For Those Anemic, Three Bands with Lots of "IRON"

Besides the first halves of their names, the three bands reviewed herein are also bound by a triad of other likenesses:  all venture on the dark side of power metal, flirt with wild outer space themes on these latest albums, and have annoyingly throwaway intros. (I’ve wanted a moratorium on the latter for years now; ol’ Vince Neilstein nailed it pretty well here.) Perhaps Iron Maiden‘s cosmic exploration encouraged these recent turns, and in some cases it works, but can really grow tiresome.

Iron Fire has a hit-and-miss history with Mind over Metal. While I liked most of To the Grave, it was fraught with voiceovers which hampered my listening. Then Metalmorphosized just underimpressed, despite their strong efforts. Their biggest misstep involves album and song length; the whole Damned ride inches past an hour total, with the title track clocking in at ten minutes, their longest song to date. I cannot overstate how this band should shoot for half that… tops. And founding frontman Martin Steene needs an editor, because his strident vocals are all over the place, particularly in songs like “Enter Oblivion OJ-666″ (initially impressive, then kinda funny, and finally just murders me in the end… weird). Generally speaking, stick with the first half and songs whose titles are dangerously close to classic Metal albums like “Slaughter of Souls” and “Leviathan”. Rating: 3/5

The one thing Iron Fire has on Voyage of the Damned is thematic consistency. Iron Savior starts spacey with the near-eponymous track “The Savior” — and The Landing is purportedly part of a grander picture — but you barely recognize a story present. Details are so non-specific, you could inject the lyrics anywhere; it makes me glad I haven’t been following along all this time. I perked up somewhat with “March of Doom” (cuz when done right, doom heals all wounds) but damn, it mostly crumbles to bits after this. Tracks like “Heavy Metal Never Dies” and “R.U. Ready” are such pandering tripe—counterproductive toward self-empowerment, devoid of substance, shamelessly plumbing the past. Surprisingly, the last thing to grab my attention was “Faster than All” with its underlying Morricone-esque melody, distinct for its Western feel, yet still oddly misplaced. Maybe keeping listeners off-guard is the way to go, because otherwise this is Blind Guardian lite, without the character development. Rating: 3/5

Belgium’s Iron Mask end these proceedings on a promising note. If you’re a fan of “Ripper” Owens-era Iced Earth, but always wished (like me) that the vocals were reined in a bit, Black as Death is an album worth your time. Discounting their 1:43 intro, the title track erupts into shrouding darkness with an unexpectedly catchy chorus. Skip the obvious single “Broken Hero” and head to “Feel the Fire” where their inspired neoclassical harmonies begin to blaze, and the clean pipes of Mark Boals ignite the very air itself. However, the middle gets messy: “Genghis Khan” is well-meaning (including traditional instruments) but drab overall; “God Punishes, I Kill” seems misguided and overlong; “Rebel Kid” is a yawnfest. The D-word returns to save us again with “Blizzard of Doom”, which retells the story Alive with primal ferocity—a personal favorite. Both it and “Nosferatu” have a mighty Baroque backbone, and the vampire’s tale breaks out the most brutal vocals on Black as Death. Iron Mask hides greatness behind a thin veil that I hope is completely lifted in the future, so we may bear witness to shameless majesty. Rating: 3.5/5

~MetalMattLongo

Review : NIGHTWISH – "Imaginaerum"

In recent years I have defended Nightwish since parting with Tarja Turunen (who has not impressed me in her solo career). Despite my smattering of knowledge about their back catalogue, I still have a clear idea where the Finns were coming from, via their past videos. I’m fully behind no-longer-new vocalist Anette Olzon, and it looks like they’re ready to experiment further with filmmaker Stobe Harju, who directed the steampunk video for “The Islander”. Their vision is to create an entire movie alongside the album, which is almost what Within Temptation tried for The Unforgiving last year (something else I wasn’t into). And while I appreciate the ambition of Nightwish on their latest, Imaginaerum feels top-heavy and ultimately misguided.

They certainly try things you may not expect. Hell, the album starts with Finnish poetry recited by bassist/vocalist Marco Hietala, perhaps underscoring his importance in the band. It’s the harbinger for lead single “Storytime”, which made me anticipate a carnival bizarre or twisted cabaret, with the video in particular.


