Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Jag Panzer - The Deviant Chord (2017)

If you remove the classic, excellent Ample Destruction and its sad successor, the miserable Dissident Alliance from the equation, Jag Panzer must have the longest streak of 'good but not great' albums in my entire collection of heavy/power metal. Always something to look forward to, even if you can't expect genius or timelessness, a bastion of consummate USPM professionalism for twenty whole years since they cleaned up their act and dropped The Fourth Judgement through Century Media. The Deviant Chord is just another example...a record with a great title, very cool cover art, and performances so reliable and polished that they seem like we're at the point they could crank them out like treadmill exercises while watching the morning news and drinking freshly squeezed juice.

On every technical level, The Deviant Chord is a success. Between Conklin's nuanced, Dickinson influenced wailing and howling, to Tafolla's controlled shredding, to a rhythm section anyone would be happy to have at their backs. Soaring, anthemic power metal which is busy and majestic enough to capture the European audience, with huge chorus sequences, backing harmonies, and a nice mixture of rhythmic variation between hard-hitting mutes, triplets, open atmospheric chords, and other standard but seasoned techniques to permit these songs to feel distinct from one another, even if they're all barking up the same tree. The Tyrant's sustained howls still sound comparable to a couple decades ago, with perhaps a small measure of understandable strain, but even at his mid range he knows how to let that voice get a wingspan over the workmanlike hustle and bustle beneath. When the band needs to slow it down, and get a little meaner, they do so, as with the title track. When they want a chance to flex their 'sensitive side', they do so, also in the intro to the title track, or during their metallic transformation of the traditional English folk song "Foggy Dew", which is seamless.

But if this album lacks anything, it's just having killer cuts that are going to ricochet back and forth through your subconscious until you can satisfy a craving by listening again. The Deviant Chord is a pleasure to experience while in the act, and proof positive that the Panzer hasn't skipped a beat despite its six-year hiatus since The Scourge of the Light (itself coming after a seven year period), but it doesn't really stick around for long after the listening. They simply haven't stumbled upon the level of hooks that their genre gods like Maiden, Priest or even Helloween have, but there's no way you can write that off as any 'lack of trying'...this is some carefully constructed, dramatic, graceful, melodic, occasionally fist raising metal by a bunch of elder statesmen whose proficiency levels simply exceed the songsmithing by a small order of magnitude. But you know what? It's enough. I'll listen to it again, and I'll listen to their next one, because Jag Panzer doesn't fuck around, and doesn't waste your time, and if you enjoyed records like The Scourge of the Light or Thane to the Throne then I'd be shocked if you didn't also get something out of this one too.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (each note rings out a glimpse of truth)

Monday, November 20, 2017

Witchery - I Am Legion (2017)

Witchery is not a band to really ever have 'bottomed out', or resorted to releasing pure shit into their legacy, but I'd be lying to say I've really connected to anything they've put out since the first few Toxine years. Many of the intermittent albums seem like pure, soulless riffing exercises which occasionally capture the thrills and styles of Restless & Dead or its successor, but never rival them in sheer thrill-a-minute songwriting prowess. This is a band with an enormous level of talent spread across its roster, and there are no real technical issues or laziness on exhibition, or even that feel of exhaustion you'll come across when visiting acts that might be considered 'side bands' for their members. A lot of the cover art, lyrics and aesthetics have been solid, but for going on two whole decades now they've just never really climbed that hill to its fullest to produce the sorts of timeless blackened thrash metal that they once exploded onto the scene with.

I Am Legion continues with the prior album's lineup, the veteran trio of Jensen, Corpse and D'Angelo joined by Angus Norder on vocals and Christofer Barkensjö on the drums, and they give an earnest attempt to mix a little of their late 90s style with some more varied, ranging, dynamic, bombastic songwriting, which often results in simpler, more warlike riff patterns and a little bit of dissonance through the black metal chords they apply to the more straightforward chords. The album has a few strange choices in pacing, like opening with the titular, drab instrumental Slayer-thon of "Legion" and then lapsing into the horror-theme organs which anoint "True North", which in truth should have been the opener since it just makes more aesthetic sense, and sounds brasher and brighter with its flowing mid-paced gait and potent if predictable riff-set. There's a real 90s groove/thrash feel to a lot of the material, generally derived from that era of Slayer, with a few flourishes of Swedish blackness to create a more suffocating, evil atmosphere, and a hell of a lot is reliant on the loud rasped delivery of Norder, who sounds like a loyal mix of his two predecessors Toxine and (ironically) Legion, but lacks a bit of distinction on his own.

