Posts Tagged ‘ progressive Death Metal ’

Album of the Week 24-2020: Chaos Over Cosmos – The Ultimate Multiverse

A couple of weeks ago, I looked at Sacred Blade and Othyrworld and stated that many science fiction-themed bands opting for a futuristic sound end up sounding horribly dated. Chaos Over Cosmos, the project of Polish multi-instrumentalist Rafał Bowman, however, manages to strike the perfect balance between nostalgic and contemporary by fusing quite modern-sounding progressive metal with a sci-fi atmosphere that is apparent in both the production and the lyrical themes. Their second album ‘The Ultimate Multiverse’ has a slightly more brutal sound than debut album ‘The Unknown Voyage’ and while I tend to prefer the more melodic stuff, it seems more effective.

Compared to the debut album, the biggest change would be the fact that Australian vocalist Joshua Ratcliff has replaced Javier Calderon, who apparently has a background in extreme metal. There are still clean vocals in the choruses, often doubled in a manner that reminds me of how Florian Magnus Maier sounds in Alkaloid, but the majority consists of growls. Musically, the compositions somewhat reflect the change, but the basic ingredients are still the same: complex, contemporary guitar riffs getting their cinematic atmosphere from their surroundings, which are frequently keyboards reminiscent of the retro synth wave movement, though not quite as dominant.

Referring to Chaos Over Cosmos as progressive metal might be a tad misleading though, as there aren’t many time signature changes and very few, if any Dream Theater-isms. Due to the highly complex and unpredictable nature of Bowman’s compositions, however, I still think it is a more fitting description than power metal. Choruses often pop up from out of nowhere and the time feel is prone to change at moments where one would not expect them to. Despite what such a description might suggest, however, ‘The Ultimate Multiverse’ stubbornly refuses to sound disjointed.

Part of that is the clearly defined concept Bowman has going on. This extends to every part of the album. While I have a strong preference for clean vocals, I love how the grunts are produced here. Ratcliff’s grunts really sound like you’re surrounded by some kind of interstellar vortex. The strongest aspect of ‘The Ultimate Multiverse’ is the guitar work though. Despite being composed and largely recorded by a guitarist, the album is not crammed full with solos and lead guitar parts. Instead, Bowman decided to let the riffs tell the story and the album absolutely benefits from that.

In a way, Chaos Over Cosmos is a project that could really only happen in this day and age, with its two members being on opposite sides of the world and their Bandcamp being their main promotional platform. There are people who claim that such a construction can never provide the experience a band can, but personally, I don’t think it’s all that different from a band with one or two people calling all the shots. Especially not if the core concept is as strong as it is with Chaos Over Cosmos. Definitely worth checking out if you would like to hear a somewhat more streamlined take on modern progressive metal.

Recommended tracks: ‘Cascading Darkness’, ‘We Will Not Fall’, ‘Asimov’

Album of the Week 20-2019: Amorphis – Elegy

Perfection is hard to come by in music. More often than not, I refer to a certain aspect of an album being as close to perfection as it gets. In case of Amorphis’ third album ‘Elegy’, its atmosphere is just about as perfect as it gets. ‘Elegy’ was the second album on which Amorphis showed a massive stylistic change and it would not be the last, but it does say something that the signature sound they currently have is not too far removed from what can be heard on ‘Elegy’. It is simply an excellent work of melancholic Finnish metal.

In a way, it is odd that ‘Elegy’ is my favorite Amorphis album, as the band would become much better later on. Current singer Tomi Joutsen is vastly superior to both the throaty grunts of rhythm guitarist Tomi Koivusaari and the Hetfield-esque cleans of Pasi Koskinen, Santeri Kallio has a significantly more melodic style than ‘Elegy’ keyboard player Kim Rantala… Basically the only band member who is already close to the massive heights he would soon reach is lead guitarist Esa Holopainen, one of the most tasteful guitarists in rock and metal. And yet, everything on ‘Elegy’ is as it should be.

First off, the lack of vocal prowess does not hurt the music at all. Koskinen is the right fit for the melancholy expressed in the lyrics – all English translations of the poems in the ‘Kanteletar’, a collection of traditional Finnish songs and poems – and Koivusaari is buried in the mix. Besides, if I had to estimate, less than 25 percent of the album actually has vocals. ‘Elegy’ is the record that most clearly displays the influence that their fellow countrymen Kingston Wall had on Amorphis: it’s extremely jam-heavy, giving Holopainen plenty of room to excel, and the band opts to let the ideas unfold slowly rather than cramming their songs full of them.

