Death Metal

Review: The Black Dahlia Murder – Abysmal (Deluxe Edition)

Location: Waterford, Michigan
Genre: Melodeath
Released: September 18, 2015
Format Reviewed: FLAC

By: Kris Kotlarik

For many years, I was unimpressed with The Black Dahlia Murder’s output. I tended to write them off as some Hot Topic butt metal band. But when they were in Columbus during the Decibel Magazine tour featuring Noisem, Carcass and Gorguts, they more than held their own as a live band in a lineup full of impressive performers. So I decided to look into their output further and I found that for me, their music has a niche. And that niche is workout music. Their seventh full album, Abysmal, fits that same mold.

This is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. If I’m running a 5/10K, this is exactly the kind of album I would want to play. It doesn’t let up at any point in time from start to finish, which is fantastic. But at some point, when you dig deeper into the album’s sound, you start to realize that all the tracks kind of sound eerily similar to each other.

After the third track, I drifted into daydream mode because nothing was standing out as anything different from what I had already heard. So I had to go back again several times and listen to it, and each time, I had the same thing happen: I would zone out with Abysmal playing in the background.

You’re probably thinking I have ADD or something like that, and you’re probably right. My brain loves music that goes in a bunch of different directions throughout an album. But to be fair, this is a marked upgrade over similar albums by Arch Enemy and In Flames. In this case, being consistent and not letting up is to the album’s benefit. And although it’s difficult to remember standout tracks, there are plenty of standout moments, such as the fun dual-channel guitar interlude towards the end of “Vlad, Son of the Dragon,” and the impressive title track’s unrelenting blasts.

There aren’t any bad tracks, but there are very few that stand out among the others. The vocals remind me somewhat of The Dillinger Escape Plan mixed with a metalcore element. The production is also crisp, in line with their previous works. But the bonus tracks merely feel like an extension of the record itself. They don’t add much substance, but like the rest of the record, they are fun. And that’s what counts, right?

The last thing I want to point out here is that the run time (under 43 minutes counting the bonus tracks) is just about perfect for an album like this. If it were any longer, listener fatigue would set in. The band and label know that they don’t need to put 70 minutes of material on an album in order for it to succeed, and they got the run time here exactly right.

Overall: If you’re looking for a constant rush of energy, look here.

Rating: 3.0*

Buy the album here.

Pagan Rebellion Columbus: Arkona, Heidevolk, et al.

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Location: Columbus, Ohio
Date: September 12, 2015
Ticket cost: $14/$17
Merch purchased: Arkona hoodie ($45); Heidevolk flag ($15)

By: Kris Kotlarik
Feature photo credit: Mike Ritchie, Covering The Scene

Coincidentally falling on my birthday, I can think of very few things I would rather be doing on such a day than watching a show like this; essentially, this is a quasi-Paganfest, and although I don’t carry a drinking horn around with me, I still have a great deal of fun at these shows. Everyone is in a great mood and ready to have a good time, without the threat of butt metal pit ninjas. With six bands, we got a good look at the local pagan-influenced metal scene, as well as some national touring acts and a couple of global folk metal titans. How did everyone fare?

The Conquering: 1.0*
0.5-point deduction for using backing drum tracks for any reason (even if that reason involves a broken foot)

Watching this band perform, you wouldn’t think they have been together for 15 years; everything from their style (the guitarists were shirtless and wearing corpse paint while the lead singer was dressed in generic black) and their performance were both out of sync. Their brand of black metal just wasn’t working.

The band displayed a good sense of humor, and it was interesting to see their bassist chugging a gallon of water between songs. From a musicianship standpoint, their best track was easily “The Veracity in Our Blood,” which showcases a good midpace riff and some of the vocalist’s harshest vocals. Unfortunately, they were noticeably out of sync during the thrashing instrumental section in the middle of the track, which was disappointing. Get well soon, great drummer! Conquering should be less of a challenge upon your return.

Kingsblood: 2.0*

The group displays a solid stage presence and presents a fairly standard deathrash (how is this not an officially recognized subgenre yet?), but they don’t stand out, especially in this billing. Plus the singer seems to be influenced a little too much by Max Cavalera, a man I have never been a fan of.

