Welcome to Helluary

The End

Begrand finds refuge from a taxing winter in some of the best metal releases of the still-young year, including a highly twisted album from his neck of the Canadian prairies.

Here in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, home base of Blood & Thunder, the past four months have made for a hellish winter, throwing everything at us: freezing rain, massive snowfalls, sudden thaws that froze a day later, temperatures low enough to call deadly, and the coup de grace, an early January blizzard that claimed three lives and brought the city to a complete standstill for nearly a week after it ended. Al Gore's documentary might be scaring people into action these days, but not out here. Global warming couldn't happen soon enough around these parts. While the East boasts how many times they've gone coatless this winter, we poor sods on the Great Plains, West Coast, and the battered state of Colorado have been left shivering bitterly as we dig our way out of the latest storm, cursing the past four months as one miserable, long snowbound slog. It has been, to quote Al Bundy, Helluary.

The one saving grace this winter, mercifully, has not only been the amount of new metal releases kick-starting the year, but the fact that an inordinately high number of new titles are of exceptional quality. January especially has always been notoriously slow for new albums, but that's definitely not the case in 2007, as the last six weeks have been one of the most fruitful times for new extreme music your humble narrator has ever seen, and while it quickly afforded me a great idea for Column #15, it presented me with yet another dilemma: just how many of these stellar titles can I squeeze into a 2,500-word piece?

Now Slaying

Aborted, Slaughtered & Apparatus: A Methodical Overture (Century Media)

Rating: 7

Just when the Belgian death/grind band couldn't sound more like Carcass, it employ the services of one Jeff Walker on its sixth album. The groove of Heartwork continues to creep more and more into the band's sound ("Ingenuity in Suicide", especially), but there's plenty of speed and blastbeats to keep the stodgier fans happy.

Car Bomb, Centralia (Relapse)

Rating: 8

This debut is more of the same spazzy progressive metal that Relapse has become renowned for, but the amount of jazzy grind passages, Zappa eccentricity, and Mr. Bungle-style lunacy makes for a fresh-sounding, dizzying half hour. The insanity is never arbitrary, either; in fact, the insidiously catchy Centralia's strength is its sense of control amidst such chaos.

Elis, Griefshire (Napalm)

Rating: 7

Goth-doom metal is already melancholy enough, but the fact that singer Sabine Dünser passed away suddenly shortly after completing this recording casts an indelible pall over Griefshire. The band plays it safe, much like Leaves' Eyes, but the arrangements are dignified, the hooks are ever-present, and Dünser dominates with a lovely, affecting performance on her tragedy-tinged swan song.

Phazm, Antebellum Death 'n' Roll (The End)

Rating: 8

The latest in what's been a mighty impressive wave of top-flight metal from France, this highly eclectic, enormously entertaining DualDisc runs the gamut, from Southern rock, to sludge, to wicked Entombed-style grooves, to twisted acoustic numbers, carrying itself with a swagger yet never afraid to poke fun at itself. All that, plus a full live concert on the DVD side.

Year of Desolation, Year of Desolation (Prosthetic)

Rating: 7

Death metal collides with thrash and NWOBHM on the second album by the Indiana band, churning beats giving way to double-time speed, chugging riffs, and doses of melodic lead guitars. Extremely tight, loaded with killer guitar passages, and boasting surprisingly charismatic vocals by Chad Zimmerman, this is forward-thinking thrash at its most invigorating.

Without reducing this column to a sloppy (by PopMatters' standards) collection of 15 or 20 capsule reviews, I've hand-picked the very best of a mighty impressive bunch, all of which are already sure-fire contenders for a best-of-the-year nod. And an eclectic collection it is, too, featuring Israel's finest metal export, Dave Mustaine's least favorite Greek band, one of the best art-metal acts in America, an astounding step forward by a band of young phenoms, and a stunning, highly twisted album coming from the Canadian prairies which, among other things, is the perfect soundtrack to what has been the most brutal winter ever.