Additionally, the eastern mysticism in Kingston Wall’s music is prominent on some of the Holopainen-penned songs, the incredible opener ‘Better Unborn’ in particular. That song deserves an award anyway. It’s easy to come up with something self-pitying for that set of lyrics, but Amorphis made something extremely powerful out of it, kind of like a Scandinavian metal interpretation of Led Zeppelin’s later works. ‘Song Of The Troubled One’ has a similar vibe, though notably more northern European. The twin guitar harmony laden ‘Against Widows’ is more propulsive, as is ‘On Rich And Poor’, which contains some incredible rhythm guitar work. The surprisingly good instrumental ‘Relief’ brings all the elements together.

Even when the band adopts a more laid-back approach, it sounds amazing. The climactic title track and the unbelievably gorgeous album highlight ‘My Kantele’ have some prominent Pink Floyd-isms, albeit with much more powerful rhythm guitar work. But really, only those who prefer Amorphis as a full-on death metal band might not find anything to like on ‘Elegy’, but I sincerely doubt if they ever were. The consistently melancholic tone is what largely makes ‘Elegy’ so amazing, but the unusually large amount of jamming helps too, plus the fact that Holopainen and Koivusaari hardly ever play in unison. A fairly unique album, even within Amorphis’ discography, that still sounds as fresh today as when I first heard it.

Recommended tracks: ‘Better Unborn’, ‘My Kantele’, ‘On Rich And Poor’, ‘Relief’

Album of the Week 09-2019: Sisters Of Suffocation – Humans Are Broken

Death metal that is both clever and varied without losing any of the aggression that is essential to the genre is hard enough to come by these days. That is exactly why it is good to have albums like Sisters Of Suffocation’s sophomore album ‘Humans Are Broken’ every once in a while. The music is complex, but not showy or hard to follow and while there are plenty of melodic touches and unexpected twists to surprise the listener, Sisters Of Suffocation never forgets the importance of brutality. ‘Humans Are Broken’ sets the bar pretty high for death metal in 2019.

Prior to the recordings of the album, Sisters Of Suffocation went through a couple of line-up changes. These changes have certainly had their effect on the outcome. New drummer and lone brother Kevin van den Heiligenberg makes his presence known through his powerful and varied drumming – you will never hear him play the same type of groove for too long – as well as his explosive and surprisingly natural drum sound. In addition, Emmelie Herwegh joined as a second guitarist, causing fellow axewoman and main composer Simone van Straten to really run with the idea of having two guitars. There are significantly more solos and harmonies here than on ‘Anthology Of Curiosities’ two years ago.

Another big plus about ‘Humans Are Broken’ is the amount of variety in material. Sisters Of Suffocation really explores all corners of death metal here, from the almost Bay Area thrash metal nature of the riffs in ‘What We Create’ right down to the subtle nods to black metal in more atmospheric tracks like ‘Liar’ and ‘The Next Big Thing’. Vocalist Els Prins has a few melodic outbursts here and there, but the music never veers into full-on melodic death metal or wimpy metalcore territory. Check out ‘The Objective’ for an example; the song is full of melodic guitar and vocal work, but the intensity does not let up for even a second.

Of course, anyone looking for a punch in the gut is served well by ‘Humans Are Broken’ as well. The absolutely annihilating main riff to ‘Blood On Blood’ will do just that and despite its progressive nature, there is plenty of pummeling riff work in the ‘Souls To Deny’-era Suffocation-esque ‘The Machine’, as well as what is probably the strongest guitar solo on the album. ‘Wolves’ packs so many ideas that it’s almost impossible to believe that the track is only three minutes long. And yet, the song never becomes disjointed, instead opting for a dark, immersive atmosphere.

