August 1999

AMORPHIS
Tuonela
(Relapse)

If someone's only previous exposure to Finland's Amorphis was The Karellian Isthmus, it is doubtful they would even recognize Tuonela as a product of the same band.  The heavy riffing, the speed, and the death metal vocals are all pretty much extinguished now, as the band has steadily evolved into a 70's-based rock/metal act with plenty of psychedelic and folk influences.

"The Way" starts things off well, with an enchanting riff that is somewhat hypnotic and Pasi Koskinen's unique vocals.  The vocal melodies really help drive home "Morning Star," one of the album's finest and most memorable moments.  "Nightfall" is interesting as it increases the tempo a bit and has rather middle-eastern feel to it.  In fact, a few songs on Tuonela do, as the band move away from the more traditional folk styles that were incorporated on Black Winter Day and Elegy.  "Greed" is the first track that really sounds like it could have been on Elegy and even features some deathly vocals from Pasi (a first).  It must be stated that Pasi does one hell of a good job at the gruff vocal stylings and is 100% better than guitarist Tomi Koivusaari (who used to handle all the vocals).  "Divinity" is another winner and "Shining" has a slightly Sabbath feel to it (think "Tomorrow's Dream" not "War Pigs").

On the down side, the title track just kind of drags along with nothing to really justify its inclusion, and "Withered" isn't a whole lot better.  Two songs out of ten isn't bad at all, though, especially when the other eight are so good.

The musicianship in Amorphis is as awesome as ever, with some beautiful leads, not to mention well-placed keyboards, flute and sitar.  With the disappearance of keyboardist Kim Rantala, that part of the Amorphis sound is understandably less up-front, but the session player does a fine job and it definitely is still an important part of the band's sound.  The production is very good and spacious, really bringing the songs to life.  After Elegy, I was somehow expecting the band to kind of drift off into some weird, trippy direction and lose focus, but the songs on Tuonela are upbeat, well-crafted tunes, making this quite possible Amorphis' crowning achievement thus far.
[Daniel Hinds]



ANTHROPILE
Take.
(12 Ton Productions)

This is really odd one-man industrial project from Bellingham, Washington.  Bryan Tewell is the man in question and he handles everything from the music and vocals to the recording and album layout.

Stylistically, Take. is pretty diverse.  "My Shiny Toys" mixes high-speed industrial rhythms with strange, carnival-like melodies and samples.  "The Civilized Man" follows with an even denser sound, including a nice melody and some tortured vocals.  The vocals in general are the one weak element of AnthroPile, as they rarely mix well with the music (usually due to some ill-advised pitch-shifting or other effect).  Fortunately, this song is one of the exceptions, where everything works together quite well.  "Distributor," on the other hand, is a good example of a musically excellent track that is let down by the vocals.

Other standout cuts include "But They Do," "Mesopotamia" and the lengthy and complex "PaM."  Vocal samples play a large role on this album, some sounding home made.  Most songs have a noisy, guitar-esque synth driving them.  There is something of a low-tech feel to the production on the album, but it still sounds pretty cool and reminds me of some of the quirkier Wax Trax! stuff from the late 80s.

This album is interesting and worth looking into.  Not every song is a winner and, as I said before, the vocals need work, but there is a unique sound here and some definite creativity.  Praise must be given to AnthroPile at the very least for avoiding all the current trends in electronic music and trying something different.  Bryan's skill at writing songs and manipulating samples bodes well for even better things to come.  More info at: http://fp.netos.com/xon/anthropile.htm
[Daniel Hinds]



CARPE TENEBRUM
Mirrored Hate Painting
(Hammerheart)

This is something of a side-project of Covenant and treads some similar ground.  While I wouldn't rate the overall quality as high as Covenant, there is some excellent musicianship to be had and plenty of speedy, black metal moments.

After a pointless vocal intro, "The Abyss's Mystic Haze" kicks in at full speed and it is immediately clear that this is going to be a less-than-commercial outing.  The high-end sound to the riffing, strained vocals, blast beats and chilly keyboard lines are all present and accounted for, creating a similar mood to the likes of Satyricon or even Dimmu Borgir.  The way the keyboards are layered into the sound in particular reminds me of Dimmu.

Somehow, the unusual cover art and song titles led me to expect a far more off-the-wall approach, ala Arcturus or Ulver even, but Mirrored Hate Painting is actually pretty standard fare.  It is well done, certainly, and I can't pick out anything to really complain about, yet I find my interest fading after the first couple tracks.  It has been done before too many times, methinks.  There is a bridge midway through "Mirror In Scarry Skies" (god, I really hope that is a typo...) that features a really cool mid-tempo riff and I would have liked to have seen the band mix it up like that more often.  That's not to say the music isn't complex - it is - but it just needs a little more variety.  More of those moments where you just go, 'Wow!'

Overall, a good album that just lacks that special spark to make it a great album.
[Daniel Hinds]



CLAWFINGER
Clawfinger
(The Music Cartel)

I kind of lost track of these guys after they first came on the scene in the early 90s.  Coming out in the midst of the funk/rap/metal crossover boom, I just figured they disappeared along with most of the other bands in that genre.  Fortunately, they have not only survived, they have released a kick-ass album here in 1999.

"Two Sides" is a great starter track, mixing rapped vocals with some truly metallic riffs and some off-the-wall middle-eastern melodies.  "Hold Your Head Up" rages forth next, filled to the brim with angst, tight start-stop riffing and hard vocals.  The hardcore element is a bit more present here, as is some of the underlying technology.  "Biggest & The Best" sustains the level of quality with some nice (albeit simple) synthwork and a great use of harmonics in the pre-chorus riff.  By this point, some of the less obvious influences are starting to become obvious, as I am reminded at times of folks like Moby and Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy.  The chorus to "Chances" shows Clawfinger experimenting with a more melodic and catchy approach, while "Don't Wake Me Up" has a definite alternative rock feel to it that isn't altogether unhealthy.  "Not Even You" is a relationship song that the Offspring would be proud of.

