Category Archives: Reviews

Vastum- Patricidal Lust

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(Note: this post will be looser and less detailed than my previous album reviews. I only heard this release yesterday and wanted to write about it in time for its release today, which may impact on the quality of this piece. If you’re still interested, read on.)

Those who have read my articles on metal, feminism and patriarchy might be familiar with the Post-Zeitgeist blog and its articles on the relation between extremity and reflection in extreme music. As entertaining as the musical equivalent of a mindless slasher flick can be, I am always slightly disappointed with music that seeks only to wallow in tropes of shock, disgust and tasteless offence. There’s nothing wrong with using those elements in music, but without any thought applied to them, they ring hollow. For me, Post-Zeitgeist hits the nail on the head with the observation that “if there is a problem with extremity, it is due to an absence of reflection. Unreflexive extremity is essentially a form of violence, a string of actions with accelerating intensity occurring regardless of the context (people, environment, society) which it is situated.” It seems as though it’s often easier for death metal groups in particular to craft technically complex, adventurous instrumental parts than it is for them to apply the same reflective tendency to their concepts and lyrics.

Thankfully, there are bands out there using the vocabulary of extreme metal in interesting ways, putting thought and consideration into their lyrical themes. San Francisco death metallers Vastum slot squarely into this category on their debut full-length Patricidal Lust. Sexual and erotic themes are nothing new for the genre, and the album’s over-the-top Freudian cover art (by the always-in-demand Paolo Girardi) makes it clear that this band, too, deal in the dark, murky side of the libido, rather than taking the opportunity to subvert a traditionally negative genre to highlight positive aspects of sexuality. What is different, however, is the conceptual depth Vastum approach their chosen topic with. In a revealing interview with Invisible Oranges, vocalist Daniel Butler and guitarist/vocalist Leila Abdul-Rauf hint at the approach they took to creating the album’s queasy, unsettling mood:

Daniel: I tend to distinguish between erotic and sexual, “sexual” being an invention of late nineteenth-century human sciences. So there is a kind of dialectic between the sexual and the erotic in that we are sexed through language and culture, that we are in a sense violated by language, involuntarily submitted to it, which is an intrusion, a penetration; but that there is an excess that is not contained by the sexual and this excess is the erotic. This is horrifying beyond representation. It is the nameless and faceless dread that trumps any kind of horror one can experience directly. Only an indirect approach, an oblique one, captures this kind of horror — and even then this horror is only captured in the negative, in something that is not, something repudiated and impossible to integrate, something that resists symbolization. 
(…)
Leila: For me, images of perversion are expressed not in isolation but are embedded within a larger context of an experience that is indescribable, confusing, or difficult to put into words. These images are just hints, or flashes of the larger horror moving invisibly in the darkness.

Since their vocals are performed in the traditional cookie monster style, and I have not been able to find lyrics for any of their songs, it is not feasible for me to discuss concrete examples of topics the band approaches in this post. Despite this, and the fact that the Vastum lyrics that have been released conform largely to the ponderous, deliberately convoluted “Death Metal English” style, it appears clear that the band tackle the dark side of human sexuality with thoughtfulness and consideration. If nothing else, they get points simply for naming a song “Incel”, a reference to the online collective of “involuntarily celibate” sadsacks who blame literally everything except themselves (but mostly women and feminism) for their inability to attract partners*.

The uneasy mood conjured by Vastum’s lyrics and vocals is matched by their technical, yet relentlessly groove-based music. The closest comparison I can think of, in terms of modern bands utilising a mostly slow- or mid-paced variation on old-school death metal sounds, is the UK’s Grave Miasma, who Butler praises in the aforementioned IO interview. While both are similar in terms of their production choices, deliberate pacing and rejection of the show-off histrionics of contemporary tech-death, Vastum are somewhat more focused on driving grooves and chugging, palm-muted riffs than the more atmospheric, ritualistic tendencies of GM. Both bands are adept at conjuring a slow descent into horror in the minds of listeners, but the US group are somewhat more direct and visceral.

Even before the release of Patricidal Lust, 2013 was an excellent year for forward-thinking death metal, not least due to outstanding comebacks from genre pioneers Carcass and Gorguts. With this accomplished debut, however, Vastum have proved themselves worthy of a place among that pantheon. I can’t wait to hear what else this reflective, considered yet still defiantly extreme band have to offer.

Patricidal Lust comes out today on 20 Buck Spin. For a stream of the album and a brief, but insightful band interview, check out the Invisible Oranges article I mentioned here.

                                                 

* If, like me, you can’t stop picking at scabs, you might enjoy the @PUAhate_txt Twitter account, a collection of the more egregious of the many egregious comments made by incel adherents on their fora and message boards.

