ANCIENT: BACK TO THE LAND OF THE DEAD

(SOULSELLER RECORDS/ELLEFSON MUSIC PRODUCTIONS; 2016) UPDATE BELOW

Ancient Cover Artwork

Twelve years after the band’s last release (NIGHT VISIT) and seven years after the latest version of the band came together, Ancient is back with what may be their most nuanced music ever. The album is not without problems, but BACK TO THE LAND OF THE DEAD is more than solid enough to keep the group’s diehard fans happy and new listeners – like me – intrigued. The album exists in both digital and CD forms, as well as a two record set, pressed on beautiful gray vinyl (available only from Soulseller Records; EMP has released a marbled blue version); this review follows the latter’s format.

Ancient (Zel, Nicholas Barker, Dhilorz) (photo credit: FABIO KOCELE)

Ancient (Zel, Nicholas Barker, Dhilorz) (photo credit: FABIO KOCELE)

Thunderous double bass drums explode on the de facto title track, “Land of the Dead,” while the guitars and bass seem to be buried in the muck and mire of a poorly executed mix. The vocals of band founder, Zel (shortened from Aphazel), are of the standard black metal variety: Gutteral, but not in the least bit unpleasant, as some other voices in the genre can be. The guitars begin to distinguish themselves in the second half of the tune, particularly with an odd, short solo that somehow works within the context of the driving hailstorm of noise. “Beyond the Blood Moon” features rudimentary progressive riffing. Once more, the vocals are buried in the mix a bit too much to be REALLY effective; a shame, too, as the lyrics are a cut above: “Chaos, fear, turmoil, despair/Millions dazed, trapped in the snare” and “What lies beyond the blood moon?/Will the end occur too soon?” are just samplings of the song’s bleakness. Plus, bonus points are awarded for fitting “sagacity” and “antediluvian” into the densely constructed wordscape. Okay… with “The Sempiternal Haze,” I’m finally starting to get a bead on Zel’s voice; it falls somewhere between that dude from Venom and King Diamond (though without the latter’s range). The levels seem to be… uh… leveling out, as the gigantic bass and guitar riffs are a bit louder than the drums, without dampening the full-throttle pounding one iota; the vocals seem to be cranked more, as well. A softer, more melodic break – a la Tony Iommi – leads into a nice guitar solo.

The Empyrean Sword” sets a wicked-fast pace from the get-go. The drums sound like helicopter blades decapitating a group of people who forgot to duck; the guitars churn and roil as the bass pounds in rhythm to the breakneck speed of Nicholas Barker’s percussion work. Some very nice guitar flourishes show up, once more, during a couple of slow breaks, the last right before Barker tears into a final, rapid-fire martial beat that would make Thunderstick proud. On “The Ancient Disarray,” another Iommi-esque guitar noodle leads into a downward spiral of chaos. The track features more pronounced guitar and vocals but, in breaking lockstep with Zel’s guitar parts, Dhilorz weaves some fairly interesting bass runs just below and through both the vocals and guitars. The vocals give way to an arcane-sounding incantation which lends a certain sense of authenticity to the whole affair, particularly as it leads to the song’s abrupt end. “Occlude the Gates” finds Zel’s voice taking on an animalistic, demonic air, even as the music assumes a more measured approach. The drum parts seem to be more well thought-out and… musical and powerful, as opposed to speed for the mere want of speed; the guitars hit on a majestic Maiden-like riff progression, sounding quite crisp and on-point. Even though the vocals are harder to decipher here, the song is actually one of the best on BACK TO THE LAND OF THE DEAD.

