Friday review round-up: Hammers of Misfortune, TFW, Machine Head

Hammers of Misfortune

With September at its end (and what a busy month it was), it’s a good time to take some inventory and get some things to you that either just hit the shelf or is about to be unleashed. That way we can move to October with a clear conscience that we didn’t leave anyone behind.

All three records likely will have entirely different audiences, which I like and, to me, makes doing these roundups more interesting. That way I don’t have to write about the same damn style of music through the whole piece. It’s good for me, better for you the reader, and we get the word out about some noteworthy releases that might find its way onto your shopping list this weekend. Am I the only person who makes a record list each weekend of things I want to track down?

Actually, we’re going to kick off with a record you cannot buy just yet but that I want to talk about because it blew me away. The new album from San Francisco’s Hammers of Misfortune called “17th Street” won’t be in stores until the end of October, but because I was assigned a review by Outburn magazine for Issue 62 (Issue 61 should be on shelves any day now, and some guy I know has the cover piece), I’ve been playing it on rotation for the past couple weeks. I’ve long been a fan of this band, which really is more of a hard rock outfit than metal, though there’s surely some crossover to doom and prog-metal fans, and their new opus was high on my most anticipated discs for this year. And it hit the mark.

The band shuffled its lineup again, as leader John Cobbett had to replace female vocalist Jesse Quattro and guitarist/male vocalist Patrick Goodwin. Not to worry, as he brought in hard-hitters Leila Abdul-Rauf (Vastum, Saros, Amber Asylum) on guitar and vocals and super-powerful pipes-owner Joe Hutton (The Worship of Silence) to round out the best incarnation of this band ever since Mike Scalzi was in the ranks. “17th Street” is an instant classic from one of America’s most exhilarating, creative and sadly, unknown bands, but here’s guessing their new association with powerhouse Metal Blade will help inflate their profile. I don’t want to say too much about the record because my Outburn review will do that for you in more detail, but let’s say that this record should help fans of Slough Feg, Queen, Led Zeppelin, Priestess and really many of the bands on the Tee Pee label get their thrills. It’s full of drama, incredibly hook-filled songs, and one of the best cuts in this band’s entire collection in “The Grain,” a song that Hutton just owns. Try to hear that chorus and not get swept away.

I’m a big supporter of this band, and this fifth effort (or sixth if you consider “Fields/Church of Broken Glass” two separate pieces) is incredibly pleasing. Even with more band member changes aside, it’s hard to expect anything less than awesome when you have Cobbett in command. Go get this when it’s released Oct. 25.

For more on the band, go here:

To buy “17th Street,” go here:

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The Fucking Wrath

All you have to do is read the name the Fucking Wrath, and you know what’s in store. How can you not? You have to figure right away that they will blow the doors off your house with their music and you’re probably not in for some schmaltzy R&B or something. And you get exactly what you expect, which has been the case ever since the release of the band’s first record “Seasons of Evil,” and their new full-length “Valley of the Serpent’s Soul” is a lot more of the same doom-laden, sludge-flooded goodness that makes me love this band so damn much. In fact, it’s a noted step up not only from their debut but also from last year’s stop-gap “Terra Fire” EP that also was deliciously pulverizing but can’t even hold a candle to the hell and demolition on their new platter.

The burly quartet packs this record with a ton of riffy horror and bluesy bludgeoning, making for one hell of a great air guitar album. This also would sound amazing if you happen to need music for an out-of-control beer party where the objective is to get smashed and destroy all of the furniture in the house. I’m sure there are heavier albums that came out this year (though there aren’t many) but I’m not sure there’s one as rowdy as “Valley of the Serpent’s Soul.”

“The Question” opens up this bastard with some uptempo doom that has a bit of a punk-rock spine and an abrasive outer coating, and that leads us to the bluesy mud stomp of “Rebellious Axe”; the slow-driving, Black Sabbath-friendly riffing on “Swan Song of a Mad Man”; the punchy speed metal that trades off with NWOBHM overtones of “Altar of Lies”; the bloody three-part movement “The Neurodyssey,” that ends in a firestorm that would make Slayer proud; and the earthquaking closer “Goddess of Pain.” This record will smash your face and insult your mom, and you won’t have the heart to fight back because your body will be worse for the wear. Buy this and play it as loudly as you can. Never mind the neighbors.

For more on the band, go here:

To buy “Valley of the Serpent’s Soul,” go here:

For more on the label, go here:

Machine Head

If you have those cargo shorts wrinkled in your closet and you just can’t wait to get more ’90s-influenced groove metal in your ears, then please leave this site right now. Ah, I kid, and I’m sorry I have to drag Oakland’s Machine Head through the dirt like that, but it’s not inaccurate of their audience, is it? Actually, much like how the Deftones get incorrectly stuck into the nu-metal designation, I feel like this band gets written off by some people for rising to prominence during the reprehensible ’90s Ozzfest era, though they did make some really bad records toward the end of that decade. But they’ve more than made up for that on their last two albums “Through the Ashes of Empires” and “The Blackening.”

So now the band fires back with their seventh studio album “Unto the Locust,” an ambitious, somewhat experimental (not in a bad way) disc that probably will thrill their core and may even turn other heads who swore off this band a decade ago. Frontman/guitarist Robb Flynn still has that affinity for, well, machine-like, sometimes monotone yelling, which does re-surface on this record during songs such as “Be Still and Know” and “Darkness Within,” but he’s also stretching his range more than before, crooning capably on “Locust” and “Pearls Before the Swine,” one of the not-so-great songs on this album. Most surprising is the way the whole album begins, as the band participates in an a capella vocal harmony that sometimes veers toward the Beach Boys on the first section of three-part opener “I Am Hell (Sonata in C#).” I thought the label sent me the wrong file when I heard this, but luckily I stuck around to find out on my own.

