Archive for December, 2019

Album of the Week 52-2019: Killing Joke – Hosannas From The Basements Of Hell

Killing Joke albums come in many forms. Militant like their first two albums, polished like ‘Pandemonium’, catchy like ‘Night Time’… ‘Hosannas From The Basements Of Hell’ is different. With its long, slowly unfolding tracks, it feels like a deliberate attempt to create Killing Joke’s least accessible album to date. Therein lies the brilliance. More than any album before it, ‘Hosannas From The Basements Of Hell’ attempts to overwhelm with massive repetitive riffs, tribal rhythms and its sheer wall of noise in an almost Godflesh-like fashion. Difficult to achieve without turning into a monotonous mess, but Killing Joke succeeds with ease.

Sporting one of my favorite titles of all time ‘Hosannas From The Basements Of Hell’ already caught my attention before I had even heard a single note. And then there’s the music. There is something strangely hypnotic about the endless barrage of heavy riffing and pounding rhythms. The music sounds like it was not so much composed as it was made up on the spot and played until it made sense. That means there are hardly any memorable choruses and the riffs per minute ratio is ridiculously low, but the songs contain everything this combination of post-punk and industrial (doom) metal should have.

One thing that stands out about ‘Hosannas From The Basements Of Hell’ is how guitar-heavy the production is. Geordie Walker’s guitar sound was always a defining feature of Killing Joke’s sound, but it always shared equal billing with the bass and the synths. Especially the latter are buried in the mix here, but that is hardly a problem. Take a song like ‘Implosion’, where the constant drive of wide dissonant chords in a pseudo-metallic new wave sound carries the song. The following ‘Walking With Gods’ feels slightly more like modern Killing Joke, as Reza Uhdin’s synths are more prominent, giving the track something of a dance vibe.

Those who preferred the world fusion of ‘Pandemonium’ will be pleased by album highlight ‘Invocation’. Save for one half measure-long fill that occurs every now and then, Walker’s riff does not change for the entire eight minutes the song lasts, but the constantly building strings and the Middle-Eastern percussion add such a dynamic to the song, it’s simply brilliant. ‘Judas Goat’, with its awesomely brooding 5/4 riff, is another highlight. ‘Gratitude’ marries the immense heaviness of Walker’s riffs and Paul Raven’s bass with a surprisingly clean, but highly ominous vocal performance by Jaz Coleman and closes the album in style.

‘Hosannas From The Basements Of Hell’ is not the best album to start with for those who are curious about Killing Joke, despite ‘This Tribal Antidote’ being a relatively accessible opener. For a certain section of the band’s fanbase, however, this is 200 percent of what they’d want from Killing Joke. The album is as appropriate for apocalyptic darkness as it is for a dance party in hell. Personally, I think I prefer ‘Pandemonium’, but not by much. With its uncompromising approach and perfect production for this style, ‘Hosannas From The Basements Of Hell’ lives up to its amazing title as well as Killing Joke’s legacy in dark, but surprisingly blunt music.

Recommended tracks: ‘Invocation’, ‘Judas Goat’, ‘Gratitude’

Album of the Week 51-2019: The Vision Bleak – The Unknown

Gothic rock’s mournful melodies and doom metal’s crushing heaviness appear to be made for each other, both having an irresistibly ominous theatricality to them. More often than not, however, gothic metal bands go for the goth aesthetic rather than the stylistic properties of the genre. For every ‘Irreligious’, there is a symphonic power metal band with operatic female vocals calling themselves gothic. Germany’s The Vision Bleak actually managed to create a genuinely atmospheric sound that is almost equal parts gothic and metal, although their most recent album ‘The Unknown’ is significantly heavier and more metallic than some people might expect.

After the more upbeat, folky nature of ‘Witching Hour’, ‘The Unknown’ was a bit of a surprise. It’s not like The Vision Bleak displays a completely different approach here. The music is still lead by slow to midtempo, not too complicated riffs and the deep gothic baritone of Konstanz. It’s just that the increased heaviness makes ‘The Unknown’ the most immersive listening experience since the band’s sophomore ‘Carpathia’ album. The keyboards and symphonic elements have been toned down a bit, but that doesn’t make the album any less atmospheric. If anything, the compositions and the choice of instruments create a nightmarish musical landscape.

The Vision Bleak were always masters of dynamics. Even their heaviest tracks have a great sense of build-up. An excellent example from this album would be ‘Into The Unknown’. The slow gallop – which would technically make it a trot, but whatever – may be pounding quite heavily throughout the song, but the riff takes a back seat to Konstanz’ vocals and Schwadorf’s clever clean guitar touches during the verses, only to make the chorus sound extra bombastic. ‘Ancient Heart’, the album’s most gothic moment, alternates between big, beefy riffs and mostly acoustic sections with an almost Middle-Eastern feel to them. Highly effective and above all enjoyable.

