Blood Stain Child – Epsilon – 3.5/5
Four years ago I caught a show with the band “Engel,” then being billed as 'the latest big thing in melodeath,' and I came upon the profound realisation that you don't actually have to play metal at all any more to be called melodeath; the 'melodic' aspect giving rise to a new generation of bands and fans who believe that what they're listening to has any real audible connection to the genre it once was; the 'emo' of the decade if you will. So long as there's something resembling a growl and a couple of palm muted guitars chugging you can pretty much play anything and be a part of the growing sub genre, and with the emergence of their new female vocalist, I'd be lying if I could call this melodeath in any shape or form. No, this is far more exciting than that.
The trance 'twist' that has been steadily growing in their music has reached a new peak and I would more readily place this as a danceable trance album – hard trance if you want to be specific – before any other, but for all the catchy pop hooks that make you want to move to the beat like a drunk at a nightclub (because its the only place left that'll pour you another pint), the melodic vocals layered on top with that eurozone trademark use of autotune that you despise but know would sound odd in its absence, there are still the metallic flourishes to remind you of their origins. There are still growls from the bassist, but as the album continues he seems to forget this part, though whilst adding a nice touch of diversity to the track hardly constitutes a deal breaker. The drummer – also a new arrival – comes from the little known 'Youthquake,' which means he's more used to death/thrash drumming and seems constantly vying to push the tempo to go a bit faster, throwing in a blast beat or double kick as if to yell 'come on get moving;' and the guitarist never seems to dislike this idea, occasionally getting annoyed and performing a solo to try and remind people that there are some metal elements still in their self-dubbed genre title of “Trance Metal.”
There are a few genuinely bad tracks in here, tempting you to push that skip button because the autotune is that excessive or the backing beat that nauseating, and the whole album at first glance appears to decline in quality but really it's just incredibly consistent, a quality severely lacking in their last release. The issue instead stems from the fact that for the majority of the tracks there's little that makes them stand out from one another – except for aforementioned atrocities – which for trance is a pretty major problem. It all blends into one another, and except for a few catchy chorus lines – largely in the opening three tracks – the only time you find yourself remembering a track it's for the wrong reason. It's fortunate that this doesn't happen very often, and whilst you might not remember which track is which, it still retains an odd ability to be replayed and not feel old; the sound they've carved for themselves is entirely their own, having now reached a point that there really is no solid base for comparison.
It's all strangely addictive; it's base may be trance but its trance hyped up on meth and then thrown into a mosh pit for good measure; it's the sort of music that would get looks from both sides of the fence, the trance nuts raising an eyebrow as if to ask 'who the fuck can dance this quickly?' whilst the metal fans will take one glance at the vocals and wonder what was really in that last pint they drank. Both sides will loudly exclaim how bad it is, but I wonder how many will secretly be thinking 'actually, this ain't bad.' This is not the best album they could have released, but for all its faults it is the first time I've been unable to properly dissect the influences; they've integrated them all so well that I finally agree that 'Trance Metal' genuinely is the only thing that fits, and witnessing the birth of a sub-genre is always just a little exciting.
Highlights: Forever Free, Electricity, La+
Lowlights: S.O.P.H.I.A., Dedicated to Violator, Merry-Go-Round
Over the years this has grown into my own personal project, reviewing the artists that I discover and interest me. If you wish to see more of my work, particularly my more metal-orientated material, you can find me as a regular contributor for the online magazine
Dessa – A Badly Broken Code – 3.5/5
I remember when I was younger and Eminem first hit the hip-hop scene; an explosion of new fans to the genre mixed with the animosity that this puny little white boy was starting to muscle in on a predominantly black man's turf. I remember it rather fondly actually, for a short time the guy nodding his head to Maiden on his MP3 player was given a bit of respite as a new battle began. But now that the idea of a Caucasian hip-hop artist is no longer a novelty, and never one to shy away from new developments, when I stumbled on Dessa, a Caucasian female hip-hop artist (though I admit I use the term rather loosely) my interest couldn't help but be piqued. Is she to become the new Eminem? Will the novelty elevate her from the underground and re-invoke the reluctance of conservative hip-hop fans who still cling to the narrow-minded notions of what their beloved genre should be?
The more I explore the underground hip-hop scene (and I'll be the first to admit I still have a long way to go before I consider myself at all well versed in the genre), the more I equate it to the genre of metal I've grown up with. When a female enters the male dominated metal arena one of two situations tend to occur; we get them playing to their feminine strengths as a vocalist, making the music pander to it as well (the “Nightwish” syndrome), or they try their best to pretend to sound like a man (Angela Gossow for Arch Enemy anyone?). The situation here isn't all that different; there's the inherent worry that she's going to either fall to her femininity and produce an album without any inherent bite, or alternatively try to over compensate and sound like a butch guy without the vocal chords to back it up, but it doesn't take long before she puts both of these worries to rest. Her gender becomes a non-issue, never plagued by thoughts of what she ought to be but rather embracing who she is and coming up with a sound that is entirely her own in the process.
