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Columnus Metallicus

Horns Up Ya Shitters! Columnus Metallicus Is Back For February
The Quietus , February 15th, 2016 08:52

Throw your horns towards the crepuscular frost bitten moon and say a mighty 'HAILS' to our interim metal reviewer, Tom Dare who looks over Megadeth, Anthrax, Dream Theater, Oranssi Pazuzu, Abbath and more

Oranssi Pazuzu portrait by Maija Lahtinen

The start of the year is a funny time for metalheads. There were bugger all albums coming out and few gigs to go to between mid-December and mid-January; and having been subjected to two months of Christmas carols, we’re itching for some Satan and destruction. Maybe that’s why there’s always something that we all start out raving about in January that’s forgotten by festival season. This year, at least, there’s been a sufficient variety of sounds and quality that it’s easy to have some perspective – perspective being something our first album of the month really could have done with.

Dream Theater – The Astonishing

After their last, self-titled record was Dream Theater at their best – focused, accessible, and still with plenty of bonkers over-the-top epic proggery – it was perhaps predictable that they wouldn’t be able to sustain that level of quality. It would have been a brave fan to bet on The Astonishing being quite as awful as it is, though. At 130 minutes in length (to put that in context, Beethoven’s symphony no.9 – his longest – is only 74 minutes) this is more endurance test than artistic experience. Beginning to drag somewhere in the middle of the 20-track first act, the problems are manifold. For one, if you’re putting together this much music, it needs to be more hook-laden than this, as there really isn’t enough going on to grab your ear. For another, the musical emphasis needs to shift more often; for example, the occasional stronger bit of metallic crunch amidst the noodling technical exercises would have staved off boredom far longer. But mainly, this suffers from a dreadful lack of self-control. The Astonishing is a band with huge amounts of talent running with their ability long beyond the point someone should have told them to trim the fat and focus on the songs. Instead, they’ve ended up with a self-indulgent bore of an album.

Anthrax – For All Kings
(Nuclear Blast)

The first of three noteworthy thrash releases this column, Anthrax deserve a shitload of credit for their attitude to For All Kings even before we get to the songs themselves. This sounds like a band who very much still give a shit about what they’re doing, believe in their musical identity and don’t want to run from it, want to maintain their standards, and still do something fresh and with value 30 years after their first success (Metallica, take note). From opening track ‘You Gotta Believe’, this is East Coast thrash to its fingertips, with the focus on song-writing and trying to make people lose their shit, with new lead guitarist Jon Donais (once of metalcore nearly-made-its Shadows Fall) being given enough space to bring his own style into the piece. Inevitably, he’s really the only aspect that actually sounds that fresh, but there’s still enough good ideas and Anthrax fun knocking around to make this well worth a listen.

Megadeth – Dystopia

After the embarrassing clusterfuck of Super Collider last time out, Megadeth have seriously got their shit together for Dystopia. The lip-curled tone is back, Dave Mustaine sounds convincingly pissed off and crazy again (well, as much as he can without the old level of narcotics in his system, anyway), and Lamb Of God drummer Chris Adler has (unsurprisingly) leant far more energy and zip to the rhythm section. And if you focus just on the music, this is a record Megadeth fans will be delighted with. It’s probably a bit too strained vocally (Dave sounds his age) and heavily processed to convince the pick-and-choose fans, but that’s their loss. In advance of this record, Dave’s spent the last two years studiously trying not to say anything politically controversial in interviews – which may explain why he sings about sod all else here, and it’s a real problem. The (barely) veiled references to Fox News/Alex Jones ultra-conservative rhetoric and conspiracy theories are simply too vague to make anyone not already inclined to agree with them reconsider their opinions, and there isn’t much else to form a personal connection to. State of the art speed metal, yes this is, but it’s very hard to engage with emotionally without blanking out the lyrics.

Exumer – The Raging Tides
(Metal Blade)

The most fun, taut, energetic thrash album of the first couple of months of 2016 is from these less known Germans. If Megadeth and Anthrax are the sound of two professional bands with 30 years experience and loads of talent, Exumer sound more like they’re running on feel and instinct. It probably helps that their recording budget was a fraction of the Americans’ too, as everything sounds that little bit more free and carries more sense of momentum. But the roiling, thunderous riff collection – sounding like they’re coming to cheerfully rip your head off and spit down your throat, before drinking all your booze – is what makes this feel more human and entertaining as a result. Sure, it overstays its welcome by a song or two (“minimum running time” record contracts are an abomination that need to be eradicated) but this is still vastly better than most thrash that you hear in the 2010s.

