Spawn of Possession – Incurso – 3/5
Six years in the making and toted as one of this years big musical events, this looked like a Tech Death band experimenting with the use of gothic classical passages within their framework, an idea that resulted in one of the experimental black metal band Sigh's best releases (Hangman's Hymn) and a concept that didn't long to sucker me in. A concept that, as it turns out, was almost completely false; the track I spun to see what the fuss was about an anomaly in an album which is by and large straight forward for the genre. That's what you get for judging an album by one interesting track, as the rest of the album isn't even particularly good (though I must confess, I do love that artwork).
The bassist gets his moments, often heard with his tight bass twang working away in the background and the vocals maintain a constant tone but ultimately both are fairly bland. No arguments against the vocalist's tone itself, his deep growl is nothing but perfectly fitting but contains zero variation, unless you count the passages where he's actually not growling at all. Truth is they both could be doing just about anything most of the time and you're unlikely to care, it's obvious there's so much more emphasis on the twin guitars and drumming – even more so than usual – that the rest of the band are there more for completing the line-up; like how Slipknot seems to employ their friends to dance around on stage with a triangle or something; they may be present but what's actually required of them is pretty minimal.
The guitars largely rely on a few simple tricks to make the main body of their work sound complex; always use plenty of pinch harmonics when you want to sound dissonant; after chugging for a bit, skip to a high note and play a couple of notes, (it doesn't really matter which, any will do); and under no circumstances should you let a note ring out. Actual riffs do emerge from time to time but all too quickly are they snapped away for the lazier alternatives. There are times where due to the overly crisp production the guitars sound downright electric and inorganic, and left alone it could almost at times be an odd techno track someone's playing far too quickly to actually dance to, a problem especially prevalent during the solos and higher pitched passages. The drums fare little better in preventing this mechanical tone but at least they can be said to carry a distinctive rhythm, the kick drum providing a constant drilling attack whilst the rest of the tools at his disposal are employed in constantly shifting beats, adding flourishes and fills far beyond the usual and expected blasts, easily surpassing the rest of them in terms of his chaotic compositions, technicality and capabilities. Quite frankly he deserves a better band.
Everything's overproduced to remove any trace of viscerality. It's technical, yes, but almost parodical of the genre as a whole, as if to lightly mock the stereotype of the genre in it's soulless, wank-infested glory. It actually sounds better when played through my dreadful mobile phone, the inadequate capabilities of the small speaker adding a layer of distortion and noise that quite depressingly improves the overall tone, creating a greater sense of chaos. They seem to take it so seriously, yet then proceed to remove any bite the instruments might have had; bombard you with an array of seemingly random high pitched notes interspersed between the constant chugging before breaking out the short, mindless, brain-dead, seemingly obligatory shredded solo. It's difficult to determine whether they were serious or they were trying to crack a joke; put on a straight face and desperately try not to laugh as fans endlessly praise an album they slammed out in a lazy afternoon. Sadly, I suspect they really thought they'd done well with this one, despite every track sounding damn near identical. They're fantastic musicians, there can be no debating that. It's just shame that outside of that final track, they seem to be such lousy composers.
Highlights: The Evangelist, Apparition
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
Stam1na – Nocebo – 4.5/5
If metal can be considered to have a home, that region to the north of Central Europe otherwise known as Scandinavia would undeniably be it. The infamous Norwegian black metal scene; Swedish death metal and 'Gothenburg' riffs, and then there's Finland. Certainly they're none the less obsessed with the genre – one of the biggest children's shows there, Hevisaurus, is basically 'Barney' if he donned some denim and made a power metal band – yet whilst we can safely establish the nation tends to have a better taste in popular music, so much of what becomes big there never seems to migrate. Sure, some of it does; the likes of Nightwish and HIM still plague us to this day, but then there's artists such as Von Hertzen Bros. and Alamaailman Vasarat which whilst reaching the Finnish album charts, never seems to leave the country. Which brings me squarely onto Stam1na, releasing this #1 album that nobody else seems to have paid attention to, and it's not the first time this has happened either.
A concept album about a 'nocebo' or an 'anti-placebo;' medical science giving people drugs that actually do nothing yet we think will make us worse, and that negativity actually does end up making everyone feel worse. And then they set fire to Tavastia for some reason, a well known music venue in Helsinki (look, I don't speak Finnish and that's the language they sing in OK? I'm only telling you what I know). It's the apocalypse that mankind has brought down on itself through our own ignorance; it's a bit like Mastodon's 'Leviathan' all over again, except with more of a Devin Townsend's 'Ziltoid' brand of insanity about it. Describing how they sound isn't exactly the easiest of tasks, and perhaps 'alternative metal' in the vein of System of a Down is one of the better descriptors (I know, 'alternative to what?' right? As much as I hate the term, here it oddly fits), along with 'Progressive Thrash.' But not the kind you're thinking. No, the thrash isn't the Bay Area kind but rather the melodic and groove laden kind. Nor is the progressive element akin to what I suspect you're probably thinking either but a little closer to 'Rush' instead. So alternative progressive thrash that's sort of like Devin Townsend but not with catchy System of a Down elements and some Rush in the- look will you just click the damn youtube video at the bottom already? It'll make my job a great deal easier. Then hit repeat as the video is all kinds of B-Movie awesome as well, though I suspect the view of four hairy Finns windmilling in unison contains some form of brainwashing capability.
