East of the Wall make inroads to excellency on ‘The Apologist’

There’s both good and bad to a band feeling its way around and trying to figure out what’s best for its direction. On one hand, you can get some fascinating music that, while it’ll change completely the next album, gives a neat portrait as to where the group is at a very specific moment in time. For example, Dillinger Escape Plan have morphed into something different with each record, and every step has been a blast for me. Many others disagree with that statement. You also can get a series of disasters from a group of musicians who have no idea what they’re doing, and it can undo the group’s future.

Jersey’s East of the Wall certainly have been searching their way toward a sound, hands against the walls, pushing toward the light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe they’ll be exploring forever, and maybe no set way of doing things will satisfy the band, but as long as they keep trying, I’m willing to keep coming back to hear what they’ve created. The band’s instrumental debut “Farmer’s Almanac” was an interesting, promising first salvo of a full-length, but their sophomore effort “Ressentiment,” where they worked vocals into their music, didn’t really fire on all cylinders. It’s not a bad record, really, it just wasn’t a terribly rewarding follow-up. At the time, I questioned their decision to add vocals simply because they weren’t terribly inspired and sounded average, basically not adding much to the band’s sound. Why did they need to go there? But they obviously felt they wanted vocals to be a part of East of the Wall, so it would take until they made more music to find out if they really could make them work.

That answer is here with the arrival of the band’s third full-length “The Apologist,” a 12-track album that is their second for Translation Loss. Like their last album and the one before it, things change and we get another chance to meet this band all over again. It’s a proggy, post-metal-flavored platter that digs into jazz, math rock, hardcore and sludge, and yes, they’ve stuck with vocals. But this time they work. They don’t dominate the proceedings and edge their way into a territory in which they don’t entirely belong. In fact, we don’t even get singing on all of the tracks as there are a handful of instrumental cuts that hint more toward the ideas they had when making their debut. Another plus is all of these songs blend together nicely, and the flow feels natural. I get the idea East of the Wall are getting closer to a musical awakening, and as strong as “The Apologist” is for the most part, my guess is album four might be the earth shaker.

Folks into bands such as Between the Buried and Me, Cave In, Cynic, Pelican, Botch, Rosetta and even Opeth could find enjoyment from this album. It’s exciting and surging, it mind-blowingly well-played, and it’s the most accessible work of the band’s short run. As players, they’ve never sounded better, more capable and more deadly. The quintet – guitarists/vocalists Matt Lupo, Kevin Conway, and Chris Alfano, bassist/vocalist Brett Bamberger, drummer Seth Rheam – leaps right into “Naif,” with a feedback squall and sludgy riffs that eventually are evened out by a calmer sequence and cleaner vocals, and the cut runs right into “Linear Failure,” a punchy, jazzy, blistering piece of work that lets the guys get their knuckles bloody. “False Build” is one of the most aggressive, threatening cuts on the album with shouted/shrieked vocals and soaring guitar lines; the excellent title cut runs more than seven minutes and certainly doesn’t hold back on the drama; “Whiskey Sipper” sounds more like it came from the deranged mind of a whiskey binger, as it levels you and throws all the household furniture around with no regard for what’s around. The instrumental cuts serve to relive the tension and build toward what’s next, though they’re not interludes. They do stand on their own, and the best of the bunch are “My Favorite Society Guy”; the punk-powered “Running Tab of Sweetness”; and eerie, spacey “Nurser of All Hurts.”

“The Apologist” is not a perfect album by any means, and East of the Wall certainly can tighten up some loose ends and trim some fat around the edges. Sometimes even the really good songs on here last a little too long. I like that the vocals sound better and more impassioned and that they play more of a role with everything else instead of taking main stage. It works for them, and I imagine that idea will only serve them well in the future. But I see this record as a big step toward the promised land for them and not the arrival itself. They are capable of great things, and if this is the leap that precedes that, then I’m excited. “The Apologist” is steady as it goes, and as long as East of the Wall uses it as a building block, then it will have served its purpose.

For more on the band, go here: http://www.eastofthewall.com/

To buy “The Apologist,” go here: http://translationloss.com/store.htm

For more on the label, go here: http://translationloss.com/

Pittsburgh hardcore beasts Heartless dish out beatings on ‘Hell Is Other People’

Heartless level Helter Shelter

If you live in Pittsburgh like I do, relying on your city newspapers for music coverage is a faulty idea. If that’s your only means of knowing what’s going on around town, you’d think we had no metal and hardcore scene. Some of the punk bands get very limited ink, but it’s like an old boys’ network where the same stuff gets mentioned every week, and nothing daring and dangerous is allowed above the surface.

