper” is really one of the best singles, not because it’s necessarily the heaviest track, but because I know it’s the oldest track written for the record and really shows the band’s journey to the new sound, and how much time they sat with it before putting unReal out. I hate saying that “Time Kills Everything” is the weakest track, but it does nothing for me. Those were also my feelings about “Joi,” but it really grew on me over a few more listens, although it’s still a notch below the others in my eyes. “Hyperreal” is another one of those songs that instrumentally screams Strangers Only. The riffs just absolutely demolish anything in their path and Nick’s pristine vocals shine through this song and “Redline,” one of the best songs on the record.
I think that “Redline,” “Down Life,” and “Visual Snow” are the best tracks unReal has to offer, but that’s not saying any of the others are bad. They’re just outshined by these three songs. “Gasoline Kiss” and “Cellophane” work really well back-to-back, the almost seamless transition kicking off the second half of the record with a bang. I think “Down Life” and “Joi” should have been swapped spots on the record for a more harmonic experience, but they work well where they are as “Down Life” begins the album’s outro. Although I love “Visual Snow”to death, it’s a weird choice for a closer, feeling really out of place as the last song. None of that stops me from being in awe at the end of every listen to unReal. My Ticket Home have crafted another masterpiece, so here’s to wherever the boys go next.
- Dakota G.
Cradle of Filth - Cryptoriana - The Seductiveness of Decay
Cradle of Filth was always Dani Filth’s baby, if his stage name wasn’t a giveaway. He is the band’s figurehead, its ringmaster, and its center; the single constant throughout the band’s decades-spanning career that’s seen enough members for three or four complete bands pass through its ranks. There couldn’t be a Cradle of Filth without Dani, and so it was natural to assume that the band’s slow, disheartening decline from as far back as Damnation And A Day (however dear a place it holds in my musical development) must be his fault. By Thornography, the clear turning point in their discography, the seams in his performance were finally showing: gone was the feral screech of his Dusk and Cruelty days, replaced by an arsenal of grunts and ululations that presented as less of an evolution of his voice than a bad cover-up of his waning abilities, and it only worsened with each subsequent album.
For better or worse, I’ve kept tabs on Cradle of Filth throughout the years and found something to enjoy even up through Thornography, but that album is unquestionably the final installment of their “bronze age” before Godspeed on the Devil’s Thunder, Darkly Darkly Venus Aversa, and The Manticore and Other Horrors did their part to cement Cradle’s legacy as more a punchline. Just listen to The Manticore and Other Horrors and try to imagine how bad it got that that record was considered a “comeback” record, its “punk” veneer painfully transparent and unpleasant to hear slopped on top of their once-great gothic metal. Hammer of the Witches, thankfully, wrested that title away with the acquisition of new guitarists Marek “Ashok” Šmerda and Richard Shaw, replacing long-time axemen Paul Allender and James McIllroy, simultaneously opening our eyes to the mistake in the critical assessment of The Manticore and to the fact that Cradle of Filth’s mediocrity wasn’t really Dani’s fault. And now, Cryptoriana - The Seductiveness of Decay has arrived to prove that Cradle of Filth’s renaissance isn’t a fluke.
It seems counterintuitive that a little new blood should be all Cradle needed to get back on their feet since member shake-ups seemed to be precisely their problem, but Šmerda and Shaw have turned out to be everything the band has been missing for close to a decade--specifically, what Dani has been missing. No matter what, Dani remains the heart and soul of the band, but heart and soul don’t count for much when your body is falling apart. His deteriorating performance seems to have been the consequence of a growing boredom with the band, but as Cryptoriana amply demonstrates, there’s plenty of that old infernal fire left in Cradle’s frontman--he just needed a reason to stoke it, and he’s found it again. Listen to him go on “Wester Vespertine,” spitting and howling with the sort of vitriol we haven’t heard since Midian all the way back in 2000; or the return of his vocal gymnastics on “Alison Hell,” which, while lyrically weak, sounds like the most fun the band have had since Damnation And A Day; or his chest-thumping conviction on the chorus of “You Will Know the Lion By His Claw,” their best single since “Nymphetamine (Fix).”
