overground scene

Suspension of disappointment, and favourite bands

Suspension of disappointment is a term I use to describe my attitude towards new releases by bands that I love. Whilst suspension of disbelief refers to the temporary acceptance as believable of things ordinarily seen as non-credible, suspension of disappointment refers to the temporary willingness to accept that something is not as bad as it initially sounds. Whenever a band I grew up listening to releases a new album, I abstain from forming a judgement about it immediately; instead, even if I find it unexciting initially, I am willing to give it repeated listens before I decide whether it is not a worthy addition to the band’s legacy. On the contrary, I am inclined to trust my first impression of an album by bands I do not love, or I did not grow up listening to. I cannot be sure whether this is a personal attitude or a more widely adopted one.

A recent example of this attitude is when I listened to the new, come-back album by Xentrix, titled Bury the pain. Xentrix is one of the first thrash bands I ever listened to, and their first three albums have always been on steady rotation. The news of a new album excited me a lot, although the absence of Chris Astley, the band’s leader, was a bad omen. The last album the band released in 1996, titled Scourge, was indeed a disappointment, although even with that one I made a big effort to enjoy it (in the end, I only like “The hand that feeds itself” and “Never be“). Astley was missing from Scourge, and in the new album he’s been replaced by Jay Walsh. My first contact with the album happened through “Bleeding out”, the first song the label released on YouTube. My initial impression was that the band is clearly trying to revisit its earlier days. It obviously has a classic thrash sound, but it also seeks inspiration specifically from Metallica, just like back in the day; the main riff is very similar to the main riff off Metallica’s “This was just your life”; new Metallica, for a new Xentrix. The song did not impress me, although Walsh’s very good vocals – that remain loyal to Astley’s legacy – were welcome (if I didn’t know it was someone else singing, I would think it was Astley). Upon the album’s release, the time came to properly evaluate the effort. The first listen left me unsatisfied; I thought the structures were very simple, repetitive, there were no hooks, and the riffs often alluded to the lazy style popularised by Pantera. However, I suspended disappointment, and did not give up on the album, as I could feel a loose connection with it; I could hear Gasser’s distinctive drumming, I could hear some of Xentrix’s classic melodies, and, most importantly, this was a band that I loved since I was 15 years old.

After a couple of listens I eventually noticed one song, “The truth lies buried“, which effectively anchored me to the album. The next time I put the album on, I went straight for that song. Eventually, I fell in love with it, and I still think it is the best song on the album. But the more I listened, the more I started noticing catchy choruses and vocal patterns, interesting harmonies, and some riffs that reminded me of the Xentrix of old. “The red mist descends” quickly became my second favourite song (brilliant opening, vocal patterns, and chorus). I now like this album quite a lot, which is a completely different view from my original one, and the only reason this happened was by suspending disappointment. This is a privilege that other bands, bands that do not mean much to me, do not enjoy.

Incomplete albums, song-lyrics, and media technologies

Over the years, I have experienced many albums as incomplete cultural artifacts. In previous posts (read here and here) I have discussed how that was the result of missing bonus songs. Another grievance I had as a young music fan was about albums that did not include the song-lyrics in the booklet or inner sleeve. So, when my friends and I accessed the internet for the first time in the mid-1990s, before the days of YouTube or peer-to-peer music sharing, we used it primarily to complement our music-listening practices, and music artifacts themselves, by finding and printing out song-lyrics. Printouts like the one pictured below reside inside many of my vinyl records.

I printed out the lyrics for Xentrix’s Kin at home on 2/3/1997.

In the pre-internet days, I would sit with my friends listening to songs over and over again trying to make out lyrics that were omitted from the booklets of albums. I remember once spending hours trying to decipher the lyrics from various songs off Hypocrisy‘s The fourth dimension (and we did a pretty good job in the end). The arrival of the internet changed that. On the one hand we gained easy access to lyrics that we didn’t have to struggle to decipher; on the other hand we abandoned some of our rituals of music-listening. Just like the internet and the printer replaced endless hours of compulsive listening and comparing notes in an effort to decipher lyrics, web 2.0 and smart-phones replaced the printer. Although I still do not own a smart-phone it’s fair to assume that printing out song-lyrics, now that in many socioeconomic contexts the internet has become ubiquitous, must be a thing of the past. Additionally, websites like Encyclopaedia Metallum, a massive database that is user-produced, has changed how I search for lyrics, not simply by making it easier, but also enriching it with other information about albums and artists.

What I describe above should not be read as a lament for the sacrifice of a more “authentic” music-based sociality on the altar of technology. Instead, these different periods represent different techno-social eras characterised by different actors (both human and non-human) interacting within different networks of social relations. Every new technology that replaces a ritual, introduces in turn new rituals which involve, to use Bruno Latour’s terms, delegations (tasks with which we endow the technology) and prescriptions (skills and knowledge that the technology requires from us). For each loss of a face-to-face social interaction we gain interaction (albeit a more opaque and reified one) with unseen millions on the internet. To quote Xentrix, “each phase of life, a new scenario”.

The culture of Entombed’s Clandestine

Recently a colleague started an Album Club, inviting people to suggest one album that they would like to get together to listen to and talk about. Nobody from work listens to – or at least is a committed fan of – metal so I thought I should introduce them to some excellent masterpiece from my favourite genre. I considered several albums that are sublime and which I think everyone should hear, such as Death‘s Symbolic (1995), Dismember‘s Massive killing capacity (1995), At The Gates‘s second (1993) or fourth album (1995), Blind Guardian‘s Imaginations from the other side (1995), Iron Maiden‘s Somewhere in time (1986), Paradise Lost‘s Draconian times (1995), Napalm Death‘s Enemy of the music business (2001), Carcass‘s Heartwork (1993), Sinister‘s Diabolical summoning (1993) and Slayer‘s Seasons in the abyss (1990). In the end, I decided to go with Entombed‘s Clandestine (1991), an album I love as much as all the previously mentioned, and maybe a bit more. This is a post about the rich culture of Clandestine, which I also aim to share with my colleagues in the context of this Album Club.