But ignoring it doesn’t mean it goes away. There have been bands that have signed with notable indie labels (Hero Destroyed and Complete Failure with Relapse, defunct Once Nothing with Solid State) and hardly a thing was uttered about that. We’re about to test the waters of tolerance again in these parts now that the debut full-length “Hell Is Other People” from hardcore fire-breathers Heartless is about to drop (the band does have a number of preceding 7-inch efforts as well). And it’s coming out on Southern Lord, a label you just may have heard of before. OK, enough bitching about the local scribes, who are only concerned about Elvis Costello and the Kinks and the groups they influenced, and more getting to Heartless, who will bloody your brow and cave in your chest with their gargantuan sound. Oh, and the album title? Perfect. My sentiments exactly.

It’s been well noted that Southern Lord is on a hardcore kick the past couple years, releasing crushing platters from bands such as Nails, the Secret, Masakari, Trap Them, Seven Sisters of Sleep, and countless others, and Heartless fit right in with those groups aesthetically, philosophically, artistically and sonically. Say what you want about the Lord’s fixation with this sound, but they know what they’re doing, and they haven’t plucked a bad band yet. Call me partial from sharing a misunderstood hometown with the dudes, but Heartless is their best find in this genre yet and is one of the bands on their roster I’m most excited to see progress. And this is coming from someone who leans more toward the label’s Wolves in the Throne Room/Earth/Sunn 0))) contingent.

Even if I had no idea who Heartless were before taking on “Hell Is Other People,” the awesome cover art, the creation of Brian D’Agosta of Gostworks (find a link to their site below, where you can see the entire layout), immediately would have drawn me into the fury. Cover art seems to be such a low priority for so many bands and labels living in this gimme-now digital age, so when you see something that strikes your eyes and instantly piques your curiosity as to how the band sounds, it’s something of a minor miracle. The sooty, creepy cover is a window into “Hell Is Other People” that actually gives you a pretty accurate portrayal of the leveling and bloodletting that is in front of you. My guess is the band’s going to be able to drum up some pretty great merch based on the packaging design. But what do striking T-shirts matter if the music doesn’t deliver? Not to worry with Heartless.

“Hell” is a perfectly timed, precisely stuffed package at 13 tracks clocking in at a tick under 21 minutes. With such a compact assault, the only way to react is by exclaiming the name of another Steel City mangler, “Oh shit, they’re going to kill us!” “Clean Slate” opens the door to this pit of hell with feedback ringing out and a complete demolition of the mind, body and soul that ends in a bit of doomy skull-sludgery. “Resuscitate/Suffocate,” the first cut fed to an unsuspecting media and public, just blasts off, and before you know it, you’re buried up to your chest in the speedy, hardcore wailing of “Cede” and the blast-filled “Late.” “Undulations” also has a doomy makeup, but eventually that’s blown all to hell with thrashy blasts; “Deject” is a slowly driven, calculated collection of mashing guitar chugs and mangled hopes; “Cop Out” is the band’s epic at 4:08, and it’s a total monster; “Hard Feelings” is a nasty diatribe that has the entire band offering up venom via their gang shouts; and “Blinders” is a simmering pot of disgust, with frontman Cory lamenting, “The only thing broken is me.”

If you’re not down with Southern Lord’s excitement over the underground hardcore scene, I’m not sure Heartless will change your mind. But you should give them a chance, right? You can’t complain if you don’t try it on. But those who are excited by what the label’s been pumping out lately will be psyched over “Hell Is Other People.” This is a face-scorcher of an album, one that should come across even better live and will keep your hardcore fires burning. Heartless is a young, hungry den of lions who could be one of the genre’s frontrunners in a few years if they keep making madness like this record.

For more on the band, go here: http://heartlesspgh.blogspot.com/

To buy “Hell Is Other People,” go here: http://www.southernlord.com/store.php

For more on the label, go here: http://www.southernlord.com/

For more on Gostworks, go here: http://gostworks.wordpress.com/

Wolvhammer explode with hatred and disgust on ‘The Obsidian Plains’

Who out there wants to get in touch with his or her feelings? If your hand is raised, first, why are you doing that? Stop it. Second, if you do wish to connect with what’s inside your little heart, maybe back out of this story, because it won’t help you. Well, unless those emotions you harbor inside are ones of fury, hatred and misanthropy.

If that’s the case, I recommend you take on “The Obsidian Plains,” the second full-length from Minnesota blackened sludge anvil-throwers Wolvhammer. You won’t feel enlightened and enriched when this record is over. Your soul won’t bounce for joy. You won’t go out and buy chocolates for your little sweetie. You’ll be more inclined to, say, light your car on fire just for the hell of it. Let your dog shit in your annoying neighbor’s lawn because those people never seem to give a damn about your boundaries. I’d be worried if any of those Occupy folks got a hold of this smoking bastard because, if they did, we might go from peaceful protest to all-out, in-the-street brawling in no time (actually, the police seem to be doing a good enough job with that one). It’s not a record that anyone with the slightest thread of unrest will digest without incident. It’s here to incite, to prod, to aggravate, and the dudes sound like they’re having a damn good time stoking those fires.