Ancient (Zel) (publicity photo)

Ancient (Zel) (publicity photo)

The majority of side three encompasses a three part “suite” called “The Excruciating Journey,” an apt title indeed, as themes of darkness and light, good and evil poke a finger in the eye of world politics. As the vocals continue to be brought to the fore in a more aggressive manner, the lyrics seem to become more garbled. However, with the triumvirate’s first movement, “Defiance and Rage,” the charging guitars and perpetual brutality of the drums continue unabated, making the piece virtually impossible to ignore. “The Prodigal Years” shows a softer side of the band… musically, anyway. Here, the lyrics are delivered in whispers, barely audible, which makes the song even creepier. “The Awakening,” the final piece of the triptych, is a return to the musical themes of “Defiance and Rage.” As the trio turns up the heat, Zel gets right to the heart of the matter: “Rot! Grime! Angst and blight!” The second chorus tears the scab completely off the festering wound, intoning, “Just a neverending disarray, can’t avoid going astray/Like a fly in a flushing toilet/Surely seems the end has come.” The music doesn’t become less urgent or bludgeoning on “Death Will Die,” but there is something violently majestic about the guitars and keyboards that make this one a stand out. In fact, with Zel’s voice turning back to the biting growl of the first several tracks, this could just be the best tune on the record.

Ancient (Dhilorz; Zel; Nicholas Barker; Ghiulz Borroni) (publicity photo)

Ancient (Dhilorz; Zel; Nicholas Barker; Ghiulz Borroni) (publicity photo)

Side four opens with “The Spiral.” Powerful and intriguing, the tune’s circular (dare I say, “Spiraling?”) guitar figure offers up the record’s ultimate classic rock riff, referencing Alice Cooper and Deep Purple,as well as the twin-guitar assault of bands like Thin Lizzy and Iron Maiden. As cool as “Death Will Die” is, this track comes in a close second, due to its diversity in approach; for six-plus minutes, the band manages to incorporate not only several styles of metal, but straight-forward 1970s hard rock into the album’s matrix, including a slight slowing of the tempo behind a cool dual guitar part. Again, a more pronounced keyboard presence adds to the overall effect. It seems that band mastermind Zel has divided …LAND OF THE DEAD into two quite different parts. The first five or six numbers are playing to the Ancient base – the long-time fans who are here for the dome-crushing blackened riffs and ceaseless drive of the double kicks; the second is, for want of a better term, more experimental, giving the trio a chance to stretch out and display their talents on a wider stage. “Petrified By Their End” is a perfect example: While maintaining the band’s ultra-heavy roots, it tends to lean toward the progressive. There are four distinct sections to the nine-and-a-half minute piece that will hold even the most cynical listener rapt throughout. In point of fact, the Alice reference comes into play again as, at about the six minute mark, there’s a buzzing beehive guitar solo that reminds me of Glen Buxton’s killer (pun intended) work on “Halo of Flies.” The album ends with a bonus track (but, not really a bonus, as it appears on every configuration and version of the record). “13 Candles” is a cover of the Bathory tune that I’m not sure really adds anything to the original, but covers are always fun. Having just discovered Ancient with this album, I have just one request: Please… don’t wait another dozen years to release your next record.

(UPDATE) After further listens to BACK FROM THE LAND OF THE DEAD, I must amend my thoughts regarding the sound quality on the first few tracks of the record. The sound is not as muddied and muffled as I originally opined; seemingly, the problem actually lies with the digitized version I used for this review. So… turn it up and enjoy!


NILE/TYRANNY ENTHRONED/ABSALA/PARADIGM SYMPHONY

(January 25, 2016; FUBAR, Saint Louis MO)

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My first visit to Fubar started well enough, but ended… uh… unexpectedly early. After confirming with the evening’s headliners, English punk legends, Slaughter and the Dogs, I hung out in the venue for the next three hours, talking to family members of the opening act, a group of teenagers called Million Hits; a few minutes before doors, everybody was ushered outside to either pay the cover charge or have their name checked off of the will call/guest list. This is where things took a downward turn, as the night’s main event forgot to leave their guest list before heading to their hotel for some much-needed sleep; even though I had been inside the venue most of the afternoon, it was either pay up, wait for my benefactors to return to the venue or make other plans for the evening. This really wasn’t any one person’s fault, but it certainly left a bad taste in my mouth… I mean, do YOU pay at the door to do your job? Yeah… neither do I. So, anyway, I went into this visit with a more-than-slight trepidation but, as it turned out, the only thing I had to worry about was a stifling heat as the crowd roiled and pushed and head-banged to some of the heaviest music ever.

