Saturday, January 31, 2009

Dreaming Dead - Within One (Ibex Moon, 2009)

Ever since Intronaut decided to shack up with Century Media, I've lacked an unknown Los Angeles metal band to champion to whomever will listen. Hence my excitement when I discovered Dreaming Dead on Invisible Oranges last year. Beyond boasting an ultra-talented (and ultra-rare) female front-person in guitarist/vocalist Elizabeth Schall and the blast furnace talents of drummer Mike Caffell, who also beats skins for the excellent black metal band Exhausted Prayer, Dreaming Dead bring a couple qualities to their debut album Within One that remind me why I started listening to death metal in the first place.

Much as I love having my head chopped off by my death metal, faultless chops and endless brutality have their limits. Great songwriting does not, and on that count Dreaming Dead triumph mightily. Every song on Within One has its own memorable character and contour. The title track chisels its riffs out of the same melodic marble as mid-period Death (Schall's thin screech is a dead ringer for Schuldiner's); "Putrid Is the Sky" builds to a thrilling, blackened finale after a gorgeous waltz tempo instrumental section that Metallica might have written circa ...And Justice For All. Gears shift imperceptibly from thrash to death to black and back again. Caffell shines especially bright in the silky transitions in "Perpetual Pretext," but credit must be shared with Dreaming Dead's guitar arrangements, the way that they fold in upon themselves and split apart in creative permutations. 

Within One reminds that elegance is possible in death metal. The album's clear recording captures a clean, muscular riff machine. Brutality gives way to rich dynamics and carefully inscribed sense of melody. This album yields a new favorite song on each pass through. Every single one is a highlight. Yes, this will do just fine.

Incidentally, Ms. Schall is engaged to Charles Elliott of Abysmal Dawn. Implication A: hands off her. Implication B: their kids will rule the playground. Just like this lil' guy.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Ground of Ruin - Cloaked in Doctrine (self-released, 2008)

The black metal and thrash strands coiled together in the musical DNA of Ground of Ruin synthesize some fine, clearly-expressed riff proteins on the Cloaked in Doctrine EP. There's little of the messiness or recklessness often associated with blackened thrash. Instead, we get well-wrought guitar lines that sometimes hint at Ground of Ruin's Irish homeland, and lyrics that avoids Satanic claptrap in favor of more direct critiques of religion ("Crusade of conviction, castration of instinct / Repressing impulse, slowly grinded away"). Vocalist Dave Hynes states a familiar case, but he does so with uncommon pithiness, and a bevy of different ways of eroding the lining of his esophagus. 

The clarity of the riff-writing and sound are impressive on this EP -- the guitars feel live, their players in complete control. Once this band has a couple more albums under its studded belt, the songwriting will likely follow suit. As of now, Cloaked In Doctrine  feels like three looooong strings of good riffs (plus an unnecessary intro track) without much of a carrot pulling us along, just Hynes' death shriek telling us we can't stay where we are.

Friday, January 23, 2009

CHAINMAIL: National Sunday Law - La Storia di Cannibali (self-released)

The CHAINMAIL section reviews bands that were proactive enough to e-mail me directly. Here at Cerebral Metalhead, initiative is rewarded.

A few days ago, I tried to submit the L.A. duo National Sunday Law to the Metal Archives. My submission was rejected on the following grounds: "Not metal; does not belong." OUCH! At first I was indignant on behalf of the band and the half hour of time I wasted, but upon reflection, I can understand. Heavy riffing is only part of what National Sunday Law do, and it's not even what they do best. Plus, fuck Metal Archives.

Thus cold-shouldered by the grand definers of metal, National Sunday Law are turned loose to absorb whatever the hell they want into their debut La Storia di Cannibali. There's a whole solar system of sounds on this album, swirled together with synths, samples, looping pedals, guitars, drums, mostly screamed vocals. Mid-tempo buildups and big dynamic shifts, yes, boredom, no. Unlike your average post-metal band, National Sunday Law excel at the oblique stuff, the misty tense passages and liquid interludes and drone-chugs on hanging 7th chords. Opening track "We Dragged Our Tusks for Miles and Miles Before the Plains Devoured Them" inverts the standard post-metal's tension/release pattern, starting with an opening metal salvo and then (dis)quieting down for a creepy instrumental remainder. It's typical of National Sunday Law's approach, which balances heavy riffs with heavier mood. No wonder they've opened for such masters of texture as Mouth of the Architect, Nadja, Yakuza and Intronaut, whose Sacha Dunable provides guest vocals on the final track. 