These two Swedes and two Norwegians took their time creating this record and it definitely shows.  Nothing on this album is new, to be sure, but where bands like Rage Against the Machine and Pitchshifter have faltered in recent years, Clawfinger deliver the goods.
[Daniel Hinds]



ENGINE
Engine
(Metal Blade)

For those Fates Warning fans who weren't happy with the lighter direction the band took after No Exit, there is finally something to help ease the pain.  Vocalist Ray Alder has taken a much heavier route for this, his solo project of sorts.  He also gets to flex his vocal muscles a bit more and show he is just as capable in the lower registers as the high ones.

Now, while Engine is certainly heavier than Fates, it is not very metal.  It is much more in line with the earlier work of bands like Soundgarden, Tool and their ilk.  The riffs are fairly simple and the arrangements uncomplicated, though they do throw a few prog twists into the mix here and there for good measure.  Fine performances from everyone involved, but none of the songs really stand out as being particularly interesting or memorable.  Probably the best cut on offer is "Tree of Life," which has a darker, moody atmosphere that brings to mind Katatonia and The Cure.

Joey Vera delivers a thick, solid production job (along with a fine bass performance), but it all seems rather academic by the end of the disc.  The unimaginative band name and album cover are sadly reflected in the fairly non-descript lyrics and song-writing.  None of it is bad by any means, it just isn't particularly good, either.  I was really hoping for more, as Ray has a great voice that I always felt was under-utilized in Fates Warning and it does fit quite well with the heavier sound.  Other than his voice, though, there is nothing to distinguish Engine from a zillion other bands.  Expect to see used bins full of Engine promos in the near future...
[Daniel Hinds]



ENSLAVED
Blodhemn
(Osmose)

With 'Viking metal' coming into its own as a sub-genre of black metal, Enslaved have returned to demonstrate how it's done.  And, man, do they put their hearts into this one!  No lack of intensity and with the help Peter Tatgren, the cleanest and most powerful production job Enslaved has completed to date.

After a fairly relaxed and almost regal intro, the band slam into "In Chains Until Ragnarok," a full-throttle firestorm of blastbeats, grim vocals and dizzying riffs.  Clean vocals are also utilized to excellent effect, further boosting the epic feel of the material.  Amazingly, the band don't really let up throughout the remaining 7 tracks, resulting in an almost-numbing brutality at times similar to Emperor or Marduk, yet sounding distinctly Enslaved.

The band's strength lies in its ability to come up with cool riffs and arrange them just so.  Casual listeners could dismiss the whole album as chaotic noise, but if you pay attention, you realize just how finely crafted and executed the songs on Blodhemn really are.  The improved production only adds to the proceedings, sharpening up the guitars a bit and really helping the drums provide the proper impact.  Crowned by a skillfully executed album cover, Enslaved have not only topped all of their previous works here - they have set a new standard for all Viking-wannabes to come.
[Daniel Hinds]



ENTHRONED
Regie Sathanas
(Metal Blade/Blackend)

This album is subtitled "a tribute to Cernunnos," who killed himself in April of 1997.  The material is a collection of new songs (well, new in 1997 anyway), old songs re-recorded with the new line-up, and a cover (Sodom's "The Conqueror").

After a reasonably ominous keyboard intro, new track "By Dark Glorious Thoughts" kicks in with a raging black metal fury.  The band's speedy attack is decent but perhaps a bit short on character.  Fortunately, the band slow things down now and again and seem to fare much better during these sections.  "Satan Never Sleeps" dates back over ten years, yet doesn't sound out of place at all.  The band pull off the Sodom track quite well, too.

This is one of those difficult albums to review, as there is nothing particularly praiseworthy nor particularly bad about any of it.  The production is passable, the vocals are suitably harsh but also rather nondescript, the songs are fairly complex and feature some cool bits here and there, but...you get the picture.  I've got a feeling the very haphazard nature of this collection contributes a lot to its mediocrity.  Hopefully the next full-length album of new material will rise above this and really demonstrate Enthroned's abilities.
[Daniel Hinds]


FOREWARNED
1999 Demo
(self-released)

Forewarned are a Cali metal band with some classic thrash influences and a touch of prog.  This release is merely a 3-song sampler of what is to come.  The band is still a bit rough around the edges, but considering they are only a year and a half old, that is to be expected.

Opening track "Heavy Machinery" is easily the weakest of the three.  The music itself features some awkward riffs and transitions, and the vocals don't do anything to help matters.  Sounding nearly spoken during the verses, the work much better on the choruses where David Parsons actually sings.  "True Believer" is better, with a cool lead and bridge in the middle.  A melodic, clean guitar intro leads into "An Eternity to Endure," the best cut of the bunch.  The main riff is memorable and the arrangement features plenty of twists and turns to keep things interesting.

The recordings isn't great, but it's certainly not terrible either, especially for a demo.  Forewarned are definitely on the right track - they don't sound like anyone else, they have a good deal of variety and they are good at arranging their tunes - but they still need to develop a bit.  With better production, tighter playing and more consistent vocals, Forewarned will be a real threat.  More info:  http://www.4warned.com
[Daniel Hinds]



HATE DEPT.
Technical Difficulties
(Restless)

California's sonic powerhouse Hate Dept. have finally delivered the long-awaited follow-up to Omnipresent.  Though that disc is certainly a tough act to follow, the band rose to the challenge and have come up with twelve songs that take the basic Hate Dept. sound and update it.

One thing that separates Hate Dept. from many of their industrial peers is their ability to write incredibly catchy, poppy songs, while still retaining an edge.  "Superdrama" is a blend of danceable electronic styles, taking what Prodigy did with "Firestarter" and making it good.  "Coming Down" is a funkier number that brings to mind recent SMG output, albeit with a lot more noise and distortion.  The guitars on Technical Difficulties are less present than in the past, due in large part to the way they are processed, but there are plenty of overdriven synths and noisy samples to keep the aggression level up.

Of course, the band have their softer side as well, and "Wait" is an excellent ballad that mixes The Church-like introspection with synthpop and trumpets.  "Anger Impulse" is the first track that really sounds like the Omnipresent material, while "Little Let Down" has one of my favorite lines:  "I'm glad to disappoint you / It's nice to let you down."  The lyrics in general are a little more obvious this time out, though many are still open to interpretation.  Destined to be a huge hit (well, in a perfect world anyway), "Release It" is a killer track, sort of an industrial version of Depeche Mode, with some cool vocal fx.

