Archive for the ‘ Music ’ Category

Album of the Week 07-2019: OverKill – The Wings Of War


If there is one thing you can count on in the metal scene, it would be OverKill releasing a solid thrash record every two or three years. Having said that, their last album ‘The Grinding Wheel’ was not one of my favorite OverKill albums, despite its incredible three-song finale. ‘The Wings Of War’ is the first of their albums in over a decade with a different line-up than its predecessor and that usually means a slight change of direction. Jason Bittner does not bring a huge shift, but it does seem that his drumming relit some fire for the band.

Of course, this is still an OverKill record, so you know what to expect: there is an abundance of thrash riffs with clear inspiration from Black Sabbath and American punk, which Bobby ‘Blitz’ Ellsworth enhances with his pleasantly shrill vocal delivery. His performance deserves praise, as he is turning sixty in a few months and still sings with the intensity of a man half his age. Guitarist Dave Linsk’s melodic embellishments give the songs a lot of character, contributing significantly to the NWOBHM leanings that make the album sound somewhat like a spiritual successor to ‘The Electric Age’ (2012), only with more consistent songwriting.

While OverKill’s bread and butter is still uncomplicated in-your-face thrash metal, the record feels surprisingly experimental at times. ‘Bat Shit Crazy’ has a few subtle, but brutally effective time feel changes and a brooding clean middle section followed by one of the most “classic metal” solo sections the band did in decades. The following ‘Distortion’ has one of their coolest bass and guitar intros yet, especially the second half. The rest of the track is excellent mid-tempo OverKill. The dark and powerful ‘Where Few Dare To Walk’ is another great atmospheric OverKill track, rivaling ‘Bitter Pill’ and ‘Killing For A Living’ as the best tracks in that style.

Even the album’s punky track is good. Those are generally not my favorites, but ‘Welcome To The Garden State’ is a fast, aggressive and surprisingly funny tribute to their home state of New Jersey. Those looking for high-octane thrash should not be worried though. For all the interesting melodic touches – most of them courtesy of Linsk and Ellsworth – the album still has equal amounts of groove, aggression and attitude. First single ‘Last Man Standing’ gives a pretty good impression of the overall sound with its thick, almost hardcore-ish riffs and catchy chorus, but the best thrasher of the album has to be closer ‘Hole In My Soul’. It has a great build-up, a fantastic chorus and after its intro never lets up in terms of speed. OverKill has been doing amazing album closers lately and this one is no different.

Many thrash bands that started around the same time as OverKill are battling identity crises or consistency issues, but neither of those seems to effect the New Jersey thrashers. They know who they are and they know how to express that. What is even more impressive is that they manage to do so without losing their credibility or becoming a parody of themselves. ‘The Wings Of War’ is one more piece of evidence for that theory. It is a sincere, powerful thrash metal record that is pretty much on par with ‘White Devil Armory’.

Recommended tracks: ‘Hole In My Soul’, ‘Where Few Dare To Walk’, ‘Believe In The Fight’

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Album of the Week 06-2019: Aria – Feniks


‘Feniks’ was a return to form for Russia’s Aria. Not entirely like the titular character, because bassist Vitaly Dubinin never really lost his special songwriting touch, but ‘Feniks’ is definitely the first Aria album since ‘Krov Za Krov’ two decades earlier that is pretty much excellent from start to finish. Maybe it was the addition of the fantastic new singer Mikhail Zhitnyakov, who debuts here, that gave the band some fresh impulses. But whatever the reason, everything that makes traditional heavy metal worthwhile is present in these songs, with just enough contemporary aggression to justify the band’s existence in this century.

Previous singer Artur Berkut often gets the blame for the somewhat less enthusiastic reception of the two albums before ‘Feniks’. However, he is a decent singer and really, the albums suffer from the same issue as the last three albums with Valery Kipelov: the highlights are nothing short of amazing, but all other songs are forgettable. Picking highlights is a lot more difficult on ‘Feniks’, because it is a consistently excellent set of songs and the same can be said about the performances and the production. None of the songs is worth skipping and the sound is clear and convinving.