My copy of Entombed’s Clandestine, bought from Metal Era, Athens, sometime in late 1996

As with many death metal albums, Clandestine is an artifact situated at the intersection of horror literature, horror cinema and death metal music. Influences from at least those three fields have been drawn to create what Clandestine is. As such, maximising the pleasure derived from Clandestine requires, first of all, attunement to the compositional conventions of the death metal genre. I consider the latter necessary for navigating the soundscapes created by fast tempos, absence of traditional popular music compositional templates, fast tremolo picking, growled vocals, heavily distorted guitar sound, and so forth. Albums that I consider important stations towards Clandestine include Black Sabbath‘s Master of reality (1971, “Evilyn” – especially the last verse – bears the mark of the riff and groove of “Children of the grave“), Slayer‘s Reign in blood (1986, from which “Chaos breed” borrows the evil melodies and backwards gallop of “Raining blood“), Death‘s Scream bloody gore (1987, from which Clandestine took… well, death metal) and Leprosy (1988, from which Clandestine borrowed fast tremolo-picked riffs like the main one of “Born dead“), Carcass‘s Symphonies of sickness (1989), Autopsy‘s Severed survival (1989, for the fast tremolo-picked riffs on songs like “Disembowel“),  Atheist‘s Piece of time (1989) and Atrocity‘s Hallucinations (1990, from which Clandestine borrows the compositional complexity, and in the case of Atrocity the beginning of “Defeated intellect“, and the disturbing melody at the beginning of “Hallucinations“), as well as more generally bands like Discharge and GBH (from which Clandestine borrows the D-beat heard on “Sinners bleed and “Blessed be“). Experience with the aforementioned albums/bands would build a degree of familiarity with the style which would then render Clandestine more decipherable, both in terms of musicality but also in terms of how an album like this came about.

Albums I consider important stations towards Clandestine

Horror movie samples are integral to the album’s soundscape. The awesome quotes from The masque of the red death (1964) (i.e. “There is no other god! Satan killed him”, “Each man creates his own heaven, his own hell”, “Death has no master”), itself a film based on E. A. Poe‘s story of the same name, are recruited in the opening song “Living dead” to complement Alex Hellid’s anti-christian discourse. As a horror movie fan I discovered some of those references accidentally over the years, but, in some occasions it was the result of intentional pursuit. In the past I have described YouTube users as intertextual enablers, significant counterparts in the production of culture allowing fans to decipher the intertextual character of cultural artifacts. In the case of Clandestine YouTube users have revealed things about the music I was unaware of. For example, I found out through YouTube user Форчан Скатился that the insane laugh in “Sinners bleed“, arguably one of the most haunting moments of the album, comes from the classic horror movie The Mummy (1932). Upon watching the movie I also discovered that the sampled words “death…eternal punishment”, which precede the aforementioned laugh (at 3:05), were also taken from it. In these occasions, the band takes texts found in films, edits, remixes and adds them to their compositions to animate horrifying sensations.

“Death… eternal punishment… for anyone who opens this casket. In the name of Amon-Ra… the king of the Gods”

Lovecraftian terror underpins some of the album’s lyrical thematology and visuality. “Stranger aeons” deserves special mention in this context. It is a song which for many years I did not consider on par with the rest of the songs on this album; it is slow, not as complex as the other songs, and it had that riff that whenever I would hear it I would think of “Ruptured in purulence” by Carcass. Over the years, and by building cultural competences in the field of horror literature, I learned how to love it. The intentional Lovecraftian references include the title, as well as the lyric “lurking at the threshold, you’re lost between the gates”. The latter refers to the book The lurker at the threshold written by August Derleth, based on H. P. Lovecraft‘s universe and some of his unfinished work. Interestingly, and this is where a person’s idiosyncrasy kicks in to continue the cultural production, much of the imagery that’s invoked while listening to this song was not intentionally encoded in the lyrics but inadvertently found its way in. For example, discursive fragments by stories like ‘The thing on the doorstep’ or ‘The lurking fear’ also come to mind when I listen to this song. I literally think of Edward’s liquefied body at the threshold of the house as described in the former, an image that produces a horrifying sentiment, which I don’t think was the intention of Kenny Hakansson when he wrote the lyrics. In such occasions I become a cultural poacher, combining disparate texts in unintended ways to experience unique pleasures.

Some good companions of Clandestine

Through the collonades” (a misspell of the word colonnades) is the closing song of this extremely thickly textured and complex album, a breathtaking song that has been transformed for me over the years. Although musically it always fascinated me, the cultural input that encouraged me to engage with the lyrics was Lovecraft. When I first listened to Clandestine in the mid-1990s I had not read Lovecraft yet. Only ex-post I can tell that reading those lyrics back in the day did not invoke a visual narrative in my mind, besides the image of walking down a dark path flanked by tall colonnades. It was reading Lovecraft, and especially tales like “The crawling chaos” (co-written by Winifred V. Jackson), that eventually allowed me to produce a coherent tale and a visual landscape in my mind. I love how the mood shifts from sombre to urgent and panicky as the narrator begins to describe the horrors s/he encountered (at 3:08 – “hellish terror risen in the mountains of unknown”). Finally, the horror of waking up from a nightmare only to discover you live in another one is a very Lovecraftian one, and the lyric line “although my dreams have ended, as I wished in weakened thought, beyond the night is total and through the collonades I walk” sends chills down my spine. It also brings into mind the Lovecraftian John Carpenter film In the mouth of madness (1994), where the boundaries between nightmare and reality blur, and the terror of waking up to a nightmarish reality is ever-present.

The above are merely a few of the things that explain my fascination with this album. What this account does not include is the memories from countless hours of listening to it, alone and with friends, for the past 24 years, and of course the pleasure of engaging with this album, both in terms of seeking to learn new things about it, and in terms of surrendering to its magic and allowing it to carry me away into its strange universe.

                                      The entire Clandestine live in 2016

Some of the scholarly ideas that underpin the above narrative can be found in the following:

Bourdieu, P. (1984), Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste. London: Routledge.

Fiske, J. (1991), ‘Moments of television: neither the text nor the audience’, in: Seiter, E. et al. (eds), Remote control: television, audiences and cultural power, London: Routledge, 56-78

Jenkins, H. (1992), Textual poachers: Television fans and participatory culture. London: Routledge.

