Archive for December, 2018

Album of the Week 52-2018: Cradle Of Filth – Hammer Of The Witches


Cradle Of Filth’s immense popularity is at least as much a result of their image and provocative shirt designs as it is of their music. That does not mean that they never made any good music, but at times, it seemed like the market desired the band to put out albums faster than they could actually come up with enough decent material. Often, hollow bombast covered up the lack of durable songwriting. The opposite is true for ‘Hammer Of The Witches’. The orchestrations have been dialed back considerably, resulting in what is essentially a great riff-driven modern metal album.

It is only natural to assume that the changes that Cradle Of Filth went through contributed to this sudden indrease of quality. No less than three members debut on ‘Hammer Of The Witches’, including guitarists Marek ‘Ashok’ Šmerda and Richard Shaw. And they certainly make their presence known on the album. Especially their riffs are highly prominent. And since these riffs are closer to traditional heavy metal than the band’s black and death metal roots most of the time, the album gives off a somewhat Mercyful Fate-like vibe at times. The keyboards are the most subtle and tasteful on any of the band’s records.

Where Cradle Of Filth used to cram its records full of contrasting sections, the songs on ‘Hammer Of The Witches’ appear to be written with the idea of just making the best songs possible and it certainly paid off. The album never becomes as overwhelming as most of the band’s records and is dynamically excellent. Apparently, the current line-up of the band consists of the best riff writers the band had in ages and judging from the solo trade-offs in ‘Enshrine In Crematoria’ and ‘Deflowering The Maidenhead, Displeasuring The Goddess’, Šmerda and Shaw are an excellent lead guitar duo.

Atmosphere used to be provided by the keyboards and orchestrations, but the band seems to have learned that the real atmosphere should be in the melodies. That would certainly explain the fantastic doomy riffs of ‘Black Magick In Practice’ or the dramatic melodies that pop up in ‘Right Wing Of The Garden Triptych’. Elsewhere, the band goes for sheer destructive force with riffs that are almost thrashy in nature (‘The Vampyre At My Side’, the excellent epic closer ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’) and several songs contain elegant guitar arrangements somewhat reminiscent of Dark Tranquillity’s ‘The Gallery’ (the middle section of ‘Yours Immortally’). And it all works. More so than on any of their previous records.

Anyone who didn’t like Cradle Of Filth before may want to give ‘Hammer Of The Witches’ a chance regardless. Even founding vocalist Dani Filth is surprisingly bearable on these recordings by only employing his high-pitched shriek strategically. Those who were enamored by the band’s gothic leanings may be disappointed, but even those fans may be pleasantly surprised by the consistently high level of songwriting on the album. Boredom doesn’t set in until the bonus tracks, which are decent enough, but notably less interesting than the main album. That still accounts for almost an hour of powerful heavy metal that is really only pushed into extreme territory by the vocals.

Recommended tracks: ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’, ‘Yours Immortaly’, ‘Enshrined In Crematoria’

Advertisements

Album of the Week 51-2018: Warlock – Hellbound


Sometimes it is remarkable how much better bands can get in surprisingly little time. There was only slightly over a year between the recordings of Warlock’s debut album ‘Burning The Witches’ and its follow-up ‘Hellbound’, but the German quintet made immense progress in that period. Where the former is an enjoyable heavy metal record with the occasional noteworthy song, ‘Hellbound’ is one of the greatest metal records of the mid-eighties. ‘Hellbound’ sees Warlock enhancing their NWOBHM leanings, which lends the album a classy edge without ending up sounding too polished. In fact, ‘Hellbound’ is highly energetic. At times even aggressive.

Back when ‘Burning The Witches’ was released, Warlock gained some attention for having a female singer. Quite understandably; female metal musicians were rare at the time and Doro Pesch’s voice was in deed what lifted the album above mediocrity. Her extremely passionate performance is still one of the highlights on ‘Hellbound’, but the album is full of fantastic guitar work by both Peter Szigeti and Rudy Graf. The band’s biggest improvement is certainly made in the guitar department; while the riffs and solos are not that much different in character than before, one can hear that more thought went into the arrangements.

Probably the best example of that growth is the incredibly elegant ‘Out Of Control’. In essence a beautiful melodic heavy metal track with likely Pesch’s best performance on the record, but its acoustic intro and some strategically placed bright overtones throughout the song give it even more sheen than it would have had without those subtle touches. Definitely one of the best European power metal songs of the eighties. ‘Wrathchild’ also is a hidden gem, with its melancholic dramaticism and climactic time feel changes truly enhancing the raw power of the simple, yet effective riff work.

