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.”
Turnover - Good Nature
Stream the full album on Youtube
Depending on who you ask, the recent wave of emo-revival bands this decade is either fantastic or absolutely terrible. Citizen, Title Fight, and Basement have all taken the sounds of midwestern emo bands and injected them into various genres (pop punk, hardcore, and alternative rock, respectively) to varying levels of success that, once again, depend on whom you ask, but none of these bands seem to have the cult-like appeal of Virginia Beach’s Turnover. Originally sporting a sound not unlike early Citizen or The Story So Far on their debut, Magnolia, the band decided to take a new direction on 2015’s Peripheral Vision, infusing delay-tinged shoegaze and indie with their emo/pop-punk that produced a sound resembling that of dream-pop. The album was a hit, appealing to listeners of all scenes and genres. The band, following emotional abuse allegations against now-former guitarist Eric Soucy, have returned in 2017 with the follow-up to their breakthrough record: Good Nature.
I’ll skip my usual schtick of delving into the tracks in depth because, frankly, they just don’t have the same level of memorable songwriting to really get into the meat and potatoes of it. Good Nature isn’t bad outright; I certainly wouldn’t call it boring, but it feels as if the band are trying to painfully force lightning into a bottle for a second time, leading to a completely disjointed and awkward listen. Sure, there are some standout songs like lead single “Supernatural” and “Pure Devotion.” Both are as catchy and endearing as anything off Peripheral Vision, but also represent a rare occurrence amongst a sea of tracks that can sound downright lazy.
Again, there’s nothing offensively bad here, but it is confusing to see how the band was able to write such addictingly bubbly guitar melodies as well as remarkably morose yet catchy hooks two years ago has managed to almost completely fail the second time around. “Sunshine Type” is a perfect example, featuring a hook that not only manages to sound like it was written last-minute just to finish the song, but also also manages to be rather boring, which is something I would never have expected from a band like Turnover. It lacks the genuine charm of the previous record, making for a record that feels like a case of style over substance.
Speaking of style, perhaps some of the blame for the relatively lack of quality can be attributed to infamous (depending on who you ask) producer, Will Yip. Part of what made Peripheral so retro-fresh was the spacey production that gave it a winter sunset-like quality befitting the melancholy vibe of the record. This is not present on Good Nature at all. In fact, the album feels too polished. While the guitars on Peripheral weren’t distorted, they certainly weren’t bleach-clean. Vocalist Austin Getz is barely audible in the mix as well, and given the fact that the band is well known for their lyrics and melodies, this choice doesn’t exactly help much.
Good Nature feels like meeting up with an old friend or loved one after a long period of no contact, only to find that the connection you once had with each other is no longer present. The record feels familiar, but the band simply failed to recreate what they had so brilliantly done two years ago. Austin Getz was once quoted in an Upset Magazine article saying that the shift in sound from Magnolia to Peripheral Vision wasn’t “anything deliberate, ever” and that the band never “decided [that they] want to make this kind of record.” Perhaps that’s all Peripheral Vision was: a lightning-in-a-bottle type of record that could never really be replicated.
- Cesar G.
Septicflesh - Codex Omega
I fundamentally disagree with the idea of blending death metal and symphonic arrangements, not only because it reinforces that tired equivalency your typical Headbanger’s Journey-educated metalhead will burp up to justify blasting Cannibal Corpse at all hours (“If Bach were alive today, he’d be playing metal!”), but because it’s a cheap, smug shortcut to “classing up” your Cannibal Corpse cover band without putting in the effort. What counts as “orchestral” and “symphonic” has been so debased by Bleeding Through-aping metalcore bands that don’t know they’re aping Bleeding Through, and mangled by so many more fourth-generation deathcore bands, that even the exceptions to this rule have an uphill battle against a well-earned prejudice: if you say your band is “classically” influenced, you probably have a keyboardist in a poorly-fitted silk shirt skulking around on stage, and the chance you’re worth the time is slim at best.