Zenerian, E. (2018), ‘Doing–listening’ with Deranged’s Struck by a Murderous Siege: An auto-ethnography of death metal vinyl consumption. Metal Music Studies, 4(1), 115-130.

Perfect bonus songs, imperfect albums, and the internetisation of popular music #2

This is a follow-up to a post I wrote about three years ago, a post I really enjoyed thinking about and writing. This post too is concerned with the idea of the music album as a complete body of works, how the illusion and the sense of conceptual integrity and unity of the album are threatened by ‘bonus tracks’, and how the digitisation/internetisation of music might be implicated in redefining what we mean by a ‘complete’ body of works. Just like in the previous post I will present some examples of awesome songs missing from the standard versions of albums. In all these cases the missing songs are better than most other songs on these albums, effectively calling into question the conceptual integrity of the album, and leaving me with a sense of the album being incomplete. Without further ado here are the songs in question in chronological order:

1. Roky Erickson and the AliensClick your fingers applauding the play, Sputnik, & If you have ghosts (I think of demons, 1980)

Anything I say about this album is inadequate to express how much I love it. I got introduced to Roky in the late 1990s by Entombed, through their cover of “Night of the vampire”. I originally heard the 1987 re-issue titled The evil one, which contains 15 songs. I bought the 1987 UK vinyl version of this record in 2007, titled I think of demons, and from it the three songs mentioned above were missing. I cannot begin to describe how annoyed I was. A few years later a friend of mine (thanks Aristea) bought me the unabridged The evil one version of the album (which also has the alternate US cover) from the Amoeba record store in California, so now I have those awesome songs as well. It is worth noting that the original version of the album that came out in 1980 has even fewer songs on it than the 1987 UK re-issue. This is another example of the arbitrary nature of albums and what constitutes a complete work of art. Someone could argue that the original album is the complete one, yet the additional songs are clearly recorded in the same period, have the same sound, and are on par with, if not better than, the 10 original cuts.

2. SuffocationHuman waste (Human waste, 1991)

“Human waste” is a track that is missing from the vinyl version of Suffocation’s Human waste EP. As opposed to other songs on this list “Human waste” has different production values than the rest of the songs on this EP, as the sound has clearly ‘demo’ sound quality. In that sense it constitutes more legitimately a ‘bonus’ song which does not threaten the conceptual integrity of the album. At the same time it is both an awesome song and it is the title track! I first listened to the album from a friend’s cassette tape which included the bonus song, and I distinctly remember that “Human waste” and “Catatonia” were the two songs that absolutely blew my mind. I bought the vinyl version from a local record store in my hometown called Paranoid around 1997, and I remember my disappointment when I saw that “Human waste” was missing, and to this day this album feels incomplete.

3. Bad ReligionNews from the front (Stranger than fiction, 1994)

The fact that “News from the front” is missing from the standard vinyl version of Stranger than fiction pisses me off immensely, because it is such a superb song with an amazing tempo, extremely catchy chorus, and memorable singing patterns overall. Most importantly, it is hands down better than any of the other songs on the album. I consider Stranger than fiction a weak album, and “News from the front” would motivate me to listen more often to some of the songs I actually like on that album (“Marked”, “Stranger than fiction”, “Better off dead”). Instead, I listen to “News from the front” as part of a compilation b-sides album have on mp3. Over the years, Bad Religion have repeated this crime with the brilliant “The fast life” missing from the standard version of the mediocre (in my opinion) The new America (2000), and the bonus track and B-side masterpieces, “Shattered faith” & “Who we are” respectively, missing from the standard version of The process of belief (2002).

4. NomeansnoLost (The worldhood of the world, 1995)

The album that introduced me to Nomeansno was The worldhood of the world (1995), a CD I bought around 2003 from Sonic Boom, a record store in Kypseli, Athens. I got to listen to the CD before I bought it, and listening to a few songs both enchanted me and confused me. In my head, I was trying my best, to no avail, to unambiguously classify this band. The fact that it did not fit clearly in the punk genre annoyed me (I was relatively new to the punk genre at the time), but, at the same time, I could not stop listening. Anyway, that was the start of a long-term obsession with this brilliant band, which I ended up seeing twice when they played in Brighton, UK, in 2007 and 2013. The song “Lost” is one of the punkiest and most awesome tracks on this album, and is composed by Andy Kerr, who had left the band a few years before this album was released. A few years later I bought the vinyl version of the album and I gave the CD to a friend of mine. Sadly, “Lost” is missing from the vinyl version, which is very annoying. Don’t get me started on the state of Why do they call me Mr. Happy? (1993) on vinyl…

5. The HellacoptersCity slang (Payin’ the dues, 1997)

“City slang” is a breathtaking song originally by Sonic’s Rendezvous Band. The Hellacopters have played many covers over the years and this one is one of my three favourite ones (the other two are Dead Moon’s “Rescue” and Love’s “A house is not a motel“). It can only be found in the rare vinyl version of Payin’ the dues (1997). Until very recently I did not own that vinyl, so I only had the song on a shitty cassette-tape I made from a friend’s album. In line with what the Hellacopters do, this is a very clean and technically proficient version of the original tune, without, however, lacking in passion and power. Compare Dregen’s carefully reconstructed solo between 2:35-3:00, to the more messy original by Fred Smith. Another excellent call was making the harmony at the end of the song more prominent. The way some of the notes are accentuated during that last bit of the song is also excellent.

6. Paradise LostShrines (Medusa, 2017)

“Shrines” is a relatively conventional song, short in duration, with great vocals, a perfect chorus, and a great post-chorus melody. I still cannot believe this masterpiece is missing from the standard version of Medusa! Every time I listen to it I’m pissed off. Over the years, some of Paradise Lost’s most breathtaking tracks have been reserved for singles and EPs (songs like “As I die”, “The rape of virtue“, “Sweetness”, “Fear“, “Master of misrule” spring to mind). “Shrines” is included in the limited digipack edition, and it is a pity, because, in my opinion, is better than most songs on the album (and upon reading the YouTube comments I can see that others have the same opinion). Thankfully, I managed to find and download a copy of the digipack edition, so the album I have on my mp3 feels more complete than the actual vinyl record.