This seven-track, 44-minute mauler, the follow-up effort to their excellent, ominously named 2009 album “Black Marketeers of World War III” (the band has a demo and EP to their credit as well) is relentless and unforgiving. It refuses to let you up for air. It won’t even let a hint of forgiveness enter your bloodstream because, who forgives and forgets these days? Who honestly could do that without feeling like a gullible rube? Not Wolvhammer, and the bile and filth smeared all over this thing will make you realize that sometimes lashing out and letting people know you’re not OK is the way to go. At least people may get the message that way, and if not, look out.

The fellows in the band – vocalist Adam Clemans, guitarist/bassist Andy Schoengrund, guitarist Jeff Wilson (ex-Nachtmystium), drummer Heath Rave (ex-Across Tundras) – just let loose and propel their anger and piss right at you, with no concern for where on your person it may land. The music is a total demolition, like a wrecking ball trying to take down a city block, whether the properties are damned or not. You might find your lungs choking on all the smoke and dust as a result, and while the tears are streaming your way down your sooty cheeks, you’ll realize you should have found a safe haven before all this madness started. But it’s too late now, and you’re in it. Maybe that’s a little over the top to you, but you won’t feel that way when taking on “The Obsidian Plains.”

“The Gleaming” provides a monstrous opening salvo, with screamy, creaky vocals, a bludgeoning guitar groove, and what sounds like a haunting synth hiss behind everything (with producer/key wizard Sanford Parker, I would expect that’s what I’m hearing), and that leads to “Writhe,” built on a roided-up Motorhead-style riff, double-kick drum thunder, and a melody line that gets your juices flowing. “Bones of the Pious” and “Shadowhorn” both have filthy punk rock directives beneath the absolute chaos, while “A Defiled Aesthetic” has a kick-ass black-n-roll pace complete with gang shouts and a righteously channeled aggression. Closer “The Sentinels” is like two songs smashed together, the first half playing as a spacious, psychologically damaged instrumental, the second portion blowing up into a hurricane of destruction that gives no warning as to its path.

No sense in breaking down the band’s nuances or their musical inspirations or any of that. This record doesn’t really call for that. Instead, it demands you get in touch with your inner barbarian, that person who wants to pillage without compassion, to even a few scores, and make people’s flesh rise up with welts. It’s a release of that inner aggression, that poison that could lead you to jail if you’re not careful, so if this serves as your release, then maybe you’ll be saved a whole lot of bail money by simply plunking down a few bucks for this hellacious album.

For more on the band, go here: https://www.facebook.com/Wolvhammer

To download the band’s EP and demo, go here:  http://wolvhammer.blogspot.com/

To buy “The Obsidian Plains,” go here: http://www.profoundlorerecords.com//index.php?option=com_ezcatalog&task=detail&id=788&Itemid=99999999

For more on the label, go here: http://www.profoundlorerecords.com/

Locrian take trips through your psyche and the cosmos on ‘The Clearing’

Very often on this site I write about music that carries me places. Not physically, of course, but mentally and spiritually. I like being lifted from my intellectual plane and transported somewhere else. It’s an escape, an adventure, an exploration. Typically, music that can do that for me and to me is what speaks to me most over the long run.

Chicago-based experimentalists Locrian always have been one of those bands that guaranteed me a trip somewhere different. Through their previous three full-lengths (“The Crystal World” being a personal favorite) and their many, many other mini-releases, this group always has been one to challenge the senses. Their music can’t just be “gotten” by someone sitting with them for the first time, especially if that listener has more of a mainstream bend. No, this band must be absorbed and understood to achieve complete connection. I hope that doesn’t sound hifalutin, because I don’t mean to be all “oh, you just won’t get it” dismissive. I hate those kinds of folks. But you need to get to know Locrian, almost like you have to warm up to a new friend, but once you do, you’ll accept them forever.

Of course, even if you think you know Locrian intimately, they always keep you guessing. That’s another thing I treasure about the band – André Foisy, Terence Hanum, Steven Hess — because I never quite know what I’m going to get from the group’s music. Their latest full-length “The Clearing,” their fourth overall, is no exception, and while it’s incredibly spacious, challengingly psychedelic, and sometimes abrasive, it’s nothing like their previous work, even if you could use those same descriptions to explain Locrian’s other work. That’s because often times adjectives and modifiers often aren’t enough to totally convey a piece of work’s structure and only listening and spending time with it really can give you the full picture. That’s “The Clearing” for you.