It’s not all sophistication characterizing ‘Hellbound’ though. ‘Earthshaker Rock’ and the awesome title track are uncomplicated uptempo rockers that were obviously designed for the live situation. ‘Time To Die’ is as aggressive as pre-thrash NWOBHM gets, with Pesch’s sounding at her angriest at least until ‘A Touch Of Evil’ would be recorded. The title ‘Shout It Out’ suggests a simple sing-along anthem, but it is in fact relatively epic and a masterclass in building towards a climax; the whole song seems to imply some subdued anger or rebellion that culminates in a fantastic “prepare for battle” type feel in the final minute.

‘Hellbound’ was, in a way, the pinnacle of Warlock’s original line-up. Graf left the band not long after its release and by the time Pesch’s magnum opus ‘Triumph And Agony’ was released, Szigeti and bassist Frank Rittel had left as well. Many of these songs are still played at Doro live shows to this day and it is not hard to understand why. Even though ‘Hellbound’ is clearly a product of the mid-eighties, the songs themselves are timeless. That is why over half of these songs still give yours truly goosebumps after knowing them for so long. ‘Hellbound’ is simply a near-flawless slab of European heavy metal.

Recommended tracks: ‘Out Of Control’, ‘Shout It Out’, ‘Wrathchild’

Album of the Week 50-2018: Control Denied – The Fragile Art Of Existence


Last week marked the seventeenth anniversary of Chuck Schuldiner’s passing. Metal fans everwhere celebrated his genius by playing old Death records, but personally, I think the sole Control Denied album may have been his crowning achievement. ‘The Fragile Art Of Existence’ used to be my all time favorite album for a long time and to this day, I still am in awe by the melodic elegance and the complex, yet accessible nature of the record. Despite the shadow of the disease that would eventually kill Schuldiner inadvertently looming over the album, the album impresses with excellent songwriting and ditto performances.

The cast of musicians on ‘The Fragile Art Of Existence’ looks like an all-star cast of Death musicians with a clean singer. Tim Aymar’s powerful, theatrical voice that is equal parts Ronnie James Dio and Rob Halford is what gives the album its own face, because the music isn’t that much different from the final Death album ‘The Sound Of Perseverance’. That should not be too surprising, given that some of the songs on that record evolved from Control Denied demos. As a whole, Control Denied comes across slightly more streamlined, though the songs still feature all the abrupt changes and glorious melodies that Schuldiner was known for.

It is hard to imagine most of these songs as Death songs though. The guitar riffs and arrangements in tracks like ‘What If…?’ and the incredible ‘Believe’ seem to be set up specifically with the idea of leaving as much room as possible for Aymar’s vocals, making their structure feel somewhat more open than Death’s dense compositions. Of course, those moments of density are still there, as not giving the virtuoso rhythm section of Richard Christy and bass wizard Steve DiGiorgio any room would feel like a waste of talent. What makes these guys good, however, is that they also know when to hold back.

My collection does not feature many other albums with such a consistently high level of songwriting and performance throughout. Only ‘Cut Down’ is merely good. ‘Breaking The Broken’ might be the best transitional track for Death fans, as it retains the aggression along with intelligent songwriting. ‘Consumed’ is a brave opening track, as it changes tempo and mood several times throughout its seven minutes and introduces Aymar remarkably effectively. ‘Believe’ is relatively simple, but brutally effective and the closing title track has to be heard to be believed. It manages to combine traditional heavy metal riffing with an almost ethereal middle section and ending that almost two decades later still gives me goosebumps.

Of course, with a line-up like Control Denied had on this album, it is nearly impossible to go wrong in terms of performances. Shannon Hamm is easily the most Schuldiner-like guitarist Chuck ever worked with and they’re both on fire here. The performances could have easily held the songs hostage though. It is a testament to the brilliance of Chuck Schuldiner that the music holds together so well. He was truly a unique talent and as good as every Death album from ‘Human’ onward is, ‘The Fragile Art Of Existence’ may actually be the most unique album he created.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Fragile Art Of Existence’, ‘Breaking The Broken’, ‘Believe’

Album of the Week 49-2018: Fields Of The Nephilim – The Nephilim


A significant portion of Fields Of The Nephilim’s fan base still considers their sophomore album ‘The Nephilim’ their best album. And while I personally prefer its follow-up ‘Elizium’, it is not hard to understand why. It certainly delivers on the promise that the band’s somewhat underdevloped debut album ‘Dawnrazor’ occasionally showed. Despite frequently being accused of merely copying The Sisters Of Mercy, their second album features Fields Of The Nephilim crafting its own sound that is indebted to gothic rock as much as it is to psychedelic rock and the soundtracks of the westerns they modelled their stage garb after.