For the most part, the riffs seem like an average grab-bag of Jensen and/or Corpse's vast arsenals which hadn't wound up on any other album, taking but a few minutes to string together into other like-minded sections, but that's not to say they entirely lack energy on a primordial level, which is really the way to approach this. The choruses aren't going to be as infectious as something like "The Reaper", so they compensate with a little more diversity in how the tunes are timed out and placed up against one another. There's also no lack for some atmosphere in cuts like "Welcome, Night", "A Faustian Deal" or "Dry Bones", and some of the hammering, harder hitting fare like "Seraphic Terror" hits you with a few tasteful licks like the trilly guitars between the verses, but overall I'd say the riff patterns fire off at a rate of 2-3 forgettable, and then one with some genuine force to bore into your brain. The drums and bass sound good, the rhythms thick and muscular compared to some prior albums, especially where they rely on slower stuff in the vein of Celtic Frost, Darkthrone or the black & roll Satyricon records, which a lot of riffs here resemble.

The cover art is a little generic, obvious and boring, but to be fair this album is the closest I've come to truly enjoying one since Dead, Hot and Ready, and superior to Symphony for the Devil; so I have to give Witchery some props, even though it feels a little contractual and phoned in on the instrumental side. Lyrically, however, I think it's pretty solid, if not clever or intellectual, with a measure of effort placed into their prose, imagery, and general flow. As a side note, I also dug the video for "True North", which doesn't seem like what you'd typically expect from the band due to the themes they usually toil around with, and that reflects in the music itself a little. Despite my issues, I Am Legion is an effort that would likely please a lot of listeners up front, and does give a little hope that the band is starting to get back on the rails that it, after all, never left for any great distance.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Friday, November 17, 2017

Samael - Hegemony (2017)

It's evident that the members of Samael and myself seem to agree on the Passage-era being the one most inspiring and interesting to revisit, and Hegemony is perhaps the greatest example of that since that 1996 opus dropped through Century Media. That's not to say I don't also enjoy their earlier, more primitive black metal records or the transitional Ceremony of Opposites, in fact I think those are the more influential by far; yet those machine-driven, poetic paeans to the cosmic which dominated their fourth album are forever my siren call when reaching over to their section of my CD rack. So I cannot at all blame them for attempting to rekindle that particular  style, which they've already done a few times, in particular on the more aggressive Above and its successor Lux Mundi, which for my money was the best Samael album of the 21st century...until now, although I'd argue that Hegemony is far more directly an homage to Passage than its predecessor was.

That's both a good and bad thing, because while Vorphalack and crew are clearly intent on dressing up and expanding those aesthetics, there are numerous moments here where you'll feel as if you're getting deja-vu for a synthesizer or guitar progression, drum pattern or fill that you've already heard two decades ago. For the most part, they're coming up with new chord patterns, which works out really well in a tune like "Red Planet" which is a new take on the warlike space opera of a "Jupiterian Vibe" which will have you marching in similar step. Most of the melody in modern Samael music is provided solely by the synthesizers, which have the same martial, striking, sweeping feel to them here as they cultivate both a militaristic and Eastern sheen. It's up to the beats, lower end guitars and Vorph's distinct, eternally accented snarls to provide the metallic bedrock, and they do so well, with a lore more cutting, kinetic passion to them than you'd hear out of comparable hybrids of industrial and metal aesthetics such as those of the Neue Deutsche Härte persuasion. I also have to praise the bass playing here, from new member Drop, who lays out these awesome, fat, rolling lines that support the clamorous, choppy majesty in tunes like "This World". While the drum programming has long been a point of contention for some fans, I think Xytras does another great job layering in thick enough and 'real enough' percussion pads without abandoning the martial and mechanical coldness.