Šmerda and Shaw reintroduced the power and intricacy Dusk...and Her Embrace and Cruelty and the Beast to Cradle of Filth on the previous album, but on Cryptoriana, those Iron Maiden comparisons that have followed the band for some time are more accurate than ever before. On “Exquisite Torments Await” and “Heartbreak and Seance,” they dial up the shred and explore grander melodies and still more daring passages of twin-guitar ecstasy on “Wester Vespertine” and “Death and the Maiden.” The obfuscatory cloud of strings and keyboard that blotted out the insipid musicianship of Godspeed and Venus Aversa is gone, and the symphonic elements of Cradle’s gothic metal have returned to their role as strict atmospheric aides, supplying the period creepiness Cryptoriana seems intent on conjuring up per Dani’s comments on the Victorian era’s “infatuation with the supernatural, the grave and the ghoulish...this attraction to death and the glittering lengthy process of self-annihilation.” There’s plenty of room for Cradle’s new axemen to run wild, and they certainly take advantage on an album that, while three tracks shorter than its predecessor, runs roughly the same length and features many compositions stretching out to an average of seven minutes apiece.
Less publicized but equally important is Lindsay Schoolcraft on backing vocals, replacing Lucy Atkins and finally filling the enormous shoes Sarah Jezebel Deva left behind. Her tone and timbre are very similar to Deva’s, but her role more significant than any of her predecessors: the chorus of “Achingly Beautiful” depends on her support, and her spoken-word contributions, a staple of Cradle of Filth’s sound since “Funeral in Carpathia,” are some of the best since Ingrid Pitt lent her voice to Cruelty and the Beast. Her bit on “Wester Vespertine” (“Lifts our heart to sheer romantic / pyromantic / necromantic / height of bright sensation”) even echoes “Funeral in Carpathia” in its placement and importance to the song, and her voice has a tendency to stick even when nothing else does. It should also be noted, here if nowhere else, that Liv Kristine also reprises her role in the “female voice” facet of Cradle of Filth’s sound on “Vengeful Spirit,” providing a restrained, ethereal performance that makes the song yet another highlight in an album full of them.
This revitalized Cradle of Filth is not something I thought I’d ever hear, but for as long as we have it, I will enjoy the hell out of it with what I suppose is the same mix of relief and optimism long-time Iron Maiden fans felt listening to Brave New World after the black mark of The X Factor and Virtual XI. But Cradle of Filth seem to have vaulted right over the mini-setback of Dance of Death to release their own A Matter of Life and Death in the form of Cryptoriana - The Seductiveness of Decay; and while there’s is still something unshakably familiar about this new record, perhaps a consequence of the realization that Cradle of Filth will never again be the icons and iconoclasts they were at the height of their popularity, it’s easy to make peace with that fact thanks to the sheer quality of Cryptoriana. Now here’s to their Book of Souls!
Counterparts - You’re Not You Anymore
Stream the album in full on Youtube.
I’d say that it’s about time Counterparts received some attention outside of the scene of stale “melodic hardcore” wave of bands that took considerable influence from Shai Hulud and Misery Signals during the early half of the decade. They were never too different from these bands, mixing cleanly picked melodies with a good dose of metalcore riffage and breakdowns to produce a sound that could be considered very homogenous at first listen; however, the band’s stellar songwriting in comparison to their peers, as well as vocalist Brendan Murphy’s poignant and well-written lyrics made them stand out from the rest of the pack. There was a sense of worry when primary songwriter and original guitarist Jesse Doreen decided to leave the band following the release of 2015’s Tragedy Will Find Us. Many were concerned that such a major lineup change would cause the band’s material to dip in quality. Thankfully, these fears were proven completely wrong.
I’ll start off by saying that You’re Not You Anymore adds nothing new to the table. Much of the record takes that patented Misery Signals influence and adds a nice helping of Parkway Drive’s Killing with a Smile to the mix: melodic riffs; heavy, panic chord-laden breakdowns; and Murphy’s usual melodramatic lyricism are all present here, but the way the band is able to cram an average 6-10 riffs into a two-and-a-half minute long song without ever sounding disjointed or unfocused cannot be denied. This is best exemplified on tracks such as “No Servant of Mine” and “Rope,” with new addition Blake Hardman and mainstay Adrian Lee moving from chord progression to lead to breakdown (especially on “Rope”; the breakdown is downright irresponsible) as seamlessly as new drummer Kyle Brownlee moves from drum fill to china cymbal. The band has never sounded tighter.