So… Cirque de Soleil, only darker, Finnish, and metal? Yes, please!

It seems that’s not the case, but I was quick to forgive, because the dynamic “Ghost River” converges into one of their best efforts across their last two albums. Then they convincingly shift into lounge jazz for the first time, with Anette pushing her limits on “Slow, Love, Slow” (a skill more sharply honed by Agnete Kirkevaag of Madder Mortem or Julie Kiss from To-Mera). “I Want My Tears Back” has greater depth with its Alice in Wonderland-cum-Sleeping Beauty undercurrent, although I wish it was less esoteric. “Scaretale” actually does work in the creepy themes I’d hoped for—even calling their madhouse “Cirque de Morgue”—and Olzon truly sounds a little crazy here; this is a good thing.

“Arabesque” is an energetic midalbum instrumental bridge between the two halves, but dudes, “Turn Loose the Mermaids” gets straight goofypants. From the title itself to the lilting flutes to Anette’s reeever pronunciation to the Beavis and Butt-head-worthy line “weary traveler rest your wand”—I just couldn’t take it seriously. And while they do build some momentum across the three following songs, after that  …ughhhh …just …END already!

Well, maybe not so hastily; the “Song of Myself” is a strong closer, if you kill it halfway. However, should the forthcoming movie have this overwrought, heavy-handed, six-minute multilogue of preachy prose followed by the orchestral “Imaginaerum” within the film itself, I call bullshit. It’s ridiculous enough that Nightwish first felt the need to clumsily soapbox—but man, the audacity of the so-called title track… lovely, yes, but it belongs over the credits.

After a few spins, only half sticks. Hooks hold fast, melodies are memorable, and Nightwish is learning how to transform into this new band they aspire to be. A gradual metamorphosis for sure, this feels like an awkward phase that would have benefitted from editing (c’mon, under an hour—you can do it!). Nonetheless intriguing, I think an all-original companion EP—without alternate takes or demos or live versions—could better flesh out  this macabre madness for the gobbling throngs. Let’s tap some fucking id.

01. Taikatalvi
02. Storytime
03. Ghost River
04. Slow, Love, Slow
05. I Want My Tears Back
06. Scaretale
07. Arabesque
08. Turn Loose the Mermaids
09. Rest Calm
10. The Crow, The Owl and The Dove
11. Last Ride of the Day
12. Song of Myself
13. Imaginaerum

~MetalMattLongo

Review : NEPHELIUM – "Coils of Entropy"

NepheliumCoils of Entropy
Release: 2012Feb07
Label: Self-released
Rating: 3.5/5

When you get a minute, go ahead and check the Encyclopaedia Metallum for metal bands based in the United Arab Emirates. Go on… I’ll wait (and even give you a head-start), just come on back after.

Alright—you saw, like, not even twenty bands, correct? Dig a little deeper, and you’ll notice no more than a dozen active, as of this post. Despite growing assent, recent efforts like the (now-defunct) Dubai Desert Rock Festival and media attention in the Global Metal documentary, it’s difficult to maintain a metallic foothold; pop music is more marketable, regardless of region. So while true that the message is spreading, it makes sense that a band like Nephelium would stake a claim in Toronto rather than Dubai.

Before I became ensconced in Coils of Entropy, my eyes saw ‘tech death’ before my ears told me otherwise. Perhaps it was the bright colors and use of purple (like The Faceless Planetary Duality), or maybe the way their logo looks like Illogicist, only taller and pointier.

Still—symmetry, letter width… pretty close?

What struck me strangely was their age—the band has been around for over a decade. It’s been a rocky road, with cycling members and side projects explored (drummer Alan Madhavan even played as a session musician with Dubai brethren Nervecell on their Human Chaos EP back in 2004); not to mention eight years since their last proper recording.