The lyrics these days continue the themes of social consciousness and social unity that they first embarked on with Eternal, but they're also willing to spark up a little pseudo-controversy with a cut like "Black Supremacy", and if you've seen the video there you'll probably have seen a lot of the responses. Hint: it's not really about what you think it is. There are also some self-referential pieces like their namesake "Samael", or "Angel of Wrath", the former of which is like a giant socialist shout out to celebrate the band's following, and their message. It's a little heavy handed, but not as corny as, say, Reign of Light; and it wouldn't be the first time, since it does fit the band's modernist, corporate or empirical vision and minimalist visual branding which manifests in both the sleek packaging and fattened new logo variant (which I think is an improvement). Samael is just one of a kind, and while I can promise that those who have shunned everything they've released since 1994 will find no end here to pulling out their own hair and seeking sanctuary in the shadow of some inverted cross where no keyboard dares to tread, I readily admit to having enjoyed the hell out of this.

A couple nicks and dents here or there, a few songs not pulling their weight quite as much as others, but they even manage to transform "Helter Skelter" into something of their own, and the bonus track "Storm of Fire" is one of the coolest on the album. They also don't pull back too far on the heavy spectrum, for example "Black Supremacy" would have felt right at home on AboveHegemony might not ultimately emit the level of timeless material that Passage was built from, but it certain does a fantastic job of capturing its ebullient, storming magnificence.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]
(light and force have a name)

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Heir - Au peuple de l'abîme (2017)

From reviewing their split with In Cauda Venenum and Spectrale last year, I was already prepared for the sort of onslaught Heir was going to manifest. Now, after surviving their full-length debut Au peuple de l'abîme I can attest to the fact that there are no surprises here, the experience is quite consistent with the previous material, an ungodly amalgam of blasted, rasping black metal and sludgier aesthetics that generally dominate the slower passages throughout the record. Granted, at either of these styles alone, the band proves competent, but where this album goes a little further is to vary up the material even more than that, with slower, atmospheric passes in which the drums die down to a din, and some cleaner guitars and bass lines are allowed to conjure up a realm of graceful contrast.

And I'll say it, if NOT for those particular passages, and where they're strung out about the rather lengthy tracks (all around 7-9 minutes), I might have taken away a lot less from the band. When they are launching into their utmost momentum, you're getting a very stripped, noisy, filthy take on traditional black metal which often errs on the side of pure aggression, with little distinct note variation, like the opening to "Au siècle des siècles"; occasionally with a better, more melodic note selection as you'll hear in "L'heure d'Hélios". The mid-paced or slow parts center in on a lot of jangly dissonant notes picked over steady, simple beats and crashing chugs and chords, sometimes letting the nihilistic barks of the frontman sneer out over a very simple, eerie backdrop. This latter portion of the album is almost unanimously my favorite, a lot more evocative of fear and uncertainty than when they're off into a full froth frenzy, but then again those moments of the album also create a strange psychological give and take, as if you were being lulled with drugs and then jolted back into a heart pounding state of conscious awareness.

Don't get me wrong, there are places where these two aesthetic poles collide down the middle, and Au peuple de l'abîme transforms into a truly well-rounded outing, especially where they bust out some unexpected, warmer feeling, glorious element like the bridge to "Meltem". While not a technical or complex record by any means, there are plenty of ideas here, and the band is cautious to implement them without overwhelming the fundamental sounds of the genres in which they meddle and mash. I don't know that I always felt the patience to enjoy the entirety of these tracks, but at the very least Heir does enough to deviate from excessive repetition and there are more than enough moments of elation through the 40 that they've written. Perhaps this is not quite a band at the level of eclectic aural stimulation as peers like Blut Aus Nord, but they are certainly worthy of reaching more ears than they currently do, and Au peuple de l'abîme is a substantial first album with enough replay value to leave its mark, and enough potential to build off.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Arkhon Infaustus - Passing the Nekromanteion EP (2017)