The remaining six tracks aren't as instantly memorable, but are still good tunes.  "Fireflies" in particular is a little off the beaten path, with something of an Ebbhead vibe going on.  Seibold's voice is as versatile as ever, ranging from a new wave/punkish sneer to smooth and emotional.  And of course he also handles nearly all of the writing, programming and production work, so I guess I can forgive any delay in getting this record out.  Bored with all the dippy, trendy electro out there?  Get Hate Dept.
[Daniel Hinds]



IMMORTAL
At The Heart of Winter
(Osmose)

In a year that has marked outstanding new releases from the likes of Emperor, Hades Almighty and Enslaved, I held little hope that someone would actually top them.  Yet, we're only halfway through 1999 and Immortal have already achieved that arduous task.  At The Heart of Winter is a huge, monolithic record, filled from start to finish with brutal riffs, compelling arrangements, savage vokills and a production to kill for.

"Withstand the Fall of Time" is a great opener, as it starts with some heavy chords that slowly build up until the drums kick in high gear and we're off.  Not content to just rage away at 100 MPH like some, Immortal take you through many twists and turns as the song evolves.  This is their modus operandi throughout the disc and they have nearly perfected the skill, as the songs never drag, never get boring, and yet exceed 8 minutes on a regular basis.  Remember when Metallica used to write songs that were 8 or 9 minutes, yet they sounded 'complete' rather than 'long?'  That's what Immortal achieves, six times in a row.

"Tragedies Blows At The Horizon" is one of the real standout cuts, with a chorus that sticks with you immediately, but there are no bad tracks to suffer through either.  Immortal know when to use subtlety, too, such as the intro to the title track, a beautiful use of keyboards that just further emphasizes the heaviness of the song when the guitars come in later.  This track is also a great example of the band's skill at putting the 'metal' back into 'black metal.'  The riffs they come up with vary from the usual chilly, high-speed numbers to more mid-tempo classic metal, yet never does any of it sound dated.

The production on At The Heart of Winter is just outstanding.  Peter Tägtgren gives the band a full, heavy sound that is rare in black metal circles.  The bass often gets lost with this kind of music, but not so here, and the guitars are just huge.  The mix is perfectly balanced as well, never letting any one element dominate the sound.  Hopefully, this will inspire more artists in this genre to get out of the Darkthrone school of 'bad production = good' and strive for this level of quality.

I will admit that this is the first full-length Immortal album I've had a chance to hear, but rest assured that will be soon remedied.  It's a rare thing when a band can combine power, confidence, skill and just plain good songwriting the way Immortal have here.  At The Heart of Winter is destined to be a classic and is a must for all metal fans, black or otherwise.
[Daniel Hinds]



IN FLAMES
Colony
(Nuclear Blast)

One of the key purveyors of melodic death metal in the late 90s, Sweden's In Flames seem to have really come into their own in terms of sound and presence.  While changes from album to album have been fairly noticeable in the past, the progression from Whoracle to Colony is relatively minimal.

The thick, heavy sound hits you right away as "Embody the Invisible" begins, as do the harmonic guitar leads that hark back to Maiden's glory days.  There is perhaps a little more experimentation in terms of synth integration, but not a whole lot.  "Scorn" is one of the more atypical tracks, with a hard rhythm and almost industrial approach to the verses.  The vocals are generally as harsh as ever, though Anders does experiment with a cleaner, near-gothic approach on songs like "Ordinary Story."  "Resin" features a cool 3/4 time signature, much like some of the material on The Jester Race.

In Flames' style is really an interesting combination, incorporating the obvious (death and classic metal), and the more obscure (industrial, modern alternative).  There are even a few moments that remind me of Anathema and Amorphis' flings with trippy 70s rock.  The tempo is kept fairly middle-of-the-road most of the time, but there are some speedier moments to be had as well.  The lyrics are generally pretty out there, making little sense on the surface.  Whether there is a deeper meaning behind them is best left to each individual listener to discover on their own. 

As with recent Moonspell and Sentenced releases, repeated listenings are pretty much mandatory to properly absorb the album and get into it.  I was a bit disappointed with the general lack of progression on my initial listening, but I think Colony is one of those 'grower' albums that just takes a little while to settle in.  While Dark Tranquility has chosen to expand their horizons, In Flames instead have focused on cementing their sound and creating a good, solid album, a cornerstone to build on in the future.
[Daniel Hinds]



KILLER KHAN
Kill Devil Hills
(self-released)

An almost-true story:  It is 1983 and I am making the usual bi-monthly trip to the Record Garden in Eugene to spend my allowance on the latest obscure metal finds.  After searching in vain for months, I finally find a cop of Jaguar's Power Games - yes!!  Further searching turns up other soon-to-be-classics by the likes of Acid, Warlord and Loudness.  Then I come across a band called Killer Khan - hmmm...  Sounds familiar, I think I may have read a favorable review of them in Ron Quintana's Metal Mania a while back.  So, overlooking the dodgy album art, I plunk down my $7.99 and prepare for the ride back to Roseburg.  On the trip, I greedily dig in to each album, digesting all the lyrics, thank-yous and studio credits, unable to wait until I get home to my turntable.  Once home, I drop the needle on side one of the Killer Khan platter, seeing as how it is the 'wild card' in the stack.  Within the first minute or two, I smile, knowing that I will be soon dubbing the album on the other side of Saxon's Power and the Glory, in preparation for the next ride back to Eugene...

Okay, so Killer Khan are actually a 90s band and this is their third album since '95, but the feeling I got from listening to it really took me back to the early days of my metal awakening.  Imagine a cross between Witchfinder General and Diamond Head and you have some idea of what to expect here.  Strong vocals that are neither too high or too low combine with a raw guitar sound and classic NWOBHM style riffs to create some excellent trad metal.  Best of all, it sounds natural and not like some of these retro bands that try too hard.

The album starts off well with "Computer Icon," showcasing the band's various talents and featuring one of the album's coolest riffs, but it is "Wicked Chimes of the Southern Bells" that is the real landmark achievement of the disc.  "Supersonic Masquerade" features a great, chugging riff that sticks with you right from the first hearing.

