Doom metal in all shapes and sizes

Like most genres, doom has its subset of styles that get their own neat prefixes to give you a better idea of what will greet you once you press play.

Historically, the style of music sounds dark, hopeless, often sludgy, sometimes bluesy. Down-tuned, of course. It’s doom! Most point to Black Sabbath as the pioneers of the genre, but along the way, notable bands such as St. Vitus, Candlemass,  and Trouble carried things through the ’80s and ’90s, and more recent acts such as Witchcraft, Sleep, Electric Wizard, Crowbar, the Melvins and plenty of others took doom and went in different directions with the sound. Hence, your sub-genres.

While the flowers are blooming, trees are coming back to life, and birdies are chirping, there’s a nice helping of doom both in stores and ready to be unleashed on the public to counter all the fresh smells, new life, and beauty. Fittingly, the three albums I’m going to highlight kind of embody the idea of doom having so many faces, yet when you put them all together, it wouldn’t seem all that bizarre to have these three bands playing on some enormous bill.

First up is the new record from Virginia’s Pentagram, a band that really has no business being alive, much less recently having come to terms on a new deal with Metal Blade. They really should have been unquestioned pioneers of doom rock and metal and really should be one of those unquestioned legends who normally got slots on Ozzfest, but frontman Bobby Liebling’s legendary drug issues completely derailed the band from enjoying any sort of widespread recognition. Yes, they are adored by many on an underground level, but without rehashing every step (both Decibel and Spin have done a fine job with that in recent issues), let’s just say there ought to be just as many Pentagram shirts on people’s chests as Sabbath. At least Pentagram’s life somewhat has been saved, largely due to Liebling’s sobriety, new role as father and husband, and the band’s surprisingly stellar new album “Last Rites.”

I say surprisingly because how many bands that formed in the early ’70s and were mostly productive in the ’80s still make reliable records? Not many. But there’s a bit of a catch to Pentagram putting out a good album in 2011, and that would be Liebling’s expansive songbook, which he put together well before drugs ripped his life apart. The majority of the material are reworked songs from Liebling’s catalog (only three are new), which explains the amazingly authentic ’70s/’80s feel, but who cares if they are? The band still had to breathe life into material that really should have been on albums put out decades ago (and some are on compilations in rough form), and Liebling still had to prove he has the pipes for this. The return of guitarist Victor Griffin (who was a member of Death Row in the early 1980s along with Liebling, who the eventually assumed the Pentagram moniker, since the name was being used anymore … it’s a little confusing) is one of the keys to this album. He absolutely smokes on these songs, laying down effective riffs and simmering soloing, and while Liebling – 57! — doesn’t always sounds like a world beater, he’s effective enough to carry through. If you’re wary, check out “8,” folk-style, mid-tempo dreamer “Windmills and Chimes” and crunchy closer “Nothing Left.” Hopefully that song title just sounded cool.

Way more current but with an unquestionably classic edge come Gates of Slumber with their fifth record “The Wretch.” The songs are pretty epic, as we’ve come to expect from the Indiana doom group, and certainly more of their traits reach backward through the decades than forward. I’ve always appreciated GoS’s records, but I never really got super into them for some reason. But “The Wretch” changed that a bit for me. I really found myself getting immersed in the songs, and Karl Simon’s vocals, which didn’t always excite the hell out of me, sound fantastic here. Opener “Bastards Born” is scathingly slow, yet always heavy, truly tapping into the Sabbath magic. “The Scovrge of Drvnkeness,” which originally had been hinted as the album title, ramps up the psychedelics and crunch, making it one of the loudest songs on this collection. “Day of Farewell” and “Castle of the Devil” are epics, with the former held together by solid wah-style soloing, the latter feeding off the ’70s/’80s early doom that’s more like a bubbling cauldron than a volcanic eruption. Same goes for the closer “Iron and Fire,” the longest cut on the record and one that never loses its drama. Overall, it’s a little different than the last two GoS albums, but still faithful to the band’s roots. And like I said, I really got into this album, more so than any of their past works. This is doom for lonely barbarians and beer drinkers.

Finally, we make our way to While Heaven Wept, a band 20 years into their existence that’s long been termed as epic doom, but I’ve always felt they fit more into the power/prog category, especially recently. Maybe that’s because of Rain Irving’s vocals, which tend to soar more than most in the doom genre and often feel like they’d be just as fitting overtop Dream Theater’s music. Their approach often is quite emotional and sometimes a bit gritty, but not enough that when I hear them now I immediately think of doom. Yet, there’s a crossover aspect, and their new album “Fear of Infinity,” their debut for Nuclear Blast, should help them find an even larger audience. I really liked their “Vast Oceans Lachrymose,” which came out in 2009 on Cruz del Sur, and this one is a bit different. There are moments on the new album that sound a little rushed, such as “Destroyer of Solace,” a song that doesn’t even reach the three-minute mark (a rarity for WHW), where Irving sounds forced singing so fast. But opener “Hour of Reprisal” works like a charm, as do heart-wrenching “To Grieve Forever” and towering closer “Finality.” One thing you do get from WHW in spades is pure human emotion. The songs often sound as if the draw directly from the band’s hearts, trading typical gloom-and-doom intent for a relation with their audience on a more personal level. Not sure this will be for everyone, but if you can ignore the lack of barbs and let yourself be enveloped by their surging melodies, you may find this to be of value.

Finally, apologies for the late entry. One of those weeks. I’ve had a handful of bad news this week, combined with multiple doctor appointments, so it hasn’t really been a good one at all. Will be back tomorrow with more. Thanks for stopping by, and special salute to all those who made last week’s Meat Mead Metal easily the most-read week in our short history.

Krallice’s brilliance never eclipses their hearts

Photo: Justina Villanueva

I am not a guitar geek. By that, I mean I don’t play the guitar and, therefore, never will be one of those writers who uses a lot of terminology and whatnot when writing about songs, bands, or albums. There are those out there who do, and I always like reading their stuff because it helps me sort of understand things a little better, but I tend to write more based on feeling.