The one area where stretching out goes awry is on closer “Who We Are,” that begins with a child chorus that sounds like they employed one too many out-there ideas, and the lyrics to the song are just rife with cliché. Otherwise, this is a pretty decent Machine Head record (with putridly ugly album artwork) that should enlighten their live audiences. I never was a very big fan of this band, though I certainly always gave their records a proper chance before forming my opinion, and “Unto the Locust” isn’t exactly going to ramp up my enthusiasm for them. But that’s just me, as it simply isn’t my thing, but perhaps it’s yours. If so, give it a shot.

For more on the band, go here:

To buy “Unto the Locust,” go here:

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Amebix breathe fiery new life on ‘Sonic Mass’

There are those bands that, for some reason for another, don’t enter into your music listening world until much, much later in your life. Not even for any reason, really. It just happens that way. Tom Waits was that way for me, and granted I’ve now been listening to him for well over a decade, but his music wasn’t in my ears when I was a kid, it didn’t shape who I was in my formative years, and he didn’t help me get through college, awful relationships and a lot of other crap he could’ve helped make more sense.

I don’t really know why it happened that way, but it did, and luckily my eyes were opened to Waits’ music. Once I got married, I magically inherited a ton of Waits’ music (and my wife now co-owns a ton of Celtic Frost!) and have it all at my disposal. A win for me. Another band like that, in that they failed to find their way to me, is English crust-punk/metal veterans Amebix, who haven’t put out a new record since 1987. To put that in perspective, when “Monolith” dropped 24 years ago, I was busy obsessed with pro wrestling, He-Man cartoons, and finishing up my middle school career. Come to think of it, not much has changed, other than that middle school thing. But there was no Amebix in my world.

I also never have been a huge punk rock fan, and maybe that has to do with the fact that when I got heavily into metal, I was something of a target to that crowd. It was totally different than it is now and for the past 15 years or so, and when you get punk and metal bands on the same bill, no one goes home stabbed. But I tended to shy away from punk, even though it had a huge role in the development of the thrash metal I loved so much. Also, Amebix didn’t get a lot of attention from Headbanger’s Ball or the magazines I read, which shaped my worldview at the time, and sadly, this band never made an impact on me or formed who I was. But recently, that changed.

A few years ago when I read Amebix had reformed and were going to tour and do a new album, I had one of those awakenings where I wondered why I never tried to get into the band’s music. I remember reading the band’s name listed as influences in countless interviews with admiring artists and from the description of their sound, they seemed like something I’d like. So I tracked down 1985’s “Arise!” and “Monolith” (as well as their 2010 EP “Redux” of reworked old stuff) and the rest was history. Turns out their music was way, way more metal than the brash punk I imagined (though those strains certainly are there), and had I had their albums next to my early Megadeth, Overkill and Nuclear Assault cassettes, my guess is Amebix would have blended in nicely. And now that the band finally has returned with their long-awaited new opus “Sonic Mass,” I was lucky enough to be one of those people in the waiting line to hear the thing, swelling with anticipation of what the reformed band – vocalist/bassist Rob “The Baron” Miller, his brother and guitarist Stig C. Miller, and new drummer Roy Mayorga (Nausea, among, um, other bands) – had in store on this record.

If you were into “Monolith,” you’ll more than likely enjoy what you hear on “Sonic Mass.” It isn’t quite the same approach, as you can hear some of the industrial and post-doom and post-metal sounds that rose to prominence once Amebix disbanded in the ’80s, but those threads feel like they were absorbed organically by and became a part of the group’s DNA. I’d say anyone whose record collection consists of Swans, Killing Joke, Motörhead, and Ministry should be blown away by these 10 tracks, which bear the marks of an awakened giant stomping back with new life. Opener “Days” is a gorgeous, haunting song that reminds me of Primordial, with Miller promising, “These days will never come again.” It sounds like a last will and testament, yet it’s a new beginning instead. Instrumental “Shield Wall” crashes full force into “The Messenger,” a throbbing song where Miller sounds like Lemmy Kilmister at his most sinister. “God of the Grain” has some Middle Eastern melodies and chanting and has an industrial feel; “Sonic Mass Part 1” is a gentler, acoustic-led cut, where Miller sounds like a mix of Johnny Cash and Michael Gira as he weaves his tale of doom, and that sets up the bulldozing “Sonic Mass Part 2,” that scrapes land and swallows buildings. “The One” feels like thrash metal done right, in the way all these younger bands don’t seem to understand; and closer “Knights of the Black” is an ominous storyteller of death and destruction that has a folk underbelly.

I’m stunned how good, vital and relevant this record sounds, especially after Amebix disappeared for a quarter of a century. They are as hungry and devastating as ever, and they still have something to say. In fact, “Sonic Mass” puts to shame with its sheer passion a lot of the other metal and heavy music releases that saw the light of day this year. You feel every ounce of this thing and live the band’s fury. It’s a new dawn for Amebix, and if this record is evidence of what they have left in the tank, we’re not going to be seeing the sunset of their career for a long time.

