Saturday, February 28, 2009

Zombi - Spirit Animal (Relapse, 2009)

Zombi must be the Relapse band with the least connection to extreme music. Even Brian Posehn's live standup comedy album had Scott Ian and John Tempesta on it. And yet I'm glad that this Pittsburghian instrumental prog duo's early-King-Crimon-meets-70s-Italian-horror-soundtrack shtick is getting out there, because kids these days, they don't know the meaning of epic. The title track, with that sick mellotron and melted guitar tone straight out of Robert Fripp's In the Court of the Crimson King-era tab book? That's like dying-god epic. "Earthly Powers" rocks a whole bunch of sweet oscillating synth/guitar lines, the likes of which Return to Forever might have envied during their 'fro years. 10 minutes of space-traveling funk and square-wave ostinatos? Fuck Isis, THAT is epic. 

I skipped out on Zombi's opening slot of a Don Caballero show in 2006 back because I was convinced that they didn't mean it, and there's nothing worse than a band that doesn't mean it, especially in metal circles. I feel differently now. Of course Steve Moore and A.E. Paterra see the silliness of their hopelessly dated analog synths -- is it possible to feature an elephant running through a nebula on your album cover without being self-aware? But at base, Zombi are reverential towards their source material and fucking excellent composers (for surely these are pieces, not songs), which is why Spirit Animal's tracks can stretch out past 17 minutes and keep my interest, without a single vocal. Underneath it all is Paterra's airtight drumming. That guy knows how to burrow deep into a 7/8 groove without showboating. When I have a kid, Zombi will play at his Bar Mitzvah, and if he complains I'll tell him to shut up. He'll thank me some day.

Buy Spirit Animal:Relapse

Monday, February 23, 2009

Wolves In the Throne Room - Malevolent Grain EP (Southern Lord, 2009)

The Malevolent Grain EP is available only on vinyl, and if you get the chance to hold it in your hands, you will understand why. I don't have a turntable but I feel like I got the Wolves In the Throne Room experience just by looking at it. The rich greens and browns of the cover's forest imagery feel immersive on such a large canvass. That couldn't happen with CD artwork. Aesthetically, I much prefer WITTR's illegible old logo, but the new one allows for a richer gilding of gold foil. Was this the intent behind the change, or did the band figure that a readable logo would increase its marketability?

It's not impossible to conceive of WITTR appealing to the same audience that cries at Explosions In the Sky and Mogwai concerts. With each release, WITTR's relationship with traditional black metal becomes ever more tenuous, their emphasis on large-scale grandeur over the immediate payoffs of metal increasingly resolute. "Staring onward, as time stands still" sings guest vocalist Jamie Myers (a former member of Hammers of Misfortune) on Side 1, "A Looming Resonance." It's a great description of what WITTR are doing here. Large portions of Malevolent Grain are harmonically static -- just two chords alternating back and forth, the band's guitars (played in part by new member Will Lindsay, formerly of Middian) blurring into a cloud of muffled electricity. Only at the eight minute mark do the song's dripping harmonies explode into scorched blastbeat terrain. This is black metal focused on process and growth. I'm reminded of my favorite Sonic Youth track, "Theresa's Sound World" from Dirty (1992), and that's a very, very good thing.

Side 2 of Malevolent Grain, "Hate Crystal," hurls right out of the gate with racing blasts, tremolo guitars and Nathan Weaver's high-pitched imprecations.  Still, this is far from extreme. WITTR aim not to pummel but to blanket with repetition and texture. You get the sense that this song has always been playing, and that producer Randall Dunn happened to hit "record" for the isolated 11-minute segment that is captured on the record. It's about right that "Hate Crystal" dissipates into electronic drones and clattering percussion instead of ending properly. This music is elemental, subject to the same natural forces as trees, rivers, flesh.

Buy Malevolent Grain:
Southern Lord

Friday, February 20, 2009

CHAINMAIL: Inner Surge - An Offering (Overthrow Promotions/Cyclone Records, 2008)

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

There once was a time, years before they won Grammys and inspired hordes of awful imitators and Maynard James Keenan owned a winery, that Tool were just a really good metal band from Los Angeles. Canadian band Inner Surge deserves some credit for patterning its sound after Opiate (1992) and Undertow (1993), which found Tool at their most vicious and least obnoxious. Not that Inner Surge's fourth, An Offering, is a straight rip -- chief singer/songwriter Steve Moore (not to be confused with this guy, this guy or this guy) screams way more often than Keenan, and there's a strain of Machine Head power groove that runs pretty deep. But Inner Surge's approach to songwriting is all early Tool. Check the time-signature changes in "A Great Distance," free-flowing and smooth, the tribal drums in "Tamisra," the way the band eschews big choruses in favor of guitar textures and heaving riff pileups. This is dynamic stuff.