Fortunately, while the rest of the tracks aren't quite as good as these, they are still worthy tracks and Kill Devil Hills is a pretty damn solid record - er, I mean CD.  All the pitfalls of early 80s metal are here, too - low-budget art/layout, cliched lyrics and less-than-pristine production - but it all works to make Kill Devil Hills the album it is, which is a nice shot in the arm for anyone tired of the current trends.  More info:  http://www.killerkhan.com
[Daniel Hinds]



LEFAY
The Seventh Seal
(Noise)

Morgana Lefay fans can rejoice - the band yet lives!  While only vocalist Charles Rytkönen and guitarist Tony Eriksson remain from the old line-up, the duo were the main creative force in the band anyway.  Fortunately, the classic power metal sound that made Morgana Lefay so good is maintained, with a few new experiments thrown in for good measure.

"End of Living" starts off sounding very much like the band's previous work, though with perhaps a slightly heavier touch.  Next up is the title track and it is one of the album's highlights, with a great riff and grand chorus, much like the material on Maleficium.  There is a slight thrash tinge to the Lefay sound, though it is usually the slower brand of thrash, ala Metallica circa "Eye of the Beholder."

Elsewhere, the band show their more melodic side on tracks like "The Boon He Gives," while still retaining their trademark heaviness.  This song is pure class, with a great chorus and would be my pick for a big push at radio.  The CD's final cut, "Shadow Empire," is worth noting, too, as it is one of the fastest Lefay songs I've heard yet and closes up the album on an energetic note.

I liked Morgana Lefay and counted them as one of the premiere melodic power metal outfits of the 90s.  The few complaints I had with their sound, mainly over-wrought arrangements and too many ballads, have pretty much disappeared in this new, leaner incarnation of the band.  They mix it up more and Charles' vocals are more impressive than ever, delivering the soft lines as convincingly as he does the all-out rockers.  With a top-notch production job, excellent performances all around, some of the band's best material to date, and gorgeous album art, there is nothing not to recommend about The Seventh Seal.  A must for all fans of power metal.
[Daniel Hinds]



MARA'S TORMENT
Across For Show
(self-released)

The work of one Toronto man, Rik MacLean, Mara's Torment fall into that rather gray area near ambient and soothing, trance electronic music.  The overall vibe of Across For Show is more calming and relaxing than anything else.

Opening track "Where We Go To Die" features a soft beat behind floating synths, while "Imagine Me" is even more minimal, featuring only subtle, interweaving notes in a very ambient atmosphere.  The pack quickens a bit on later tracks like "Where It Begins" and "Symmetry," which approaches Delerium territory circa Spheres.  "Of Stars and Wishes" is the most peaceful track of the lot, as it is nearly inaudible at times.  The album closes with the "...Down For Go," which relies on weird effects and sounds for a suitably cool ending.  Following it, however, is a 'hidden' track that is at once both the most upbeat song and the happiest on the album.  It also seems rather out of place and I would have much rather the CD had ended on "...Down For Go."

Across For Show is Rik's second release and I'm surprised no label has picked it up yet.  Ambient music is probably some of the easiest music to play, yet also some of the hardest to play well.  Mara's Torment does it well.  The overall feel is very positive, too, yet never slips into New Age cheese-land.  More info: http://corpusnet.com/torment/
[Daniel Hinds]



NAZARETH
Boogaloo
(CMC Intl.)

When it comes to classic rock 'n' roll, few bands have done it as well as Nazareth and even fewer have survived as long as they have.  Starting out at the beginning of the 70s, the band racked up hits over the years such as "Hair of the Dog," "Love Hurts" and "This Flight Tonight," but never had the same mainstream success as other hard rockers of their day such as Zep or Sabbath.  I think part of that is due to the band's diversity and unwillingness to be pigeon-holed in one style, as they incorporated heavy metal, 50's rock 'n' roll, reggae, synthpop, country, blues and even some Latin elements into their sound over the years.  While it may have limited their commercial appeal a bit, it was certainly good news for the band's fans, as they never stagnated and you could always count on Nazareth for a solid, rockin' album.

With the departure of original guitarist Manny Charlton in the early 90s, it seemed like the band's day was finally over.  The first album afterward, No Jive, abandoned the modernized style that Manny had been leading the band toward in favor of a far more organic, retro sound.  Things didn't quite gel, but six years down the road, things began to fall into place better, with the result being Boogaloo.

The style is still very much in that 60s/70s blues/rock mold, with a more upbeat vibe than usual and some well-placed piano in place of the more synthetic keys that had taken over the band's sound in the late 80s.  If you recall songs like "Dressed To Kill" and "Take the Rap," you get the idea.  There is a real consistency to Boogaloo that is both its greatest strength and weakness.  All the classic Naz albums had a few really stand-out cuts, some good songs and perhaps one or two throwaways.  This time, nothing really jumps out as extraordinary, yet none of the tunes do anything to drag down the album either.

Sadly, this is the last album that the band will record with drummer Darrell Sweet, as he recently passed away after suffering a heart attack.  Whatever the future holds for Nazareth, their place in history is already cemented and Boogaloo is a more than respectable addendum, especially 30 years into their career.
[Daniel Hinds]



NINE INCH NAILS
The Day the World Went Away (CDS)
(Nothing/Interscope)

After an interminable delay, we are finally presented with some new material from Trent + Co.  After such a wait, I rather expected a grand change in style, not unlike the changes that have occurred between all of his previous recordings, but alas it isn't here.  Perhaps the album will tell a different story.

The actual single version of "The Day the World Went Away" is by far the weakest of the three cuts.  Why Trent thought this would make a good single is beyond me.  Alternating between an almost too-quiet ambience and a lethargic, noisy guitar riff that just annoys, only the vocal lines are worth the time.  Imagine a mix of "The Downward Spiral" and "Hurt" but less interesting than either.  "Starfuckers, Inc." is much better, coming across as a blend of "The Perfect Drug" and the material on Broken.  It's upbeat, brash and features a guitar-heavy, Ministry-esque chorus.  The "quiet" version of "The Day.." finishes the single and is a much, much better version of the song.  Doing away with the guitar part entirely, it features some wonderful piano and is arranged in a more logical fashion.

