Witch Mountain deliver more bluesy, vintage doom on ‘Cauldron of the Wild’

I’ve complained to more than one person about Sam Dunn’s “Metal Evolution” series that aired on VH-1 in the States, where the anthropologist/film director dissected heavy metal, presented a study on each of its genres, and explained the origins of the music. When taking on the influence jazz and, especially, blues had on the genre, he seems dumbfounded by just how much those styles affected heavy music.

How could he NOT know that? You’re hosting this series. If you don’t know, who does? Maybe I’m being overly critical of one statement. Some people have told they think he’s pretending to learn along with the audience. But if I, some asshole on a couch in Pittsburgh already know this, how does he not? Whatever. He got to interview Ronnie James Dio and I didn’t.

Anyway, obviously had it not been for blues, there would be no metal, and there certainly there would not be doom. Blues are the roots of the genre, and early artists such as Led Zeppelin (huge American blues enthusiasts) and standard-bearers Black Sabbath washed themselves in the stuff and transformed what they loved into an ugly, hulking monster. Four decades later, things have only gotten more sinister, and many of today’s doom bands are terrifying to hear because they’ve taken the genre straight to hell. In the best possible way. Yet there are those that still cling to some of doom and metal’s earliest incarnations and remain fervently obedient to that style of music. Oregon’s Witch Mountain are one of those bands, and they’re wonderfully traditional through and through.

Witch Mountain have had a pretty bizarre, uncharacteristic existence. They delivered an EP “Homegrown Doom” in 2000, then their debut album “Come the Mountain” in 2001, and then they disappeared. The band went on to tend to family matters and other projects, and they seemed destined to fade away fairly unnoticed by much of the metal world. But in 2009 things started to get going again. They played shows opening for Pentagram, another classic doom band that seemed like it never would reach the glory its members deserved, but instead of guitarist Rob Wrong handling vocals, they recruited Uta Plotkin. To say Plotkin’s voice is powerful would be a massive understatement. Her pipes are sirens, and she has an intensity and command not heard by many vocalists. Yes, there are plenty of strong singers, but they are not Plotkin. Her presence reignited the band’s fire, and in 2011, they returned with their stunning new album “South of Salem,” one of the most unexpected surprises of that year.

The band eventually signed on with Profound Lore, who reissued a CD version of “Salem,” and suddenly news surfaced that the band was ready to follow up their sophomore release already with another bluesy slab of retro doom. Witch Mountain, who have been dormant for most of their existence, transformed themselves into prolific creators practically overnight, and their third album “Cauldron of the Wild” already is here for the taking. Truth be told, I’m not even done fully digesting “Salem,” but I enjoy that album so much that taking on new songs wasn’t much of a problem for me.

Yet visiting “Cauldron,” I’m not as moved as I was with their sophomore record. One of the major issues for me, weirdly, is Plotkin, who was the reason I loved “Salem” so much. As noted, she’s an incredibly powerful singer, but that’s sort of her undoing on this album. There are times that, for some reason, her reaching-for-the-stratosphere singing sounds wrong to me. It sounds like she’s lunging for something that’s out of her grasp, and many of her high notes end up stinging the ears rather than soothing with smoky goodness. This isn’t a problem for the entire run of the record, but it rears its head now and again and makes things not feel right to me. And trust me, I’ve read enough reviews of this record to know I am pretty much in a corner all by myself on this opinion, but personally, I can’t get with some of her singing on “Cauldron.” At other times, I’m right along with her, enjoying her work as much as I did what she conjured on “Salem.”

The record opens with “The Ballad of Lanky Rae,” the tale of a 7-foot giant woman who roams and dominates the underworld with a male companion. It makes me think of a gangly Brienne of Tarth, if I may be a huge dork for a moment. Anyway, the rest of the band — it also includes bassist Neal Munson and drummer Nathan Carson — hits on a nice bluesy groove, but this is one of tracks where I feel Plotkin’s singing goes off the rails a bit. As far as her storytelling goes, it’s sharp and effective. “Beekeeper,” a burly, slow-driving number, also has some vocals that don’t do a lot for me, but the discomfort comes and goes as Plotkin evens out her delivery. From that point, the album gains momentum. “Shelter” is a Sabbath-friendly number that does smoke, and Plotkin really turns it on here, delivering a mostly steady performance. That leads into “Veil of the Forgotten,” where the singing stands out as a major plus, and killer ballad “Aurelia,” which is organic, emotional, and a little scary, especially with Plotkin’s warnings of, “Just run, run run.” “Never Know” closes things off on a high note (kind of literally as it has some nice stoner vibes), but eventually the songs explodes, and as much as I’ve criticized Plotkin, she exudes power and sexiness here, especially when she howls, “Don’t know if you’re dead, but I like it that way.”

