Esoteric - The Maniacal Vale (Season of Mist, 2008)
The first two albums by Birmingham, England's Esoteric flew the funeral doom freak flag high, stretching endlessly lurching un-riffs, swaddled in blackened blotting paper, over two discs of 10 to 20-minute death marches. The next two reigned in some of Esoteric's excesses -- the album-length exorcisms lasted 50 minutes instead of 90, and added hints of melancholic melody, less cluttered with psychedelics. Esoteric move very slowly forward on The Maniacal Vale. While they're back to the two-disc format and the average BPM still hovers in the single digits, the band's figured out how to maintain their dolorous majesty without trying our patience.
The secret is variety. Esoteric's stretched-thin canvasses are slathered with all sorts of colors that we've not heard from them before. A Gilmour guitar solo floats through a few minutes in to "Circle" to match its Floydian ambience; tribal tom-thumping and clean tone guitar chimes send silvery tension echoing half way through "The Order of Destiny," before crashing back into a wall of doom. Most surprising are Esoteric's excursions into less-lumbering territory. Three minutes into "Beneath This Face" we get an explosion of symphonic black metal that ends almost as soon as it begins. And the first two minutes of "Caucus of Mind" transform Esoteric into a truly excellent death metal band -- Greg Chandler's vocals take on that hurled-low evilness that Nile's Karl Sanders does so well. These moments are too fleeting to constitute a change of identity for Esoteric. They do point to even more exciting things to come.
Arkan - Hilal (Season of Mist, 2008)
Moonspell and Orphaned Land got there first, and Melechesh do it best. With Hilal, the French-Algerian band Arkan (founded by The Old Dead Tree drummer Foued Moukid) adds another record worth hearing to the small canon of metal influenced by the music of the Middle East. Time was, the very act of fusing western and non-western influences was as exciting musically as it was politically. Twelve years removed from Sepultura's Roots, it's fair to expect more than an unconventional percussion instrument here and a dude singing in a foreign language there.
Arkan deliver about half of the time. Songs like "Tied Fates" and "The Seven Gates" are not state-of-the-art as far as death metal is concerned, but they do integrate Arabic modes and death metal riffage efficiently and seamlessly, with a minimum of postcolonial pandering. "Chaos Cypher" could be a lost Nile single if it were a touch more brutal. A little too often though, a wordless female vocal creeps in just to lend an exotic flair or justify a needless vamp (most of these songs are about two minutes too long); the oud, mandole and derbouka are largely relegated to intros, outros and interlude tracks, rather than getting woven into the fabric of Arkan's music. Still, Hilal is an admirably ambitious undertaking, and given how easy it is for a folk-metal band to lapse into self-parody or lame cliché, it's a wonder that the album succeeds as often as it does.
Outlaw Order - Dragging Down the Enforcer (Season of Mist, 2008)
I'm a law abiding citizen. I've never gotten belligerently drunk in public or started a fistfight. No major drug offenses or jaywalking tickets or firearms charges. I report my taxes and pay my bills on time and leave notes on strangers' cars if I accidentally knock into them while parallel parking. I generally respect authority unless I have a good reason not to. So why is it that I can't get enough of this debut platter from Outlaw Order, a band comprising four current and one former Eyehategod members, all of whom were on probation at the time the band formed?
Vicarious thrills, most likely. Even if song titles like "Double Barrel Solves Everything" and "Alcohol Tobacco Firearms" are a lil' tongue-in-cheek, Dragging Down the Enforcer feels like a window into a world of filth and mistrust that I just wouldn't understand -- I don't know what it's like to be broke and fucked up and over and then to lose everything I own in a massive hurricane (or "tornado-bitch," as the press release colorfully describes Katrina).
There's also the fact that this album RULES. Predictably it sounds a lot like Eyehategod, but a faster, more compacted, explosive version, if that's possible. Those sewer-scum riffs change gears from doom to raw punk to heavy blues almost as often as they do in guitarist Brian Patton's OTHER other band Soilent Green, but the shifts are way smoother -- automatic transmission to SG's manual. Guitar solos rise like fetid swamp gas. This is probably the best album Mike Williams has screamed over since Dopesick. I wouldn't wish the pain or incarceration that fed in to Dragging Down the Enforcer upon anyone, but it's done good for Outlaw Order, artistically speaking. In just 27 minutes, the band's turned this lilly-white pussyboy into a pig destroyer.