Monday, December 30, 2013

Desert Island 500 - Guardian's "First Watch"

For any music lover, there are some albums which are so ingrained in the mind that impartial judgment as to the album's true artistic merit and potential flaws becomes an exercise in futility.  All but the most ardent of logicists have a handful of releases that escape the microscope and are listened to proudly and without abandon, despite perhaps not containing material that marks the zenith of the artist's career, or even of the style of music present.  I'm guilty of this phenomenon just like the next guy, and while I know it's not logical, it's just the way it happens.  Some albums introduce us to music that becomes the "gateway drug" to the style as a whole, or opens up our world to something new and exciting, and those albums usually escape the harsher judgment we heap upon releases of the same style years later because they hit us at the right time in our lives so that their influence trumps their merits.  Such is the case for me with Guardian's debut, "First Watch".

I cannot understate how important this album is for me, personally, in terms of my introduction to proper heavy metal, or how it helped to shape my perception of what the style was, was supposed to be, and potentially could be.  Indeed, there are few albums in my collection more important and vital to me than this largely forgotten gem of a release.  For me to sit down constructively and try to write an impartial review of the album based solely on the music would be like building a skyscraper out of cheese puffs - an impossible task.  I may take that on one day, in the hope that my education in the ways of music has advanced enough that I could see this with more critical eyes, but for now, I can only heap praise upon the album for all it did for me as a fan of music.  Simply put, this was the first album of heavy metal music I heard from beginning to end with no preconceptions, no concept of what it was or was supposed to be, and no idea what my ears were to behold.  It was a glorious experience.

Let me take you back to the summer of 1991 when this album first graced my ears.  I was a silly kid, dorky and nerdy, uncomfortable in my own skin, perhaps more so than most kids my age.  I had very few friends, and my options were limited.  Thankfully, one of the kids in my church who was a year younger than me latched on to me and we became fast friends.  After all, he had a Nintendo Entertainment System, and his mom's boyfriend had a Sega Master System, so we spent plenty of time together playing video games.  But one thing we sort of discovered together was music.  Another guy in our church, many years older than us, had been following the edgier side of the "Christian Contemporary Music" scene for about a decade, and had gone from the early alt rock of The Seventy Sevens, Steve Taylor, and The Choir to the hard rock and metal stylings of Stryper, Whitecross, and similar artists.  Of the bands they had already "graduated" from was Guardian, and the band's debut came into the hands of my friend Casey in the form of an original Enigma cassette, sans sleeve.  Little did this older guy know that this cassette would become one of the most frequently listened to albums for the two of us geeks.

I had previously been exposed to the idea of "Christian rock" by a long-time friend and former school mate.  I used to hang out at her house after school sometimes while my mom worked part-time, and we'd often listen to an album called "Who Do You Love?" by the group Glad, who later became far more well known for a cappella recordings.  That sparked my interest in the electric guitar, in part because of a handful of skillful solos present on that record.  But when I heard Tony Palacios burning up the fretboard on "First Watch", my love affair with heavy metal was first ignited.  Even on Casey's cheap boombox, the guitar riffs came screaming out of the speakers at me, as if they were meant for my ears.  Paul Cawley's vocals spoke directly to me, because they were easy to understand and I could relate to the lyrics.  I didn't appreciate bass guitar then like I do now, but David Bach's bass work helped bring a bit of power to the sound that would have been absent otherwise.  And though Rikk Hart's drumming wasn't out-of-this-world incredible, it was solid, and helped to tie the whole thing together.

This picture just makes me want to go buy a denim jacket and leather chaps.

I dubbed that cassette from my friend because, by that time, Enigma Records had been swallowed up by EMI, and most of the bands either flowed over to Restless Records, or went their own way.  I couldn't get a copy via the local Christian book and gift shop, and I never saw it in the store anywhere, so that was seemingly my only option.  I listened to that dub countless times, and practically memorized every note.  Some time later, I had the opportunity to get the actual cassette from Casey, and sort of "borrowed it forever" from him.  I haven't seen Casey in years, but based on the last few conversations we had, I suspect he hasn't missed it much.  That's okay, because I have held on to it all these years, so if he ever wants it back he just needs to ask.  Needless to say, the cassette is probably nigh unlistenable due to the years of use and abuse, having quickly become a personal favorite.