Obviously I prefer “South of Salem” to “Cauldron of the Wild,” but opinions among most critics seem to swing the other way. It took a while to process these songs, but the ones that are working for me, I really like. The ones that don’t particularly turn me on haven’t gained much ground. I still revel in this band’s uniqueness, and Plotkin remains their most interesting weapon. I’d like to hear her a bit more grounded next time around, because she did that so well on “Salem,” and hopefully this band keeps making music at a fairly regular clip.

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

To buy the album, go here: http://www.profoundlorerecords.com/products-page/plr-items/witch-mountain-cauldron-of-the-wild/

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

German thrash veterans Kreator remain hungry as ever on ‘Phantom Antichrist’

This current run of young thrash bands trying to visit sounds that preceded their members’ actual presence on Earth? I don’t like it. Not that the effort is what bothers me; it’s more the execution. It doesn’t feel valid at all, and while I don’t doubt all their little hearts are in the right place, it doesn’t often feel very authentic. So I don’t indulge in it very much because I typically wind up not caring.

I blame two things for this: First, I grew up in the era in which thrash came into its prominence, and any part of my damaged hearing has to be blamed largely on me blasting various bands’ cassettes through headphones on my way to and from school each day. So there’s an obvious bias there of “the bands I grew up with are better than the ones coming out now” sort of thing that, admittedly, could be annoying. Second, I’m old and set in my ways, and I pass judgment on the new kids because they cannot possibly capture the essence of this genre since they were not there to understand how it came to be. Now and again, you get a Municipal Waste or a lesser known band like Obsessor that gets it right, but usually it’s one-and-done listening to most of the new thrash promos I get. This is why I’m always excited to get something new from an old favorite.

That’s not to say all of the veteran bands hit the nail on the head every time either. Do we even need to discuss what’s become of Metallica? Their Big 4 mates have done slightly better quality wise (though certainly their sales pale in comparison), as Megadeth have done an OK job rehabbing themselves, Anthrax put out a pretty decent comeback album last year, and Slayer aren’t as ferocious and instantaneous as they once were, but they still make good albums. Two of the most impressive older bands have been Testament and Overkill, whose recent albums have been damn good. And then there’s Kreator.

My first exposure to these German thrash stalwarts came via their video for “Betrayer” from their classic 1989 release “Extreme Aggression,” and that occasionally played video on Headbangers Ball always would pique my interest because they were so much faster and more aggressive than the other thrash bands. The vocals always were harsher and screamier, the guitar work a little more violent, and their songs seemed as serious as anyone else in the genre. Plus, their album covers always captivated me, even one as sort of plain as the “Aggression” artwork. From this point, I followed the band’s releases and goings on, with the exception of when I dropped out of metal in the late ’90s/early’00s (I blame the rise if nu-metal), and my interest really picked up again with their 2005 record “Enemy of God,” released by SPV/Steamhammer.

Here we are seven years later, and Kreator still are going strong, laying waste to the new crop of thrash bands and even re-capturing the fire of their younger years. They recently signed a new deal with metal powerhouse Nuclear Blast, and the first entry of that agreement is here in the form of “Phantom Antichrist.” Now, album title and their aversion to religion aside, this isn’t a God-basher per se. The themes seemed based more on what organized religion has done to humanity, how it has twisted and warped people’s morals, and how it has become a controlling aspect of politics and societal happenings. Just watching the news here in the States the last couple weeks, you easily can find ways that people have taken religion and used it to scorn, hurt, and segregate people. Isn’t that sort of the opposite of its intended effect?