As you can see by my comparisons, the material on this single seems more like a reflection of NIN's past rather than a window onto the future.  As far as I'm concerned, that's fine, as I'd rather see him concentrate on doing something well rather that trying to keep up with all the latest trends (hello FLA, Download, etc.).  Who knows, though - maybe the rest of the album is going to be drum 'n' bass and jungle hell...
[Daniel Hinds]



PRIMAL FEAR
Jaws of Death
(Nuclear Blast)

The follow-up to the awesome power metal debut from Primal Fear has arrived.  Led by ex-Gamma Ray vocalist Ralf Scheepers and Sinner bassist Mat Sinner, the band continue their classic metal assault throughout the twelve songs on offer.

The differences between Jaws of Death and PF's debut are pretty minimal, actually.  The solid, heavy production is still intact, giving the guitars a massive shred factor.  Also, the band's ability to come up with incredible riffs hasn't diminished, as evidenced by the likes of "Save a Prayer," "Church of Blood" and "When the Night Comes," to name but three.  Ralf's vocal chords haven't deteriorated any, either, as he delivers yet another incredible performance.  His clean singing style ranges from a mid-range to incredible highs, yet always with a great deal of a power.  Definitely one of metal's finest vocalists, his style is stamped all over Jaws of Death and makes even the lackluster songs palatable.

And, yes, there are a few filler selections.  "Fight To Survive" and "Hatred In My Soul" aren't bad tracks, but do nothing to really move the listener either.  Fortunately, these are the minority and the rest of the album is very strong.  The band seem to have abandoned the ballad territory explored a bit on the debut in favor of making a solid album of Balls To The Wall meets Painkiller metal that is sure to elicit more than a few cases of whiplash.  Like Gamma Ray, the band temper speed with plenty of great mid-temp riffs, giving the album a real sense of variety.  It's the kind of material that just screams to be heard live.  The album closes with a cover of the Rainbow classic, "Kill the King."  While a thoroughly rousing rendition, this song has been covered so many times already, it would have been cool to hear them tackle something else.

Comparing this album to the debut is a bit difficult, as it came near the start of the recent metal revival and was something of a shock to the system.  While the initial impact of Jaws of Death may not be as intense, it is still a more than worthy follow-up and another great opus of powerful and heavy metal the way it should be played.
[Daniel Hinds]



RIOT
Born In America
(Metal Blade)

The third re-issue of classic Riot albums is here and it also marks the final release with Rhett Forrester on vocals.  Actually, everyone except guitarist Mark Reale abandoned ship after this album, which is really sad as subsequent incarnations of Riot - as good as they have been - have never matched the sheer class and quality of these earlier recordings.

After things fell apart with Elektra, Riot was left out in the cold with this recording.  It finally wound up on Canada's Quality Records label, who obviously had no clue how to market a metal band and it never got the recognition it deserved.  Overall, Born in America isn't as strong as prior releases like Restless Breed and Fire Down Under, but it is still a great record and it's great to see Metal Blade re-issuing it (with the original cover art, thankfully!).

"Born In America" revs up the album with a nice crunch, while "You Burn In Me" sounds like the intended single.  Despite its slightly commercial feel (the band never stooped to wimpy keyboards though), it is a great, catchy song and seems like a more natural successor to the "Outlaw" single than Restless Breed's rather downbeat "Showdown."  Up next, though, is the album's crowning achievement, "Wings of Fire."  Following the pattern established on "Altar of the King," it begins with a quiet, acoustic intro, with some beautifully sung lines by Rhett.  Just as the guitar slows and fades, the drums kick in full force for one of the band's fastest and most powerful songs at the time.  Riot were always able to rival the more popular acts like Judas Priest and Rainbow for coming up with great arrangements and choruses, as this song more than amply demonstrates.

Other album highlights include a great version of Cliff Richard's "Devil Woman," the gritty but ever-so-catchy "Vigilante Killer" (the original title of this album up until the last minute), the grim and heavy "Where Soldiers Rule" and the album closer "Promised Land," a Rick Ventura-penned gem in the vein of "Feel the Same" and "Dream Away."

The sound quality on this re-issue is decent and the packaging is excellent.  Not only do you get all the lyrics, but a number of old band photos (many live shots) are included as well.  I still remember the original Japanese version of the LP that included such great mis-translations as "Come in leather like the 50s / They were really down the green" and "Got to foster need / Got the fiscal queen / Anything to seize…"

The production on Born in America is a little less polished than some of the preceding records, but it is still decent and the material makes up for any lacking elsewhere.  Now that all the classic Riot albums are available on CD, there is no excuse not to own every one of them!  If that's not financially feasible for you, you should still put Born in America near the top of the list, as it is a definite American metal classic.
[Daniel Hinds]



S.O.D.
Bigger Than the Devil
(Nuclear Blast)

Perhaps it shouldn't be so surprising to see the Stormtroopers of Death resurface after so many years, considering the current retro climate of nostalgia and reunions.  While I was never personally a huge S.O.D. fan, I appreciated some of their work and there was no doubt about the band's abilities.  For me, it was more interesting to listen to Nuclear Assault and Anthrax, though.

Well, it's 1999 and things have certainly changed.  The term 'hardcore' these days generally refers to a collection of macho, mid-tempo mosh riffs liberally called 'songs.'  Nuclear Assault is long dead, Brutal Truth is no more and Anthrax is running on empty.  Bigger Than the Devil is a surprisingly energetic and enjoyable disc, as the band seems to have recaptured some of their lost youth during the recording.  The speed that has been missing on recent Anthrax outings is back in all its glory, though they do mix up the tempos pretty well.

Lyrically, Billy has moved on somewhat from the retarded conservative views that masqueraded as humor on Speak English or Die, but this isn't rocket science, to be sure.  Nor should it be.  Billy's vocal abilities have actually improved, too, and he belts out the tracks in true, rapid-fire hardcore fashion.  Of course, the rest of the band's talents have never been in question, but it is always nice to hear Charlie beating the hell out of his drums and he does plenty of that here.

Bigger Than the Devil features plenty of short-but-sweet tracks, too, another trademark of the genre that seems to have died in the 90s.  Despite the Iron Maiden mockery adorning the cover art (and tray card), this album owes way more to the history of punk than to metal.  Rhythm is king here and you'd be hard pressed to find a better trio to deliver the goods than Scott, Charlie and Danny.