It would have been enough, after an entire decade, to just have any new release from one of the filthiest, most intense French acts I've ever encountered and enjoyed. But beyond that, this latest Arkhon Infaustus EP, Passing the Nekromanteion hits a greater level of maturity and musicianship, without sacrificing the nightmarescapes of blackened death that the Frenchmen had cultivated with killer records like Perdition Insanablis, Filth Catalyst and Orthodoxyn. Though one could trace their own sound to sources like Morbid Angel or Angelcorpse, I've always found that this band's hybrid of extremity was actually ahead of its time, a huge number of popular acts from North America adopting similar styles about a decade after they first hit the scene with material like In Sperma Infernum or Hell Injection, and while they might be slightly overlooked by comparison to countrymen like Deathspell Omega or Blut Aus Nord, I found them just as distinct and formidable an enterprise.

This is a heavily textured, roiling, wall of sound, which paces itself a little less frantically than some of their older albums, but serves as an ideal example of controlled chaos. I'm reminded of Steve Tucker-era Morbid Angel via Gateways to Annihilation, only even more muscular and apocalyptic, as if it had some dystopian industrial sheen to it, with snarls alternated against the guttural vocals and a good breadth of variation. Riffs don't seem terribly stunning individually, but once embedded into the overwhelming force of the tracks, they transform into tightly wound coils of destruction ready to spring into attention with a seconds' notice, lurching and crawling and slithering below the vocals while faint hazes of dissonant atmosphere are created through the interaction of the instruments themselves, with few other adornments needed. When the band hits its faster tempos, the riffing is like a heavier broth of melodic Swedish death and black metal, and the three leading tracks all manage their 7-8 minute durations without lagging into sullen ennui or repetitive boredom, though most of any 'experimentation' is reserved almost exclusively to the 10 minute closer, "Corrupted

This is probably the one 'take it or leave it' track here, but I found myself aligning with the former compulsion. It opens with vaulted, droning guitars that are strummed in different distances from the listeners' ears, and then moves forward with a sluggish, doomed pace, lots of feedback or excess notes ringing off into a solemn, bleak environment that eventually erupts with this glaze of melodic doom/death which feels like a bucket of innocents' tears has just been dumped over your head, only to run down over your sinful flesh and evaporate. A really absorbing, intense finale in its own way, even if the audience might not find it balanced off with the other three tracks in terms of excitement that it generates. All around though, the rich, dense production qualities of this EP and the skilled, seasoned aggression of DK Deviant, the original member who handles all the instruments besides the drums (provided by Sylvain 'Skvm' Butet of Temple of Baal and The Order of Apollyon), really drive home the truth that this was one missed band for the last decade, and let's hope they stick around for a few albums longer. Potent stuff well suited to fans who like their black and death metal boiled and hardened into a seamless genre median of depth.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Wakedead Gathering/Ecferus split EP (2017)

I, Voidhanger records had already impressed me with a split release earlier this year, between the enigmatic Howls of Ebb and Germans Khtoniik Cerviiks, so when I saw the pairing for this next one, two of the label's talents from the Midwest US, I automatically assumed it would be another tasteful, complementary match-up which could very likely cross-over fans who hadn't been exposed to one or the other sides. Aesthetically, The Wakedead Gathering, one of the best American death metal acts to emerge over the last decade, might not seem a fit for the evolutionary black metal of Ecferus, but having been exposed to the minds of these creators on several occasions in the past, I knew they'd find a way to make it work.

I didn't know they'd make it work THIS well.

Now, to be clear, the two bands maintain their stylistic distinctions, so there's a clear divide in its presentation; one is death metal, the other black metal. It's obvious; not one of those instances where they blend the styles together in pure collaboration. But I soon got past that, because the tunes here are just SO freaking good that I almost feel sad that the tracks might not gain the same exposure they would otherwise, since in my experience splits don't always get an audience as large as full-lengths. At the same time, it offers a chance for the artists to experiment a little further, which I felt was the case for Wakedead's "The Blind Abyss", a sprawling, 11 minute sequence of roiling, hypnotic death metal patterns contrasted against bleak, minimalistic clean guitars which segment off some of the separate, Cyclopean riffing sequences. Andrew Lampe's gutturals narrate the rhythm guitar swells like text being dictated off twisted flesh, and the riffing selections vary from a crescendo of more mystical, open chords, to churning old school Floridian tremolo-picked morbidity, and some evil grooves that force the head to slowly start banging as it succumbs to the aural oblivion.