Kreator’s voice from the start has been has been Miland “Mille” Petrozza, who also plays guitar, and with him is co-founding member and drummer Jürgen Reil (he’s been in the band all but two years in the mid-1990s), guitarist Sami Yli-Sirniö (aboard since 2001) and bassist Christian Giesler (a member since 1994). On their 13th studio album, they sound as fiery as ever, and while the blistering speed isn’t their primary goal anymore, they remain a really heavy unit. What they trade in savagery, they make up for in melody, as there are many moments on “Phantom” that sound inspired by Iron Maiden/Helloween-style power metal, mostly in the guitar work, and that lends a sense of epicness to these tracks. Perhaps some of that openness and spaciousness is the work of producer Jens Bogren (Opeth, Katatonia, Amon Amarth), but whoever is responsible, it infuses a sense of life and reinvigoration into Kreator, a band that wasn’t exactly in dire need of a recharge. But they got it anyway.

The album opens with “Mars Mantra,” a string-heavy, somewhat lush introduction that runs into the title track, one of the speedier pieces on the album that has Petrozza practically spitting out his words, at one point howling, “Terror will prevail,” while the band marches with him in fury and purpose. “Death to the World” has an environmental message and laments the abuse the planet has taken, and when Petrozza growls, “The whole human race shall die,” it’s because he’s envisioning earth eventually snuffing out its assailants. You know, us. “From Flood Into Fire” is the first taste of their power chops, and the chorus is uplifting and melodic. “Civilization Collapse” also imagines humankind bringing on its own destruction, this time from within, though they encourage those who fear a societal fall to help prevent one. “Your Heaven, My Hell” is one that weighs the destructive power of religion and what it makes people do to each other, and when Petrozza shouts, “Kill all the gods,” he actually has a productive, sensible reason for doing so. Victory Will Come” has a Slayer flavor to it musically, and it, too, is melodic and defiant, while closer “Until Our Paths Cross Again” acts as an anthem of empowerment, and while it might not be the heaviest song in Kreator’s canon, it’s one of the most passionate.

“Phantom Antichrist” is a solid entry from thrash veterans who haven’t forgotten what makes this genre so much fun. They’re explosive, direct, confrontational, and even inspirational when the time is right. A lot of the newer bands can learn something from Kreator, both from their past work and what they do here, not only about how to make meaningful, impactful music, but how to do it over a long period of time. The bulk of Kreator’s lifespan may be in their rearview, but it doesn’t sound like they planning on hitting the brakes any time in the near future.

For more on the band, go here: http://kreator-terrorzone.de/

To buy the album, go here: http://store.nuclearblastusa.com/Search/kreator

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

Early Mantas recordings reveal rough, bruising future for Schuldiner, Death

The movie industry loves a prequel. Take an already successful franchise, imagine how it may have really started, put it on a movie screen, print cups for Taco Bell or something, and it’s money. That’s all that matters, right? People are suckers for this stuff, so let’s print the tickets.

Well, if the prequel is good enough for movies and even television, then why can’t that transfer over to metal? OK, yeah, I know we get early band demos from groups who go onto achieve great heights in order to fill out a reissue, but that doesn’t really count, does it? Those are more like clips that ended up on a studio floor. But how many times do we get to hear how a legendary band came to be before they even thought about carving out the path that brought them to stardom. Thanks to Relapse and their incredible job fleshing out the back catalog of death metal pioneers Death, we’re now getting to learn how Chuck Schuldiner’s legacy came to be by way of the band that preceded his life’s most noteworthy work.

Before Death ever became an entity, there was Mantas. That group wad comprised of Schuldiner on guitar and vocals, Kam Lee on drums, and Rick Rozz on guitars, and the latter two also would play in Death at one point. The group’s short run under this moniker consisted of a few demo recordings that basically helped pave the way for Death, and kind of like your neighbor’s band that puts together rough versions of their songs, understandably not a whole lot of attention was put into production. But unlike your neighbor’s band, you can hear the makings of genius in these songs, and easily can understand how they went from this to a fully realized thing once Death’s debut “Scream Bloody Gore” was released a few years later. Granted, only Schuldiner would play on that record, but what these three guys accomplished in Mantas’ short time together certainly helped shape that.

