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.
Stray From The Path - Only Death Is Real
You can trace the moment Stray From the Path’s decline began back to “iMember” from arguably their last widely-respected album, Rising Sun. It’s not a standout song on the album, nor is it a lowpoint; it features a clip of a former Attack Attack! vocalist that draws a pretty clear division between between the ideologies of a band blatantly in it for the fame and a band that ostensibly wasn’t. It seems like a minor thing, but it’s that little “i” and its allusion to Apple and the iPod that, I think, signals the beginning of a long slope downward for Stray. On Anonymous, which pushed the Rage Against the Machine comparisons right in the faces of listeners, the dated pop-culture jabs became a little more pronounced with “Counting Sheep” and it’s refrain to “Post that pic with a hashtag / You wanna get mentioned because you need the attention / And you can repost this cause I don't give a shit / If you got something to say well you tag me in it,” making obvious allusions to Facebook and Twitter while also demonstrating a meatheaded edginess that didn’t sit well with a lot of listeners (including me). This continued on Subliminal Criminals with the cringe-worthy “First World Problem Child,” turning a popular internet meme into a tone-deaf hardcore song, and has reached a new head with “Goodnight Alt-Right” from the album at hand, Only Death Is Real.
The new Stray From the Path record starts shaky and never recovers, with “The Opening Move” coming across like the second half of an unremarkable Anonymous b-side, although “Loudest In The Room” proves to be an early highlight with a pseudo-mathy groove, some quick-wristed drumwork, and a breakdown full of panic chords and crashing china. Of course, “Goodnight Alt-Right” is up next, and while it’s bad, I will argue that it’s not a total failure--the band sounds more energetic than they have in a while going into the “Nazi punks fuck off” breakdown, and York, despite some truly mediocre lyricism, at least spits it with conviction. Very little of interest occurs for the next two songs, other than the cringe-worthy chant of “Money makes the world go round / Money makes the world burn down” on “Let’s Make A Deal” (another prod at Trump?) and the dialed-up hardcore feel of “They Always Take the Guru,” but “Plead the Fifth” caught me off-guard with its undulating introduction, which segues into vintage Evil Empire. The album’s best run of songs begins here and lasts through “Strange Fiction,” “All Day & Night,” and “The House Always Wins,” although it certainly says something that three of the four feature prominent guest spots.
“Strange Fiction” throws backs to “Loudest In the Room” with pounding staccato riffs and an anthemic chorus, keeping the pot boiling until Every Time I Die’s Keith Buckley swoops in on the closing breakdown to breathe fire--but what else is new for Keith? He doesn’t sound quite in his element since Stray doesn’t have an ounce of the southern tinge of his native band’s music, but he brings some needed spark to Only Death Is Real. Bryan Garris serves a similar purpose on “All Day & Night,” but Stray do more to accommodate him, pulling off a pretty convincing Knocked Loose facsimile for his entrance on the second verse. His shrill scream has chemistry with York’s, and I wouldn’t doubt (or mind) future collaborations on either band’s records. “The House Always Wins” was released long before Only Death Is Real, but the angular approach has started to wear thin at this point in the album, inching ever closer to faceless djenting rather than the funky rhythmicality of Rising Sun, or even Anonymous. Vinnie Paz’s rapped verse injects exactly that into the song, but it comes a little too late and is superseded by a tiring breakdown and a final, equally tiring repetition of the chorus. The actual closer is also the title track, usually a highlight of Stray records; but despite a promising start and a solid Morello riff toward the middle, “Only Death Is Real” treads water to end on a confusingly unearned chain-gang chorus of voices moaning the song’s refrain: “Death is after your soul.”
You can learn all you need to know about the decay of Stray From The Path’s sound and image by listening to the songs referenced earlier in order, their sonic trajectory illustrating in broad strokes how the band’s once innovative aping of Rage Against the Machine in the context of hardcore has devolved into a stale hybrid of nu-metal and hardcore. It’s a case study in diminishing returns, of which Only Death Is Real is the most diminished yet. The root of the problem is that, even accounting for a slight creative uptick on Subliminal Criminals, every album from Rising Sun has increasingly relied on Drew York and its breakdowns to get by, neither of which are enough to sustain a fanbase; and if the latest Stray From the Path record proves one thing, it’s that the more time York spends rapping over heavy riffs, the more Limp Bizkit creeps in, replacing the Rage influences that made them worth following in the first place. The bottom line is that, as often as I may agree with their overall message, I’d prefer not to experience flashbacks to “Full Nelson” when I listen to hardcore.
