Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Summer Metal Purchases

Over the course of a couple trips to my local record store, I recently picked up 8 new metal albums that have come out this year. Now that I've taken each of them for a spin, I've decided to set myself the arbitrary task of ranking them from worst to best. I haven't had a lot of time for these to marinate, so this will be more a series of quickie first impressions than a real set of proper reviews. Also, note that since these are all albums that I actually went out and bought on CD, there's a certain baseline assumption of quality that you may not find in reviews of free online material. None of these are outright terrible. Some of them are just distinctly less good than others.

Anyway, let's get to it, shall we?

#8. "The Forest Seasons" by Wintersun
When Wintersun alienated half of their fan base by stringing us along for 900 years with the Chinese Democracy-esque production cycle of "Time I," I stood up and defended the album as much better than many gave it credit for at the time. At this point, it's becoming harder to keep making apologies for Wintersun. I can't say that I hated this, but it was weak. There were some cool moments here and there that genuinely grabbed me as they reached for the epic scope and vital energy that this band once showcased. Those moments were the exceptions. Disappointingly, though somewhat unsurprisingly, far too much of this just felt like a mediocre Children of Bodom knock-off in sparkly pajamas.

#7. "Berdreyminn" by Sólstafir
Are Sólstafir even a metal band anymore? I mean, they've been drifting further and further into this atmospheric post-rock style for a while now, and at this point it feels like they barely have any connection to their roots. I have no problem with bands experimenting with their sound, and if Sólstafir don't want to play metal anymore, that's fine. They can still be a good band. The thing is, while this was nice and pretty and perfectly pleasant to chill out to and all, it was also kind of boring. I'd play it in the background if I just wanted something mellow to fill in the silence, but that's about it. This is not something I can see myself putting on to actually listen to unless I'm in a really weird mood.

#6. "Wrong One to Fuck With" by Dying Fetus
I'll admit right up front that I've never been a particularly big fan of these guys. That said, I actually think this is better than most of their material that I've heard. They definitely embraced the technical side of their style, and the musicianship on this is razor sharp and ultra clean. Too clean, in fact, for my taste. I accept that this is a personal preference, but I like a little dirt in my death metal. This felt like watching a doctor perform complex, delicate heart surgery in a sterile operating room. What I want to watch is a maniac with a rusty meat cleaver hacking his victims to pieces in a tool shed. Still, this is a strong release worth checking out if you're the kind of death metal fan who would rather listen to Origin than Incantation.

#5. "Blight Upon Martyred Existence" by Impetuous Ritual
This is the point where we enter into the albums I really liked. Unfortunately, one of them has to be the bottom of the really good stuff, and by a razor-thin margin Impetuous Ritual loses out to their Profound Lore label-mates in 4th. This is an intense, chaotic, go-for-the-throat death metal release from a band that shares two members with Portal. Teitanblood and Diocletian were the names that kept running through my mind as I listened to this, and while these guys don't really do anything that those bands don't, that's hardly grounds for complaint. This is a really strong record that hits hard as hell. As an incidental, petty aside: the album cover is so obnoxiously dark that you have to put it under bright light just to read the band name and song titles. That doesn't really matter, it just kind of annoys me. Regardless, this gets my hearty recommendation.

#4. "Horizonless" by Loss
Doom bands usually have one of about four directions they can go. They either try to be super crushingly heavy, super stonerifically groovy, super beautifully mournful, or super Black Sabbath-y. Loss go for the achingly beautiful, mournful approach. They really excel at creating an atmosphere of tragedy and, well, loss. Musically, I'd say they're up there with the likes of Ahab on the funeral doom spectrum of greatness. The one gripe I have is that the vocals are just kind of quiet and weak. They are mostly there for atmosphere, so it's not the end of the world or anything. It's just that the human voice is obviously a tremendously effective tool for evoking emotion, and since that seems to be the name of the game here, it would be nice to see them get a little more mileage out of their vocal performances. Honestly, though, I really enjoyed this album and I expect I'll listen to it plenty more times in the coming months. Also, since I already brought up album covers once, I'd like to point out that this is my favorite cover art of the year so far.

#3. "Abreaction" by Svart Crown
Have you ever listened to an album, enjoyed the hell out of it, then when it came time to describe why you liked it, all you could seem to muster was "umm, I liked it because it was good"? Well, that's sort of where I find myself with this one. This French blackened death metal outfit is new to me, so while they've released several albums, I don't really know how this stacks up within their discography. What I do know is that it's energetic, catchy enough to be fun, heavy enough to be satisfying, and overall strong enough to leave me with nothing to complain about when it finished. I just had a really good time listening to it, and at the end of the day, I think that's all you can reasonably ask for from an album.