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Melvins- Tres Cabrones

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How? How is it possible that a band celebrating its 30th anniversary can still crank out albums at a pace that would impress 60s-era James Brown? And how is it fathomable that those releases, while perhaps not being the best of the group’s career, are still great fun to listen to? The Melvins continue to break all notions of sense, not to mention all barriers of taste and decency, as they enter into their fourth decade together. Earlier this year they graced us with Everybody Loves Sausages, a remarkably substantial covers collection that showcased influences both obscure (Tales of Terror, The Fugs) and surprisingly mainstream (Queen). And now a mere six months later, they’ve returned with Tres Cabrones, which showcases yet another new configuration of members; or rather, a very old one.

The publicity around this release has focussed on the inclusion of original drummer Mike Dillard, who played for the band in 1983 and until now had never appeared on a full-length release with them. (Longtime drummer Dale Crover switched to bass for this album.) The reinstatement of an old member hasn’t resulted in a throwback or nostalgia exercise, though. Though there are nods to the hardcore punk sound the band played during Dillard’s initial tenure in covers of  songs by Pop-o-Pies and the Lewd, this release has more in common with their later albums with Big Business members Jared Warren and Coady Willis. Songs like “City Dump” and “American Cow” are vintage Melvins, mixing together crunchy guitars, stomping drums and relatively catchy song structures in a similar way to the best songs on Nude With Boots or The Bride Screamed Murder. Elsewhere, the electronic squalls that permeate “I Told You I Was Crazy”, and the acoustic guitar flourishes that help flesh out the back stretch of slow-burner “Dogs and Cattle Prods”, hearken back to the sonic experimentation displayed on 1996’s Stag.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Melvins album without a healthy dose of weird. Buzz Osborne’s vocals are as nonsensical as ever, of course, but the obvious showcases for the band’s prankster sensibility are found on the goof freakouts “Tie My Pecker To A Tree”, “99 Bottles of Beer”, and “You’re In The Army Now”, which come off like nothing so much as a campfire sing-along between friends messing around and having fun. You could describe the entire album that way, really: some buddies getting the (old version of the) band back together, not worrying too much about the results, and just seeing what happens. The result certainly isn’t an all-time high for the band- it’s sometimes easy to get frustrated at how often contemporary Melvins releases follow the same formula of knotty-but-catchy rock jams, extended metal stomps and tossed-off noise experiments. At the same time, it’s a small miracle that a group releasing this many albums this far into a 30-year career consistently reaches such a high average. Even the band’s lesser releases have plenty to recommend them, and this go-around is no exception.

Overall, Tres Cabrones is a more engaging listen than last year’s Melvins-as-a-trio effort Freak Puke, which featured some sterling upright bass work from avant-garde maestro Trevor Dunn, but was marred by muddy production and a relative lack of energy. Here, the shake-up of the traditional band arrangement seems to have revitalised Buzz’n’Dale somewhat, and while Dillard isn’t quite the drumming virtuoso Crover is, he plays with power and precision, recalling his bandmate’s signature style while still finding room for his own individual touches. You could argue it’s partly this willingness to try out new band set-ups that has kept the band sounding so fresh for so long. In any case, here’s hoping that there’s still a Melvins line-up of some description playing inventive, off-kilter music in time for their 40th anniversary.

Tres Cabrones is released tomorrow on Ipecac Recordings. Check out the video below to hear the album’s opening track, “Dr Mule”.

Cop Problem- Buried Beneath White Noise on Invisible Oranges

Just a quick post to link my readers (all both of them) to a great little EP by a Philadelphia hardcore band called Cop Problem, and a thoughtful writeup of it on the Invisible Oranges metal blog. As my previous articles show, I’m more optimistic about the possibilities of politically-driven metal than IO reviewer Doug Moore, but even he admits that “(e)ven if such bands fail to achieve their overt goals, this stuff still appeals, and maybe for relatively obvious reasons. Politics makes for grittier subject matter than many stock metal topics do, for one thing. The emotional stakes are higher, and the subject matter is real-er, in even an ineffective polemic than in a song about Satan or dragons or what have you.” I expressed a similar opinion in my first article on the site, Extreme Conditions Demand Extreme Responses.

I’m not going to spend too much time reviewing the EP here, as Moore does a far better job than I could manage. Suffice to say, it’s a short, sharp shock in the punk tradition: a 4-song blast of politically-driven rage, singer Deb Cohen shouting over the fray in a relatively discernable bark, all the better to catch her bilious lyrics. It’s great, basically, and I’m already impatient to hear what else Cop Problem will produce in future.