END - From the Unforgiving Arms of God
“Word of mouth” doesn’t quite mean in the internet age what it used to, as the rise of social media and instant sharing, as well as the prevalence of forum sites like Reddit, have changed the mechanism by which small bands make big waves and accelerated the speed at which “up-and-coming” becomes “overexposed.” It’s too easy for a young band to show promise, garner more hype than they can handle, and buckle under the pressure to match expectations blown out of proportion before the band has even proven themselves worth the buzz in the first place, which was my first concern when END popped up on my radar.
END is a new band made of old parts--the fact that most members are in active bands, at least half of which are currently enjoying marked success, means END is a supergroup, shortening their “trial period” and adding another set of challenges they have to overcome right away. They have a fearsome lineup on paper that sees Counterparts vocalist Brendan Murphy, arguably END’s biggest name, joining forces with ex-Misery Signals guitarist Greg Thomas, current Fit For An Autopsy guitarist Will Putney, Blacklisted’s Jay Pepito on bass, and ex-Structures/Trade Wind drummer Andrew McEnaney--but we’ve seen supergroups with more star wattage fail before, so even these credentials weren’t much of a comfort. But “Chewing Glass,” the first END we heard, was: a two-and-a-half minute grenade of badass riffage and Murphy’s unrecognizable vocals, it’s an excellent introduction to END and kicked the buzz around the EP into a new gear that “Usurper” and “Necessary Death” were quick to capitalize on.
I’ve had a tenuous relationship with Counterparts in the past and didn’t put much stock in Murphy’s involvement, but he’s risen to the challenge of working alongside Misery Signals and Fit For An Autopsy alumni with a low-register vocal approach that frankly demolishes his work with Counterparts. Whatever he loses in enunciation he makes up tenfold in grit and power, inflating already massive moments like the breakdown on “Necessary Death” and the lumbering title track to bursting. As mentioned, I would never have known it was “the guy from Counterparts,” which goes equally for the rest of the band: END’s grinding, feedback-laced sound is quicker to reference first and second-wave metalcore like Zao (Liberate Te Ex Inferis and The Fear Is What Keeps Us Here spring to mind) and Deathwish alumni The Blinding Light, as well as His Hero Is Gone and Cursed, than Killswitch Engage or their melodic metal ilk. The EP traffics exclusively in dissonance and hatred, never letting up for its appropriately brief seventeen minutes--any more this early would be hubris, despite their relative leg-up on the scene--finding its fullest expression on the songs that weren’t released ahead of the EP. As rapidly as “Necessary Death” became their signature song, it’s really “Love Let Me Go” and “Survived By Nothing” that capture the band’s no-holds-barred spirit and explosive aggression, the former working itself into a froth worthy of early Converge and the latter perfecting the deconstructed breakdown The Acacia Strain have been trying to write for three or four albums now.
END has range, which is more than can be said for most supergroups of this nature, although they are a bit content to stick to this heavier-than-thou vein of metalcore. I may not have an issue with what From the Unforgiving Arms of God is, but as always with these kinds of bands, one speculates what a reprieve every now and then might enhance. Probably, it would ruin the atmosphere and derail the EP--it starts fast and heavy and just gets faster and heavier, right up until the final act of “Survive By Nothing,” keeping things dark and claustrophobic--but one wonders all the same. Maybe we’ll see some boundaries pushed on a full-length in the (hopefully near) future, but for now, END should be proud of what they’ve accomplished. We can’t say for sure until the next release whether the hype will turn on them as it has other newcomers, but having already transcended the supergroup label to deliver one of the all-around best heavy EPs of 2017, I think they’re on track for a very successful run. Keep your eye on END and what they do next.
Perturbator - New Model
Synthwave has been growing steadily for the past five or so years, and 2016 was probably its biggest, gaining a lot of mainstream attention and the respect of a mass audience. Perturbator has consistently been the center of the scene, creating anthems that sound like they’d suit any cyberpunk horror/action film marvelously. The digital assault on the sense became more thrilling with each release. Last year, he dropped a masterwork album, Uncanny Valley, that propelled the name Perturbator and synthwave to new heights and helped him hit the road and travel from France to North America for a full tour. After the dust had settled, its safe to assume audiences weren’t expecting new music for awhile, considering the album was over an hour and had a bonus EP of B-sides totaling another forty minutes. Yet, New Model is here and with it, a reinvented sound, the only way to follow up such a defining album.
