It’s an excellent time to analyze Usurper’s contribution to metal before we go ahead and look at this reunion album, released 14 years after Cryptobeast. Beginning life as a borderline black metal band obsessed by Celtic Frost, the Chicago group embraced the weirdly sludgy side of black thrash during a run of five initial albums, culminating in the 2005 effort that introduced Dan Tyrantor to the fans. Despite Tyrantor sounding less distinctive than his predecessor, General Diabolical Slaughter, all of those albums paid fairly direct homage to their influences, often including at least one song that referenced metal in the lyrics and delving deep into the barrel of death grunts and swampy guitar tones. For a quartet with such seemingly fixed points of reference, not to mention a largely unique sound, old fans might be intrigued to find that Usurper’s return brings with it some minor points of evolution.
Some may view the sonic qualities of Lords of the Permafrost to be merely a continuation of the movement found on Cryptobeast and, while true that the 2005 full-length still bears the closest resemblance, Usurper have managed to tease out some of the knots from their style. The manner in which this has been orchestrated equates to a loosening up of the Celtic Frost worship and a heavier application of typical black thrash principles. In the past, comparing Usurper to Aura Noir and the Norwegian scene seemed redundant, as did their relevance to German bands like Desaster and Sodom, largely because the Americans eschewed necro or underground traits, playing with a sense of fun and sloppiness more akin to the Japanese likes of Abigail, though certainly with nothing like the same focus on punk. The general weight of a Usurper recording tended to squash notions of “normal” black thrash. Fear not, because that largely remains true of Lords of the Permafrost, yet the basis of several of the songs utilizes tempos, riff ideas, and even melodies from appropriately frosty environs. Then again, the syrupy strains of uncategorized death/sludge/doom still lurk around breakdowns and stick strongly to cuts like “Beyond the Walls of Ice”.
Another feature separating the new material from what came before is how serious Usurper sound much of the time. Granted, one can’t imagine Tyrantor pulling off so many of the “party death grunts” that littered Necronemesis and quite a few live shows, but his death metal roar dries out the experience from a vocal perspective. New bassist Scott Maelstrom contributes a load of ballast too, sounding stern and gruff as he weighs down the riffs like concrete blocks. The old hands, too, ensure that the cold environment suggested by the album title communicates itself effectively – not through freezing riffs as with purer black metal, just by slowly drying your skin off. The percussive beating of the mid-paced cuts feels rough enough to claim at least a few days injury leave from work, “Cemetery Wolf” thrusting a fist resolutely into the listener’s cheek until Rick Scythe takes mercy by contrasting a little melody with the pummelling.
For those who enjoyed the former sounds of Usurper, this kind of brutish slugger earns its place alongside the more refined likes of the title track and “Warlock Moon”. Both elements combine on occasion, “Mutants of the Iron Age” tumbling from rabid thrash into thick chugging verses, while “Gargoyle” proves so moshable that it’s almost danceable, the string players swinging each other round by the hand in a delightful circle pit of exchanged ideas. The structuring of either style revolves around repetition and impact, only the surprisingly delicate acoustic introduction of “Skull Splitter” suggesting that the four-piece has a wider range of skills than hitting each other with distortion and violence. As a moderately brief album, Lords of the Permafrost doesn’t outstay its welcome, nor do any of the eight songs let the team down. “Black Tide Rising” might be the weakest, mostly down to a lack of momentum or broad crush, preferring to head over to a breakdown rather than toss another crunchy riff out.
Having spent so long away, Usurper may actually make bigger waves upon their return, seeing as no pretenders to their peculiar spot have come along since. The same old doubt still nags slightly that their chosen style fits together rather raggedly, especially concerning the skilful quicker riffing and the swampy slow sections; nevertheless, the way in which they manage to clobber the listener regardless of pace remains a useful feature. Even if the White Walker lookalike on the cover can’t whet your appetite for the new Game of Thrones, the unique qualities of Lords of the Permafrost should win a place in your album collection.
Calling your band Pulchra Morte is bound to give a few people the wrong impression, especially when hearing that doom metal is on the cards. For those with a smattering of Latin or modern Italian, the phrase (which the band intended to mean “beautiful death”) will probably suggest slow, lamenting gothic doom that includes too much use of keyboards and silly – possibly euphemistic – songtitles like “With Death in My Hand Under the Willows I Sob Lachrymose Pools”. However, despite more Latin for the album title and one of the songs, Pulchra Morte definitely aren’t into that kind of thing, preferring to take a heavier and more visceral route to grief. As the first major product of a certified doom death five-piece, Divina Autem et Aniles (“godless yet divine” by the band’s reckoning; the more amusing “godless and wives” if you consult some patchy translation engines) surprises by taking a path rarely seen before in the genre.