Moving on, one of the stand out features of this album is the diverse vocal work. There are clean lines and deathly growls, both done pretty darn well, but what he really tends to favour is a violent yell. It's unconventional but actually works; frantically shouting what I can only assume translates to a hundred variations of 'fuck you,' not that I'm entirely sure who he's shouting at nor why he would want to utter obscenities at them. It doesn't matter, his point gets made and he makes it so loudly and with such frenetic tenacity that there will be times where you'll move to wipe the flecks of spit from your face only to realise there's nothing actually there. There will be times, too, when the guitar work is fairly chug-heavy but contrasting the down-tuned fretwork is a higher pitched riff always around the corner. Often it's the guitars that offer it in the form of a melodic solo, psychedelic riff or something even less expected, but sometimes it's a keyboard synth passage. At one point it's even a banjo interlude, but whatever they choose it usually arrives out of the blue and yet somehow never feels at all out of place amidst the insanity, only straying so far as to keep things interesting.
There can be no doubt that you're listening to a Stam1na track the second it starts spinning – nobody is crazy quite like this – but no two tracks sound alike, and it's a testament to the production work that all this is possible. I know I've made all this sound atrocious; catchy as crap music with lots of shouting, groovy riffs and a mainstream appeal, but it's not. It's not even in that 'guilty pleasure' category where you find yourself humming the tune and nodding your head but then feeling dirty about it, as though you've done something inherently wrong. Yes, it may sometimes sound like nu-metal's feisty cousin, but holy fuckin' shit is that one damn sexy cousin.
Highlights: Valtiaan Uudet Vaateet, Tavastia Palamaan!, Rabies
Hot Cross – Cryonics – 4.5/5
This band plays Screamo. That's emotional post-hardcore with screamed vocals; the kind of depressed cries of anguish that perpetuate the sensation of despair at personal circumstances beyond your control. SCREAMO. Right, now that I've successfully dissuaded the close-minded amongst you – I have no particular desire to go on a rant about how you probably haven't heard what the genre has to offer, there's fourfa for that – I can get on with detailing precisely why this is an album that should excite. It's not quite old-school, being release in '03, but if you track the origins of its members you'll note that they, in fact, are. The vocalist and drummer arrive from Saetia, one of the kings of classic 90's emo. One guitarist arrives from “Off Minor,” known for his distinctive progressive take on the genre, and the other from “You and I,” the least well known of the three bands who are none the less talented. If all this means nothing to you, let me break it down further: this band is hot shit.
In fact, with this much talent on display you'd expect them to be headed down shitsville, each member vying for control and forgetting that there's another four members whose just as good as them, but that never happens. It never feels anything less than an artist that have been playing together all their lives, some bizarre cohesive unit that despite being separated into individual musicians seems to function from a shared consciousness. There are three vocalists but they are all there to serve a purpose, the main dealing with the majority of the duties but often found playing off against one of his backing vocalists; the clean toned contrast to his screams or engaging in shouting match with an alter ego. No doubt if you despise screams in your music then this will become an obstacle, but the lyrics aren't angst-filled or juvenile; one track begins by screaming out “Give me back one last chance to drink from the sky. I'm sick of chasing echoes and fighting a lost cause just to let words fly.” Emotional tragedies still are it's core but there's a sense of depth and poetry to it that defies the usual criticisms.
But if the intricate layers of vocals and lyrical lines was complex, it's not a thing on the composition of the guitars; the vocals can always strip themselves down to just the lead vocalist, but the guitars don't ever stop. The bass is given no less prominence in the final mix than the guitarists are, maintaining a rhythm and forming a bridge between the drums and guitar work, but ultimately playing lines that are his and his alone. The guitars are no different; clean though perhaps with a slight twang or use of effects pedals for more atmospheric lines, no singular element takes the lead and instead find themselves weaving in and out of one another, creating complexity through intricately layering them, harmonising each element into a single track. It's not just one specific passage where they worked this out either, their progressive format completely removes all chorus lines and allows the pieces to fluidly change one element at a time. It's simply unlike any other artist I can name.
But my praise for them hasn't quite finished here. Three vocalists and three guitarists all playing completely independent lines, layered on top of one another so that it'll always give you plenty to listen to. You'd expect it all to be a bit too much, a bit too chaotic with your focus divided between too many elements. The real beauty of their composition is in just how much this doesn't ever happen; how they are able to create a melodious chaos with guitar riffs flying in from nowhere, playing in unison, but then in an instant tone everything down for a ballad, and despite the inherent complexity of the composition, have the elements work together in perfect harmony. To call their work rich and vibrant is a massive understatement; each track is intricately woven around each of the musicians and the result is a melody that is both instantly memorable yet sustainable over a number of listens. Hot Cross's debut effort is a forgotten gem of the screamo era that many modern artists would do well to pay attention to: this is how you do it properly.
Highlights: Pretty Picture of a Broken Face, A Tale for the Ages, Requiescat