Elsewhere, the band reconnects with their extreme metal roots without forsaking their sense of atmosphere and melody. Opening track ‘From Wolf To Peacock’ is built upon mournful riffs and melodies, but the drums are somewhere between a polka and a blastbeat, while the climaxes of the particularly theatrical, Moonspell-ish ‘How Deep Lies Tartaros?’ have a black metal-ish vibe to them. A full album of those tracks would get old soon, but when they are alternated with moments of amazingly atmospheric doom and gloom, such as the annihiliatingly heavy doomster ‘The Whine Of The Cemetery Hound’ and the climactic closer ‘The Fragrancy Of Soil Unearthed’, it just works.

While The Vision Bleak is another one of those bands with a wide appeal of which I don’t understand why they don’t have a larger audience, ‘The Unknown’ is definitely the perfect album to check out for the metal side of their potential fanbase if they have not heard the band. Schwadorf’s big riffs and clever use of simple, yet effective melodies are all over the album. The combination between those and Konstanz’ charismatic vocals are definitely what won me over. A must for gothic metal fans, but adventurous doom metal fans should probably give this a chance as well.

Recommended tracks: ‘Into The Unknown’, ‘Ancient Heart’, ‘The Whine Of The Cemetery Hound’

Album of the Week 50-2019: Nefilim – Zoon

Back in the mid-nineties, the lone Nefilim album ‘Zoon’ must have been quite a shock for anyone who expected a continuation of the cinematic gothic rock sound that Fields Of The Nephilim was known for. There are similarities with the Fields’ sound, but those are not immediately apparent. Upon first spin, the music on ‘Zoon’ has much more in common with the industrial thrash metal leanings Ministry had around the same time. ‘Zoon’ still has plenty of atmospheric clean guitar moments and meticulous arrangements, but this is certainly a heavier, more industrial take on Carl McCoy’s visions than Fields ever was.

Then again, the gothic music landscape had changed in the nineties. Instead of desperately clinging to his past, McCoy and his fellow musicians apparently kept up with the times without forsaking their roots. McCoy largely sheds his “gruff Andrew Eldritch” label in favor of something that is pretty damn near a death grunt, but even the clean vocals sound more gruff than usual here. Also, in less than two minutes, you will have heard more distortion on Paul Miles’ guitar than Paul Wright and Peter Yates ever had. The combination of fast, palm-muted thrash riffing and chorus-heavy arpeggios works surprisingly well.

Any metalhead curious about the gothic industrial sound of ‘Zoon’ should start with the riffier songs, such as opening track ‘Xodus’, ‘Penetration’, the relatively complex ‘Pazuzu (Black Rain)’ and the almost full-on thrash metal of ‘Venus Decomposing’. Aside from its brooding middle section, the latter sounds like it could be the missing link between Sepultura’s ‘Arise’ and ‘Chaos A.D.’. All of these songs have super tight riffing courtesy of Miles and particularly intense drumming by a musician with the impossibly metallic name Simon Rippin. The blunt riffing causes the immediate impact of these tracks, but don’t be fooled: the production is surprisingly sophisticated.

Songs like ‘Shine’ and the titular trilogy – though the three parts span two tracks – make ‘Zoon’ a surprisingly smooth transition from ‘Elizium’, however. It is here where McCoy gets his chance to, well… Shine. That song in particular shows him building from the mournful verses to the barely contained anger of the chorus and the surprisingly emotional climax. ‘Zoon’ in particular feels like an industrial reimagining of the longer suites on ‘Elizium’. It builds from a dark ballad through industrial ambience into the epic grandeur of the third part, subtitled ‘Wake World’. That particular part also starts out with McCoy singing as I prefer him: deep and clean.

Is this better than Fields Of The Nephilim? Of course it isn’t. ‘Elizium’ is a work of uncommon beauty. It is worth noting, however, that the “reunion” album of Fields Of The Nephilim – ‘Mourning Sun’, released almost a full decade later – sounds like a combination of their classic sound and the heavier industrial approach of ‘Zoon’. McCoy was obviously serious about this sound and despite familiar influences, ‘Zoon’ is quite a unique-sounding record. Admittedly, I personally prefer the more gothic moments of the record, but there’s some of the best industrial thrash metal of the nineties on the album as well.

Recommended tracks: ‘Shine’, ‘Zoon (Part 3) (Wake World)’, ‘Xodus’

Album of the Week 49-2019: Catharsis – Svetliy Albom

Sometimes it baffles me why some bands are bigger than others based on something as trivial as language. Several lower mid-tier power metal bands are drawing decent crowds throughout Europe, while a fantastic band like Catharsis is approached with caution simply because they sing in Russian. Because make no mistake, Catharsis is one of the better symphonically tinged power metal bands around. Their sixth album ‘Svetliy Albom’ might serve as an excellent introduction to those who have never heard the band before, as it may just be the most well-rounded album the Moscow-based sextet has released so far.