The first target that Pulchra Morte miss on that preconceived route to slow, lamenting gothic doom is a large one – this album isn’t slow. A great rolling momentum steams off opening tracks “Give No More” and “Black Ritual”, sounding like several unsaddled horses cantering off into the morning mists the day after the inhabitants of their village succumbed to the ravages of fire and plague. Much of the album bears the same spirit of free abandonment set to the backdrop of awful tragedy, the swift songs all passing by in less than five minutes apiece until the closing pair bring the sun down in gloomier, more gradual style. The energy of the riffing extends to the guitar melodies as well, the duo of Jeffery Breden and Jarrett Pritchard dancing away from their death metal pasts to lilt and swoon like a carefree Gregor Mackintosh. Indeed, the sound of Paradise Lost’s six-string master proves the most palpable influence on many of the songs, solos grating on thin lines of rust just as the lead tone from Gothic managed back in 1991, while the rhythm parts offer a firmer, more buoyant version of the same, backed as they are by a rock-solid production.
Divina Autem et Aniles therefore offers a neat compromise between the early ‘90s doom drudgery of acknowledged influences such as My Dying Bride and Paradise Lost and the up-tempo sounds that these ex-members of Harkonin and current players in Eulogy know so well. Speeding through an album of 10 songs in 41 minutes may ring alarm bells (or tolling funeral bells, if they feel more appropriate) for fans of the ever-dour Peaceville Three, though comparisons to the fleet-footed dance of classic Solitude Aeturnus and the molten groove of Crowbar also colour various cuts. Another point of interest comes in the form of Jason Barron’s throaty roars, fitting the old school death metal image yet rarely offering anything of melancholy or weakness to the robust stomp of songs like “Soulstench”. However, the song in question bears clear marks of the gothic sound from which Pulchra Morte seem so deliberately to have distanced themselves. Echoing female vocals from Heather Dykstra dig into a genuine sense of loss and regret, returning also on “Thrown to the Wolves”. Bearing in mind that “Soulstench” was released as a single in 2018 alongside a cover of Paradise Lost’s “The Painless”, the influence needs no sleuth to track back to its source.
Given that Gothic looms large over many of the songs mentioned so far, calling “Fire and Storm” an ace in the hole might be a slight overstatement; after all, Paradise Lost’s sophomore album also made use of strings to form a grandiose atmosphere and broaden the sonic palette. Then again, bringing in Naarah Strokosch as another guest to play cello on that song and the entirety of its introduction (“Ignis et Tempestas” smartly follows the Latin theme despite having an identical moniker to its conjoined twin) distinguishes Pulchra Morte from their British godfathers and weighs the album down with more emotion than its briskness initially suggests. When the drumming steadies for “Shadows from the Cross”, the ponderous riff work imparts just the right glum aura and the melodies shine bitterly through. The contrast returns again though, as Clayton Gore peppers lively fills across his kit to usher in the solo.
Disappointingly, the only part of Divina Autem et Aniles that fails to deliver is the instrumental “IX”, which weighs in as the longest song. Taking the foot off the gas means that mood should take centre stage: the repeated riffs with their blurred endings prove only partially capable of maintaining interest, while the hazy manner in which the second half solos and winds around most of the bandmembers’ instruments captures the listener to a greater degree. The mild stoner tendencies introduced in “IX” detract from the intrigue of Pulchra Morte’s formula despite setting up solemn closer “When Legends Die” in fine style. Without a doubt, any fan of early Paradise Lost will be overjoyed to revel in “Soulstench” and “Fire and Storm”, while enough is done to modernize and convert the doom death sound into novel shapes, the infectious energy of which will doubtless draw in a wider selection of metalheads. Pulchra Morte have done all they can to turn powerful metal into beautiful death.
Twelve jurors can’t be wrong.
Being a trailblazer means never remaining in the same place for more than just a passing glance to take in one’s surroundings, often throwing caution to the wind and potentially getting lost in uncharted lands. While metal would indeed wither and die without innovation, there is something to be said for the multiplicity of iconic bands that had an impressive early run, only to frantically embark upon further stylistic development until they were all but unrecognizable to their early following. Such was the state that the Seattle-based power/prog pioneer outfit Queensryche fell into following the close of the 80s, continually trying to adapt to an ephemeral rock radio mainstream to the point that hardly a soul recognized them when 1997’s Hear In The Now Frontier came out in all of its post-grunge glory, to speak nothing for the confused mess that defined their material after principle songwriter and co-founder Chris DeGarmo opted for retirement. To say that a shakeup was the only thing that could resurrect this once mighty powerhouse was an understatement, and things began to look up immediately following the ejection of Geoff Tate and the introduction of current singer and sound-alike Todd La Torre, culminating in a new masterpiece of an offering in 2015’s second outing with him at the helm Condition Human.