New Model greets us with Perturbator’s most tame intro, “Birth of the New Model.” Appropriate, right? Otherworldly tones that sound as if they were pulled from 80’s sci-fi films of aliens technology gradually build over the course of the song into a sound that is just unmistakably Perturbator. All the emblematic synth tones are elongated over a slowly programmed percussive track to create a neon-soaked, brooding beast that doesn’t make its move until just the right moment. The track leads into “Tactical Precision Disarray,” a song that could accompany a detective strolling down a decrepit street on his last cigarette in some neo-noir film. Maybe he takes a look down a dark alley and catches a glimpse of the perverted nightlife that comes out after the parties end. When you least expect it, they make eye contact with the wrong shady person, and the whole world seems to stand still as the detective’s stomach sinks, and all you can hear is the faint ticking of his watch before the thrilling chase. The progression is absolutely exquisite, and its crescendo will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up before the song eases you back into the gutter.
On Uncanny Valley, Perturbator surprised us by including vocals for the first time after a number of vocal-less releases, and “Vantablack” gives us yet another great performance, this time from OddZoo. The whispered, reverb-heavy vocals unfurl over a slow plodding bass, following by a sinister recurring tone slithering into the foreground. What may be most surprising is how ghostly moments of the track are, as the vocals float this eerie melody and drop into a hushed guttural. Do I dare say it sounds like Dan Barrett of Have a Nice Life, Giles Corey, and Black Wing? And I haven’t even talked about some of the best parts of this record. “Tainted Empire” is a greater rollercoaster ride than “Tactical Precision Disarray.” Staccato mid-range bass notes, closer to chiptune than synthwave, pummel you under its glitchy sheath. The track stays on a tight leash of fast-moving melody until it suddenly opens up for soundscape lulls. Just when you start getting comfortable, he drops you right into the digital tarpit. It may not be Frontierer, but it’s laborious ferocity is undeniable.
“Corrupt by Design” is something I don’t think Perturbator has explored before. The song is paranoia-inducing, with a melody that darts from side to side, punctuated by ringing sound bytes or distant electronic screeches. There's no safe space in the track, even when a warm bassline and swelling strings center the song, guiding us to one final reset before the ten minute finale of “God Complex,” which opens with a roaring chord reaching up from the depths. Rather than following up with a predictable wall of sound, this sonic beast takes its time pulling itself out of a swirl of mid- to high-range tones, making your head spin as its melody morphs through chiptune and soft keyboard tracking, crawling along the low road of sound on its way to a moment of truth. The beat starts picking up again, the melodic elements of the track subsuming to its quaking bass, but there’s no fanfare or even relief at the end of the road--just a minute of unresolved silence.
New Model is a turning point for Perturbator; an album that, like Every Time I Die’s Low Teens, presents an incredibly intimate development in a discography that is arguable more disconnected from reality than others. While there isn’t a widely-covered horror story preceding this album, New Model taps into a well of emotion that can seemingly only come from experiences with a dark place. It's hard to imagine a better follow up to Uncanny Valley I will be shelling out soon for one of the 180g vinyl pressings before they sell out.. I could see this being hard to swallow if you just recently jumped on the hype train last year, but for someone like me who's been listening for years, it's a surprising breath of fresh air I didn’t know I needed.
- Alex B.
Prologues - Peaceruiner”
Listen to and download the EP here.
Three years ago, two kids from Torrington, Connecticut left a music project called Aske to pursue musical endeavors outside of the internet world. Brandon Antoniak and Tyler Maldonado would start a new project under the moniker Farewell Lodge, which, with help from Cheem guitarist Skye Holden, released Owls in the Bookshelf. This album showed a lot of potential, but their sound was still underdeveloped at this point. Over the course of the next year, the two would rebrand themselves Prologues and bring on ANLMA guitarist Antonio d’Aquino and former Aske mastermind Tyler Toombs to help with the guitar work on their far more dynamic sophomore EP, Absence of Distance. While their sound was still undergoing some growing pains, it was hard not to admire its raw emotion and the band’s obvious work ethic. Now, a year since Absence, Prologues are the most prepared they have ever been as a band with new recruit and permanent guitarist Zack Santiago on board and the heaviest sound they've ever had on Peaceruiner.