Fast forward five years.  I'm in college, my musical tastes have expanded to where I like everything from Poison to Mortification, and I've branched out even more the first couple months in college.  I found out that Guardian themselves were re-issuing "First Watch" via their own independent G-Man Records label, and I had to have a copy.  I knew that this might be my one and only opportunity to score a copy on CD, so I ordered 2 copies.  When they arrived at my dorm room, I turned into that dorky kid again, and as I popped one into my CD player and began listening, a revelation overtook me - there were 2 songs on here that I didn't have on my cassette copy!  With the internet still in its infancy, I didn't have access to the boundless musical databases that we have now, so I had no idea that the CD version had 2 bonus tracks, "Hyperdrive" and "Marching On".  So I listened to the whole thing to hear the CD quality tracks, eagerly awaiting the "new" songs I hadn't heard yet.  While they didn't completely blow me away at that point (I had discovered bands like Dream Theater and Tourniquet by this point), they fit in perfectly with the rest of the material, and it was just one more reason for me to continue to love "First Watch".

Fast forward a few years later, and I'm married, working full time and living back in my hometown again.  I had been casually collecting vinyl for a number of years, having started during my senior year in high school.  My younger brother bought me a vinyl copy of the album (same track list as the cassette) as a Christmas gift.  It was awesome to finally have an original copy of the album that was my own and had the sleeve and everything.  And a couple years later, I nearly scored an original Enigma CD copy when my brother and I were browsing a used CD store, but he found it first, so he got it instead.  But it didn't take me long after that to finally have an original Enigma CD copy in my collection.  In 2009, RetroActive Records re-issued the album in a digipak format, with 2 bonus tracks, "Spiritual Warfare" and the 1987 version of "Marching On", both of which were culled from the classic "California Metal" compilation.  This features a remaster by J. Powell, which just gives the album a slightly "bigger" sound to it, but doesn't mess with the mix or feel of the record.  Save for CD and LP issues out of Europe via RoadRunner Records, and possibly a Japanese pressing via Enigma/EMI, I have at least 1 copy of each major issue of the album.  Yes, I'm a fanboy, and I'm not ashamed to say so.

Now more than 20 years from when I first heard the album, it's not overly difficult to put my finger on exactly why it thrilled me so much that first time, and why I still enjoy listening to the album frequently.  Sure, Paul Cawley is a bit of a Don Dokken clone, but honestly I think I like his voice a bit more, because I feel that his combination of gritty and smooth is so good.  I wish I knew who wrote which riffs on the record, because with Paul playing rhythm guitar, it would be interesting to know whether some of my favorite riffs on the album were written by him or by guitar whiz Tony Palacios.  My guess would be, Tony wrote most of the riffs, because his Nuno Bettencourt type of style is all over that album.  Tony has always been one that wrote and played riffs that did more than just chug away, often incorporating small licks and such.  As for recording, it would also be interesting to note whether Paul played the rhythm parts, or whether Tony tracked most (if not all) the guitars in the studio, and whether or not producer Oz Fox (Stryper guitarist extraordinaire) contributed any of his guitar magic.  And while Oz's production sounds a touch thin in places where either 70's full analog big budget production, or modern Garage Band methods would give the album a more "full" sound, it fit what other bands were doing at the time, and takes nothing away from the record's overall presence.

Now, if I had to pick a version to take with me, it'd probably be the 2009 remaster, if only because it includes all the tracks, the remaster, and the "California Metal" tracks as a bonus, but even the original Enigma version would be a perfect companion to a lonely man on a desert island.  I can think of few records I'd want with me more than this one.  I can't say it's my absolute favorite at this point, nor can I say that it'd be the one I'd take if I had to choose only one (I'll speak to that topic more in later posts), but certainly for a personal top 5 or top 10, this would most definitely make the cut.  And that is reason enough for me to add it to my list, and make it one of the first records I thought of when coming up with this Desert Island 500 idea.  I encourage all fans of melodic 80's metal and hard rock to seek out this one and give it a try.  You really can't go wrong with this quality platter.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Theocracy - Theocracy re-issue (2013)

Anyone who has read through a number of posts on this blog over the last few years knows I'm a big Theocracy fan.  Their last 2 albums, "As the World Bleeds" and "Mirror of Souls" are both excellent examples of progressive power metal, and I own both the CD and vinyl issues of both, as well as the 7" vinyl release for the "Wages of Sin" single.  Needless to say, I'm a fan.  That wasn't always the case, however, as I didn't discover them right away when Matt Smith debuted the project a decade ago.  And after I did listen to samples online and heard some of the material, I wasn't immediately taken with it like some were.  I bought the debut, listened to it and shelved it, having been somewhat unsatisfied with Matt's vocal performance and the lack of overly memorable material.  2008's "Mirror of Souls" was a completely different story, as it hit me hard when it came out, and was exactly what I wanted to hear.