Technical prowess notwithstanding, the record manages to be Counterparts’ most accessible and chorus-driven work yet. “A Memory Misread,” “Haunt Me,” and “Bouquet” all feature cleanly sung refrains that feature Murphy sounding more in-tune with Sam Carter of Architects fame over other clean vocalists in the genre. The band doesn’t overdo these passages though, only choosing to use them when the song calls for it. Murphy’s lyrics are as on point as ever, using carefully directed imagery and diction to craft an album that, while focusing on a general theme of change, is still easy to digest and relate to for pretty much anybody out there. The last minute or so of the title-track is especially impassioned, with Murphy tearing his emotions out as he yells “aim your sharpest arrow at the center of my chest / a memorial to signify the sense of helplessness / we dare not mourn our past lives, our loss will be reborn / I couldn't love who you were / but you're not you anymore.” While it’s probably nothing too extraordinary in comparison to much of the verse on the previous record, the post-rock-like guitar in the background as well as the pounding drums make for an extremely vulnerable section, a trope the record exhibits in abundance.
Counterparts had a lot of expectations heading into the process of creating You’re Not You Anymore: the band had lost their primary songwriter of almost ten years, had finished an extremely successful North American headliner followed by a tour with Parkway Drive, and were coming off an album cycle for a record that some consider to be a modern metalcore classic. If you were to put ten bands under that sort of pressure, eight out of ten would likely crumble. Thankfully for Counterparts, they take those odds and completely smash them, releasing their best work yet.
- Cesar G.
Helpless - Debt
Listen and purchase on their Bandcamp
In a year that’s seen them set aflame and defaced, what’s another disfigured nun on the cover of a tough-as-fuck metal record? I came across Helpless and Debt by chance in an ad as I was playing From the Unforgiving Arms of God in preparation for our review, and having had my socks blown off by Full of Hell earlier this year and END’s kick-in-the-ass of a debut, I felt an immediate goodwill toward Debt’s “The Scream”-esque depiction of some nunnish, disease-ridden figure, and stuck it in my listening queue.
The more I learned about Helpless, the more excited I became to hear what this UK band of former members of Godsick and Brotherhood of the Lake (one of the most criminally overlooked hardcore bands in the UK scene I know of) could do, and I’m happy to say my expectations were thoroughly met. That they’re on Holy Roar, the home label of Baptists, Employed To Serve, and formerly the UK’s “Converge on acid” Throats, is a no-brainer: variously described as powerviolence and blackened grindcore, Helpless amplify the knife-fight chaos of latter Nails and The Secret over the non-linear fury of metalcore underdogs like Curl Up and Die and Burnt By the Sun, which serendipitously positions them as a bit of a midway between Full of Hell and END. Every track is a pummeling configuration of sludge riffs, beatdowns (not breakdowns--there is a difference, as “Sertraline” and “Sinkhole” clearly illustrate), and spastic intensity, brushing the edges of mathcore and straight-up grind in their quest to punch the listener’s face in, and they succeed wonderfully.
“Ceremony of Innocence” and its music video relay the gist of the band in under three minutes: the song itself is the sort of rager that Gaza could have written during the I Don’t Care Where I Go When I Die sessions, but the video plays like an excerpt from a much longer and more complicated film, capturing a single scene in which an older gentleman appears to defuse a bomb and deliver it to some inscrutable facility. Haunting the piece are a couple of black-masked guards whose reappearance at the very end of the video seems to signify the springing of a trap, if not some sort of retribution. His fate is left up in the air, but what’s most interesting about the video is that fact that it plays so differently on mute--when Helpless are audible, the dread and anxiety of the scene dials up to eleven, but viewed as a silent piece, the order of events seems to play out with a dreamlike inevitability. This seems intentional, as if to represent the band as some sort of alarm in the measured silence of our daily routines. Lyrically (at least according to the band, as it’s difficult to interpret what’s said without a lyric sheet), Helpless traffic in political outrage, which the video seems to demonstrate in the gentleman’s apparent hoodwinking at the end--we always seem to be getting the opposite of what we signed up for when it comes to affairs of government--and the juxtaposition of debt and helplessness in the album title sort of speaks for itself, doesn’t it?
