If you’ve been keeping up with the blog throughout the year, you’ll remember I’ve done a pair of these batches of smaller reviews in an attempt to play catch up with the overwhelming amount of new releases I’ve had backlogged. This year has seen a constant flurry of new albums and I’ve been playing catch up all year, jumping reviews around to match release dates, postponing others… in short I’ve been trying in vain to get my metal house in order before the December Best of features start arriving and fouling up your Facebook and Twitter feeds (or maybe you love them like I do!). Anyway you know the drill with this feature by now, shorter reviews (400-500ish words) for a handful of new and new-ish 2014 releases that I’ve spent an unreasonable amount of time listening to repeatedly. Seriously, I’m sort of glad to be done with these for the time being, regardless of whether I enjoyed them or not. On to the next batch!
At The Gates – At War With Reality: I suppose back story isn’t really needed here, I mean you’re all smart, together, with-it metal fans that already know this is At The Gates first new music in nineteen years. I’ll admit that for the longest time after their initial reunion began in 2006 I never anticipated anything new in the way of a studio album from them. I saw them live in 2008 and they looked pretty comfortable doing the classics and I figured that would be it, Emperor-style reunion touring for us newer generation of metal fans that never saw them in their initial incarnation, healthy profits, and satisfaction all around. The At The Gates legacy didn’t have the same problem that Carcass did with theirs —- Slaughter of the Soul was a watershed classic, Swansong was anything but. It was understandable that Carcass would want to try their hand at crafting an album far more worthy of closing their discography upon, and the resulting Surgical Steel was so utterly fantastic, it should be considered the modern day reunion album benchmark (it is by me). So it comes as something of a gamble that At The Gates have chosen to follow up Slaughter of the Soul with At War With Reality, and I’ve seen plenty of other reviewers assert that the band’s greatest strength is in not caring what others make of their legacy at all. Okay, that’s fair —- but then again the band themselves would never have a hand in “defining” it to begin with, that’s our job as fans.
Straight to the point then, this is my take: I think At War With Reality is a good album, not great, certainly not up to the genre defining level of Slaughter of the Soul or Terminal Spirit Disease, but as good as you can reasonably expect a new At The Gates album to sound. If it sounds a little too familiar, keep in mind that the Björler brothers are the creators of a sound that has been pilfered again and again within melodic death metal as well as metalcore. Vocalist Tomas Lindberg sounds as ferocious as ever, if not a little deeper in range. His performance is consistent and well executed throughout, but he’s restrained on these songs, rarely letting himself escape his solid comfort zone. The same goes for the songwriting itself, which is composed of an array of riffs that seem fine while I’m listening to them, yet I have a hard time remembering any shortly after I’m done listening. Its not for a lack of effort either, I expect to remember a handful of riffs or melodies after twenty plus listens —- and that’s perhaps the biggest knock on At War With Reality. I suspect they played it a little too safe in the songwriting sessions, sticking to a sound they’re comfortable with but extenuating it over the majority of the tracklisting. The outliers are the sole gems here, “Order From Chaos”, and the album closer “The Night Eternal”. The latter is an adventurously epic song built on some creative minor key guitar patterns and a Dissection-esque sense of cinematic melody. More of that please, it gives me hope that there’s some far more creative stuff that could possibly wind up on a future album (granted, no one in the band has mentioned doing another one).
Takeaway: Sometimes I got the feeling that this effort leaned a little too close to The Haunted, and maybe that was to be expected (see the Sanctuary review below) with the Björler brothers history. It must be hard to determine what to include or cut out in a reunion album, especially one made nearly two decades later, but Carcass showed that it wasn’t impossible. At The Gates falls short, and while it won’t tarnish their legacy, it won’t help it either.
Ghost Brigade – IV: One With The Storm: The last time we heard from Finland’s Ghost Brigade was way back in 2011 with their rather good Until Fear No Longer Defines Us, a top ten album on this blog that year. Their newest, One With The Storm, is even better in large part because the band left behind their mid-period Katatonia worship for a looser, more Sentenced-influence take on depressive melodic rock as well as a clearer, fresher approach to mixing and production. This is such a great sounding record, that it enhances the impact of the band’s decision to get heavier in all respects. This isn’t a selling point by itself, but a noticeable change in the band’s sonic identity —- they’re no longer content to let the music simmer beneath the always excellent vocals of Manne Ikonen, instead the riffs and melodies clash right up against him, fighting for space in the best possible sense.