Now that Matt and company have established themselves as one of the front runners of the power/prog scene in the US and abroad, Ulterium records has seen fit to re-issue the debut and give it a bit of a proper release.  On the original, the mix was a bit weak, and didn't give the material enough weight.  In addition, Matt used a drum machine for all the drum parts, which didn't really bother me, but compared with what followed, it sounded quite out of place.  This re-issue seeks to fix that by doing 3 things.  First, drummer Shawn Benson re-recorded the drum tracks so the album could have proper drums.  Second, the whole thing has been remixed so that the instruments sound better alongside and in conjunction with one another.  And third, the remaster has given the whole thing a more "full" and "big" sound compared to the original.

For those who were fans of the original, this is going to be a treat.  There are albums that are "remastered" and re-issued to cash in on fan fervor, but often those fall into the "make it louder" category where no real tidying takes place, only volume levels are adjusted.  Some remix/remaster projects legitimately improve the release on multiple levels, and I believe this is a good example of what a little TLC can do to really improve upon something without taking away from what the original was or was trying to accomplish.  When listening to the original and this re-issue back to back, I immediately noticed how much cleaner the mix was in this new version, and you notice a lot of background flourishes, like acoustic guitars, symphonic bits, and keyboard backgrounds that you may not have heard before unless you cranked it up full blast.  In addition, though Matt's vocals are still the original recordings, they sound a lot more like the Matt Smith that Theocracy fans have come to enjoy.

The guitars don't crunch as much as latter Theocracy material, but there's a lot going on here, as the album is a bit more layered because it was just Matt writing, recording, and performing everything on his own, so he could afford to go all out.  Bass guitar is present, but still not very noticeable in the mix, so aside from the low rumble you hear under the guitar and keyboards, you don't get much of that coming through outside of parts where there is no guitar (like during an early portion of "Twist of Fate").  There is a lot of keyboard work on the album, which is more prominent than the 2 albums that followed, and Matt makes good use of the instrument here.  There are a lot of keyboard layers going on, and he makes use of all kinds of effects like bells, a harpsichord sound, and various other symphonic instrument sounds to try and flesh out the sound of the record.  And of course Shawn's drumming on the album is far superior to the original drum machine parts, and makes the album sound so much more vital than it did in its original incarnation.

I'm going to be in the minority here and say that I don't think this is Matt's best work for a number of reasons.  Matt was still developing as a vocalist here, and there are spots where he doesn't show as much control over his vocals as he came to demonstrate on this album's follow-up.  The songs all sound great to me, and the melodies are nice, but I don't feel as though they're quite as catchy or memorable as those on either of the next 2 records.  I liken it to the "Wages of Sin" single - that is a good song, but I understand why it was left off "Mirror of Souls" because it's not as memorable as any of the songs on the album and may have come across as merely filler.  The guitars don't have the authority or presence they ought to, and that takes away slightly from the power the record should have based on the style and sound of the music.  Not to say they don't sound good, but when I crank this album up loud compared with the other 2, it just doesn't hit me as hard.  Even with the remix/remaster, which sounds a lot better than the original, I feel as though the mix is still the tiniest bit claustrophobic at times, in that there are bits that should have a bit more separation.  I know I'm nitpicking here, but Matt set the bar pretty high with "Mirror of Souls" and this re-release still hasn't met that, even though it's still exceedingly good.

Ultimately, fans of Theocracy like myself are going to want to have this in their collection, especially those who missed out on the original CD release and aren't willing to pay a premium on eBay for the original release.  I would say that's a smart move, because this just sounds so much better than the original version.  Folks just discovering Theocracy would do well to wait on this and give either of the band's other 2 albums a listen first, as I feel those records better represent what Theocracy has become as a full band effort.  There's no denying that 10 years on, however, this is still a powerful album that deserves much of the praise lauded upon it.  I just don't personally feel that it's the absolute apex of the style as some fans have tried to assert.  Your mileage may vary, but I still recommend this highly to anyone looking for a quality prog/power metal album.


Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Carcass - Symphonies of Sickness (1989)

Carcass is a band that, to fans of the large umbrella known as "extreme metal", certainly needs no introduction. The band has been credited for starting at least one musical style (goregrind, via their debut, "Reek of Putrefaction"), and contributing heavily toward the start or refinement of at least 2 others (melodic death metal via "Heartwork" and the 'death and roll' style played on "Swansong").  Their 3rd record, "Necroticism - Descanting the Insalubrious", is often the subject of much praise and is generally lauded as their best, though my vote has always gone to "Heartwork" for that honor.  So with all of those accolades and recognition, one Carcass album is often forgotten, or at the very least, not mentioned in the same breath with the rest.  That's a shame, because "Symphonies of Sickness" is every bit as important as its brethren in the historical context of death metal, a style the band ultimately became synonymous with.

It seems to me that when it comes to early death metal, and the progenitors of the style, Carcass were among the most vicious-sounding and brutal of the lot.  They weren't the fastest, nor did their riffs have the tightest attack.  What they had, however, was a brilliant combination of heavy, muddy production, groove, riffing that could speed up or slow down to fit the mood being created, powerful drumming that alternated between creating cacophony and maintaining the aforementioned groove, and vocals that did more than just showcase some guy growling behind a microphone, but really set the bar for brutality and versatility within the style.  Despite all of this, "Symphonies of Sickness" is often left out of the conversation when talking about ground breaking albums at the beginning of the death metal movement, and is not mentioned alongside other brilliant records like Death's "Scream Bloody Gore" or perhaps "Leprosy", Bolt Thrower's "Realm of Chaos", Morbid Angel's debut "Altars of Madness", Pestilence's "Consvming Impulse" or early works by Obituary, Autopsy, and labelmates Napalm Death.  It should be, however; let me explain why.

In 1989, death metal was still a style in development.  The rise of death metal was inevitable, as bands like Death, Celtic Frost, and Possession had been pushing the boundaries of thrash metal for a number of years in the underground, but most of what is considered the earliest death metal is still grounded very much in thrash, like Pestilence's "Malleus Maleficarum", Bolt Thrower's "In Death There Is No Law", or even Death's debut "Scream Bloody Gore".  Many of the early records still had very much a thrash metal base, only taken to new extremes.  It wasn't until the sound became less focused on super-fast playing and precision riffs that death metal began to really come into play as its own style.  As vocals became more throat-ripping, guitars began to be tuned down, and tempos had a bit more leeway to speed up or slow down as necessary, death metal began to shed its thrash roots and become its own entity.  This can be seen with an album like "Realm of Chaos", which is every bit as punishing as its thrashier predecessor, but begins to turn up the brutality past 11, and sounds distinctly different than what came before.

Carcass wasn't born of thrash metal, however, they were forged in the fiery pits of hardcore punk, and their take on grindcore was so massive and brutal that it would have been nigh impossible to follow it up with another record as blistering as "Reek of Putrefaction".  Instead, they followed up that bullet train of an assault with something more akin to a fleet of Sherman tanks cruising down the road.  Yeah, they can still go fast if need be, but they're far more menacing and imposing than the train is, because the tank can slow way down and target something specific, or stop altogether and bring a full-on assault.  Such is the case with "Symphonies of Sickness", which takes the heavy nature of its predecessor and while turning down the speed knob, cranked the intensity and brutality knobs up to the max and broke them off in the process.  What they developed by doing so is arguably the heaviest and most insane record of 1989.

Musically, "Symphonies" is a monster.  I'm not sure how Bill Steer's guitar tone was so thick and chunky in 1989, but the band deserves some kudos for both their choice of equipment and their production technique (or perhaps lack thereof) in achieving the sound of this album.  Bill's guitar has such a grind and grit to it, completely forsaking the razor-sharp sound that thrash metal bands aim for, instead, sinking into the murky depths of what became the signature of the death metal guitar sound throughout the Florida scene.  Jeff's bass rumbles confidently alongside Bill's riffing, and often underneath his solos, giving the album a lot more weight than many of Carcass' contemporaries lacked until years later when they had bigger budgets and a producer like Scott Burns at the mixing board.  Jeff's bass sounds truly menacing with that thick, dirty and distorted tone.  Meanwhile behind the drums, Ken Owen sounds a whole lot more in control this time around. He still has a bit of fine tuning which will become evident across the rest of the band's discography, but compared to the hyper fast, barely-on-the-rails drumming of "Reek of Putrefaction", this is a lot more precise an attack, no doubt from the years of playing the "Reek" material and building up stamina, as well as a better handle on the timing needed to pull off this kind of material.  And while dynamics aren't normally something you would think of when discussing death metal, when the music slows down to groove a bit or let the song catch a quick breath before ramping up again, Ken follows suit and the drumming matches what's going on elsewhere.