The only proper way to describe Prologues’ sound on this EP is completely and relentlessly fucking angry. This EP runs six tracks in about 17 minutes, and from the moment “Dead Guilt” kicks in, I felt as if I was up against a wall with vocalist Tyler Maldonado screaming in my face, and it doesn’t stop until the EP reaches its conclusion. This is easily the best guitar work the group has ever had, meaty and packed with enough dissonant chord progressions and breakdowns to make any fan of metalcore want to mosh hard to tracks like “In Vain” (formerly “To Lose What’s In Vain”) and the title-track. I also love the eerie introduction to “Trenches” that leads into one of the fiercest sounding songs on the entire EP, with a breakdown that really left me stunned.
Since their inception, Brandon Antoniak has proved himself to be quite the drummer, and his work here demonstrates another leap in quality. He really shows off on “Arrows,” where he guides slow, heavy breakdowns into super fast, intense patterns in a matter of seconds, while sounding relatively consistent. The slow, heavy drumming that goes on throughout the title-track is also completely blood-pumping before it hits that super sick breakdown. The chemistry between the instrumental players on this EP is so much stronger than it was previously - you can hear the two playing off each other on tracks like “In Vain” with the fluidity of a much more experienced band.
Then, of course, there are vocals. I’ve been watching Tyler grow as a vocalist for over six years, but the difference between Peaceruiner and Absence of Distance is serious. Despite exerting more control over his tone than before, he’s found a way to communicate even more emotion, partly thanks to lyrical content that’s dropped a lot of the obscurity for a torrent of disdain toward unappreciative, manipulative people, leading to impressive gems like “We turn our backs on peace / We turn it all away for nothing” and “Worship the worthless arrogance / burden our souls.” The delivery, across the board, is superb.
The anger Prologues tap into on this EP is overwhelming, but it does come at a price. Peaceruiner may be a concentrated blast of relentless anger for its runtime, but that’s about it--there are no twist, turns, or detours from their mission to pummel you senseless. You can say that’s smart for the band as they get use to their new, full lineup, but it can be tiring--case in point, “Vacant,” a four-minute track that doesn’t really differentiate itself from the rest of the album. Because of the record’s relative lack of variety, by the time the title track comes on, it doesn’t feel like a climax so much as just the last song. When the band first premiered “Peace Ruiner,” I thought it was pretty sick, but after hearing the rest of the EP, and especially after tracks like “Dead Guilt” and “Trenches” that I absolutely adore, it’s lost its effect on me.
Overall, Prologues have released an EP that finally sounds like a complete band with a sound they can call their own, and the difference between it and all their other stuff is very apparent. If you’re into Zao, Cursed, and early Norma Jean, there is no reason you should sleep on this EP. It’s only 17 minutes, and the guys of Prologues have a lot more heart than most of the signed bands in their genre.
- Alex Brown
Akercocke - Renaissance in Extremis
It doesn’t feel right to call Renaissance in Extremis a comeback record. It’s been a decade since we last heard from Akercocke on 2007’s Antichrist, a relatively experimental entry in their discography that saw them beginning to pivot away from blackened death metal and seek inspiration in post-punk and goth rock. On hiatus ever since, several members moved on to Voices, a different beast altogether, and hope for news of new Akercocke dwindled - but lo and behold, they have returned with an album that sounds as much like a logical follow-up Antichrist as a clean break from the band that wrote it, thanks to one very specific change.
Akercocke’s gimmick was sex and Satan, if that wasn’t clear from a glance at Antichrist or any of their previous albums. Out of a list that includes Rape of the Bastard Nazarene, Goat of Mendes, Choronzon, and Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone, three have explicitly blasphemous names and four prominently feature female nudity in their cover artwork. This may paint a particular image of the band, but I guarantee that they are not who you think, as Akercocke were known to perform in full three-piece suits and affect a posh, intellectual demeanor for interviews, as you can see for yourself in this clip of members bearing through a guest spot on the highly-Christian Irish BBC TV. The same is true for the band’s music: while their first two offerings are frightening and brutal, their interjections of doom and gothic melody eventually guided Akercocke to their first renaissance on Words That Go Unspoken. Words garnered comparisons to Enslaved’s progressive black metal, the sexual overtones of their sound finding their fullest expression in its seductive clean textures even as their trademark Satanism came through loud and clear in a finely-tuned blend of Morbid Angel, mid-period Emperor, and Slayer.