Septicflesh are not that, at least. They can actually play their instruments, have grasped what constitutes classical music by actually listening to it, and have even made use of full, honest-to-God orchestras in the past for authenticity. They are, or have tried very hard to be, the real deal. Although I was unimpressed by both Communion and The Great Mass when I listened to them years ago around the time of their respective releases, and have still not had my mind changed by Codex Omega, I continue to hold Septicflesh in a much higher regard than probably makes sense, but which I base solely on the fact of their competence. If there is a band capable of finding the median between classical and metal, Septicflesh have the best chance.
I don’t think Codex Omega finds that median, and to tell the truth, I don’t think any metal band ever will, for reasons that the album unwittingly makes clear: the electric guitar was never meant to be a team player. It’s an instrument that demands attention and will get it at the expense of every subtler instrument you put in its way or try to drape over it. When I hear it in the context of a symphonic arrangement, try as I might, I cannot help but think of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra cover of “Carol of the Bells” with Kirk Hammett in all its heavy-handed, cringe-inducing misguidedness. You cannot force the sounds of a metal band and the sounds of an orchestra to cooperate without having one overwhelm the other, or worse, without compromising both for the sake of a neutered mess. As with Fleshgod Apocalypse, the other decent band in the style, the tension frequently breaks, generating these incredibly weird juxtapositions of swelling strings over runaway blastbeats, death growls over tuba, or nasally vocal harmonization over tremolo riffs, sometimes all in the same song.
I will give Septicflesh credit for managing to create, and even sustain, a particular atmosphere of unpredictability over the course of Codex Omega, in spite of all the tonal friction; and I will also give them credit for a production job that, while overdone, maintains a clear distinction between all the instruments in play. This is the best-produced album of the now three Septicflesh records I’ve listened to, also blasting any Fleshgod Apocalypse record I can think of out of the water. But I cannot ignore how every fleeting moment of symphonic grandeur is sabotaged by the mere presence of a distorted guitar, no matter how well-played; and please don’t get me started on how ridiculous that choir sounds over a thundering staccato riff at the end of “The Gospels of Fear.” The reverse is also true: as great as Septicflesh can be when they indulge their death metal side, as in the first minute of “Trinity,” the orchestral arrangements invariably wreck the mood.
“Martyr of Truth” does nothing but exacerbate the problems with this style of metal. An eleven-and-a-half minute behemoth of a song devoted to their orchestral side, it’s a piece of unadulterated bombast that obliterates whatever subtlety manifested on previous songs, where Septicflesh work to balance the metal and the classical instrumentation. It has many segments and utilizes many instruments; it even mimics a patient build-up by inserting a lot of rests in the first three minutes, but the song simply lurches from climax to climax thereafter, drawing emotional beats in primary colors: bursts of trombone, deep bass rolls, clarinet stabs. It’s a classical song written like a metal song, but the excitement and verve gets hopelessly lost in translation. It’s followed by the equally pompous “Dark Testament,” concluding the album on a note of exhausted excess...unless you’ve got the deluxe version, in which case you’ve subjected yourself to another five minutes of this nonsense with an orchestral redux of “Portrait of a Headless Man” from earlier. By tacking three long, metal-free songs to the end of Codex Omega, Septicflesh seem to contradict what I thought was the point of their music, tacitly admitting by the placement of these tracks that the genres they have ambitiously tried to fuse for ten albums (!) are not meant to be mixed, and work better (though perhaps not that much better) apart.
I am not an authority on classical music, and I don’t listen to it with any sort of regularity, but it seems to me that a band like Septicflesh should, by now, transcend comparisons to gimmicky Trans-Siberian Orchestra singles. The introduction to this review was facetious--there are much more deep-seated problems than odious fan culture with the notion of blending classical music and death metal. Neither can be played straight the way Septicflesh try time and again to do, and it requires so much compromise and inorganic writing to make the two halves meet that the end result defeats the purpose of trying at all. It seems to me that the appeal of metal is in its competitiveness, in the way every instrument wars with the other, vying for supremacy; and that the appeal of classical music is in the opposite virtue of harmony, of cooperation and teamwork. These are incompatible ethics; and if the above is an oversimplification of a far more complex idea, then I assure you that Codex Omega is, too.