* * *

The idea of combining world music with hard rock and heavy metal has been around ever since Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" delved into Middle Eastern themes, and in fact has never been more popular, as Soulfly continues to define "world metal" and System of a Down has enhanced its aggressive music with the Mediterranean rhythms and melodies of its ancestral home of Armenia, consequently bringing it to mainstream audiences. Israel's Melechesh, however, has long been regarded as one of the finest practitioners of the art, and its fourth album Emissaries (The End), is arguably its finest work to date. Such highly touted albums as Djinn (2001) and Sphynx (2003) ingeniously offset the raw, swirling sounds of traditional black metal with exotic melodies and tempos along with lyrics centering on ancient Sumerian mysticism, but the new album takes everything to another level, sounding more complete, more cohesive than any previous release.

In the hands of less capable artists, this self-described "Mesopotamian metal" would be an awkward, oil-and-water mix, but Melechesh shows just how masterful it is, as the exotic commingles with the primal as if it were always meant to be. All the trappings are there, from those tantalizing chanted refrains, to esoteric subject matter (often sung in Sumerian), to a gorgeous acoustic interlude ("The Scribes of Kur"), but every element of the music is more tightly wound than we have ever heard in the past. It's a ferocious album, and gets off to a blazing start with the roaring trifecta of "Rebirth of the Nemesis", "Ladders to Sumeria", and "Deluge of Delusional Dreams", all of which are exhilarating prog-oriented epics, but it's not until the shocking cover of "Gyroscope" that things really start to take off. Originally recorded by Canadian hard rock act the Tea Party, Melechesh transforms a lukewarm track by a tiresome, pretentious band into a thrilling modern metal piece, new drummer Xul intensifying it a hundredfold, and vocalist/guitarist Ashmedi delivering a double-tracked snarl that befits the song perfectly. Even better is the surprising groove of "Leper Jerusalem", which starts off with a punk riff that could very well pass for a Foo Fighters song were it not for the blastbeats that come to the rescue 30 seconds later. The production on Emissaries might sound a bit too shrill at first, but Ashmedi tosses in some fantastic low-end surprises, like the odd thunderous tom fill, as well as the explosive guitar chugs that punctuate "Rebirth of the Nemesis".

* * *

Greece's best-known metal export, Rotting Christ, tends to take the same approach as Melechesh, but has been far more prolific over the years -- so much so that it's often easy to take a reliable band like this for granted. To the surprise of few, Theogonia (Season of Mist), the band's tenth full-length, finds the quartet in fine form, although unlike Melechesh, which focuses on the exotic side of black metal, Rotting Christ draws more evenly from a wide variety of styles, creating a mutt-like hybrid that's often difficult to pin down, but impossible not to enjoy.

Black metal remains the band's foundation, and there is no shortage of brisk tempos and sinewy tremolo guitar, as heard on the invigorating tunes "The Sign of Prime Creation" and "Rege Diabolicus", but like a couple other European peers, Samael and Moonspell, Rotting Christ is unafraid to liven things up with musical variety. The marching "Threnody" strides with a mighty, stately gait, the undulating riffs underscored by mood-enhancing choral chants, and climaxes with a dignified refrain that displays the band's knack for sumptuous melody. "Enuma Elish" plummets into subterranean darkness with its churning riffs and rhythms, elastic-sounding strings serving as the perfect soundtrack for our descent, Arabic vocals offsetting the demonic growl by singer/guitarist Sakis Tolis. "Gaia Tellus" combines headbanging riffs and choral vocals very similar to Therion's work, and "Phobos' Synagogue" boasts an unrelenting mid-tempo groove, but the real keeper here is "Nemecic", a spellbinding excursion into theatrical, pagan folk metal, complete with spirit-invoking chants, Greek oboe, and what sounds like a hurdy-gurdy. Theogonia is epic in scope, but smartly knows exactly how much is too much, and comes to a tidy conclusion after 42 enthralling minutes. Like Melechesh, Rotting Christ is a veteran band in full command of its craft, and this release further cements its reputation as a master of world-class metal music.

* * *

Illinois band Minsk burst onto the scene in 2005 with the creative, massive sounding debut Out of a Center Which is Neither Dead Nor Alive, an album that had your humble narrator so taken aback, that much of the inaugural installment of Blood & Thunder was devoted to that spellbinding piece of work. Now, 14 columns and nearly a year and a half later, Minsk has returned with a new label behind them (Relapse) and a brand new album, an audacious tour de force that has compelled yours truly to wax hyperbolic once again. For all the blunt, Neurosis-inspired force of Out of a Center..., there were numerous moments in which the quartet hinted at bigger, more adventurous things to come, and indeed, The Ritual Fires of Abandonment takes off in a very bold new direction, and leaves us speculating how different the next album will sound, and how great that one will be.