For more on the band, go here:

To buy “Sonic Mass,” go here:

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Old Silver Key spark fantastical wonder

Not sure how many of you are old enough to remember this, or depending on where you live if you ever even saw this, but there used to be an ad for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups where one person was walking around with an exposed chocolate bar, another person with an open can of peanut butter. They smash into each other, smearing their respective treats together, and after some terse words, they realize they accidentally invented an incredible new snack. Then the H.B. Reese Candy Co. came along and stole the idea like bloody corporate thieves in the night. Damn suits!

That old commercial jumped into my head when I got down to tackling “Tales of Wanderings,” the debut from Old Silver Key, a band made up of the four members of Ukraine folk-black metal band Drudkh and French artist Neige (Alcest, Forgotten Woods, Lantlôs, among many others). No, the music isn’t like a sugary confection that’ll stick to the roof of your mouth, but it does combine two of my favorite black metal flavors. The only question was, before listening to the thing, would this be a meeting of the middle for the two parties, or would it lean more heavily toward Drudkh’s (or their other project Blood of Kingu’s) thunder or Neige’s lush beauty. Turns out it’s more like the latter, though if you go back and listen to “Handful of Stars,” Drudkh’s most recent record, you hear the footsteps turning down this path.

The music on the band’s first, and hopefully not last, album is awash in shoegaze and post-rock influences, and it really doesn’t flaunt many of the combined artists’ black metal resumes. And that’s all well and good, because we get to hear a different side of the Drudkh members’ abilities, and it makes for a perfect setting for Neige’s delicate croon to add more emotion and sensitivity. If you were hoping for darkness and thunder, you’re only getting one of those things because it’s a record that’s barely heavy at all, save for the opening to “Nineteen Winters Far Away from Home.” But yeah, it’s murky, and the music makes me think of fog-marred mornings and rain-filled nights. It’s incredibly moody, and the music is infectious and very listenable. Ever since I got the promo, I’ve listened dozens of times, which doesn’t always happen considering how much new music I hear per week.

Another element that matches Neige’s presence is Drudkh mastermind Roman Sayenko’s adventure into fantastical elements on “Tales of Wanderings.” Neige’s music in Alcest focuses on a make-believe, dreamlike world from which he draws inspiration, and on here, Sayenko leaps full-bore into a realm of “witches, cunning foxes, talking wolves, where the poor farmer’s boy wins the hand of a princess while the prince sulks as a frog.” At least that’s how it’s described in the bio materials for the record. It’s an adventure back into childhood imagination, where the impossible is possible, and sitting by your windowsill dreaming is the way you pass your days. Doesn’t sound very metal, does it? Well, broaden your mind and take a trip with the music if you don’t think so. It sounds exactly like how it’s described, and it’s a true escape, especially when your real life has you beaten into the ground.

The record opens with a quiet, delicate instrumental “What Once Was and Never Will Happen Again,” a fairly dissonant number that floats right into “November Night Insomnia,” a dark rock song where Neige sounds angelic and the music achieves a frosty tone. “Cold Spring” has an uptempo shoegaze approach, with Neige’s singing taking on a lower register, something you don’t often hear from him, while “Star Catcher” has some indie rock and European folk underpinnings, and “Burnt Letters” is a rich, steadily driving song that also should sound great once snow starts falling here on the East Coast. This all sets up the eight-minute closing ballad “About Which An Old House Dreams,” where Neige is at his absolute finest, pouring every bit of his heart into this emotional song, as the rest of the band follows up with mellow keyboards, calculated drumming, some barbs here and there, and epically soaring guitar work. It’s the final salvo of a band leaving every bit of themselves in a piece of work, and when you hear the tape machine give out at the end, you know it’s time to close the book for now. It’s a stunning adventure.

Sometimes dream collaborations such as these don’t work out for the best (have you heard any of the Lou Reed/Metallica stuff? Hideous …), but this band really delivers. It suits Neige’s imagination and abilities perfectly, and for those open-minded Drudkh fans who also can get with bands such as Anathema, My Dying Bride and other dark shadows, you should find plenty of enjoyment in these yarns. Every time I hear it, I get lost in it, and “Tales of Wanderings” is one of the most moving, picturesque albums to come along this year. It’s the best of both worlds, the chocolate in your peanut butter, and it satisfies those pangs of wonder you haven’t felt since you were a child.

For more on the band, go here:

To buy “Takes of Wanderings,” go here:

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Absu’s mystical journey both classically thunderous and riotously fun

As seriously as I take the entire heavy metal genre, I’ve always willingly admitted that some of it is really funny. For example, a couple years ago my wife (non-metal fan) and I went to see Sunn 0))), and when Attila Csihar came out dressed as a tree, my better half lost her mind laughing. I completely understood her reaction, even though I thought the performance was mesmerizing and kind of scary. But yeah, I can see how it’s also humorous. All depends on who is processing the scene.

I even have found myself chuckling at some of the histrionics and dramatics unleashed by some of my favorite bands, such as Iron Maiden, Helloween, and Slayer, because sometimes what they do is delivered so seriously and earnestly, you can’t help but laugh a little bit. Any time I chuckle at bands I like, it’s always with affection. It’s OK to find something you like also tickles you from time to time. It’s something that’s always made Absu appeal to me, be it their image, their over-the-top sound, or drummer/vocalist Prescriptor McGovern’s between-song banter live, where he never dials down the high-pitched shriek he employs in his vocals when he’s merely talking. I love it. I laugh, yes, but not because I’m making fun. It makes me happy that it’s so ridiculous.