Winterhymn: 3.0*

The first “trve” folk metal group of the night, Winterhymn continues to prove that they belong on the national folk metal circuit. Featuring a prominent violinist, the band’s sound was full of energy and generally much clearer than the previous two groups. Virtually the only complaint I had was the sound of their keyboards; they were either virtually inaudible, or way too loud (most notably on “Stand Your Ground”). I also wasn’t overly enthralled with their lead vocalist, whose harsh screams generally sound out of place and occasionally wavered during the back end of their set. But their energy and enthusiasm were more than enough to hold their own on this bill.

Helsott: 3.5*

This group surprised me more than anyone else on this bill. The star of this group is flautist/singer/Simone Simons doppelganger Bri Steiner, who was all over the stage playing various wind instruments and laying down some impressive vocal melodies. Occasionally, however, feedback came from her microphones.

One qualm I had (one that you’re probably noticing a pattern of by now) was with the male lead singer, who was absolutely hammered and also wearing a Dimebag Darrell shirt. I get that the Dimebag shirt was probably a tribute to the late Pantera guitarist who was killed at Alrosa, but he came off as a drunken meathead during their set and that sort of took me out of the mood a bit.

With that said, the rest of the band was fun to watch, the sound was (nearly) flawless, and Steiner could frequently be seen getting into the mosh pit with the audience during the final two bands’ sets. In short, this is a fun folk metal group to watch.

Heidevolk: 3.5*

What other bands have two members, neither of whom are playing any instruments, serving as co-lead vocalists? I can’t think of any. That alone made this an engaging set; Lars Vogel and Mark Bochting complement each other very well with their own performance styles onstage. Their traditional heavy metal sound with pagan influences generally sounded a bit too loud, but was otherwise well-balanced among each member.

Joost Westdijk was highly entertaining to watch on drums; with his stick twirling and other showboating antics behind the kit, one would think that he was back at home in the Netherlands in the band’s practice studio. If there was one drawback to be had from their set, it would have to be the lack of live folk instrumentation; all of it was pumped into the crowd. It’s not the biggest liability, but a live folk presence goes a long way.

Heidevolk goes down as a band whose live performances far exceed the quality of their studio output, which isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination. Watching them live is a showcase of why folk metal makes so much sense in a live setting, especially when they’re as on top of their game with regards to stage presence as they were at this show.

Arkona: 4.5*

I had the pleasure of seeing Arkona at Kilkim Zaibu 2012 in Lithuania. This is the kind of festival that Arkona is perfect for; picture, if you will, a typical American Renaissance Faire. But instead of fucking hypnotists and acapella groups that are trying to turn shitass pop songs into “folk” arrangements (the same Renaissance Faire had a “glee” club that attempted to sing Lady Gaga songs. They failed spectacularly), the entertainment is some gritty, in-your-face pagan metal. To this day, that festival was one of the best concert experiences I have ever had. The people, the beer, the authentic display of old Baltic artifacts…if every Renaissance faire was like this, I would hit all of them.

Anyway, enter Russia’s Arkona, a blackened folk metal outfit with an amazingly talented vocalist who goes by the name of Masha Scream. Her clean vocals are enchanting and perfect for this style of metal, and she adds versatility with her growls and uncanny stage presence. In addition to the standard cadre of drums, guitars, and bass, Vladimir “Volk” Reshetnikov handles a number of different instruments, including bagpipes and various flutes.

Let’s cut to the chase here: What Arkona accomplished in Columbus wasn’t good. It wasn’t awesome. It wasn’t superb. It was superior. For one thing, Masha’s live voice has immensely improved since the last time I saw Arkona. It was already great; now it’s on another level entirely. The band’s sound has clearly evolved. Many people criticized their newest release, Yav, because it didn’t fit their expectations for Arkona’s sound. I think Yav was a remarkable stepping stone for the group, as it represents a more evolved sound and a renewed state of purpose, and that was in full effect at Alrosa Villa. Especially memorable was the glorious riff fest from Yav, “Na Strazhe Novyh Let” (On Guard of New Aeons).