Vocally, this is some pretty raw and intense stuff.  For death metal in the late 1980's, it was common for vocalists to employ a real throaty yell/scream or a mid-range growl, not unlike John Tardy of Obituary.  So the dual vocal attack of Jeff Walker's high-pitched growl/shriek and the much lower-end growl of Bill Steer was both new and exciting at this stage of the game.  Death Metal hadn't reached that stage where everyone was playing playing the vocal limbo, i.e. "how low can you go", so this kind of guttural sound was still relatively untapped, save for a handful of other bands.  Personally, I think had the band employed only Jeff's higher pitched growls, while the album would have still been unique and innovative, it would have been less so, because this kind of vocal trade-off and layering didn't become a major component in the style until better, more experienced producers came along and added the layering/overdubs for maximum effect.  Lyrically, this treads the same medical journal-infested waters as the band's debut, requiring medical textbooks and a thesaurus handy to understand all that's going on, but as most fans know, the early lyrics were all about bodily processes, such as rotting, intestinal disease & other ailments, and additional, similarly appetizing topics.  Not the stuff of emotionally charged debate, but from their vegetarian perspective, pertinent, and certainly years head of its time, culturally speaking.

The album is not without its flaws, however.  Being a self-produced album with such a dirty, grungy sound to it means that sometimes the clarity of the guitar is lost unless you're cranking it up to the max.  As such, the complexity of the riffing can sometimes be muted a bit, and the songs are a bit less memorable when you don't have those key riffs playing in your head for hours after you've spun the album.  "Symphonies" has less a problem than some of its contemporaries in this regard because it's not all about break-neck speed, so sometimes the groovier passages will stick with you a bit longer, but it's a valid concern.  As with a lot of metal albums from this time as well, the drums should be more powerful and sound larger than they are, so obviously the band didn't spend as much time in post-production adjusting the volume on the drums to bring them up in the mix enough to give them a bit more weight.  This is a minor complaint, as the drumming is generally always audible, but as compared to latter-day Carcass efforts, I'd like to be able to hear Ken more as he's pounding away.  Also, while they all sound good, many of Bill's solos are still quite primitive and show that he hadn't yet come into his own in that area.  All the solos here fit the songs and work well enough, but compared with what he provided over the course of the 2 albums that followed, his work here is a touch sloppy and almost apprehensive, as if he's afraid to cut loose too much.  When he does, it sounds good, but you can tell that the precision he later achieved was still absent.

These minor complaints are spoken in hindsight, of course, as this whole release was completely ground breaking and unprecedented upon its release in 1989.  Save for labelmates and countrymen Bolt Thrower and Napalm Death, arguably fellow European death metallers Pestilence, and quite possibly Florida's Morbid Angel, Carcass had a corner on the market in 1989 with "Symphonies of Sickness" in terms of sheer heaviness, as well as employing the unique dual vocalist approach, which gave them an element their peers lacked.  The band modified this approach with their next album 2 years later, which propelled them into legendary status within the scene, but this album should have already cemented that place on its own merits.  This is a landmark release that doesn't always get the credit it deserves in context with other albums of its time, and that's too bad, because it's a powerful statement from a group who showed the metal world that the best was yet to come, alongside a set of peers that never quite escaped the shadow of the albums they released the same year.  Essential, if not for the music alone, for the historical significance.


Monday, December 23, 2013

Extol - Extol (2013)

Music is always evolving.  Music is ever changing.  Music doesn't sit still and rest on its laurels, because music is a constantly moving target, with a new generation of musicians coming up and making waves, writing music and distilling their influences in new and interesting ways.  Not everyone understands this, however, and some people decry a musician (or collective thereof) for changing styles, sounds, aesthetic or production values, or even minor elements that aren't to the liking of said fan or critic.  Music is, however, art, and whether or not the changes that take place are ultimately positive should not be gauged by how much fans buy a new record, but whether an artist or band sees the shift as artistically successful.

Extol is a band that has seen its fair share of complaining fans due to a shift in style or approach.  Some fans didn't like the slight shift from "Burial" to "Undeceived" from a somewhat melodic black metal focus to a more progressive death metal one, even though the stylistic differences between the albums are relatively few.  A bigger shift occurred from that record to "Synergy", a conscious move toward a highly technical thrash metal style with harsh vocals that mirrored the band Believer, one that Extol had long been known to be fans of.  Even greater change came when guitarist Ole Børud left the band in 2004 and the sound changed again to a post-hardcore influenced alternative metal sort of vibe that, though still dark and brooding, was too much a change in sound for many fans to swallow.  Less than 2 years after the album's failure to catch fire and the fan backlash surrounding the change in styles, the group went on indefinite hiatus, and the possibility of Extol regrouping became more slight with each passing year.