Opening with ‘Chorny Kvadrat’ was a wise choice. The song combines the band’s strong Iron Maiden influence with a slightly more modern power metal approach, which truly allows newcomer Zhitnyakov to shine. His voice has all the passion of Kipelov’s, with a slightly larger range and an unprecedented degree of theatricality to boot. Comparable in approach is the powerful ‘Boi Bez Pravil’, which has a similarly subtle degree of melancholy in its triumphant traditional metal sound. Both of these tracks alone would already have been worth whatever you pay for the album, as they are among the best Aria songs to date.

Luckily, there is more. Aria always manages to pump out a couple of engaging epics and this time around, the splendidly constructed ‘Chornaya Legenda’ is the best one. The entire song has an atmosphere of imminent danger and the way the intro riff comes back in a different key after the acoustic middle section is pure brilliance. ‘Attila’ and ‘Istoria Odnogo Ubiyci’ are slightly less dense riffing-wise, instead opting to give the song some room to unfold. The calmly symphonic ‘Rekviyem’ is a pretty unique ballad in Aria’s discography and really shows off Zhitnyakov’s abilities. The title track shows the band at its most Maiden-esque, while ‘Dalniy Svet’ and ‘Ravnovesiye Sil’ are powerful midtempo hardrockers with really cool vocal harmonies in their choruses.

While it is tempting to blame Aria’s return to form on the arrival of Zhitnyakov, that would be too easy. For one, there are recordings of the band demoing ‘Boi Bez Pravil’ with Berkut floating around on YouTube and I cannot imagine that being the only one, since he left the group only months before te release of ‘Feniks’. Instead, something else must have sparked the inspiration of the band. We may never know to whom or what we should be thankful, but ‘Feniks’ rates among the best albums Aria has released to date. In fact, it is one of the greatest traditional heavy metal albums of the 21st century.

Recommeded tracks: ‘Chorny Kvadrat’, ‘Boi Bez Pravil’, ‘Chornaya Legenda’

Album of the Week 05-2019: Sacrifice – Soldiers Of Misfortune


By the early nineties, most of the thrash metal bands that had been around for a decade were altering their sound to varying degrees. In many cases, this change meant slowing down significantly  or dumbing down the music. Sacrifice, however, managed to refine its sound considerably while avoiding the pitfalls that usually come with such progress. After two enjoyable, but somewhat monotonous thrash metal records in the eighties, ‘Soldiers Of Misfortune’ adds more depth to the Canadians’ sound. It isn’t exactly progressive thrash metal, but paying more attention to dynamic possibilities within the boundaries of their sound meant a strong improvement.

Essentially, ‘Soldiers Of Misfortune’ is characterized by the same elements as Sacrifice’s earlier work. The guitar riffs of Joe Rico and Rob Urbinati are razor sharp, the latter’s venom-spitting vocal delivery – think Tom Angelripper with hints of Darren Travis – helps set the band apart from the pack and Gus Pynn is one of the most unjustly overlooked drummers in thrash metal. The tweaks Sacrifice made to their sound may seem minor at first, but they turn out to be very relevant. Most importantly: the tempo changes. Sacrifice songs used to speed by viciously, but the impact of separate sections has been increased here by shifting tempos strategically.

That doesn’t mean that Sacrifice has been watered down to a mid-tempo groove metal band, however. ‘Soldiers Of Misfortune’ is far from a ‘Black Album’-ish snoozefest. In fact, the most prominent midtempo track (‘Soldiers Of Misfortune’ itself) makes brilliant use of subtle shifts in tempo and time feel. It may be remembered for its massive doomy intro, but the brooding feel of the first faster riff is equally impressive. ‘Lost Through Time’ is another track that proves an evil atmosphere can be reached even at mid-tempo. The song makes excellent use of space.

Sacrifice still proves to be excellent at uptempo thrash here. ‘In Defiance’ was destined to become a live classic, as the riffs are highly memorable and the song is a shot of energy. ‘A Storm In The Silence’ excels at violent thrash polkas after a relatively atmospheric intro, while opener ‘As The World Burns’ perfectly bridges the full-speed rabid menace of the past with a somewhat more refined approach. Closer ‘Truth (After The Rain)’ is the band’s most ambitious track to date. They took some progressive hints from Rush (the influence of ‘Xanadu’ on the intro is fairly obvious) and ran with that in what is ultimately a dark thrasher with lots of cool, vaguely Arabic-sounding riffs.

