Saturday, September 20, 2014

Ural – Wasteland

Wasteland” marks the second demo for Italian-based thrash metal band Ural. Within seconds of it starting, many listeners will be instantly surprised to hear this is not your typical Italian thrash metal band. There is not much Exodus influence to be heard, nor does the artwork or imagery bring back the glory of the 80’s. Instead, this release brings in a lot more influence from punk. The songs are energetic and fast, but retain a sort of punky tightness that one would expect from a crossover band like M.O.D., or even a straight-up punk band. Ural’s singer is also much more influenced by punk, as he does plenty of yelling and shouting on “Wasteland”. In “Title”, he even counts out the beats in one section, making the homage to the band’s punk roots more obvious.

This demo is composed entirely of short songs, and is really a brief shot of adrenaline. The final track, “Destruction”, is the most spastic, reaching some insane speeds. Amazingly, the song also slows down and busts out a fantastic almost bluesy riff. This diversity is not particularly common on “Wasteland”, but only because the release is so brief that the band really throws their all at the listener to make an impression. Both the second and third song have some schizophrenic sounding guitar solos that make an already aggressive release even more brutal.

Despite this release barely spanning 6 and a half minutes, it manages to pack quite a lot of music in. It’s clear from “Wasteland” that Ural really appreciates the punkier side of thrash, and this release is a testament to that. While it differs from what many other Italian bands are doing, it also helps Ural to stand out more in a very crowded thrash metal scene.

Be sure to check out and like Ural on Facebook!

Highlight
"Destruction"

Final Rating
4.0/5 or 80%. 

Written by Scott 

Manach Seherath – Manach Seherath

Self-billed as symphonic heavy metal, Manach Seherath is a band hailing from Italy. Though your first thought when combining keyboards and Italy might be Rhapsody of Fire, Manach Seherath is a different beast altogether. Their approach is not so grandiose or epic, but rather, simple, enjoyable heavy metal. The beginning of the opening song, “Arti Manthano” builds an impressive atmosphere, showing how to brilliantly use keyboards to add to more traditional heavy metal. When the vocals come in, the song takes a different turn. Having listened to this demo over and over, I go back and forth on whether or not I like the vocals. On the one hand, the way they interrupt the intro of the first song is quite jarring. On the other, Manach Seherath’s singer sounds incredibly natural. He doesn’t have a classically trained voice, nor does he fill the demo with insane screams, but he’s got a lot of charisma in his sound. It is his voice that also helps the band to differentiate from power metal bands, and remain primarily in more of a heavy metal realm.

Of course, the music is another reason why this classification is accurate. While there are fast moments, this release is definitely more on the mid-paced side of things. Additionally, the band contrasts some more feelgood melodies with darker ones, offering a much more diverse package than one might expect. Once again, I have to stress the keyboards here, as they offer a lot of versatility. The band can instantly transform their sound, simply because they place a heavy reliance on the use of keyboards. It is also worth emphasizing that the keys are more like synths or orchestras; though they occasionally take the lead melody, they are really there to enhance the feel of the song rather than to do some Jens Johansson-esque shredding.

All three songs are relatively similar in terms of quality. Despite giving “Manach Seherath” multiple listens, there is not too much memorability aside from the first track. This is not inherently bad; the demo really is a unique release, so listeners will revisit it regardless of whether or not they can sing along to every song. Ultimately, it is a refreshing experience, as few bands take the approach that “Manach Seherath” does. I don't want to say their vocalist holds them back, but I think they haven't quite determined how best to use him yet. It is not hard to foresee that, with time, the band will really take off and become something special. They aren’t quite there yet, but this demo is nonetheless worth a listen. 

Be sure to check out and like Manach Seherath on Facebook!

Highlight
"Arti Manthano"

Final Rating
3.8/5 or 76%. 

Written by Scott 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Cemetery Filth – Screams From The Catacombs

Screams From The Catacombs” marks the first EP for American death metal group Cemetery Filth. Despite being from the USA, the band’s name more accurately reflects their sound. This release is full of absolutely abhorrent, filthy death metal in the vein of the Finnish and Swedish death metal scenes from the early 1990’s. All three tracks on this EP provide a brutal offering of unrelenting riffs and aggression.

The opening song is the best track here. It has by far the most variety in terms of the style of riffs (everything from straightforward tremolo picking, to trills, to more standard slow Autopsy-esque moments). Featuring a couple of guitar solos and some other lead playing, the song shows that Cemetery Filth knows how to inject melody into their music despite its deprived nature. Both of the other tracks largely follow the path forged by the title track, and are nearly as convincing. “Cemetery Filth” begins in a doomier direction than the other two songs, and is definitely the slowest overall, but it still provides a much-welcomed burst of brutality, as it breaks into speedier territory after a couple of minutes.