A glimmer of hope was offered when a teaser for a documentary about Extol (subtitled "of light and shade") appeared online, and fans began to speculate whether this was a hint that Extol was reuniting or that it was indeed just a documentary.  The latter turned out to be the case, but little did most fans know that the band had actually reformed (sans a couple members) and had begun writing new music.  Vocalist Peter Espevol, Drummer David Husvik and Guitarist Ole Børud were writing music together once again, and once word got out that a new album was in the works, Extol fans wondered if the album would be a continuation of the dark & broody post-hardcore rock/metal of "The Blueprint Dives", a return to the earlier technical melodic death metal of early albums, or perhaps somewhere in the middle, like what Ole and others did with the Mantric project.  Thankfully, the answer is none of those, and instead, we get the eponymous "Extol" album to answer the question definitely on its own merits.

I would say that, musically, this is still Melodic Death Metal in form and scope, though it sort of rides the line between what I would call melodic death metal and what I would instead constitute as either extreme progressive metal, or some hybrid of progressive and death metal styles.  There are fast double-bass sections, heavy and driving guitars, death growl vocals, and plenty of up-tempo rhythms to bang your head to, but there are more layers to this new album that make it difficult to pin down by simply calling it "melodic death metal", because that tag doesn't do the sound of this album justice.  The heaviness factor is there, but the sound is so melodic, and at times so "clean" sounding that it's almost a misnomer to call it death metal at all.  It reminds me of Monolith's 2 albums (especially "Voyager") or the lone In Grief album "Deserted Soul" because it successfully marries a very modern, heavy death metal sound with progressive structures and other elements in such a way that it's hardly death metal at all, yet there's no denying how heavy the record is.  The interplay between heavier elements and sparser bits is part of what makes the album so exciting.

In terms of instrumentation, there's no mistaking the guitar presence of Ole Børud at the helm again, and this is a good thing.  His highly melodic playing is very recognizable, and with his departure after "Synergy", it was obvious on "The Blueprint Dives" that he was absent, both due to the tone of the material, as well as the guitar sound.  While the guitars on "Extol" may not be quite as brutal as the 1st 2 albums, they come pretty close, having that sound that blends the thick and meaty tone with the clarity and precision that Extol's sound had become known for.  Ole's solos are also here in some quantity, and they're as melodic and tuneful as ever.  Bass guitar is also present in the mix and audible as much as it can be alongside the guitar, though it's pretty deep and "boomy", in that it is less recognizable as an individual element as it is backdrop.  Since Ole plays both, it makes sense that he'd want the guitar at the forefront and bass in behind a bit, and it works well here.  There are times when the bass guitar does have a bit more tuneful presentation, like in some of the more nimble passages where there are more notes being played, but often during faster sections, the bass is relegated to the back.  Drumming by David Husvik is excellent as always, incorporating necessary dynamics, and keeping the tempo where it needs to be to propel the music forward.  The drum sound here is especially good, with very clear, yet powerful drum hits and a reasonably strong snare drum sound that isn't too high pitched but remains "punchy".

Vocally, the album has 3 different styles.  Primarily, you have Peter Espevoll's mid-range growl which occasionally creeps up toward the higher pitched shriek he employed early on, and sometimes it will dip a bit lower into a more low end growl, but never so high or low that it sounds like someone else.  Ole Børud continues to provide the clean vocals as he did on the band's 1st 2 albums, and here it's a bit different approach.  He layers the vocals here multiple times, and there's a bit of a "sheen" over top of them that gives them a very modern, processed feel.  Not so much where they sound auto-tuned, but just more produced than before.  This has been a complaint from some fans about the new album, but honestly, I think it sounds great, and I'm just glad to have Ole back in fine form.  The 3rd, less often used vocal is more of a Kurt Bachman-esque throaty yell (ala Believer), which shows up in a couple tracks and is used to great effect.  Overall, the vocals on the album are well done and definitely sound like the Extol most fans are familiar with.