If ‘Soldiers Of Misfortune’ is proof of anything, it would be that maturing is not something to automatically run away from if you are in a thrash metal band. Sure, lots of bands ruined their sound with it, but Sacrifice is one of those cases where a little more refinement has truly enhanced their sound without sounding alien to anyone who liked their sound before. In addition, the guitar solos and overall songwriting have become significantly more memorable in the process. It is truly a pity that the band was done for by the mid-nineties, but they reformed recently and are still playing live. They have yet to release something as brilliant as ‘Soldiers Of Misfortune’, but never say never.

Recommended tracks: ‘As The World Burns’, ‘Truth (After The Rain)’, ‘In Defiance’

Album of the Week 04-2019: Solstice – Solstice


Some bands are known for the musicians that play with them rather than the actual music than they play. Those who have heard of Solstice, will most likely know them as the band Rob Barrett played with prior to joining Cannibal Corpse, though drummer Alex Marquez and bassist Mark Van Erp are familiar names in the Floridian death metal scene as well. It is worth giving their music a spin though, as especially their self-titled debut album is an engaging piece of reasonably technical thrash metal, filled to the brim with all the precise, aggressive playing one could wish for.

Despite all of the death metal connections of the Floridian band, the death metal element in their music is largely limited to Marquez’ occasional blastbeats. If anything, hardcore seems to be a bigger influence on Solstice. Plenty of blunt force, but more importantly, the riffs are thick and beefy even at their fastest and most technical, which is of course helped by Scott Burns’ production. Also, Barrett’s aggressive barks have a distinct hardcore vibe. The overall sound is not unlike the likes of Demolition Hammer and Exhorder, with maybe some Malevolent Creation, with whom three musicians on the record have played, thrown in for good measure.

Riffs aplenty on ‘Solstice’, but where the band truly outshines its contemporaries is that the songs are surprisingly well-written. In this style, it is quite easy to get lost in a jungle of engaging, but poorly connecting riffs. Solstice’s songs generally make excellent use of dynamics, with especially the ever-changing rhythmic feel of the songs accounting for a longer attention span than with many equally technical, yet compositionally weaker bands. ‘Netherworld’ in particular has a great climactic build-up by starting slow and atmospheric and leaving room for the chorus and Dennis Muñoz’ fantastic guitar solo when it needs room to breathe.

Because of the way the songs are written – not a lot of melody, high tempos – the highlights of the album really boil down to which riffs you prefer. Personally, I really like how ‘Cataclysmic Outbursts’ unfolds from its almost teasing intro to its multitude of Dark Angel-inspired riffs, while ‘Plasticized’ is quite catchy and has a half-time middle section not unlike Suffocation would do on ‘Pierced From Within’. Another true highlight is how opening track ‘Transmogrified’ toys with different time feels even within its first 30 seconds, effectively giving you a pretty good impression of if you’re going to like the album or not.

Ultimately, only the Carnivore cover ‘S.M.D.’ is a bit of a weak spot on ‘Solstice’. The cover is done well, but the song lacks the sophistication of the rest of the album. Because writing an excellent technical thrash song obviously is something you don’t have to teach Solstice. The album definitely transcends the “curio because of the musicians involved” tag, as it is superior to many of the albums the involved musicians would later be involved in. I don’t say that to dismiss the works of Cannibal Corpse, Malevolent Creation or Monstrosity, ‘Solstice’ is just that good.

Recommended tracks: ‘Netherworld’, ‘Transmogrified’, ‘Cataclysmic Outbursts’

Album of the Week 03-2019: Asagi – Madara


Asagi’s debut solo album is one of those instances where I doubted the necessity of a solo venture. After all, Asagi is by far the most prolific composer of his main band, the immensely popular visual kei band D, and his surprisingly unique voice is characteristic enough to add D’s character to everything he sings on. What makes ‘Madara’ a successful record, however, is its focus. Japanese folk influences have been quite prominent in some of D’s best songs, but on this album, Asagi goes full-on folk rock and folk metal. And it’s not just a gimmick: the songs are great.