Actually, King Diamond is an artist I can closely associate with Absu. I love his records, his ambition, his imagination, but never is the line, “Grandma, welcome home! You have been gone for so long,” not funny to hear or to sing back myself. Much of Absu’s catalog hits me the same way. I love their music, and their new disc “Abzu” is another that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed from front to back. But I know if I play it for my wife, she’ll chuckle at a lot of this, especially the banshee shrieks that greet you on opener “Earth Ripper.” I think I may have experienced that song vicariously through her the first time I heard it, because even I smirked when hearing McGovern just go off. It’s pure heavy metal bliss, something you can hear as loud as possible emanating from your stereo and, when your guts are strong, you can wail back in your living room. Absu’s formulas is one of those that reminds me of why I fell in love with metal music in the first place.

The band’s new record is the second in a trilogy that kicked on with their last album, a self-titled opus that was released in 2009. It’s nice we’re getting a new record from this Texas-based band so soon because when they returned in 2009, it was their first fresh album since 2001’s “Tara.” But apparently they have stories they must tell urgently, and this album delves even deeper into Thelemic realms and Crowley-based occultism and magick that they dug open on their last opus. Of course, unless you have a lyric sheet in front of you, and I do not as of this writing because I don’t yet have the physical product, it’s hard to process what McGovern and his mates – guitarist Vis Crom and bassist/vocalist Ezezu – are trying to say on these songs. Instead, you have to get caught up in the spirit of the music, which it’s fairly easy to accomplish when listening to “Abzu.”

Absu’s dramatic, pulverizing black metal also has some thrash and prog elements to it, which gives their material some variety. Of course, you also have McGovern (who handles main vocals) growling and shrieking over the stuff, adding his unique character and charisma to their music, all the while handling a mind-blowing pace on drums. Having witnessed him live, I can’t believe he performs both so effectively, but he does! As noted, “Earth Ripper” is way over the top but also a pretty awesome display; “Circles of the Oath” begins to subtly spill some mystical elements into the album, with synth lines lying underneath the chaos; “Skrying in the Spirit Vision” reaches back into more traditional death metal, with growling that sounds more gurgly; and the six-part, 14-minute movement “A Song for Ea,” shifts to its individual building blocks methodically, each sounding different from each other, so you can tell when you’ve gone from piece to piece, and the acoustic, eerie whirring that sets up the song’s thunderous conclusion will make your skin crawl. There’s something about their music that’s blended into the sound that makes you feel that magick, that strange mysticism. It’s why I feel bad just calling this a black metal album, because there’s so much more lurking beneath, and it really raises up your mind when you hear it. You almost can envision the band’s transformation as they play these songs.

All in all, this is a great, spacious, experimental, thought-provoking piece of black metal that pays homage to a world that many don’t understand or even realize exists. It may take some studying even once you do have the lyric sheet to grasp what’s happening, and I had to do a lot of reading before even writing a rudimentary review of “Abzu.” So get ready to learn something if you’re not already well-schooled in Crowley’s ideas and teachings. If you don’t care about any of this, just get lost in the record, because it’s a fascinating listen that, yes, may make you grin from time to time because it all sounds so damn serious. Or maybe McGovern even has a bit of his tongue in his cheek as well. Who’s to say? Bottom line, however, is this is a kick ass album that should go over great live. I’m excited about seeing the band again, partially to hear the new songs in that setting, but also to hear McGovern shriek like a vulture from his stool.

For more on the band, go here:

To buy “Abzu,” go here:

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The Atlas Moth tear open souls on ‘An Ache for the Distance’

I quite often hear albums that, from listen one, I enjoy. That doesn’t mean the record is etched into my heart forever, that it changes my life or that months later it’ll still be with me, but I at least can identify that I like what I hear in the music. It’s a little less common for me that I like a record right away and, when I go back and visit further, it begins to have an enormous, powerful effect on me. Those are the special ones you’re certain will stay with you as long as you live.

I had that kind of experience with the new album from Chicago’s The Atlas Moth called “An Ache for the Distance,” released by Profound Lore, a label that never steers us wrong. The effect it had on me was unexpected. I always liked the Atlas Moth’s psychedelic-smeared sludge metal and spent a lot of time digesting their full-length debut “A Glorified Piece of Blue Sky,” but as much as I enjoyed it, I wouldn’t call it a collection of songs that is special to me. It’s good, and it was kind of weird that it was released by Candlelight just because this type of band isn’t something they typically offer. Their wacky covers EP “The One Amongst the Weed Fields” was more funny than good, and that seemed to be the point of it anyway. When the band’s new album was announced months ago (done, at first, by weird graffiti-style etchings of a moth and the 9-20-11 release date), I was more intrigued that Profound Lore was putting it out than I was by the music itself.

Like many, many other bands I like but don’t follow religiously, I looked forward the hearing the Atlas Moth’s new material like I would any other record from a band that I recognize as making good music. It was just kind of another intriguing metal release for me. The first few visits cemented those feelings as I liked the music, was interested in the even-deeper psychedelia on the songs, and figured I’d come back a few more times before it was time to write about in full. Then something happened. It infected me. Not like a scratchy cough, but like a full-bore flu. Hot head, sweats, sore muscles, weird physical reactions. Then I sat there stunned. I couldn’t believe what was happening and slowly grew more and more excited about what was pouring into my ears. I decided I had to hear it in all different ways: my ear buds, traditional headphones, on my stereo, in my car. Every time I switched to a new means, I heard the record and its parts differently. I can’t remember another album this year with which I had the same relationship. I’m not saying it’s the album of the year, though it’s really awesomely great, but it’s the one that totally changed my mind about this band. It also did something else, in that it replaced ISIS as my go-to band when I want to reflect and let my mind wander. Turns out you no longer were needed, ISIS, and you haven’t really delivered something like this in the past half-decade or so. Sorry.