A big part of the draw to this record is the individual performances. The vocals are disgusting, and again, show a nod to Autopsy. While perhaps not having the range of Chris Reifert, Cemetery Filth’s vocalist still delivers some twisted screams. This is particularly noticeable towards the end of the title track, where you hear him roar “screamssssssss from the catacombs!” There is not a single moment on the EP where he fails to perform with conviction. Another highlight is the drumming. Because death metal drumming as a whole tends to be quite impressive, it is often difficult to distinguish between bands with a genuinely great drummer, and those who simply have a good drum tone. The positive news is that Cemetery Filth has both. Their drummer relies on an abundance of fills as he destroys every section of the kit. This sound is amplified by the fantastic crack of his snare drum, which manages to be incredibly satisfying each time it is used (and even more so when used in fills).

Despite its release in 2014, “Screams From The Catacombs” sounds definitively old-school. The production recalls a time when bands couldn’t get their sound any cleaner because nobody really knew how to mix death metal in the way it sounds today. Additionally, the music is entirely devoid of any modern influences, and one can even sense a small hint of thrash influence at times, which remains an important factor in creating death metal that sounds like the giants of the subgenre. “Screams From The Catacombs” is an essential listen for anyone who calls themself a death metal fan!

Be sure to check out and like Cemetery Filth on Facebook!

Highlights
"Screams From The Catacombs"
"Cemetery Filth"

Final Rating
4.4/5 or 88%. 

Written by Scott 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

HammerFall – (r)Evolution

There are few metal bands I feel are as underappreciated as HammerFall. To most of the metal community, they’re that band that made 2 cool albums (or potentially 3 or 4 depending on where you draw the line) and then fell apart. As an avid fanboy of the band, this is a difficult viewpoint for me to accept because, while I agree the first albums are the best, their 4 most recent records have some of the band’s strongest material. Irrespective of where you fall in the HammerFall appreciation continuum, it’s hard to deny that “Infected” was considerably different from the 7 preceding records. For that reason, it is appropriate that the band took some time off to recharge, and the resulting album, “(r)Evolution”, is the band’s strongest in several years.

The album starts with an ode to the band’s familiar mascot who makes his return on this album cover. “Hector’s Hymn” is an upbeat, energetic track that immediately recalls “The Metal Age” from the first album. The chorus is a bit simplistic for the band, but nonetheless quite catchy. This song already feels more inspired than many songs from the band in the last decade or so. It has a couple of high-points. The first is that it brings back the “whoa-oh” concept. While I don’t attribute the decline of these sections with a drop in quality of HammerFall’s music, there is no doubt that they’re always a hit live and plenty of fun even on the record. The other highlight is the work of lead guitarist Pontus Norgren. Out of every trial and tribulation HammerFall has ever faced, none worried me more than the departure of former axeman Stefan Elmgren. He had an incredibly unique style that was particularly prevalent when sweeping. We’re three albums into the Pontus Norgren era, and the man continues to get more impressive each time. This song features several solos, all of which are incredibly captivating throughout.

The praise above is primarily based on one song, but the good news is that “(r)Evolution” is filled with awesome metal anthems. Ever since “Crimson Thunder”, it appears the band is determined to create another single like “Hearts on Fire”. This album’s attempt is “Bushido”, which is quite possibly the strongest song on the record. The chorus displays vocalist Joacim Cans’ unbelievably melodic and soothing voice at its best. Though the entire band doesn’t go full-blast during the opening verse, this contrast with the chorus shows a lot of dynamic range within the song. Much like “Blood Bound”, “Bushido” is a HammerFall single that manages to surpass “Hearts On Fire”.

With the two singles out of the way, there is still plenty more to enjoy on this album. Surprisingly, the title track is probably one of the weakest cuts. While by no means bad, the chorus seems a bit strange for HammerFall. Its use of backing vocals is nothing new for the band, but the phrasing makes it sound more like a Running Wild song than a HammerFall one. Nevertheless, this track is a grower. The verses prove to be incredibly potent, as they’re once again guided by Joacim Cans, who is making much better use of his vocal range on this album than on other recent HammerFall records.

After the self-indulgent (but still great) “B.Y.H.” from “Infected”, many may worry over a song called “Live Life Loud”, but even if metal-praising lyrics aren’t your thing, this song proves it is much more than a party anthem. After a short intro, the song delivers the most potent riff of the album, and the track quickly sees drummer Anders Johannsson do an emphatic buildup on his snare drum before the band launches into a riff that will leave no head motionless. Even the simplistic shouts of the title manage to be rather infectious. This song is sure to be a live hit.

One issue of contention I sometimes find with HammerFall is the inclusion of a ballad. Even when they’re great, they can feel forced. In the band’s entire discography, the only ballad that fits into the flow of the album perfectly is “Remember Yesterday”. This is why the “ballad” of this record is so brilliant. Much like on “Threshold”, HammerFall’s ballad on “(r)Evolution” is really just a slow, heavy track. “Winter Is Coming” is a nice change from the fist-pumping anthems, as it puts a more somber tone to the album. This song also shows the full force of Cans’ range, as he hits some notes that we haven’t heard on a HammerFall record in a while.