Is this where I came from? #14 Anti-cimex and Rotting Christ

It has been a long time since the 13th installment of the “Is this where I came from?” series of posts, in which I explored the influence of Horror cinema visuality on death metal album covers. For the 14th installment of this series of posts I will draw attention to what I consider a very obscure case of intertextuality between Rotting Christ, a cult black metal band from Athens, Greece, and Anti-Cimex, a cult crust band from Sweden.

Anti-Cimex – Doing Time (1990)

“Doing time” is a song off Anti-Cimex’s first full length album, Absolut country of Sweden (1990) which came out in 1990, many years and several demos and E.P.s after the band formed in the early 1980s. It could be argued that Anti-Cimex launched the great Swedish tradition of Discharge rip-offs, and, alongside bands like Crucifix, Doom, and Ratos De Porao, they inspired and helped establish the worldwide D-beat genre. “Doing time” is a song that exemplifies Anti-Cimex’s sound. Yet, consistent with the minor stylistic changes present in this album that allude to metal aesthetics, the furious D-beat gives way to a mid-paced, heavy palm-muted chord progression starting at 3:45. This progression is further developed with the addition of a short sharp lick first heard at 4:08, which is the bit that is very reminiscent of the song by Rotting Christ I present below.

Rotting Christ – The fifth illusion (1994)

Rotting Christ is probably the first extreme metal band I ever listened to, through the compilation tape Into the catachthonium (1994) courtesy of Unisound records. The opener “The fifth illusion” comes from the band’s excellent second full length album titled Non serviam (1994). The extremely catchy lick to which I am referring in this post is first heard at 0:41-0:43 in the video below, and is repeated several times throughout the duration of the song. Whether Sakis Tolis (the band’s principal composer) consciously imitated the Anti-Cimex riff or whether it is a coincidence remains a hypothesis. However, it is worth noting that Rotting Christ started off as a grindcore band, so, I guess, listening to a band like Anti-Cimex would not be inconsistent with Sakis’s musical tastes.

My favourite albums from 2018

During 2018 some world-class bands released albums that I found disappointing, and, overall, I had difficulty coming up with a top-ten list initially, in spite of having listened to loads of newly released albums. This year, I tried listening to some albums I wouldn’t normally be interested in, but gave up quickly. One of those was Ihsahn‘s Amr (which probably stands for armchair in Norwegian) and, to be fair, I didn’t make a big effort; there were some elements that I guess could have been found on Emperor’s final album, but overall was not my cup of tea. Pestilence‘s comeback with an album carefully planed to elicit feelings of nostalgia for the early-1990s period of the band disappointed me. The death metal “supergroup” (although the only two people who have ever been in it who can genuinely claim to have released good death metal are Swano and Tagtgren, and they’re long gone) Bloodbath released another album full of what I consider mind-numbingly boring music. Siege of Power is a new band that includes Chris Reifert (Autopsy) and Bob Bagchus (of classic Asphyx fame), so naturally I was excited about it. I could barely listen to the entire thing one time, which does not necessarily say something about the quality of this album, but I don’t feel the desire to listen to it again. Deicide, a band in which I lost interest a long time ago, returned with a new album. Once again, I tried to enjoy it but I couldn’t. In my opinion even an album like Inciniratehymn (2000), which upon its release was deemed extremely disappointing (I actually like it these days), is a masterpiece compared to Overtures of blasphemy. Notable exception is the very melodic “Defying the sacred”, which reminded me of the adventurous spirit and catchiness (not songwriting, obviously) of Serpents of the light (1997) era. Once again I gave Unleashed the benefit of the doubt and listened to their new album and once again I was left with utter disappointment. In the mid-1990s I was in love with this band. I still find it hard to understand how it managed to stay true to its “mission statement” whilst succeeding in reinventing itself and not remaining stagnant, but still ending up sounding uninspired and silly (in my opinion, of course).

I’ll continue with some albums I enjoyed a little bit more. I always keep an eye out for new collaborations that include Nicke Andersson, so this year I listened to Lucifer‘s second album simply titled Lucifer II. I enjoyed a few songs, like “California son”, “Faux Pharaoh” and “Dreamer”. I have not listened to it in a while but I don’t really feel the desire to either. I listened to the new Gruesome album, titled Twisted prayers, a few times, but couldn’t get into it. There are no doubt some great songs in there, “Fatal illusions” is an example of the latter, but for me the Spiritual healing-era worship has overstayed its welcome; there’s a reason why Chuck moved on. Blitzkrieg released a new album titled Judge not!. Although the only remaining original member is Brian Ross one can certainly hear the original Blitzkrieg sentiment and songwriting in this album. In line with their back-catalogue this album sounds a bit amateurish, in all respects. Nevertheless, I like almost all the songs, with favourites being “Reign of fire”, “Angels and demons”, “Forever is a long time”, and the homonymous one. “Wide legged and headless”, a little more up-tempo song, using yet another variation of the classic pre-chorus riff on Tokyo Blade’s “Break the chains”. Eldritch is a band to which I keep coming back from time to time. I unlikely fell in love with them during 1998-1999, in the midst of an American brutal death metal obsession, and El nino (1998) was one of my favourite albums of that year. I have enjoyed some of their subsequent albums, I love Portrait of the abyss within (2004), and I generally have a soft spot for them. Their new album, titled Cracksleep, is unmistakably Eldritch, with its usual furious and technical metal songwriting alongside more melancholic ballad-like compositions. It is not bad but, in my opinion, it is not one of their finest moments either.