Check out the full stream of Cop Problem’s Buried Beneath White Noise EP on Invisible Oranges here.

Protest The Hero- Volition

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It’s a sad indictment of a dying music industry that even musicians in moderately popular metal bands are quitting the game, unable to continue performing on the increasingly meagre returns available. It’s not entirely clear if monetary concerns led Protest the Hero drummer Moe Carlson to leave the band, or if he simply felt an education and eventual career in tool and die making was closer to his heart than touring and recording. It’s hard to imagine that the financial pros and cons of a musician’s life were far from his mind, though.

Thankfully, in the wake of this potential setback Protest have surged ahead, and made full use of the opportunities the internet offers for creating new funding and distribution methods. Shunning record labels, the band’s funding campaign for their latest release, launched via crowdfunding website Indiegogo, was extremely successful, meeting its target in just over a day and raising nearly three times its initial goal. This model might well come to define how bands operate in the future- instead of relying on monolithic, out of touch industry backers, it’s possible to forge a direct connection with the fans, giving them a sense of involvement and investment in their heroes’ work. As important as fan support will undoubtedly prove to be, though, having friends in high places never hurts. The band were able to hire Lamb of God’s Chris Adler to fill in on drums for the recording session, which may well end up attracting curious fans of more mainstream metal fare. So too might the creative method by which the album was funded.

But concentrating too much on the birthing method of Volition, Protest’s resulting fourth album, would detract attention from what a beautiful baby it is.  Although the band haven’t fundamentally altered their signature mix of technical theatrics and catchy hooks and vocal melodies, it’s definitely a cut above 2011’s Scurrilous– a perfectly fine album that was merely slightly lacking compared to the masterwork that was Fortress. Perhaps the shake up in the wake of Carlson’s departure was what the band needed, a creative rejuvenation. They sound as confident as ever: Luke Hoskin and Tim Millar’s guitar leads are still histrionically widdly-diddly at times, soaringly melodic at other. Arif Mirabdolbaghi’s bass lines remain flowing and technical, but never showy outside of some showcase soloing. Adler proves a worthy successor behind the kit, adapting his style capably to recall Carlson’s while still making his own individual flourishes. And Rody Walker’s formidable voice remains on top form. While the contrast between his low growls and soaring highs still draws the most attention, it’s in the catchy vocal melodies he’s able to layer on top of complex, technical musical backing that he shows his real chops.

The lyrical focus remains, as ever, on societal and political themes- still somewhat obliquely, but definitely more directly than on previous releases. “A Life Embossed” is probably the song most explicitly focused on contemporary concerns, railing against legislation against certain dog breeds in the band’s native Canada. But it’s not hard to detect distaste at an increasingly vitriolic, polarised political climate, and the bigotry it engenders, throughout the album. The targets vary, from religiously motivated “anti-deviancy” demagogues (“Tilting At Windmills”), to the plutocratic elites growing ever richer off of financial ruin (“Without Prejudice”). Rody Walker’s vocals are imbued throughout with righteous fury, perhaps most so on “Plato’s Tripartite”, a stinging rebuke to the victim-blaming mentality displayed so crassly in the recent spate of high-profile rape cases in the US. The band have their eye on the here and now, even as they continue to pay homage to their roots. When Walker quotes the Fortress single “Sequoia Throne” in the “we are still life” refrain of “Animal Bones”, it comes off as a fun nod to their past, rather than nostalgia or a lack of ideas.

As sharp as things are, musically and lyrically, it’s a slight shame that the band don’t seem to have an overarching concept informing Volition, as on their first two albums. While it’s easy to overreach for a narrative backing and end up with cringeworthy pomposity, Protest have been better than most at this- Fortress gained immeasurably from its background theme of the birth of patriarchal societies and cultures from older, goddess-worshipping ones. And while their debut Kezia suffered somewhat from concentrating more on screamo influences than progressive ones, it was redeemed at least in part by its conceptual complexity. (A discussion of the underlying critique of patriarchy in the band’s lyrics could very easily form the basis for an entire blog post in the near future.) The disparate songs on Protest’s latest release are very often politically driven, so it’s not entirely fair to fault them here. It might have been nice if that political awareness had been deployed in service of a discrete, unifying theme, is all.

But that’s a minor concern, one that concentrates too much on the potential album we might have got, rather than the one we did. As it stands, Volition represents not just an artistic high point for the band, but a ringing endorsement of the internet’s potential to sustain networks of support for fresh, exciting music.

Volition comes out on October 29th.

