Sunday, 9 October 2016

Queensrÿche - Operation Mindcrime (1988)

As so often is the case, over the last decade or so Queensrÿche have perhaps been subject to more discussion regarding their internal fallings-out and legal issues than discussion of the quality or lack-thereof of their musical output itself. However, as much as the band - for a time - may have been in a bit of a rough-way, it's always better to focus on more positive things; and few are more positive than "Operation Mindcrime" - one of the records which cemented the band onto the map in 1988, and indeed an album which is considered by many - my sources tell me - to be one of the greatest concept-albums in metal. 

To an extent, Operation Mindcrime is something of a template for the metal concept-album going forward; a template which is often imitated, but seldom replicated. Making a concept album certainly seems to be a difficult affair, considering how many bands try their hand at it, and then don't come out of it well. Many a time, the ambition is there, but the musical quality to back it up is not - concept albums can be good, but are very seldom great. Operation Mindcrime, however, is a sure-fire contender for greatness. The making of a concept-album is a game of balance, and in this case, it is rather well struck; enough narrative and well-distributed flavour-material to tell the story that the band intended to tell, but likewise a record replete with songs which are tastefully independent and well-formed. Operation Mindcrime avoids the trappings, for the most part, of having tracks which exist solely to further the narrative as opposed to bringing musical quality and integrity; avoiding, in short, an unnecessary saturation of contrived ostentatiousness. There are, through the whole hour-or-so, few throwaway moments. The majority, indeed, the vast majority, of the flamboyant and slick splendour of the album speaks for itself with or without the relevant background knowledge of the story, but also weaves together neatly; it's the sort of situation in which you can almost infer that it's a concept album without outright knowing so, or even attending to the lyrics. The aforementioned balance is crucial; there are enough motifs and running themes throughout to bind the record into a narrative entity, but without forcing that same entity to be grey, dull and homogeneous through sheer determination to unify it. It is, in other words, a rewarding concept album when you want it to be, but it won't suffer when you'd rather listen without that in mind.

Musically, the entire album consistently presents me with the sort of things I enjoy; running the gamut from massive synth-steeped long-runners like "Suite Sister Mary" which deliver the most narrative aspects, to the leaner "Electric Eye" style dystopian Judas Priest romp of "Spreading the Disease". The record combines the flair and pomp of quintessential 80s metal with an inventive and progressive streak a mile wide, resulting in an album which is flawlessly intricate; awash with subtle technicality and swishes of the musically unexpected, as well as in many places being exceedingly catchy. "Revolution Calling", "The Needle Lies" and the anthemic closing swansong "Eyes of a Stranger" all likewise stand as exceptional specimens of good heavy-metal, alone or in context, with the whole record running through a spectrum of a dozen approaches to heavy-metal in order to tell its tale successfully. The musicianship really brings these intentions to life; with a flawless vocal performance by Geoff Tate - purportedly unheard-of these days - and masterfully played and produced musicianship by the rest of the band, entwining the record with itself magnificently; sleek and restrained, even for all of its many flourishes. It is often understated just how effective good musicianship can be, with albums sometimes being seen as somehow separate from their creators, but here the quality and skill of the musicians involved is a gleaming jewel in the records crown, bringing as much enjoyment as any other element - beyond the on-paper idea itself, the execution of the record is marvellous; in many respects it is good because the musicianship is good.  

"Operation Mindcrime" was, this year, one of a select few albums which, upon encountering them for the first time (and late indeed it is, to first listen to Queensrÿche), I took great pleasure in listening to on multiple occasions right off the bat. It is perhaps indicative of both the records enjoyability as a whole and the stand-alone ability of numerous tracks that this enjoyment involved both listening to the entire album on numerous occasions, and also my designating "Spreading the Disease" as my go-to song to listen to with headphones on my way to the shop, for many months. The record is a true meeting of vision, ambition and delivery of the finished product; a well-crafted and at times provocative exploration of the insidious below-board goings-on of modernity, perhaps as relevant now as it's ever been, and well deserving of a place among metals finer records.

This is a certain 9/10.

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Saturday, 1 October 2016

Playlist: October 2016

Fear not, when you see the shape of the SCM-player ominously hugging the bottom of your screen when you visit! I have no intention of becoming one of those people, hell-bent on creating web-pages which make noises without being asked first. The bane of every reasonable existence, we might, hyperbolically, say. Indeed, if you find that the page is playing music without your bidding it do so, let me know - it isn't supposed to.