National Sunday Law do have soom room to improve when it comes to straight metal riffing. At least on record, their two-person rig just isn't powerful enough to destroy the planets that the less aggressive parts of the album float past. Derek Donley does his damnedest to fill in the missing bass with creative drum fills on "Dead Horse," but its early Don Cab riffs fall a bit flat. "Seconds Left" could do without the couple brief excursions into sludge -- they interrupt the stellar (in all senses), Shiner-esque starburst that surrounds them with a buzzkill earthiness and Darin Tambascio's pedestrian screaming. It's nothing that prevents La Storia di Cannibali from stretching out into some fascinating places. Just that the standard "metal" sections aren't them. Gotta love that cover art though. METAL HIPPO!!!!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Firebox/Firedoom roundup

Finnish label Firebox Records and its doom-centric sister label, Firedoom (sounds like a rejected name for a Marvel comic book character, huh?), are responsible for excellent recent releases by Mar de Grises and Colosseum, respectively. Here are a few additions to the Firebox/Firedoom catalogs that I won't be listening to quite as frequently.

SaraLee - Damnation to Salvation (Firebox, 2009)

What do SaraLee think when they hit upon that perfect vocal harmony to complement their big ol' goth-pop choruses? I sure hope the band's five members see dollar signs, because there's really no other reason to write music this bland. Or listen to it. Wait -- if you really dig Evanescence but wish that whiny bitch would be replaced with a whiny Finnish guy with no access to autotune, or if you think In Flames should cut the Gothenburg death shtick and make the pop/rock record they've been threatening for years, then SaraLee is for YOU.

There are a couple up-tempo thrash sections here and there ("Catch the Moon") and some light growling sprinkled for taste, but the bulk of Damnation to Salvation sounds like entry-level modern rock meant to be blasted loud from the stereo of your very first car, so that the twenty-somethings in the car next to you at the intersection will think "Awww, I wish I was still that innocent and free." SaraLee can write a damn catchy chorus, and their arrangements highlight them well. Every time the stompbox switches on that toothy guitar distortion though, something feels misplaced. This album sounds like meat-flavored cotton candy. And with head-scratch lyrics like "Feel the earth is dooming for you," the meat's sorta funky-tasting.

Forest of Shadows - Six Waves of Woe (Firedoom, 2008)

The one man band has come along way since Dick Van Dyke's lovable multi-tasker Bert from Mary Poppins. Take Niclas Frohagen, the lone vocalist/musician/programmer/composer behind Sweden's Forest of Shadows. Ol' Bert would be aghast at how controlled and expansive FoS's second album sounds. The six tracks on Six Waves of Woe resound with the time-release dynamics of Cult of Luna and later Katatonia -- icy electronics and faux-mellotron leading up to chest-beating metal mountaintops, then gently guiding us down again with synths and spectral guitar tinkling. Frohagen follows the Aaron Turner school of vocalizing, switching between a tuneful but characterless baritone and a considerably more powerful growl.

We've all heard far too many iterations of the NeurIsis template, so while the massive crescendo in "Selfdestructive" and tribal surge of "Deprived" still raise hairs, they're the least interesting parts of Six Waves of Woe. More thoughtful are "Detached" and "Pernicious," which fold post-metal's eighth-note chug into a goth rock framework -- think a Moonspell/Mogwai merger (or CureIsis?). I just can't help but wishing there was less majesty and more bite to Frohagen's songs. There's nary a surprising direction taken or a jagged chord to be found. Maybe that's how you can tell that this album is the product of one man. Filtered through a co-conspirator, Frohagen's perfectionism might have been sullied a bit, turned darker. As is, Six Waves of Woe just sounds pretty, and Frohagen's eternally wallowing lyrics come off as a bit disingenuous.

Pantheist - Journey Through Lands Unknown (Firedoom, 2008)

Never have I had so much fun listening to such a muddled mess of an album. As if a stone-cold serious hodgepodge of doom metal, monastic chanting, Arabic modes, crossover punk, and keyboards taken from a Hawkwind album doesn't sound incoherent enough (it should), the mixing on Journey Through Lands Unknown is just atrocious. And the clean vocals are even worse, either out of tune or way over the top, frequently both. What the plodding stoner rock jam "Dum Spiro Despero" is doing on the album I have no idea, but the Latin title of the song sounds like "Doom, speed or death metal" when it's chanted by the band, which it is a whole bunch, and that makes me happy in the same way that hearing a bunch of Mandarin-speaking 2nd graders singing the happy birthday song in English would make me happy.  