Everything about Arkona’s performance was stellar; the sound was fantastic, the lighting fit wonderfully with the music, and each band member fully looked engrossed in their performance. Looking into the crowd, two things were visibly clear:
1: Arkona drew the biggest and most consistent mosh pits of the night by a wide margin. That’s not just a reflection of the amount of booze being consumed; that’s the amount of energy the band was displaying.
2: Outside the mosh pits, I couldn’t find a single person in the audience that wasn’t into their performance. Never mind the fact that 99% of the people in the crowd don’t speak Russian and therefore can’t understand the lyrics; in any direction, you could see shit-eating grins the size of Texas on people’s faces.

By all metrics, Arkona’s display of musicianship and showmanship was a rousing success. Plus their hoodie has amazing back art. Arkona was one of the pioneers of folk metal, and now they’re innovating it, both in the studio and on tour.

Overall: While most of the bands were solid and are worth a look, Arkona should be selling out festival grounds all over the planet. Their performance here is among the top ten I have ever seen, and a top-five show in this country.

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Photo credit: Mike Ritchie, Covering The Scene

Arkona’s setlist in Columbus. Photo credit: Mike Ritchie, Covering The Scene

Review: Stone Circle – Stone Circle

Location: Brighton, England
Genre: Progressive/Melodic Death Metal
Released: December 7, 2014
Format Reviewed: .WAV (1411 kbps)
Feature: Global Conquest (recent releases)

By: Kris Kotlarik

One of the easiest ways to win me over on a critique for a metal album is to include a variety of instrumental passages in many different styles while maintaining a cohesive sound throughout. Stone Circle achieves this in spades. This is a record that has only seven songs, but averages a shade over eight minutes per track. That kind of time frame gives the band a lot of opportunities to create a unique sound for themselves, and they succeed.

I was rather puzzled by the first few minutes of opener “Beekeeper” to the point where I thought I was in for a rather unpleasant experience. Including the sound of buzzing bees is all well and good, but it doesn’t do much to contribute to the track’s atmosphere. The next two minutes or so also feels a bit uninspired to me. But after that is when I started becoming really engaged; a three-minute buildup that sounds like it could have come from Pelican or Intronaut explodes into a Gojira riff with some extremely harsh growling. From here on out, this album is excellent.

“Easter Island” is the best all-around track here. It begins with an airy introduction before building into a solid melodeath tune. The solo at the 5:00 mark is nice and effective, and the ending does a solid job of building up once again into an increasingly aggressive instrumental. The other tracks are generally good and have some standout moments; “Sentinel” is especially memorable for a bridge riff at around 3:00 and its soothing melodies towards the end. “Chains” has a powerful clean vocal-driven chorus. There is a kickass bass breakdown in “Mary Celeste” that is worth checking out.

While “God Shaped Hole” is not one of the stronger songs here, there’s a 40-second section starting at 5:00 that is impressively strong and heavy. The transition to that section might be even better. The closer, “Final Thought,” is mostly memorable for its long, proggy and mellow introduction, perhaps the most poignant example of this band’s capability to write with both finesse and aggression.

The production on this record fits really well with the band’s sound, and the bass frequently stands out in the mix. I consider this group, that formed in 2004, to be on the rise.

Overall: One of the more diverse metal offerings of 2014, and a good one at that.

Rating: 4.0*

Review: Sylosis – Dormant Heart

Location: Reading, England, UK
Released: January 12, 2015
Genre: Melodic Death Metal
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: Global Conquest – Recent Releases

By: Kris Kotlarik

Sylosis is a band I have heard a lot of good things about, but not from. Their fourth album, Dormant Heart, doesn’t do much to change that perception for me.

That sounds harsher than it actually should be taken; I don’t think Sylosis sucks. But they sound too much like Machine HeadArch Enemy, and Insomnium, among other bands that I don’t particularly like. These bands’ footprints are all over this record, and because of that, the good parts are only in bits and pieces. The titular track has a great intro to it, while “Victims and Pawns” and “To Build A Tomb” each have some nice riffs and guitar work that don’t last nearly as long as they should. Most of the other songs don’t develop into anything special and are entirely unremarkable; “Leech,” “Harm,” and “Mercy” come to mind as tracks to avoid.