However, starting this month, I've decided to assemble a monthly-playlist for the blog. It's something I've wanted to do for a while, but haven't been sure how to implement - until now. Ideally, I'd love to present the reader - if I still have any - with an hour or so of actual music; a motley assortment of classics, deep-cuts and miscellaneous material that I've encountered over the course of my love for metal. This offers me a new conduit through which to recommend music, beyond merely writing reviews - and so, I hope some of these twelve tracks which I shall introduce hereafter will be of interest... and if not?.. Well, I'll be changing the playlist monthly, so I hope you find some value in my throwing music at the wall and seeing if any sticks. Onwards!

01. Artch - The Promised Land (1988)

Opening up our debut playlist is a tasty track from Norway's Artch, something of a one-hit-wonder by many standards, the record "Another Return" features many-a foot-stomping, catchy, English-as-a-second-language heavy-metal track, and "The Promised Land" is no exception.

02. Nirvana 2002 - Mourning (1991)

Originally from the classic "Protections of a Stained Mind" compilation alongside bands like Entombed, Mayhem and Merciless, "Mourning" by Nirvana 2002 stirs up the primordial-soup of the Swedeath scene in fithy HM-2 wielding fashion.

03. Pentagram - When the Screams Come (1987) 

One of the more melodious tracks from "Day of Reckoning", "When the Screams Come" winds its twisted way through hazy doom soundscapes with a deeply eerie vibe, truly illustrating Pentagram as the grinning warlock at the side of the wizard that is Black Sabbath.

04. Evil Blood - Midnight in Sodom (1988)

A frenetic and bare-bones thrash track from Croatia's Evil Blood, Midnight in Sodom is as crude and evil as its name might imply; a blackened tirade for fans of the turbulent and gnarly days of early, primitive thrash. Dark and utterly unpolished.

05. Chapel of Disease - Symbolic Realms (2015)

"Symbolic Realms" captures the more adventurous and ambitious sound of Chapel of Disease's second record; a complex soundscape combining uncompromising thrashy old-school death metal with the vibrant flourish of a rocking, soaring undercurrent

06. Ixion - Ghost in the Shell (2015)

Another track from 2015, Ixion's brand of "space doom" is truly otherworldly, issuing an effervescent majesty and cold, unfathomably vast atmosphere. Cosmic vocals and mystifying guitar work combine with futuristic synthesisers to create something genuinely unique.

07. Spite - Trapped in the Pentagram (2015)

Vintage black-metal from New York, "Trapped in the Pentagram" is the A-side of Spite's 2015 EP. Energetic and tremolo-driven, the track is an excellent take on the old-school, belching forth evil and malice whilst also being an extremely fun listen. 

08. Bathory - Sacrifice (1984)

Any version of Sacrifice is an uproarious slice of evil, but the version from Scandinavian Metal Attack might by my very favourite version. The lower tempo may make it less rabid, but likewise imbues it with a grinning and devilish Motörhead-like swagger, and makes the opening-riff heavy-as-hell.

09. Mayhem - Chimera (2004)

An underrated track from Mayhem's decidedly lopsided catalogue, Chimera is an exceptionally twisted machination of the Maniac-era of the band. The track itself is an infectiously memorable testament to the fact that while the band have received mixed reviews over the years, they're always creative.

10. Hangman's Chair - Flashback (2015)

Lurking on a ven-diagram somewhere between Alice in Chains and Eyehategod, Parisians "Hangman's Chair" specialise in dealing out misery. "Flashback" from their latest record is every bit as drug-addled, cold, shivering and downtrodden as anything in their body of work.

11. Hellhammer -  Massacra (1984)

A hellish classic, the primitive and instrument-mangling pinnacle of Hellhammer's discography, Apocalyptic Raids, offers us tracks such as "Massacre" - a pounding summary of the ooze from which would later emerge Celtic Frost, followed shortly thereafter by everything else.

A gargantuan exercise in build-and-climax, "Rows" is one of the strongest tracks on offer from two-piece funeral-doom outfit Bell Witch; a desolate and mysterious soundscape builds slowly to a liminal, cathartic crescendo which solidifies the entire song as a magnificent and almost monastic-sounding musical journey.