Renaissance in Extremis trades that all away. As familiar as the record feels, the ten years between it and Antichrist clearly wrought some changes in the personal lives of members; and while no one in the band has converted to Christianity, the lyrical subject matter has gone fully secular, favoring meditations on loss and grief over “Saliva on soft thighs / Outstretched wings / Semen across lips / Hooves steeped in blood.” Detours into dark, electronica-tinged rock that informed songs like Antichrist’s “Dark Inside” have been legitimized as part of the Akercocke sound, no longer just stylistic diversions, but meaningful expansions of the band’s sonic and emotional palette. Coupled with a stronger predilection than ever toward extended, virtuosic instrumental passages that never forsake structure for wank, Renaissance in Extremis lives up to its title with a presentation that is as 70s-prog as it is modern blackened death metal without feeling retro or contrived, a concoction that’s one part Opeth, one part Behemoth, and all Akercocke.
We are introduced to this new blend, so much like the old but so much richer, with an unapologetic seven-minute tour de force in “Disappear.” Its shifts from death metal to prog and back are handled with the creative deftness of Blackwater Park, its constituent genres so entangled by song’s end that it’s impossible to say for sure what Akercocke are playing by the time “Unbound By Sin” returns things to slightly more familiar blackened territory. So it is for virtually every track on Renaissance, and so it is that every lick, every beat, and every masterful tonal adjustment becomes metallic bliss. There’s no telling what they’ll do next. While I’m not fond of the phrase, I have to say that it sounds as if not a single note is out of place (instrumentally, anyway), nor do any of the record’s experimental tangents feel forced or uncharacteristic. Previously, the big sticking point with Akercocke was Jason Mendonca’s singing, and I’m afraid that for listeners that had a problem before, Renaissance will not do much to address those issues. He still wavers on pitch and occasionally seems to run out of air before the verse is through, and that wild shriek that could be trusted to knife through the mix only makes cameo appearances now. Otherwise, his extreme vocals remain undeniably brutal, although both his deep gurgles and violent rasps are occasionally miscalculated. Akercocke aren’t as heavy as they think, but it’s a forgivable trespass given the quality throughout.
Renaissance’s virtues get another boost from the best production job they’ve ever had, free of the grime of the first few records and the dynamic flatness of the last two: everything is in its right place, with Mendonca firmly centered against a pair of well-balanced guitars and a robust rhythm section that sees long-time drummer David Gray contributing his most engrossing performance yet. Having proven himself a terrifying machine on Goat of Mendes and a more varied percussionist on Words That Go Unspoken than anyone suspected, he fills Renaissance with inventive fills and beats that never distract from Mendonca and Wilcock’s dual-guitar pyrotechnics, having the good sense to simply ride a beat out when they take off into some of the best solos I’ve heard this year. I never thought I’d describe anything other than Akercocke’s suits as “tasteful,” but their fretwork is light-years more sophisticated than what they were playing before, expertly navigating tech-metal territory to make the fullest use of their guitars possible without becoming masturbatory. They even make acoustic transitions sound fresh, something I thought Opeth had long ago played into cliche. By the time of “A Particularly Cold September,” possibly the best song they’ve ever composed, Akercocke seem to have exhausted their skills, but also to have done everything necessary to write one of the most thrilling reinventions in recent memory.
And that’s really what it is. Renaissance in Extremis remains true to Akercocke’s core sound as it references the aesthetics and techniques of early records, but it's built on a more demanding songcraft than ever before, disregarding the rules just enough to reinforce them. Comeback records just too often become about trying to worm back into a headspace that’s no longer accessible for various reasons--time and age, experience and stability are all factors, especially for musicians in a genre as emotionally involved as black metal and as technically demanding as death metal. It’s rarely the sort of music that older musicians can or want to return to after they leave it. But Akercocke seem to have made peace with these facts. They’ve left behind Satan and taken inspiration from more banal evils, and therefore more relatable ones, widening their appeal and perhaps imbuing their music with more personal meaning. This is not the Akercocke of old, but Renaissance in Extremis is, without question, their best record and a strong contender for the best of the year.
Not bad for a band still named “Goat penis.”