But man, is this ever tight. The best part about Coils of Entropy is the sound, which feels modern from its recording process, yet is brutal old-school ’90s-style in the band’s execution. Founding guitarist Alex Zubair expertly extracts Azagthothian yowls, like toward the end of “Merciless Annihilation”, and even unleashes sweet speedy tradeoffs between he and second axeman James Sawyer on “Hellborne” and the title track. The latter tune finds slight dabbling in Middle Eastern melodies, but this is rare throughout the album. Should they develop this, they would come across as more Melechesh and less Vader, which would help distinguish them better, especially since this was promised in press releases.

Nephelium are musically impressive, if nothing else, and each member is given special time to shine. Vocalist Devlin Anderson surprised me as “Malediction” crept into minute eight, unfurling infernal gurgles that mutated into tortured shrieks. Even bassist Florian Ravet isn’t forgotten, as his emerging bass often hails oncoming pandemonium. When digesting the pièce de résistance title track, it helps to have the lyrics in front of you—this tune is doubly daunting at twice the length (slow softball for a penis joke …and so was that).

Anyway, I just finished Seasons 1 & 2a of The Walking Dead, so there’s death and apocalypse already on my platter. Both that show and Nephelium excel when they are in motion; just as TWD is hampered by whispered discourse, Coils of Entropy distracts with prose. The verbose “Preface” and midalbum “Narrative” are excessive, when the individual songs could simply speak for themselves. While Nephelium should ultimately devise a more unique attack with creative weaponry, this is still a deadly first strike. Commence the decay!

01. Burial Ground
02. Merciless Annihilation
03. Hellborne
04. Malediction
05. Halls of Judgement
06. Coils of Entropy

~MetalMattLongo

Last Four Instrumental Metal Album Reviews of 2011

Zebulon Pike – Space is the Corpse of Time

Here’s the thing with Zebulon Pike—they’re great starters. I love their name, taken from a pretty badass and apparently famous dude, whose name appears everywhere from  massive mountains to tiny towns (I also knew little of this…it’s okay). The Jupiter and Io-esque cover art on their fourth LP is truly memorable, and its title Space is the Corpse of Time goes beyond a mere sentence—it’s a goddamn declaration. But that’s where things faded off for me; after a few listens, little sticks. I’ll give it one more spin with headphones, because it’s still sweet heavy space jams that hark back to Hawkwind and Captain Beyond—but without a better tether, you’re doomed to float into the void.

[…one good night's rest later…] Okay, the title track got to me, but it also clocks in at less than half the length of its 10- and 11-minute brethren. Dudes, this same problem plagued Pelican; then they wrote the best album of their career once they reeled back the jams and sharpened their hooks. Zebulon Pike could return in my future (↑ that picture is basically me whenever I have the house to myself) but I gotta have nothing to do that day. 3.5/5

Morkobot – Morbo

Stronger structures make up Morkobot, a methodical beast of dueling bassists opposite a mad drummer. Given their Italian heritage, now my initial Don Caballero comparison makes even more sense, since that band is named after a character from a Godfather parody (some full circle shit right there). The three alleged humans that produced this monstrosity are marked by the simple monikers Lin, Lan, and Len; also on their fourth release, I can only imagine their plotted trajectory.

These goombahs precisely fire through their distorted delivery, and even when surrounded by yammering skronk, still keep the listener in their metallic minds; it’s what makes extended journeys like the aptly-titled “MoR” bearable. But honestly, Morbo just plain rocks more than anything else. In fact, one of my favorite parts is at the very beginning, when “Ultramorth” starts by basically ‘introducing’ the band (first bass-second bass-drummer-and GO). Throughout this fucking chaos, I stick, time and again. Why?  There’s always something pulling me through—always. It’s the sort of delicacy and attention to detail that is critical to the heavy instrumental band, and Morkobot‘s ever-engaging phrases would likely sound that much worse with someone wailing overhead. 

Their third venture via Supernatural Cat Records is also their fourth overall (not unlike ZP above), and ←holyshitcheckoutthiscreepyasspromoshot! Welcome to my nightmares, evil Jawas. Again with the subtlety: their eye placement is unsettlingly far apart. Often, those little moments matter most, and these robotic aliens sure know how to flesh out a song. How come Michael Bay can’t make robot aliens that are this much fun? 4/5

Animals as Leaders – Weightless

For music that initially strikes as airy, Animals as Leaders really give a pummeling. I’m not sure what to then make of the album title, because musicianship of this caliber should have some swing, yeah? And if by ‘swing’ you think I meant clout with contemporaries, then yes, Tosin Abasi and crew have it; but they don’t ‘swing’ in terms of infectious grooves.