The Adolescents released a new album titled Cropduster, which may as well be their last one. Sadly, this album contains the last ever tunes and bass-lines we’ll be hearing by Steve Soto who passed away last June. Soto has always been one of my favourite punk songwriters and bass-players, and since the band’s reformation has written some exceptional songs. I enjoyed the new album as much as I have enjoyed the last couple of albums by the band; most songs I like a lot (e.g. “Queen of denial”, “Paradigm junkies”, “Sunspot screams”) and some I like a bit less. Cauldron‘s new album, titled New gods, is in the usual Cauldron vein. The band can claim to have a somewhat personal sound. I liked some of the songs but overall it felt to me like a watered down version of In ruin (2015). Judas Priest’s shift from British steel to Point of entry inadvertently came to mind when listening to New godsP.L.F.‘s new album, titled Jackhammering deathblow of nightmarish trepidation, offered some much-needed pleasure among a tirade of lame death metal releases. As opposed to the latter, P.L.F offer passionate brutal music that does not lack in sophistication either. Although, grindcore never really manages to capture my attention for more than a few listens (with a few notable exception) this is good stuff.

Swedish thrash-death band Dreadful Fate released its debut Vengeance, an album I was really looking forward to, and although I definitely enjoyed it a lot I do not consider it in any possible sense a “great” album. I will start with things that I liked about this album: Half of the album’s songs are composed by Karlen, the ex-bassist of Merciless, and they are reminiscent of the masterpiece titled The awakening (1990). The other half of the album pretty much conforms to this style, maybe with the slight exception of “Eternal fire” which is pure Bathory worship, and the Celtic Frost nod on the slow bit of “Unholy lust”. The production is really good. The cover artwork is awesome, and generally the way the vinyl record is presented is beautiful. Castervall’s vocals are also great. Now I will continue with why the album did not live up to my expectations. The singer comes from Hypnosia, the band whose Invocator/Kreator-powered debut is one of the greatest thrash albums of all time. As opposed to Merciless and Hypnosia where their drummers would lift the songs to great heights, Vengeance is in my opinion lacking great drumming. One of my least favourite moments in the album is the song “Altar of cruelty” where it feels like the guitarist and the drummer play at different tempos, both of them are too stubborn to either slow down or speed up to synchronise, yet they make some necessary adjustments from time to time to keep the song going without totally falling apart. I really cannot be sure if it is just my impression but it feels quite awkward! Moreover, while the rest of Karlen’s songs are quite awesome (especially “Death sentence” and “Witches hammer”) the rest of the songs did not impress me (with the exception of “The final sacrifice”). Believe me, I was really looking forward to this release, I could not wait to get a new taste of Hypnosia but “Hour of reprisal” did not satisfy the need. The new Gruesome is not the only album released by Gus Rios this year. Together with Alex Marquez, and under the Create A Kill moniker, they released a pretty enjoyable and expertly executed thrash-death album that, I imagine, would please fans of Demolition Hammer, Solstice, Exodus, Slayer, and Blood Feast. The band is enveloped by a number of guest musicians, including Matt Harvey (Exhumed, Gruesome) and Tobias Gustafsson (Vomitory, Torture Division). Some of the heavier and sharp triplet riffs sound more like the brutal appropriation of thrash riffing by bands like Malevolent Creation. This is not surprising given that both Gus and Alex are part of the history of Malevolent Creation (and Alex Solstice too). Hate Eternal released the first album since their debut that I actually enjoyed, titled Upon desolate sands. When their debut came out in 1999 I considered it an instant classic, but their sophomore album and every one since disappointed me. I would not be surprised if recording Morbid Angel’s latest album inspired Rutan to write some good death metal again. It starts in a manner almost identical to Internecine’s The book of lambs (2001), but continues with awesome riffs that could have easily been on Conquering the throne (1999). The main difference is the inclusion of more atmospheric melancholic passages, as can be heard after the second verse of “The violent fury”, the end of the very catchy “All hope destroyed”, and the instrumental “For whom we have lost”. Beyond that, all the heavy, dissonant, triplets and swampy textures that Rutan is known for since his first stint with Morbid Angel (I’m thinking of “Nothing but fear”) can be heard all over the album. Overall, I enjoyed it quite a lot and I think I might discover more things in the future. Special mention to the new Pungent Stench album, titled Smut Kingdom, needs to be made before I move on to the list of my ten favourite albums from the past year. Sometime in 2007 I was following the online forum that El Cochino used to update fans of the band about the recording process of the new Pungent Stench album. I remember my absolute disappointment when it was announced that the band would fold and that the album would be shelved. Here we are 11 years later with the album being finally released, and musically contains some of Pungent Stench’s best material. Pungent Stench is a band that lyrically always dealt with topics that are considered deviant in popular discourse. All kinds of sexual practices have been addressed in Pungent Stench’s lyrics, and in many cases sexual practices that are rarely talked about, including coprophilia (“Klyster boogie”), amputation fetish (“The amp hymn”), and BDSM. Although in some ways the band often comes across as genuinely celebrating sexual freedom, at the same time, those topics have been approached in a humorous way, and Martin has argued that their lyrics should first and foremost make themselves laugh. Unfortunately, in many instances the capacity of their lyrics to incite humorous responses depends on the listener occupying relatively privileged positions in society. In other words, it is unlikely that most women or, lets say, disabled people would find Pungent Stench’s lyrics funny. It is worth noting, in the band’s defense, that the band has rarely directly addressed its audience with the exception of the awesome anti-rape song “Rape – pagar con la misma moneda”, which includes the line ‘all raped women should get their revenge, kill those motherfuckers say pungent stench’. In the new album, however, Alex offers some terrible, nasty homophobic, racist, and misogynistic lyrics. I’m pretty sure that if someone confronted them they would come back with the usual old rhetoric “blah blah, political correctness…blah blah, freedom of speech”, but really Alex comes across as a vile shithead, and made me wonder why someone would be so hateful. Off he should fuck. This is unfortunate, because many songs are some of the best the band has ever recorded, and most of Martin’s songs are awesome, although I found songs like “Planet of the dead”, “Smut kingdom” and “I require death sentence” at best mediocre.

Without further ado here are the ten albums I have enjoyed the most this past year.