Paradigm Symphony (Bailey Hamor; Niko Alsup; Andrew Coppage) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Paradigm Symphony (Bailey Hamor; Niko Alsup; Andrew Coppage) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The festivities were kicked off by Paradigm Symphony, sort of an amalgam of Death Metal and classic heavy metal, punctuated by a vocalist who not only looks like the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Anthony Kiedis, but sounds like him, too. These guys are definitely high-energy, with guitarist Niko Alsup and his partner-in-shred, Bailey Hamor, being the stand-outs. While – in my humble opinion – Andrew Coppage’s voice may be the weak link in the sound, he does have great stage presence. However, it’s hard to ignore Alsup’s Eddie Van Halen on steroids fingertapping style, as your eyes are inexorably drawn to his side of the stage, trying to figure out exactly how he is coaxing those sounds out of his instrument; at one point, he played one of the most amazingly fluid backward solos you’re ever likely to hear. Hamor left most of the soloing to Niko but, when he did take one, it was a precision strike and stunningly effective. The rhythm section – skin-basher Nick Sternfeld and bassist David McGillem – added to the Chili Peppers comparison with a loose and funky groove for the guitars and voice to work over. The group’s set was short and, though I have seen better, I also saw a definite upside and great potential in what they have to offer.

Absala (Tristin King; Jordan Harris; Dylan Lorinc) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Absala (Tristin King; Jordan Harris; Dylan Lorinc) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

With titles like “A Voyage So Bleak,” “The Mortician’s Penchant” (possibly the best song about necrophilia since “Code Blue” by TSOL, though Alice Cooper’s “I Love the Dead” remains the ultimate in what is, admittedly, a small sample size) and “Methods of Sacrifice,” the five-piece Absala definitely upped the Death Metal ante. Led by the vocal prowess of Jordan Harris, who falls somewhere between King Diamond and Six Feet Under’s legendary frontman, Chris Barnes, on the sonic scale, the group play with a technical precision that is both meat-clever brutal and scalpel sharp. Lightning-fast twin guitar runs from Dylan Lorinc and Jason Asberry highlight the sound, though both are also capable of tastefully dark solos; Lorinc may just have the edge over Asberry, more for his totally unassuming presence than anything else… there’s just something about watching an almost emotionless dude playing such passionate music. Noah Pogue, on the other hand, is anything but emotionless (or motionless), as he is a whirling dervish of constant movement and facial contortions; Pogue’s six-string bass playing, along with the drumming of Tristin King, is the ballast that keeps Absala afloat. After an impressive set of originals, the band paid tribute to one of the fore-fathers of speed, the recently departed Ian Kilmister, ending their set with a great version of Motorhead’s “Iron Fist.” The evening was beginning to take shape nicely.

Tyranny Enthroned (Jesse McCoy; Brandon Park; Gabe Price) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Tyranny Enthroned (Jesse McCoy; Brandon Park; Gabe Price) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Tyranny Enthroned kept the energy high – if not the speed – with their brutal blackened Death Metal attack. The set list was short… only four songs, extended takes of grinding ferocity like “Born of Hate,” “The Incubus” and “The Harrowing Inferno.” Drummer Brandon Park and bassist Anthony George anchored the sound with a pummeling style that threatened the Cervical plexus of even the heartiest of those who bang their heads. Jesse McCoy’s vocals were a thing of beauty (in a gargled glass sort of way), as he delivered both guttural growls and explosive roars with ease; the fact that he was responsible for most of the heavy lifting on guitar, as well, made his performance stand out even more. That, in no way, should diminish the six-string-slinging efforts of Gabe Price, who more than held his own through the melee, slashing out wicked leads and the occasional monster solo. Though all three openers exhibited moments of brilliance, proving their mettle (and metal) before a Nile-crazed crowd, Tyranny Enthroned appears to be the band closest to breaking out of the burgeoning Saint Louis metal scene into the big time. I look forward to hearing more from all three acts.