The reason I say this is because tackling the new album from Krallice would seem to necessitate some sort of boiling down the band’s musicianship, and that just ain’t happening here. Oh trust me, I’d love to imbibe some secret formula that would allow me to dissect what’s going on during the six tracks on “Diotima,” the band’s third album, but until I find said concoction, it isn’t possible. I can, however, tell you how, as a critical listener, the music struck me. And let’s face it: The percentage of people who buy this record to enjoy how the music sounds certainly will outweigh those who buy it to subsequently analyze the compositions. So I’m one of you!

I’m lucky enough to have been aboard the Krallice experience from their first record, an enthralling experience that only hinted at their brilliant future. Also, the 11-minute title cut from their second opus “Dimensional Bleedthrough” used to be the first song on my running mix when I was on the treadmill, because the song was so stupefying and relentlessly introspective, it always made me forget the grunt work because I was so caught up in the music, no matter how many times I heard the track. As expected, hopes were high for album three, and when it arrived in the mail from Profound Lore, it immediately went into my CD player because I had to start absorbing this thing immediately.

One thing that’s evidently clear from even the first listen is the emergence of Nick McMaster, their furious bass player who provides the gritty death metal wallop vocally. He’s the prevailing force here as his voice becomes THE dominant one (guitarist Mick Barr still contributes the shrieks, though he sounds more like a complimentary contributor now, which isn’t a bad thing), and he provided the philosophical vision for “Diotima.” Diotima of Mantinea was the female seer in Plato’s “Symposium,” and there is some debate as to whether she was a real person or simply a fictional character. Nonetheless, she came to symbolize Platonic love, and along with influence from German poet  Friedrich Hölderlin, himself fixated with her, and McMaster’s own work, you get a pretty good idea of the heady journey you’ll be taking. More disclosure: I don’t yet have the lyric sheet, so I can’t go much further into this subject, but that should be enough to intrigue those who can appreciate black metal subject matter that isn’t all blood, guts, and death, even if there are Apocalyptic themes interweaved here.

One thing about Krallice’s music, especially on this effort, is their combined brilliance sounds machine-like. It’s almost like no human could put all these complicated pieces together and have them hum so seamlessly. Yet, considering that, there’s also an evident element of human emotion, not just in McMasters’ and Barr’s vocals, but in the music itself. It transcends their collective brilliance and goes beyond four guys – McMaster, Barr, guitar virtuoso Colin Marston, and drummer Lev Weinstein — leveling you with how good they are. You feel something when all of this blends together, like some sort of craft spiraling you into space. But instead of growing queasy from the spinning, shaking and wind whips, you feel fulfilled, like you got to see a plane of living you never knew existed and would have no other vehicle in which to understand this level. Yes, I know it sounds like I dropped a shitload of pills and listened to “Diotima.” More full disclosure: I do zero drugs.

The first two cuts – instrumental opener “Untitled” and scary/savage “Inhume” – combined are not as long as any of the remaining four songs individually. Now, in the past, Krallice did have those times when they didn’t seem to know when to cut things off, and perhaps seeing the song lengths will make you think the same on the surface. Instead, their playing and understanding of the songs seems to have grown, and there’s really not a lot of open space that could be cut out. “The Clearing,” for example, is calculated nicely, with guitars hanging like a hurricane, then moving into a section that sounds like heavier early Rush, then ending in a panic of seething shrieks and a pocket of noise. The title cut and closer “Telluric Rings” are built much the same way, as both feel like they have necessary building blocks that logically pull you toward its conclusion. In fact, “Rings” has a drone fizzle out that feels perfect, like it all burned out in the end, just like you thought it would. These songs never even seem as long as they are, believe it or not. Only “Litany of Regrets,” with its delayed effects and tempo that tends to trudge along, feels a little tedious. Not a bad song by any means, just not one that lit my world ablaze.

So yes, guitar wizards will pull out their tablature paper and calculators and thick glasses and spend hours analyzing this thing. I really wish I was one of you. But if you’re like me and enjoy music for the sake of what it does to you inside, “Diotima” is their most giving effort yet. There’s an undeniable passion and catharsis to these songs, and even if you’re not following along with the lyric sheet in hand, you can understand what’s going on by connecting as a living, breathing, thinking human. Krallice are one of the most important young bands out there because not only do they care about making great albums, they make sure they leave a piece of themselves with their creations. That’s kind of rare these days, and it’s refreshing to know how much they care. It’s also one of the reasons parting with your cash for their creations always feels like hard-earned money well spent.

Speaking of value, Profound Lore is running a killer special where you can buy all three Krallice albums for an obscenely low price. I’ll link that up below.

To grab the Krallice collection, go here: http://www.profoundlorerecords.com//index.php?option=com_ezcatalog&task=detail&id=736&Itemid=99999999

To buy “Diotima,” go here: http://www.profoundlorerecords.com//index.php?option=com_ezcatalog&task=detail&id=737&Itemid=99999999

For more on Krallice, go here: http://www.myspace.com/krallice

Primordial: Staring death in the eyes

We’re all going to die. There, feel better?

But seriously, we will. No matter if that involves some awful disease, an accident, murder, old age, or at one’s own hand, we all will face our demise. And that’s not a very pleasing thought, to be honest, but it’s an inevitability we all face. Some people choose to dwell on this fact (I’ve been known to do this from time to time) while others park it in the back of their minds until they absolutely must face what they know to be true. People say the only things that are certain are death and taxes, but many people avoid taxes for years. No one avoids death.

So it is with Primordial’s seventh record, the interestingly titled “Redemption at the Puritan’s Hand,” that the Irish black/folk metal warriors face the facts. This plane of existence is temporary and fragile, and there’s no assurance of an afterlife. So how does one navigate through life, knowing no matter what one does and how one chooses to act, one day the lights will turn out? Even the eight songs on this record don’t really give any concrete answers and stand more as personal philosophies, but there’s much to gain from this, no matter where one stands on the topic of “the end.” The band’s frontman/lyricist Alan “Nemtheanga” Averill partially explains the album this way:

“We are animals, beasts and making peace with that beast might be your life’s work but more often than not he is never tamed. Once a wolf always a wolf. We all seek redemption in one way or another, from lies or from truth. Those of us who are godless or faithless often envy the man of faith for his life seems to have an extra purpose, despite the fact that logic, pragmatism, science and realism should crush any sign of faith, we still persist in lying to ourselves. Perhaps the alternative is too much to bear. So the themes of religion, mortality and death occur over and over again, along with continuing themes of alienation, martyrdom, sacrifice, violence and retribution. Occasionally, very occasionally a chink of light breaks through.”