Rather than making your booty move, AAL gets esoteric on your ass (or your mind, as it were). It’s definitely something to dig on hard, because the dodgy “Isolated Incidents”, immersive “Cylindrical Sea”, and brilliantly exuberant climactic title track all benefit from the listener’s focus. Abasi approaches guitar with a Thordendal-cum-Marston execution—a narrow niche indeed—deftly balanced by fellow 8-string axeman Javier Reyes and wunderkind drummer Navene Koperweis (who’s himself a multi-instrumentalist). Enjoyable though Weightless may be, I can’t help but feel minimally moved; like, it doesn’t get my blood pumping harder, though I appreciate it as fine art. 3.5/5

Abnormal Thought Patterns – Abnormal Thought Patterns

Then there are those bands that elude me altogether. Have any of you heard of Zero Hour? They had a respectable run for a while, but tried a couple of new things in 2011. The first, again, totally missed me:  Cynthesis. The overarching theme running through DeEvolution kinda lost me (something about a kidnapped shaman in a dystopian future with a slight Manchurian Candidate undercurrent). Even though both bands are essentially the same musicans now found in Abnormal Thought Patterns, I think the absence of vocals helps this new formation; mostly because we known these guys are sporting pretense from technical prowess alone, so let’s just focus there.

We get the same “remove the frontman” feature that benefits—say—Liquid Tension Experiment over Dream Theater. The clean guitar tones from Jasun Tipton are perhaps the best defining quality, closely resembling Joe Satriani. He plays extraordinarily well off his brother Troy on bass, amidst the calculated explosions from drummer Mike Guy—also known by the twin siblings from both Zero Hour and Cynthesis. Having heard a fair amount from all incarnations, ATP is my favorite. Displaying classy musicianship without being too heavy-handed, they still afford spotlights in their daedalian tale (like Troy’s 50-second bass solo “Ulnar Nerve Damage”), yet feel tightly interwoven. However you may interpret the quest, do make time, with or without medication. 4/5

~MetalMattLongo

Better in Threes – CRADLE OF FILTH, CYNIC, LE SCIMMIE

Cradle of Filth begins Evermore Darkly in much the same way as Evil Dead, with a “found audio” playback of what sounds like even more found audio. It’s some dude who came across his uncle’s tapes (which he dubs ‘The Siberian Sounds from Hell Story’) and, though it pains him to do so, he presents them for your listening [dis]pleasure. This narrator is longtime CoF collaborator Doug Bradley—a.k.a. PINHEAD himself—so I think the idea here is this guy knows what’s up with Hell. But I dunno, being told something is scary pretty much makes me reflexively oppositional. Not to mention that there’s only one solitary for-realsies new song, the cleverly-titled “Thank Your Lucky Scars”. It’s good—as are the “elder versions” from Darkly, Darkly, Venus Aversa—but I don’t need to hear Cradle of Trance ever again…okay? Most intriguing for me were the symphonic treatments applied to “Lilith Immaculate” and “Summer Dying Fast”. The latter is a ‘breadcrumb trail’ (their words) to the forthcoming Midnight in the Labyrinth, where the band will adapt songs from its first four albums into full orchestral pieces. However, it does fall victim to the traditional trapping of any holdover album:  it’s nonessential to all but diehards. 3/5