The only female member of hip-hop troupe “Doomtree,” the new line of Minnesotan rappers after Rhymesayers that have begun to make some waves in the underground circles, it seems quite pertinent to point out that she never began life in the hip-hop underground. In fact, her early life saw her earn a degree in philosophy before using her new found way with words to carve a career as a spoken word poet, all whilst co-founding an a capella group, and her past is never far from her music. The opening track makes that all too apparent; “Childrens Work” an ode to her younger brother and their difficult childhood. Often layering gently sung vocals over orchestral work, it often feels like there's more than a touch of ambient in the vein of 'Jonna Enckell' at play; a touch of 'Portishead' in the slower tracks with her R'n'B sensibilities and influences making themselves known throughout, and this unique detail in the backing rarely goes unappreciated.
But as everyone whose heard underground hip-hop knows, this is only part of the story, and the vocals and their delivery form a critical part of the music. The lyrics are often worth listening out for even if the backing obscures them all too much, being pushed up just a touch too high in the mix, with her literary background coming across in her poetic lines. Her sense of flow doesn't help, mesmerising you in an effigy of emotion to the point you forget to focus on the words being spoken, and when this is all mixed with her soft voice contrasting the harder edged rapped lines it feels like a new evolution for the genre. Her multiple influences will both be her saviour and the reason she will never become widely recognised. It'll allow her to stand out from the crowd on her own merits and simultaneously be disregarded due to her gender and unconventionality. This feels like hip-hop for those willing to expand their horizons, and whilst often inconsistent – particularly when she fails to integrate her rapped lines with sung passages and instead becomes all too reliant on one side – there are nuggets of gold here unlike anyone else I've heard of.
Highlights: Childrens Work, Mineshaft II, The Chaconne, Matches to Paper Dolls, Seamstress, Alibi
Once a Wolf – Advent [EP] – 5/5
Buy the EP! (Just £4 to UK/£4.50 to the US with shipping!)
Or from iTunes! (Just £3.16!)
It's about time I got around to writing up this band, after all they've been spinning on my sound system for long enough, and rarely at a 'respectable volume' either, my hand constantly finding itself to turn it up just one more notch. It all came as a bit of a shock to me; I first heard them on the “Tech Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself” Tour, though really I was going for Cyclamen and Chimp Spanner who were also attending, and despite some sound issues and looking like the most unconvincing band of plucky heroes to the scene – half barely looking old enough to be at the bar and the slightly overweight vocalist nervously shuffling out like he had some undiagnosed medical condition – played a remarkably tight set despite all the intersecting lines and tempo shifts. After finding and bothering the guitarist for a copy of their EP decidedly absent from the merch stand, it's just three months later I find that of all the performers that day, Once a Wolf finds its way to my ears more than the bands I went to see.
In fact, there seems to be an odd pattern; the sillier and more unconvincing their appearance the better they actually perform; Steve Powell to his vocal lines as Shawn Lane was to the guitar in his latter years. If you never saw Lane in his later years, his feat was two fold; not only was he an incredibly talented guitarist but it was miraculous he could play with his belly getting in the way of the guitar and podgy fingers begging him to accidentally hit two strings at the same. Powell feels much the same; he looks about as capable as the next pre-pubescent Avenged Sevenfold clone without any of the confidence to back it up, and yet emerges with such a strength to his clean lines that it becomes nigh impossible not to lose yourself only to find you've just been trying to sing along at the top of your lungs (thank god I've already cranked the volume to 11), and a veracity to his growls that wouldn't be amiss in the next big Tech Death release, and still seems to be able to transition between them in such a way that gives Akerfeldt (Opeth vocalist) a run for his money.
But really this is only a small part of the sound, with a deep crunching bass supplying much of the rhythm and drums mixing things up only a little in an attempt to give each track some sort of identifiable pattern to nod your head to, because there's good odds that the guitars really won't. There are the rhythm guitars but for all the djent-y passages and supporting chord sequences there are at least as many times he decisively moves into 'Protest the Hero' like chaotic riff sequences, which when coupled with the lead guitars could quickly descend into madness if it wasn't all so damn catchy. Taking the true meaning of Tech, there are as many slow passages (even if not all the instruments always seem to be aware of that fact) as there are fast, creating these multi-layered complex compositions that twist and turn, coming together only to given them another place to diverge from, and doing more than just surviving it revels in multiple listens. And with no fear of time signatures to transition between sections, they create a barrage of notes that twice clocks at around 8 minutes – epic by this genres standards – and yet they have enough idea's that they never grow tiring.