While many younger death metal bands are trying to adhere to a certain trend or style, the main concern of Sisters Of Suffocation seems to be to write a good song and perform the hell out of it. And that is exactly how it is supposed to be. For some fans of certain subgenres within death metal, ‘Humans Are Broken’ may be too little of “their” thing, but really, everyone who likes their death metal interesting, slightly technical and somewhat melodic, the album is a must. If this line-up manages to stay together, I cannot see anything standing in the way of a bright future for Sisters Of Suffocation.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Objective’, ‘Wolves’, ‘What We Create’

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 27-2018: Obscura – Cosmogenesis

With the increasing popularity of nerd culture, it is not too surprising that there has been a veritable boom of technical and progressive death metal bands a couple of years ago. Very few managed to impress me as much as Obscura did, however, as the German quartet seems to forego pointless displays of virtuosity and aim at an immersive atmosphere and a strong sense of melodicism instead. In that regard, ‘Cosmogenesis’ was a breath of fresh air when it was released nine years ago. And though they have consistently released great music since, it is still stands as their best work.

Obscura’s music contains a lot of the elements that made Death such an amazing band a decade and a half earlier, but without deliberately trying to copy Chuck Schuldiner’s work. Sure, frontman Steffen Kummerer has repeatedly admitted to “totally ripping off Death” with ‘Incarnated’, but connaisseurs would never mistake Obscura for Death. The latter obviously laid the groundwork for this type of unpredictable, technically challenging extreme metal with fretless bass work, but the uptempo, insistent twin riffs are a characteristic that is quite unique to Obscura and Death never sounded this spacey. The conceptual focus on German philosophers creates this unique universe as well.

Another thing that makes Obscura favorable to most other bands in their genre is that they understand the concept of dynamics. Hannes Grossmann is technically capable of spending the entire album sounding like he’s falling down the stairs with admirable rhythmic precision, but instead he chooses his moments wisely and lets the music breathe when it has do. ‘Desolate Spheres’, for instance, is a dense song, but suddenly calms down during Christian Münzner’s fusion-esque solo to prepare for the final burst. The instrumental ‘Orbital Elements’ also makes excellent use of strategically placed, more subdued passages.

However, Obscura’s main asset is that they can combine intensity, brutality and technicality without sacrificing even the slightest bit of any of those. Opening track and audience favorite ‘The Anticosmic Overload’ is virtuosic, yet vicious, while there is more happening melodically than on an entire album of most of their peers. ‘Nospheres’ has some of the most violent riffing on the album, but also an incredible middle section with Kummerer and Münzner at their harmonic best, while closer ‘Centric Flow’ has an incredible finale that could just as easily have been on a classic eighties heavy metal record. ‘Incarnated’ could have been on a progressive power metal record, had it not been for Kummerer’s aggressive barks.

Though I often claim that I hate technical death metal, I would not be as averse to the genre as a whole if more bands had an approach similar to Obscura’s. For Obscura, their compositions are not a vehicle for their virtuosity. Rather, virtuosity is a means to increase the power of their songs when needed. The Germans – at the time with a Dutch bassist – are just as comfortable just letting the inherent aggression of their music take the lead. And isn’t that the characteristic that made metal so appealing in the first place?

Recommended tracks: ‘Incarnated’, ‘Centric Flow’, ‘Universe Momentum’

Album of the Week 24-2018: Alkaloid – Liquid Anatomy

Two years ago, Alkaloid thoroughly impressed me with their highly creative debut album ‘The Malkuth Grimoire’. Despite the band members’ association with high profile metal bands – Obscura most prominently – it transcended the supergroup burden by coming up with a highly progressive, almost avant-garde extreme metal that forsakes most of the exhausting hyperactivity of most contemporary technical death metal bands and aims for atmosphere and maximum impact instead. Fortunately, Alkaloid found time in its busy schedule to record a second album and it manages to amplify all the best aspects of ‘The Malkuth Grimoire’ beyond what yours truly had expected at this point.

In a way, ‘Liquid Anatomy’ is slightly less extreme than ‘The Malkuth Grimoire’. There are still plenty of hyperspeed death metal passages to be heard and Florian Magnus Maier still throws his hateful growl around like there’s no tomorrow, but the focus seems to have slightly shifted towards the progressive side of the band rather than brutal force. Overall, Maier does more clean vocals here, which really enhances the immersive atmosphere of the material. Pink Floyd and Cynic appear to be the most prominent influences in that matter, but not as spacey as the former and much more organic and effective than the latter.