Despite the fact that it’s obviously the same musicians playing on them, the original three Fields Of The Nephilim albums each are a world of their own. ‘The Nephilim’ is significantly more refined and cenimatic in scope than ‘Dawnrazor’, but not as ethereal and melodic as ‘Elizium’. The derisive “gruff Andrew Eldritch” label that Carl McCoy often got is not entirely unjustified here, but though I prefer his cleaner approach on ‘Elizium’, it certainly fits the desperate, yet somehow defiant mood of ‘The Nephilim’. The production is ambitious, adding a layer of keyboards and samples in a way that doesn’t even feel like an added layer, but rather an integral part of the songs.

In addition, the band had not yet shed its Morricone-isms on ‘The Nephilim’. And while it would be easy to incorporate those into the overall sound in a way that sounds like they were trying to be clever, Fields Of The Nephilim does it rather seamlessly, enhancing the atmosphere instead. Opening track ‘Endemoniada’ is easily the best example of this. More than half of the track is spent building towards the explosive, but brooding main section through low-key arpeggios and slide guitar bits that seem to suggest a solitary desert night. The dynamics of the song are nothing short of incredible.

‘Endemoniada’ is hardly the only highlight here, however. More concise tracks like the venom-filled ‘Chord Of Souls’ and the incredible ‘Moonchild’ would soon become live staples and the combination between McCoy’s intense vocals and Tony Pettitt’s equally melodic as atmospheric bass lines provide the basic structure for ‘Celebrate’ and the classic – though slightly overlong – ‘Last Exit For The Lost’. Elsewhere, Tony Wright and Peter Yates make the most out of the broad two guitar approach, often by mixing chiming arpeggiated chords and massive reverberating riffs, as evidenced by the dark, shimmering cinematics of ‘Love Under Will’ and ‘The Watchman’.

With all the elements Fields Of the Nephilim employs here, it is hard to end up with an album that sounds pretentious or simply laughable, but somehow, it works. ‘The Nephilim’ cemented the band’s reputation as the new hopefuls for fans of the darker end of the rock spectrum in the late eighties. Even the less notable songs on ‘The Nephilim’ are very much worth hearing and work wonders for the dynamics of the album. It also finds the perfect middle ground between the raw aggression of ‘Dawnrazor’ and the psychedelia-infused ambition of ‘Elizium’. An excellent album by a band that would never be content doing what others have already done.

Recommended tracks: ‘Endemoniada’, ‘Moonchild’, ‘Celebrate’, ‘Love Under Will’

Interview: The Asian taste of Sigh


Eccentric is probably the best word to describe Sigh. Their sound is anchored in extreme metal – black metal particularly – but is rife with influences from other genres. Progressive and psychedelic rock, classical music, jazz, electronic music… All of these are elements that have been appearing in their experimental music since the mid-nineties. “Black metal encompasses almost every musical genre“, says singer, multi-instrumentalist and band leader Mirai Kawashima. “All kinds of bands from Blasphemy to Alcest and Deafheaven are often categorized as black metal. Black metal is so non-limiting that it does not describe any musical style at all. Also, obviously, what we play is not thrash or death metal, so we stick to the black metal tag.

November 16th sees the release of Sigh’s twelfth album ‘Heir To Despair’. On it, the extreme metal has almost been put on the background in favor of distinct influences from progressive rock and East-Asian folk. “The seventies prog vibe has always been there, say since ‘Gastly Funeral Theater’ (1997)”, says Kawashima. “I love crazy prog stuff from the seventies and I am a vintage keyboard collector. Also this time, I tried some flute, which must give a more prog feel to the album. Actually, ‘Graveward’ (2015) was supposed to be a very prog album, but during the recording, I got into more orchestral stuff and the direction of the album drastically changed.