There really isn’t a true classification for Locrian’s music, and that’s OK because we spend too much time building walls and perimeters around bands as it is. They’ve always delved in ambiance, doom, black metal, drone and plenty of other styles but never have been solely devoted to one. That’s still the case with “The Clearing,” though the record is less heavy and suffocating than some of their previous records. It’s probably their least black metal and doom album so far, not that some of those traits don’t lie beneath the surface. The band notes they tried to move beyond the more metallic influences in their music and take their journeys beyond into progressive, gazey and industrial terrain. And they do that loosely, because there aren’t many sequences here where you’ll point directly at a passage and cite that as the reference point to Yes’ “Relayer” album or Throbbing Gristle, both of which are cited on their Bandcamp page. But if you really think about it while listening, you’ll hear the connections. I hear more of Burzum’s “Aske” album, another source material that gets a nod, but not explicitly. All of these inspirations appear in a more, um, roundabout fashion.

We get started with “Chalk Point,” a song that comes together slowly on the back of ambient beams and slowly dripping piano before it meets a steady melody line and some chant-like vocals that blend into the background. “Augury in the Evaporating Tower” is the thorniest of the four-track collection, opening with a pocket of space drone that eventually catches up with manic, isolated shrieking, and a sped-up tone that threatens to run through a brick wall. But instead it calms and fizzles out in a pool of static. “Corpolite” has a Pink Floyd-like psychedelic acoustic backing and a gentle, mid-tempo pace that permits plenty of on-your-back star-gazing. The epic title track closes the collection, laying a foundation in B-movie, sci-fi clouds, a steady, pulsating spine of synthesizers, simmering hisses, and machine-style pumping. It envelops you and claims you, almost like it’s dripping a calming solution into your veins, allowing you to forget what ails you outside of your everyday tribulations so you can get some clarity before returning to reality. At least that’s how it strikes me.

Locrian don’t seem to be able to fail me, and I appreciate that greatly. Each release has something new to say, and in a world where so many bands just want to make the same statement in order for a reliable number of units moved, it’s always refreshing to discover and indulge in a band that isn’t satisfied with a norm. Who knows where Locrian will go in the future, but I’ll certainly be along for the ride.

For more on the band, go here: http://locrian.bandcamp.com/

And here: http://www.utechrecords.com/

And here: http://lndofdecay.blogspot.com/

To buy “The Clearing,” go here: http://fandeathrecords.com/shop/

For more on the label, go here: http://fandeathrecords.com/

Megadeth hang by the skin of their teeth on oddly spelled ‘Th1rt3en’

No matter what you think of Dave Mustaine’s music or personality, you can’t deny that he’s a survivor. Kicked out of Metallica before the band exploded to stardom, he struggled with substance problems and a constantly rotating cast of musicians in his own band Megadeth, and despite having a deliriously successful run in the late ’80s and early ’90s, he always had to play second fiddle to his original group.

Yet here we are, late 2011, and Mustaine is still alive and kicking. His band recently played a string of dates with Metallica, Slayer and Anthrax as part of the Big 4 package, celebrating the groups cited as pioneering the thrash sound, and now Megadeth have a new record, their 13th, awkwardly spelled “Th1rt3en.” Longtime friend, then nemesis, then friend again Dave Ellefson has returned on bass (it’s his first Megadeth studio record since 2001’s “The World Needs a Hero”), and his presence is very evident and completely welcome sonically. Guitarist Chris Broderick and drummer Shawn Drover are back and have become the new constants, other than Mustaine, of course.

The record itself is a bit of a mish-mash. It’s new material, sort of. All 13 songs are freshly cut by the current formation of the band, but a few of the tracks have longer histories and even have appeared before in alternate versions. “New World Order” has been around since 1991, when the band toured on the Clash of the Titans bill and Marty Friedman and Nick Menza were in the group. They get writing credits.  “Black Swan,” that has nothing to do with the movie of the same title, also been around for years, and a version was offered to fan club members who pre-ordered “United Abominations.”  “Millennium of the Blind” also has been around since 1991, and a version was a bonus track on the remix/remaster of “Youthanasia.” So it’s a collection of some new songs, with older odds and ends added, and you have to wonder if the re-worked tracks weren’t good enough for release before, why are they now? Or maybe the songs just didn’t fit the model of the record from the time they were created.

The album starts off just fine with “Sudden Death,” a song that simmers in the air almost as if it’s going to turn into an Immortal song before it kicks into their tried-and-true thrash path. “Public Enemy No. 1,” a song about 1920s gangster Al Capone, sounds like those classic Megadeth singles from the past two decades, where it’s just heavy enough to satisfy long-time fans and just accessible enough to get radio play. “We the People” is a really dark song, with Mustaine dropping references to the Illuminati, one-world government and currency, and a sense of the Biblical end of days. In fact, Armageddon is all over this record. The closing title track clearly is about Mustaine and the band’s artistic endeavors as a band, their trials and tribulations, and whether their time might be coming soon. Or maybe, as noted, they’re just survivors who will refuse to go away. While their life as a band continuing is not out of the question, Mustaine does drop a hint of demise when he admits, “I just don’t think I can give anymore.”