The nine-cut record has a more fully realized sound than their debut and it’s much richer. It’s actually quite enveloping, and it’s something with which you need to participate intellectually to totally appreciate. At least I think so. A friend of mine, who I won’t name, told me “An Ache for the Distance” is a great album to hear when you’re high. I’m not surprised by this because there is a druggy overtone to a lot of the music, and I can at least attest to listening to thing while drunk. And it sounded pretty amazing then, too. “Coffin Varnish” kicks off the record with a heavier, nastier edge, and that leads into “Perpetual Generations,” which turns down the intensity decibel-wise but not emotionally. The vocals are cleaner and headier (they remind me of Folk Implosion’s “Natural One,” quite weirdly), and the melodies just soar. It’s one of the more approachable songs in their catalog. “Holes in the Desert” is both savage and nighttime cool, especially when the keys bleed in, and Stavros Giannopolous and Dave Kush take turns hammering out the message. The title cut settles into a satisfying slow-tempo groove, before shoegaze lightning dashes across and lights up the sky, with a final salvo of, “The sun burns out,” delivering a sober reminder of what’s at this planet’s end. “Courage” has more slinky, frosty keyboard work and would be the real oddball of the record if closer “Horse Thieves” didn’t exist. That song sounds like Mike Patton at his most bizarre trying his hand at avant-garde doom metal, with horrifying shrieks, free-jazz horn skronks and squeaks, and a moody mud storm that ends this thing on a really ugly note. Ugly in the best way possible.

I’m not sure if everyone will have the same experience I did with this record and if it’ll alter the way you think about the Atlas Moth. Maybe your mind frame doesn’t need altered, but mine did. The Atlas Moth went from just another band whose music I happen to like to one that’s going to get significantly more play in the future. I’ve even gone back to “A Glorified Piece of Blue Sky” and am getting far more enjoyment out of it because I feel my ears are better educated or they just opened up a little to help me better appreciate this band. Hearing “An Ache for the Distance” makes me feel like I’m wrapping myself in a cold blanket of stars for a night of life-altering rest, where my dreams’ context, messages, hidden meanings and intentions are clear. I wake up a different person. It’s not every day a record makes you feel these things, so I embrace the gifts this album delivered and will try to do my best to spread them around to other people.

For more on the band, go here:

To buy “An Ache for the Distance,” go here:

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Mastodon further deviate from metallic fury on ‘The Hunter’

I’ve mentioned many times, both on this site and in my writing elsewhere, that I don’t hold it against a band for changing their sound. As a band gets older, the members do as well, and perhaps what lit their fires when they were younger isn’t as exciting now that they’ve aged. It happens, and I understand it.

Not all bands do this. AC/DC, of course, have been making the same album since Brian Johnson joined the fold, and people lap it up every time. Same goes for Slayer who, with the exception of their mid-90s output, have been doing the straight-on death thrash since their formation. People know what to expect from these bands, and for the most part, they deliver what’s anticipated. Obviously this idea doesn’t work for Mastodon, a band that used to make some fiercely savage sludge metal that bordered on death before making a stunning move to Warner Bros./Reprise after their landmark “Leviathan” album.

Things started to change with Mastodon on their first Warner Bros. release “Blood Mountain,” a record that has some of the band’s trademark savagery but also hinted at them going into a different, more palatable direction. There was more singing, more melody, more intelligible screaming and yowling. It certainly was more approachable than, say, 2002’s “Remission,” but it still was heavy enough to avoid a lot of second-guessing. Then 2009 concept album “Crack the Skye” dropped, and it marked the most significant artistic evolution for the band yet, with way more clean singing, far less growling, and music that bordered closer to psyche hard rock and stoner rock than metal. It also marked the first Mastodon record I didn’t love through and through. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t get with it, and even two years later, when I try to approach the thing, I can’t make it through to the end.

This brings us to their new opus “The Hunter,” a structural departure from “Crack the Skye,” in that this is a collection of songs unrelated to one another other than they’re all on the same platter. The album is a tribute to bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders’ brother, who passed away, and the title track is one of the most emotional songs in the band’s catalog. It’s surprisingly tender, not that it’s a ballad (it isn’t), but emotion drips from the thing, proving this band of wackos can be sensitive. We get 13 cuts, the most ever on a Mastodon record, and my guess is if some of these songs get radio airplay, this record could make the band superstars. It’s shockingly catchy, filled with rock hooks, and for listeners who are growing tired of their Foo Fighters or Muse records, they might find bliss on “The Hunter.” And they’ll also probably think this is their version of Burzum or something because the material is more dangerous and harder than what you hear on typical rock radio. “The Hunter” is not bland, I’ll say that.

