Saturday, February 28, 2009

'NEATH: The Small Untruths

Produced by Kosta Lagis
Released: 2008

An impressive collection of Opeth-style progressive death metal, 'Neath's debut The Spider's Sleep was easily one of the stand-out entries in the Australian metal catalogue for 2007. This new album from the Brisbane quartet has set the same exemplary standard. The Small Untruths is a refinement of their formula, resulting in tighter arrangements without losing the feeling of immediacy that comes from 'neath's jam-based style.

The Small Untruths won't lay any Opeth comparisons to rest; if anything 'neath seem to relish them and the extensive use of acoustic guitar here actually makes them sound more like the illustrious Swedes than before. The acoustic passages of "Paintings" are very similar to those of "The Drapery Falls" and in several other places there are echoes of Blackwater Park, such as the riffing in "Untruths". Nevertheless, while this review may seem like an accusation of outright copy-catting, the fact is that 'neath is really a great band and The Small Untruths is a very, very good album.

It would actually be rather difficult for a band to play music like this and not sound like Opeth once in a while, and to their infinite credit 'neath is one of the few bands around that can pull this style off convincingly. While their songs are very obviously built around extending studio jams, 'neath never carry it too far. Indeed, while this album is almost precisely the same length as The Spider's Sleep, this has one more track, meaning that while they continue to free-form they do so with plenty of restraint. Multi-voiced singer Boyd Potts provides the understated keyboard elements which help to provide the somewhat stark and haunting atmosphere that is also reflected in the strange artwork. Tim Dowdle's guitar shifts gear between simple but menacing riffs to a clean, lilting passages evoking the darkness of the lyrics.

The Small Untruths is another remarkable album from 'neath, a band that is on its way to becoming something pretty special.

  1. Worm
  2. Paintings
  3. Down
  4. Untruths
  5. Remember
  6. Shell

Rating: 94%

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Produced by Mihkel Raud
Released: 2002

A YouTube video of some guys performing "Hallowed be Thy Name" on a harp put me in mind of this strange little album from the Estonian medieval chamber orchestra Rondellus. If classical versions of Metallica songs weren't quirky enough, on Sabbatum Black Sabbath classics have been translated into authentic 14th Century chamber music! It's a bold and extremely interesting experiment that doesn't always succeed but makes for a pretty essential listen. Seriously, everyone needs to hear this at least once.

Rondellus do rather more than just strip back Sabbath’s songs to acoustic versions played on hurdy-gurdys, bagpipes and lutes which is what I probably actually expected when I dared to give this a listen. Instead, the songs have been completely deconstructed and transcribed into a medieval style, complete with lyrics chanted in Latin. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, because occasionally the arrangements and instrumentation are given prominence at the expense of the melody. This results in some tunes literally getting lost in the translation: 'War Pigs' and 'Symptom of the Universe' could be almost any song by anyone and 'After Forever', one of my favourite ever songs, is totally unrecognisable.

Nevertheless, the effect elsewhere is quite remarkable, if still somewhat bewildering. ‘Magus’ is quite obviously ‘The Wizard’ even with a Gothic harp and fiddle taking the place of guitar and harmonica, and ‘Solitudo’, ‘Planetarum vagatio’, ‘Via gravis’ and ‘Architectus urbis caelestis’ are all quite distinctly the songs they are meant to be, proving that even when performed in a musical style removed from their original form by 600 years, a great song remains a great song.

It's hard to know exactly what sort of audience this album is really aimed at, but one thing's for sure. When it comes to unique renditions of Black Sabbath material, Sabbatum takes the cake.

  1. Verres Militares (War Pigs)
  2. Oculi Filioli (Junior's Eyes)
  3. Funambulus Domesticus (A National Acrobat)
  4. Symptoma Mundi (Symptom of the Universe)
  5. Post Murum Somnii (Behind the Wall of Sleep)
  6. Post Aeternitatem (After Forever)
  7. Magus (The Wizard)
  8. Solitudo (Solitude)
  9. Rotae Confusionis (Wheels of Confusion)
  10. Planetarum Vagatio (Planet Caravan)
  11. Via Gravis (A Hard Road)
  12. Architectus Urbis Caelestis (Spiral Architect)

Rating: 72%

Thursday, February 19, 2009

SLAYER: Reign in Blood

Produced by Rick Rubin
Released: 1986

Slayer's third album is hailed by many as the ultimate thrash album, the one that somehow defines the genre and sets the benchmark for everything to follow. In truth, there's really only half an album here and Slayer made better records both before and after this. Reign in Blood's real notoriety stems from its energy and intensity, aspects which can't be denied, but for the most part this exists as extreme for extremity's sake. While it's a fact this is an album that bridges the gap between hardcore and metal like none before it and helped to lay the foundation for death metal, it's also probably fair to say that if Reign in Blood didn't contain two of the best thrash songs of all time, hardly anyone would ever listen to it.