One would have to look no further than opening track ‘Kernel Panic’, which appears to mirror the first half of previous opener ‘Carbon Phrases’ stylistically with its gorgeously layered clean guitar lines and vocal harmonies punctured by blunt moments of aggression. Hannes Grossmann’s interestingly timed rhythms and and the guitar solos by both Christian Münzner and Danny Tunker are incredible. Anyone expecting pure death metal may be discouraged by the opener, but it is a brave opener that emphasizes the unique nature of the band. Those desiring a heavier approach will still be satisfied by ‘As Decreed By Laws Unwritten’ and parts of ‘Chaos Theory And Pratice’.

Personally, I strongly prefer the more experimental approach though. ‘Azagthoth’ profits from somewhat exotic rhythms, crazy lead guitar work and a perfect balance between pounding heaviness and sophisticated subtlety, while the acoustic-based title track is a beautiful extreme progmetal ballad, as unlikely as that sounds. The guitar arrangements of ‘In Turmoil’s Swirling Reaches’ are downright brilliant, but most attention will probably go out to the 20 minute beast that is ‘Rise Of The Cephalopods’. It is a highly dynamic track that takes the listener through all the extremes of Alkaloid’s sound, from the cleanest, calmest acoustic sections to some of the most thrashing death metal on the record.

My only minor complaint would be the production, which feels a little less dynamic than last time around and really does not benefit the amazing bass playing of Linus Klausenitzer. Sometimes you’d even have trouble hearing him if you pay close attention and that makes the record slightly less immersive sonically than its predecessor. The song material is a definite step up from what was already a high quality debut, however. As such, Alkaloid has not only outdone itself, but also proven that the band is so much more than just a new project with a prominent “ex-Obscura” label. Highly recommended for fans of progressive music of all sorts.

Recommended tracks: ‘Kernel Panic’, ‘Liquid Anatomy’, ‘Rise Of The Cephalopods’

Album of the Week 51-2017: Septicflesh – Codex Omega

While the orchestral death metal of Septicflesh should have a decent amount of appeal to me, their albums always felt just short of interesting to me. Admittedly, 2011’s ‘The Great Mass’ came close, but this year’s ‘Codex Omega’ was the first Septicflesh album I pretty much enjoy start to finish. In essence, the elements that defined their last few albums are the same as those defining ‘Codex Omega’, but something has changed for the better. It is sort of hard to put my finger on what that is exactly, but let’s make this review an analysis of the album’s immense qualities.

First off, let’s focus on what has changed since the somewhat lackluster predecessor ‘Titan’. Most obviously, Septicflesh changed drummers. Former Decapitated drummer Kerim ‘Krimh’ Lechner is now on the stool and the band certainly profits from his approach to extreme metal drumming. His style seems to be a little looser and somewhat less predictable than that of most of his peers. Though I don’t know big his role in the songwriting process was, the unconventional placement of his accents must have influenced the dynamics of segments like the intro of ‘3rd Testament (Codex Omega)’ and the chorus of ‘The Faceless Queen’.

In addition, Septicflesh worked with in-demand producer Jens Bogren for the first time, who did an incredible job. Mixing a Septicflesh album cannot be an easy task: there are bottom-heavy riffs that give the music its balls, but there are also huge orchestral parts that define Septicflesh’ music. He managed to find a perfect balance between these two seemingly contrasting elements though, creating a surprisingly natural drum sound for Lechner in the process. The drums on many contemporary extreme metal records sound computerized to a fault. On ‘Codex Omega’, you can actually hear that a person is hitting them. Hard. Look no further than the intro to ‘Dark Art’ for proof.

Quite simply, the songwriting had a bit of a boost as well. ‘Our Church, Below The Sea’ could have easily been a dime a dozen extreme symphonic metal song, but the way the two guitar parts are interwoven creates an almost baroque guitar pattern. Opening track ‘Dante’s Inferno’ toys with expectations of tempo in a really powerful way, best expressed in the start-stop riff that occurs repeatedly throughout the song, while ‘The Gospels Of Fear’ is composed in an almost lineair way that makes it feel like it is coming over you in waves. Closing track ‘Trinity’ is a masterpiece due to its relatively simple, yet extremely powerful rhythms and its effective use of dynamics and acoustic instruments, which lend an almost gothic-like feel to the track.

‘Codex Omega’ is the album on which Septicflesh finally makes use of its full potential. While the excellent work by the choir and the FILMharmonic Orchestra of Prague add an irresistible layer of bombast to the music, the album would not have worked nearly as good if the basic compositions were an less good than this. Even the most standard extreme metal riffs have been arranged in a way that it sounds just a little different. Easily the best death metal album released this year, symphonic or not.