This is interesting, as the album contains a song called “Lain With the Wolf,” a surging, riveting number, where Averill, full of provocative intent, howls, “He whispers when the demon comes, ‘Do you make peace with them, or do you become one of them?’” One shouldn’t read that line as if Averill’s character is addressing little red devils with pitchforks. He’s facing what’s haunted him during his life and deciding if he’ll conquer these things or if they’ll destroy him. That’s something most of us face at some point in our life. It’s interesting, but just last night I watched a documentary on George Foreman, and the bulk of it focused on his devastating defeat at the hands of Muhammad Ali in Zaire in 1974. The loss absolutely destroyed Foreman mentally. His aura of fear and invincibility basically was erased and he became a joke. It wasn’t until he faced that humiliation and decided it wouldn’t define his life that he finally climbed out of that funk and reclaimed his life. He chose to make peace with the demons and came out of it a stronger, transformed man who reclaimed the world title, miraculously, in 1994 at age 45.

That may seem off course, but not really. That example can be used to add color to the song “Bloodied Yet Unbowed,” one of the most inspirational selections in the band’s catalog. Averill mentions that “chink of light” that can shine through on the record, and I find it on this song. Here he finds himself bested by, supposedly, a “better man.” Yet for whatever damage he may have sustained physically or mentally, he never wavered from his beliefs or what he thought was right. “No regrets, no remorse,” he insists. But he’s not afraid to fail as long as he didn’t sell out his beliefs along the way. It really is a song that, as long as you can relate to his character, you can adopt it as a personal mission statement.

Of course, there is plenty of darkness elsewhere. “God’s Old Snake” and the stunning ballad “The Mouth of Judas” sort of walk hand in hand in their despair and doom, while the title cut warns, “There is sickness in the soil,” which you can take to mean any number of different things, from a literal interpretation to something hiding ominously below what’s obvious. Closer “Death of the Gods” is the longest piece on a record of lengthy cuts, and sitting in the middle is this reminder: “Beware of the thing that is coming.” It all comes back around, with us facing the day we’re no longer a member of this planet. What did we learn along the way? Were we productive? Did we stand for something? Were we not afraid to lose, to be bruised, to be bloodied? Or were we merely, as Averill states elsewhere in the album’s description, “food for worms, and nothing more”?

I’ve gone on a bit without describing how the music sounds. Sorry. I found the lyrical content of the record so interesting, I had to spend most of my time there. Few bands do that for me, so it is most appreciated. Basically, if you’ve been on board with Primordial’s journey, you’ll recognize the music on “Redemption at the Puritan’s Hand” as a natural progression. They’ve slowly moved away from the black metal of their earlier days, though it’s here at times (“God’s Old Snake,” “The Black Hundred”). Most of what you meet is their specific brand of epic, emotional metal. There’s not a second where you’ll doubt if they’ve poured all of their hearts’ contents into the songs, because it’s so evident they have. Averill absolutely soars over the material (he told Decibel he was suffering with an illness while recording, but you’ll never notice anything awry), and he’s one of metal’s most important, most expressive vocalists. Maybe some people will miss that they’ve evolved away from how their earlier recordings sound, but this record is so good and so moving, I don’t see how that can even be possible.

As far as pure heavy metal goes, drawing from all genres and subgenres, Primordial remains one of the best there is. They’ve never made a bad album, and they only get more intense with age. They have lived by their word. Primordial won’t be around forever as a band or as humans, but every time out, they wear their hearts on their sleeves, they say what they mean, and they aren’t afraid to ruffle feathers because they believe so steadfastly in their message. When their end has come, they should rest well knowing they added something real to a world so full of synthetic goods. God forbid this day comes, but when their number is up, Primordial certainly will be able to die with dignity wholly intact.

Black Tuesday: Vreid and Winterus

There is so much black metal on the market, I have automatically become horribly skeptical any time a new record comes my way, whether I’m familiar with the band or not. It’s what oversaturation tends to do to an already cynical person.

So it takes more of an effort to sift through all of this stuff to find anything really worth talking about. Anyone who writes about metal for a living can attest to this: Our inboxes are absolutely inundated with stuff. Metal PR folks are ambitious and active, much to their credit. I write about other genres as well, and it sometimes takes some severe arm twisting to get promos out of those folks, but not so with metal reps. But the negative is I sometimes have tons and tons and tons of albums downloaded that I’ve not even come close to approaching. Nice problem to have, right?

Since black metal makes up a nice chunk of that traffic, it seemed a proper time to pull out a couple of things I found noteworthy recently. First up is the fifth album from Vreid, a band I took a seriously liking to some time ago, but they have changed up their sound a bit for their latest opus. The other is Winterus, a band on a label in which I typically find zero interest, who have an interesting debut.

We’ll start with Vreid, who hail from Norway and formed out of the ashes of Windir. Their 2009, World War II-based “Milorg” was one of my favorite metal albums of that year, and that obviously set the stage for my excitement over “V,” an effort I had heard was going to be different than what they’ve put out in the past. Well. Five albums into a run seems like the right time to change up the dynamics, I guess, and my first experience with the record didn’t register much of a reaction. I liked “Milorg” from the first go-around with it, but this one didn’t tell me a whole lot with its first impression. But I also was eager to go back and try again, which is always a good sign. Not every album makes sense the first time you hear it, and if I was one to give up on records when they didn’t work for me the first time, there’d be plenty of stuff in my regular rotation that wouldn’t even be a part of my life – Sunn0))), the latest Amon Amarth, Nadja.