The thing that makes this record so listenable is just how it's all so pristine and produced.  For those that like their death metal "dirty" and "filthy" sounding, they'll need to look elsewhere, because this is nothing of the sort.  Instead, like a lot of modern death metal, this has a nice polish and shine to it, to the point where the heaviness is slightly diminished, but not so much as to make the album sound "wimpy".  Rather, it allows the full spectrum of elements to be heard clearly, so between the heavy guitar, thumping bass, crisp drums, layered vocals, and keyboards sprinkled about, everything is clear and present.  Nothing hides in the mix, which makes the whole thing sound really big and full.  The melodies are also very memorable in comparison to a lot of other bands that play a melodic death metal style.  If you're going to sacrifice grit, grime, and overall heaviness for the polished sound, make sure it's memorable, and these guys do just that.  Apart from the overly simplified melody of the instrumental track "Dawn of Redemption", this album has no shortage of sharp melodicism.

I don't really have any complaints of the album, other than I understand why some don't care for Ole's "super clean" processed vocal approach, and it would have been nice if the sound of the album could have been just a teensy bit heavier to match the heaviness factor of the 1st 2 records.  Save for those minor wish list items, this is quite possibly Extol's finest hour.  I've spun this album countless times over the last several weeks, and if I had a CD player in my car at this point, it'd still be in heavy rotation there as well.  This is one of those albums that will continue to play in my head for days after I've listened to it, and that's a sign of a well written album and batch of songs.  So while it may not be as heavy or blistering as either "Burial" or "Undeceived", I find myself going back to this album even more often than the previous works, and that's coming from a guy that has purchased much of their material as new releases.  This is a triumphant return for Extol, and I look forward to hearing what they do next, assuming this regrouping is more than just a one-off album.  Let's hope so, because this is far too good not to expound upon with future material.  Highly recommended.


Monday, December 16, 2013

Voivod - Target Earth (2013)

Bands don't often get a second chance at glory.  In fact, most bands don't even get a first shot.  They record material, get signed by a label, get a few accolades (if the music is solid), then fade into relative obscurity.  Very few bands rise above their peers to make their mark.  Voivod did just that in the late 1980's with 3 progressively (pardon the pun) more exciting albums in a row.  First was "Killing Technology", which kept the thrash aesthetic of the previous releases but added more technical, angular riffing.  Next came "Dimension Hatross", which tightened the new approach and expanded upon its predecessor.  Finally, there was "Nothingface", which took the ideas of "Dimension Hatross" and created an atmosphere all its own, combined with an excellent melodic approach that birthed what is arguably the band's best album.  So when original vocalist Denis "Snake" Belanger" left the band after 1993's "The Outer Limits" release, some thought that would be the end of Voivod.  But they emerged as a 3-piece with new bassist/vocalist Eric Forest and re-visited the more aggressive thrash days of yore, while keeping much of the sci-fi element and not forsaking the progressive elements that brought them to the front of the scene.  When "Snake" came back to the band and they put out their eponymous 2003 album 10 years after his departure, it seemed as though they were moving in the right direction.  Tragedy struck the band, however, when original guitarist Denis "Piggy" D'Amour was diagnosed (a 2nd time) with cancer, and after battling with it a few years, finally gave up the ghost in 2005.  He left his band-mates enough guitar tracks and song ideas for 2 albums worth of material, but fans once again feared the reinvigorated band would die.

Enter guitarist Dan "Chewy" Mongrain in 2008 to help the band along during a number of live shows in support of the "Katorz" and up-coming "Infini" album material to pay tribute to the band's fallen comrade.  Something happened during his time with the band, however, and he gelled with them more than I suspect any of them would have guessed.  Dan's style was modeled after Piggy's playing, and his playing fit the band like a glove.  A live album in 2009 solidified Chewy's playing as a component of a once again revitalized Voivod, and now 4 years later we have what should permanently cement Chewy as a full-fledged member of the Voivod family in the album "Target Earth", the band's first release of truly new, collaborative material since 2003's self-titled release.

There was a bit of buzz leading up the album's release, hailing it as a triumphant return to form, a return to the "classic" Voivod sound, and the best thing they'd done in years, etc.  That kind of talk gets thrown around a lot when an old band makes a new album, and it's usually just shop talk.  When the rubber meets the road, however, the old dogs don't often deliver on the promise of "returning to their roots".  Voivod, however, has recorded one of the most fulfilling and listenable albums of their career without sounding as though they're repeating themselves too much.  It's a sort of return to the "golden era" of the band's sound and style, without sounding like a rehash, also without forsaking the other material they've released.  So what you get is a decidedly heavy Voivod album that sounds a whole lot like the triumvirate of "Killing Technology" through "Nothingface" with doses of the thrash from the first 2 albums and later Eric Forest material, as well as some of the more groove-oriented stuff present from "Voivod" forward.  It's an excellent summation of the total Voivod sound.  Need more to whet your appetite?  Read on.