Many of the tracks that haven’t been mentioned are more modern-era HammerFall: they relatively mid-paced, but filled with great riffs, catchy melodies, and are ultimately a lot of fun. “Ex Inferis” and “Evil Incarnate” actually show the band going in a darker, more sinister direction. Both tracks lean towards the slow side of things, but feature incredibly heavy riffs. To balance things out, there are still two other songs that go absolutely full-force: “Origins” and “Wildfire”. The former opens with a Stratovarius-like riff (seriously, did Timo Tolkki help write this riff?), before launching into a more standard, upbeat HammerFall track. It is “Wildfire”, however, that truly is a masterpiece. This song makes incredible use of backing vocals in its chorus that is all too short. “Wildfire” isn’t good because it’s fast (though that formula does work for the band); it’s good because it sounds truly inspired. This track fits in with any work the band did on their first two albums, and it’s difficult to see how any fan of the band’s early work could dislike the song.

It’s easy to discredit all this praise as the ramblings of a fanboy. To some extent, that is true. Tracks like “(r)Evolution”, “We Won’t Back Down”, or “Winter Is Coming” might not be enjoyed by all, as they are not particularly different from anything HammerFall has done in recent years. I do have one legitimate criticism of this album though: the lyrics. HammerFall is at a spot where their lyrical approach is largely well-defined, and if they went in a different direction, I would be disappointed. Unfortunately, this album seems to use far too many clichés and common phrases in the lyrics. This alone isn’t a problem, but there are certain songs where it feels like the band combines these clichés together, to the point where it doesn’t seem like they’re using them to actually say anything meaningful in a song. This problem is not necessarily pervasive, as some songs don’t display this at all, but it’s the first time I’ve ever had this issue with the band, despite all of their albums being relatively similar lyrically.

That comment aside, “(r)Evolution” is everything I could have hoped for and more. This is the most excited the band has sounded in years. I don’t feel “Infected” was as weak as most metal fans say, and it wasn’t necessarily a huge departure from their previous work (check out “Dia De Los Muertos”, “Immortalized”, and “Let’s Get It On” for a few examples), but there’s no doubt that “(r)Evolution” is much more in line with the vision of HammerFall. This album is filled with charging riffs, emotional and powerful vocals, and ultimately, it’s on a mission to remind everyone that HammerFall is still a very relevant force in power metal in 2014.

Be sure to check out and like HammerFall on Facebook!

Highlights
"Hector's Hymn"
"Bushido"
"Live Life Loud"
"Origins"
"Wildfire"

Final Rating
4.8/5 or 96%. 

Written by Scott 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Witchclan – The Dark Binding

Witchclan is a one-person black metal band hailing from the UK. Despite “The Dark Binding” being the band’s second full-length, multi-instrumentalist Matt Bass has been at it since the early 90’s. This is my first experience with the band, and while it is certainly passable black metal, it is not quite my thing. For one thing, the production is really strange. The bass is boosted incredibly high. If you’ve ever played around with an amp and taken out pretty much all of the trebles and mids and put in bass, that is what it would sound like. That’s only the rhythms though; the lead is much more normal sounding, and is something you’ll hear quite often. The first full-length track, for example, uses plenty of leads over top of the rhythm guitars, but underneath the vocals. When all of these instruments come together (alongside drums and bass, of course) things get a bit muddled. The vocals sound like they’ve intentionally been recorded so as to not sound great (and thus, more authentic). The drums are likewise quite distant sounding, and often times the only audible parts of the kit are the snare and bass drums.

The Dark Binding” stays true to the musical formula of black metal: there is an endless amount of tremolo picking on this record, to the point where riffs become indistinguishable (though there are a few more standard riffs). Blast beats are in no short supply; however, Witchclan does mix things up in the drumming occasionally, which is nice. In fact, “Worms of Hypocrisy” shows a few moments where there’s a bit more of a rock feel because the drumming lays off a bit while the lead guitar plays a relatively tame melody. One thing Witchclan does unique, to their credit, is the way they use keys. There are a few tracks on this album where every instrument goes down in the mix and lets some chime-like keyboards take center stage. Personally, I find this change a bit jarring, and it gives off more of a creepy vibe than an enjoyable one. Of course, if that’s your thing, you’re going to love “The Dark Binding”. There are some songs on here that sound like they were written only to create disturbed atmospheres (those familiar with certain temples in Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time will definitely appreciate these moments; “Dawn of the Serpent Kings” is the best example).

The album as a whole is certainly competent black metal. It’s hard to give a strict comparison to another band or scene, but Witchclan makes extensive use of black metal techniques while throwing in their own flair occasionally. The songwriting is by no means unmemorable (especially for black metal), but I also don’t find it to be particularly effective. “The Dark Binding” will likely appeal to a lot of black metal fans, but as someone who already only enjoys the fringes of the subgenre, it is a tough sell.

Be sure to check out and like Witchclan on Facebook!

Highlight
"Worms of Hypocrisy"

Final Rating
3.5/5 or 70%. 

Written by Scott