Recommended tracks: ‘3rd Testament (Codex Omega)’, ‘Trinity’, ‘Dante’s Inferno’

Album of the Week 31-2016: Opeth – Pale Communion

Quite a bit of commotion has surrounded the fact that Opeth shed all of its Death Metal roots. Personally, I didn’t mind that much, as I was attracted to the band’s calmer side long before the Death Metal side made any sense for me; ‘Damnation’ was the first Opeth album I got into. The bigger problem I had with 2011’s ‘Heritage’ was its songwriting. The album’s dynamic was limited to soft and even softer and while that could work, there were hardly any memorable passages on the record. By contrast, ‘Pale Communion’ is actually a very fine progressive Rock record.

Although ‘Pale Communion’ shows the Swedes further down the progressive Rock road, improved dynamics significantly increase the replay value of the record. In fact, there are moments on the record – ‘Moon Above, Sun Below’ most prominently – that almost sound like the Opeth that recorded ‘Ghost Reveries’, save for the complete lack of Mikael Åkerfeldt’s death grunts. And while the heavier moments on the record are nowhere near as brutal as those on ‘Blackwater Park’ or ‘Watershed’, the contrasts really work wonders here, making tracks like ‘Cusp Of Eternity’ sound almost like a return to their Metal days without even being all that heavy.

Something I have always liked about Opeth’s calmer endeavors is the fact that it allows Martín Méndez to show what an amazing bass player he is. Sure, he’s not the fastest player of the bunch, but he has a creative, almost Jazzy approach to his bass parts that adds to the songs in a melodic fashion. And despite the fact that ‘Heritage’ and ‘Damnation’ are both calmer than ‘Pale Communion’, this is the highlight of his playing thus far. Another musician who finally gets the space he deserves is Fredrik Åkesson. Although I miss the brash Les Paul sound of his Talisman days, Åkerfeldt must have realized that Åkesson’s bluesy, emotional tone complements his more folky style perfectly.

What makes ‘Pale Communion’ easier to review than ‘Heritage’ is the larger amount of memorable moments. The album’s absolute highlight is the instrumental ‘Goblin’, that almost finds the quintet in Fusion waters. I really like the two string-laden songs that close the record – ‘Voice Of Treason’ and the particularly baroque ‘Faith In Others’ – as well, while opener ‘Eternal Rains Will Come’ has a nice dramatic build-up, as well as some beautiful vocal harmonies. In the end, the only song I don’t like is ‘River’, because I think its acoustic first section is much too upbeat, which contrasts too sharply with the rest of the record.

Of course, ‘Pale Communion’ isn’t the second coming of ‘Blackwater Park’ or even their latter-day masterpiece ‘Watershed’, but it’s a surprisingly good progressive Rock album. I feared the worst when I heard ‘Heritage’, but this record proves the Swedes only needed a slight change in dynamics to make the full transition to progressive Rock and still end up with something memorable. It’s not an easy record by any means, but no Opeth album ever was. Even when its predecessor put you off, give this record a chance.

Recommended tracks: ‘Goblin’, ‘Faith In Others’, ‘Voice Of Treason’

Show & Tell: Top 10 Dir En Grey songs

“What does Dir En Grey sound like then?” Only very few questions are more frustrating to me as a reviewer, whose job it is to describe music along with my opinion, because the difficulty I have describing them suggests inability for me. Admittedly, they’re not the only Japanese band that is difficult to describe, but how do you classify a band that keeps changing styles with each album without ever sounding like a different band? They’re a crazy band with a crazy singer. And they’re fairly loud and unsettling, despite the presence of a few calmer moments. That’s as close as a description comes.
“What does Dir En Grey sound like then?” Only very few questions are more frustrating to me as a reviewer, whose job it is to describe music along with my opinion, because the difficulty I have describing them suggests inability for me. Admittedly, they’re not the only Japanese band that is difficult to describe, but how do you classify a band that keeps changing styles with each album without ever sounding like a different band? They’re a crazy band with a crazy singer. And they’re fairly loud and unsettling, despite the presence of a few calmer moments. That’s as close as a description comes.