All that said, the nine-minute “Quiescent” is an all-around good track that is more experimental than anything else on this album, yet still accessible for most metal audiences. It explores the more melodic aspects of their sound and is fairly light in comparison to what the rest of this disc puts in front of it, but reaches a nice fever pitch close to the end on a nice, lengthy crescendo. “Callous Souls” and “Indoctrinated” are also good tracks that sustain a more uptempo, aggressive energy throughout the song.

There are two bonus tracks; “Pillars Erode” is so Machine Head that it’s uncanny, and “Zero” is a cover of Smashing Pumpkins’ original hit. It’s not a good cover, although it did give me inspiration for another death metal karaoke rendition.

Overall: Very average, although “Quiescent” is one of the better tracks to be released recently.

Rating: 2.0*

ATF Review: Krisiun – Southern Storm

Location: Ijuí, Brazil
Genre: Death Metal
Released: July 18, 2008
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: All-Time Favorites

By: Kris Kotlarik

It is no secret to those who know me that death metal is among my least listened-to subgenres of metal. There is something about the genre that has never attracted me in. If I had to pinpoint a specific problem, it would be those bands who suffer Cannibal Corpse syndrome. Same lyrical themes, very similar stylistically; simply put, there’s not a lot of replay value to keep me coming back for more.

Enter Krisiun, the trio of brothers (seriously, they are actually brothers) who have released nine albums over the last twenty years. Over that span, they have clearly evolved from the ridiculously raw  Black Force Domain to their most recent release, the slightly political and well-produced The Great Execution. If you’re looking for a death metal track that has something to say (and/or if you speak Portuguese), check out “Extinção em Massa” from TGE.

Not all of their albums are great, but every album has at least one or two tracks that I can go to on a consistent basis and always enjoy. But something on their penultimate release, Southern Storm, clicked. From the world “go,” this is a death metal gem that few albums of the genre can match. There’s no bullshit intro that I’ve ranted about on so many albums; “Slaying Steel” is one of the most punishing openers I have come across, with its sweeping guitars and blast beats aplenty.

There is a lot of overlap in the critique I could make for this album, so I’ll just cover the highlights. For starters, the cover of Sepultura‘s “Refuse/Resist” is perfect, which is something I almost never say on an album review. Usually, I’m not a fan of covering tracks on albums. I think that’s best reserved for EPs or live releases. But Krisiun nailed this one. “Combustion Inferno,” with its simple yet enforcing riffs and ending solo, and “Sentenced Morning” are both great tracks that the label got right and marketed as singles with videos.

I think the best on this album is “Contradictions of Decay.” It’s the most dynamic track here and takes time (about a minute) to build up before it really kicks into gear. There’s another solo in here that isn’t overly technical but fits the overall vibe of this track very well. “Whore of the Unlight,” the closer, is also a standout, especially at the end.

While there are no weak tracks here, I do question the placement of the interlude, “Black Wind.” It’s a short acoustic number that Krisiun has slotted into other albums, such as Ageless Venemous and AssassiNation, in a similar fashion. It sounds like the band just needed to take a break from all the metal, so they just decided to wank on some acoustic guitars for a while and put it on the album. It’s pleasing to listen to, but is non sequitur to the rest of the album.

Nevertheless, this album is great. No death metal album will ever earn a 5.0, unless Ne Obliviscaris somehow blows me away more than they already have. But Krisiun comes close.

Overall: Will probably end up in the bottom half of the top 50, but that’s still pretty damn impressive. The fact that my name happens to be a part of this band is mere coincidence.

Rating: 4.5*

Review: Bloodbath – Grand Morbid Funeral

Location: Stockholm, Sweden
Genre: Death Metal
Released: November 17, 2014
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: Global Conquest – Upcoming Releases

By: Kris Kotlarik

Who’s ready for another pointless subgenre argument?