Ecferus, on the other hand, deliver three tunes, which in conjunction, amount to roughly the same length as "The Blind Abyss", and Alp does what he does best, scathing traditional black metal threaded with a more introspective and interesting lyrical inclination, not to mention the great balance of melody and savagery that he compels by keeping the riff progressions varied enough that they never lapse into endless, dull repetition. The leads are great, with an Eastern feel as in "Author of Destruction". As I mentioned on reviewing his prior full-length Pangaea, he can really tap into the primal nature of the cosmic and terrestrial themes he navigates, through that noted variation, even though a lot of the actual guitars themselves are inspired by bands like Darkthrone, Satyricon or the mighty Emperor, which some might consider fairly conventional influences. Nonetheless, he adds just enough spark of atmosphere and creativity, topped off with his raving rasps, that I think fans of thorough, elaborate black metal which hasn't flown off into total avant-garde territory should track his records down. Of the three tunes, I couldn't even pick a favorite. All well done.

And the same could be said for the split as a whole. Clearly you'll have no issue here telling the two apart, but I do feel like the material they chose works together on a listen-through, as they both tend to tap into the same visceral, primal forces for their genres and extrapolate similar shadows of the ancient, the mythological, the obscure, the cataclysmic. Production is tight all around, but never so polished that it would turn off underground extremity vultures. Another feather in the prodigious and eclectic cap that is the I, Voidhanger lexicon. Two US bands that continue to deserve your attention and support, who have great things behind and ahead of them. So why are you still here reading my flowery, meaningless scrawl? Go fetch.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

Monday, November 13, 2017

Antigama - Depressant EP (2017)

Antigama have always been one of European grind's strongest advocates and ambassadors towards the future, applying slightly more technicality and modernity to a style that often feels as if it's simply composed of too few tricks and variations. Experimenting with chords, atmospheres, and note progressions that aren't so easy to predict in their frenetic presentation, the Polish band manages to somehow find a style to themselves but rarely repeat a lot of the minute details that go into each composition, while never coming close to abandoning the fundamentals that so many listeners will recognize from their early exposure to Napalm Death, Extreme Noise Terror, Terrorizer, Agathocles, and the like.

The Depressant EP hits you straight up with a concept on its cover, a RELEVANT concept, which isn't just mindless political shillery, and then frames it with the sample opening to "Empty Paths", a labyrinthine assault of dissonant guitars and head-spinning blast work adorned in snarls, protracted screams, and yeah guys I gotta mention the drumming a second time in this sentence because it's utterly fucking sick. For a 2-ish minute tune, the band's specialty here on anything but the title cut, they certainly pack in a lot of beating, a lot to think about, and ultimately something more worth revisiting than your average sped-up 4-chord hardcore/punk configuration which has to depend all too much on a charismatic barker. Antigama has the vocals AND everything else in check, with a musical delivery that is for all purposes flawless across the instruments, but never wanky, showy or unapproachable beyond the sheer intensity that this genre unleashes upon your ears.

They also know how to thrive in these post-modern or industrial-feeling elements, through the voice effects or samples or just the odd chords that embellish cuts like the opening of "Room 7" with a loose, jazzy guitar feel. The ambient passages constructed here, like the first minute of "Depressant" itself, or the interesting way they launch the percussion in the finale "Shut Up", make you feel like you're wandering these cold-lit passages of modern living, where each of your steps is guided by debt, family and societal pressures, regrets, guilts. In fact they do such a good job on this element that I wouldn't be opposed to hearing them put out a purely contemporary industrial/ambient record with even smaller flourishes of grinding where they would do the most impact. They've really been on an incline with their prior full-lengths, Meteor nudging past Warning, and The Insolent hitting a new summit, and the material here is no exception, standing roughly even with that latest full-length in breadth and quality, just a slick, interesting and effective 19 minutes of 21st century grind. The blue pill is not even an option here.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Friday, November 10, 2017