Nothing could describe Dir En Grey’s music more adequately than the actual music. So for those of you who don’t know them, let these ten Dir En Grey songs at least provide some guidance to help you get an approximate idea of their sound. Or at least the scope of their sound. Newcomers should know that their mid-period (‘Vulgar’, ‘Withering To Death’ and ‘The Marrow Of A Bone’) may be somewhat underrepresented here, simply because I don’t enjoy that era quite as much as their earliest work or their recent material. There’s still a handful of excellent ballad-like tracks on those records though.

P.S.: While it took more time to put this post together than any former entry, I rather enjoyed doing this. As a result, you can expect more of these.

10. Zan (Gauze, 1998)

Dir En Grey’s debut album ‘Gauze’ was recorded in two sessions. About half of the album was self-produced and recorded in Tokyo, while the other half was recorded in Los Angeles under supervision of X-Japan drummer and main man Yoshiki Hayashi. The latter session was defined by the highly melodic, almost Poppy sentiments of the album… And ‘Zan’. While it’s not the only aggressive moment on the record, its high speed riffing and Shinya’s almost constant Thrash polkas make it the most high adrenalin, destructive experience on ‘Gauze’. The extremely noisy guitar lead and Kyo abandoning all sanity in his performance do the rest. The song is obviously supposed to frighten its listener as well, but I’m not sure if people who listen to Dir En Grey are that easily scared. A remake was released in 2011 and it’s probably the re-recording that stays closest to the original, despite Kyo trading his insane delivery for a deep grunt. It’s slightly tighter than the original, but I still take the original over the new version.

9. Ruten No Tou (Dum Spiro Spero, 2011)

AllMusic contributor Thom Yurek described ‘Ruten No Tou’ as a ballad subverted by multi-textured Pop and Power Metal. As an adamant fanatic of the latter genre, I don’t actually hear it, but it is a downright excellent composition in which expertly layered and haunting guitar melodies with a beautiful clean guitar sound are contrasted quite heavily by the progressive Death Metal of the middle section. That chorus is among the most passionate that Dir En Grey ever recorded and most definitely the most memorable on the highly inaccessible ‘Dum Spiro Spero’. Since that album features the band at its most brutal and complex, especially the calmer, more melodic moments stand out. ‘Lotus’ is another excellent example from the same album, but this closing track is rightfully the apotheosis of ‘Dum Spiro Spero’. It’s also one of the very few songs the band recorded an acoustic version of that is worth hearing. If you’re curious, you can find it on the ‘Sustain The Untruth’ single from 2013.

8. Rasetsukoku (Macabre, 2000 or Dum Spiro Spero, 2011)

Easily my favorite of the band’s more aggressive songs. I’m probably not the only one, because it’s the only song from the earliest days that still appears on Dir En Grey setlists quite regularly. In fact, they often close their encores with it. The original version on ‘Macabre’ is my favorite, as it’s got a much more energetic vibe than the heavily downtuned remake on the limited edition of ‘Dum Spiro Spero’. Especially Kyo’s rabid vocal performance. Because of its strong Hardcore influence and slight industrial edge, ‘Rasetsukoku’ wouldn’t have felt out of place on an early Prong record. When Shinya omits the snare drum from his patterns during the passages between the verses, the rhythm has an almost electronic feel that shouldn’t work with such a heavy, riffy song, but it does. Fun fact: the title of the track translates to “man eating devil country’, which is the name China gave to Russia during the era of the last imperial dynasty (the Qing dynasty if you’re keeping score). It fits the Russian theme that pops up on ‘Macabre’ every now and then.

7. Mushi (Kisou, 2002)

In many ways, ‘Kisou’ is the most emotionally raw record that Dir En Grey has ever recorded. As dense and heavy some of their more recent work is, that’s how open and straightforward ‘Kisou’ is. These compositions strike a nerve emotionally and the stripped down approach only emphasizes that. Just check out the compelling ballad ‘Mushi’. Kyo’s hyper passionate performance in the video above sort of already gives that away, but even on the studio recording, the vocal melody in the chorus is profoundly sad. But the delicate acoustic guitar melody greatly contributes to the fragile nature of the composition as well. It is probably the most acoustic song the band ever recorded; the only electric guitar is the sparse, haunting solo that Kaoru closes the track with. ‘Zakuro’ from ‘Macabre’ comes close in style and quality. It’s pretty much the mirror opposite of the almost claustrophobic songwriting on ‘Dum Spiro Spero’, but that’s the fun thing about Dir En Grey: every album is basically a reaction to the one that came before. The only other band I’ve seen that with so distinctly is The Gathering.