With riffs galore, blurred into the solo's to the point of indistinction and topped off with a vocalist that could hold his own against those with far more experience, the more I listen the more excited I become. There's so much going on here, from the epic to the chaotic and everywhere in between; if Haken was my band to watch out for last year, this year it looks like my bets are on Once a Wolf for the near future. It's Jazzy – like the aforementioned Haken – but without descending to the depths of soul destroying wankery; its brutal but in a very British way void of bro-fists and breakdowns; it's melodic whilst never coming off as watered down. Mathcore has never sounded so good, and it boggles the mind to think nobodies signed them yet.
Ouroboros – Glorification of a Myth – 3.5/5
It was four years ago that my still untrained metal ears perked up to the unsigned debut EP of Dred's “A Path To Extinction,” delivering one of my first doses of Tech Death with a good dollop of thrash energy thrown in for good measure. With a name change two years in, this quintet from the land down under still find themselves without a label but in true DIY style set to work recording everything themselves and emerge triumphant with 54 minutes of madness that shows no sign that they never had the financial backing of better known bands behind them. But I must confess this album was something of a hard sell for me; as I entered it was to the re-recorded tracks from their EP that I initially found myself drawn towards, and I was struck by the sterility of it all.
Too much time is spent with palm muted riffs that whilst complex, are hidden in the back and barely heard over the combination of drums and vocals, just begging for a rhythmic section left ringing to complement it all. Every movement is staccato and left well defined, notes crisply and abruptly cut with expert precision, both a testament to their ability at performing – particularly given the fact it was all self produced – but lacking a raw edge to drive the furious aggression strived for. The drums fare little better with everything feeling just a touch to mechanical; the cymbals crash with a sense of indifference and the kick drum too often feels relegated to metronome duties rather than adding the deep bombastic bang the music deserves, and those without the ability to manually adjust the bass output will be really missing out as a result.
There is a reason for all this precision though, and as you continue to listen to their passages of instrumental intensity – the intro to 'Sea To Summit' or the solo mid-way through 'Lashing of the Flames' for example – you realise that the twin guitars here are capable of some of the most awe inspiring passages of melodic brutality, an oxymoron by anyone's standards. And yet this tendency to add neo-classical flourishes and slower passages succeeds in doing just that; even when the 'shredding' kicks in it feels about as far removed from the Exodus train of thought as you can imagine, still coming across as so much more than a chaotic collection of notes. The vocals have a deep guttural tone reminiscent of death metal titans "Behemoth" that makes any lyrics impossible to hear, which might be a shame as certainly the name Ouroboros alludes to the ancient Egyptian symbol of a serpent eating itself and has some intriguing implications.
But make no mistake, this is an album that is all about the guitars; the other instruments – and the vocals are just another instrument in their repertoire here – are used to maintain the rhythm and the atmosphere so the guitars can drive the tracks forward. It's just missing that hidden factor that separates it from the best in the genre, and distancing themselves from the Gothenburg tendency of writing guitar riffs with notes in between palm muted sections; allowing the guitars to get a bit of grit under their collective fingernails whilst retaining their clarity would surely see them rise as the new big names of the Tech Death scene. So set the bass to overdrive, turn the volume up to eleven, and lose yourself to one of the most promising debut releases of the year.
Highlights: Lashing of the Flames, Sea To Summit, Dissolve
Killing Machines who have no fear
Our flesh and blood upon the earth
Called to this destination
Following their three-part concept involving the turbulent history of their homeland, Taiwan, comes the aptly titled conclusion and one of the few times of late I've found myself eagerly anticipating the next instalment. Much like their last, the album comes with its own detailed concept coming in the form of the Takasago volunteers; Taiwanese aboriginals recruited into a separate unit of the Japanese army, favoured for their natural abilities in the jungles where much of the Pacific war was fought and it wasn't long before they became revered as amongst the most feared combatants on the field. Ever hear about Teruo Nakamura? The man once thought dead who was fighting his own private war for twenty years after the war had ended, only matched by Hiroo Onada who was discovered a few months later. The Japanese haven't exactly been known throughout history for their fondness of foreigners either, so when no commander issued a word against the Takasago placed under their command it kinda speaks for itself. When food supplies were low or shelter scarce, these were the men to whom they would rely upon; the eyes and ears of the Japanese army who would otherwise be blind to combat in the undergrowth.
