NECROPHOBIC – Mark of the Necrogram

NECROPHOBIC prove that, as one of the proud remaining godfathers of Swedish black/death metal, they can always be relied on to create excellent albums.  The bottom line is that Mark of the Necrogram is the perfect NECROPHOBIC album.

All the hallmarks that the band has built their legacy can be found: the undeniable dark atmosphere, the melancholic melodies, the variety of songs, and the heartpounding tempos.  The greatest intangible that NECROPHOBIC bring to the table is that magic feeling, that mystery of their unique style of Swedish black/death metal.  You would think that a band that started in ’89 would’ve lost what made them special at some point along the way.  However, that is simply not the case with them.

The album opener/title track sets the tone beautifully with its unstoppable melodies and plowing momentum.  “Tsar Bomba” just has that special feeling that you can feel in your soul.  It’s quite a great anthem.  “Lamashtu” is perfect for a live setting with its momentum building and catchy vocal lines.  One listen to “Sacrosant” and you’ll be singing along to the chorus.  The middle section and excellent guitar solo by Sebastian Ramstedt in “Requiem for a Dying Sun” is pure magic.  NECROPHOBIC race to the finish with “From the Great Above to the Great Below” with a strong sense of urgency before smoldering into ashes with the instrumental “UndergÜngen.”

Mark of the Necrogram features strong performances from all band member but it should be pointed out that band leader/drummer Joakim Sterner is the heart and soul of NECROPHOBIC.  Additionally, his drumming is basically the playbook when it comes to this style of extreme metal.

Look, Mark of the Necrogram is yet another classic NECROPHOBIC album and another mandatory addition to your record collection.  Hail. (Century Media Records)

THE CROWN – Cobra Speed Venom

If we’re being honest, THE CROWN‘s last one, Death is Not Dead, was good but not good enough by the standard that the band have set with previous releases.  The good news is that Cobra Speed Venom is THE CROWN‘s best album since the stellar Possessed 13.  Furthermore, it ranks up there with the latter, Eternal Death and Death Race King.

THE CROWN‘s heart pounding and train flying off the rails style of raging metal is in full effect on Cobra Speed Venom.  The songwriting is damn near flawless.  Hook after hook along with the perfect blend of diversity across the album make for an enjoyable listening experience.  The dirty and ugly aspects of their sound along with the clean melodies all have the right balance in the mix.  Lemmy would be proud to not only hear how Magnus Olsfelt‘s bass sounds in the mix but his bulldozing performance.

Bonus points if you caught the little tribute to BATHORY on “In the Name of Death.”

There is really no need to further explain as to why THE CROWN at the top of their game with Cobra Speed Venom.  Buy or die!  (Metal Blade Records)

TRIBULATION – Down Below

Sweden’s TRIBULATION took a big step with 2015’s Children of the Night.  Their new one, Down Below, continues where its predecessor left off with a sound focused on incorporating traditional heavy metal, gothic rock/metal, and bigger riffs onto their Swedish death metal foundation.  The band continue to capitalize on the fundamentals that “feel” and atmosphere resonate deeper with fans.

TRIBULATION have improved in key areas.  First, they improved at creating spacing within each song for each instrument to have its own distinctive voice.  For much of  Down Below, each member is playing different parts coupled with plenty of twists and turns in each song, which creates the air of musicality.  Throw in pianos and synth effects (i.e. tolling bells) and you’ve got plenty of ear candy through out Down Below.   Please note that Johannes Andersson (vocals/bass) is an excellent bassist that makes a significant contribution with his playing.  Rarely is he simply playing the same riffs as rhythm guitars.

Speaking of dynamics and song structure, TRIBULATION aim higher to make each song an experience.  A song like “Lacrimosa” has a great bridge that feels like a haunted graveyard during the witching hour, which then takes off into a great guitar solo and eventually ends with quiet pianos.

Unfortunately, just like Children of the Night, Down Below loses momentum after the first few songs.  Both albums are sequenced in a similar fashion with the “big” songs at the top and the more subdued, melancholic songs thereafter.  While none of the latter on Down Below are necessarily bad, they simply aren’t as exciting as the former.  Thus, the album just kind of ends on a quiet note.