6. Cage (Gauze, 1998)

During the early phases of Dir En Grey’s career, they were basically the more experimental answer to the Visual Kei scene. More melodic than their later work, more versatile than the average J-Rock band. That doesn’t mean that the material isn’t worth hearing though. In fact, ‘Gauze’ is probably my favorite Dir En Grey album together with ‘Uroboros’. The soaring melodies are fantastic, Kyo’s vocals are generally clean and amazing, the production is bright and the choruses basically scream to be sung along even if you don’t know any Japanese. What is most notable, however, is the amount of space there is for Toshiya’s melodic, jumpy bass lines. There’s even a bass solo in this song, but the way he carries the melody of the main section even moreso than the guitars – it first occurs right after that musical box intro – is simply amazing. For me personally, that defines ‘Gauze’ even more than the almost poppy songwriting approach; Toshiya’s really going for the depth rather than the highs these days.

5. Yokan (Gauze, 1998)

Those who discovered the band after their breakthrough in the west with their crushingly heavy sound and borderline disturbing visuals may be surprised to hear how upbeat some of their oldest material sounds. ‘Jessica’ is probably the happiest sounding song they have, but ‘Yokan’ from their excellent debut ‘Gauze’ sounds fairly cheerful as well. I’ve been told the lyrics are still rather dark, but I couldn’t factcheck due to my practically non-existing command of the Japanese language. What I can judge though, is that amazingly bright sound of Die’s clean guitar. Also, I love the way his rhythm part interacts with Kaoru’s in the verses, though the above live version from 2014 highlights that moreso than the original album version. The uncharacteristically Bluesy guitar solo – again courtesy of Die – is excellent as well and Kyo’s performance on this song is just perfect. While ‘Yokan’ may be a bit too Poppy for fans of the brutal direction Dir En Grey took recently, it’s simply a beautiful song that bears all the merits of the band’s early sound.

4. Un Deux (Arche, 2014)

After the technically impressive, but sometimes indecipherable songwriting on 2011’s ‘Dum Spiro Spero’, I was happy to see the band compose some more distinguishable tracks for its follow-up ‘Arche’. When you listen to the album’s lead-off track and highlight ‘Un Deux’, you can hear two decades of musical experience come together in one track. Despite its limited length and catchier approach, it’s still rather progressive by nature. Quite a lot happens within those three minutes musically and dynamically while unsurprisingly, I find it a significant improvement that Kyo is singing clean more often. I find the riff work brilliant, but the rhythm section does something even more important by keeping things as open as possible. When I interviewed Kaoru and Shinya around the release of ‘Arche’, they said they were aiming to write material that was a little easier to translate to the stage and since I’ve seen them live on that tour, I can only confirm that it works. But it works pretty damn good on record as well!

3. Macabre (Macabre, 2000 or The Unraveling, 2013)

For a song that is well over ten minutes long – or even over sixteen for the re-recording on the limited edition of the 2013 EP ‘The Unraveling’ – ‘Macabre’ is surprisingly tightly structured. Sure, there’s a vaguely abstract section around the five minute mark, but overall, there’s a clear verse-chorus structure. Therefore, the length of the song is rather determined by the fact that it slowly unfolds. As for the 2013 remake, which is easily the best reinterpretation of their older songs, it adds a somewhat dissonant segment as well as a few extended solo sections that truly highlight the melodic quality of Kaoru and Die’s playing. Love the twin solo, but that will hardly surprise anyone who knows me. The transitions in guitar sounds are as seamless as they get. Just check out that beautiful clean guitar tone in the 2013 live version above. And let’s not forget that strong beat that drives the song; these may not be Shinya’s most technically demanding parts, but among his most impressive performances. All things combined, simply an excellent song.