The music on “V” (out on The End) remains black metal at heart, but they branch out to embrace more atmospheric, prog-fueled rock. It’s kind of like they spent a lot of time with Opeth and Katatonia albums while they were making this. For every eruption of thorny fury, such as “Wolverine Bastards” and somewhat Satyricon-like “The Sound of the River,” you get something bathing in atmosphere, with rich synth, clean vocals and sci-fi adventure such as “Fire on the Mountain,” nearly 11-minute “The Other and the Look” and closer “Then We Die,” which is sort of gothy. It’s not what many have come to expect from Vreid, and I’m sure some longtime fans may feel a bit put off by it. Like I said, it didn’t light my world on fire at first, but the more time I spend with it, the more I appreciate “V.” It may not make my year-end Top 10 list, but it’s enjoyable enough and probably will be something I regularly visit.

For more on Vreid, go here: http://www.myspace.com/thepitchblackbrigade

Winterus is a fairly new band, having formed in 2009 in Kalamazoo, Mich., under the name The Ancient. They eventually changed their moniker and now are unleashing their nine-track, oddly put-together “In Carbon Mysticism.” I say it’s oddly constructed because it opens with six studio cuts and ends with three songs recorded live. And the three concluding songs have such a different feel production-wise, it left me a little perplexed. But we’ll get to that. This band is signed to Lifeforce, a label that doesn’t exactly warm my heart. It’s not that they do anything wrong, per se (except house Deadlock, one of the worst bands ever), it’s just that what they release isn’t really my taste. So I’m not criticizing, really. But Winterus is an interesting signing, and a promising one at that. They cite bands such as Wolves in the Throne Room, early In Flames (which I don’t really hear in the music), Immortal, and Enslaved as influences, and their sound is atmospheric black metal. They have gushing lead guitar melodies, decent songwriting chops, and a capable frontman in Christopher Erich Neu (who sounds more menacing on the rawer live tracks).

I really found myself enjoying their guitar work the most, because it really does have a chilling ambiance to it when it’s reaching out into the stars, but it can be savagely menacing when it comes time for thrashing. Sometimes the leads are a bit overpowering and kind of mute out what else is going on, and that can be a bit distracting. But it’s an issue they can address in the future with what they tackle next, and there’s at least an indication that this band is capable of captivating work as they go ahead. The six studio cuts alternate from instrumental songs to tracks with vocals, and that sort of prevents the album from having a truly organic flow. It seems like it was done on purpose, not because the songs flowed together that way. The live songs have a totally different production value, and actually, the lower-fi, dirty finish kind of makes them the more noteworthy of the collection. Not sure why they did it this way, and it does make for some awkwardness, but “Christ Reigns” and “Dusk Unveils” are sinister chunks of soot that I enjoyed the most out of everything on here.

“In Carbon Mysticism” could use some work production-wise, and sometimes the tracks feel like they have more to offer, but just kind of end (“No Rest,” for example). Again, it’s a young band and this is their first full offering, and there is some promise. With better production and more fleshed-out compositions next time around, they could become a serious challenger. Surely, playing these songs live and just getting more experience on a stage, period, should help them become a richer, more capable band. Also, perhaps even studying up further on Wolves in the Throne Room’s and Enslaved’s compositions and what makes them so compelling could help these guys. I’m looking forward to where Winterus are, creatively, in a couple of years. We’ll see if slogging around the country and immersing themselves into their creation helps them become the beast I think they can be.

For more on Winterus, go here: http://www.myspace.com/winterus

Record Store Day: The aftermath

A shitty mess of a Saturday weather-wise and a badly sprained ankle didn’t deter us from participating in Record Store Day. And as usual, we didn’t find everything we wanted but we did land a few surprises.

At the end of the day, we came home with 6 pieces of vinyl and 4 CDs, and we only paid $93 combined. Not a bad day, all said, and this was spread out over two stores that took some effort to even get to. It was raining and really windy, so naturally people were terrified of driving. The Bloomfield section of Pittsburgh, our first stop, was bumper-to-bumper the entire way through town. We had to take a back road to find a parking lot, and it was just ridiculous.

Paul’s was pretty damn busy when we got there, and they had all the exclusive stuff on the counter so it was easy to access. They still had a lot of good stuff left when we got there (an admittedly later-than-we-wanted 12:30 p.m.), but the only thing I picked up there was Esben & the Witch’s “Chorea” EP. I wanted to wait for our Eide’s stop since I had a lot of metal on my wish list, and Paul’s has a fairly limited metal selection. My wife did pretty well, as she landed a Death Cab for Cutie 7-inch (that we later found out was released in error), Dharohar Project, Laura Marling, Mumford & Sons 10-inch, The Head and the Heart album on vinyl (Pitchfork stupidly ripped that album today; must not have been Deerhunter enough for them), and Fleet Foxes “Helplessness Blues/Grown Ocean” 12-inch single. Pretty good haul for the lovely lady.

After a way-longer-than-usual drive to Eide’s in the Strip District, I sandwiched my car into a spot along Penn and went inside. Along with RSD stuff, Eide’s also was running a 39th anniversary sale, where all new CDs were 30 percent off, and all used CDs were 40 percent off. They had way different stuff than did Paul’s, though some of the pricing wasn’t so good. The Opeth “The Throat of Winter” 7-inch single was $10! Yikes! So even though that was high on my wish list, I passed. Some other things they had were weirdly priced, though some things seemed like a major bargain. One of them, YOB’s “The Great Cessation” double-clear vinyl, was only $13.99, so I scooped that up quickly. They had some other strong vinyl such as new Earth and the awesome BXI EP. Also, I grabbed Winter’s “Into Darkness” reissue, that just came out on Southern Lord. All of this cost me a mere $23. My wife grabbed a used copy of Depeche Mode’s “Violator”, a Harry Nilsson collection, and RSD exclusive of The Decemberists “Live at Bull Moose Records.” By the way, we’re seeing the Decemberists this week. Not very metal, you say? OK, maybe not sonically, but read some of their lyrics. Plus their guitarist Chris Funk is a huge metalhead.