Now, if you were hoping for the band to go back to their old, punishing, Relapse-era ways, then prepare to be disappointed. There are only fleeting moments of those days on this record, namely the aggressive chorus to “Blasteroid” and the obligatory Scott Kelly (Neurosis) guest spot “Spectrelight,” which is a short explosion of sludge goodness that acts more as a pace changer toward the end of the album. The rest really tests what you can call metal, because I’d label most of it stoner hard rock, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m not criticizing them for it, just calling it what it is. And truth be told, there are some really good songs here, from opener “Black Tongue,” that has a song structure that reminds me of “Blood Mountain”; swampy, ZZ Top-esque “Curl of the Burl,” that has a really weird, sort of uncomfortable video and snarky, nasal vox from Brent Hinds; spacey, dreamy “Stargasm,” that has a nice, catchy chorus; “Creature Lives,” that has an opening that sounds suspiciously like Pink Floyd before launching into a cosmic piece sung by drummer Brann Dailor; and closer “The Sparrow,” the furthest the band ever has delved from traditional metal, with a gentle tempo and Beach Boys-like vocal harmonizing. That track might not make a metal fan very happy, but it’s really well done and, most importantly, it sounds good.

There are some clunkers here, such as “Octopus Has No Friends,” “Dry Bone Valley,” and “Thickening” that didn’t interest me a whole lot no matter how many times I heard them. I think trimming these from the list and making them B sides would have made “The Hunter” a trimmer, more effective album, but that’s not the decision they made. So be it. I’m sure other people will like those songs, but I didn’t.

So this all probably sounds pretty positive coming from me, and like I said, “The Hunter” is a good, catchy record that has some strong songwriting. There are hits on this thing, and all those weird predictions that Mastodon would become the new Metallica when they jumped to Warner Bros., this album could justify those claims. This band should blow up into the mainstream right now. But it really isn’t for me. I can identify an album as being pleasurable to hear and having serious potential to put a band over the top and still not really want to spend a lot of time with said music. I don’t fault Mastodon for growing, and if they felt they were stymied by their old style, by all means, they should have gone where they have. They did the right thing for them as musicians. It’s no different than what Opeth just did with “Heritage,” a record I happen to really enjoy. And no, I don’t think Mastodon sold out to Warner Bros. wishes. So let’s not dwell on that silliness. It’s just that I love early Mastodon so much and treasure their first three records (“Remission,” “Leviathan” “Blood Mountain”) to such a significant degree that I can’t get on board where they went with their music.

Mastodon haven’t bastardized themselves like Metallica have, and you still hear some strains of what they were doing in their early days. It’s an evolution, really. Metallica didn’t evolve. They woke up one day and decided to be something different. I give Mastodon a heap of credit for growing as a band and refusing to adhere to boundaries they had matured beyond. I just don’t feel the new Mastodon does anything for me emotionally or spiritually like their old music did. I guess I prefer Mastodon heavier and more explosive, like you think a mountain is about to fall on you or you’re going to be gutted by a rhino. “The Hunter” just isn’t for me, but it wasn’t made for me, was it? Mastodon did this for them, as well they should have. “The Hunter” is bound to be a dust collector on my shelf alongside “Crack the Skye.” Yet, I’ll remain interested in where Mastodon go next, so they haven’t totally lost me.

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Falloch unfurl majestic wonder on ‘Where Distant Spirits Remain’

Leaves are about to get crispy here on the East Coast of the United States. The evenings already are refreshingly chilly, zip-up sweatshirts have returned, and pumpkin beers are on the market. It’s the time when, as far as I’m concerned, nature is at its apex. It doesn’t get better than this, and I tend to dig into woodsy metal when autumn comes calling.

This is a time when bands such as Agalloch, Alcest, Primordial, Ulver and Woods of Ypres creep back into my collection, and while all of those bands don’t pay tribute to nature (in fact, only Agalloch explicitly do that), their styles make for smooth consumption these days. But a new band Falloch emerged from Scotland that shares the same philosophies and styles as the aforementioned groups, and their debut album “Where Distant Spirits Remain” not only will be one that remains in heavy rotation for me the next few months, but in subsequent years, this will be on the list of go-to records once the trees start changing colors. Needless to say, I’m excited.

Falloch’s style is described as post-black metal and folk metal, as those labels certainly fit, and their music is decidedly gorgeous. Yeah, I know it probably isn’t cool to tag a new metal band with that description, but can you not say the same about Agalloch, Alcest, Primordial? It’s OK to be more sensitive, and Falloch certainly address that side and let you fawn over the majesty unfurling when you simply look at a pocket of woods, a rushing stream or a lawn full of orange, red and brown leaves. This music fully engulfs you and fills you with wonder, and I found my blood surging many, many times when listening to this record. Funny, I did see some reviews elsewhere that derided this band for being labeled as metal because the music doesn’t fit into their rigid little window of what the genre entails. Don’t be so pigheaded, kids. You’ll miss out on an amazing record if you snub your nose at delicacy and melody, all of which are present in full.

What also stuns me about Falloch is this band is but a duo, which is amazing when hearing how full-bodied and dynamic this sounds. Andy Marshall and Scott McLean create something that sounds like six or seven people would be needed to achieve, and the vocals are clean, soulful and emotional, never reaching into growls or shrieks (other than over the chorus of “Where We Believe”) that most other bands of this ilk employ in abundance. That also gives “Where Distant Spirits Remain” a unique voice, because it seems so few bands are confident enough to just sing and use the ability with which they were gifted. Yeah, maybe it comes off as less brutal, but this music doesn’t sound intended to be savage in the first place.