Inner Surge are pretty forceful in their politics, as you'd expect from a band that lists the Zapatistas, Chomsky and the Black Panthers as inspirations. All too often, Moore's trenchant critiques of war profiteering ("Global fraud seperates the criminal, the dead, and the oblivious / Secure the account / There is no consequence," from "Halliburton Piggies") and economic imperialism ("Life or death dependency / Oil's bloody offering," from "Limb From Limb") sink underneath lukewarm hooks, and an hour plus of the same minor-key tonalities gets pretty tiring (another quality Inner Surge share with Tool). Still, An Offering showcases a sound that's both multi-layered and easy to follow, and engages topics intelligently that most metal bands ignore. Set alongside his recent recordings with his industrial metal act Post Death Soundtrack and prog-metal band The Unravelling, it marks Moore as one of Canadian metal's most productive auteurs. 

Video preview for Inner Surge's "Interahamwe:"

Buy An Offering: 

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Seance - Awakening of the Gods (Pulverised, 2009)

Thanks to the advanced GPS software offered by Encyclopaedia Metallum, I now know that there's a whole inbred network of metal bands that call home to their mommas in the southern Swedish town of Linköping. Witchery. Seance. Satanic Slaughter. Morgue. Freevil. Some of them circle in incestuous orbit around their neighbors from Gothenburg, about 150 miles west. They differ greatly in quantity of output, preferred subgenre and badassery. Probably the least prolific and most badass of the lot would be Seance, who broke up in 1998 and reunited just last year. The intervening years were busy for the current and former members of Seance, chock-full of double and triple-timing in Witchery, Satanic Slaughter and The Haunted. If anyone was still waiting for the follow-up to Saltrubbed Eyes (1993), they oughta be pleased by Awakening of the Gods. It's about as efficient as death metal comes.  

Motorized riffs and Johan Larsson's top-shelf growl inject a martial severity into Awakening of the Gods, crisping the surfaces of what might otherwise be a set of competent but standard Swedish thrash tunes. Seance strike an expert balance between brüdle and dynamic -- "Your Time Has Come" and the aptly named "Forever Haunted" don't quite make it to "melodic," but key and texture changes keep them flaying and slaying creatively. Shit, even the 49-second acoustic interlude "Flight of the Wicked" is worth hearing multiple times. The best songs eschew thrash polkabeats and show off Seance's pummeling rhythm guitar writing, as in "They." Riffs coil around a rigid percussion backbone, carving out deep grooves, threatening dangerous explosions and building from one section to the next. It's the kind of propulsive death metal that Lamb of God used to write. Not to say that Seance are heirs to any particular throne -- Awakening of the Gods is just a great death-thrash album, and if that ain't good enough for you, eat poo.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Harpoon - Double Gnarly/Triple Suicide (Interloper Records, 2009)

My tolerance for synthetic drum-aided metal records is directly proportional to how lifelike the drums sound (ergo, how unnecessary the non-human drummer is). Meshuggah's Nothing? V:28's VioLution? Goooood. Noism's ±? Baaaaad. In grindcore, when the BPM level is so high that it approaches speeds most humans couldn't possibly play, the minute differences in each beat's attack and decay become even more important. Programmed drums just can't replicate them well. No idea why vocalist Toney Vast-Binder and everything-elsist Dean Costello would conceive Harpoon as a drum-grind project when there are so many employable human blastbeat machines in their Chicago hometown. The Fisher Price-grade programming is the only thing holding back Double Gnarly/Triple Suicide from total rule-osity.