Of course, Asagi has not lost his ability to write catchy, powerful rock songs. In fact, some of the songs are filled with his trademark stock visual kei melodies – opening track ‘Gekkai No Miko’ most notably – but the Japanese traditional instruments, such as the koto, the shamisen and the taiko drums, are an integral part of the songwriting rather than an extra touch. On a majority of the songs, it’s not the guitars, but these instruments that carry the melodies. While the guitars are there to give them extra punch, that does impact the character of the melodies significantly.

While the entirity of ‘Madara’ is highly entertaining, the best moments of the album are the hardest rocking ones. Songs like ‘Hakumenkonmo Kyubi No Kitsune Hidama’, ‘Kimera’ and ‘Komo Sakura’ just work wonders: the shamisen introduces the melody, the electric guitars join, either in unison or as bottom-heavy accompaniment, creating some fantastic oriental folk metal. I have always wondered why the number of bands attempting this style is not larger and Asagi makes a strong case for the combination of sounds. The more melodic rockers, such as ‘Hotarubi’, ‘Hana Kumo No Ran’ and ‘Ooyama Inudake ~Tsukuyo Ni Hoeyu~’ are sure to please D fans, but might also draw in people who usually find them too heavy.

Since this is an Asagi album, there is of course room for some ballads in which he can show off his vocal talents. There are quite a few of them here and those are probably the most folky sounding ones on the record. Ironically, it is not Asagi himself, but bassist (and prolific producer) Hajime Okano who stands out on the album’s best ballad ‘Kaishikoki Eru E Kaeryanse’ features some gorgeous melodic work on the fretless bass that really enhances the atmosphere of the song. Closing track ‘Asagimadara’ is another beautiful ballad, this time with absolutely stunning symphonic touches.

Beside the songwriting, it is also impressive how Asagi managed to make the album about the songs and not about the all-star cast that appears on the album, which features members of Luna Sea, Dir En Grey, Galneryus, D and loads of other high profile Japanese bands. It still sounds like a cohesive collection of songs and that, again, is probably the result of Asagi’s razor sharp focus. He wanted to make a powerful rock album that was heavy on the Japanese folk influences and that is exactly what ‘Madara’ has become. One of the Japanese highlights of 2018.

Recommended tracks: ‘Hakumenkonmo Kyubo No Kitsune Hidama’, ‘Komo Sakura’, ‘Ooyama Inudake ~Tsukoyo Ni Hoeyu’

Album of the Week 02-2019: Gargoyle – Gaia


For some reason, ‘Gaia’ often gets ignored when people discuss the greatest works of Gargoyle. Up until last year’s unfortunate dissolution of the band, the songs on ‘Gaia’ did not even appear on their live sets all that much. Maybe that is a result of the material on the album making optimal use of the two guitar line-up, since Gargoyle would continue with just one guitarist after Yotaro left. It would really be a pity to let ‘Gaia’ go by unnoticed though, because there is simply too much good music on the album. It is in fact one of Gargoyle’s finest efforts.

‘Gaia’ is probably the second most experimental album Gargoyle released to date, surpassed only by its predecessor ‘Natural’. Unlike the latter, however, ‘Gaia’ feels pretty coherent stylistically and does not have as many sudden shifts, save for maybe the odd, but successful percussion and Spanish guitar exercise that is ‘Hako’ and the hyperactive funk rock of ‘Baby Cat’, one of Gargoyle’s better funky tracks. Everything else consists of variations on the trusted Gargoyle formula. Some songs have a cleaner guitar approach and more swing rhythmically (‘Unkown ~Annon~’) or a more exotic overall sound (‘Yagate Hikaru’), but but the thrash riffs and heavy metal melodies are everywhere.

Opening track ‘Wakakusa No Kimi’ does a pretty good job of preparing its listeners for the general sound of ‘Gaia’. The rhythm guitar work and Katsuji’s rolling double bass thunder still is as deeply rooted in thrash as the band always was, but the overall approach is a little more melodic. Frontman Kiba even shows a surprising amount of restraint in its uncharacteristically melodic vocal lines, but it all works remarkably well. ‘Sora Wa Ao’ is another track that manages to successfully blend a wild, propulsive bottom end with a melodic, almost rocky top layer.