While Neurosis are the progenitors of the sound, Isis has mastered the art of subtlety in an extreme musical form, Pelican is one of the finest instrumental bands around, and Intronaut and Yakuza have added jazz and funk to the style, Minsk wisely tries something different on its second album, consequently setting itself apart from the rest of its peers. An hour-long, six-song suite, Ritual Fires surprises us instantly by avoiding pulverizing sounds entirely, instead journeying in a space rock direction, inspired not by Neurosis and Isis, but by Hawkwind and Acid Mothers Temple; thanks to producer/bassist/vocalist Sanford Parker, the arrangements remain concise enough to make the songs very accessible and not fly off the handle.

Droning effects and overdubbed percussion (the third consecutive album in this article to employ Arabic rhythms) highlight the intro to "Embers", balancing spaciousness and insistence effectively, and although huge guitars explode five minutes in, they're layered with so many effects that they're given an elastic quality in the process, the distortion compressed to the point where the sound is more an electrical thrumming than simple abrasion. The guitars, by Chris Bennett, retain that dense sound on the more uptempo "White Wings", dominating the track while cleaner textures are brought in on the understated instrumental "Mescaline Sunrise". It's during the album's second half where the band gets down to serious business with a pair of 15-minute tracks. "The Orphans of Piety" focuses on vocalist Parker, who sings more than screams on this CD, his multi-tracked vocals swirling around, normal playback juxtaposed with backwards effects, the song steadily building toward a cacophonous climax, then downshifting just as slowly, electric piano punctuating guitar chords with a smooth saxophone solo, provided by Yakuza's Bruce Lamont, kicking in during the coda. "Ceremony Ek Stasis", meanwhile, is considerably more multifaceted, electronic effects offsetting the doom-inspired riffs during the first third, then abruptly evoking Damnation-era Opeth during the middle movement (those howling effects still lingering), with what sounds like a soprano sax leading the album to its entrancing conclusion.

* * *

When Brampton, Ontario's the End put out the critically acclaimed Within Dividia, is was clear the band was bent on following in the footsteps of the Dillinger Escape Plan, pulling off some of the most intricate math metal musicianship since the great Calculating Infinity, but for all the dexterity, tension, and muscularity of the music, not to mention the highly creative art design, the record still was lacking in personality. The songs were phenomenally played, but were dense, and vocalist Aaron Wolff didn't exactly help his band's cause by employing a monotone scream that ended up being the the End's Achilles heel. Still, we were all aware that this young band was still in its developmental stage, and that its next release would be key in giving us a sign of whether it could emerge as an innovator, and not just an imitator. What few of us expected, however, was the actual level of improvement there would be on the second full-length; Elementary (Relapse) is the kind of quantum leap that every band strives for, critics love to rave about, and record companies drool over, the sound of an act fully realizing its potential and taking a very daring step forward in the process.

For the first time on a recording by the End, discipline and melody takes precedence over technical ability: Elementary boasts simpler arrangements and less noodling by guitarists Steve Watson and Andrew Hercules and more sustained chords, allowing the songs to breathe. Most importantly, Wolff neatly balances his trademark scream with a deceptively strong singing voice, as every track is bolstered by a terrific vocal hook. That's not to say that the band's math metal roots have been completely scuppered; if anything, instead of overwhelming entire songs, the more dexterous passages are used to enhance the compositions. A good example of Elementary's new direction can be heard in "Animals", which explodes out of the gate with the kind of finely tuned chaos we've come to expect from the band, which leads into Meshuggah-style dissonance and mechanics during the first verse. Eighty seconds in, though, the band settles into a churning, Tool-like groove, allowing Wolff's clean vocals to take charge, riffs becoming more spacious, keyboards starting to emerge in the background, the transition from harsh, to heavy, to ethereal anchored by bassist Sean Dooley and drummer Anthony Salajko, whose robust rhythm section doesn't let up one bit.