Thy Art Is Murder - Dear Desolation
Against all odds, Dear Desolation is one of the best deathcore records in a surprisingly great year for deathcore, but it also really bring into focus the unnecessary theatrics of CJ McMahon’s departure (re: vacation) from Thy Art Is Murder. Shortly following the announcement came that infamous social media post with an explanation, which seemed to attract quite a bit of sympathy until someone did the math. The band soldiered on in the meantime, embarking on a North American tour alongside Fit For An Autopsy and Dark Sermon with a revolving door of vocalists, around which time we also saw the release of The Depression Sessions split. For months afterwards, Thy Art Is Murder teased fans with a slew of will-they-or-won’t-they replacements, the most promising of which was Molotov Solution vocalist Nick Arthur, only to announce CJ’s surprise return and plans for a new album.
We never got so much as a single without CJ. Don’t get me wrong: I think he’s an excellent vocalist, maybe one of the best after listening to Dear Desolation, but I was more than passingly interested to hear what Thy Art Is Murder could do with a new set of pipes up front. Nick Arthur wouldn’t have been a drastic change, but he would have been different--and following the good-but-predictable Holy War, different was all I really wanted to hear from Thy Art. Consequently, there’s no triumph to CJ’s return because we don’t know what they sound like without him, and we don’t know what he sounds like without them--whatever excitement may color some fans’ experience with Dear Desolation now will not be there in an album or two for new fans. To them, this will simply be the record that follows Holy War.
That said, Dear Desolation may be their best album. It erased any misgivings I had by “The Son of Misery,” and had made a convert out of me by the groovetastic “Puppet Master.” Historically, Thy Art Is Murder have had a stronger death metal backbone than their peers, apparent as far back as the tech-wank of Infinite Death; but as the punishing run from “Slaves Beyond Death” to “Death Dealer” shows, they’ve taken a close eye to Behemoth and Rivers of Nihil since Holy War. More time than ever before is spent blasting and pummeling the listener with some the most incendiary passages of their career, and there’s nary a pause to catch your breath. On my first listen, by the time “Fire In The Sky” and “Into Chaos We Climb” came around, I had forgotten I was listening to a deathcore band at all--this is simply the heaviest material Thy Art Is Murder have written yet, a thrilling window on on a future where Thy Art Is Murder have dropped the -core to pursue death metal in earnest. I hope they do.
Until then, they can still be relied on deliver some of the best breakdowns in the game, even if they do wind up the same old crutch they’ve always been by record’s end. The trendy tech-beatings of Infinite Death and Hate are a thing of the past--canny to their strengths, Thy Art Is Murder continue to write in the menacing tradition of Holy War, wringing every ounce of tension from “Man Is the Enemy” and “The Final Curtain” without sinking to double-digit bpm nonsense, so they can maintain their integrity as a death metal band while also indulging the hardcore kids. Despite my gripes with CJ’s time away, that little break had a revitalizing effect on his voice: he seems to have largely abandoned his upper register to focus on his lows, which rival even the untouchable Nergal in sheer guttural power. He isn’t shy about showing off, sometimes to a fault. At multiple points throughout the record I found myself sitting there in awe , but I recognize that his presence could be overbearing to some listeners. Sometimes you just want to hear a riff play out--there are so many of them, after all--but CJ can’t seem to keep quiet for longer than a bar or two before he’s back at it. It’s not necessarily his fault so much as it is the genre’s--I remember running into this same problem with Jonny Davy’s performance on Ruination and Eddie Hermida on This Is Where It Ends--but Thy Art Is Murder would benefit from having a little more confidence in their arrangements.
Despite its growing pains, Dear Desolation is a more graceful attempt at full-bore death metal than Fit For An Autopsy’s The Great Collapse earlier this year, which I also covered, and its problems are much easier to rectify. It may not have the variety of Shadow of Intent’s Reclaimer, but I don’t imagine many do; and Dear Desolation isn’t nearly as safe as Collapse, ultimately making so many small adjustments that the end product actually ends up a major turning point for the band, a la Lorna Shore’s Flesh Coffin or Make Them Suffer’s Worlds Apart. With the wall between death metal and deathcore thoroughly breached, Thy Art Is Murder’s horizons have expanded further than even my reasonably high expectations (based on nothing more than that ultra-cool cover art) allowed me to think. CJ should probably look into taking a few more vacations.