1. Satan – Cruel magic

Cruel magic is the undisputed masterpiece of 2018. Satan is a band I did not listen in the days of my youth. Instead, I discovered them after their reunion, a period during which they released two of the all-time best metal albums of all time. So, the news of a new album made me extremely happy. Listening to it made me even happier. This album is tremendously astonishing. On Cruel magic, Satan is offering simply breathtaking music. I don’t know how they do it; I guess the chemistry that exists among these people is magical. The Ramsey-Tippins guitar duo once again offers its beautiful double-lead attack, beautiful harmonies, and fast, driving tremolo-picked rifforchestration like there’s no tomorrow. But Satan is much more than a collection of awesome guitar solos and riffs. The songs are brilliantly structured, and the composers are not afraid to try unorthodox chord progressions. The music, overall, is so profoundly awesome that the whole album could have been exclusively instrumental and it would still be brilliant. In his turn, Brian Ross expertly accommodates the weird chord progressions by coming up with interesting vocal lines. In my opinion, Ross outdid himself on this album, as it contains some of the best vocals I’ve ever heard on a heavy metal album. The riffing and dynamic progression of “Ophidian” sounds like something that Hank Shermann could come up with. The riffing, vocal delivery, musical development, Graeme’s delicious bass-lines, and pre-chorus riffing of “Ghosts of Monongah” leave me speechless. The tempo, riffing, and chorus of “Death knell for a king” make up an instant classic. The non-stop up-beat tempo, rapid riffing, and catchy chorus of “The doomsday clock” make it an instant classic in the vein of “Trial by fire”. And each song has little brilliant touches waiting to be discovered (now I’m thinking about the change from the hi-hat to the ride cymbal during the last verse of “Ophidian”). Songs like these come out once in a lifetime: “Ghosts of Monongah”, “My prophetic soul”, “Ophidian”, “Legions hellbound”, “Death knell for a king”, “Doomsday clock”.

2. Refuge – Solitary men

Every time I see a Rage-related news item on Metal news websites in the last three years my heart starts pounding. The reason is that Peavy is one of my all-time favourite songwriters, and since he got rid of Smolski he went back to writing little masterpieces. The news of re-uniting with Chris Efthimiadis and Manni Schmidt a few years back (news I heard for the first time through the comments of a reader of this very blog!) sent chills down my spine. Refuge is the alter-ego of Rage, and they offered a beautiful debut album full of the excellence one would expect from old Rage. The first day I got it I listened to it five-six times back to back, and it’s remained on steady rotation since. Stylistically Refuge is unavoidably quite similar, albeit less brutal, to the current Rage given that in both ensembles Peavy is the main songwriter. Moreover, the current guitarist of Rage (Marcos) has been influenced by Manni, and Rage’s current drummer (Vasillios) is one of Chris’s students. Guitar-playing-wise Manni is a more seasoned musician than Marcos, his playing is less polished, more frantic, and less reluctant to drift off to unknown territory. The song “Hell freeze over” is a good example of this last point I make, as it is an incredible song where the beauty of Peavy’s melodies can only be surpassed by the mannic (see what I did there?) guitar work. The brilliant “We owe a life to death” is clearly crafted after “Who dares” (from The missing link). For a more detailed review read here. Favourite songs: “Let me go”, “Summer’s winter”, “Mind over matter”, “Hell freeze over”, “Waterfalls”, “From the ashes”.

3. Zeke – Hellbender

Zeke in my opinion generously gave the world some of the best gifts that can be given in the form of Kicked in the teeth (1998), Dirty Sanchez (2000), and Death alley (2001). All of them, but especially Death alley, are among my all time favourite albums. Then they released that absolute borefest called ‘Till the livin’ end (2004). I was extremely happy to see Zeke return with an album that showcases what they do best: fast, energetic, short songs, with hundreds of lead breaks. Hellbender is a wonderful, intense, crazed trip down the highway paved by Death alley and its predecessors. I would go as far as to say that Hellbender has, overall, their best songwriting as almost every single song is extremely catchy. On the other hand, the new album lacks the tight mix that Death alley has whereby one feels each snare and kick-drum hit straight to the centre of one’s brain, and every lead jumps out of the noise into a full-frontal attack to the senses that gives one goosebumps. But it is almost there and that’s good enough for me. Who am I kidding, this album is a masterpiece. Favourite songs include: “County jail”, “Big rig”, “Cougar rock”, “Working man”, “Hellbender”, “On the road”, “AR-15”.

4. Cancer – Shadow Gripped

Cancer released a new album that it pretty awesome. For those who like comparisons, the songwriting is consistent with the band’s first three albums with little bits and pieces of the dissonant and melodic elements that can be found in Walker’s other band, Liquid Graveyard, on songs like “Half man, half beast” and “Down the steps” (a brilliant song based on the film The Exorcist [1973]). The atmosphere is claustrophobic and imposing, the vocals are monstrous, and the compositions appropriately allude to decay. Most of the time the music follows simple forms found in early death metal. Apart from the expected resemblance to Cancer’s first three albums, Death‘s Leprosy (1988), Morgoth‘s Cursed (1991), Necrophagia‘s Season of the dead (1987), and even a bit of Six Feet Under (for example the intro riff of “Infocidal” reminded me of “Victim of the paranoid”), kept coming to mind during the first few listens. The very fast kick-snare beat on “Organ snatcher” and “Infocidal” are particularly reminiscent of Morgoth. Nevertheless, there is variety, catchy vocal patterns, and interesting orchestrations here and there that make this album stand out and a worthy addition next to To the gory end (1990) and The sins of mankind (1993). Shadow gripped is old-school gloomy death metal. OH, PISTACHIO!

5. Memoriam – The silent vigil

Memoriam’s second album did not impress me initially as much as their debut, but grew gradually into one of my favourite albums of the year. The reason might be that the first three songs on the album are not, in my opinion, as impressive as the rest of the album. The style of the band has been crystalised into a super-heavy, mid-tempo, hardcore-leaning brutal death metal. Like their previous album, Memoriam wrote memorable songs that include catchy riffs, choruses and inspired vocal patterns and lyrics. Scott once again wrote some amazing melodies, inspired orchestrations, and well-structured songs. Having read some reviews here and there I have to say that I’m sick of people who insist on comparing this to Bolt Thrower (and finding it inadequate), and who insist on making the same condescending comment regarding Willetts’s vocals (“Karl voice hasn’t aged well” or some shit along these lines); why on earth would Memoriam sound like Bolt Thrower when all the music is written by Scott who was never part of Bolt Thrower?! Also, could people please consider that maybe Willetts wanted to change his vocal style for this different band? (seriously, most old-school death metal vocalists I can think of have changed/softened their vocals over the years – David Ingram, L. G. Petrov, Marc Grewe, David Vincent, and so forth, why is everyone making it such a big deal about Karl?) Some scum on Blabbermouth’s comment section was critical of the fact that Willetts wore an Antifa t-shirt in one of the band’s promotional photos. Apparently we’ve reached the point where being criticised for being anti-fascist is absolutely normal…  This world is going fast down the shithole. Favourite songs include: “The silent vigil”, “Bleed the same”, “As bridges burn”, “No known grave”, and “New dark ages”. A perfect album to bash in some fascist heads to.