Those are all the finer points of “Th1rt3en.” Now the not so good, which, unfortunately, outweighs the highlights. There aren’t any terrible songs on this album, and Megadeth have been good for a real clunker or two per record (or sometimes just a flat-out bad album … “Risk”), but there’s a long stretch of this collection that isn’t very inspiring. Aforementioned “New World Order” and “Black Swan” are fine for what they are, but they’re way better as B sides. “Guns, Drugs and Money” isn’t nearly as menacing as its title indicates, and there’s a weird Deep Purple-like keyboard line hanging behind the thing; “Fast Lane” is about fast cars and blah blah blah, and it should feature an appearance by Vin Diesel, but it does not. “Never Dead,” a song written for inclusion in the “NeverDead” videogame, sounds like it was banged out in 15 minutes specifically to fill out a soundtrack; “Wrecker” and “Whose Life (Is It Anyway?)” both are about evil women doing bad things, and you know, you just shouldn’t trust them. They’re both kind of dull, with “Whose Life” sounding comically teen angsty. “Deadly Nightshade,” built from an old riff, isn’t bad, as it has a nice crunch and a strong bassline from Ellefson, but it won’t make any greatest hits lists.

This isn’t a bad late-career record from Megadeth, and if you’re a gigantic fan and a completest, you probably won’t regret buying the album. I don’t think it’s going to be the cause of any commercial resurrection for the band, and it’s not up to par with recent albums by tourmates Anthrax and Slayer (though it kicks the hell out of the “Lulu” thing …). It’s not terrible, not great. I prefer 2009’s “Endgame” and even 2007’s “United Abominations” over “Th1rt3en,” but that’s if I was forced to choose one of those discs. My excitement for the band started to fade with “Countdown to Extinction,” and I don’t give much of their post-2000 work much playing time anyway. This thing isn’t going to change that for me, but at least they’re still doing competent work and trying to stay true to their roots.

For more on the band, go here: http://www.megadeth.com/home.php

To buy “Th1rt3en,” go here: http://store.roadrunnerrecords.com/MEGADETH-Th1rt3en

For more on the label, go here: http://www.roadrunnerrecords.com/

Negură Bunget to reach North America … finally

It may seem a little early to be making concert plans for next year, but it’s not every day that Negură Bunget graces us with their presence. Actually, if you hail from North America, you’ve never had a chance to see the band in your homeland because this upcoming jaunt will be the band’s first ever.

The woodsy Romanian black metal band, that recently underwent some pretty major lineup changes, (with only drummer Negru remaining) have managed to maintain their greatness despite a whole bunch of new faces now carrying the banner. Sol Faur and Hupogrammos have gone onto to form a new band Dordeduh, leaving Negru to move on with his restocked band. Negură Bunget released a new album “Vîrstele Pămîntului” last year (it’s wonderfully rustic and jagged), and before that, they offered up “Măiestrit,” a reworked version of their 2000 cult classic album “Măiastru Sfetnic” that went over pretty big with their audience. It’s about as must-have as the source material.

The tour, which will culminate in an appearance at the 10th annual Maryland Deathfest, will include Eclipse Eternal, Wolven Ancestry and The Way of Purity. Sponsorship comes from Metal Maniacs (I write for them), Terrorizer, BWBK, Archaic North and Beyond the Dark Horizon. It’s an incredibly stellar lineup anyway, and it’s made even more special by this rare treat of seeing Negură Bunget in the flesh.

In a release sent by the band’s North American publicist, Negru offered these thoughts about the monumental tour: “We are happy and proud to finally announce our North American tour plans for 2012. It has been a long time since we’ve been planning this, and we’ll do our best to create out of this an overwhelming spiritual experience both for us and the audience attending the concerts.”

Below are the dates/venues confirmed so far:

4/21/2012 – Montreal, Quebec @ The Katacombs – http://www.coopkatacombes.com
4/22/2012 – Quebec City, Quebec @ L’Agitee – http://www.agitee.org
4/24/2012 – Montcon, New Brunswick @ The Manhattan – http://www.themanhattanbarandgrill.com
4/27/2012 – Toronto, Ontario @ Hard Luck Bar – http://www.hardluckbar.com
4/28/2012 – Detroit, Michigan @ The Token Lounge – http://www.thetokenlounge.com
4/29/2012 – Chicago, Illinois @ Reggie’s Rock Club – http://www.reggieslive.com
5/2/2012 – Calgary, Alberta @ The Distillery – http://www.distillerypub.com
5/4/2012 – Kamloops, British Columbia @ Pogue Mahones Pub – http://www.poguemahonekamloops.com
5/6/2012 – Seattle, Washington @ El Corazon – http://www.elcorazonseattle.com
5/19/2012 – San Antonio, Texas @ Bonds 007 Rock Bar – http://www.myspace.com/sa_bonds007
5/24/2012 – Charlotte, North Carolina @ Tremont Music Hall – http://www.tremontmusichall.com
5/25/2012 – Baltimore, Maryland @ Maryland Deathfest – www.supremebrutality.com