Lil Uzi Vert- “Luv is Rage 2”
Stream and download here.
Symere Woods, more commonly known as Lil Uzi Vert, is a Philadelphia-based rapper known for pioneering in what is known as “mumble rap,” a style of hip-hop consisting of trap-flavored beats and “mumbled” verses. While many a rapper overdo the technique, Lil Uzi Vert is typically very coherent and has a steady, engaging flow. That is one of the best things about him, actually: his flow is absolutely incredible. No matter what beat he is given, he manages to keep up with it at all times, whether he is rapping normally or going into overtime. Also, his production is absolutely banging: the original Luv is Rage has some of the best production I have ever heard on songs like “Enemies” and “Safe House.” While the next two mixtapes were fun listens, neither gave me the adrenaline rush that Luv is Rage offered, but Luv is Rage 1.5 was pretty damn great, albeit a bit short. Tracks like “LUV SCARS K.o. 1600” and, of course, “XO Tour Llif3” were what I wanted to hear. Now, a few months later, the long-anticipated, 16-track, 56-minute Luv is Rage 2 has finally dropped.
Luv is Rage 2 is different in tone from previous Uzi projects. It’s much more focused on making more conventional trap-rap tracks, so much so that even when “banger” tracks such as “444+222” and “Early 20 Rager” come on, they don’t go as hard as previous efforts. “Two®” lets you know right away that this isn’t going to be a bass-fueled, party hard trap-rap project, which is not a bad thing at all. In fact, it’s quite the contrary. These tracks sound a lot more focused, and the production is far more mellowed out, even melancholic. This should be expected after the success of “XO Tour Llif3,” but I feel like in the short period of time between then and now, he’s managed to score up some of the best production available for this sort of vibe, with tracks like “Sauce it Up” and “Feeling Mutual” managing to sound simultaneously upbeat and depressed, while “How to Talk” has a much darker flavor.
Sadness and depression drive Luv is Rage 2. In a recent interview, Uzi confirmed that this LP revolves around his breakup with longtime girlfriend Brittany Byrd, a topic explored back on “XO Tour Llif3,” but not to this extent. Uzi is by no means an amazing lyricist, as lyrics like “I like that girl too much, I wish I never met her” and “Hope this song don’t really hurt you” are very straightforward, but his delivery makes up for his simplicity. From his days on Luv is Rage, I always thought Uzi had one of the best flows in the trap rap game, but on this LP, Uzi sounds like he is legitimately scared of a future without love, reminding me of how Lorde presented herself on Melodrama. He sounds tortured and vulnerable, things we don’t usually associates with trap-rappers, if at all.
There are track like “No Sleep Leak,” of course, that focus on his life of luxury and careless spending rather than his emotional torment, putting us squarely in the trap-rap comfort zone. Lyrics like “I was broke yesterday, I was rich by the morning” pop up with some frequency, showing that this back-and-forth between joy and sorrow is cyclical for Uzi, and maybe even inescapable. On “Two®,” we have Uzi rapping about how he should be praised as an hip-hop innovator. Is this conceited? Perhaps, but there is certainly an argument for him. At the end of this track, however, Uzi starts talking about how the famous life is a dangerous one, and addresses the poor state of his romantic relationship, tying these things to his greatness. He’s not the strongest lyrically, but his presentation make even his weakest bars sounds great.