Cynic are not afraid to die. The beginning of Carbon-Based Anatomy has a play on an old Latin adage: Contra vim mortis non crescit salvia in hortis (“No herb grown in the gardens against the power of death”). Their take goes like this: Contra in mortis crescit salvia in hortis (“Against the power of death a sage grows in the garden”). By reversing the order and removing the negative, they seek to not only lift the spirits up, but also out; free of the body, of the titular flesh. I really needed that, because I’ve been playing classic Prince of Persia to get myself in the mood, since Cynic have incorporated more influence from further East with each passing release—and man, in this game you gotta get used to death. Both the game and CBA have a similar start and progression: a lowly imprisonment; perfecting skills and gaining weapons; overcoming adversity and seeking love through ascension; fearlessly sacrificing the body. The title track is my favorite from the first half, framed by atmospheric adventures that function best on a full listen. Then “Box Up My Bones” emerges much as “The Unknown Guest” from Traced in Air—almost tentative, except that word never suits this group. Intricate feels more operative. Some of the vocals could be called the “heaviest” here, with Paul Masvidal delivering a punchy performance across the chorus as distant whispers drift between. Notably, with the departure of Tymon Kruidenier, Paul handles all guitar duties. And when combined with his synth work, he creates masterfully-balanced cascades. Robin Zielhorst also departed so he & Tymon could work on new Exivious music, so original bassist Sean Malone returned to record CBA. I get chills every time he plays the notes following “let go of your mind / let your self die” and in the following track, “Elves Beam Out”, the band positively explodes. Plus, how catchy is that bridge‽  Carbon-Based Anatomy is the kind of EP I hoped to hear from Cynic following their welcome return …unlike, well, you know. 4/5

Le scimmie literally translates from Italian to English as “the monkeys” and the primal simplicity in the duo’s debut Dromomania is slung like so much… ehhh, let’s skip the poop joke. By its very nature, the music will conjure up names like Black Cobra and Pelican and maybe even other riff-oriented bands not named after animals. However, they sound like neither. I guess they have that dirty, dusty desert Kyuss vibe, but the lack of vocals means those hooks are ever-important. They sometimes sink in: the driving title track (with a cool conceptual video below), furious “Frustrazione della psiche”, and (Spaghetti) Western-tinged “Frekete” follow familiar trails well. But the latter left me hungering for more experimentation, which does follow—it’s just not enough. “Il Filo de Lana” (“The Thread of Wool”) piqued my interest with its music box intro and sonic phasing, but it meanders too much before literally burning out. The burning motif also bookends “Nostofobia”—however, much as I wanted it to be a real song, it seems like an extended false ending. Le Scimmie could mean (big) business if they stop monkeying around, and I believe in these dudes. Though I say again—craft stronger hooks, pull us through, add more dimension, make it all matter. They know how to do this (don’t forget to watch that video!) but with greater focus could evolve into something altogether unimagined. 3.5/5

~MetalMattLongo

Review : SATAN'S HOST – "Celebration: For the Love of Satan" and "By the Hands of the Devil" (Some JAG PANZER, Too)

We’re all so fucking jaded. Complacent we sift through extensive collections, from the sickest goregrind to the bleakest black recesses, feeling both unafraid and unchallenged. I’m not about to question the motives of the aforementioned and all points in between; people make the music they make for myriad reasons. But here’s what sells me on Satan’s Host—their conviction. You never doubt these dudes’ love for the dark side.

And fancy this, folks: they actually distanced themselves from the “extreme” ends of the spectrum in order to achieve this. By returning to their formative roots, the band now sounds more evil than ever, for the first time in 23 years. Since retracing their back catalogue, I sense a dearth of character in former frontman L.C.F. Elixir. Now that original vocalist Harry Conklin has returned to the infernal fold and re-recorded a career-spanning best-of collection, it almost feels as if these songs were meant for him; in retrospect, Elixir sounds like he’s been singing karaoke. (Reminds me of when I sang Aerosmith‘s “Sweet Emotion” with death growls in the high school cafeteria.)

Anyway, before they get to all that, Satan’s Host unleash a new song—the impassioned title track. Not only is the fretwork of stalwart guitarist Patrick Evil impeccable, but rarely, if ever, have I heard the phrase “mindless fucking sheep” used so effectively. From there, two updated takes on classic tracks originally laid down in 1986 with Conklin on the band’s first album Metal from Hell, and one from the 1987 EP Midnight Wind; all benefit most from modern production.