For more on the band, go here: http://www.negurabunget.com/

To buy the band’s albums/merch, go here: http://shop.prophecy.de/advanced_search_result.php?keywords=negura+bunget&x=0&y=0

For more on the label, go here: http://www.prophecy.cd/

Black Tusk keep the home grill fires burning on ‘Set the Dial’

You have to love a band that compels you to drink beer and grill large quantities of meat the moment you hear their music. I feel like a broken record saying that about Savannah, Ga., sludgers Black Tusk because I’m pretty sure I write that every time I discuss this filthy, fun trio, but whatever. It fits the band and it’s 100 percent true.

The band has had a fairly prolific past couple of years. They released their barn-burning, drop-dead awesome Relapse debut “Taste the Sin” in the spring of 2010, and that record always will claim a soft spot in my heart because the week leading up to my wedding, every time I had to jump in the car and go take care of something for the event, that album went with me. Awwww. This year, Relapse re-released the band’s kick-ass 2008 first full-length “Passage Through Purgatory,” originally released by Hyperrealist. Now here we are, with 2011 nearing its conclusion – hey wait, it’s Oct. 21, 2011. Isn’t the world supposed to end today? – and we have a brand new platter from the band that maintains the heavy, muddy goodness we’ve come to expect, but they also pour in some more Southern rock influence than ever before. Got your bottle opener ready?

“Set the Dial” doesn’t quite have the intensity of their first two records, but what they lack in savagery this time around, they make up for in laid-back, simmering thrashing. It’s a bit more easy-going of a record, but don’t mistake that as meaning the album isn’t heavy. It is, and it’s still pretty nasty, and the fellows sound tighter and looser than on any of their previous work. This album, recorded with legendary producer Jack Endino (Soundgarden, High on Fire), sounds like it was crafted with a plan in mind that wasn’t set to stone and could be changed on a dime if that’s where their whims took them. That gives these songs unpredictability and energy not found on their other albums, and while it doesn’t always lead to better songs, it does keep things fresh and exciting. There also is a notable distribution of vocal duties among all members – guitarist Andrew Fidler, bassist Jonathan Athon, drummer James May – and while they always took turns yowling/shrieking out the messages, there’s pretty much equality now. It’s pretty cool to hear them constantly trade verses.

“Brewing the Storm” kicks off the album, and it’s an unassuming, get-your-ass-ready instrumental that leads you into “Bring Me Darkness,” where the dudes yowl “666” and promise destruction and unfathomable horror. It’s funny, though, that any time the band drops the man-downstairs references, they always come off as tongue-in-cheek and never sinister. It makes you smirk more than anything, and I don’t mean in a mocking way. It’s fun, damn it. “Ender of All” has a stoner thrash vibe and really rocks your bones at times, but it goes on about a minute too long for my taste. I think it would work better shorter, but what do I know? “Mass Devotion” has that swampy, Southern rock edge, where the shrieked vocals are balanced by dark, mean speaking behind them; “Carved in Stone” bleeds doom and ill intent, especially when you hear the barked line, “Time is up/There’ll be nowhere to run!”; “Resister” begins with picked acoustics and sounds like it’ll ease you on gently, but it’s a ploy, and eventually their mucky thrashing mauls you; and “Growing Horns” has power metal-style lead lines, almost as if they’re channeling early Iron Maiden, and it’s one of those most backyard-bash-ready killers that’ll get the authorities called to your home after it incites rowdiness.

All in all, I really dig “Set the Dial” and surely will give this plenty of playing time in the future, but I’d rank it a step below “Taste the Sin.” It’s more of a grower, where you have to take some time to feel out the rough edges and get used to the humid environment. It also should be noted John Dyer Baizley (of Baroness fame) handled the artwork again, and as expected, it’s a pretty cool looking piece. It actually reminds me a bit of a Japanese album cover, the way the whole thing is set up. So I’m off to the grocery store for some brews, because now I’m thirsty from having written this. I blame you, Black Tusk.

For more on the band, go here: http://www.facebook.com/BlackTusk

To buy “Set the Dial,” go here: http://www.relapse.com/search_result.php?search_by=all&q=black+tusk&x=0&y=0

For more on the label, go here: http://www.relapse.com/

Windhand unleash spooky doom metal on awesome debut album

Not sure how the winds feels where you happen to be right now, but it’s getting awfully chilly here. Leaves are dying and slowly journeying to the ground, heavier clothing is necessary and the spookiest of times are upon us. That, quite obviously, makes it a fantastic time for more doom metal since it fits the season so perfectly.