If the last albums theme was vengeance for the atrocity of the 228 massacre, then here it's been replaced by a puff-your-chest-out pride in the volunteers that made up these fearsome opponents; pride in their abilities in guerilla warfare standing tall against all opposition, and this epic sense of power is perfectly achieved by their renewed evolution of Chthonic's sound. Straying further from their blackened origins, it's only the signature high pitched shrieking of Freddy Lim and the very occasional flourish of tremolo riffing that allude to their origins; much of the frenetic guitar work and bombastic drumming wouldn't feel out of place in a death metal album; the solo's having an almost 'power metal' sensibility to their aggression. The keyboards have an altogether more important role to play this time around in working with the ever increasing number of traditional Chinese (and Taiwanese) folk instruments; lutes, flutes as well as the er-hu making another return, maintaining a grandiose atmosphere, surrounding you in the chaos and adding an almost symphonic undertone to the proceedings. Everything feels like an expansion on the style they've been developing which the band can only refer to as 'Oriental Metal' (because some think using the term 'Extreme Majestic Epic Melodic Folk Metal' would be retarded – Jari Mäenpää, I'm looking at you).
But 'Mirror of Retribution' was a tough album to follow, and whilst on the one hand it feels as though their expanding their horizons, in trying to do more they start to lose focus on what's important; too many times the guitars are content to chug along for folkier instruments, and then resume playing when they end. It feels all too happy to wait for one member to finish their bit before someone else jumps in, and whilst I applaud the revised importance of the keyboards and the improvements in varying the drum beats, the band doesn't seem to harmonise with one another quite as much as they do take it in turns and as a result, whilst they don't do anything in particular badly, they don't do much to make you remember them, each track blurring with the next in an incredibly proud, powerful, atmospheric but ultimately unmemorable experience.
These guys aren't simply making good music but they're doing their country a valuable service; for centuries they've been under Chinese and Japanese control and it's only in recent years that they've emerged as a nation independent from others. I've learnt more about their history from listening to Chthonic than I ever would have otherwise, and through their music they've begun promoting their own cultural identity which can only help get their independence recognise that much quicker. You don't need to appreciate their concept in order to enjoy their music, but by ignoring it you're missing on much of what makes them so unique. This isn't their careers highlight but an extension of the path they first began treading down with 'Seediq Bale,' and whilstly slightly disappointing is by no means a tarnish on their already impressive career.
Highlights: Takao, Broken Jade, Quell the Souls in Sing Ling Temple
Mac Lethal – North Korean BBQ – 4.5/5
“I'm probably colliding my career right into the ground but, I don't give a shit” - inohowutheenk
I remember when the old Lifer C. Ulferts submitted this Kansas rapper to the blog, at the time very much still clinging to the concept of being entirely for metal, I was torn as to whether or not to permit it. It seems the very antitheses of all that should be cherished by metal fans exists in rap; simplistic themes and a backing that sounds thrown together at the last minute so they can talk about their problems, which usually seems pretty insignificant compared to the day to day life of the non-rich and famous. Gradually, through the likes of Jedi Mind Tricks, Atmosphere, Immortal Technique and Mac Lethal's own “11:11” my perceptions began to change, but if you asked me back then if I would ever find myself reviewing hip-hop for the blog I'd have given you a strange look. I guess the fact I'm here at all speaks volumes about what you should expect from this.
He will never be a big name, rejecting big labels on the principle of never wanting to do anything but work for himself, writing songs personal to his own life and going against the grain of the scene. It seems strange but such a simple thing as injecting genuine emotion and thought into the words you write, even if you aren't the most articulate person, whilst using a complementing backing beat works wonders in elevating what might otherwise be another artist to pass up. It's still simple music but it's never too simple; there's an odd unconventional beauty to his words, speaking his mind in a plain English that shows his lack of education whilst at the same time demonstrates that there's always a thought behind it all. From the conflicting emotions of losing love in 'Shannon,' the slow declining candle of love that relationships suffer in 'Citrus' or the deep felt emotional depression of 'Raise the Dead' it all succeeds in showing him at his best.
It is a mixtape and so the flow between the tracks often feels disjointed, but each track is linked thematically if not necessarily in style, and this diversity of instrumentation; acoustic guitars, melodic piano lines coalescing with the expected electronic beats more often than not lends to albums credit, giving each track a sense of individuality beyond merely the tone of the lyrics, and whilst preferences will naturally emerge no track feels like filler material. The more I listen, the more my mood finds itself swaying in new directions, listening to the unconventional poetic wisdom of his words. And since he still says it better than I can:
“This is NOT a political statement, but an examination on the self-entitlement we feel while bathing in our own excess and drama. I'm sorry your boyfriend broke up with you, but treasure the good times you did have. Bump this mixtape as a way to help push those negative, volatile emotions out, BUT...always remember that below the surface, life is truly a beautiful, pleasant work of art for some of us. Unfortunately it takes looking at other people's situations to realize that sometimes.” - Mac Lethal (taken from his blog)
Highlights: Raise the Dead, Citrus, Shannon, War Drum, inohowutheenk