ANATHEMA “DISTANT SATELLITES”

ANATHEMA “DISTANT SATELLITES”

I feel duty-bound to offer an up-front disclaimer about this review of Anathema’s latest release, Distant Satellites: The album doesn’t seem to have much business being reviewed on a metal website next to the likes of some of the other bands you can read about here. From what I knew of the band prior to writing this, I’m not sure that most of Anathema’s catalog would be able to claim otherwise.

That being said, Distant Satellites is by no means unlistenable, despite the fact that it’s pretty much devoid of anything you could characterize as metal. Atmospheric and expansive, new-age like vocals are the name of the game with this band. It is very much the kind of music you’d listen to if you are depressed about breaking up with a significant other. The band would be in fine company touring with a group like Celtic Woman, as much as with Porcupine Tree or Anubis Gate.

Though they’ve been dubbed “progressive” by some, I haven’t heard any material from them that I’d necessarily ascribe that term to. Overall, Distant Satellites is an emotionally evocative, if not somewhat overtly mellow piece of work. Those who are familiar with 2012’s Weather Systems will find this new album a bit stripped back in some ways. The guitars are gone on most of it (with a few exceptions) and none of what is present is really anything more than a melodic loop used to support the vocal elements. Piano is absolutely the main melodic instrument on the album, often to very nice effect. The male and female vocal contributions are also up to par with what I’ve heard of Anathema’s past work.

The downside to this album for me is that it tends to fall into being what I’d refer to as background music. As I said, it isn’t bad, but there’s also not really anything overly impressive about any of it. The vocals and lyrics are good, but they don’t reflect the kind of ridiculously engaging talent that keeps my attention throughout the album by their own virtue. The music, while effective in conveying emotional depth, seems to be fairly utilitarian. It’s good to have the music work for the song, but when nothing sticks out at all, you’re in danger of making everything a bit flat overall. The songs all have their own individual charm to them, but there are really no “Oh, I love this part” moments.

So my verdict with Distant Satellites is that I don’t think I would choose it over some of this band’s previous work, and I highly doubt most of the people who frequent this site will be all that interested in it. However, it is a decent choice to go along with a collection of mellow, sad sounding music if you are so inclined. It isn’t without it’s redeeming qualities, but I think Anathema could probably some up with something a little more exciting if they tried .

Distant Satellites is out now on Kscope.

Rating: 2.5/5 Stars

MARTY FRIEDMAN “INFERNO”

MARTY FRIEDMAN “INFERNO”

All I can think when listening to Marty Friedman’s new release Inferno is “Fiiiiiiiiiinally!” From the first song I realized just how much I’ve missed this guy in American metal. And it’s not just that I’m a huge fan of Cacophony or that I felt he was the only thing making Megadeth’s music listenable. What I’ve really been missing is that signature flair Marty always brought to his music, that neoclassical flavor and obvious mastery of the guitar. It’s something I don’t hear often enough these days.

Inferno isn’t just an hour of guitar wanking without a point. There are some serious songwriting chops on display here and a lot of variety given the number of collaborators involved. Each song is distinct in theme and feel with Freidman’s guitar as greatest common factor, his signature style adapted to the character of each song at large. On Inferno you will get thrash, neoclassical, speed, shred, jazz, metalized flamenco, good ol’ fashioned hard rock and more.

The blazing sea of notes is changed up on three tracks, “I Can’t Relax” (featuring Danko Jones), “Sociopaths” (featuring David Davidson of Revocation and “Lycanthrope” (featuring Alexi Laiho of Children of Bodom and Danko Jones). It’s a happy coincidence, but I’ve previously compared Davidson’s style to Friedman’s in reviews of Revocation’s albums. And if you ever wanted to know what Children of Bodom would sound like with Friedman on guitar, that’s pretty much what “Lycanthrope” sounds like.

One of the other highlights on the album is “Horrors,” co-written by Jason Becker. It’s pretty much everything I’d expect of the master-minds behind Cacophony if they were still playing together today. It is speed-metal symphony for the new century – simply mind-blowing. “Undertow,” featuring Gregg Bissonette and Tony Franklin was another song that fits really well with the late ’80s material Friedman is associated with. It is definitely more laid-back than “Horrors,” but it is still chock full of that heroic neoclassical shred.

The only hurdle to listening to Inferno cover-to-cover is “Meat Hook,” which features a very unfortunate and jarring saxophone throughout. This is a totally subjective judgment on my part, and I can’t fault the song in any way that relates to it’s content. I just find the sound of saxophones about as pleasant as a screaming demon baby with very few exceptions. That said, it doesn’t come close to ruining the listening experience to me, although I will probably always skip that track.