Entombed A.D. – Dead Dawn
(Century Media)

Speaking of horrible nasty fun, the band that aren’t Swedish death metal legends Entombed, but are everyone from their last incarnation minus founding guitarist Alex Hellid using a very similar name (nope, us neither) have wasted no time releasing album number two. And this is a shitload better than the last album, to boot. Back To The Front was fine, in a bland, milk-and-two-sugars everyday way, but there was little to get actually excited about. This is much more vigorous. There’s some top quality riffage floating around, even in the supposed-filler block in the second half, where ‘Silent Assassin’ has one of the most wicked ideas in the whole piece. Sure, it’s very much death & roll by the numbers, so this isn’t going to change the minds of anyone already off the fence, but if you’re an Entombed fan, you’ll probably love it, and anyone new will find plenty of motivation to go back and listen to Wolverine Blues, which is really all you can ask for.

Rotting Christ – Rituals
(Season Of Mist)

Someone who seems rather more keen on doing unusual, original things with extreme metal is Rotting Christ mastermind Sakis Tolis. The Greek black metal pioneers have seldom stood still, but the style they shifted into on 2007’s (absolutely spectacular) Theogonia has been reinterpreted every album since, and here is no exception. The epic, portentous riffing style is still there, all infernal fire and malevolence, but it’s much more reverent. ‘Ze Nigmar’ sounds like the black metal equivalent of a Gregorian chant, ‘Elthe Kyrie’ has the air of a hedonistic festive rite, while ‘For A Voice Like Thunder’ is the kind of William Blake brooding that Rotting Christ’s mates in Primordial would definitely approve of. Sakis’ riffing quality is (as expected) exemplary throughout, sounding like the soundtrack to eternity in the Underworld, while his brother Themis’ high-impact drumming style beefs up the weight, and the various shrieks, chants, low-singing and theatrical rapid fire Greek-speaking female vocals add huge character. Top class.

Hexvessel – When We Are Death
(Century Media)

For anyone ever unsure about Mat “Kvohst” McNerney’s (code, Dødheimsgard, Beastmilk/Grave Pleasures) Hexvessel folk/blues rock/prog/jazz/psychedlia craziness, this is the time to give them another go. Everything up to now has been so varied and difficult to wrap your mind around that it’s understandable if you didn’t go with it, but When We Are Death is where it all coalesces into something instantly understandable – which is weird, because it’s completely fucking weird and unpredictable. It starts rocky and bonkers with ‘Transparent Eyeball’, it goes all soulful on ‘Mirror Boy’, wanders off into contemplative and deeply personal territory on ‘Cosmic Truth’, and ascends into druggy reverie on ‘Hunter’s Prayer’ at the end. And it’s all entirely fucking brilliant and absolutely essential listening, whether it sounds your cup of tea or not.

Oranssi Pazuzu – Värähtelijä

Speaking of Finnish weird shit that’s amazing and makes no bloody sense, Oranssi Pazuzu are back with an even less sane album. It’s psychedelic, completely weird black metal at its roots, but quite what you call what it’s grown into now isn’t worth labelling. What it is definitely is mesmeric in the extreme (in a way that black metal’s original mob tried doing but only really Darkthrone were this successful at), so much so that you do very well not to lose your sense of time and place when listening to Värähtelijä, even stone cold sober. You suddenly jerk yourself out of your trance when one of the more aggressive BM bits (‘Hypnotisoitu Viharukous’, for example) kicks in, and realise that you’ve been staring off into the distance in terror for 20 minutes. Horrifying, frightening, and unique.

Abbath – Abbath
(Season Of Mist)

Given how completely fantastic Immortal’s last album All Shall Fall was, and that we’ve been waiting seven years for a follow-up, it’s disappointing how ordinary their former frontman’s first solo outing is. There’s some good riff ideas, and the odd really great song (the lightning fast romp of ‘Fenrir Hunts’, for example), but there’s problems all over the gaff. The war-like thrashy black (sort of) metal style is potentially excellent, but there’s too many bad choices; all the best songs are at the end, the drums sound like Tupperware, and there’s a synthesised trumpet on ‘Ashes Of The Damned’ that sounds like something from the Casio keyboard I used for GCSE music classes in the late 1990s (and thought sounded shit even then, aged stupidteen). Plus there’s a lack of memorable hooks in Abbath’s croak that makes this more passably entertaining than something that survives multiple listens.