With no warning, after a three-minute acoustic guitar/harmonica duet (I'm not joking), Pantheist pull their shit together, shed the genre-abuse and initiate a mostly spectacular second half full of fucking depressive funeral doom. Ten seconds into "Oblivion" and we're reminded that Pantheist's bassist Mark Bodossian is also in Esoteric and (formerly) Mournful Congregation. Even the mixing starts to make sense -- they're performing death rites in an underground burial chamber dude, of course it sounds all reverb-y and muffled down there. As Kostas Panagiotou's wobbly Buddhist recitations (also not joking) closes out the disc with Nile-like wardrums pounding behind him, the realization sets in: Pantheist are fucking awesome, they just have no idea what they're doing.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

CHAINMAIL: Flaming Tusk - Abigail (self-released, 2008)

The CHAINMAIL section reviews bands that were proactive enough to e-mail me directly. Here at Cerebral Metalhead, initiative is rewarded.

Up until the final week of last year, I thought that the horrific spate of shark attacks that inspired Akimbo's latest opus was the most metal subject matter that I'd find for any album released in 2008. Then Flaming Tusk's rhythm guitarist Antipope Zosimus sent me a link to his band's debut Abigail EP, the title and first track of which reference the story of six-year-old Abigail Taylor, who had 21 feet of her small intestine sucked out through her anus by a swimming pool drainage system. Metal-friendly themes of evisceration, tragedy, loss of innocence and the danger lurking in the watery depths all collude for one beast of a back story. 

Such a monumentally grisly inspiration demands equally grisly music, and Flaming Tusk get halfway there. Their crunchy granola of various metal strains -- from Ludicra-style black metal to NWOBHM stomps and the occasional glassy prog-guitar sections -- has the potential to make a daunting debut out of the Abigail EP. Unfortunately too much of this release sounds inchoate. In a recent interview with, the band revealed that they initially intended Abigail as a demo but loved the final mix enough to release it as a proper EP. Bad decision. I'm all for raw sonics, but only if it serves the tunes. Flaming Tusk's dynamic songs deserve tighter rhythms, more fully-fleshed transitions and a far more dynamic production than the mid-range-heavy treatments they've been afforded here. Flaming Tusk's got a good guitar tone for this kind of stuff but they've muted its effect with a production that flattens Abigail's many peaks and valleys. This EP  should suck intestines straight out of your rectum. Instead, it just tugs real hard at your swimsuit.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Medusa - En Raga Sül (Hawthorne Street, 2008)

A big dumb riff. Heavy distortion. Messy drum bashing. Chum bucket full of attitude. What more do you need? Another big riff? A guy screaming through like five layers of feedback? Sure, you got it. These Medusa dudes, they aim to please. That means not wasting your time with songs that are more than two and a half minutes long. In case you hadn't noticed, the economy sucks -- screw those ultra-brutal tech-death bands and their conspicuous note consumption, we gotta conserve our chords and riffs these days. And that's why Medusa never play four of them when three will do. And they will always do. 

Medusa hail from Bloomington, Indiana, same as scrappy noise-metal act Racebannon and quirky indie rockers Rapider Than Horsepower, with whom Medusa share the lion's share of their members. Bloomington's apparently famous for its rock quarries. Consider Medusa your resident rock 'n roll quarrymen. The title track slices off repetitive slabs of Melvins granite. "Transform" ends with a slithery pummel that may as well be a stone-cutter's work song (Sing it with me: "With the moon I move / And the veil is lifting / And I'm shifting / Shift!"). No digging required to find the punk rock pissiness that courses through "Mediatrix" and "Throne of God." Each riff is a dirt-encrusted, cracked diamond, rammed down our throats like a gimp's ballgag. Vocalist Scott VanBuren froths and screams in glee as it goes down.

There's plenty of dissonant noise-rock abstraction on En Raga Sül, reminiscent of the nastier moments of Drive Like Jehu (whose "Step on Chameleon" gets copped on "Wicked Father"), but mostly this album is felt on the level of bones and muscles. Medusa make raw, physical music, fit for dancing and involuntary auto-face-punching. Straight from the pit mine to the mosh pit.