Inferno definitely ranks in my top five albums released in 2014 so far, and I hope Marty Friedman will continue to be present in the U.S. music scene for those of us who are weary of all the homogeneity in the metal world.

Inferno is out now on Prosthetic Records.

Rating: 4.5/5 Stars

INCANTATION “DIRGES OF ELYSIUM”

INCANTATION “DIRGES OF ELYSIUM”

Incantation’s forthcoming release, Dirges of Elysium, seems to reiterate once again that predictability is, and probably will always be, a mainstay of death metal.

Even when it comes to Incantation, who are considered by many to be royalty within the underground extreme metal scene, I have to ask myself, “What is it that bands like this have left to express that hasn’t been conveyed ad nauseum since the genre’s inception?” Sure, in the ’80s and ’90s this sound was an innovative and exciting outlet for those of us who wanted to flip a big middle finger at the Tipper Gores of the world. But these days, with the music industry saturated with bands that have repeatedly copied this sound, and with our culture less and less inclined to experience it, what is a band like Incantation expressing that they didn’t seven or eight albums ago?

Philosophical qualms aside, Dirges of Elysium is objectively a fairly mediocre death metal album. It meets the standard for albums of its ilk, including grimy, dark sounding guitars; blast beats o’ plenty; and guttural, mostly unintelligible vocals. Beyond that, there’s really nothing special about it. The songs are mostly interchangeable, predictable, and they fail to keep my attention beyond the half way mark. There are no real examples of outstanding musicianship anywhere to be found, and, in fact, there are several issues with the tightness of the guitar performance on several songs (“Debauchery,” “Carrion Prophesy” and “Dominant Ethos” are most noticeable). These seem like mistakes that could’ve been pretty easily fixed in the editing process or by retakes until the parts were played correctly in the studio.

Dirges of Elysium is probably a fine album to listen to if you’re in the mood for some stock death metal or if you’re cleaning your house and want something playing in the background. But don’t expect to be blown away … unless you only like music that sounds like underground death metal. That’s what this is – no more, no less. This may be your thing if you’re a die-hard death metal fan, but to me, it’s just not something I can get into anymore given the way metal genres are constantly being redefined and reinvented in interesting ways. And in terms of the sound quality of the finished product? If I didn’t already know Incantation have been around forever, I’d assume this was a first release from an unsigned band with little-to-no recording budget. (This is really the only sort of band who should be allowed to have the pre-qualifier “underground”).

Incantation may not have gobs of money to throw around, but they should at least be experienced enough by this point in their career to put out something that sounds good with whatever resources they do have.

Dirges of Elysium is out June 24 on Listenable Records.

Rating: 1/5 Stars

PYRRHON “THE MOTHER OF VIRTUES”

PYRRHON “THE MOTHER OF VIRTUES”

Back in 2011, I reviewed the debut album, An Excellent Servant But a Terrible Master, from NYC prog/insanity metalers Pyrrhon. I described their music more or less as “avant-garde,” but not to the extent that it would descend into the noise category for the average listener. On that first album, they created a unique blend of technical metal styles that left no doubt about their musical abilities, but was also something you could still enjoy if you happen to prefer the more straight-forward genres.

On their new release, The Mother of Virtues, Pyrrhon have once again brought forth the chaos. However, I’m afraid they may have tipped the scales more toward that noise category with this one, and I’m having trouble deciding if that’s a good thing or not.

I would normally sum up Pyrrhon’s sound as being in the same vein as The Dillinger Escape Plan, but with a more technical death influence … at least when I think of the first album. With The Mother of Virtues, something has changed. The manic desperation and bleak darkness from the first album is still expressed here, perhaps even to too great an extent. The biggest difference I can discern is that there seems to be a lack of focus and articulation in the musical arrangement that was so prominent on the first. An Excellent Servant But a Terrible Master definitely had it’s chaotic noise moments, but they were always very well balanced with clearly distinguishable (if unconventional) rhythmic and melodic phrasing.

That is where The Mother of Virtues is wanting. They don’t give you as much to hold on to throughout a given song. There aren’t nearly enough moments where you can just bang your head along (and yes, I can bang my head to 5/8. It looks ridiculous, but I can do it). My issue is really that there isn’t as much to distinguish each track from the next, and they start to run together a bit.