Once we got home, we were pretty psyched it was raining because we could sit inside and enjoy our new music. We’re dorks, but awesome dorks. If anyone reading got some cool stuff on Record Store Day, by all means, share that with us. Hopefully you didn’t get rained on in the process.

Record Store Day goes metal

Tomorrow is one of my favorite holidays. That’s partially because I’m a giant dork. Or maybe entirely because I’m a giant dork.

It’s Record Store Day here in the United States, and with it comes a large smattering of special releases, limited-edition stuff, and early releases designed to celebrate record stores and get people inside them to hopefully help consumers remember the joy of going into a cool little space and walking out with music. Some of us don’t need special days such as these to do this. No exaggeration, I go to a record store just about every week. I don’t always walk out with something, but usually I do. My favorite local shops here in Pittsburgh are Eide’s Entertainment and Paul’s CDs. Eide’s, located in the Strip District, houses CDs (they have a CRUSHING metal section), vinyl, comic books and toys, and you can spend hours in there. Also, the kid who runs the desk, whose name I really should learn, usually is playing Megadeth, Metallica or Iron Maiden, and it’s always the early stuff. Always fun to hear that. Paul’s, located in Bloomfield, is a bit more for people with indie rock taste, which I happen to have. The shop is mostly CDs, but they have a nice helping of vinyl too. Not much metal there, but they do carry a lot of Southern Lord and Hydra Head titles, and their staff is incredibly friendly. Links to both shops below.

For Edie’s, go here: http://www.eides.com/

For Paul’s, go here: http://www.myspace.com/paulscds

Anyhow, the event helps independently owned record stores have a day on which to highlight themselves. And really, with big-box stores having entered the market, done their damage, and pretty much gotten out, it’s time for us to embrace these places again. Hitting record shops is one of my favorite weekend activities, and I’m lucky to have a wife who likes this as well (though she’s more a Paul’s girl than Eide’s, though she always gets excited to see their display of Futurama action figures). Tomorrow, we both have our wish lists, and even if we don’t return home with exactly what we set out to buy, we’ll certainly buy something. I’m getting pumped just thinking about it, and I have a badly sprained foot/ankle that’s going to hinder my movement a bit.

If all of this excites you too, know that there are plenty of quality metal-related wares coming your way on Record Store Day. I’m not going to cover them all, but I did pick a few to bring to your attention. Maybe these won’t excite you, but the list of everything coming out is below, so feel free to peruse and see if anything is going to demand your money. My guess is you’ll find something. There also are some releases that are limited to specific regions, and one of my wish list items – Discordance Axis’ “The Inalienable Dreamless” on vinyl — is one, so I am out of luck as Philly, not Pittsburgh, will have access. But it’s cool. I’ll find something else. Maybe you’ll like these:

Between the Buried and Me already released “The Parallax: The Hypersleep Dialogs” on CD, and it’s a refreshing return to form for the band that went a little off track on their final Victory release. This, however, is the vinyl version of this effort that’s the first of a two-part series. The band is now on Metal Blade, which makes way more sense for BTBAM, and this would be worth checking out on the turntable. I have a review of this in the next issue of Outburn, so I don’t want to go into too great of detail here. That’s kind of a bad sentence, huh? Anyway, if you were into this North Carolina prog-death band’s earlier work, you’ll like the music on this one. If you got into their headier, bizarre, Pink Floyd-like conceptual lyrics on their later work, then you find plenty on which to chew. Wait, don’t chew on the record. Bad for the teeth.

I always feel bad for the Deftones artistically, because they happen to rise to prominence in the pitiful age of Korn and fucking Limp Bizkit and shit (notice I didn’t bold those band names). OK, and they also kind of dressed the part at times. But Deftones are an awesome band, and anyone who can tell me “White Pony” isn’t one of the best rock-oriented albums of the past couple decades does not know what he/she is talking about. Tragedy recently struck the band in 2008 when longtime bass player Chi Cheng was critically injured in an automobile accident, and he remains hospitalized with brain injuries. But the band carried on, hoping one day Cheng could recover and rejoin them. They put out last year’s strong “Diamond Eyes,” and tomorrow they give us “Covers.” It sounds exactly like what it is, a vinyl release of their versions of songs from artists as diverse as The Cars, Drive Like Jehu, The Cure, The Cardigans, and Sade. Yes, Sade.  As bizarre as some of this sounds, my guess is it’ll be a very worthy purchase.

Mastodon have a couple of things coming your way. First is a vinyl version of their recently released concert album “Live at the Aragon.” I posted a link to my review a couple of weeks ago, so you can find that on the site if you do a search. Most of the setlist from the 2009 Chicago show is centered on their “Crack the Skye” album, which they play in its entirety (some older gems are tacked on at the end, as to not ignore us Mastodon lifers). I guess your interest will depend on how you feel about the album. But in addition, they’re also putting out a 7-inch of “Just Got Paid,” a song they performed alongside the track’s originator ZZ Top. Pretty weird, right? The song originally appeared on ZZ Top’s 1972 record “Rio Grande Mud,” which came out two years before I was born. Yay! They were a way different-sounding band than the one that found fame in the 1980s, and Mastodon and the Top kill the song on here.

When I was a kid, Ozzy Osbourne scared the holy hell out of me. There was the biting-the-bat-head incident, the scary videos, the weird image, him transforming into a werewolf in the “Bark at the Moon” clip. Now he’s as scary as a Sesame Street character, having been made a commercial buffoon by his wife Sha-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-aron. But at one time, he was as vital and exciting a metal artist as there was, having left his post fronting Black Sabbath and heading into his solo jaunt. Tomorrow you can get your hands on vinyl re-mastered, re-released versions of 1980 debut “Blizzard of Oz” and 1981’s “Diary of a Madman,” records the Catholic school I attended as a kid repeatedly told me would be my ticket to hell if I ever so much as desired to hear. How silly. The CD versions aren’t out until May 31, and if you’ve got a turntable, it’s worth having these, even if just for history’s sake. “Blizzard” has classics such as “I Don’t Know,” “Crazy Train,” “Suicide Solution” and “Mr. Crowley,” while “Diary” boasts “Over the Mountain,” “Flying High Again” and the title cut. This also was the final album featuring guitar legends Randy Rhoads, who died in a plane accident in 1982. No matter how you feel about Ozzy now (I can barely say his name), these are incredibly, legendary records that prove to any naysayer just how great a metal force this man once was creatively.