As for the Asian feel, I’ve been experimenting a lot with the traditional Japanese way of singing and wanted to incorporate that into Sigh’s music. And this time, most of the lyrics are in Japanese. I can sing much better in Japanese, as I do not have to care about the accurate pronunciation, unlike when I have to sing in English. Also, I thought the Japanese lyrics could give a different atmosphere to the songs. And to be honest, not much is left for me to say in English after ten albums…

Expectation

When Kawashima announced the release of ‘Heir To Despair’ on social media, he said that everyone would hate the album. Allegedly, no one who heard it liked it. Have the reactions been a little better in the meantime? “So far only ‘Homo Homini Lupus’ has been published“, Kawashima explains. “And actually, it’s got a lot of positive reactions. However, the song does not represent the album in any way. The feature of ‘Heir To Despair’ is an Asian taste and the use of flute. ‘Homo Homini Lupus’ does not sound Asian and does not feature the flute. People liking ‘Homo Homini Lupus’ means there’s a bigger possibility that they are going to hate the album.

Not that Kawashima cares: “Especially right after the album release, the audience reaction is rather misleading. When ‘Imaginary Sonicscape’ (2001) came out, more than half of the reviews were more than bad. People were thinking that we were a black metal band and the album did not sound black at all, so they were confused. But seventeen years have passed since then and ‘Imaginare Sonicscape’ must be one of the most popular Sigh albums. When people listen to an album for the first time, they just listen to the gap between their expectation and the actual music.

Objective

‘Heir To Despair’ has a remarkably clean, almost polished sound. The contrast with the raw production of ‘Graveward’ could hardly be greater. This is not the first time that there is such a sizeable difference between the sonic approach of two consecutive Sigh albums. “I believe it pretty much depends on the direction or the theme of the album“, Kawashima explains. “The theme of ‘Scenes From Hell’ is hell, so we wanted a hellish production. The production of ‘Heir To Despair’ was kind of an experiment. ‘Graveward’ was engineered by our own guitarist, which I must say was a big failure. I’m not saying he was a bad engineer or anything, but he was too biased. Obviously he wanted his guitar to be heard more than anything and he knew too much about the songs, which excluded objectivity.

In order to maintain that objectivity, I left it up to our Canadian engineer Phil Anderson this time. Of course I wanted some of my playing or vocals to be more audible, but I didn’t say anything about it, as it was an experiment of objectivity. I guess it worked very well.

Insanity

A thematic approach is Kawashima’s modus operandi anyway: “The concept of this album is about insanity. I’ve been wondering what insanity is these days. Of course, there are some real mad people of whom everyone can tell that they’re mad, but insanity is not always that distinctive. It’s just a matter of where to draw the line between sanity and insanity and it is one hundred percent arbitrary. When you are insane, you cannot tell that you are. I don’t think I am insane. I think that what I am saying in this interview makes perfect sense, but there is no way to assure that. Completely insane people probably think they’re talking completely logical.

The artwork by Eliran Kantor perfectly describes what I wanted to express with the music. The woman looks happy, but everything else on the artwork is wrong. The plant is dead and the room is a mess. As I said, insanity is not always very distinctive. Some people look very normal while having a deep darkness inside their mind. And that is the real horror.

Spontaneous

Since Sigh commenced activity in the late eighties, the band has been centered around Kawahima. More often than not, these kinds of line-ups tend to be highly unstable, but Sigh always maintained a relatively constant line-up. Save for the arrival of guitarist You Oshima in 2014, the band has not had any line-up changes for over a decade. “I’m sure there should be better players“, says Kawashima. “But what makes them peculiar is that they are all crazy in some way, which works good for Sigh maybe. They are all really hard people to work or communicate with. It’s truly frustrating that I have to deal with them, but maybe that is proof that they are artistically unique. At least I hope so.

Yet, it is Kawashima who is pulling the strings. “I write most of the songs and all the lyrics“, he explains. “As for ‘Heir To Despair’, half of ‘In Memories Delusional’ was written by our guitarist You Oshima and I left all the guitar solos up to him, but I can say that’s the only compositional input from the other band members.

My method of composing varies. Sometimes I compose playing piano. Sometimes I just come up with the ideas walking down the street. I usually keep collecting those bits and pieces and assemble them into a song on MIDI. Then I keep listening to the demoes and change or rearrange them until I am a hundred percent satisfied with it. Then I pass it on to the other members. The songs on ‘Heir To Despair’ were composed very spontaneously compared to the past ones. I usually use a lot of musical theories to arrange the songs, but this time I did not think about theories that much. I just kept writing without thinking that much.