Take the exciting album opener “Wretched Blues”, which is surprising enough with its accelerating, near Opeth-esque intensity, and deep-throated death vocal intro long before you reach the beautiful, repeating guitar figures that serve as the musical refrain. The sweeping, elegant guitar solo that outros the song is one of my favorite moments on any album this year. But the standout song here is “Departures”, a simply gorgeous slice of melodic Finnish rock in the vein of Sentenced, Amorphis, and The Man-Eating Tree. Its centers around Ikonen’s emotionally charged refrain (“If only I knew how to forgive / If only I knew how to let go / If only I knew how to own what I am”), and its a song that has kept popping in my head for the past few weeks. Nearly as equal in stature is “Disembodied Voices”, where a forlorn two minute long lament gives way for a massive crush of heavy noise and wailing guitars as Ikonen’s vocals shift from despondent to chillingly bitter. I’d venture to say that most of the album leans towards the band’s doomy/death metal side, tracks such as “The Knife”, and “Anchored” only feature clean, soaring, melodic vocals in isolated moments. It feels like the band has developed a sense of identity in that regard, unafraid of displaying both sides of their sound in equal measure and prominence. A brave and well executed step forward.
Takeaway: Its stunning to even think this, but in a year with new Insomnium and Omnium Gatherum albums, Ghost Brigade may have delivered the best album out of Finland in 2014. Consider this a strong recommendation to listen to this, you’ll be doing yourself a favor (its particularly suitable music for this wonderful cold front that’s been chilling our bollocks off!).
While Heaven Wept – Suspended At Aphelion: First of all, While Heaven Wept’s newest album scores the award for best cover art of the year hands down, take a long gander at that sleeve in high res on Google Images… its just flat out jaw dropping. Secondly, I’ve been waiting for this album with a great amount of anticipation, having been sold on them a year or two ago with the song “Vessel” from their 2009 album Vast Oceans Lachrymose. I didn’t find its follow up album, Fear of Infinity nearly as compelling, but they’ve managed to win the benefit of the doubt in my mind. If you’re unfamiliar, this prog-meets-power-meets-doom metal band from Virginia of all places is keen on grand, epic scale music with lyrical themes (and artwork) to match. I expect that there might be a few metal fans out there who take umbrage with While Heaven Wept’s manner of tracklisting, sequencing, and envisioning of albums in general. There are usually not many actual tracks, two songs are often paired up and folded into one long song, there are short instrumentals including intro and outro tracks, and the overall album length is sometimes maddeningly short (forty minutes here, ten of which are instrumental). I’ll admit that its slightly frustrating for me as well, but the band clearly intends for their albums to be listened to from start to finish, and in truth they work better that way (this is prog-metal after all).
On Suspended At Aphelion, the band continues with their trademark of creating delicate atmospherics, but they’re also surprisingly heavy in moments, using aggressive riffing and harsh vocals as a light/shade to their normal clean vocal led passages sung by James LaBrie dead-ringer Rain Irving (he’s actually much better than LaBrie, calm down). Both elements are on display in the album opener “Icarus And I/Ardor”, and its a whirlwind juxtaposition of disparate musical elements that actually works. By the time the twelve minute plus song settles into its almost hypnotic outro, you’ve heard the range of styles that this band is capable of traversing. If you’re looking for another “Vessel” here, the quasi-power ballad “Heartburst” might come the closest in overall majesty, if falling short in its approach. Its a quiet, piano led affair, where tinkling keys playfully create a bed for Irving to lay down some truly great vocal lines, all building up to a towering crescendo where all the instruments come crashing in. The obnoxiously titled “The Memory Of Bleeding/Souls In Permafrost/Searching The Stars” is my personal favorite here, the latter section featuring some rather memorable and expressive vocal passages, its just a shame that it couldn’t be its own individual track. I commend them for sticking to their guns, but I’d love to one day get something new from these guys a little more geared towards accessibility.
Takeaway: I want to like this band more than I can actually claim to, and this album is good for what it is, but its failed to really excite me on the level I assume it really wants to —- an emotional one.
Sanctuary – The Year The Sun Died: You’d be forgiven for glancing back at the album art when experiencing your initial few minutes of Sanctuary’s first new album in twenty-five years. It sounds an awful lot like a theoretical new Nevermore album than anything resembling the power metal infused thrash of the Sanctuary’s pair of late eighties albums. What makes it strange is that original guitarist Lenny Rutledge is back in the fold and handled most of the songwriting, and yet there is an overall Jeff Loomis vibe to the guitar work that is hard to ignore. I’ve considered the possibility that my brain is playing tricks on me, that Warrel Dane’s vocals being mixed far up front (similar to Nevermore), and the overall modern production of the album is subliminally suggesting a likeness that isn’t really there. I’m not going to harp on this though, but suffice to say, it was difficult at times to wrap my head around the reality that this is indeed a Sanctuary album.