Overall, TRIBULATION are on the upswing and will undoubtedly only get bigger from here.  And in doing so, they are keeping the flame of Swedish death metal alive.  (Century Media Records)

LOCK UP – Demonization

In grindcore, there is a holy triumvirate: NAPALM DEATH, TERRORIZER, and LOCK UP.  It’s no coincidence that all three bands are related in history and members.  LOCK UP does the most in terms of honoring the legacy of the other two bands while sounding, arguably, the most fresh overall.

So should you care about the fourth album from a band, one that is essentially a side project, in their 18th year of existence?  The answer is a definitive “yes.” Demonization is all about godly riffs, intensity, and most important, excitement.  The feeling of a speeding training flying off the rails is invigorating.  Right from the start, the album starts rolling and never stops until the final note.  It’s unfair to single out songs to be highlighted as they are all of equal quality.  Just listen to the whole thing.

While underground metal super groups have become so common and often fail to live up to their hype, the gang of Shane Embury, Kevin Sharp, Nick Barker, and Anton Reisenegger are unequivocally delivering the goods.  Without a doubt, Demonization is one of 2017’s best releases.

Bow down to LOCK UP or be damned to a life of subpar grindcore.  (Listenable Records)

MORBID ANGEL – Kingdoms Disdained

Six years ago MORBID ANGEL released their most anticipated and ultimately most disappointing album, Illud Divinum Insanus.  Instead of the album being a return to the Domination-era sound or a continuation of the very obscure, Heretic, the band experimented with industrial, hardcore, and even rock influences.  Well, fans should be happy, and perhaps relieved, to know that Kingdoms Disdained is a return to pure death metal.

With the perpetually underrated Steve Tucker back in the fold, MORBID ANGEL have their best album since Formulas Fatal to the Flesh and Gateways to Annihilation.  Former guitarist Erik Rutan handled the production.  New drummer Scott Fuller does a solid job.

With full mastery and power, the band goes into full attack mode from the first note on “Piles of Little Arms.”  The riff that kicks in late at the 2:50 mark is godly.  “D.E.A.D.” is intentionally discordant, schizophrenic and suffocating.

The momentum of Kingdoms Disdained  then falls too much into a plodding pace and tone.  The riffing is overly busy without strong hooks.  There are dynamics but they don’t possess enough charisma and power to excite.  “Garden of Disdain” is essentially a little brother to “Where the Slime Live.”  Things continue to lose a bit of momentum with “The Righteous Voice” as the fast song sections are the only parts that keep it afloat.  Stand out riffs shake the plodding such as the song section that kicks in at the 3:37 mark of “The Pillars Crumbling.”  “Declaring New Law” is essentially a war chant.  It is the simplest and most straight forward track.

The action picks back up with “From the Hand of Kings” as the band focuses on what works well on the album, speed and brutality, as shallow as that may sound.  Closing track, “The Fall of Idols,” is gloriously intense and momentous.  Trey Azagtoth‘s guitar solo at the end is the sound of a behemoth falling to earth.

At the end of the day, Kingdoms Disdained is a good but not great album.  The magic moments are too few and far between for a band of MORBID ANGEL‘s legendary status.  (Silver Lining)

INTRONAUT – The Direction of Last Things

Intronaut - The Direction of Last ThingsLos Angeles’ sworn enemies of 4/4 time signatures, INTRONAUT, step up their game on album number four, The Direction of Last Things. Their extreme metal roots play the most prominent role in the album’s sound since the early days of the band as evidenced by the heavy riffing and extreme, distorted vocals.  Given that, INTRONAUT takes inspiration from their past and incorporates it into where they’ve currently progressed resulting in, arguably, their best album to date.

Opening song, “Fast Worms,” is a tour de force that embodies the compelling journey that is The Direction of Last Things – atmospheric passages, volcanic intensity, fantastic genre melding, and clockwork precision.  The hilarious music video reflects their piss taking/tongue in cheek attitude.

Digital Gerrymandering” is built on an awesome snaking riff that the band masterfully morphs through different time signatures and phrasing.  The tension that is built and then released with the clean vocal section is awesome.

On “The Pleasant Surprise,” INTRONAUT take thrash riffs and retool them into a very modern metal sound that is huge.  TESTAMENT and DEVIN TOWNSEND be damned.

The Unlikely Event of a Water Landing” is the band showcasing why they are one of the best “prog metal” bands on the planet.  Seemingly, two very different vibes with a guitar solo at the end that would make Jerry Cantrell proud.