The record sits in the pleasant middle ground between Phobia's d-beat leaning grind and Pig Destroyer's more metallic assault. Vast-Binder's got binder full of cock-eyed lyrics to vomit forth. Shit like "While driving one day he came across a plodding white elephant squirting dust from its trunk" could be interpreted as metaphor or smirking dada-doodoo...elsewhere there are non-political songs about politically-minded people ("Lefty"), and a song about the difficulty in listening to the elderly ("The Difficulty in Listening to the Elderly"). Unlike Vast-Binder's other band 7000 Dying Rats, the humor doesn't come easy, and I appreciate that. But then "Throngs" comes on, and that stupid digital tom roll happens, and I'm like "when did a-ha start playing grindcore?" And then it's all over for me.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Cactus's - Tropical Terror EP (Beat Crazy,2009)

Cheers to Cactus's for forcing anal journalists everywhere into a grammatical quandary. The band's name already has a possessive apostrophe in it, so what to write if I want to describe its ownership of some attribute? "Cactus's's?" Fuckit, why not? I set my own rules in the blogosphere -- may as well be the place to start the punctuational revolution. That maddening name (could they have meant it as the plural of cactus, but forgot that "cacti" exists?) is just one of the unexpected joys of Cactus's's debut EP, Tropical Terror. There's also the band's Nashville provenance, which you would never guess from Tropical Terror's froth of wiry Dischord post-hardcore and midwestern emo. No twang on this EP, but plenty of explode, groove and bash.

Asher Rogers's guitar lashes out in open punk chords then coils in tense Fugazi chugs in "Where Is My Skeleton." Vocals shriek and quiver like At the Drive In's, melodic and nervous on "Daddy" and "Purple Coyote," and sprinkled with screams that sound like their screamers are on fire. Like their influences, Cactus's are all about rhythm, and the entire EP is one big case of electric shaken baby syndrome. Jru Frasier (formerly of Korea's Unroot) is my favorite kind of rock drummer -- he plays 4/4 beats hard and precise and finds time to peel out creative syncopations and fills that keep pushing the song forward. Frasier sounds like a hardcore Stewart Copeland on "Queen Bee," backing guitars that verge on speed metal during the verses. This kind of crafty, charismatic noise rock soundtracked my college years thanks to bands like Bear Vs. Shark and Q and Not U, and it's awesome to hear the sound being carried on so well. Even if the most revolutionary thing about Cactus's is their name.

Get possessive at Cactus's's MySpace page. You can currently stream five out of 6 songs from this EP there.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Lair of the Minotaur - War Metal Battle Master DVD (Southern Lord, 2009)

War Metal Battle Master (2008), the most recent album by Chicago's Lair of the Minotaur, is the band's most entertaining work by a healthy stretch. It's also campier than a C-grade Italian horror flick, chock-full of blood and severed limbs and odes to mythical battles that led to blood and severed limbs. So who's surprised that the video for the title track (directed by Gary Smithson) would feature a bloody battle with Greek gladiators, replete with Monty Python-worthy gore and buxom cannibalistic death-spirits wearing minimal clothing? Nobody, that's who. Here's the video in its gloriously over-the-top uncensored form -- more limb-hacking and gratuitous nudity than you can shake a pair of intestine-covered tits at. It goes without saying that this is muy NSFW, unless you work in fetish porn. Which, knowing the Cerebral Metalhead audience, is entirely possible:

Speaking of intestine-covered tits, they're the crux of the two behind-the-scenes featurettes on the War Metal Battle Master DVD. It's pretty hilarious to see massively ripped dudes in full battle garb chatting in between takes with the enemies they're about to brutalize. I appreciate the explanation of how special effects maven Ryan Oliver made the hemoglobin fly so energetically in the decapitation scene. But more screen-time is given to watching the two naked actresses get hosed down with fake blood, and smearing said blood across their ample chests as they consume faux-flesh, than pretty much anything else. The feminist in me is a little disturbed by the slow-motion softcore sequence towards the end of the first "making of" video. The metal dude in me is proud that Lair of the Minotaur recognized the eroticism in its own music. Overall, I'm left slightly upset and slightly turned-on. Probably exactly how the band and director envisioned it.

The DVD also includes ten cuts recorded live from all eras of Lair of the Minotaur. These videos reveal little about the band, other than the extent of Steven Rathbone's band t-shirt collection. Video and sound quality range from pretty decent to pretty horrible (I'm especially disappointed by Tom Denney's blanched-out recording of the band's November '07 gig at the Relax Bar in Los Angeles, which I attended). It's nice to have a live record of LOTM's ex-drummer Larry Herweg (also in Pelican) but otherwise these recordings are pretty inessential. And there's not a single exposed boob in any of 'em.