So on this dark, cold afternoon, we shall discuss the debut full-length from Virginia stoner/doom lurkers Windhand. Before this debut record, all they had on their resume since forming in 2008 was a two-track demo that includes versions of two of the cuts found on this self-titled opus, but for a band with such a small canon of material, they show enormous potential. And yeah, as Halloween closes in, their music will make a splendid soundtrack to an evening of passing out candy to miserable children and then retiring to the living room to have some treats (probably of the liquid variety) of your own.

There are a ton of comparison points that can be made to Windhand’s music: Electric Wizard, Blood Ceremony, the Devil’s Blood, Black Sabbath. The music is packed with riffy goodness and pulverizing, slow-driven madness, and Dorthia Cottrell’s vocals standing as a major selling point for the band. She’s deep, gritty and soulful, and her voice is impossible not to ignore. You’ll find yourself heeding to her call at every moment. One complaint I have production-wise, though, is that Cottrell’s voice is kind of buried in the mix. I think this record would sound even better if her singing got to rise above the murk and take the leading role it deserves, but perhaps this is all by design. I’ll have to hear this on vinyl because maybe Cottrell’s voice will pop out a little more in the format.

The opening cut on the album is called “Black Candles,” and really, that’s a fixture that would be awfully fitting while hearing this monstrous, blood-caked album. The song begins and ends with a thunderstorm (in fact, the first three cuts on the album are awash in heavy rain when they start), and there’s doomy riff upon doomy riff, as well as some scintillating, bluesy guitar soloing. “Libusen” has mainly the same structure, as the band drubs you with a calculating, suffocating pace, as Cottrell warns, “You better run.” “Heap Wolves” finds Cottrell digging into a grittier, yet still soaring register, while guitarists Garrett Morris and Asechiah Bogdan set fire to everything. The two closing epics change the pace a little bit, as “Summon the Moon” manages to grind the tempo to an even slower, more violent pace, and closer “Winter Sun” lets the band simmer in drone and noise haze, chewier riffing, and even some harsh growls come the song’s conclusion. It’s an awesome ending to this album and makes me wonder if their next record will have more of these elements packed into it. I kind of hope so.

Windhand, if they maintain this intensity, could be part of the next wave of awesome doom-infested bands alongside Cough, The Wounded Kings, Aldebaran and Anhedonist, just to throw out some examples. They have an awesome grasp on how to make doom both glorious and sooty, their guitar work is a thrill to hear, and Cottrell is an up-and-coming singer who I think will be a household name for metal fans within a few years. This first album is strong document that, even with some flaws, appears to indicate this band has enormous upside and will be a horrific force well into the future.

For more on the band, go here: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Windhand/115952841804204?ref=ts

To buy the album, go here (pre-order is not up yet, but Forcefield said it will be soon): http://www.forcefieldrecords.org/store/

For more on the label, go here: http://www.forcefieldrecords.org/site/

Loutallica appetizer not exactly tasty

I’m sure you’ve heard about this Metallica/Lou Reed collaboration “Lulu.” It’s not getting a very good reaction. Of course, Rolling Stone hasn’t chimed in yet to give their obligatory 5 stars to the thing, but any week now, right?

I’ve long, long, long since lost interest in Metallica, but because they’re one of those bands I grew up loving middle school through high school, I always give each of their albums a shot. Hey, you never know, right? Lou Reed historically just rubbed me wrong. He seems awfully pretentious, and his music post-Velvet Underground never turned me on. A friend of mine met him at one of his art exhibits and said he could not have been less friendly. There also was that Spin magazine interview last year. And I don’t want to use the “I just don’t get it” excuse when it comes to his music, because I listen to some pretty weird stuff, so I’ve always been surprised Reed never appealed to me.

The two full songs I’ve heard from “Lulu” make me wonder what either party – Reed or Metallica – were thinking when going full-bore into this project. And again, I’ve only heard two tracks the whole way through, so that’s not enough for me to judge an entire piece of work. But I think I know how I’m going to feel. I’ll certainly listen to the entire thing once I have a copy, because it’s only fair, but my hopes are way low.

Now there’s a way to get an idea of what you’re going to endure when hearing this whole thing. . I’ve even imbedded the player for you in case you want to hear these nuggets for yourself. It sounds really bad. This-is-a-joke bad. Reed’s typical poet-style reading of his lyrics are here, but they just sound like they were pulled from another record and placed over some of Metallica’s least-inspired work. But since most people are trashing this, I’ll try to pull out a few sort-of positives from these 30-second clips.  I’m OK with the music to “Mistress Dread” because it’s kind of heavy and fast, but the vocals ruin it. Musically, “Cheat on Me” is a little ambient and droning for Metallica, but I haven’t heard the vocals over it, and “Dragon” has some of the same daring musical ideas, but Reed sounds ridiculous. “Iced Honey” appears as if it would sound better without Metallica behind it, which is sad; “Junior Dad” is interesting until the metal kicks in; and closer “Little Dog” sounds like it’s going to let Metallica get all country and blues on us. “The View,” the song most distributed to fans so far, is really eh.  Sludgy but dull Metallica riffing, and it gets pretty bad once James Hetfield kicks in with his singing.