For me personally, as a long-time Voivod fan and proponent that "Nothingface" is the band's strongest work, what had been missing for a long time was the angular, jazz-inspired riffing that used interesting time signatures and unique (for metal, anyway) chording.  That was part of what separated Voivod from the rest of the pack, and helped put them in a league all their own.  After E-Force's tenure with Voivod ended and Snake returned to the fold, I never quite felt that they recaptured that approach.  That doesn't mean they didn't have some good riffs, because they did.  "Voivod" was a strong record, and "Katorz" had some interesting ideas, but the overall feel of Piggy's riffs didn't match the strange sci-fi atmosphere the band had created years before.  And though Jason Newstead provided solid bass work during his time with the group, it didn't match the more nimble and interesting playing of original bassist Jean-Yves "Blacky" Theriault.  So with the band back together in its original form, save for Chewy in place of Piggy, the sound has come much more full circle and recalls a more atmospheric and "spacey" feel that the band had lost somewhat in the last 15+ years.

Unlike the occasionally sparse atmosphere of "Nothingface", "Target Earth", by contrast, is far more dense and immediate.  This record is never suffocating, but the almost constantly pulsing bass and propulsive drumming of Michael "Away" Langevin provide a slightly more evenly paced affair than "Nothingface".  The guitar sound has been brought into modern times as well, recalling and touching on the sound of previous albums, but having a nice weighty tone to it.  Chewy's riffing sounds like a late 1980's Piggy with modern production, which I'm sure is what he was aiming for, and the whole band sounds hungry, as if they know they're not going to be around forever and the amount of time they have left to bring the metal is limited.  In short, Voivod sounds as if they know this is the best set of songs they've recorded in years, and they're strutting their stuff because they know they have a winner on their hands.

As I hinted at in the last paragraph, instrumentation sounds great here.  Chewy's guitar sounds a lot like Piggy did on "Nothingface" but with a bit more beef to it, and Blacky's bass has that nice rumble we've come to expect from him, just with a bit more presence due to the production.  Away sounds as good as ever behind the drums (how is he so nimble at his age?), with lots of powerful double bass drumming, snappy snare hits and fills, and crashing cymbals when need be, but his usual dynamics present when the song needs something a bit more subtle.  And Snake is in near top form here, with a good combination of his more gritty approach utilized on recent records and on the band's early material, and the more melodic singing/droning he developed in the mid-late 80's and beyond.  The production itself is spot-on as well, with good separation of instruments and giving everything just enough room to breathe without sacrificing that dense atmosphere I mentioned earlier.

With everything that they've done right, what's not to like here?  My concerns are mostly minor, honestly, so mileage may vary with others.  The final track, "Defiance" feels like a bit of a throwaway, because it's basically a 1-minute instrumental intro, followed by the start of something that fades out shortly after, resulting in a minute-and-a-half track that closes out the album fairly clumsily.  My only suspicion is that Voivod is "pulling a Marvel", essentially giving us a hint of how the next album is going to start by giving us a taste at the end of the current release.  Be that as it may, it's still a bit distracting after an album of such great material.  The cover art has also been a source of frustration for many fans.  Away has done all the Voivod art over the years, and while it hasn't always been top-shelf ("Phobos" or "Kronik" come to mind), this feels quite amateurish.  My final gripe is far more personal, in that, I wish Snake utilized a bit more of the melodic approach to his vocals than the grittier voice, but the heavier nature of the material on the record suited the grittier approach throughout much of the album, so that's simply a preferential thing for me as a fan of his voice.

All in all, this is a very strong record, and indeed, statement from Voivod that they're not going to just go away now that Piggy is no more.  Piggy's memory lives on in the minds of fans like myself, and Voivod has done him proud by making a record worthy of his legacy.  Chewy should be awful proud of himself for striking that balance between aping Piggy and providing his own take on the Voivod sound.  "Target Earth" is a clear victory for the band, and it's my hope that enough fans took notice of this album that the members of Voivod are invigorated and energized so they can go back and write more material for us.  If "Target Earth" is any indication of the caliber of material we can expect from them in the future, we're in for a treat.  If it wasn't already evident, let me be perfectly clear.  Voivod is back, and are here to stay.