You’re basically getting a collection that features the same songs over and over again, but this was a young group with not a lot of material, so what can you really expect? What’s here is quite interesting, and it’s neat to hear  how a track such as “Legion of Doom” twists and turns subtly over its three takes found here (one being a rehearsal version). Same goes for each version of “Evil Dead” and “Death By Metal,” that happens to be our title track. Yeah, you have to be listening closely to really detect these nuances, but chances are if you’re putting down cash for this, you’re one whose likely to dissect. It’s also interesting that these guys were kicking out aggressive thrash more than actual death metal, a move that would come a little later. The rehearsal stuff’s cool, and the band sounds really raw and hungry, and if you grab the deluxe version, you even get a nice set of live cuts from a September 1984 performance in Orlando. It’s quite interesting to hear, and as noted, while there certainly was room for growth with Mantas, you can hear that they were on the right track. History obviously proved that true.

This Mantas collection probably is for Death hardcores only, and someone unfamiliar with Schuldiner’s work — if those people exist — probably won’t get a lot out of this. It might not even be an album you listen to a whole lot if you are a Death follower, but that’s OK. It’s more of a collector’s item, a must for those whose Death collection isn’t complete without every ounce of music related to the band, and those folks should eat this up.

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

To get the album, go here: http://www.relapse.com/search_result.php?search_by=all&q=mantas&x=0&y=0

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

Marduk’s ‘Serpent Sermon’ is another dose of dizzying, devious black metal

A few years ago I was at a show at this horrible local club (I hate it for its clientele and awful beer selection) when this girl wandered onto the stage to look out the window to assess the traffic situation below. Now, bear in mind a band was just a few minutes from starting, and here is this drunk idiot trying to maneuver through their gear with no regard for its well-being. One of the band members screamed at her to get away from their shit, she deserved it, and even though she slurred back some nonsense, she was effectively put in her place.

Unless you’re in the band, work for them, or do security, you probably should stay away from the stage. You don’t belong there, and while it’s fine if the band is encouraging you to get up there and leap back into a crowd that may or may not catch you, it’s in your best interest to stay away. After all, recall what happened to “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott, and his assailant wasn’t even on the stage. The people in the band don’t know if an approaching person is an assailant, wants to lift equipment, or is just an over-excited fan, so when someone like Marduk’s Mortuus takes offense at your approach and bodyslams the shit out of you for stepping onto his territory, it’s your own damn fault. Hopefully the moron who got pulverized into oblivion at Marduk’s December 2009 show in San Francisco learned that valuable lesson, for Mortuus is not to be messed with. You Tube, everyone.

Admittedly, that much-talked-about confrontation has little to do with the band’s new, 12th album “Serpent Sermon,” other than it too is a scary, muscle-bound slab of black metal hell that should remind you not to step where you aren’t safe. I just like to talk about and laugh at the guy whose night got ruined. “Serpent” is the band’s first for Century Media after delivering their killer 2009 opus “Wormwood” on Regain, and it should find a warm home amongst the band’s fans. It’s heavy, creepy, damaged, and blasphemous, as one would expect from these fellows, and it’ll warp whatever good is left in your heart.

Since we opened talking about Mortuus, let us continue. Not to take away from the goodness his band delivers on this record — they’re at the very top of their game — the frontman (he replaced Legion in 2003) is worth the price of admission. He’s gurgly and snarly, shouting and howling with authority, and you certainly pay heed to everything he snarls at you. He’s a great dark mouthpiece, one of the few black metal frontmen who have broken all molds and are completely recognizable upon opening their mouths. What he sings sounds dangerous and serious, like he’s not just putting on some show, and the diatribes that spew from him can infect and, if you’re on the other side of his philosophical spectrum, completely infuriate. That’s kind of the magic in hearing Mortuus perform. As for me, I’m just here for the music.

The band – it also includes guitarists Evil and Devo and drummer Lars Broddesson — wastes no time getting started, blasting right into the damaged title track and leading into “Messianic Pestilence,” a fast, bloodthirsty song that gurgles on its own fury. “Souls for Belial” slows things down a bit, but the track is no less heavy. It’s doomy and distorted, and there’s more of as traditional rock melody line holding the piece together. “Into Second Death” brings back the madness and fury, and woven into the cut are group chants that sound like they’re designed to resurrect some ancient god or mummy. Or both. Reminds me just a bit of Melechesh, as does “Damnation’s Gold,” the song that appears two tracks later. “MAMMON” is awash in chaos and damnation, and the fast, punk-style guitar work bruises you in a hurry; “Gospel of the Worm” might make you feel like you’ve been spun into the ground with its vortex of guitar lines, off-kilter melodies, and vicious howls from Mortuus of, “No hope, only death!”; and 7:09 closer “World of Blades” flows nicely over its stretched running time, getting mean and confrontational when the need arises, but also letting you breathe in atmosphere.