#2. "Heartless" by Pallbearer
Since they burst into the metal world's collective consciousness in 2012, Pallbearer have asserted themselves over the slow, heavy end of spectrum to such a degree that it's almost impossible to argue against them as the best doom band in the world right now. Evoken are probably the only group who are capable of surpassing them in that sphere, and those guys haven't released an album in 5 years. On this newest record, Pallbearer step into some fresh territory. The basic core of what has always made them work remains, but they've adopted more melodic elements and really excellent lead work into their sound as well. Traditionally, doom bands in this vein sound like heavier versions of Black Sabbath. There were times on this album where it felt like I was listening to a super heavy version of Pink Floyd instead, complete with some awesome David Gilmour-style soloing. All in all, it's a great album from a great band.

#1. "Desolate Endscape" by Phrenelith
Remember earlier, when I said I like some dirt in my death metal? Well in their debut album, Phrenelith gave me that in spades. (Hur hur, I make joke). All I knew about these guys going in was that they were supposed to be somewhere in the vein of Incantation and Disma. Those are some damn good names to pull out if you want to sell me on a death metal release, and Phrenelith did not disappoint. If anything, I'd say this Danish crew bring a little more variety to the formula than either of those bands, which helps keep this album fresh while still staying heavy and guttural and wonderfully filthy. There are points that slow down to murky, Autopsy-like crawling. On the other end, there are a few pretty high-energy, intense moments. Home base, of course, is in that cavernous slow-to-mid-range groove with drums providing a rumbling drive under churning tremolo riffs and Craig Pillard-esque demon growls. The common complaint with this type of death metal is that it's unadventurous, and honestly this isn't particularly groundbreaking. What it is, however, is an absolute masterclass is how to do this brand of death metal right.

So there you have it: given their incredible proficiency in one of my absolute favorite styles of metal, Phrenelith sit atop the pile of my recent album purchases. Thank you, and good night.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Konosuba (Anime Review)

So I just finished watching season two of Konosuba, and I have to admit that the show has left me puzzled. I'm not confused by the plot or themes or anything; the show is about as deep as a mud puddle. Rather, I'm confused about why I enjoyed it as much as I did. It felt like watching a version of Fairy Tail with a slightly dirtier mind, and I got bored of Fairy Tail within the first few episodes.

Since I finished the show, (what exists  of it at present, anyway) I've been imagining a conversation about the creative process. It sounds something like this...

A: So what's this new "Konosuba" show going to be about? 
B: I thought we could take a nerdy highschool otaku guy and suddenly surround him with cute, quirky girls.
A: Oh my god, that's brilliant! Why has nobody thought of this before? Where will it be set? 
B: Okay, now this is pretty out there, but imagine if we took this guy, who of course is from modern day Japan...
A: Yeah?
B: Yeah, and we, now bear with me here...
A: Mhmm...
B: We put him in . . . a video gamey version of a fantasy world. Like if he were inside an RPG.
A: . . . . . . . .
B: I know, it's-
A: HOLY FUCKING SHITBALLS! I haven't heard of such an original setting since the damned genius who thought to put a romance anime in a Japanese highschool! This is amazing! You're on a roll my friend, what else? Tell me tell me tell meee!
B: Wow, I'm glad you like it so much. Alright, well I was thinking we could make the whole thing kind of a satire. Like, you know how RPG logic and real world logic are so different? I think it would be fun to explore that.
A: I love it! I have never seen one single show or comic that is a spoof of an RPG fantasy setting, so I think we'll really break some new ground with this. How about the main character? Tell me more about him.
B: Okay, well, first of all I think we should remove any stakes or sense of danger by making him easy to magically resurrect over and over.
A: Of course...
B: Also, despite the fact that he spends most of his effectively immortal life casting magic spells and having assorted watermelon-sized titties bounce around in his face, I think he should whine endlessly about how hard he has it. You know, to make him relatable.
A: Naturally, I agree.
B: I also think it would be a good idea if he kept complaining about how he doesn't get to lead a life of adventure, while simultaneously shooting down every attempt his companions make to get him to fight monsters or do anything adventurous.
A: Alright, it sounds like we've got the perfect protagonist lined out, any little finishing touches?
B: Just one. He should constantly get caught in awkward sexual situations where he acts embarrassed about the possibility that people will think he's a pervert, but he should also actually be a total pervert who endlessly sexually harasses the girls. 
A: Ah, one of those types that gets played off as a "boys will be boys" character?
B: Exactly.
A: Alright, awesome. Now what about the girls?
B: First of all, we need an assortment of heights, ages, hair colors, and breast sizes. 
A: All impossibly thin and sexy though, right?
B: Yeah, we just need to make sure no male fantasy is left unfulfilled. 
A: Good point. What about personalities? 
B: Does it matter? 
A: Ha! I suppose not. Still, just for fun...
B: Oh, alright. Ummm, let's make one a dumb, self-centered girl. Like, the unattainable cheerleader goddess type.
A: Oh yeah, that's hot. 
B: Another we'll make . . . ummm . . . Oh! I know! We'll make her be all orgasimically turned on by physical abuse. You know, do a whole angelic face with a super kinky dark side thing.
A: Oh god yes, I'm getting hard just thinking about it.
B: What else? Well, we need at least one girl to be like 13 so all the pedos can have their fun. We'll have to make her tits smaller, but that's just the price you pay I guess.
A: *panting heavily* 
B: I think that about covers it. Of course we'll have tons of other chicks with massive cleavage and exposed midriffs running around, but that should be enough for the core group.
A: Yeah . . . that's, mmmmm, that's perfect.
B: I think so. Tell you what, I think I've got enough to get started, so I'm going to go start some preliminary sketches, then we can reconvene to talk about logical inconsistencies, like how tons of new adventurers have gone to that fantasy world from ours with their memories intact, yet nobody there seems to have heard of Japan.
A: Sure thing, just toss me that box of tissues before you go.