Highlights for me would include the raging "Black War," "Skool Bus," "Xerox," "Kill the Assholes" and the ever-amusing tribute "Celtic Frosted Flakes."  "Charlie Don't Cheat" is a blast of pure speed that D.R.I. would be proud of.  By around track 20, things begin to sound somewhat samey, but the band don't exceed their time limit too much and end things with a couple of their patented tasteless ballads, this time paying 'tribute' to Michael Hutchence and Phil Hartman.

Did this album need to be made?  I think it did, actually.  Danny is the only one who seems to have kept the spirit alive over the years and hopefully the energy radiating off this album will inspire Charlie and Scot to come up with a kick-ass Anthrax album next time around.  If not, at least we have Bigger Than the Devil to chew on.
[Daniel Hinds]



SINERGY
Beware the Heavens
(Nuclear Blast)

Ever since singer/keyboardist Kimberly Goss announced the formation of Sinergy (originally Synergy), there has been a great deal of anticipation of the debut album.  Featuring Alexi Laiho (Children of Bodom), Jesper Strömblad (In Flames) and Sharlee D'Angelo (Mercyful Fate, Witchery), expectations were extremely high.  While it may not live up to all of them, Beware the Heavens is still a great album and a must for fans of classic heavy metal with a modern touch.  Imagine all the members' main projects mixed with 80s Judas Priest and Warlock and you will start to get a feel for the Sinergy sound.

"Venomous Vixens" starts us off on the right foot, as it blends the pyrotechnics of Children of Bodom with Kimberly's beautiful and powerful voice for thoroughly enjoyable listen.  Sinergy do a great job at coming up with memorable, catchy choruses and this is one of the best.  "The Fourth World" is a little less energetic and Kimberly sounds almost a little too restrained on this one.  Fans of Xena will be thrilled by "The Warrior Princess," a loving tribute to everyone's favorite mythical warrior, not to mention a great speed/power metal track in its own right.  The title track is next and is already a classic in my book.  Everything about it falls into place just perfectly - the vocal melodies, the riffing, the chorus.  Some of you may have heard a demo version that was available for a while in MP3 format and this one is slightly different.  Mainly, a vocal bit was added at the start and the main solo is different, but it is still great.

The remaining four tracks aren't quite as good (except maybe "Virtual Future," but none disappoint, either.  The slightly over-long "Razor Blade Salvation" almost does, but it has its moments, too, and it shows another side to the band.  Considering two songs are instrumentals, a nine-track album seems a bit short, but it is hard to argue with the quality of what is offered and it still clocks in at over 34 minutes, so no complaints here.

Top notch production and playing is a given, considering the musicians involved with this album.  As much as I love In Flames and especially Children of Bodom, the songs on Beware the Heavens actually have more of their own individual personality and style.  Finding suitable musicians to replace these guys for a tour or follow-up album is going to be a difficult job, indeed, but as long as Kimberly is involved, I am confident it will be good and have the trademark Sinergy sound.
[Daniel Hinds]



SIX FEET UNDER
Maximum Violence
(Metal Blade)

Let me preface this review by just mentioning that I never liked Cannibal Corpse - quite the opposite, actually - and a lot of that was due to Chris Barnes.  No surprise that I didn't care much for Six Feet Under when they appeared on the scene, as they followed a similar musical course and featured Chris' trademarked death gurgles.

The latest SFU is interesting, if nothing else.  It kicks off with a slow, Obituary-like riff then proceeds into a weird, almost hardcore vibe.  Chris still 'sings' in a very much death style, but he is more understandable these days.  Lovely ditties like "No Warning Shot" and "Bonesaw" are a little closer to what I was expecting.  They're raw and brutal and fairly heavy, doing their best to avoid any kind of melody or complexity.  In the riff department, SFU score the highest, as they do come up with some pretty cool ones, esp. the slower and mid-paced ones.  "War Machine" is an example of SFU doing something different, with a little more of a classic-metal feel to it.  I like the fact that they didn't feel compelled to conform to some kind of death metal blueprint and make every track identical. 

The lyrics are as silly and overly violent as ever, but it's the mix that really lets down Maximum Violence.  The production is fairly murky to begin with, but that wouldn't be so bad if it was at least mixed well.  It is not.  The vocals are way too loud and dry, placing them well above and away from the music.  The drums sound like, well, crap, especially the snares when the tempo picks up at all.

I still wouldn't say SFU are particularly good, but I must admit I was impressed with the progress they've made and this is easily their best effort so far. If they can get a recording that doesn't sound like a fucking demo next time out, there is potential for serious damage.
[Daniel Hinds]



TERRA FIRMA
Terra Firma
(The Music Cartel)

My exposure to the so-called stoner rock scene has been somewhat limited thus far (mainly Kyuss, Orange Goblin, Electric Wizard, Monster Magnet and St. Vitus, if you want to count them).  Terra Firma are already my favorite of the bunch, though, as this debut (?) is killer.

One thing that really makes Terra Firma so good for me is the energy level is very high.  No sluggish riffs drifting through the haze here.  The band keeps it mostly upbeat, with some interesting off-beat rhythms in almost every song.  The sound is a cool mixture of seventies rock ala Sabbath and NWOBHM.  One song, "Spiral Guru," even apes the riff from Iron Maiden's "Sanctuary" - definitely not the usual doom and gloom.  Later tracks like "Nimbus" and "Altered Beast" cruise along at near-Motorhead speeds, amazingly.  Terra Firma can play it slow and low, too, though, as "Fifth Wheel" would probably impress even Tad for its grungy heaviness. 

Vocalist Lord Chritus comes across like a sensible blend of Ozzy and Zeeb Parkes, showing his softer side on the effectively subtle "Separate Graves."  The rest of the band do their jobs well, too, with guitarist Freddie Eugene in particular impressing me with his ability to deliver just enough chaos to keep it exciting, but keeps it all in perfect balance.  The lyrics would probably make more sense if the listener were sharing some of the chemicals that no doubt inspired them, but are reasonably decent as-is, too.