Marduk certainly have a formula that works for them, and they remain one of the most instantly recognizable black metal bands from a sonic standpoint. They’ve never sacrificed their visions or their passion, and while they may rub some people wrong, I hardly think they give a shit. They’re here to be profane and offensive, and anyone who gets in their way may find themselves in a crumbled heap at Mortuus’ boots.

For more on the band, go here: http://www.marduk.nu/

To buy the album, go here: http://www.cmdistro.com/Search/marduk

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

Doom duo Hour of 13 weave classic dark tales, threads of damnation on new ‘333’

Evil and heavy metal have walked hand in hand since the start of the genre. Basically, this stuff is based in darkness, devils, and dread, and that’s part of what makes it so much fun. If we wanted happiness and good times, we’d listen to whatever shit was on the radio. People still listen to those, right?

Anyhow, doom especially has been drenched in darkness and murk, starting with Black Sabbath and running right through other areas of extreme music such as Hellhammer/Celtic Frost and Bathory of black metal’s first wave, through other doom artists such as Candlemass and St. Vitus, through the second wave of black metal, into death metal, and so on. It’s always there, and I’ve always seen it as a healthy, human thing to examine the scarier parts of our existence. It’s there, and it must be addressed, otherwise we don’t know how to confront it when it’s in front of us. Or it can remind us that no matter how bad things are for us, they always could be worse.

North Carolina’s Hour of 13 have been making some of doom metal’s most interesting sounds the past six years, and while the union between multi-instrumentalist Chad Davis and vocalist Phil Swanson has been a little shaky (Swanson has bowed out a couple times only to return, thankfully), they’ve always managed to pull it together when it comes to making records. They opened a lot of eyes on their debut self-titled disc in 2007, and they managed to go one better on 2010’s “The Ritualist,” a killer record initially released by Eyes Like Snow before Earache snapped up the group and put their second album back on the market with wider distribution.

Hour of 13 are back with their excellent third album “333,” the first delivered exclusively for Earache and one that should put them on the doom metal map. Davis once again puts together dark, classic-style compositions that compel and drag you into the murk, while Swanson, with his charismatic, unmistakable delivery, serves as your time-tested, heathen storyteller. His voice may be a bit of an acquired taste for some people – he’s got some classic Ozzy Osbourne in him – but it’s impossible not to hang on his every word and follow him into whatever dark tunnel he leads you. He’s that commanding and interesting a frontman, and Hour of 13 would not be the same without him.

As usual, the band espouses about black magic, hell, the devil, and all things unholy, but their tales also have a strange sense of warning about them. It might just be tongue-in-cheek, but some of the lyrics almost sound as if they’re saying beware of what you do or your soul’s going to burn in a lake of fire. Or perhaps that’s what they want you to think. I can see how you could take these messages either way, but surely in the end, they’re glorifying the thorny, seedy elements of existence. So watch your steps.

Opener “Deny the Cross” not only has a classic-sounding title, but the song itself could have been a staple of Headbangers Ball in the 80s and not been out of place. I mean that in a good way. The track runs a little longer than seven minutes and has its share of tempo shifts and psychological damage. Swanson wails, “I thought I found my way, but still I’m lost,” before inevitably denying the cross, though later he admits, “Now I must pay the price/No paradise.” Interesting dichotomy there. “The Burning” follows and also sounds like a member of the damned preemptively walking you through hell, letting you see the gates and feel the flames. It’s also an infectious song with a rock-solid construction that’s pure heavy metal through and through.

“Rite of Samhain” has Swanson finding his soul reborn in a late-night ritual, with Davis following him up with sinewy dual guitar lines and confident soloing; “Spiral Vacuum” opens on a dizzying note but then breaks into a classic rock journey not terribly unlike Blue Oyster Cult at their apex; “Who’s to Blame” has some moments that reek of early Iron Maiden, and Swanson even manages to pump out a few growls here and there; “Sea of Trees” is full of fantasy imagery and Sabbath-like guitar work, and it’s a nice stage-setter for closer “Lucky Bones,” a song that’s found its way around the Internet already, that’s built on trucking riffs, some Judas Priest-style grit, and a mystical close that leaves you in the mist.