Nile (Karl Sanders; Dallas Toler-Wade; Brad Parris) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Nile (Karl Sanders; Dallas Toler-Wade; Brad Parris) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Our headliners, twenty-three year veterans of the dark metal wars (and closet Egyptologists) blasted through a thirteen song set, highlighting tracks from each of their riff-laden major label releases, beginning with “Sacrifice Unto Sebek” and the caustic “Cast Down the Heretic,” both from 2005’s ANNIHILATION OF THE WICKED. With so much material to choose from, the set was tightly constructed, with only three numbers from the group’s latest, WHAT SHOULD NOT BE UNEARTHED; “Call To Destruction” and “Evil To Cast Out Evil” from that record stand as some of the most vicious and uncompromising work of Nile’s incredible career. Even the oldest song played, “The Howling of the Jinn,” from the 1998 offering, AMONGST THE CATACOMBS OF NEPHREN-KA, fit in seamlessly with primary songwriter Karl Sanders’ ever more densely layered progressive approach. Sanders shared shredding and vocal duties with Dallas Toler-Wade, with suitably grinding rhythm work, barbaric riffing and stinging solos delivered with buzz-saw proficiency. The double-bass thunder of human drum machine George Kollias was matched by the destructive force that is new bass player, Brad Parris; though both were excellent throughout, the duo seemed to up their game during the second half of the show, particularly on such fare as “Sarcophagus,” “The Inevitable Degradation of Flesh” and set closer, “Black Seeds of Vengeance.” By this time, the heat had taken a toll on me and I had moved to the relative cool by the side of the stage; from my new vantage point, I could see just how intense and rabid the crowd were for this band. I’m not always so blown away by doomy Death Metallers, but in this instance, I can definitely say that the audience reaction to Nile was well-deserved.


TWITCHING TONGUES: DISHARMONY

(METAL BLADE RECORDS; 2015)

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Twitching Tongues have been thoroughly polarizing listeners since their formation in 2009. You’ll be hard pressed to find a fan of heavy music that doesn’t have an opinion – positive or negative, – about this Los Angeles based quintet’s brand of groove infused hardcore brutality. Not only is this tradition of musical ambiguity continued on DISHARMONY, the outfit’s first for Metal Blade, the boys in Twitching Tongues methodically douse that fire in gasoline.

Twitching Tongues (Taylor Young, Colin Young) (publicity photo)

Twitching Tongues (Taylor Young, Colin Young) (publicity photo)

The record kicks off with a creepy haunted house-like intro, just prior to assaulting the listener with the group’s signature sound of rhythmic chaos. The Tongues have meticulously refined their style, which is easily apparent throughout the duration of DISHARMONY. Tracks such as “Disharmony,” “Asylum Avenue” and “Insatiable Sin” don’t stray from the band’s signature style, but are, nonetheless, offered in a much more stylish and polished form. Vocally, one can’t deny the influence of late 1980’s east coast hardcore heavyweights such as Only Living Witness and Life of Agony. The lyrics, while rigorously dark, can at times come off as a bit kitschy and over the top. On the musical side of things, the riffs aren’t dissimilar to late era Sepultura, albeit a bit more punchy with the thrash element absent, while the drums are reminiscent of the urgency you’ll find on the first Slipknot record, courtesy of Joey Jordison.

Twitching Tongues (Taylor Young, Colin Young) (publicity photo)

Twitching Tongues (Taylor Young, Colin Young) (publicity photo)

If you’re tired of the same old tough guy hardcore or Hot Topic groove metal drivel, DISHARMONY might be the breath of fresh air you’ve been looking for. The eclectic blend of crushing riffs, unorthodox vocals and dark imagery is a welcome contribution to a heavy music scene that is growing ever more exhausting in it’s contrived tendencies.