Skeletonwitch- Serpents Unleashed

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In my first post for this blog, I briefly touched on the retro thrash revival of the mid-2000s, in the context of discussing a backwards-looking tendency in metal that seems more focussed on honouring the genre’s roots than in forging new paths for it to explore. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with bands like Municipal Waste updating the music they loved as teenagers with a shot of humour and good-time party attitude. It’s just that, for me personally, it’s more satisfying to hear bands that can meld more than one foundational sound. If it’s not entirely original, at least constructing these hybrids involves a bit more creativity than simply emulating your old favourites.

Athens, Ohio titans Skeletonwitch fit firmly into the latter category. As ably demonstrated on their latest album Serpents Unleashed, they are fully capable of blending elements from across the metal spectrum into an entirely satisfying whole. There are echoes of thrash in the hook-laden riffs and zippy tempos; flashes of black metal, most notably in Chance Garnette’s rasped vocals and the blastbeats that accentuate the faster passages; and even flashes to early 80s NWOBHM in the melodic solos and twin guitar harmonies.

By this point in the band’s career everybody’s playing is beyond tight. Guitarists Nate Garnette and Scott Hedrick are as comfortable with chugging rhythm lines as with their flashy, but always catchy leads. Dustin Boltjes pounds the skins with aplomb, never dominating the sound or getting overly technical, but still showing off his speed and chops where appropriate. And considering that bass is still all too often neglected by thrash and black metal groups, it’s a delight to hear four-stringer Evan Linger’s fluid, melodic runs prominently in the mix. Check out the solo in “Burned From Bone”, posted below, for an especially skilled example of how the low end can complement guitar heroics without muddying the sound.

While this is a strong release all round, further distilling Skeletonwitch’s signature sound into another 30-minute banger, you could nitpick that it’s far from a quantum leap over the band’s previous output. Things are perhaps sharper, more focused than prior releases, but it’s still well within the sonic parameters the band established for themselves early on. Every song fits into the three-minute rager category, bar a hushed intro to the closer “More Cruel Than Weak” before all hell breaks loose.

It might seem odd given my earlier comments on traditionalism and bands stepping outside their comfort zone, but I’m OK with all of that. Not every metal band has to do the revolutionary work of mapping out the genre’s future. If Skeletonwitch are content to keep cranking out variations on their well-honed, razor-sharp thrash/black hybrid, I’m content to listen to them. If you’re going to stick to what you know best, you may as well be in complete mastery of that formula. On Serpents Unleashed, the band prove their mastery is still unquestionable.

“Serpents Unleashed” is released October 29th on Prosthetic Records.

Castevet- Obsian

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Although the various bands that make up the current US black metal scene tend to be fiercely iconoclastic in their pursuit of a progressive sound, there are some common sonic features that they refer back to. Obsian, the new release by Castevet, could easily be compared to the now-defunct Ludicra, or their New York neighbours Krallice; particularly the latter band, given that they share a bass player in Nick McMaster. The tribal-sounding drums, the dynamic shifts from spacious, ringing guitar chords to flurries of relentless riffing, the punchy, trebly bass tone: both Castevet and Krallice draw upon similar musical language for their progressive take on the genre.

But for me at least, Castevet have one advantage over their bassist’s other project: conciseness. While both bands create a swirling, disorienting soundscape, full of abrupt stops and starts and complex rhythm changes, Obsian is more focused than sprawling. Where Krallice gradually expand on their riffs over ten minutes or more, Castevet boil that free-wheeling tendency down to five or six. They’re almost catchy by comparison.

“Catchy” is a relative term, though. Though there are passages you could describe as hooks, the album is still defiantly progressive, with guitarist Andrew Hock churning out traditional tremolo-picking, ringing chords and arpeggiating melodies effortlessly. McMaster, too, shows off his chops, but stays firmly rooted in melody as he dances around and above the chord progressions, making full use of the low and high ends of his fretboard. Hock’s vocals are again reminiscent of Krallice for most of the songs- an impassioned take on the traditional black metal rasp. For closing number “The Seat of Severance”, however, he switches it up, with clean vocals that channel a deep sorrow in their almost crooning delivery. It adds a unique feel to the album’s climax, and hints at a possible melodic direction the band might explore in future releases.

Perhaps the gift of Obsian‘s focus is also a curse. At just over 35 minutes, it feels a tiny bit short; the band could easily have recorded one more song without overstaying their welcome. Then again, a sound like Castevet’s could become overwhelming if dragged out too long. At its compact length, the album leaves you wanting more, rather than feeling exhausted. Maybe Krallice could learn from this approach?

Obsian comes out tomorrow on Profound Lore. Check out a full stream of the album here.