Here’s where I’m contradicted, by the way. While Falloch’s music, to me, sounds best in the autumn, this duo has frost and snow on their minds. So we’re not in agreement on seasons, but it’s their music, so I guess I’m the one who’s wrong. Oh well. The band said that “Beyond Embers and the Earth,” a heart-stopping epic that begins aggressively before melting into gothy/poppy passages and folk whistles, was inspired by the Isle of Skye in the Scottish Highlands during winter, and you can hear in this track how inspired and moved they were by the landscape. Opener “We Are Gathering Dust” has nice acoustic flourishes dancing behind the harder-edged stuff here, and the song eventually trickles out into babbling water and ambiance. “The Carrying Light” gets into some progressive rock and metal while also allowing in some shoegazey guitar squall to put the edge on this bloodletting, throbbing track that could be labeled a ballad; and “To Walk Amongst the Dead” has plenty of traditional folk in its mix and its lush for the most part, but the tempo and volume rise and caterwaul near its conclusion, making it a sweeping, surging song that’s nothing short of awesome.

Falloch officially, from just this album, are one of my favorite new bands. I could gush on and on, but why bore you with all of that? I love this style of metal, and I’m already setting some time aside Saturday afternoon to take this in again while I have some lovely brews. If you let yourself get caught up in “Where Distant Spirits Remain,” my guess is you’ll be hooked as well. It’ll give you a head rush, cause your heart to swell and connect you more spiritually with what’s going on outside. And OK, I’ll concede, maybe the winter is just as good a setting for these songs as autumn. Whenever you listen, prepare to be infected by one hell of a new band that should set the standard for post-black metal and atmospheric folk metal in the future.

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Fleshgod Apocalypse push orchestral interests over the top on ‘Agony’

If you were into the first full-length and follow-up EP by Italian tech-death band Fleshgod Apocalypse, get ready to have your expectations shattered. In a good way or a bad way? That kind of depends on what you like in your death metal.

While always a band that relished in adding classical flourishes to their music, they really go full bore into orchestration on “Agony,” a record that certainly stands apart from “Oracles” and “Mafia,” both of which were released by Willowtip. The band moved to Nuclear Blast for this effort, and it sounds like they really put their money where their mouths are, beefing up the sound, adding a ton more dramatics, and overloading the thing with synth-lead symphonics. It’s an incredible-sounding album, one that just explodes from your speakers or headphones. But is it for you?

Most of the reaction I’ve seen to the record has been favorable, and I happen to really like the album and the changes that they made. It makes Fleshgod Apocalypse kind of stand out in the tech-death community and also cements them as one of the sub-genre’s most exciting bands. But there have been naysayers as well because, you know people. A band just can’t change without hand-wringing. And I understand that, too, even if I tend to have little patience with people who can’t handle when a group changes things up a bit, and as long as they don’t go too far from their core sound (um, Metallica), what’s the big deal? Let it sink in and maybe you’ll like it.

Anyhow, my review of the new Fleshgod Apocalypse is live over at Lambgoat. Check it out, read how I feel about the changes they made (I’m guessing you probably figured that one out), and look at some of the other stuff going on at Lambgoat. Also, if there’s a band you like who you’re fairly certain has a new record due soon, but you’re just not sure when, their release calendar is pretty comprehensive. Find the link to my review below:

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Landmine Marathon demolish senses on ‘Gallows’

I like an album that sounds like a 50-trucks-full-of-gasoline demolition derby. As much as I like spacious, atmospheric stuff, and as I get older, that tends to be my preference, I still dig a collection of songs that feels like war is being made and there’s true, bloody attrition.

That leads me to Landmine Marathon, who have been making crust-and-grind-stained death metal only since 2004, are one of those bands that seem to have won unanimous approval with those who have seen them live. They already have four full-length albums to their credit, as well as splits with Scarecrow and Funeral Pyre, and haven’t made their name by just sitting around. They’ve been road warriors in a time when, because of insane gas prices, it cannot be an easy thing to do. But they’ve done it, and show by show, person by person, they’ve developed a reputation as one of metal’s most vicious, exciting young bands.

My issue with Landmine Marathon has been their studio output. Not all of it, mind you. I love their 2006 debut “Wounded” and am pretty sure I was listening to that bastard from the moment it came out (granted, I was lucky to have a promo from Level Plane), and the follow-up “Rusted Eyes Awake” was a decent outing, though not quite up to par with the first one. Level Plane originally released that disc, too, but it was reissued by Prosthetic once the band signed a deal with the indie metal powerhouse. Last year, the band offered up “Sovereign Descent,” their actual Prosthetic debut and one of the most anticipated records of last year, from an underground metal standpoint. I know I was excited to finally hear it, and once I did, my hopes were deflated. It just didn’t get my juices flowing at all, and I blame most of that on the compositions. They sounded mailed in (though I’m sure they weren’t) and kind of uninteresting, something I never dreamed I’d say about this band. Over time and subsequent listens, my opinion hasn’t changed, and when I go back now, I still don’t find a lot about it that holds my attention.

But that was 2010, and this is now. Their new record “Gallows” is an absolute ripper, the heaviest and most explosive of their run. It’s a burly assassin. It’s that demolition derby I mentioned in the opening. Almost like how their last record drained my excitement from the first listen, this one ignited a fire in me from the first time I pressed play, revealing a band that has no interest in playing it safe or regurgitating the same thing over and again. Yes, they still have an unabashed affinity for the early Earache years in their music, and you’ll still probably get kicked in the face by singer Grace Perry if you get too close, but they’ve freshened up the guitar lines, added some doom and power metal flourishes, and the drum work is just nasty. Oh, and Perry is a fire-breathing she-demon, growling and shrieking in a way no human should be able to do without permanent throat damage. Here’s hoping her pipes are in good shape.