ABIGAIL WILLIAMS: THE ACCUSER

(CANDLELIGHT RECORDS; 2015)

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It’s been close to a decade since Abigail Williams exploded onto the scene with their debut EP, entitled LEGEND. In the years since, Ken Sorceron and company have garnered contrasting positions from critics and fans alike. Many of the more cynical listeners have dismissed the band as “poser black metal,” going as far as to lump them in with acts such as Dimmu Borgir or, even Cradle Of Filth, while fresh-faced metal scenesters touted them as the kings of the new wave of American black metal. On THE ACCUSER, the outfit not only silence their sardonic detractors, they slam the coffin lid shut on the unearned skepticism.

One of the most engaging aspects of THE ACCUSER is how well the album is paced. Playing out like an auditory film, the offering wanders through eerie soundscapes and blistering metal compositions while managing to avoid feeling like a mixed bag. Tracks such as “The Cold Lines” and the closer, “Nuummite,” are ladened with melancholy atmosphere and dark moodiness without feeling separated from the other, more straight forward black metal tunes. Chock full of feedback, noise and dissonance, THE ACCUSER weaves black metal, crust and even moments of space rock together exquisitely to form a cacophony of dark matter that truly feels fresh amidst a sea of “true kvlt” clones.

Abigail Williams (Will Lindsay, Ken Sorceron, Jeff Wilson, Charlie Fell) (publicity photo)

Abigail Williams (Will Lindsay, Ken Sorceron, Jeff Wilson, Charlie Fell) (publicity photo)

Generally speaking, when a band states that they’ve reinvented themselves with their latest release, it’s a load of horse shit. Abigail Williams have managed to not only remain innovative on each of their albums, they’ve continued to grow sonically, with THE ACCUSER the band’s most cohesive work to date.


BLODHEMN: H7

(INDIE RECORDINGS; 2014)

Blodhemn H7 cover

Blodhemn isn’t a band; Blodhemn is one man, named Invisus (which must really make it hard to play music of this complexity live… nah, just kidding… Invisus has a band for touring purposes). So, anyway, Blodhemn (“Blood Hymn?”) is black metal from the home of black metal, Norway. But, it’s black metal with some interesting twists and thrashy turns. The album’s mission statement is on display with the full-blown metal brutality of the opening track, “Flammenes Virke.” The song has everything you want in a blackened soundscape: A massive double bass drum attack, memorable guitar riffing, a pretty cool bass break (it sounds like a fretless) and raw-throated (not gutteral) vocals. My only complaint with this song is that the vocals are very low in the mix; this could be intentional for this tune only, as Invisus’ voice is pretty much out front on the rest of the record. In case you’re wondering, the lyrics are written and delivered in Norwegian… a fact that shouldn’t impede anyone’s enjoyment of this music; it’s all about melody, tonality and delivery and Invisus seems to be an expert in those fields. The basic vibe and riffage of “Slettet Av Tid” reminds me of early Iron Maiden. The fleet-fingered fret-work continues. Let me say here that being proficient on a number of instruments, enough so that you can actually record an entire song or album, is one thing; being an absolute master of those instruments is virtually unheard of. That’s where Blodhemn’s Invisus is at… he is playing some of the most complex material in any genre and performing on all fronts at exceptionally high levels.

Evig Heder” has a wicked Nordic cowboy Motorhead groove happening, kinda like a stomping Satanic hoedown. The guitar on this track has an exceptionally nice, clear tone. Conversely, “Veiten 3” is more of a punk/metal hybrid with majestic, Sabbath-like riffs merged with Misfits style violence. Again, there’s that beautiful, deep ringing tone that sets this artist apart from all of the other metal beasts. Okay… this has been naggin’ on my noggin’ since the first track and, I think I finally have put my finger on the nag: Invisus’ vocals remind me of Venom’s Cronos, circa WELCOME TO HELL. My favorite cut on H7, “Andenes Ansikt,” features a Damned style intro leading into a slow grind of power chords and crisp, whip-snap drumming. As I’ve mentioned before, the man behind Blodhemn is a very talented person; this song probably displays those talents more than any other on this record.