Monday, 26 September 2016

Bones - Sons of Sleaze (2013)

In a time where a sizeable cohort of the contemporary death metal scene presents itself as an intellectual, artistic, and complex endeavour, Chicago's Bones offer a refreshingly puerile and un-trendy blast of gleefully subversive B-movie-esque evil. Instead of classical-woodcut style macabre scenes or the seemingly endless beige creations of Paulo Girardi industries, "Sons of Sleaze" instead greets you with a skeletal figure wielding a huge mace, and with a large serpent for a knob. If that's not a seal of quality, I have no earthly idea what is. Indeed, with such a pure aesthetic illustration of how the record sounds, following up such an observation with an actual review is almost surplus to anyone's requirements - but nonetheless, write one I shall.

Bones are, as best I can tell without having done exhaustive research, something of an offshoot of stalwart black-thrash outfit "Usurper", with all three Bones members having either been in - or still being in - that band. Whilst Usurper offers up a rampaging first-wave style black-thrash attack, flailing like a drunken elephant with an enormous Celtic Frost tattoo, Bones themselves go down a filthier road. As befits the record's title, "Sons of Sleaze" is a work which does precisely what it says on the tin; vomiting out a thirty-something minute tidal-wave of sleaze-ridden nastiness. The short punchy songs are as energetic - and energizing - as they are vile, never outstaying their welcome whilst weaving excellently through the entire gamut of rocking and rolling atrocity. Bone-cracking d-beats riffs fry your brain and leave you as a succulent snack for the circling extreme-metal vultures; namely the crazed blast-beats and pulverising double-kick drumming which blows your face off, from the moment the record commences. Simultaneously, the frenetic and leering solos and hooks, along with the stomping slower sections lend the entire record a grinning grind-house swagger akin to bands like Detroit's Shitfucker, albeit, with no offence to the latter, offering a greater display of musical tightness - a sure demonstration that a record of this sort can be filthy, and can have buckets of character without being sloppy. Indeed, "Sons of Sleaze" impressed me on a pure-musicianship level more than one might expect from its aesthetics and generally rough, raw direction.

To say that the record is eclectic is something of an understatement, with a hefty sleeve of influences on show from Motörhead, Celtic Frost, and perhaps a little Autopsy thrown in along the way, especially in the slightly doomy sections which arise like the lethargic dead from their tombs. Alongside these, dozens of other old-school inspirations are on show, and all of it conducted in the best possible way, resulting in an album which for all of its diverse musical landscapes, is both cohesive and distinctive. "Sons..." is possessed with definite direction and a unity of spirit, through the full-range of truly unhinged extremity, punk-as-fuck vitriol and irresponsible rock n' roll sleaze. The entire album belongs together - no haphazardness here, despite its incredibly dynamic variation. Nor, equally importantly, is the record a cliched pastiche, as one might fear; instead, it is decidedly and uncompromisingly its own beast - a clone of nothing, and symptomatic of musicians with just as much imagination and vision as they have musicianship - showing off a love of the old-school, not a contrived desire to sound exactly like it. Its strong sense of character leaves the listener relishing it all the more. Furthermore, the production of the record really succeeds in bringing into flesh this entire evil vision, conjoining everything into a wonderfully cacophonous package with brain-melting lower end and a ton of bite in the guitars. The gnarliness carries on with the drums, recorded in such a way as to allow the listener to appreciate the physicality of the player and the kit itself; not some sterile isolation of drumming, with no context. In short, as with the album in general, you can saliently imagine it being played, and this gives it a real meaty organic appeal.

"Sons of Sleaze" is one of the most enjoyable death-metal records I've listened to in quite some time. Granted, it differs greatly from the archetypical works of the genre, but in so doing it offers forth such an inebriating and effective concoction of styles that it may be of interest to fans of just about any extreme subgenre. I'd certainly recommend it to just about any extreme metal fan, that much is certain. The record is an ugly and ragged parade of everything to love about the filthy side of metal, and you can't help but listen to it with a grin and feel stimulated by the sheer crudeness of it. All in all, I wish I'd heard of the band sooner.

A real highlight of recent death metal... or recent anything, for that matter. 9/10.

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