The other major issue is that the mix is noticeably different. There were definitely some new choices made in the studio this time around, and perhaps that was the intention. Listening to the two albums side-by-side, my personal feelings are that the first album has a lot more clarity and (again) articulation. On The Mother of Virtues, the guitars and vocals seem to step on each other a bit to much, not so much in volume as in shared frequencies. The vocals frequently seem washed out. The low end was also a lot tighter on the first album, whereas it tends to muddy the overall mix on the new one.

It’s obvious that my subjective opinion is that Pyrrhon’s sophomore release doesn’t quite live up to the first one on a few fronts. However, I would still maintain that it’s a very worthy endeavor in terms of artistic integrity and originality. I constantly hear from fans of extreme music that they hate it when their favorite bands start “selling out” and becoming more mainstream. Well, Pyrrhon have essentially done the exact opposite of that on their new record. And while it’s eons away from ever getting play on free radio, I definitely wouldn’t be surprised if they got nominated for some sort of award for musical innovation.

The Mother of Virtues is out now on Relapse Records.

Rating: 3/5 Stars

SAHG “DELUSIONS OF GRANDEUR”

SAHG “DELUSIONS OF GRANDEUR”

Did you know that Mastodon put out a new album last month? It appears that they moved to Norway, changed their name to Sahg, and retroactively put out three other albums under that name between 2006 and 2010.  What’s that?

Checks imaginary in-ear monitor, a la Jon Stewart

Sorry. I’m being told now that this is actually a separate band that has nothing to do with Mastodon and that the February release of Delusions of Grandeur is the fourth album from the critically acclaimed Norwegian group. My mistake.

But all kidding aside, this is an easy mistake to make when listening to Delusions of Grandeur, because it sure-as-shit sounds like Mastodon in many ways. To the extent, in fact, that it was a real mental distraction for me when trying to review the album objectively.

Please, don’t misunderstand me … this is a really good album. The band is obviously talented, and the writing has a lot of substance. It’s just that their playing style and sound on a lot of this record, especially when it comes to the guitar and vocal treatment, are very similar to what I’m familiar with from Mastodon.

You might not pick up on it right away, but it hit me as early as the second track, “Blizzardborne.” It features a really cool sounding verse with a mournful and airy feel to it, which quickly crashes into a heavier section with a riff and guitar tone that could’ve come right off of Crack the Skye. That theme continues, maybe even increases, on other tracks like “Firechild,” “Walls of Delusion” and “Ether,” which feature that almost atonal, chorused vocals that I are Mastodon’s signature.

To be fair, Sahg totally cop to this influence, as well as to a number of others like Opeth (which you can hear plainly in the little Damnation-era guitar solo in “Blizzardborne” at around 3:45) and Black Sabbath. It’s easy to tell that vocalist Olav Iversen is a big Ozzy fan, as his voice has a timbre that’s fairly reminiscent of early Sabbath, like the album opener “Slip Off the Edge of the Universe.” You even get a taste of some Led Zeppelin on the intro to “Sleepers Gate to the Galaxy,” with its folksy acoustic guitars and pretty, clean vocals (think, “Going to California” or “Ramble On”).

It took a few listens before I was finally able to hear Delusions of Grandeur for what it is. It is a very enjoyable stoner/prog/hard rock/metal record with very decent production quality from a talented band. The vocal performance is competent and diverse enough to hold the listener’s attention through the album. The guitars, while perhaps not stylistically original all the time, drive everything really well and come in for some pretty sweet solos at times. On the whole, the bass and drums don’t really stick out to me, except on occasion. The drums just sort of do exactly what you’d expect them to do during those points when you choose to focus in on them. And the bass, typical on probably a majority of records in the hard rock/metal genres, is there but you have to listen for it to hear it due to the utilitarian way it sits in the mix. It has no real personality of its own, for the most part.

Prior to listening to Delusions of Grandeur, I was not familiar with Sahg, so I honestly can’t say how this album compares. Objectively, my conclusion is that this is a really good album and definitely worth a spot in your collection if you’re into the stoner, progressive rock … or Mastodon, for that matter. All I’m saying is that if you are at a Mastodon catalog listening party, and there’s a chance you could slip Delusions of Grandeur in between Blood Mountain and Crack the Skye, only the geekiest of the music geeks present would pick up on it right away. A bad thing? Not necessarily. I just think Sahg needs to try a little harder to find a unique voice so people won’t be able to accurately sum up a description of their sound by naming another band.

Delusions of Grandeur is out now on Metal Blade Records/Indie Recordings.

Rating: 3.5/5 Stars