There are only two features on Luv is Rage 2, but they are pretty damn big ones: Pharrell Williams on “Neon Guts,” and The Weeknd on “UnFazed.” Truthfully, the Pharrell feature does absolutely nothing for me. As a matter of fact, I didn’t know where he even came in for quite some time, as Pharrell does nothing to stand out, which is a must on a track with a person as unique as Uzi. Conversely, “UnFazed” is one of my favorite tracks on Luv is Rage 2 thanks to The Weeknd. Granted, I fall in love anytime I hear The Weeknd’s voice, but the darker tone of “UnFazed” compliments both The Weeknd and Uzi well. They’re in their element on this song. Oddly enough, my biggest problem with this LP is the inclusion of “XO Tour Lli3.” Although it’s one of my favorite songs in the genre, it doesn’t belong, especially following “Dark Queen,” a very melancholic track song featuring a depressed Uzi rapping about his mother. It ruins the moment, and on top of that, there’s absolutely nothing to differentiate from this version from the one on Luv is Rage 1.5, making it all the more pointless.
Even so, this is easily the best Lil Uzi Vert project yet. I didn’t think he could top Luv Is Rage after the previous two mixtapes, but this is easily one of the best things to come out of trap-rap. The production is amazing, Uzi’s personality is on full display, and despite a lackluster Pharrell feature, it’s an artistic accomplishment to judge other trap-rap by. I’m excited to see where Lil Uzi Vert can go from here.
- Alex Brown
XXXTentacion - 17
You either love or you hate XXXTentacion, I’ve honestly never seen someone who just thought he was “okay.” However, he finally dropped his highly anticipated debut record, 17. For some fans, they might hate this record as it touches on his more emotional side of his discography instead of his heavier more bass filled songs. Despite only clocking in at 22 minutes in length, 17 hits upon some of my more favorable songs that he has ever put out.
Starting out with “The Explanation,” a short message from X himself explaining that this album is a message straight from his heart and soul, and that if you can’t vibe with that, to basically shut the album off and get the fuck out. It really sets the mood for the first track, “Jocelyn Flores,” which is very easy to tell that it’s about the fan of his that committed suicide because she couldn’t meet him awhile ago. It’s deep, from the heart and open, and you can easily tell that the lyrical content provided is straight up from the tone of voice provided. “Depression and Obsession” really showcases a different side of X than ever shown before and how he truthfully can pull off absolutely anything that he wants to do given enough time and emotion to toss into it. However between that and “Everybody Dies in Their Nightmares” they also showcase the least memorable tracks thrown onto 17. It’s hard to say that they’re bad because nothing on this record is necessarily bad, however they are skippable without a doubt. It’s all good in the end though because the tracks are followed up by the first single we heard that was featured on a previous EP of the same name earlier titled “Revenge,” which easily marks my favorite X song to date. There’s something about the high note that he manages to hit close to the end of the track that truthfully gives off the “goosebumps” feeling. I was more than happy living off this track earlier this year and this just gives me an even bigger reason to love the song even more, as it falls into play with the rest of the record almost seamlessly. It’s really remarkable how “Revenge” merges into “Save Me” perfectly, even though the song almost seems like he sung out an actual suicide note. It’s one of those songs that when you first hear it, it almost sends shivers down your spine how close to home it hits if you suffer from depression. It’s weird to think that some people don’t enjoy X’s energy on these records as much as the others, due to the raw power and feelings packed into each track on 17. “Save Me” is a cry for help if anything and I know it all to well, it almost makes you hope that someone hears this and helps him out for the sake of his own life. “Dead Inside” interludes into the last section of the album and man, it really sets the mood and gets you ready for some of the best material on the record. Trippie Red, absolutely crushed his feature on “Fuck Love” it makes it blend more like a modern hip hop song than most of X’s tracks and between the two of them, there’s some real harmony for the song making it more upbeat even though it's still a depressing song. If for some odd reason the message about his depression and suicidal have went over your head until this point, there is absolutely no way that it will after “Carry On.” It’s another song like “Save Me” that’s almost hard to listen to sometimes, however it really sets the mood for “Orlando” which is a sung out song instead of rap setting the scene for the outro “Ayala” to end out his debut record.
XXXTentacion is for sure making another ground breaking record for his career with 17, hopefully he talks to someone or (maybe) uses his music as an outlet more often so we can get more tunes like this. I know I wouldn’t be mad personally. Pick up 17 and support the new wave of hip hop.