By the time they went in to work on this album, Slayer was apparently "bored" with standard song-writing techniques and promptly dispensed with them, coming up with a bunch of tracks where the usual metal formulas really were thrown out the window. From the moment it began with the piercing scream that ranks as one of the best openings to any album ever, Reign in Blood just relentlessly bludgeoned the listener with an endless barrage of pure insanity. Riffs flew by so fast it was almost hard to tell where one ended and the next began. Tom Araya's vocals were a tuneless shout with little to no variation and all forms of real guitar soloing were replaced by a mishmash of frantic, thrown-together single-note repetition, dive-bombing and noise. Indeed, most of the album is closer to hardcore than it is to thrash, almost completely stripped of melody in an apparently ruthless quest for atonal dissonance and blinding pace.

A little bit too often on Reign in Blood, Slayer overplayed this, resulting in a mixed bag where speed and violence dominated. Songs like "Necrophobic" end before they've had a chance to get going and in "Jesus Saves" they try to fit too many lyrics into too small a space. Snatches of groove appeared but were gone too quickly to set, some songs have no real structure whatsoever and in more than one place Slayer seemed to be playing almost too fast for their own good. If it wasn't for Rick Rubin's instinctive production, a lot of this would have ended up as unlistenable garbage, a blur of guitar noise and screaming unfit for release. Slayer's apparent goal to out-extreme everyone had been achieved, even if it meant that Reign in Blood was the musical equivalent of an exploitation film, existing for the sake of intensity alone.

In light of the band's philosophy behind the album's intentions, it's somehow ironic that the two songs to most closely follow a standard structure are the ones that make Reign in Blood great. "Angel of Death" and "Raining Blood" are two of the greatest metal songs in history. The first piles on lyrical horror upon horror, a litany of gruesome imagery that presages the gore-grind phenomonon that would follow, winds down into an epic slow section that would later be sampled by Public Enemy and explodes again into chaos. Kerry King's inane "solo" is a bit of a let down after such a gargantuan build up, though. Finally, there's "Raining Blood", possibly Slayer's greatest contribution to metal: a menacing, sinister intro, furious, bruising riffage, Araya's demented vocals and a truly cataclysmic ending, the perfect way to round out an album that often sounds like total destruction.

In hindsight Reign in Blood lacks the majesty of Master of Puppets, the technical wizardry of Peace Sells... and the darkness of Darkness Descends, all of which came out earlier the same year. But it certainly set a new standard in extremity, spawned two incredible songs and paved the way for death metal and gore-core excess like no other release. And any album with a song like "Raining Blood" on it is a deadset classic.

  1. Angel of Death
  2. Piece by Piece
  3. Necrophobic
  4. Altar of Sacrifice
  5. Jesus Saves
  6. Criminally Insane
  7. Reborn
  8. Epidemic
  9. Post Mortem
  10. Raining Blood

Rating: 85%

Saturday, February 14, 2009

KROKUS: Headhunter

Produced by Tom Allom
Released: 1983

Swiss rockers Krokus were the ultimate band-wagon jumpers, shamelessly changing their style, sound and look regularly in an attempt to cash in on whatever happened to be popular in the hard rock world. After struggling as a Genesis-like prog band, they decided to become AC/DC clones in the late 1970s, signed up Maltese Bon Scott-soundalike Marc Storace and began to pump out fairly undistinguished albums every twelve months or so. The album before this one had produced the minor US radio hit "Long Stick Goes Boom" as well as "Rock N Roll", a bald-faced rip-off of the Led Zeppelin song of the same name that exposed the band's greatest flaw: Krokus just sounded like a second-rate covers band. Headhunter was their fourth major label album, so it was probably time for them to make a decent record and they almost succeeded.

Judas Priest producer Tom Allom gave Krokus a harder-edged sound that made them sound a bit like Accept, who were just about to break through internationally themselves. The band continued to rely on near-plagarism and regurgitation as they mined the AC/DC riff catalogue mercilessly, but at least Headhunter had a consistency about it that everything else Krokus ever recorded lacked. Indeed, while the songs sound like they were stolen from an array of other bands, most of them aren't half bad. Both the title track and "Night Wolf" are frenzied metallic splats that drew inspiration from Accept's Restless and Wild, "Eat the Rich" and "Ready to Burn" are solid mid-paced rockers influenced by Screaming for Vengeance (Rob Halford actually sings on the second of these!) and the power ballad "Screaming in the Night" is perhaps their greatest achievement. It isn't spectacular, but Headhunter is actually a pretty enjoyable slab of party metal if you can put up with Storace's often try-hard vocals.

Krokus never came even remotely close to emulating Headhunter, instead slipping further and further into unintentional self-parody with every subsequent release. If nothing else, this minor classic proves that even the most ordinary band has at least one good record in them somewhere.

  1. Headhunter
  2. Eat the Rich
  3. Screaming in the Night
  4. Ready to Burn
  5. Night Wolf
  6. Stayed Awake All Night
  7. Stand and Be Counted
  8. White Din
  9. Russian Winter

Rating: 72%