I know many of Konosuba's fans dismiss criticism of the generic setting and situation since the point of the show is to be a satire, but frankly, at this point fantasy RPG satire is such a well worn path that mockery of those conventions has become almost more generic than the conventions themselves. Also, the main plot basically plops the characters in their fantasy setting in the first episode and then fucks off to a bar or something. It pops back up from time to time, but at least half of the show feels like a collection of amusing but irrelevant filler episodes.

The funny thing is, for all the problems I have with it and all the reasons I feel like dismissing it, I did like watching it. The characters aren't particularly deep, but they are (mostly) likeable and fun. The setting isn't unique or original, but it's solidly executed. The humor is pretty juvenile and obvious, but it did frequently make me laugh. I may be able to tear into the show for what it does wrong, but I also marathoned 20 episodes in a day and a half so clearly it was doing a lot of things right, too. At the end of the day, I enjoyed the hell out of it.

So that's Konosuba. Do I understand why some critics are calling it a masterpiece and saying that season one was the best anime of 2016? Absolutely not. But did I watch and enjoy it all, and will I continue to watch it if a third season is confirmed? Yes.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Top 10 Metal Albums of 2016

It's been far too long since I posted on this blog. What better way to break that long silence than with a year-end list? I haven't done as good of a job keeping up with new releases this year as I have in some years past, but I've heard enough new material to compile what feels to me like a fairly solid top 10 list.

As per usual, this isn't a set of specific recommendations, nor am I claiming it to be in any way definitive. It's just my opinion that these are the 10 best metal albums that I heard this year.

Also, before I start, I'd like to talk about Swallow the Sun's Songs from the North pt. I, II, & III  for a moment. I initially had the group's ambitious triple album at #6 on my list, and I only realized as I sat down to write this that it was actually officially released late last year. I've long seen them as a band afflicted with the mixed blessing of a great debut that they could never quite equal, and with this album they finally broke out of that trap. I was excited to include them on the list, so even though I have to officially exclude them, I still wanted to mention that truly excellent record.

Okay, on with the list!

#10. Decision Day   by Sodom

Thrash is largely a dead sub-genre at this point, kept afloat almost entirely by the newest releases from various 80's masters. This year saw a colossal surge of buzz around Metallica, as well as new records by the likes of Testament, Megadeth, Anthrax, and Destruction. For me, though, the standout thrash album of the year came from the blackened, ugly hearts of Sodom. German thrash bands have always had that edge in intensity over most of their American counterparts, and that was the case again this year.

#9. Fires Within Fires   by Neurosis

The post-metal kings returned with their first album in four years, and I for one was quite pleased with the result. It's not the strongest material they've ever released, but it's a damn good record. I don't really have a ton to say about this one, but if you're a fan of the band or the lush post-metal style in general, I think you'll be satisfied.

#8. The Empire   by Vader

These Poles have been on a long winning streak, and while I haven't checked out the cover album they released last year, their previous two efforts ranked among the best death metal records of the decade. The Empire  dials back the intensity slightly, and for that it falls short of instant classic status. In a year that didn't impress me too much with old school death metal output, though, this was the best album in that vein that I heard.

#7. Jomsviking   by Amon Amarth

To the surprise of nobody, Amon Amarth's "first concept album" was pretty much business as usual for the world's most consistent metal band. Here's the thing, though: I really like Amon Amarth. I know they're not going to blow my mind, but I enjoy the hell out of every album they release. So a band that is practically genetically engineered to fill out the bottom half of my top 10 lists finds itself firmly and predictably right here in the bottom half of my top 10.