If we accept that this is how the band will sound in 2014, you’re left with a really well written, thrashier flavor of Nevermore that perhaps you’ve always hoped for. There were times on Nevermore’s last two albums where I thought their prog influence was creeping too far into their overall sound. That’s not a problem on The Year The Sun Died. Here the songs frequently attack heavier, faster, and with a greater emphasis on presenting memorable riffs and vocal sections before lengthy solos or technicality. This is particularly felt on the pre-release single “Arise and Purify”, one of the best songs of the year, where Dane sounds fiercer than he ever did in Nevermore, his multi-tracked vocals in the refrain showcasing an inspired blending of his vocal range. I’m also really fond of the title track, where the vocal lines twist around in surprising ways, keeping me riveted. The most old-school sounding song is “I Am Low”, where the songwriting harkens back to a classicist approach towards 80s styled power metal ala Queensryche and Fates Warning down to the chant-like sound effects. I waver on that song a bit, sometimes wishing it was a touch faster if only to amp up its energy. I don’t really have any major quibbles however, there isn’t a lot to nitpick here: Good songwriting with some nearly great flashes, excellent performances from everyone on board, and its kinda nice to hear Dane’s vocals in something this intense again.
Takeaway: This is the best Nevermore album since Dead Heart in a Dead World —- ah, couldn’t resist. I’ve really enjoyed this album, granted it never had me jumping out of my seat but I never found a reason to cut it off midway through. There’s also a great Doors cover of “Waiting For the Sun” on the limited edition. Dane has a proven penchant for adapting oldies into rather interesting metal cover versions, and this might be the best one yet.
Blut Aus Nord – Memoria Vetusta III – Saturnian Poetry: I’m a self-professed newbie when it comes to Blut Aus Nord’s vast and intimidatingly titled back catalog, but I’ve been intrigued enough by the writings of fellow reviewers whose opinions I trust to give the band repeated chances. Their recent handful of releases were a trilogy of albums and series of EPs under the overarching title of 777, and they were united musically through a rather bleak, unforgiving, and frankly unlikeable blend of industrial elements with densely layered avant-garde black metal. The hype meter on the band (actually, just the project of one reclusive Frenchman known as Vindsval) was through the roof during the years spanning those releases, and I felt like I was missing out on something that seemingly everyone was raving about. As I’ve come to discover today, a few years removed from that period, there were quite a few others who felt the same way I did. But in reading what they wrote, it seemed that I should’ve been checking out far older Blut Aus Nord albums in the Memoria Vetusta series of albums as they fell more in line with a style of black metal more inclusive of epic melodies and expansive soundscapes. My cup of tea in other words.
How convenient that I checked my email a few weeks ago to see that the band’s label had sent me a promo for the latest in the Memoria Vetusta series, part three aka Saturnian Poetry. Finally, this is a Blut Aus Nord I can enjoy, one that is built on early Ulver-styled black metal buzzsaw riffing, and an Emperor influenced sense of beautiful melodicism and grand scope. The vocals are as grim as you’d expect, and mixed lower than the guitars so as to allow the music to do the narrating, but that’s not to say this is lo-fi in any way —- in fact, this might be the best sounding black metal album of its kind that I’ve ever heard. The guitars may be massively layered blasts of minor key tremolo riffs built in shimmering waves of noise, but they’re shockingly clear to boot, you can actually differentiate patterns and melodies with incredible ease. This is the kind of listening experience that you simply have to allow to wash over you, its hard to point out individual songs as standout tracks. I will say that “Metaphor of the Moon” is a personal favorite though, with its oddly major key guitar accents and Falkenbach styled choral vocal effects. The most immediately accessible moments can be found on “Tellus Mater”, where the riffs are enticingly close to Gothenburg melo-death; as well as on “Paien”, where catchy patterns of riffs separate midway through the song to create a sense of welcome space amidst the overall intensity. This is the most second wave any black metal album has sounded in a long time, and its not even from Norway. Go figure.
Takeaway: Its been a slow, quiet year for black metal —- for myself anyway, but I suspect in general as well. The few releases that have come my way have been pretty good, but this might be the best of them all. If you were turned off by Blut Aus Nord before, seriously consider giving this one a chance.