It would be an understatement to suggest that the long awaited follow up The Verdict had some high expectations to overcome, and while the road taken here is a bit different, it comes fairly close to recapturing that same revitalized spirit. In contrast to the brilliant yet overt throwback to the late 80s sound of its predecessor, this time around the approach has a decidedly modern flavor that is a bit more reminiscent of the dense atmospheric character of Promised Land with maybe a few blatant nods to Empire thrown in to add a stronger familiarity to things for those still hungry for more of this band’s glory days. Consequently the songs tend to be more compact and almost uniformly mid-paced, though also rhythmically elaborate and possessing enough moving parts to avoid the monotony that sadly plagued much of this band’s early 90s output. This time around Scott Rockenfield opted out of involvement in the recording process, which gave vocalist La Torre the rare honor of also handling drum duties in addition to embodying all of the strong points of Geoff Tate’s younger years vocally, and his kit work is more than adequate in shaping that same classic sound that graced Empire. Truth be told, the whole band makes a strong showing in spite of the more simplified format, with Michael Wilton and Parker Lundgren putting on a guitar display worthy of the former’s longtime partnership with DeGarmo.
If there is a singular sentiment that ties this collection of melancholy anthems and brooding protests, it would be that of cynicism. It doesn’t quite reach the same sort of fatalistic woe that painted the Orwellian nightmare that was Operation: Mindcrime‘s plot, but there is definitely a similar vibe of a lone protester flying the flags of discontent before an uncaring power structure. Sometimes the objection takes the form of a specific political issue, as underscored in the punchy grooves and infectious hooks of the opening protest against the ongoing chaos in Syria that is “Blood Of The Levant”, which almost listens like a darker, heavier reflection of the catchy air that hanged over “Resistance”. Still at others, the harder fringe of this album’s generally nuanced sound takes on a more generalized objection is raised against the entire political system, as embodied in “Man The Machine” and the almost thrashing “Propaganda Fashion”. When things move away from impact-based progressive metallic force into more ballad-based territory, the optimistic philosophical pursuits of past hits like “Silent Lucidity” are foregone for bleaker territory in the occasionally subdued, occasionally thudding ode to personal struggle “Dark Reverie” and it’s somewhat more subdued and consistently atmospheric cousin “Portrait”.
The greatest selling point of this album, and to an extent the entire La Torre-fronted incarnation of this band, is that it doesn’t dwell upon the past as much as it seeks to learn from it. Though the commonalities that this album shares with Queensryche’s early 90s era are about as overt as Condition Human‘s were with their late 80s sound, this album also shares the aforementioned album’s approach of showcasing where that sound could have led on a followup rather that being just a full on throwback. The heavy-ended guitar sound and general degree of crispness and clarity in the whole arrangement has a very present-centered character, being maybe just a tad lighter than where bands like Ghost Ship Octavius and Witherfall have been going of late, but nevertheless capable of occupying the same modern paradigm. To put it a bit bluntly, it goes the opposite road that this band’s former front man Geoff Tate has been going of late by remembering to keep the metal part of the equation front and center rather than sacrifice it in the name of experimentation. It may not quite reach the same level of sheer glory that was all over the early classics from the 80s, but it definitely presents a scenario where those albums were followed with a worthy successor, all but erasing the past mistakes that hounded this band for the better part of two decades while still moving the ball forward.
Baby, it’s cold outside.Continue reading
As opposed to the last two years, the race was a two-horse race for the longest time, but in the end we had the clearest winner in recent years. So without any further ado, here is the best 2018 had to offer!
The world of metal would not be complete without cover versions, right? And the world of metal would most definitely not be the same (or complete) without Iron Maiden. So today we are taking a look at 10 very different cover versions of the same track, in this case classical Iron Maiden with “The Trooper”!
Welcome to Secret Steel, the fifth chapter, “Black Metal 1: An Unholy Union”
Larry breaks down each album by the German industrial goliaths to decide which one sits on top.
Interview with Mikko Aspa of Clandestine Blaze
Conducted by Colonel Para Bellum of Blackdeath.