Deviser - Howling Flames EP (2017)

Deviser is a lesser known but long-lived entity on the Hellenic black metal scene which has survived nearly as long as its far more popular peer Rotting Christ, if less prolific and a lot less distinct. Their first two full-lengths were pretty good, in particular the sophomore Transmission to Chaos (1998), but the subsequent and scarce recordings showed some growing pains and the band were not able to really define or register themselves against such an exploding European scene. The Howling Flames EP comes six years after their last album, Seasons of Darkness, and does well enough to rekindle my interest in the potential these guys once exhibited, to the extent that if they could pull off a full-length of quality comparable to these tunes I'd honestly be excited.

It's not because Deviser are coming up with anything really unique here, not in style or in actual riffing progressions or overall songwriting. These are just very well-rounded, catchy melodic and symphonic black metal tracks which fluidly balance proficiency and atmosphere. From the guitars you'll definitely notice that Greek streak of majestic, mid-paced riffing you'll recognize from their rotting messianic countrymen, but try and imagine if that were layered up with massive swells of operatic instrumentation. A technique employed by Greece's premiere black metal export on their more recent recordings, to be sure, but this is more like Triarchy of the Lost Lovers or Thy Mighty Contract with that extra layer of orchestra pit paint, and it results in some glorious, solemn shifts in tone over the 12 minutes of material that held up a cool contrast and fulfilling stereo experience. The music is never complex, just robust with how the various strings and keys resonate alongside the meat of the rhythm guitars, while Matt Hnaras barks off with a nihilistic, Sakis Tolis-like growl that blends in very well with the melodies and the thundering of the drums and peels of effects.

These guys don't get very fast, but there's a feel of momentum through most of the EP like you're gliding along the moonlit battlements of some fell castle in a Castlevania game and about to engage some aristocratic undead or Satanic adversary, and so it truly nails what it's going for. Mileage is going to vary as to whether or not you like having such hugely textured, orchestrated accompaniment to a simple black metal core, but Deviser due wonders to never let it overwhelm the basics, and the two cuts here both complement one another and vary it up enough to make a difference. It's short, but right up there with any of the highlights off Transmission, and a lot more tasteful and well integrated than other modern bands who over-employ the symphonics (Fleshgod Apocalypse, recent Dimmu Borgir, etc).

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Destruction - Thrash Anthems II (2017)

The original Thrash Anthems collection was hardly a popular item among purists for the band and style, nor am I myself normally a proponent for such re-recording packages. But I was so enamored with The Antichrist era of Destruction's reunion that I was actually pretty interested in hearing so many of the Germans' classics given a more modern, muscular, iron-clad treatment, about what you'd hear them sound like live in the 'oughts, and thus was not at all disappointed in the results. Granted, the newer versions of "Mad Butcher", "Curse the Gods", "Reject Emotions" and other staples in my listening diet don't serve to replace or upstage the earlier ones,  but they're a fun alternative that I might still mix in with a playlist culled from 21st century Destruction for tonal consistency.

One decade later, we've got another collection in the series, which specifically features re-workings of other older tunes that didn't make the cut the first time. Thrash Anthems 2007 got all of the more obvious choices out of the way, but its follow-up reaches way back to cover material like "Black Mass" and "Satan's Vengeance" off the Sentence of Death album, "The Ritual" from Infernal Overkill, "Confound Games", "Confused Mind" and "United by Hatred" from Eternal Devastation. Twelve tracks in total, so a little less than its predecessor, but I have to admit that this still sounds really fucking great, the punchier, more robust mix of guitars and drums melding together in a thrashing union which doesn't obfuscate the impact of the original riffs or the nuances found on the older recordings. Perhaps they're a fraction more sterile sounding, if you're someone like me who actually loves the little flaws and different production style of the 80s, but that doesn't mean they're not still a blast to listen through, and like the first collection this is not something I'll always shelf indefinitely. When I'm going for full 80s immersion I'll take the full, original albums, but if I just want to score an evening of drunken headbanging with friends not so versed in thrash beyond Metallica and Slayer, I think Thrash Anthems is a damn good option...