Like their message, the music is blunt, angry, and effective, but it runs into the same problems of homogeneity any powerviolence act faces. It can be difficult to tell songs apart on initial listens, making it difficult to latch onto anything as a listener other than the band’s raw fury. That might be enough for some, and it’s perfectly fine on a debut record, but Helpless could stand to explore some of the dynamic possibilities they hint toward on “Ceremony of Innocence” and “Denied Sale,” a chunky, rollicking slow-burner that brings the band’s sludge influences to the fore. It’s not to say that the brutal hooks of “Worth” or the chokehold of “Out of Commission” through “Weightless Prayers” are anything less than captivating--have Cult Leader written anything so Gaza since the rebranding?--but that contrast is as important as sheer impact, and a little more thought to how they spend their downtime would make these moments of frenzy that much more powerful.
Debt is a stylish exercise in blending grind, hardcore, and mutilated nuns that promises a very bright future for the band. Nuance may be the one thing Helpless lacks at the moment, but as these short runtimes (most songs clocking in at the minute-and-a-half to two-minute range) and blunt titles (“Moral Bankruptcy,” “Weightless Prayers”) amply demonstrate, Helpless don’t have time to be concerned with expressing anything other than hatred and malcontent, and for now, that’s all they really need to do.
Belphegor - Totenritual
With each record since 2006’s Pestapokalypse VI, Belphegor seem to have overstayed their welcome by another increment. They’re the sort of blackened death metal band that pours the Satan on too thick to be anything but parody and yet they continue to perform, year after year, with po-faced sincerity. This is a band with record titles like Lucifer Incestus, Bondage Goat Zombie, and Blood Magick Necromance in their catalog, each with appropriately ridiculous cover art to match; a band that includes Satan’s name in six different languages on their best-known work, Pestapokalypse. They write exclusively in tritones, that family of notes that was once regarded as “the devil’s interval” for its lascivious sonic quality, and make regular use of corpse paint, spikes, fake blood, and skulls as if 1988 never ended and this stuff is still controversial.
I wouldn’t devote so many words to Belphegor if there wasn’t some merit to them, and as grudgingly as I may be in admitting it, they write quality metal--or they have the capacity to do so. Pestapokalypse is both their best record and their last worthwhile one for a while, but flashes of its inspiration appear throughout their career, on up to Totenritual, whose title, if you hadn’t guessed or don’t know a little German, means something like “killing ritual.” With its overstuffed cover art and the prominent positioning of the band’s logo (which of course sports two inverted crosses), the pieces are in place for yet another slog through half-inspired black metal and rote death metal, but opener “Baphomet” throws an early loop: it’s actually a pretty good song, peeling back a substantial portion of the band’s Marduk-y black metal to let the song move propulsively from riff to putrid riff, building up a good head of steam into “The Devil’s Son.” Apart from a corny sample that shouts out the “devil in your flesh,” it’s yet another exercise in speedy and well-crafted death, with an early Darkthrone riff or two snuck in to prepare us for the coming album highlight of “Apophis - Black Dragon.”
The second piece of a saga that includes “Swinefever - Regent of Pigs” and “Totenkult - Exegesis of Deterioration,” it’s undoubtedly the Dark Knight of this hyphenated trilogy: with its black metal flag raised high, the song pulsates with sinister tremolo, blastbeats, and tritone noodling galore (not to mention a single bar of acoustic picking, like a spot of blood on black robes). “Apophis” wields an icy mystique heightened by Belphegor’s signature juxtaposition of cultish chants and Helmuth Lehner’s inhuman gargles, the sort of sonic blueprint that would almost legitimizes the band’s obsessive shock-Satanism if not for their overwrought image,and a tendency to rely on verse-chorus-verse structuring. Though they seem to be trying to turn things around--“Spell of Reflection,” an album highlight, is a progression of distinct segments lashed together with a sick tremolo melody, after the initial thrill of a recharged Belphegor wears off, we can see that, under all its devilish bluster, the album is riddled with overlong choruses and repetitive passages that don’t serve the hypnotic purpose they would in more straightforward black metal. They’re simply sections the band chooses to repeat on their way to the next, padding out ideas that only require about half the runtime to make an impression and rendering multiple back-to-back listens a bit of a chore. “Baphomet” suffers, “The Devil’s Son” a little more so; only “Apophis” gets away with it, precisely because it’s the most blackened song on the album, while the other two acts of the trilogy succeed to much lesser extents.