2. Ware, Yami Tote… (Uroboros, 2008)

When Kyo’s lyrics aren’t plain disturbing, they’re often deeply depressive. Perfect material for dark, moody ballads. That’s also when there’s most room for Kyo’s wide range to excel. However, Kyo’s amazing vocals aren’t the only reason why ‘Ware, Yami Tote…’ is the ultimate Dir En Grey ballad. Kaoru and Die weave a beautiful tapestry of acoustic guitars and when the first full-on distorted riff enters, Shinya’s subdued percussion keeps it from being one of those cliché power ballad climaxes as we have heard them a million times before. If anything qualifies as an actual climax, it would be Kyo’s bone chilling scream, but the lack of actual release following the tension is one of the song’s greatest merits; instead, more layers are gradually added to the dark, somewhat unsettling atmosphere of the song. On any contemporary progressive record, this would easily have been the absolute highlight. ‘Uroboros’, however, has one other trick up its sleeve…

1. Vinushka (Uroboros, 2008)

A contemporary Progmetal masterpiece. Quite ballsy to start off their amazing ‘Uroboros’ album with this highly complex slow burner of a track, but it is likely the most complete representation of the band’s range. There’s a dark, unsettling atmosphere and within ten minutes, the band excels in both acoustically based melancholy and the two violent explosions of Death Metal in the middle and at the end of the song. That’s where you can hear Kyo go from his soothing cleans to one of the deepest and most frightening grunts ever recorded without effects. I personally have a strong preference for his cleans, but it really emphasizes the shifting dynamics. Shinya’s timing is interesting; while the time signatures are fairly common, he unconventional way he times his beats creates a great deal of tension within the composition. And when the guitars envelop you, you’ll realize this isn’t so much a song as it is a deeply immersive experience. Warning: the video contains footage of Hiroshima and Nagasaki victims that some may find shocking.

Album of the Week 20-2016: Vektor – Terminal Redux

Despite frequently being labeled as a Voivod rip-off, Vektor is one of the most unique bands in contemporary Thrash Metal. Sure, they borrow heavily from the Sci-Fi themes and dissonant chord work of their Canadian heroes, but Vektor plays (much) faster, writes more intricate material and adds quite a few traces of extreme Metal to the mix. After a five year break, the band finally released their third album ‘Terminal Redux’ and boy, it’s a good one! Strangely, it is simultaneously Vektor’s most progressive and their most accessible album. Longer songs, but also stronger hooks. Unbelievable, but the absolute truth.

It’s also their best produced album yet and that contributes significantly to the listenability of ‘Terminal Redux’. Unlike many modern Thrash bands, Vektor’s riffs are generally located relatively high on the necks of their guitars, so the fact that the sound isn’t quite as trebly as before really is a step forward. The riffs have more balls than ever before, Blake Anderson’s snares no longer blast through your ear drums and David DiSanto’s lead vocals – a perfect blend of Dani Filth and Sadus frontman Darren Travis – suddenly don’t feel quite as shrill as they did on the first two albums anymore.

However, none of this would be relevant if the actual music wasn’t so damn good. Technical Death Metal bands should pay close attention to Vektor. Not only because they successfully incorporated the best aspects of Chuck Schuldiner’s Death – the vortical guitar leads and the full-on riff assault – into their music, but also because they know how to write a highly complex song with what feels like a hundred riffs without ever sacrificing the hungry energy and boundless aggression essential to Metal. No matter how technical and intricate the compositions get, Vektor’s main purpose is still to get you to bang your head.

While ‘Terminal Redux’ is best listened to in one sitting – believe me, those 73 minutes are over before you know it – there are still some standout moments. Naturally, those are generally the ones that deviate somewhat style-wise. The relatively straightforward ‘Ultimate Artificer’, for instance, is one of the most memorable cuts on the album. Easily the most notable song is the highly Pink Floyd-esque ‘Collapse’, which despite a few monumental twin guitar harmony climaxes is largely built on beautiful clean guitar parts. Speaking of which, the clean guitars are better and larger in number than ever. ‘Cygnus Terminal’, ‘Pillars Of Sand’ and the mammoth 13 and a half minute closer ‘Recharging The Void’ all alternate their intense riff work with clean bits. The instrumental ‘Mountains Above The Sun’ even consists almost entirely of them.

There’s a little something for anyone here: the almost unending riffing violence should please any Thrash Metal fan, the unpredictable songwriting should be a delight to any progressive Metalhead and the vocals and drums may even draw in some people who generally confine themselves to the more extreme segments of the genre. And what is most amazing is that they tackle every one of these approaches without ever compromising the others. That is quite an impressive feat. From the day I first heard them, I have labeled Vektor as promising. ‘Terminal Redux’ is the transition to simply excellent.

Recommended tracks: ‘Collapse’, ‘Ultimate Artificer’, ‘Psychotropia’