6. Terrorizer – Caustic attack

As if I did not have enough respect for Lee Harrison, not only he returns with an awesome Monstrosity album, but he brings Terrorizer back to its old glory. Caustic attack is a fantastic album. Sandoval’s recovery took many years, during which his skills deteriorated to a considerable degree, but Caustic attack is another testament to his amazing determination and passion. His stamina is breathtaking and, overall, his drumming on this album is reminiscent of his old glories; I think it’s time him and Trey get back together. Sam Molina provides awesome vocals and patterns that are, in my opinion, more fitting to the band’s furious sound than Rezhawk’s. The tunes are awesome; most of the songs follow the classic World downfall (1989) recipe of grindcore, but there is also some more distinct death metal riffing, including some Morbid Angel-esque hues (I’m thinking of that riff halfway through “Devastate”), and little Monstrosity touches (for example, the second riff on “Wasteland”). Overall, there is more variety compared to its predecessor, Hordes of zombies (2012). The latter had some great albeit monotonous songwriting, a characterisation which also applies to Sandoval’s drumming on that album. Caustic attack kicks off with the short devastating song titled “Turbulence”, the beginning of which is like the middle part of “Enslaved by propaganda” on steroids, and continues with two more crushing odes to World downfall. “Crisis” is one of the top songs of the year; I haven’t heard such an awesome intro in a long time! “Infiltration” is a monster and that bit at 3:30 is absolutely obliterating (the china cymbal at 3:37 sounds so nice…). Near the end of the album the band offers two of its most merciless attacks in the form of “Caustic attack” and “Poison gas tsunami”. On the former, as well as on “Trench of corruption”, Sandoval is using, probably for the first time, the bomb-blast technique. It’s inspiring seeing a master of the genre expanding his grinding repertoire.

7. At The Gates – To drink from the night itself

My opinion about ATG’s comeback album has not changed over the last three years. I consider it a great album, but in no way on a par with their old albums. I still dislike the production, the drum sound, and I am not crazy about the lyrics. But it also has a few masterpieces, such as “The death and the labyrinth”, the homonymous song, “The head of the Hydra”, “The abomination”, and “Order from chaos”. The news of Anders’s departure destroyed any hope for a better album. Yet, I cannot help but feel that Jonas stepped up his game and wrote a great, more consistent album. The opener is a very beautiful instrumental song leading up to probably the hit of the album, the homonymous song. “A stare bound in stone” is one of the most complex songs on the album, composed of many interesting sections. The opening notes lead to a classic Jonas riff that could be in any of the first three The Haunted albums. This type of riffing is not really my cup of tea, and no doubt Anders could have At-The-Gatesized it by playing at a lower register, alternating between muted and open strings, and tripleting some of the notes. “Daggers of black haze” is another complex song, this time slow and melancholic, a masterpiece of the order of the early ATG albums. The D-beat infused and quite simplistic “The chasm” is a surprise since ATG have not tried something similar in the past. The lackluster beginning and boring chorus of “Palace of lepers” redeems itself with a great riff on the second half and an overall great ending. “In nameless sleep” similarly kicks off as a middle-of-the-road song, but develops into a good song with a very memorable chorus, and melancholic melodies. A “Labyrinth of tombs”, one of  my favourite in the album, is a riff-fest with an awesome chorus and very anthemic melodies building up to a brilliant climax. “In death they shall burn” is another extra-riffy and aggressive song, with a brilliant riff towards the end that could have been in Spiritual Healing or Human; the melody on top of that riff is pure awesomeness. The less clinical production is welcome as well. On a more critical note, some of the chord progressions, melodies, and moods feel repetitive at times, and the album feels kinda predictable overall. Favourite songs include: “Daggers of black haze”, “In death they shall burn”, “Labyrinth of tombs”, “Seas of starvation”, and the homonymous one.

8. Vojd – The outer ocean

The decision of Black Trip, one of the most notable new bands from Sweden, to change their name to Vojd came as a surprise. Listening to their new album made a bit more sense, as the “heavy metal” label no longer applies to this band. The NWOBHM and even Mercyful Fate influences found in their debut, and which had already started to disappear by their second album, are now gone. The heaviest song of the album “Heavy skies”, is more reminiscent of the heavy rock of Motorhead. This doesn’t mean that the band has completely changed its style. Songs like “Walk me under”, which has a breathtaking harmonised guitar melody after the chorus, “Delusions in the sky”, “On the run” and “Vindicated blues” (the most addictive riff and best chorus on the album) could have easily been in the previous album. At times the style of this album feels more akin to the heavy rock of Alice Cooper in the early 1970s and the Scorpions during the 1980s. With “Secular wire” Vojd joins the Scandinavian tradition of shamelessly ripping off the instantly recognisable Ramones riff on “I just wanna have something to do” (see The Hellacopters “Same lame story”, Turbonegro “Get it on”), but with some really good results nevertheless. The performance of the band is flawless, Joseph Tholl’s vocals are once again unbelievable, and Peter Stjarnvind’s leads are beautiful. Another thing that distinguishes this new ensemble from Black Trip is that the new guitarist’s style is very similar to Peter, so the band lost the awesome trade-off between melodic (Peter) and shredding (Sebastian) guitar leads of the past. Finally, I hate “Dream machine, and I wish it was not on the album (it reminds me of the terrible appropriation of blues by the Arctic Monkeys). Favourite songs include: “Walk me under”, “Vindicated blues”, “Heavy skies”, and “Delusions in the sky”.