The album’s greatest strength, and its saving grace, is its sequencing, as well as its brevity, despite many tracks crossing the five-minute mark. They’ve perfected their ability to segue from wicked tritone melodies to feverish blasting and back, and Lehner remains one of the most underappreciated growers/gurglers in the death metal industry. Totenritual is only as strong as Belphegor’s songwriting, and the fact that they continue to adhere to bog-standard song structures can only continue to harm them in the long run, but the album remains impressively steadfast in its approach; by the time “Embracing A Star” enters like a blast of rotten air from a defiled crypt (that’s praise, believe me), its mystical harmonies feel organic to what we’ve been hearing since “Apophis - Black Dragon,” and the closing title track the wrapping up of a complete musical idea. All in all, it’s remarkable that such a conceptually ridiculous band could pull off such a worthwhile record eleven albums deep, and that’s more than I thought I would ever say to Belphegor’s credit.
Between the Buried and Me- “Colors”
Stream it here.
Ten years ago, Between the Buried and Me was thought to be just a metalcore band that occasionally used progressive elements you would find in groups like Opeth and Dream Theater. Formed in 2000 after Tommy Rogers and Paul Waggoner left deathcore act Prayer for Cleansing, Between the Buried and Me started off as pretty much just a very heavy metalcore project. Sure, they were working in some different elements, including some clean vocals and some progressive passages, but what the band would turn into come 2007 was nothing more than a dream when the group released their self-titled debut in 2002 and The Silent Circus in 2003. 2005’s Alaska, which introduced Glass Casket members Dustin Waring and Blake Richardson, as well as bassist Dan Briggs, showed the band becoming much more proggier with tracks such as “Selkies: The Endless Obsession” and “Backwards Marathon,” but they were still very much a metalcore band. Then, two years later, the group would come together to take on a task they had never done before: composing a continuous, 64-minute concept piece. They’d enter Basement Studios in their home state of North Carolina in May 2007 with producer Jamie King, and roughly four months later, release Colors, a name ever so fitting for this piece of art that would go down as one of the proudest moments in both metalcore and progressive metal history. Ten years later, the impact it has had on the metal community is still readily apparent.
Colors opens up with the two-part “Foam Born.” Part one, “The Backtrack,” offers up a glimpse of the dystopian world Between the Buried and Me has created where our protagonist, waiting in the cold for supplements, is introduced in vocalist/keyboardist Tommy Rogers’s unsettling, piano-led performance. With a drum roll from Blake Richardson, the metal kicks in, and we learn that “The drive to complete ourselves has become a blurry vision,” and enter a discussion on the greed and selfishness that has been engulfed the community. Part two, “Decade of Statues,” picks up immediately to introduce the protagonist’s disgust for society, with a breakdown underlining its obsession with power as Rogers begs “Rip out my fucking eyes, I can’t watch you grow into this.” This part is metalcore at it’s finest, brimming with technical riffs and breakdowns. Unlike on previous releases from the group, however, there is obvious growth in the band’s progressive metal, which has only made them stronger in the long-run. Tommy has only gotten better as a vocalist and keyboardist, and the dynamic between Paul Waggoner and Dustie Waring’s guitar playing is more intuitive than ever before. The rhythmic section of Dan Briggs and Blake Richardson feels much more natural here than it does on Alaska. It’s very apparent that the members who joined the group for the previous LP are much more comfortable with the direction from the moment “Foam Born” begins. Hell, even Jamie King’s production fits the style on Colors better than any previous works.
With a single strike of the drum, this track leads into the menacing introduction of “Informal Gluttony,” which introduces the sound of a gong. Though quite different from the preceding section of this LP, the transition from metalcore to extreme metal works thanks to Blake’s dextrous drumwork. The bass work on this track by Dan Briggs is especially impeccable on this track, and I think it’s his best performance on the whole composition. Tommy Rogers also shows more of his vocal talent on here, doing both cleans and harsh vocals on the track, but the first thing we hear is chanting. Then, a bass lick from Dan Briggs. Next, we get some guitar, and the guitar follows. The track really takes off when Rogers enters the mix. This is certainly the most “metal” section of Colors, introducing tremolo picking and blast beats, but lyrically deals with the building of this society. We can presume our protagonist is a construction worker. As they work, they are subjected to propaganda: this is the chorus of “feed me fear,” supplemented by Tommy Rogers’ intonation of the title. The protagonist also talks about how “the little kids” don’t listen anymore, leading us to speculate they have been brainwashed by this strange society that seems hellbent on one thing: building. They chant “rebuild” fifteen times at the beginning of the song, after all. The protagonist also demonstrate how you cannot just “close your eyes” to what is happening because it is all around you, shoved down your throat at every turn; and people have grown so numb to it that they simply accept what they are told.