In fact, influences such as Tool, Isis, Neurosis, Meshuggah, and even the Deftones can be heard on this album in varying combinations, yet the songwriting is such that it hardly sounds like blatant imitation. It sounds natural. "Dangerous" is brutal, mid-tempo heaviness, guitars working in consort with the echoing bassline throughout, Salajko alternating from 16th hi-hat beats to full-throttle hammering on ride cymbal, culminating in a thrilling, three-minute bridge that sounds as taut as anything off Ænima. "The Never Ever Aftermath" and "The Moth and I" are all about spaciousness, and Wolff, in a performance as revelatory as that of All That Remains' Phil Labonte on last year's The Fall of Ideals, brilliantly channels the angst-ridden soulfulness of Chino Moreno. "Throwing Stones" renders cookie-cutter metalcore even more useless than it already is, "My Abyss" and "Awake?" are further proof that less can often be more in metal, and the acoustic guitar/piano-driven "And Always..." brings it all to a grandiose climax, those vocal melodies front and center.

* * *

As surprising as the End's stylistic turn is, the real shocker of early 2007 comes from here in Saskatchewan. The second album by a highly mysterious trio based outside the city of Regina calling itself Wold ranks as one of the most bizarre, extreme recordings to surface in years. That such a cutting-edge record should come from a province whose only notable metal exports have been melodic death favorites Into Eternity and cheeseball rockers Kick Axe 20 years earlier makes it even more strange, but in all honesty, an album as abrasive and otherworldly as Screech Owl (Profound Lore) could only come from Saskatchewan. It's a region of extremes: dense forest and crystalline fresh water lakes in the north, and vast, empty prairie in the south; billion-year-old bedrock in the upper half, the world's most fertile farmland in the lower; summers of blazing, dry heat, and winters of nearly unbearable, lifeless cold. And Screech Owl, obviously, is directly inspired by those frigid winter months in particular, the music sounding as brutal and unrelenting as the weather. This is the blackest of ambient black metal, taken to an entirely new level, reducing most of today's primitive lo-fi black metal experiments to the work of misanthropic amateurs in the process.

Screech Owl is harrowing, but ultimately rewarding. It's more genuinely frightening than Xasthur and Leviathan combined, as deeply disturbed as Khlyst, as abrasive as Merzbow, and as polarizing as Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, but underneath the grating, industrial distortion and shoegazer levels of feedback is a hypnotic, enveloping warmth which slowly reveals lucid melodies lurking amidst the cacophony over the course of its 73 minutes. Compositions like "An Habitation of Dragons, and a Court for Owls", "Ray of Gold", and "So That No Sword May Strike Him Down" sound like human torture recorded in a wind tunnel, with thrumming waves of noise, wracked screams, dense (and I do mean dense) layers of guitar, and rhythms that either sound machine-generated or provided by a possessed, primal percussionist. After the first 14 minutes, however, brave listeners will start to settle in more, as the album begins to unfold, becoming increasingly more spellbinding over the final 45 minutes. "The Field Hag" contains airy drones that underscore a disturbing imitation of a wizened old woman, "December Eve" and "Gather Under Her Shadow" achieve a My Bloody Valentine-style balance of noise and (dare I say) wistful melody. Interestingly enough, the fog seems to clear just enough for us to hear distinct guitar and drums on the two final tracks, the insistent, borderline hardcore "I'm the Chisel" and the sumptuous groove of the climactic "Undying Fire of Urian".

While enigmatic leader Fortress Crookedjaw screeches in a typically strangulated black metal voice, his lyrics (mercifully provided in the neatly designed CD) are darkly poetic, delving into local folklore, as well as naturalism and paganism, the majority of songs touching on the aforementioned night dweller and its relation to the desolation of the prairie winters: "Owl and dragon / Pillars of most high / Hail empty place / Nighttime prairie sky."

Audacious, genre-defying, and strangely arresting, Screech Owl is the clear highlight of what has been a stupendous start to 2007. If anything, this bevy of new albums is enough to take our minds off the spirit-deflating weather on the other side of the window, a welcome blast of white light and white heat while the rest of the musical world continues to suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder.

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