Sul Ponticello” is pure soul.  Check out the vocals that come in at the 4:47 mark, and the song gets even better from there.

The title track is easily the biggest monster on the disc and carries this momentum of finality that doesn’t let up until The Direction of Last Things‘ conclusion.  The more you open your ears, the more you will hear all of the intricacies.  Check out the killer riff that comes in at the 1:15 mark.  So damn good.

City Hymnal” starts and ends in a fantastic cascade of sound that would draw envy from DEVIN TOWNSEND and JESU.

The Direction of Last Things is a union of well thought out riffing/song phrasing, impactful dynamics, and an always original delivery and style.  Bands like ENSLAVED and OPETH are still playing catch up in many ways as to how far ahead INTRONAUT have gone in their progressive journeys.  In the larger scope of things, metal needs more unique, stand alone albums such as The Direction of Last Things. (Century Media Records)

DARK FUNERAL – Where Shadows Forever Reign

Dark Funeral - Where Shadows Forever ReignThe Ineffable Kings of Darkness make a monumental return with one of the best albums of their career.  Absolutely no disrespect to the excellent, previous two albums, Attera Totus Sanctus and Angelus Exuro Pro Eternus, but Where Shadows Forever Reign is on another level and unequivocal proof that DARK FUNERAL is only getting better with time.

It was not easy to replace one of the greatest vocalists in extreme metal history in Emperor Magnus Caligula as evidenced by the short stint with vocalist Nachtgarm.  However, Heljarmadr perfectly steps into the position.  His most distinctive characteristic may be his clear enunciation of each word ala David Vincent, which brings greater communication to the great lyrics.

Where Shadows Forever Reign takes the classic DARK FUNERAL sound of pure darkness, unrelenting speed, and those fantastic melodies, and expands on it with a grander presentation, the most diverse songs of any previous album, and more soul.  The songwriting is masterful in that there is always a perfect transition between song sections or a build up of a riffing theme within each song.

As I Ascend” is a perfect example of the band’s growth as songwriters.  This slow, brooding song is easily the most soulful song of DARK FUNERAL‘s catalogue.  It perfectly embodies the journey and triumph of overcoming struggle and dark times in life.  “Temple of Ahriman” is another doomy song that works well to create the blackest atmosphere.

In a coincidental way, DARK FUNERAL also fills a void left by the mighty DISSECTION in that the melancholic and epic melodies on Where Shadows Forever Reign are reminiscent of the latter’s first two albums.  Let’s also give praise to the excellent cover artwork by Necrolord.  Another instant classic.

In a time where most of the Sweden’s black metal bands have disbanded or compromised their sound, the importance and relevance of Where Shadows Forever Reign cannot be understated.  Long may DARK FUNERAL carry the torch. (Century Media Records)

THE WRETCHED END – In These Woods, From These Mountains

The Wretched End - In these Woods From these MountainsAs the years go by, the original torch bearers of the legendary Norwegian black metal scene travel further down their own unique music journeys.  While the spirit, soul, and creativity will always remain intact, the darkness, extremity, and sheer sonic force has often been left in the past.  However, THE WRETCHED END continue to redefine and progress not just what extreme metal is but also what Norwegian black metal is in 2016.  The Scandinavian super group, featuring Samoth (EMPEROR, ZYKLON, SCUM), Cosmo (MINDGRINDER, SCUM), and Nils Fjellström (DARK FUNERAL, IN BATTLE) have released an ambitious and progressive work that considerably widens the scope of their music.

In These Woods, From These Mountains is arguably the band’s best album to date.  The brutal thrash dimension from debut, Ominous, is minimal, and the death metal dimension found through the first two albums are largely secondary.  It is decidedly their blackest and most atmospheric to date.  There is an emphasis on using just as much clean guitar tone-riffs to create eerie, desolate atmospheres as there are on distorted ones.  Many of the clean guitar-tone riffs could easily fit into a SLOWDIVE or MY BLOODY VALENTINE album.  Samoth and Cosmo have also focused on creating melancholic melodies that come in at the perfect junctions.  In contrast to Ominous and Inroads, the riffing and song structures have more breathing room.  It’s less of a barrage of eighth and sixteenth notes and more about longer notes.  As a result, Dominator‘s drumming becomes more crucial in providing the backbone, which he does to brilliant effect.  Few extreme metal drummers have totally mastered the art of the ride cymbal like he has.