Clearly, there’s a lot more coming out. Some other highlights include: Dio’s “Killing the Dragon” picture disc; Job for a Cowboy’s three vinyl 10-inch “Ruination” releases; a 10-inch of Machine Head’s ultra-dense, powerfully heavy “The Black Procession”; a 7-inch release from hardcore punk icons OFF! Called “Live at Generation Records”; Opeth’s 7-inch release of “The Throat of Winter”; a special edition of Decibel magazine (just got my June 2011 issue in the mail today) featuring Johan Hegg of Amon Amarth and some download content;  as well as the aforementioned Discordance Axis and Neurosis limited-availability vinyl. If you want to jump the gun, you can get whatever Hydra Head Record Store Day stuff you want at their web shop, located at http://www.bluecollardistro.com/hydrahead/categories.php?cPath=4

For the entire list of stuff available tomorrow, go here: http://www.recordstoreday.com/SpecialReleases

To read about Record Store Day’s history, go here: http://www.recordstoreday.com/CustomPage/614

Oh, and if you want to know where you can spot Hipster Mer-Man during tomorrow’s festivities, here’s a hint: http://hipstermerman.tumblr.com/post/4635237276

Hellfire II: Scorched meat, bitter brews

Warm weather finally is becoming a more regular visitor here on the East Coast. For the most part. Just as I’m typing this, our local weather forecasters are warning that the weekend might not be so awesome. Eh, what can you do?

But last weekend was a different story, and it was prime time for some grilling, something I love doing. And like a dork, I eschew gas grills, preferring the archaic charcoal method. Not sure why. I think’s it’s because I like the smell of burning charcoal. When it gets closer to fall, I use some beer-soaked wood chips too, making my backyard smell like a campground. I do cheat a bit, buying the easy-light coals that only require you ignite them with a lighter, because I don’t trust me with lighter fluid.

So, as noted, since last week was a nice one and we were rewarded with a stretch of warm, sunny weather, we decided it would be a fitting time for a grilling doubleheader: Steaks on Saturday; burgers on Sunday. Pretty easy, right? Of course, but also a ton of fun. We even took an extra-long drive out to the fairly new Settler’s Ridge Giant Eagle (a good 45 minutes from where we live) to buy some freshly cut steaks from the you’re-not-rich-enough-to-shop-here butcher shop. We made the sides simple, with baked potatoes, steamed veggies and baked beans. We were stupidly excited driving home, and I even buckled and didn’t make my wife listen to the new Batillus twice, instead mixing in new ones from Low and Marissa Nadler (hers is out in June, and it’s pretty different from her other work). We didn’t have anything special planned drink-wise, though I did pick up a few bottles of choice brew for Sunday, which we’ll discuss in a moment.

The only real problem with Saturday’s steak grilling was that we used Kingsford Match Light mesquite charcoal, and it burns like total shit. The actual mesquite chunks sort of chuckle at you when you try to light them because they’re total assholes, so it took some time to get the grill hot enough to make the steaks, and once it got to the right temp, it dropped pretty quickly. Usually I’ll grill each side of the steak 5-6 minutes, but I had to do them about 8 minutes each to even get them medium rare. They were fine – my wife likes hers pretty damn rare, so she was happier than I – but I won’t use the mesquite stuff again. We followed with strawberry cupcakes with chocolate sauce and whipped cream, so yeah, can’t really complain.

Sunday was a little better. After a nice 2.5-mile walk (where my wife decided we needed a detour to go see our friendly neighborhood greyhounds … good choice, by the way), it was back for more grill action. I put on Darkthrone’s “The Cult Is Alive” (am I the only person who doesn’t hate that album?) and lit up some regular, normal Match Light charcoal. Went up in a total blaze with no problem, and it heated up properly and maintained its temperature. We used simple ground sirloin and combined it with chipotle-seasoned sweet potato fries. My burger, pictured moments after I hastily took a bite, was topped with cheddar cheese and thick cuts of turkey bacon. Pretty damn fine burger, and I’m excited to have another go at it soon. Just probably not this weekend since we’re looking at a ton of shitty rain.

I did mention finding some beers at the Giant Eagle, and it’s one I haven’t had before. Southern Tier Brewing makes a ton of interesting brews, and you can research them at the link below. I’ve had their excellent Choklat Stout, a seasonal brew available in November through the winter. It’s a potent 11 percent ABV formula, and it’s a really sweet-tasting brew. Some people have complained it’s too sweet, but I didn’t feel that way. I’m actually sad I can’t find it again for many more months. But I was able to land their spring choice Jah*va Imperial Coffee Stout, itself 11 percent ABV. I love coffee-based beers a lot, especially strong ones, so I couldn’t wait to get these chilled so they could be consumed. And that said, I was a little bit disappointed. It’s bitter, which is a plus for me, and dark, and strong, but it doesn’t really have much of a coffee kick. Tried as I might, I could detect anything other than a pleasantly bitter beer wash. Eventually, I put in a splash of vanilla vodka, to see if maybe it would have sort of a creamer effect, and that DID work. It also fairly rocked me, as the beer’s already strong, and the vodka is 80 proof, so you know … I do have another bottle, and tomorrow night I’m going to give it another shot.

For more on Southern Tier and their 52,000 beers, go here: http://www.southerntierbrewing.com/beers.html

Not sure what’s on the menu for this weekend yet. We plan to do some Record Store Day shopping, and tomorrow we’ll have a preview of some of the metal goodies available Saturday. So come back! There’s a lot of quality releases coming your way, and I know I’ll return home that afternoon a little lighter in the pocket.