The following seven songs move chronologically through their decade fronted by Elixir, and in every instance are here improved. Check “Ecliptic Equinox” for example: the sinister brooding seems to come natural to Conklin, who adds dimension with theatrical gusto where it felt froggily croaked before. One sings confidently from his diaphragm; the other typically rends their throat. Further, Harry can affect quite a sinister pitch, and bassist Margar fills in background vox when needed. Though relatively new to the band, he’s a great low-end in many ways, and has no problem locking in with hilariously-monikered drummer Evil Little Hobbit. The second new track “Convictions” concludes, and though I mentioned the ‘conviction’ of Satan’s Host earlier, this song seems less about one’s certitude and more about receiving final judgment in Hell. Celebration: For the Love of Satan is a must-have for all Metal fans, because in the age of unbridled genre-jumping, you need forefathers to show you how it’s done. 4.5/5

01. For the Love of Satan (new song)
02. Hell Fire (originally from Metal from Hell)
03. Metal from Hell (originally from Metal from Hell)
04. Witches Return (originally from Midnight Wind)
05. Cauldron of the Ancients (originally from In Articulo Mortis)
06. Nightside of Eden (originally from Archidoxes of Evil)
07. Ecliptic Equinox (originally from Burning The Born Again [A New Philosophy])
08. H.E.L.L. (originally from Burning The Born Again [A New Philosophy])
09. Satanic Grimoire (originally from Satanic Grimoire: A Greater Black Magick)
10. “The Cursing” Vampyric Evil-Eye (originally from Great American Scapegoat…666)
11. Dark Priest “Lord Ahriman” (originally from Power~Purity~Perfection…999)
12. Convictions (new song)

The band crossed my plate earlier in 2011, though. Turns out the band has been rather prolific in their latest incarnation, and By the Hands of the Devil is just superb. The overall tightness, the fluidity of tectonic tempo shifts between menacing movements, and the brilliant re-imagining of “Norwegian Wood” (originally by The Beatles) that invokes church burning in the name of Satan (“Watch out for the splinters!”). It’s amazing to watch a band so deftly leap between dark power metal and melodic black metal, but you witness it in places like the title track and “Black Hilted Knife”—this is how you elevate above the cheese.

Ever sure-footed, they approach the brooding “Bleeding Hearts of the Damned” using an appropriate eerie atmosphere without slipping far into melodrama. And remember the “not far into” aspect, because some drama is essential; it’s part of the allure, really. The eight-minute tour de force “Before the Flame” underscores that, as both Conklin and Pat Evil pull out a multitude of tricks and techniques, interwoven with a damned catchy chorus. I hope this next 21st century decade embraces the new and improved Satan’s Host. (Oh, and does anyone else hear echoes of the main riff to “Breaking the Law” about two minutes deep in “Fallen Angel”?  No big… just saying.) 4.5/5

01. By The Hands of the Devil
02. Shades of the Unlight
03. Demontia
04. Before the Flame
05. Bleeding Hearts of the Damned
06. Black Hilted Knife
07. Revival
08. Fallen Angel
09. Inferior Worlds
10. Norweigan Wood

So I wanna wrap this up, but I nearly forgot that—about two months prior to Satan’s Host planting themselves firmly on my radar—Jag Panzer released their ninth LP. Technically speaking, this was the album that got me paying attention to Harry Conklin again. As good as the The Scourge of the Light may be, my initial reaction was that it drags. This surprises me, even moreso when the average track length of 4:50 is more than a minute shorter than either of the albums above.

The middle four songs are likely to blame, as they leave little lasting impact. Also, the band has since reportedly split up, perhaps sick of the guitarist juggling: former axeman Chris Broderick now slings for Megadeth in what’s likely a more permanent gig, Christian Lasegue quit a few months after this album’s release in order to pursue a degree, and the new kid they brought on, Jake Dreyer, just didn’t work out. Maybe it’s serendipitous that their last album was named thusly and the best track is called “Burn” because now Conklin can focus on fronting the fiendish Satan’s Host as Leviathan Thisiren. One last note: “The Book of Kells” truly is an ambitious, blazing swan song for the Colorodo metal powerhouse …but The Secret of Kells is still sweeter. 3.5/5

01. Condemned to Fight
02. The Setting of the Sun
03. Bringing on the End
04. Call to Arms
05. Cycles
06. Overlord
07. Let It Out
08. Union
09. Burn
10. The Book of Kells

~MetalMattLongo