Other interesting aspects of In These Woods, From These Mountains that should not be overlooked are the use of keyboards, samples, and Cosmo‘s clean vocals.  He has done fantastic work with WINDIR contributing clean vocals.  And while his clean vocals here aren’t as prominent, it’s a welcome new dimension.

Every song provides a different look and highlights can be found all over.  And within each song is a full range of dynamics and dimension in play.  The nuances in artistry can fully be appreciated after successive listens.  So much ground is covered.  Comparisons to EMPEROR‘s IX Equilibrium come to mind.

Opener, “Dead Icons,” begins with a cold drum march before bursting into a speeding fireball with unique, eerie guitar riffs.  The lyrics easily apply to current events affecting the world today.  “Primordial Freedom” starts out ominous and doomy before taking flight with blast beats.  “Old Norwegian Soul” may be the “purest” black metal song, complete with the haunting, low end groans of Attila Csihar (MAYHEM, TORMENTOR), keyboards, melodies, and juxtaposed tempos.  “Atheos” is an absolute high point in the band’s career with its galloping, invincible momentum. The riff that comes in at the 3:27 mark lays everything to waste.  Devastating.  THE WRETCHED END closes In These Woods, From These Mountains with a glacier-sized cover of BEL CANTO‘s “Dewy Fields.”  Helping out is Einar Solberg (LEPROUS) on lead vocals and the criminally underrated LRZ (RED HARVEST) providing the epic synth and programming.

With In These Woods, From These Mountains,  THE WRETCHED END only seek to create an immediate classic album.  There is so much greatness to behold.  Hail.  (Indie Recordings)

ABBATH – Abbath

abbath.abbathLess than a year after leaving the mighty IMMORTAL, Abbath emerges with the debut of his second solo album (counting I‘s Between Two Worlds).  Naturally, Abbath picks up where 2009’s All Shall Fall left off with the type of battle hymns that has been IMMORTAL‘s bread and butter.  Additionally, he injects some death, thrash and classic metal influences.  The result is an album that is not only epic and cold but also, arguably, more brutal in parts than IMMORTAL has been for a very long time.  The hills and valleys throughout Abbath embody the characteristics of any classic metal album.  For, virtually, every slower song, there is a scorcher that follows.  The anthems, memorable choruses, and the hooks always just hit at the right points.

Joining Abbath are bassist King ov Hell (ex-GORGORTH, AUDREY HORNE, SAHG) and drummer Creature (BENIGHTED, DISAVOWED).  Both members put on integral, stellar performances.  It should be noted that King ov Hell‘s bass is loud as fuck, the way bass should be.

Opening track, “To War!,” starts off like recent SEPULTURA and KRISIUN before blazing forward with an epic storm of blasts.  The chorus on “Count the Dead” sounds like it could fit onto an early OZZY album.  The spirit of BATHORY can be proudly found throughout.

Make sure to pick up a version of the album with the bonus tracks.  Their cover of PRIEST‘s “Riding on the Wind” is so balls out.

Going solo can often lead to less than stellar results.  Thankfully, that is not the case with Abbath.  One of the best albums of the year for sure.  (Season of Mist)

CRYPTOPSY – The Book of Suffering Tome 1

Cryptopsy - The Book of Suffering Tome 1Three years ago, CRYPTOPSY retook their rightful place atop the extreme metal pantheon with Cryptopsy. The band have since become a four-piece after the latest departure of founding guitarist Jon Levasseur. Despite that, it only takes a few seconds into The Book of Suffering Tome 1 to know that CRYPTOPSY are still reigning.

As the first in a series of crowdfunded EPs, the The Book of Suffering Tome 1 does exactly what it’s supposed to do: brutalize you in the most succinct manner possible and leave you wanting more. The Book of Suffering Tome 1 is essentially flawless with CRYPTOPSY at the top of their game. Their trademark sound is there (manic blasts, off the wall time changes, breakdowns, etc.) but also with shades of darkness and violence.

In keeping with the band’s pledge for quality over quantity with these releases, the production is absolutely flawless, which is perfect given the top-notch performances of each member. Big ups to guitarist Chris Donaldson, Jason Suecoff, and Alan Douches for their work.

The bottom line is that The Book of Suffering Tome 1 is a mandatory release for all extreme metal fans. Flawless victory. (self-released)