We get rolling with opener “Three Snake Leaves,” a classic death metal-laced anthem, where Perry howls, “Bury me alive,” as the rest of her bandmates sound like they’re ready for a battle. “Cutting Flesh and Bone” has a punk flavor to it, and a spastic one at that,  and “Cloaked in Red” is built in the same fashion. “Knife From My Sleeve” boils in a cauldron of doom, with Perry going more guttural with her vocals, and there are some guitar flourishes toward the end that remind me of Nile. Closer “Morbidity” also reeks of the same stench, with some wicked guitar lines over top. “Liver and Lungs” is a gorefest that would make Pig Destroyer jealous; “Dead Horse” is ravaging and thrashy; and “Beaten and Left Blind” has a bit of a hardcore groove that, at times, gushes into speed metal fury. It’s an astonishingly good record where every player showed up with her or his best, and I can’t state enough how much I like the guitars. They sounds great, they shred and slice, they gnaw on crust and filth, and they help elevate these songs to greatness.

Landmine Marathon always seemed like a band whose live fury would surpass their studio work, and there’s no sin in that. In fact, it’s great when you go see a band you already like on the strength of their records and are just flattened when you experience them on stage. But with “Gallows,” the band is proving they’re just as capable of boiling flesh making a record as they are reinterpreting their songs live. It’s the best thing they’ve done since “Wounded,” and I keep going back and forth on whether this new disc is the superior album. It just may be, and perhaps once I get to see the band live in support of “Gallows,” my mind will be made up for good. Until then, I’ll enjoy the carnage spilling from my speakers.

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Rwake’s psyche doom reaches into cosmos for meaning

It’s no secret at Meat Mead Metal that there’s a great appreciation for psychedelic-laced metal that lets you go on a journey without the aid of mind-altering substances. There’s something to be said for creating something that puts the listener on a path to exploration and discovery simply by making music that lifts and soars.

And not that we have anything against, you know, sitting down with some adult beverages and enjoying a piece of music. That’s pretty great, too, and that often happens in this house when the weekend is here. But it’s cool when you can sit on the couch, say, on a Wednesday afternoon, put in the earbuds and fly away with a record. The brand new one from Rwake (pronounced “wake,” if you’re unaware) is one of those albums, and as long as I’ve had the record, I’ve never listened to it with anything but a clear mind. Each time it’s enthralling and emotionally draining. “Rest,” the title given this fifth full-length, won’t let you get any of that, funny enough, because you’ll stay up trying to figure what it all means.

We haven’t heard from the Arkansas-based band since their 2007 album “Voices of Omens,” though Relapse did give us a reissue of their 2002 record “Hell Is a Door to the Sun” earlier this year. But this is the first time we got a full, new platter of monster sludge, and the wait was hellaciously worth all that impatience. “Rest” is an amazing, enthralling record and, in my opinion, is the best one of their career. It is unforgiving, and even when it quiets or lets in nice, delicate acoustic passages, you know it’s only because they’re getting ready to move onto something even more tumultuous.

“Rest” makes you think a lot. There’s a lot of philosophical ramblings and apocalyptic warnings intertwined in their music and delivered in full-throttle growl and shriek by C.T. and Moog/sample artist B. One thing I always thought was cool about Rwake is, if you were unaware as to their lineup, you’d never know you were listening to one of the most vicious guy/girl vocal assaults of all time. That carries over here, and I often can’t tell who does what. And who cares, really? It all works so well together, and all parts operate in unison. After a quick intro “Souls of the Sky,” that sets the stage for the rest of the record, the band launches into “It Was Beautiful But Now It’s Sour,” a woozy, swirling masher that is delivered mid-tempo but always with fists hammering down full force. “An Invisible Thread,” the record’s shortest song that’s not an interlude (and it’s still 8:45 long) has a bit of that Southern rock sludge that Mastodon made so famous and eventually settles into a guitar pocket that sounds like Black Sabbath playing Slayer. It’s the doomiest thing on a record that had end times at its heart. “The Culling” is moody and spacey, one of the most atmospheric songs on “Rest,” and the split vocals are utterly terrifying, sounding like a pack of wild animals shredding meat.

As awesome as the record is before the final two cuts hit, the album’s dual finale really pushes this over the top. Interlude “Ti Progetto” pulls the words from Arthur C. Clarke from the opening to “2001: A Space Odyssey” and gets you ready for what’s to come on the album’s blowout “Was Only a Dream,” a song awash in creation’s origin, how we’re interconnected, how we survive, and how we’ll one day fade away. Or at least that’s what I got out of it, and while I allow that my interpretation may not be what Rwake intended, it made me think a lot about these things and how we’ve come to accept some of the theories or beliefs by which we live. The song is astonishingly sorrowful at times, and the raw, primal vocals sound both cathartic and foreboding, with the band setting up a psyche-washed soundscape that’s unsettling violent. At about the midway point, the first part of the song fades away, and a new, trippier passage sets in that repeats the first half’s mantras. The song eventually fades out to a reading of Rudyard Kipling’s “If…,” another piece that a reader could derive many meanings. It’s also one of Kilping’s most moving pieces, which makes sense that it would be connected to Rwake’s most emotionally stimulating record. Really good choice.

Rwake’s music may be nasty, bloody and crust-caked, but it’s delivered with an open mind and with intelligence. You probably will have to sit down with the lyric sheet in order to properly absorb all the meaning (something I’ll have to do once I have a physical copy), but chances are you won’t mind. It’s nice to have something that provokes thought and inhibits your bestial side at the same time. Rwake always have done that, but never as much as they do on “Rest.”

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