Magrudergrind – II (Relapse)

Proper groove-laden punky grindcore can be found in spades if you go looking for it, but it’s struggled slightly to get enough bands to the top table to carry the flag – especially as getting much music out of Nails and Wormrot hasn’t been easy, and Cloud Rat are yet to get the profile they deserve. Magrudergrind threatened to break into the big (well, for grind standards, anyway) league with 2009’s self-titled album, but if there’s any justice, II will see it happen for them. This does exactly what this shit should: get’s in, immediately punches you in the gut, drops into a Napalm Death groove (‘Divine Dictation’), has you wanting to break everything with the power of righteous indignation, knackers you out with your own enthusiasm, then pisses off again after less than 25 minutes. Just don’t have anything fragile near you while you listen to it.

Agoraphobic Nosebleed – Arc (Relapse)

Speaking of great grindcore, this isn’t it. No, Agoraphobic Nosebleed’s first album for seven years isn’t rubbish – on the contrary, this is absolutely ace – but apparently at some point since 2009, they decided they want to be a really angry sludge band. Slower tempi, this may be founded on, but don’t think this means it’s any less aggressive, though. The drums are busy as hell and the vocals are still imploringly vicious, and the whole thing is still bloody short (less than half an hour), but it’s told through three long songs rather than 40 short ones. Get over the novelty of an Agoraphobic Nosebleed sludge record, and you can find plenty to like about this in its own right: groove, thud, momentum and a sense of time passing much more quickly than you realise.

Textures – Phenotype
(Nuclear Blast)

Something rather less primal, Dutch tech metal pioneers Textures have been slightly unfortunate in many ways. They weren’t quite early enough in the game to be as pioneering as Meshuggah, they weren’t sufficiently mystical as the (initially) short-lived SikTh and they were too established to be fresh and exciting when that “djent” thing started (and almost immediately died) at the turn of the decade. And, if we’re being totally honest, Phenotype is an example of how this wasn’t just bad luck with timing. There’s enormous amounts of technique on display here, and plenty of interesting stuff that has nothing to do with chin-stroking. It’s fun, entertaining, and done with feel more than showing off. It’s just neither as atmospheric as Uneven Structure, as memorable as TesseracT, or as destructively disturbing as Meshuggah. It’s good, but it’s not got enough about it that makes it stand out from the crowd – which is Textures in a nutshell.

Obscura – Akróasis

Curiously, the space age tech death of Steffen Kummerer’s Obscura has, on Akróasis, come out in a way that is probably less engaging for people who don’t usually like this stuff, but that their fans are likely to enjoy more than anything they’ve done before. It is dizzyingly technical and progressive, sounding like it must have taken most of the five years since their last album to learn to play the bloody thing, but that’s a means to an end rather than the goal in its own right. They sound – as anyone already a fan wants – like they’re trying to open a portal through space and time and send you on some intergalactic, transdimensional journey of musical textures and atmospheres. And if you like that stuff, this is absolutely terrific. If you don’t, you’re likely to find this noodly bollocks without enough in the way of unsubtle variation or tangible melody – not offensively bad, just unengaging. Judge it through your own prism.

Fuath – I

The work of Andy Marshall, once of Falloch (before they turned into a Caledonian version of Deftones) and now of Saor, this is apparently an expression of his love of Burzum’s Hvis lyset tar oss, and fucking hell, does it show. Shoegazing and warmly, mistily atmospheric, I is burgeoning with some absolutely gorgeous ideas, and Marshall’s ear for a riff is strong as hell. It’s just a shame – in true Burzum style – that everything is played 17 times even if it would be better played once. If you like the fact that Varg Vikernes’ work is based on playing the same chords until the entire world is bored of them, you’ll probably love this. If you like black metal with more momentum and dynamic song structures, you’ll be disappointed that so many good ideas amount to less than they could.

Fleshgod Apocalypse – King (Nuclear Blast)

After making their name by being about as histrionic as even fans of death metal and Italian Romantic opera could ever imagine, Fleshgod Apocalypse’s symphonic technical brutal death metal has, sadly, reined everything in. The drums no longer sound like Indiana Jones punching someone, and the symphonics are much more restrained. The result isn’t bad, it’s just much less ludicrously joyful and distinctive – and, for that matter, memorable – as a consequence. The ultimate problem is that they needed their best ever songs to pull this off, and there’s nothing as catchy and thunderously energetic as ‘The Violation’ from Agony, or as ominously sweeping as ‘Minotaur’ or as climactic as ‘Elegy’ from Labyrinth. This is still quite good, but it’s ordinarily good, not the preposterous, spectacular glory of Fleshgod’s last two outings.

And with that, we’re done, and it’s time to start looking forward to the good stuff we’ve got to come, from the Wardruna/Enslaved Skuggsjá collaboration, a new Amon Amarth, and the long, long, long awaited return of Cobalt. But I’ll leave that to someone else next month.

Up the Irons.