That does not mean ‘Gaia’ cannot thrash your face off. The stomping ‘Meditation’ and the vaguely OverKill-ish ‘Who Are You?’ are both excellent energetic thrashers in the best Gargoyle tradition, while especially the speed monster ‘Kamikaze’ is absolutely annihilating. Truly one of the highlights of the band’s career. If ‘Gaia’ proves anything, however, it is that Gargoyle does not have to do that to sound amazing. ‘Sanbika’, for instance, is one of the most powerful tracks on here and it has an almost doom metal vibe, with Kentaro’s and Yotaro’s riffs not containing any more notes than they have to and Toshi laying down some of his best melodic bass lines. Definitely one of the best of their more atmospheric tracks.

My only complaints about ‘Gaia’ are aimed at its production. The guitar sound is not as powerful and pulsating as it should be and I have no idea why Kiba’s vocals on ‘Sayonara Jibun’, otherwise a very pleasant melodic thrasher, had to be so trebly, borderline unlistenably distorted. But apart from that, ‘Gaia’ is one of the best albums the Japanese experimental thrash machine has ever released. It may even have been the most consistent set of songs they have ever recorded, save for the near-perfection of ‘Tsuki No Toge’.

Recommended tracks: ‘Sanbika’, ‘Kamikaze’, ‘Wakakusa No Kimi’, ‘Who Are You?’

Album of the Week 01-2019: Vader – De Profundis


Vader is easily my favorite death metal band of the non-progressive variety. Unlike many of their contemporaries and a staggering number of bands that followed them, the Polish band around vocalist and guitarist Piotr ‘Peter’ Wiwczarek knows how to create something memorable if you don’t have a great deal of melody at your disposal. It’s their riffs rather than their choruses that are – for lack of a better term – quite catchy. Vader’s sophomore album ‘De Profundis’ is generally seen as their classic album and while I’m not sure if it’s their best, it is definitely the album on which Vader found its sound.

Debut album ‘The Ultimate Incantation’ was mostly a supercharged thrash metal record, which is a good thing, but it was awkwardly produced an Wiwczarek still sounded like any other grunter on the record. ‘De Profundis’ is the first showcase for his definitive voice, which is closer to a carnal, low pitched roar. He sounds commanding and full of character, which is why Wiwczarek is one of the few grunters I appreciate. Musically, Vader started enhancing their deeply thrash-rooted death metal with some more climactic or atmospheric songwriting reminiscent of a somewhat less pretentious – and therefore better – Morbid Angel.

Memorable riff writing is all over ‘De Profundis’. Everyone with a more than casual interest in death metal will immediately have the intro riffs to the likes of ‘Blood Of Kingu’ or ‘Sothis’ in their minds if you even so much as mention the titles. The latter is a masterclass in structuring a death metal song anyway; the way it moves from the pummeling mid-tempo intro to the increasingly faster sections in the middle of the song and back is dynamically very strong. The former is one of the slower tracks, built on a foundation of strong, moderately fast triplets that sound very driven and delightfully dark.

With ‘De Profundis’ being only 34 minutes long, there is not a whole lot of room for experimentation or sophistication, but the epic closing track ‘Reborn In Flames’ definitely does a good job highlighting different sides of Wiwczarek’s songwriting, while the strong opening track ‘Silent Empire’ manages to pack several different atmospheres and a large portion of riffs within only four minutes. ‘Vision And The Voice’ is a hidden gem, with its shifting rhythms and rare twin guitar middle section pushing it into borderline progressive territory, while ‘Revolt’ briefly flirts with black metal-inspired atmospheres.

Although I am not sure if I agree with the assessment that ‘De Profundis’ is the best Vader album – in my opinion, there are at least three albums equally deserving of that title – it is a fact that a lot of the elements that make Vader the band they are today first popped up on this great record. Personally, I am quite glad that happened without forsaking the band’s thrash-inspired riffing, as that is one of the factors that makes the band better than their peers for me. Anyone who likes their death metal fast and punishing will enjoy ‘De Profundis’, but so will anyone who likes some thought and depth put into the genre.

Recommended tracks: ‘Sothis’, ‘Silent Empire’, ‘Reborn In Flames’

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