Hopefully Hour of 13 remain intact for some time to come, because they really seem to be gaining speed and have a label behind them that has some experience handling bands like theirs. “333” is the band’s best album by far, one that could be labeled a modern doom classic, and that deserves to be heard by anyone who dabbles in darkness now and again. Or all the time.

For more on the band, go here: http://www.facebook.com/HourOf13

To buy the album, go here: http://earache.com/uswebstore/index.php/cPath/667_670_738

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

Killer grindcore veterans Phobia keep things mean on ‘Remnants of Filth’

There’s something about grindcore that’s made me a little sleepy the past few years. I think it’s the lack of variety and passion I hear in the younger bands that’s made me pay a little less attention to this subgenre as time has gone by. I used to eat up this style of music, but today, not so much.

But again, that’s not because I don’t like the relentless, violent style, but it has way more to do with not having any terribly exciting new voices coming forward. Luckily, there remain some veteran acts that never lost an ounce of their emotion and ability to make a record an all-out demolition that’s both painful and incredibly fun to hear. Young kids trying to follow in the footsteps of your heroes, get your pen and paper ready and take notes on today’s subject matter. No, I don’t mean what I’m writing, but rather what this band is dishing out.

Phobia, who have been crushing bodies since 1990, still are one of the finest, most reliable bands around. Their formula is a ton of songs mashed into a tiny little bit of space, yet they make the most of such as small course. The band’s been led by Shane Mclachlan since its inception, and while he’s typically taken many of the roles that go into a Phobia album, here he’s strictly doing vocals. And doing them maniacally aggressively. The rest of the band is rounded out by drummer Bryan Fajardo, bassist Calum Mackenzie, and newcomer guitarists CC Loessin and Dorian Rainwater, and the group sounds as channeled and devastating as ever. They blast through 18 cuts in a little over 19 minutes on “Remnants of Filth,” the band’s fifth full-length album.

What you typically expect from a Phobia album is here. You’ve got your movie clip intros, your minute-long songs, your growl/shriek mixes from Mclachlan, and an explosive assault that never lets up over the course of these 18 cuts, even if they’re not in total full-speed mode the entire time. There’s some change-up here and there that keeps things fresh and exciting, but the intensity always remains full throttle and blasting you in the mouth.

The record opens with “Assertion to Demean,” a blistering dose of grind that is followed up by the speed shrieks of “Contradiction”; the incredibly vicious “Plagued By the System”; the oddly structured, Napalm Death-saluting “Resolution”; the fiery punk serving of “Let It Go” (including a sound bit of a preacher speaking of the ills of death metal); “Deaden to Believe,” that could have used the intro more since this reeks of classic death; the total madness of “Vengeance”; and the detonation of closer “Inaction.” As noted, there are a few songs on here that have some different things going on that help these cuts stick out. “Got the Fear” begins in a sludgy, doomy note (along with a sample about getting loaded) before it launches fully; “Freedom Isn’t Free” is built on a thrash groove and has spirited gang vocals that lean toward punk and hardcore; “Filthy Fucking Punks” has a classic thrash feel and a more calculated tempo; while “Resuscitate” is catchy and fun, with a lot of melody and the potential to draw a different ilk of fans than normally would buy a Phobia album.

There’s not exactly new ground broken by Phobia on this record, but there really doesn’t need to be. This is one of grindcore’s most trustworthy and effective bands, and “Remnants of Filth” is another solid addition to the band’s other full-lengths and who-knows-how-many EPs and split releases. Their music should be angry textbooks every budding, up-and-coming grind band should devour whole. It might help bring some life back to a subgenre that’s been a little lifeless as of late.

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

To buy the album, go here: http://www.willowtip.com/releases/details/phobia-remnants-of-filth.aspx

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

Sweden’s Grand Magus howl for your attention on ruggedly tough ‘The Hunt’

There is music that, for some reason, I associate with certain seasons when I first hear it. There is no rhyme or reason; it just conjures memories or feelings about a certain time of the year based on how it sounds.

For example, when I hear ISIS’ “Panopticon,” I think about the deep freeze of winter and no chance of warmth in the future. The album art doesn’t depict winter, the songs don’t have anything to do with it, but for some reason, the music makes me think of a frosty wonderland. Same goes for German black metal unit Imperium Dekadenz, whose last album “Procella Vadens” also makes me think of cold weather, but that one makes a little more sense. I notice I visit it most often come January and February, and I’ll probably do that for as long as my hearing works.