Septicflesh: The orchestral pits

For weeks now, I’ve been trying to listen to the new Septicflesh album “The Great Mass,” and for some reason, I just couldn’t make it through. Not even once.

I kept trying to go back where I left off, then I tried to do the whole thing at once again, and no matter what way I went about this thing, I couldn’t listen to it. That was odd to me because I really liked their 2008 reunion album “Communion” (as well as some of their early work) and was kind of disappointed I had to miss their stop in Pittsburgh a few years ago. So this was one I was kind of looking forward to hearing, yet the Greek orchestral black metal band didn’t seem to be holding my interest. Finally, I made myself sit down, removed all distraction, and forced myself to listen to “The Great Mass” from front to back. That was how I realized why I couldn’t get a hold of this thing: It kinda sucks.

If you’re not familiar with the band, let me give you a quick, rudimentary history. The band formed in 1990, and a year later, they released their debut EP “Temple of the Lost Race.” Their first full-length “Mystic Places of Dawn” arrived in 1994 (later repackaged with “Temple”), and they put out five more discs before their breakup in 2003, their final being “Sumerian Daemons.” They announced their reformation in 2007, and while they always had symphonic/gothic elements in their music, they heavily amplified that on “Communion,” recording with the Philharmonic Orchestra of Prague.

The Prague players returned for “The Great Mass,” and it should be pointed out that Septicflesh guitarist Christos Antoniou has studied classical and concert composition, so he’s no slouch. But simply being well educated doesn’t make you infallible, and the band just goes off the rails on “The Great Mass.” It’s a mess, the songs aren’t terribly compelling, and at times the material is laughable (“Apocalypse” starts off sounding like music from a children’s Christmas pageant; “Mad Architect” could not have a better name as it sounds like that’s who constructed this wacky piece). I don’t doubt the Philharmonic players hold their own – I’m not exactly the best judge of orchestral music, admittedly – but it’s like a head-on collision of blackened death metal and the “Fantasia” soundtrack. Dimmu Borgir often is guilty of this as well, but typically they remember to include a solid song structure and a memorable hook.

Bassist Seth Siro Anton’s growling vocals are the highlight. Many bands such as Dimmu and Cradle of Filth who dabble in this stuff often don’t have vocals you can take very seriously. As much as I like some of Dimmu’s and Cradle’s stuff, I often find myself chuckling at the overly dramatic, goofy vocals, but I never do that with Anton. So that’s a positive. But it doesn’t help this album transcend beyond silliness. I’m not even sure I totally grasp what’s going on thematically, and the band’s explanation sure hasn’t helped. Even their explanation of the album’s exansive artwork is befuddling. Try this on:

“It is a small part of an occult machine made from marble and flesh, fantasy and reality, order and chaos. A great machine composed from the blasphemous union of strange figures, creations of Man, the creator of the gods and demons. Their grotesque purpose will be revealed soon, when all the cover editions of the new album will be presented and will be combined together… Let the great self-cannibalistic symposium begin.” 

I don’t have any idea what that means, and considering it’s taken me so long to make it through this entire thing one time, I don’t even care. They lost me completely on this one. Opener “Vampire From Nazareth” probably doesn’t need (or deserve) much introspection, and even when they begin a chant that sounds like some sort of conjuration, it doesn’t chill at all. “Pyramid God” is just bizarre and eventually works itself into a jazzy sort of chugging breakdown that feels like it might want to be a pop song; “Five-Pointed Star” and “Oceans of Grey” use some sort of Middle Eastern-flavored woodwinds that feel a bit clichéd; and closer “Therianthropy” begins with terribly nasally gothic vocals, and the track doesn’t really improve from there.

I can’t say anything positive about one song on this album. Not one. I guess I admire the band’s ambition, Maybe it’s overindulgence, actually. It’s a total miss of an album, and this does no justice to “Communion” as its follow-up. It’s never a good sign when you outright laugh during a record one time, much less a bunch of times. I listen to some ridiculous shit, and there times when I can smirk at something silly that I actually like. But this reminds me of when I, as a critic, had to see the “Poseidon Adventure” remake, and when the cruise ship was being smashed to bits and people were dying horribly, I was guffawing out loud. I’m sure that wasn’t the intended reaction Septicflesh hoped their listeners would have, so I’d assume they wouldn’t be thrilled someone responded in that way. Even a cynical critic who laughs heartily when he sees people on the big screen drown on a boat.

Batillus drop doom tonnage

Photo by Tommy Kearns

Improvement is something one should expect from a band. Putting out multiple records, playing live, understanding one’s art should pave the way for getting better. Yet it doesn’t always happen that way because stagnation and resting on the laurels also seems as natural.

Then you get a band such as Batillus, who seem to have been born again. I was introduced to the band a couple years ago with their debut, self-titled EP. It is an all-instrumental piece, with three cuts that bleed over 10 minutes long each, and as interesting and dark as it is, it lacks something that could help them transcend beyond the point they found themselves at the start. As time went on and the band got more experience, they started to develop. Then, they made a move that clinched their rise from contender to one of sludge doom’s best bands when they brought Fade Kainer on board to provide vocals and synth/noise weirdness.

“Furnace” is Batillus’ first full-length album, and it is one of the grimiest, dreamiest, most convulsive, most exciting albums I’ve heard so far this year. They’ve taken the elements from their two EPs and their split with Hallowed Butchery and carved out a six-song collection that demands and achieves your attention, and a lot of that has to do with Kainer’s delivery. Simply, he gets it. There are tons of dudes out there who growl and gurgle over backgrounds of blackened doom that’s similar to what Batillus do, but Kainer’s delivery and passion are unmistakable. You want to hear what he has to say next, and you follow him closely, almost like you’re one of those dots bouncing over song lyrics in those old cartoons. Except instead of a dot, you’re a blot of volcanic lava. Kainer is so crucial to making this band as powerful as it is, and while I don’t mean to make the music take a back seat, because it’s awfully good, a run-of-the-mill singer would have made this a good album, not a great one.