Success

Compared to many other Japanese bands, Sigh has a reasonable degree of succes worldwide. “It’s just a matter of how you define success“, Kawashima nuances. “I personally do not think Sigh succeeded at anything. Anyway, I just thank Euronymous (guitarist of the Norwegian black metal band Mayhem, who was murdered in 1993). When we were hunting for a label around 1992, he was the only one who showed interest in us. I am not even exaggerating anything. I sent the demo to every label in the world and nobody but Euronymous wanted to sign us. So without him, Sigh probably would have ended up a demo band. He liked us, then the black metal boom happened. Nobody or nothing else got us that.

Since being signed to Euronymous’ Deathlike Silence Productions, Sigh has been performing all over the world, albeit not that frequently. Not even in Japan. Yet, Kawashima notices a difference in preferences: “Here in Japan, our most popular album is obviously ‘Hangman’s Hymn’ (2007), so when we play here, we play more songs off this album. In Europe and the US, I believe they want to hear earlier, more black metal stuff, so when we play abroad, we play a lot from ‘Scorn Defeat’ (1993). In the coming weeks, we will play some shows with Dimmu Borgir, Gorgoroth, Samael and Sinsaenum and we will play only songs from after 2007 and almost all the songs are fast. That’s what the Japanese audience wants.

Album of the Week 48-2018: Lovebites – Clockwork Immortality


Since Lovebites’ debut album ‘Awakening From Abyss’ was a serious contender for my album of the year last year – it was basically a coin toss between that one and Firewind’s ‘Immortals’ – and their EP ‘Battle Against Damnation’ also seriously impressed me earlier this year, ‘Clockwork Immortality’ was an album I anticipated eagerly. Fortunately, it is another quality record that finds the middle ground between traditional heavy metal and contemporary European power metal. Due to its slightly more streamlined production, the immediate impact is not as strong as with ‘Awakening From Abyss’, but the many excellent songs reveal themselves soon enough.

To get my criticism out of the way first: most of the songs on ‘Clockwork Immortality’ are paired stylistically and I’m not sure if that is beneficial to the flow of the album. It starts out with two strongly European-tinged power metal tracks, which are followed by two lighter, melodic tracks, the two most aggressive tracks on the album and two songs with distinct melodic hardrock elements. I think ‘Clockwork Immortality’ could have been more balanced if the songs were spread out more evenly over the album. It’s only a minor problem though, as the songwriting and performances are top-notch here.

As I said before, some of the songs need a little time. First video ‘Rising’ did not make the best first impression, but makes perfect sense within the context of the album. My initial thoughts about the following ‘Empty Daydream’ were that the track was only saved by its futuristic prog middle section, but though I still think it is somewhat overlong, the melodies and Asami’s vocal performance are excellent. However, the more metallic material, like the powerful uptempo guitar feast ‘Addicted’, the the vaguely Loudness-ish borderline thrash metal of ‘M.D.O.’ and the equally melodic as intense ‘Pledge Of The Savior’ definitely had more immediate appeal.

Quite surprisingly, my favorite track on ‘Clockwork Immortality’ is ‘The Final Collision’. That is surprising, because it was the power metal that drew me towards Lovebites in the first place and the song has more in common with minor key late eighties hardrock. Asami gets to show different sides of her incredible voice and the climactic chorus is the single finest moment on ‘Clockwork Immortality’. The guitar arrangements are impeccable as well, but the same can be said about the entire album. Midori and Miyako are all over the album, though they appear to be less focused on soloing and more on strong harmonies and layering contrasting parts this time around.

While ‘Clockwork Immortality’ is not quite as good as ‘Awakening From Abyss’ and ‘Battle Against Damnation’ were, it is about as close as it gets. Lovebites is experimenting on a few tracks and rather successfully on most of them. The entire band is on fire, with especially Asami and Haruna having massively improved their skills. Funnily enough, ‘Clockwork Immortality’ shows that Lovebites has the European power metal sound down better than a lot of actual European power metal bands. If that is your thing, ‘Clockwork Immortality’ is well worth your attention.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Final Collision’, ‘Addicted’, ‘M.D.O.’, ‘Pledge Of The Savior’

Advertisements