I noticed when taking on Grand Magus’ new record “The Hunt” that it makes me think of warm summer nights, when only a fan and a cold beverage can keep me sane. That makes absolutely no sense. The band hails from Sweden, not exactly the balmiest of climates, and usually the band is singing about wolves and the North and things you’d normally associate with coldness. Maybe I have something wrong with me because I have no idea where I get this feeling. Maybe it has something to do with most of my summers being spent outside on the porch, taking in and learning about every aspect of classic heavy metal, of which Grand Magus also seems to share an interest.

We last heard from the band two years ago with “Hammer of the North,” a record Roadrunner never even bothered to release in the States (I’m sure some other shitty album took preference), and before that was the excellent “Iron Will,” highlighted by one of my favorite Grand Magus songs “Like the Oar Strikes the Water.” Their themes and approach were similar to what classic bands such as Dio, Judas Priest and Mercyful Fate created, and what later bands such as Gates of Slumber and Slough Feg kept alive. Melody is a key to their formula, and singer/guitarist JB Christoffersson uses a soulful and clean croon that’s one of the strongest in metal. They never seemed to be able to gain a hold in America (past reissue projects aside), but now that they’re signed to Nuclear Blast, perhaps that will change.

The band’s music can be described as doom metal, and there certainly is that kind of finish on what they do, but to me, Grand Magus is perfectly described as classic metal. What they accomplish on “The Hunt” only amplifies that feeling, and someone who’s a hard rock fan but is reluctant to get too deep into the heavy stuff might even be able to digest this. They kick off with “Starlight Slaughter,” a catchy song with a swagger that would sound right at home on a classic rock radio station that still plays some modern songs. There are strong hooks, some glorious soloing, and a call of, “Rise, wolfkind,” that makes the song equally ridiculous and awesome. “Sword of the Ocean” starts with a heavy gallop and whips right into a fury that feeds perfectly into “Valhalla Rising,” a song that’s dressed in grunts and crunch, though it gets off to a slow start with its electro-thrash intro.

“Storm King” and “Silver Moon” are killer slabs of rock, with Christoffersson sounding positively in command with his strong, confident vocals, and the rest of the band – bassist Fox Skinner and new drummer Ludwig Witt – backing him up with thunder and glory. The record then takes a few interesting twists, with the piano and acoustic guitars that lead into the otherwise aggressive title cut, and the Euro folk that makes up “Son of the Last Breath,” one of the most impressive songs of their career. Sure, eventually the thing blows up and hulks to a finish, but the bulk of the track sounds like nothing Grand Magus have tried before. “Iron Hand” brings back the heaviness and makes like a pack of wolves on the hunt for prey, and finisher “Draksadd” is a bluesy and swaggering, letting the band inject a final dose of attitude into the record. Personally, it’s my least favorite song on the album and didn’t really work as a great conclusion, but that just might be me.

If “The Hunt” excites you and you want to dig into more of Grand Magus, Metal Blade has your ass covered. They’re reissuing 2005’s “Wolf’s Return” and the aforementioned “Iron Will,” so you can get a nice history lesson of how the band got to the point it is now. They’re both pretty solid collections, and if you also are hungry for some classic metallic sounds, these should do the trick for you. Plus, if you grabbed their re-release of the band’s self-titled debut and 2003’s “Monument,” your collection will seem kind of incomplete without these.

Grand Magus probably should be a bigger band than they are in the States, but that’s not really their fault. They’ve always made strong music that hasn’t gotten a ton of support from domestic labels other than Metal Blade’s worthy reissue treatments. “The Hunt” is as good as anything in their catalog, and with Nuclear Blast’s expansive reach, they should make a greater impact this time around.

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

The buy “The Hunt,” go here: http://store.nuclearblastusa.com/Search/grand_magus

To buy the “Wolf’s Return” reissue, go here: http://www.indiemerchstore.com/item/14539/

To buy the “Iron Will” reissue, go here: http://www.indiemerchstore.com/item/14538/

For more on Nuclear Blast, go here: http://www.nuclearblastusa.com/en/

For more on Metal Blade, go here: http://www.metalblade.com/english/content.php