9. Monstrosity – The passage of existence

It’s been 11 years since Monstrosity’s last album, and to be honest I did not miss them. It is a band that in my opinion reached its creative zenith with Millennium (1996) and my interest in them gradually faded over the subsequent three albums. It’s a shame because Lee is a good songwriter, an even more awesome drummer, and, as history has shown, with the right musicians (I’m thinking Jason Morgan) he can deliver miracles. The new album has been in the making for quite a while. Monstrosity fans have probably come across clips of new songs on YouTube that go back six years. On account of the time it took to make, the album is very rich, full of interesting ideas, so it took me a few listens to appreciate. What on first appearance feels prosaic, is eventually revealed as excellent US death metal. All songs are of a high standard and, overall, I consider it better than everything they did since In dark purity (1999). There are some great performances, great riffs, beautiful melodies and good structures. Some of the more majestic, longer songs like “Maelstrom” and “Slaves to the evermore” and “Dark matter invocation”, have very clever and interesting progressions. Those more complex and challenging songs are flanked by shorter and more explosive, catchier tunes such as “Eternal void”, “Solar vacuum” (an absolute riff-fest) and “Century”, which also happen to be some of my favourite on the album. Harrison’s drumming is excellent, as usual. My only problem with this album is the singer whose performance I dislike.

10. Revolting – Monolith of madness

As many have pointed out, if you have heard one of Rogga Johansson’s bands you’ve heard them all. Being characterised the apotheosis of mediocrity, un-inventiveness, and standardisation in death metal, would not be a hyperbole. Revolting is one of Johansson’s dozens of active bands. Despite not straying too much (if at all) from a predictable death metal recipe, from time to time Johansson just happens to write nicer songs than usually. I find it hard to believe that any death metal fan would listen to songs like “Cadaver patrol”, “March of the revolter”, “Procession to the monolith”, “Faceless deformity” or “Night of the tentacles” and not fall in love with them. Monolith of madness is making  use of a compositional recipe at the centre of which lies a thinly layered verse-chorus-verse structure, with simple, yet effective, catchy melancholic melodies on top of simple heavy rhythm guitar riffs. Overall, the sound is similar to In grisly rapture (2011), although I haven’t listened to the last couple of albums so it might be similar to those too. The song “Adjusting the sun” by Hypocrisy often came to mind when listening to this album. Unsurprisingly, the weakness of the album lies in the similarities among songs and the simple song structures. The album cover is pretty cool, and I am quite sure it portrays the tower from August Derleth‘s and H. P. Lovecraft‘s The lurker at the threshold.

What happened to us? #4 Timo Tolkki and Stratovarius

In this fourth installment of the ‘What happened to us?’ series of posts I decided to address one of the most dramatic and peculiar break-ups in the history of power metal, that between Timo Tolkki, the once undisputed leader of Stratovarius, and the rest of the band. The drama, publicity, issues surrounding mental health, temporary disbanding and side-taking characterising this case make it an interesting case of band break-ups.

Stratovarius was once a band I loved, and Twilight time (1992), Dreamspace (1994) and Fourth dimension (1995) were three of the most excellent and unique-sounding metal albums of all time. Even Episode (1996), which followed the departure of Ikonen and Lassila, two great musicians whose playing was integral to the band’s sound, is a great album, full of inventive song structures and beautiful yet weirdly melancholic melodies. I still have the utmost respect for all first five albums and I consider them masterpieces of metal music. The band developed into what I thought was a caricature of their former self, starting with the release of Visions (1997), and by the late 1990s I stopped listening to them. Because of that, I followed Tolkki’s break-up with the band from a position of relative disinterest.

In April 2008 Tolkki announced the dissolution of the band, a decision he later on retracted and left the band instead, transferring all rights to his songs and the band name to Kotipelto, Michael and Johansson. It is known that the break-up was the culmination of a period of extended crisis (read here and here), evidenced in Tolkki’s hospitalisation in 2004, Michael’s session-drummer status around 2004-2005, Kotipelto’s “firing” around 2004-2005, and Kainulainen’s departure in 2005. Tolkki’s decision to ultimately abandon the band is certainly a bizarre one. The information we have to make sense of the situation comes from public statements made by the various band members. The latter provide conflicting narratives of the break-up and the wider context within which it occurred. Tolkki cites a number of factors as contributive to the demise of Stratovarius, including the lack of camaraderie and continuing hostility among some band-members, musical differences between him and Kotipelto (i.e. the former disliking the latter’s ideas) and the lack of creative passion (read here). Michael, Johansson and Kotipelto responded that Tolkki was motivated by greed (read here) and that, overall, Tolkki’s subjective interpretation of the crisis the band faced constituted a misrepresentation of the situation. All the parties involved attempted to build convincing narratives in which they come off “right”. Tolkki mobilises affect as part of his strategy, painting a picture whereby lack of passion and friendship are the problems; The rest of the band mobilises a strategy at the centre of which lies a more rational argumentation, painting a picture whereby Tolkki’s behaviour is linked to the band’s declining popularity.

My research led me to Tolkki’s autobiography, a heartbreaking memoir with relatively few references to Stratovarius and his ex-music partners, where Tolkki pours out his heart. In his autobiography he describes his struggle with bipolar disorder. In this context he describes how someone suffering from this condition will find themselves acting on impulse without realising what they do, actions which they might later regret. I don’t know if that was Tolkki’s way of saying that he regrets giving up the rights to the Stratovarius brand, but it kind of sounds like it. Tolkki was for me, and any early Stratovarius fan I presume, the undisputed leader and main creative force in the band. I even preferred his voice to Kotipelto’s; I found Tolkki’s voice powerful, sweet and with a lot of character (all epithets that in my opinion cannot be associated with Kotipelto). His early music and lyrics were beautiful, inspired and at times confessed a subtle but heartbreaking pain and sensitivity. Despite the fact that Episode (1996) is the last album I liked from them, I cannot but scoff at the notion of ‘Stratovarius without Tolkki’ in it. Stratovarius the brand might still be alive, but Stratovarius the band is dead.