Describing Catharsis’ music as symphonic power metal is accurate, but does paint somewhat of an incomplete picture of what the band sounds like. First of all, the riff work courtesy of Igor ‘Jeff’ Polyakov and Oleg Mission is notably more ballsy and bottom-heavy than that of most bands on the symphonic end of the power metal spectrum, occasionally sounding reminiscent of a less complex Symphony X. In addition, the production on ‘Svetliy Albom’ sounds somewhat mid-period Kamelot-esque in terms of bombast, but the overall atmosphere on Catharsis’ records leans significantly more towards rebellion and occasional melancholy. Catharsis never forgets the “heavy” in heavy metal.

What makes ‘Svetliy Albom’ one of their better albums is the presence of songs that exceed the already high standard Catharsis set on their preceding albums. ‘Vyshe Kubki!’ immediately became on of my favorite Catharsis songs due to the simple, but brutally effective syncopated rhythm and exciting atmosphere. Also, the understated nature of the song’s chorus is a masterstroke. Most of the other songs are excellent power metal tracks, each with their own distinctive features, such as the less symphonic, but more modern power metal leanings of Julia Red’s keyboards in the mid-tempo stomper ‘Catharsis’ and the relatively high tempo of the climactic ‘Vechniy Strannik’.

Even more climactic is my personal favorite of the album: opening track ‘Inoy’. It is astounding how well the composition succeeds at constantly adding a new layer of tension and that doesn’t even take the incredible voice of Oleg Zhilyakov into account. His dramatic, semi-operatic delivery is exactly what the song needs and he manages to give the song a longing, almost aching quality. That unisono melody of Mission and Red after each chorus is amazing as well. Elsewhere, ‘Verniy Angel Moy’ is one of the better power metal ballads I heard in a while due to its unusual structure.

Anyone who likes power metal and is not averse to a certain degree of theatricality must give Catharsis a chance. It is clear that for Catharsis, the songs come first and adding layers of bombast is only done if the song asks for it. They don’t overcomplicate things, but they also are no slaves to the verse-chorus structure. Many of their peers could learn a lesson or two from them. In addition, they have one of the greatest singers the genre has today in Oleg Zhilyakov. All of these aspects make ‘Svetliy Albom’ a record on which all pieces are in the right places.

Recommended tracks: ‘Inoy’, ‘Vyshe Kubki!’, ‘Vechniy Strannik’

Album of the Week 48-2019: Avatarium – The Fire I Long For

For a long time, Avatarium was just another Leif Edling project for me. Avatarium stood out due to the charismatic vocals of Jennie-Ann Smith, but a majority of their material still sounded like Candlemass with female vocals. Smith and her husband, veteran guitarist Marcus Jidell, started contributing to the songwriting on the band’s third album ‘Hurricanes And Halos’. ‘The Fire I Long For’ is the first album with a majority of songs written by Smith and Jidell, which turns out to be a big step forward. The album is less doom metal and more dark rock, but undeniably impressive.

Despite all the changes, the overall sound of Avatarium has not changed all that much on ‘The Fire I Long For’. Sure, it’s less upbeat than ‘Hurricanes And Halos’ and certainly less doomy as a whole, but the main ingredients are similar: thick, fuzzy guitar riffs that are generally relatively slow, an organic seventies feel and Smith’s emotional vocals. Unlike many female rock singers, Smith skillfully avoids the pitfalls of oversinging. Likewise, Jidell is perfectly capable of playing neoclassical speed exercises, but instead focuses on bluesy soul. Lars Sköld is one of the most serviceable drummers in heavy rock as well.

Atmosphere is an important part of what makes ‘The Fire I Long For’ the great album it is. Most of the album has a dark, desperate atmosphere, the only true exception being the excellent uptempo rocker ‘Shake That Demon’. First single ‘Rubicon’ has a somewhat hopeful vibe as well. It is a nice slower midtempo rocker with great melodies and an excellent guitar and Hammond arrangement. Truth be told, that track was what made me check out the album at all. The band also made a wise choice easing anyone who already loved the band into their new sound by opening with the relatively doomy ‘Voices’.

What may be most impressive about ‘The Fire I Long For’ is how it explores all the possibilities of Avatarium’s sound without ever sounding like a disjointed mess. The title track and closer ‘Stars They Move’ are heartfelt ballads, the latter being particularly low-key, ‘Great Beyond’ is a climactic, atmospheric monster of a track, while ‘Porcelain Skull’ and particularly ‘Epitaph Of Heroes’ are the doomiest tracks on the album. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Edling wrote those doomsters. The most pleasant surprise is ‘Lay Me Down’, which feels like Nick Cave exploring southern blues and has a mindblowing vocal arrangement. Truly a work of art.

‘The Fire I Long For’ impresses me much more than I expected it would. Jidell and Smith writing most of the songs apparently is exactly what the band needed to develop their own dark and moody rock sound. The band’s influences are quite obvious: Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and The Doors’ darker material – the Uriah Heep-isms of ‘Hurricanes And Halos’ only linger in the background – and yet, Avatarium sounds fresh and unique here. It helps that Smith is not another Janis Joplin clone, but there is a sincerity to the music on ‘The Fire I Long For’ that many contemporary bands lack.

Recommended tracks: ‘Rubicon’, ‘Lay Me Down’, ‘Great Beyond’, ‘Stars They Move’