Once again, Blake Richardson transitions us into the next piece, “Sun of Nothing.” While the previous tracks stuck to a particular sound, this one changes pretty consistently throughout its 11-minute timespan. It’s relatively metal before taking on some jazz-fusion influences after a brief acoustic break, featuring a quick, sassy piano line, and then goes 70s prog a la King Crimson and Pink Floyd as the track draws to a close. I believe Tommy’s synth-playing stands out most, especially during the brief piano section in the middle and during the full-on prog break toward the end. Paul and Dustie’s dueling guitars are as tight as ever, smoothly transitioning from super metal to super proggy, and Dan Briggs’ bass playing brings the jazz The track’s lyrics deal with the isolation and loneliness of a brainwashed world, the protagonist noting how everyone lives in complete ignorance of the evils that surround their society. They disregard all warnings as the ravings of outsiders, and the more our protagonist tries to speak against these evils, the more detached they become from the society. Towards the end, they begin questioning why they fight at all. As they drift off to sleep, the full band transitions us into “Ants of the Sky.”
“Ants of the Sky” is the protagonist’s dream. This song sounds absolutely triumphant, with plenty of shredding melodic guitars throughout its 13-minute timespan and other super metal moments, offset by beautiful moments of ambience. The rhythm section is monstrous, with Blake and Dan giving their all, but man do Paul and Dustie really show off. The synth keeps it jazzy, carrying over its tone from the previous section, and the lyrics, including such gems as “The view used to be better, lands growing into one / We wanted it this way” and “A bird’s eye view into what I’ve always imagined life could be” creative an immersive, dreamlike experience. Of course, it’s the country section that gets people talking. Yes, Between the Buried and Me went briefly country on Colors, and it is fucking glorious. This is alluded to earlier in the track by the use of a cowbell, but I don’t think anyone was expecting to hear a banjo, a fiddle, and the sounds of a party or a crowded bar spliced in before a return to the triumphant melody from earlier. I love how oddly wonderful this segment is and interpret it as an important part of the story, where our protagonist goes out among the people and sees them for the complacent sheep they are, referenced by the continuous screaming of “the walking dead,” too blinded by simple entertainment to comprehend the problems with their world.
“Prequel to the Sequel” deals with the protagonist’s true stand against the tyrannical powers at work, posing as an actual threat with the help of a “grieving widow” to showcase a turn in the tides. These higher forces try to “comfort” their workers, but the effort proves futile, and the song concludes with the lines “They did as they pleased, and now it’s starting to wilt away.” Instrumentally, this is the proggiest song on the record, showing off a major Rush influence with its glamorous, melodic guitars and 70s-styled synth, but it also comes with a gnarly breakdown over which Rogers repeats “A pleasant cry for help.” Once again, Between the Buried and Me incorporate something new to the mix, this time an accordion that adds an unexpected touch of class before we transition back into the metal, featuring a guest vocal performance from none other than Adam Fisher of Fear Before the March of Flames. He fits the song so well that you’d be forgiven for assuming Adam was part of the band--his vocals play off of Tommy’s exceptionally, and it actually sounds like a battle between the protagonist and the tyrannical government of Colors.
An intense jam session leads into “Viridian,” a change of pace with its mellow, bluesy, sounds that prepares us for what comes next: “White Walls.” The grand finale, and one of the most iconic pieces of progressive music, you know shit is about to go down the moment it starts. The instrumental builds intensity before getting to business, summarizing everything Colors had done musically up to this point: the intro brings back the proggy edge of “Prequel to the Sequel”; the heaviness of “Informal Gluttony” a few minutes in; and the song even carries over the mellow atmospherics of “Viridian.” Conceptually, this track represents the protagonist’s victory against the tyrannical government, only to become a tyrant themselves. This is shown in lyrics such as “The monsters are made, and we have proven that we will be one of them.” The protagonist doesn’t seem to care at this point, so up goes the white wall amid the chanting of the workers, still trapped in their endless process of building but now in the service of a new master, and one of the most intense breakdowns in metal history. It’s followed by a phenomenal instrumental conclusion of dueling guitars, rollicking bass, amazing percussion, and a beautiful synth part to finish out. As a whole, “White Walls” is a career-defining piece for Between the Buried and Me, leaving everything Between the Buried and Me have stood for on the table.