Elitist death metal fans having been bitching at each other for years (for all intents and purposes, let’s go with the start of the century) about old school death metal and new, “modern” death metal that relies more on melodic guitars and keyboards. And for some unknown reason, Bloodbath guitarist Per Erikkson (from Katatonia) decided to chime in on this debate when describing Grand Morbid Funeral, saying via Queen Of Steel:

“There can be both equal dozes of speed and heaviness in my opinion, but when it comes to the melodic aspect, I prefer my death metal eerie and/or sorrowful, when melodies become too ‘harmonic’ and cheesy you’re killing the darkness in death metal. I think Bloodbath blends the above very delicately, but contemporary ‘core’ metal fans and purists of melodeath are not gonna enjoy this new album. That’s for sure, but maybe their dads will?”

As legend has it, pretty much everyone who is anyone in the Swedish metal scene, including Mikael Åkerfeldt from Opeth, were all drinking one night and said “fuck it, let’s form a death metal band.” What happened to that? Sure, things have changed; Åkerfeldt is no longer in the band and is writing some nice progressive rock these days. When did they become so serious about this purist attitude? That defies the basis on which this band was founded. Melodic death metal has its merits if done right, just like “traditional” death metal can sound tacky and trite if done the wrong way.

Lyrically, this album is about as innovative as any generic rap song (here’s looking at you, “Hot ‘Boy'”). They are as seeped into death metal themes as humanly possible, to the point of being cliche. And the album title completely gives it away, but at least they’re sticking to what they wanted to do originally.

The music, on the other hand, is a nonstop highlight. New vocalist Nick Holmes from Paradise Lost is a surprisingly strong fit, and his parts are the least important aspect of this record. Jonas Renske, also from Katatonia, crushes the bass guitar, and everything else sounds tight.

As for highlights, I’m not even sure where to begin. If I was able to do so, I would take out the brief sample leading into “Anne,” as it doesn’t contribute much to the overall sound. “Total Death Exhumed” had an ending that would have faded out nicely into the former, but that’s just my opinion. I would start with the back end of this record, beginning with “Beyond Cremation,” as it starts amazingly and only gets better for the rest of the album. The rest should be considered as solid material as long as lyrics don’t matter to you.

Overall: The #1 album for headbanging and/or speeding while driving from 2014. 

Rating: 4.0*

Review: Beyond Creation – Earthborn Evolution

Location: Montreal, Canada
Genre: Progressive/Technical Death Metal
Released: October 24, 2014
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: Global Conquest – Upcoming Releases

By: Kris Kotlarik

Beyond Creation‘s first album was met with mixed reviews (69%) on metal-archives. Some hailed it as a masterpiece in the tech-death subgenre, while others roasted it and said it “almost completely sucks.” Admittedly, I’m not overly familiar with their first album; a glossary listen points to it being rather similar to their second effort, Earthborn Evolution.

What we have here is some Hour Of Penance vocals mixed with Gorguts bass lines, and occasional chuggity riffs that could have just as easily been written by anyone else. On the bright side, there is quite a bit of variety in these tracks, and since I specifically named Gorguts as a primary influence in their bass sound, that is going to factor in favorably in the rating. The bass shows up all over the place in pleasant doses that get your attention.

Unfortunately, the vocals, which are one of the main reasons I do not care for Hour Of Penance, also hinder my impression of this group. But what also bothers me here is the drums, which are played so in such a robotic way that it could almost be mistaken for a drum machine. I have no doubt that this group’s drummer is excellent at his craft, but I can’t get into this the way I get into other groups with massively technical drummers, such as those from Fleshgod Apocalypse or Gorguts, or Hazardeurbecause the sound is significantly less dynamic here.

As for what my favorite tracks are on this album, I can’t begin to break most of them down because these ten tracks all feel like extensions of each other with minimal separation between them. Much like the drumming, the songwriting is almost completely robotic. The one track that stands out in a positive way is “Theatrical Delirium,” which shows signs of dynamic awareness and contains some ridiculous bass licks that should make any enthusiast of the instrument smile. In fact, this might be a candidate for a prospective song of the year list. But it doesn’t make up for the rest of this effort.

Overall: The better groups from this genre are capable of putting a wide dynamic range into their sound while still being “brutal.” Earthborn Evolution lacks this element.

Rating: 2.0*