The production is basic, but works perfectly for the music.  The guitars are loud and seriously rock, while the vocals aren't mixed overly loud.  In less competent hands, this is the kind of music that could easily come across as just a barrage of noise, but Terra Firma have done a great job pulling it off.  Another plus for the band is that they keep the song lengths relatively short (3 to 4 minutes generally), foregoing the self-indulgent jams that tend to crop up on retro-minded albums.

Listening to this album makes me realize just how far ahead of their time bands like Witchfinder General and Trouble were back in the early 80s, despite the fact that even then they were looking backwards rather than forwards.  Terra Firma firmly put the fun and energy back into 70s rock that the grunge bands so readily drained away.
[Daniel Hinds]



USURPER
II:  Skeletal Season
(Necropolis)

My first experience with this band of Chicago old-school black metallers was the track "Slavehammer" on a Necropolis comp a couple years back.  I was impressed, too, as the band displayed a real talent for re-inventing the brutal side of bands like Celtic Frost and Bathory.  Raw, bass-heavy and not pretty.  They've got the look down, that's for sure:  bullet belts, studded leather everything, Abaddon shades and swords to boot.

Skeletal Season is the band's second full-length effort and it shows a slight progression.  All the elements of old are still intact, but a touch of modern black metal is injected here and there.  The track "Dismal Wings of Terror" is a good example, as it features sections of fast, raging black metal with screeching vocals, along with slow, doom-heavy chunks of near death metal.  There's a hint of early Sodom, too, on some of the faster cuts (witness "Brimstone Fist").  The Frost influence is never too far away, though, as one listen to the title track will emphasize.  Diabolical Slaughter (no, really, that's his name, it says so right here…) even incorporates some pretty convincing 'ooh!'s and 'hey!'s on the song "Prowling Death." 

The production is loud and gritty - I'm sure it would make someone like Mutt Lange cringe but it suits Usurper's evil intentions to a tee.  This is a no-frills record, so don't expect any choirs or orchestral arrangements.  Still, within the framework the band has set for itself, they actually do quite a bit.  The vocals are anti-melodic throughout, yet cover quite a range of styles and pitches.  Some acoustic guitar is blended in to further expand the sound, but it is never used to lighten the mood in any way. 

While Euro acts like Pentacle are treading similar territory, I think Usurper actually do a better job.  They do tend to lose a little cohesion when they speed things up too much, but a good deal of Skeletal Season is mid-to-molasses-slow and heavy as fuck.  Definitely one of America's brightest (or should that be darkest?) hopes right now and well worth investigating.
[Daniel Hinds]



[various artists]
Blackend IV
(Blackend/Metal Blade)

For those looking for a good introduction to the world of black metal, this series of double-CD sets is one of the better places to start.  Granted, these are all 'commercial' black metal bands (i.e. they have released albums on known labels), but the quality has been consistently good since the beginning and volume IV is one of the strongest yet.

Disc one starts off well with the awesome Witchery and their brand of blackened thrash.  Mixing cool riffs, strong leads and a nice bridge, this track is one of the album's highlights.  Myrkskog, a band unknown to me previously, are up next with a somewhat non-descript take on the classic Norwegian black metal sound.  Usurper set things right, pulverizing everything in their path with their Bathory and Hellhammer-fueled, bottom-heavy approach.  This track is from their recent Skeletal Season and even approaches Obituary territory at times.  The underrated Hecate Enthroned are next with a blast of raging, neo-classical black metal that sets itself apart with some haunting keyboards and the most OTT screeched vocals on the whole set.  Primordial seem a bit out of place, while Thorns add and offbeat, almost cinematic feel to the usual black metal framework.  The ubiquitous Emperor are next with one of the best tracks from IX Equilibrium, namely "Decrystallizing Reason."  Prophanity churn through two verses in competent but forgettable fashion, but things pick up with the rather melodic bridge.  Odium tread similar ground less effectively, while Misfortune suffer from less-than-great vocals.  Ashes deliver a more raw black metal sound, with the result being an average song that is played with a great deal of conviction.  Opeth close off the disc with their usual, overdone sonic stew.

Disc two fares better, I'd have to say, though there were no real lame tracks anywhere on this collection.  Limbonic Art are good and heavy, with a classical feel, while Enslaved offer one of the most frenetic moments from their recent Blodhemn release.  Myrkskog appear again with similarly characterless results.  Behemoth are better, building some fairly complex arrangements out of simple riffs.  Peccatum, the left-field Emperor side-project, are an acquired taste to be sure, with their unusual mix of opera, black metal, industrial, goth and classical elements.  Their sounds is very compressed sounding and, while my initial reaction was rather lackluster, they are starting to grow on me.  Diabolical Masquerade provide the highlight for disc two, with an excellent mix of heavy and melodic riffs, not to mention the top-notch production job.  This Katatonia side-project is hard to pigeonhole, as there are some of those triumphant, Viking-like riffs to be had, alongside more traditional black and thrash metal lines.  Darkwoods My Betrothed are decent and the lyrics are actually intelligible!  Thy Serpent are similar, with a slightly more gothic tinge.  Witchery return for another foray into thrash paradise, though this track is a little less immediate.  The legendary Carpathian Forest are back and this track is nicely chilling, as the band really excel at creating dark, dreary atmospheres within the black metal paradigm.  Opeth appear again...yawn...  Fortunately, Ancient Rites close the album with the rousing title track to their recent Fatherland album.  A great mix of death, black and thrash metal, the band known their riffs and put the knowledge to good use here.

All in all, Blacked IV is a solid compilation of the current black metal scene.  Anyone remotely into the scene will already have at least half this stuff, though, as none of it is exclusive or rare in any way.  But for the newcomer or those who just want a collection of tunes of the blackened variety, it's a worthy investment.
[Daniel Hinds]



[various artists]
Dion Fortune Sampler Vol. 6
(Dion Fortune)

Here is a nice little comp that features some quality lesser-known acts, a number of which I was only aware of peripherally before.  Unlike a lot of label samplers, this one only features a couple actual Dion Fortune recordings artists, and the resulting mix is a nice cross-section of synth-heavy goth, industrial and electro acts.