The legacy of Colors is undeniable. Immediately, we saw a surge of experimental progressive metal and metalcore bands like The Human Abstract and The Contortionist, and even Mike Portnoy, former drummer of the legendary Dream Theater, praised Colors as one of the most monumental releases in metal music. When I first heard Colors, I was entering my freshman year of high school in August 2010. I was a huge metalcore fan, but not of the good kind--Asking Alexandria, We Came as Romans, and other acts that are not looked at so fondly filled my iPod. I was also very much stuck in the rock/metal music circle, and had no desire to go beyond. I knew Between the Buried and Me by name and had heard a lot of praise for Colors, so I decided to pick it up at a Best Buy and was absolutely floored. I had never heard anything like it. It was the first time I ever cried to music. There were so many influences from so many different genres of music that I was compelled to go out of my way to listen to all of it. Seven years since, I am now reviewing all different types of music and constantly discussing it. I honestly couldn’t be happier. I don’t know what I would be doing without Colors, but I owe a lot of who I am to it.
Happy tenth anniversary to my favorite musical composition of all-time. The reason I am here is you, and I could never be thankful enough. I cannot express how fortunate I am that I will be witnessing you live, in full, this Saturday.
Gigan - Undulating Waves of Rainbiotic Iridescence
Listen and purchase on their Bandcamp
Another Gigan album, another deep-dive into Gorgutsian mindfuckery. The first couple minutes of “Wade Forward Through Matter and Backwards Through Time”purposely don’t feel like it, occupied by an ominous groove that wouldn’t sound out of place on Deathspell Omega’s Si Monumentum Requires, Circumspice, until it suddenly hatches into the sort of multi-legged instrumentation that has defined Gigan’s back catalogue. The guitars preserve the groove for another few measures while drummer Nate Cotton goes expectedly ballistic, approaching cacophony as he assaults his kit. This is when the song begins in earnest, and for long-time fans, it will be a relief to hear that Gigan still don’t believe in melody as a synonym for progress--if anything, they appear to have committed to the atonal/microtonal movement that’s taking over the tech-metal world, and which they had a hand in popularizing, rather than going the unfortunate route of this year’s Decrepit Birth or Suffocation.
The rest of “Wade Forward” eschews technical jerkiness and fret-wank to concentrate on pure compositional wizardry. This has always been their style, although Rainbiotic Iridescence is incrementally more refined than in its last iteration, 2013’s Multi-Dimensional Fractal Sorcery and Super Science: leviathanic compositions, slippery time signatures, and a Cthulhic cavernousness remain staples of the Gigan sound, but there is more detail and nuance this time around--or perhaps we’re simply better attuned to the band’s esoteric songwriting after three records of it. To their credit, they’ve always remained a mystery in the way of these darkly atmospheric death metal bands--where the hell does it come from? and how the hell do they do it? being the questions at the heart of that mystery--but Eric Hersemann, ostensibly Gigan’s “brain,” offers the following illumination on the record:
“Undulating Waves of Rainbiotic Iridescence is the culmination of over ten years of imagination and vision; a colorful and maddening exercise in vibrant technical proficiency and unbridled passion. This newest Gigan record has all the familiar feelings and spectrums that have occurred in the past; within the Gigan Universe, along with a razor-sharp and deadly approach facilitated by a new writing and recording environment. Created naturally as always-without computer trickery and with natural drums, guitars and other instruments, Undulating Waves of Rainbiotic Iridescence is not just an arrangement of sweeps and scales thrown together and delivered at high velocity or a random hodgepodge of dissonant wankery. It is instead the next evolutionary step towards heavy music's inevitable future, encompassing a full palette of mind-bending musical extremism. Open your minds and experience wherever Gigan may take you.”