These clips could be terribly misleading as to where the rest of these songs go, so even when I could find some positives, the rest of the package could undo that. I have a feeling a lot of the meathead contingent of Metallica’s audience will think this is the artsiest thing they ever heard, but I have a bad hunch it’ll be the ugliest, rustiest, most damaging nail in Metallica’s coffin. We’ll have to wait a couple more weeks to see if that’s the case.

For more on the project, go here: http://www.loureedmetallica.com/

PS: I just realized you can listen to “Lulu” in its entirety at the site above. Did this just appear on their site recently? Anyway, if you want to hear the whole thing, go there. I’ll do that this week.


Russian Circles justify ‘heaviest album to date’ tag on explosive ‘Empros’

Reading press releases is both very informative and kind of pointless. Yes, said pieces are chock-full of information about the band and album you’re about to tackle, but so often, these write-ups are overly inflated with added details about how the record is “the best thing the band has ever done” or that it’s a “career-defining moment” or that the band is “stronger than ever before.”

What do you expect a press release to say? “This album isn’t as good as the band’s last one, but sometimes you hit a bump in the road. Just give them a break.” That doesn’t make for good copy to move albums or drum up interest, and I get why overly inflating a record’s quality is done. People get paid to excite people and get them to drop money on music, which is something consumers are doing less and less these days. But that’s not to suggest all press releases are misleading and all PR folks are shysters.  I deal with a ton of great people every day that have a hand in helping me bring to you what I do here at Meat Mead Metal, and I appreciate them a ton. But I still read every press release with some skepticism, even if those good PR folks aren’t to blame for my cynicism.

I read the details about Chicago instrumental (um, mostly … more on that later) group Russian Circles’ new record “Empros,” a piece of work that’s described as the band’s heaviest to date. Immediately the red flags went up (and the release is from a good source … so it was just a reaction to words) and I wondered if that description really was accurate. I’ve been into the band’s music ever since their 2006 debut full-length “Enter,” and I’ve generally always enjoyed their work (especially 2008’s “Station”). While I wouldn’t shy away from calling some of their music heavy, I always found them a band stuck somewhere between post-metal and indie rock, as generic a term as both may be. Russian Circles weren’t typically a band that would bloody your knuckles and instead made music that made your mind soar.

But from my initial exposure to “Empros,” I realized those words “heaviest album to date” not only were pretty spot on but that maybe it didn’t go far enough. This is a convulsive, quaking, thrashing album that most likely will leave you devastated. The trio of guitarist Mike Sullivan, bassist Brian Cook and drummer Dave Tumcrantz immediately go for the jugular with this record, and if they did have a vocalist, chances are that persons approach would be hellish screams and guttural shouts because those would be the only ways to match the musical intensity. People into Explosions in the Sky and Godspeed You! Black Emperor probably still will find plenty to like on this record, but devotees to ISIS, Neurosis and Pelican likely will enjoy this tumultuous ride as well. It’s just that explosive.

The records rips open with “309,” a track full of noise squall, massive ambiance and lead guitar lines that soar across the landscape, and it paves the way for “Mladek,” a song the band named after their beloved European tour driver, that sometimes reaches for some of The Edge’s dramatic guitar histrionics (from the era before his band got embarrassing) and eventually melts into metallic chugging and stabbing. “Schipol” (shoegazey and calm before fading into noise), “Atackla” (delicate and shimmery at start, bloodthirsty and mangling toward the end) and “Batu” (spacey, staticy and doomy, sort of like labelmates Boris) all are bridged together to give off the sense of what the listener would experience if they saw the band live, and it’s a nice, seamless approach. Closer “Praise Be Man” is the total curveball, as the song rises out of gentle acoustics into psychedelic rock noise, and it’s the first Russian Circles track with vocals. The song definitely stands apart from the rest of the album, and it sounds like a nod to producer Brandon Curtis and his former band The Secret Machines. It’s not a misstep at all, as one may fear from an all-instrumental band, and it’s a really imaginative different track that could hint at some of their future journeys.

So yeah, it’s the heaviest thing Russian Circles have done yet, and it’s a really strong album. It might even unseat “Station” as my favorite record in this band’s canon, but it’ll take a little bit of time before I know that for sure. There’s very little time to relax on “Empros,” and if you planned to use this album as a means of relaxation, think again. Instead, you might find yourself climbing the walls, annoying the neighbors, and finding out just how much volume your home stereo system can handle.

For more on the band, go here: http://russiancirclesband.com/

To buy “Empros,” go here: http://russiancircles.tumblr.com/merch

For more on the label, go here: http://sargenthouse.com/