Chaos God kick things off with a Sisters-meets-NIN approach, relying on some nicely processed guitar riffs and heavily gothed-out vox.  Veterans Clan of Xymox deliver "Going Round," a cool track that blends in a modern edge to the bands traditional pop/goth approach.  Ahead are next with a very vanilla and harmless track, followed by S For Crime, who come across as a decent blend of Delerium and Ringtailed Snorter.  Beborn Beton's "The Truth" is an excellent slice of polished synthpop, while Mesh veer a little too close to Depeche Mode land (though they do it very well).  Legendary Swedish aliens S.P.O.C.K. offer "E.T. Phone Home," further strengthening the dance element of this comp, while Lady Besery's Garden conjure a darker, dreamier version of synthpop.

System Der Dinge break things up a bit with an upbeat slab of industrial dance with some distorted vox and a nice melody.  Die Form contribute one of their less-inspiring instrumentals that borders on electronica hell, while Sabotage offer a light, airy dance track that features a variety of beautiful vocal stylings.  Sweet William offer a rather oddball, minimal song with vocals like a drunk Douglas McCarthy.  Can't say it did much for me, but it was certainly one of the album's most unique tracks.  Diary of Dreams offer another well-done yet ultimately forgettable track of dreamy, trancey techno.  162 are really making good on their early promise and "Introit II" blends somewhat experimental rhythms, melodic pads and soaring, operatic female vocals for one of the comps definite highlights.  Area 04 tread similar ground, though with less captivating results, due in part to the Wayne Hussey-esque vocalist.  XIII complete the sampler on a really different note, sounding like a rather typical rock/blues band with some slight indie leanings.  Not a terrible song, but hopelessly out of place on this sampler, I'm afraid.

All in all, this is a pretty balanced comp, with a number of interesting bands that may or may not be new to a lot of readers.  If you're looking for some new synth-heavy music with lots of melody, this is a good starting point.
[Daniel Hinds]



[various artists]
Métalo
(Grita!)

Grita! is a label dedicated to exposing Latino artists from all over the world, covering all kinds of musical styles. Métalo is a compilation that focuses on the harder end of things, featuring lots of hardcore and metal acts, some of whom will no doubt already be familiar to the average headbanger.

Brujeria start things off well with a thick slab of their patented hardcore metal.  Pissing Razors are next with a choice cut of raging mid-tempo thrash that speeds up when it needs to, sure to please fans of early Machine Head and Pantera.  Criminal take a less technical approach but still deliver some quality death/thrash.  Makina manage to outdo them, however, with a well-produced and highly energetic track.  Puya, who stole the second stage at this year's Ozzfest, are represented here by "Montate," one of the best (and most extreme) tracks from their latest album, Fundamental.  The band's ability to combine highly complex riffs with hardcore energy and salsa rhythms is truly unique.

Elsewhere, Ramp offer a strange mixture of Alice in Chains, modern Metallica and god-knows-what...it's weird, but actually works better than you might think.  Raimundos come across as a heavied-up Primus, while Armored Saint close the album with the unreleased track "Pirates," classic power metal straight down the line.

For a compilation of bands from all over the world, there is actually a remarkable consistency to the tracks on this album.  Most are in the modern thrash-meets-hardcore vein, with gruff vocals, brutal riffs, and a general lack of melody.  Not by usual bag, but I found myself enjoying most of these tracks nonetheless and there aren't any real losers in the bunch.
[Daniel Hinds]



WENCH
Wench
(Razor Byrne Productions)

Wench are an intriguing project from San Fran that mix elements from goth, trance and tribal music together.  While that combination has the potential for serious boredom, Wench take only the good elements from each and make it work extraordinarily well.  This is made all the more impressive when you realize the entire album was written, played, sung and produced by one person, namely Frances Byrne.

"Chant" builds slowly and reminds me of the classic TKK track "Heresy."  Next up is "Radio India," which follows in similar fashion with some added vocals that really enhance the mystical/spiritual atmosphere of the music.  "Salome's Dream" bring the vocals up-front more and develops the (Middle) Eastern feel that is hinted at on the first two tracks.  Some slight industrial tinges creep into "Tantra," while "Voodoo" is a more subtle and contemplative track.  "Ophelia" has a real electro-goth feel to it that should please the more open-minded fans of early Switchblade Symphony, going so far as to actually have a catchy chorus.  "Sidonia" closes the album with a more ambient approach, with an uplifting feel to it not unlike the first rays of dawn after a particularly dark night.

One thing I really like about Wench is it never becomes self-indulgent.  The songs are spacious but never exceed their needs.  If an idea is only good for 2.5 minutes, that is how much time it gets.  No moment goes to waste, with the result being a an epic soundscape.  The songs come together to create this huge, enveloping atmosphere that is dark but never dismal.  Very impressive, especially for a debut.  More info: http://www.wenchmusic.com/
[Daniel Hinds]



:WUMPSCUT:
Boeses Junges Fleisch (Eevil Young Flesh)
(Beton Kopf/NovaTekk/Metropolis)

:Wumpscut: are not unlike Leaether Strip, at least in the regard that it takes a little while to get into them.  Both bands have taken Skinny Puppy as a reference, stripped it down to its harshest essentials, and built something new with the pieces.  Also, both bands have evolved considerably with time without losing their core sound.

The usual mix of  hard beats, noisy synths, distorted vox and sweeping strings are present, but there is also a richer, more lush sound to this album than previous :W: releases.  The most obvious example of this is lead single "Totmacher," which features some acoustic-sounding strings and beautiful melodies.  The rhythms are more complex on this album, too, staying away from the standard 4/4 dance beat most of the time.  There are some definite old-school moments, such as "Flucht," but the more off-the-wall arrangements like "Zerstoerte Traeume" and "Wolf" are more the norm.  Fortunately, the concessions to modern electro styles is minimal and used to good effect on the eleven electro/EBM tunes offered here.

One of the things I like the best about :W: is there is a real edge to the music.  While a lot of others are smoothing out their sound, Rudy delivers no-bullshit lyrics of sex and violence through heavy distortion, over a solid wall of pounding percussion.  I'm not a :W: expert by any means, as my only other real exposure has been Music For a German Tribe and the god-awful 'remix war' with haujobb, but I found his latest work to be excellent and truly a breath of fresh air in 1999.
[Daniel Hinds]

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