Schmier sounds as virile and nasty today as he did back then, still capable of complementing his harsh barking with the higher pitched screams you'll remember from his youth. Mike is a tireless, incendiary riffing machine who maintains the explosive level of excitement that put the band on the map in the first place, to some extent playing it safe, but why fix what isn't broken? Vaaver is by now the de facto backbone of the trio, with three studio albums already under his belt he's just as hard hitting and skilled as any to come before him. The production is cleaner, sure, but you simply cannot cage the violence that this band's songwriting manifests. As for song selection, obviously this is not entirely the band's A-Game. "Rippin' You Off Blind" and "Front Beast" were never favorites of mine, and I don't know that these new versions really up their ante, but I definitely spun through "Black Mass" and "Dissatisfied Existence" a bunch. Ultimately not as entertaining as the first Thrash Anthems, but still damn solid, and I think Destruction has done a far better job of modernizing its material while 'keeping it real', where a lot of their peers have faltered on similar re-recordings.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Blind Guardian - Live Beyond the Spheres (2017)

I had already heaped quite a lot of praise upon Blind Guardian's 2003 Live double-album, and experienced the band's performance for myself enough to know that I didn't really require another live product from their camp. But Live Beyond the Spheres, culled from a long stretch of European gigs in 2015, is yet another impressive feat in this arena, spanning three discs and close to three hours of material both obvious and less so. It also prompts me to ask the question: are these sorts of 'compilation' live discs 'cheats'? Is it swaying the odds in such an album's favor if it's simply preened from a bunch of gigs, where you know the band have only really been 'on' for a handful of tracks? I realize that's unlikely in the case of these beloved Germans, who rarely half-ass anything, and I also realize I've responded both positively and negatively to such efforts in the past, because ultimately I think the final product and how it sounds coming from your speakers is ultimately the measure of its value. But it still seems less impressive than it might have if the band pulled it off on a single night.

Otherwise, Live Beyond the Spheres is another gem in the band's crown, a large amount of material which successfully captures the magic of their instrumentation, songwriting and in general the fun factor that their music inspires in their audiences. That's not to say Blind Guardian clown around, the themes in their music tend to the serious, but head out to one of their gigs and you're very likely to see thousands of folks singing along to almost every word through most of the sets. And I feel that warmth and community oozing through every pore of these selections, which have been chosen to represent a wide range of the band's discography, with newer pieces like "The Ninth Wave" and "Twilight of the Gods" bumping uglies with classics like "Valhalla", "Mirror Mirror" and "Bright Eyes". The guitars, drums and vocals all sound great here, with Hansi clearly at the forefront, domineering the performance and complemented with Olbrich's perky, popping and intricate melodies, just the right amount of crowd response in between tunes, and a good variety of material that ranges from the more frenetic and technically impressive to the good old, simpler sing-a-long.

The mix is so balanced that you won't really pick out incongruities between songs performed at different shows. I did notice a slight lack in energy between the tunes from the latest album at the time, Beyond the Red Mirror, and their predecessors, even as recent as "Tanelorn" from At the Edge of Time, but this is more the substance of the compositions themselves than any laziness on the band's part...the material is simply not as distinct or explosive as that found on earlier albums. There's also the problem of how you approach the listening you really want to sit back in your recliner and listen to three entire discs of Blind Guardian live? There are worse things you could be doing, surely, like the taxes or inflating your sex dolls...strike that, you can do some of these things simultaneously with this album, and it's no less depressing...but the point stands that it's a lot to take in, and I'm not sure that breaking it up into little chunks serves the purpose of the release. I guess if you just want to hear your favorite band perform favorite songs that sound pristine despite the little imperfections and flaws that mar nearly any live performance, and you're waiting for more original material, of you've never gotten to see them for yourself, then this works pretty well. Not as taken with it as I was their prior live album, but there's no debating that they deliver.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]