As verbose a speaker as he is a musician, this is just about an even split between promotional hyperbole and earnest summary, with hints toward the band’s charming “we’re actually aliens” persona they affect on social media. The album is, in fact, a culmination of Gigan’s career and a refinement of it, excising the bloat of Quasi-Hallucinogenic Sonic Landscapes and matching their previous album (whose name I will not spell out again, because these album titles are borderline preposterous and I’m no masochist) in atmospheric unity, but its experiments exhibit a more engaging attention to detail. This isn’t to say that Gigan have ever been less than than meticulous songwriters so much as it is a comment on how much more masterfully they execute brain-busters like “Hyperjump-Ritual Madness” or first single “Plume Of Ink Within A Vacuum,” a Pollack painting of a song if there ever was one. It skewers the conventions of metal, teasing leads and solos just as any Gigan song does before hopelessly tangling the two and letting the knot unravel itself. Of course, it doesn’t. It’s Lynchian.
While every moment of a Gigan album is a surprise, Undulating Waves does have new tricks up its sleeve even in relation to prior albums, and it’s an extension of the first thing you hear on the record. Underneath their discombobulated exterior, Gigan is a groove machine; it’s simply the fact that they rarely play in recognizable time signature that obscure this quality, but it’s there in the midst of “Plume” and its eerie siren-like riffs (a recurring motif across all of Undulating Waves), and paraded throughout the aptly-titled “Clockwork With Thunderous Hooves,” a deadly rhythmicality fracked out of the song’s mountains of harmonic and structural dissonance. “Clockwork” may be the most essential track on Undulating Waves, the song that finally sees Gigan harnessing their destructive potential as a death metal band first and an experiment in sonic extremism a distant second. In fact, it may be one of the most essential death metal songs of the year, fully embodying that “inevitable future” for heavy metal Gigan are so passionate about exploring.
In its current creative growth spurt, death metal has kept an eye on the past with bands like Ascended Dead, Horrendous, and Gruesome, but the real progress is happening in the cult of Gorguts, where bands like Artificial Brain, Baring Teeth, Chthe’ilist, Flourishing, Gigan, Pyrrhon, and an ever-increasing number of other, fresh faces are expanding the genre’s vocabulary with unique interpretations of Obscura’s grimoire. It’s been a solid few years for the genre, but I think that Undulating Waves of Rainbiotic Iridescence, alongside Infrared Horizon and What Passes for Survival, will figure as a collective watershed moment for the genre very soon. Gigan’s future is upon us.
Song Review: All My Friends Want To Kill Themselves, "a series of love letters addressed to rosa luxemburg"
All My Friends Want To Kill Themselves - “a series of love letters addressed to rosa luxemberg”
Listen to/download the song here
All My Friends Want To Kill Themselves (AxMxFxWxTxKxTx), a band known more for starting drama with local hardcore bands and showgoers and their iconic “Brochella Fest” meme, have actually released some music. After being an on-and-off band for a couple years, they have released a single track, “a series of love letters addressed to rosa luxemberg,” and it is sinister in a very unique way, especially for a Connecticut act.
Screamo has changed, musically and ideologically, just like any subgenre through the years. Lately, we’ve seen screamo come back cleaner, with crisper production, and with a songwriting approach and delivery that mirrors the hardcore sound more and more. Bands like Touche Amore, State Faults, and Pianos Become the Teeth have developed a prettier, more melodramatic interpretation of hardcore music, and since this is the state of “screamo” now, AxMxFxWxTxKxTx and their new song are a throwback to what screamo was.
RIght from the beginning you hear the classic trebly guitar riff and snare roll combo you’d expect from a 90s screamo band. It snaps in with a bell hit, a riff, and then a slew of harsh high-pitched screams are thrown at you. It’s straight out of the old screamo playbook, something you’d hear out of a pg.99 album or France twenty years ago. As the track goes on, it expands, and you hear a bit of Canada Songs-era Daughters, and even some See You Next Tuesday. The chords are sad, and not pretty sad-- this is a dark and hopeless depression that culminates in a crushing riff, one that doesn’t make you want to cry or hide but just drive all night, chain-smoking cigarettes because there is nothing else to do.
I hope this band is actually a band at this point, because I want more of this. It is a step forward for CT sad/harsh music because, in most ways, it is a step backwards to the old and true sounds of screamo (“skramz”) that needs to be revisited. AxMxFxWxTxKxTx are back to show us how it’s done.