#6. The Synarchy of Molten Bones   by Deathspell Omega

If I had to choose one group to call the best black metal band in the world today, I'd choose Deathspell Omega. The French outfit bring a level of creatively intriguing yet unrelentingly violent chaos to their music that few bands can match. In their first full-length release since 2010's fantastic Paracletus, they've delivered a slightly more straightforward effort than usual. Consequently, this is a solid place to start for listeners who want to ease their way into the band's particular breed of calculated insanity.

#5. Winter's Gate   by Insomnium

These guys are the best melodeath band in the world right now, and they arguably have been for over a decade. Everything they have ever released has been good, and while this record might be a bit too polished and pretty for some folks, it's about as strong as the band has ever been. My brother maintains that this is the perfect metal album. I wouldn't go that far. Personally, I'd rank it second in their overall catalog, but with a band of this caliber, that's saying something.

#4. Dread   by Yith

One thing I love about the internet age is that unsigned bands have so many more outlets for their music now than in the past. Yith, a one-man independent project that released its full-length debut this year, is not a band I'd have ever encountered before the world of Bandcamp and Youtube. This is an awesome record that plays like a slow, doomy take on classic Burzum, and I for one absolutely love it. Like a cold, lumbering monstrosity, this hit me hard and immediately secured its place as one of the year's best in my eyes.

#3. Jumalten aika   by Moonsorrow

Moonsorrow have long been one of my favorite bands. I was excited to see that the Viking metal (or pagan metal, or epic heathen metal, or whatever the hell you want to call them) masters were releasing their first album in five years. I always expect a lot from this band, and they far surpassed my hopes. This swept me away with its magnificent scope and searing beauty while retaining a hard, biting edge. Moonsorrow have yet again delivered easily the best Viking metal release of the year.

#2. Winter Thrice   by Borknagar

There's a right way and a wrong way to do clean vocals in metal. This was emphatically the right way. Playing out like a best-of-both-worlds hybrid between Amorphis and Enslaved, these progressive black metallers have never sounded better. Of all the spots on this list, the battle between this and Moonsorrow for second place was the one I agonized over the most. In the end, the Norwegians took the edge on the basis that this was the easiest album to enjoy of anything I encountered all year. 

#1. Cursus Impasse: The Pendlomic Vows   by Howls of Ebb

First place, on the other hand, was never in question. Sometimes one album asserts itself so powerfully that it stands in a class of its own, and this was one of those years. Literally one song in I already thought this was going to be my album of the year, and as it progressed the question became less about whether it was number one and more about how far out in front of the pack it would finish. I have a deep love for weird metal, and Howls of Ebb are fucking weird. This sort-of death metal release combines the discordantly impenetrable intensity of Portal with the looming terror of a Lovecraftian funeral doom outfit and the creeping, off-kilter grooves of a couple stoned metal heads goofing around in the basement. The vocals are like the howls of a warped beast. The guitar riffs are twisted and inventive. The bass grooves and slithers, like a giant snake passing through the whole record and tying it together as it unsettles all in its path. The drums back off to create space when it's needed, and they close in when the chaos calls for them. Howls of Ebb have crafted a unique, captivating, and surprising masterpiece. Oh, and how awesome is that cover art?

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Two Months

Two months: that's how long it's been since my last post. I've only posted a handful of times so far this year. Honestly, I don't foresee that glacial pace changing any time terribly soon. Between how busy I've been at work, the other projects that have been consuming most of my free time, and the simple fact that I'm not listening to much metal these days I just don't have the material or inclination to keep up with any degree of metal-related posting. I'm not calling time of death just yet, but I wouldn't advise holding your breath until my next post either, since it's probably going to be a while.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Tuesday is Blues Day (#10)

It's been a good long while since I posted one of these. Well, given his recent hospitalization (he's since been discharged) I've had B.B. King on my mind a fair amount of late. Talking about his place in the blues world in any kind of detail is really too massive a topic for a lone blog post, though. He's widely considered to be the greatest blues musician of all time. Further, there's a case to be made that he's the most important guitarist of the 20th century. Numerous books and documentary films have covered his life and achievements, a notably good and recent example being B.B. King: The Life of Riley. I'd highly recommend it if you have an interest in music history.

Since this is just a short blog post and not a massive biographical volume, I'll reflect on his career in my own more succinct way, through his music. Below I've linked three versions of his first hit single, 3 O'Clock Blues. First, there's the original 1950 studio cut. Second, there's a live performance from B.B. as a mature blues master. Finally, a duet from the 2000 album Riding With The King, recorded by Eric Clapton and 75-year-old elder statesman B.B. King, just one of many examples of legendary guitarists paying tribute to the king of the blues. Enjoy.