The music itself shows a maturity, especially over what they accomplished on their debut EP. And again, that first effort was a good one, so no complaints. But where they are now as compared to where they stood just two years ago is stunning. They still slow-drub you, which you’ll realize right away from the opener “…And the World Is as Night to Them,” which opens with some Wold-like noise before leading headlong into tarry, ashy doom and eventually atmospheric traveling. It certainly sets the tone for what follows and provides a very clear indication just how much they’ve developed. “Deadweight” is my personal favorite song on the record, as Willi Stabenau’s bass feels like a half ton of rock lumbering along, Greg Paterson’s guitar chugs and eventually spirals off like Kim Thayil, and Geoff Summers’ drums keep the pace calculating and chewy. Fainer howling, “Fall on your knees,” over the chorus is that touchstone moment in the song that your brain tabs as the go-to point. The song is ton-of-bricks heavy.

Batillus cite bands such as Swans, Godflesh and Ministry as influences as well, and that can be felt on “The Division” and its feedback drone; “What Heart,” with its beastly keyboards; and closer “Mautaam,” that opens with a weird, warped vocal sample before corroding into a foggy doom storm. The oddball of the whole album is “Uncreator” because it actually opens up with some speed and fire, making its pace something that sets itself apart.

I know from how I wrote this I made it sound like this is a band that’s been shape-shifting for a decade, but really, their life span has been awfully short. That’s what makes what they display on this debut so damn impressive because they’re already this good and have made giant leaps ahead in such a limited time. Their next record should be scary, as long as they continue to grow and understand what makes them so special. I haven’t had a chance to witness this beast live yet, and make no mistake, next chance I get I’m going. The music on “Furnace” sounds like material that, as good as it is to hear on my home speakers or from my headphones, it will be that much more cathartic and arresting watching them recreate this live. Batillus is one hell of an exciting young band, and they’re only just beginning to feel their way around. There’s no limit for where they can go from here, and I imagine they’ll continue to push whatever boundaries they find in their way.

For more on Batillus, go here: http://www.batillusdoom.com/

To buy “Furnace,” go here: http://www.seventhrule.com/store/

Bizarre voyages with Blut Aus Nord

There are bands whose albums you can’t just pick up cold and expect to understand them right away.

Their work isn’t a matter of verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure or melody or hooks. So why listen? Because not all music is designed to sound the same. Wouldn’t that be utterly boring if everything, no matter the genre, followed the same structure? Hey, maybe some people would be OK with that, hence the blossoming pop music scene at a time when it is most boring. But some artists don’t operate according to the status quo and tend to find enjoyment with branching out to the extreme. That brings us to metaphysically conscious black metal outfit Blut Aus Nord.

The mysterious band hails from France, a place that claims other like-minded bands such as Glorior Belli and Deathspell Omega, but unlike many other black metal bands, they’re not terribly concerned with Satanism and horror and blood. That’s even too stagnant a concept for this band. Their music is nightmarishly disharmonic, and their songs feel more like large tarps that are being dragged over you, with a muted, black-and-white series of seemingly unrelated images shown to you over and over to strike a chord deep within you that you perhaps didn’t know was there. Maybe what you see and hear will make you uncomfortable, like you’re in the middle of a suffocating nightmare, but it’s all a matter of getting out of the ordinary and letting your brain travel and understand more deeply what’s around you.

So yes, it’s black metal, but Blut Aus Nord really sound like no other band because, even as other bands have popped up since and tried to feed off their sound, no one’s done it nearly as convincingly. This leads us into their new album “777-Sect(s),” which is the first of a trilogy (second volume out in September; third follows in November) that will play out over the length of 2011. So yes, there’s way more to come, so we’re just scratching the surface of what’s ahead. The guitars can be vicious and atmospheric at the same time, and often it sounds like all of the leads and melodies are poured on top each other, letting the elements make sense of their place. Vindsval’s vocal emissions act the same, as they’re often buried, sometimes backward (my wife thought a goat was moaning on “Epitome IV,” but alas, it’s all mashed backward), and often are a mix of many, many different tracks blended together, not always smoothly, always interestingly.

“Epitome II” (all the songs are called “Epitome,” followed by a Roman numeral) has gothic style synth, feels like it rushes with air, and growls are buried underneath. Opener “Epitome I” shockingly – or not so shockingly – ends in a bizarre dub step beat and key whirring, and this is after the damaged slurred guitars and gurgling growling seem to indicate you’re headed to the back end of a blast furnace. The final two of the six “Epitomes” are haunting, ghoulish, damaged, and completely freakish. In all, the entire album sounds like one piece with six movements, and I guess that’s really what it is. You can’t drop in on “Epitome III,” for example, and expect to totally understand where you are. And if you’re not familiar with this style or Blut Aus Nord, you may be in for one hell of an education. There’s no guaranteeing you’ll ever get it or accept it, either.

Eight records into their career, Blut Aus Nord certainly have their own identity, and while they have their own style to which they adhere, they never do the same thing twice. Calling it a style isn’t even accurate. It’s more of a headspace, a place where they transcend to create. All of this said, it’ll be interesting to hear the other two pieces of this project and how they compare and contrast with one another. This is one time I do fear they could be overlapping themselves, because three separate pieces in a year is a lot of music, and it’s going to a hell of a challenge keeping all three apart in people’s minds if they don’t have their own, distinct identities. I don’t know yet. I haven’t heard the rest.

If you’re interesting in grabbing this thing, there are some details below. It should be pointed out Debemur Morti also re-released the band’s seminal 2001 album “The Mystical Beast of Rebellion,” which has a second disc of new, complementary material attached. It’s definitely worth your time and cash, as is “777 Sect(s).”

For the label’s site, go here: http://www.debemur-morti.com/

For the band’s site, go here: http://blutausnord.com/

To buy “777-Sect(s)” or the “Mystical Beast of Rebellion” reissue, go here: http://www.eitrin.com/search.php?mode=1&match=1&search=blut+aus+nord&action=

For a track-by-track dissection of the record, go here (it translates into English fairly roughly, but enough that you can make sense of it): http://www.obskuremag.net/articles/exclusif-blut-aus-nord-777-sects-track-by-track-par-vindsval/