Blodhemn (Invisus) (publicity photo)

Blodhemn (Invisus) (publicity photo)

Fandesvenn” is a return to the neck-breaking speed of the first couple of tunes. Aside from the surgical precision drumming, there are quite a few odd musical reference points within the guitar work: Anthrax, the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage,” Thin Lizzy, Exodus, Ted Nugent, Cliff Burton era Metallica, Mercyful Fate and more, making this a unique and interesting track, not only on this release, but within the genre, as well. I’m not exactly sure what I can say about what has become my second favorite song on this album, “Holmengraa.” There are more vocals, more riffs, more power chords and more atmosphere giving the cut a breadth and scope that leaves me speechless and breathless. And, at the end of the day, ain’t that what music – any music – is supposed to do for you? I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing the band version of Blodhemn on a stage, performing the songs from H7 but, as Indie Recordings is based in Norway, I seriously doubt we’ll see them stalking the boards here in the States any time soon (please… PLEASE… prove me wrong, Invisus… come to the States and play).


ANAGNORISIS: BEYOND ALL LIGHT

(SELF-RELEASED; 2013)

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With a cursory listen to Anagnorisis’ second full length, BEYOND ALL LIGHT, it’s obvious that these guys are very talented musicians with a strong sense of where they’re going and a stronger sense of the sound that’s going to take them there. Dig a little deeper and listen a little closer and you catch a bit of the problem that is endemic of a lot of self-produced, self-released music: The production and the mix seem a bit muddy, particularly throughout the first half. It’s not unlistenable… believe me, I’ve heard worse! There are points where the instruments are practically discernable from each other and the vocals seem to be just low enough in the mix to be an annoyance. Maybe I’m missing something… maybe the band is taking Motorhead’s credo of “Everything louder than everything else” to its ultimate conclusion. Whatever… I did hear enough that I liked to tell you about the good stuff. So…

Anagnorisis (Josh Mumford, Chris Smith, Zachary Kerr, Zac Denham, Samuel Hartman) (photo credit: KURT STRECKER)

Anagnorisis (Josh Mumford, Chris Smith, Zachary Kerr, Zac Denham, Samuel Hartman) (photo credit: KURT STRECKER)

The album is played out as two dark suites of three songs each. The first, encompassing the tunes “Eulerian Path,” “This Cursed Blood,” and “Death Mimics Life,” delivers a brutal display of abuse and despair. Here’s where the mix comes in to play. With the vocals low in the mix, the lyrics lose most of the emotional impact. I’ve heard (and liked) plenty of vocalists who perform in this fashion (gutteral barks sounding as if they emanate from the very bowels of Hell) but… I don’t know. It could be that Zachary Kerr (the band’s former bassist turned front man) has a higher pitched voice than is usually heard in such settings; more likely, it’s just a matter of his voice being buried in the swirling eddy of almost incomprehensible violence coming from the instruments’ unrelenting barrage.

Anagnorisis (publicity photo)

Anagnorisis (publicity photo)

Abyss,” “Bountiful Godless Life” and “Forever Night” comprise the second black suite. It is a distinct sonic improvement over the first half of the record. The vocals are pushed out front… not much, but just enough to make them more understandable. In the context of a better mix, Kerr’s voice and unconventional delivery really grows on you and even, in certain passages, shines. Likewise, the guitars and utilitarian keyboards aren’t faded into the miasmic background, allowing the listener to bask in the precise lead and rhythm work and fluid solos of Zak Denham (who also mixed). It also unmuddies the excellent work of the rhythm section (newest members, bassist Josh Mumford – with both Kerr and Denham adding bass parts, as well – and drummer Chris Smith, ably assisted by keyboardist Samuel Hartman, whose work I’ve already mentioned). Every record I own (the big vinyl things that you have to flip over to hear everything) has a favored side. Though side one of BEYOND ALL LIGHT isn’t bad, it’s side two that’ll get the most spins on my turntable.