Larry rounds up all the decent (and some not-so-decent) thrash releases for the headbang-happy year of 2017.
We Are Everything. We Are Nothing.
Though they’ve been around for a scant five years, Greece’s Human Serpent quickly climbed the ranks to become one of the country’s elite metal bands. Armed with a handful of splits, a demo, and two impeccable full length albums, the duo of drummer I. and multi-instrumentalist/vocalist X. return with their latest effort of nihilistic and misanthropic anthems, the aptly titled For I, the Misanthropist. The nine track, thirty-six minute album is an homage to darkness, denial, and despair; with the fantastically bleak cover art by Moornebheym offering a visual depiction of the inhospitable nothingness contained within.
Those who have followed the career of Human Serpent thus far won’t be shocked with For I, the Misanthropist. It’s the same style of heavily riff-driven black metal that revels in melancholic tremolo melodies, pummeling, frenetic percussion, and deep, forceful shouts dripping with venomous despair. It carries the same violent yet depressive, nihilistic energy of previous album. The band is able to capture the bleak nature of melancholy and forcefully combine it with seething, unadulterated aggression, resulting in a sound that is equal parts hatred, desperation, and pessimism. The production is utterly fantastic for this style, with the warm, enveloping guitar tone constantly embracing sweeping, melodic tremolo riffing while the rhythm section powers through, leaving the forcefully, throaty shouts a front row seat.
While not much has changed since 2015’s Inhumane Minimalism, or 2014’s The Gradual Immersion in Nihilism for that matter, For I, the Misanthropist sees Human Serpent spreading their wings, slightly, like the chunky, atonal palm muting during the title track, the grinding machine-like approach that begins “The Temple of All Despair”, or the galloping meets tremolo charge of “Devotion to Denial”. Despite this slight evolution on their format, Human Serpent’s sound remains viscerally intense and emotionally draining. Aside from a few select moments, the band fires away on all cylinders, with blasting drums and fiery, melodic tremolo runs, resulting in something not too dissimilar from the likes of Mgła or Sargeist. For I, the Misanthropist should cement Human Serpent’s status as one of the best active black metal bands in the business.
Zelda-Themed Album Puts the Power Metal World on Notice!
Video games and metal have somewhat of a curious relationship. While there is a lot of crossover in the fanbases, metal musicians have yet to really capitalize on this fact by making video game themed metal. Sure you have 8-bit covers and the greatness that is Powerglove but nobody has really come out with original material based on video games. That is what makes Washington D.C. based power metal outfit Master Sword so unique. Instead of trying cover a broad spectrum of video games, Master Sword focuses solely on a popular series of games, specifically Legend of Zelda. Even if the lyrics go over the heads of folks who are not video game nerds, the music brings a lot to the table. Shadow and Steel is only Master Sword’s debut full-length but one that hopefully marks the start of a long and great career for them.
Most of the songs on this album are mid-paced bangers but the riffs are always there and they are always great. The melodies and solos are pretty good too, like the one around the six minute mark of “Kiss of the Flame.” There is nothing cheesy or over the top about the guitar work on this record. It is real, it is heavy and it has the grit of an old school heavy metal album. Songs like “Let Me Show You the Night” and “Isle of the Sky Spirits” are incredibly riff-driven, with the latter presenting a speedy, march-like pace. People often talk about the difference between USPM and the European style but this album really showcases that difference. As an added layer, this album utilizes eerie keyboards to great effect on songs like “Beneath the Skin.” This makes the sound fuller and enhances the punch of the riffs for a more dynamic listen.
The drumming on here is actually really good. Andy showcases plenty of variety in “Isle of the Sky Spirits” and plenty of great beats throughout the album. He even throws in some excellent soft cymbals toward the end of that song after showing his strong percussion skills in its beginning. Despite being a cover, “Hyrule Field” also offers plenty of variety and really showcases Andy’s unique skill set and ability to shift styles to fit the mood of the music. The bass only stands out occasionally on this album but when it does, there are some great lines that have a bit of funk to them. “Master of the Seas” has so much stylistic variety it is not even funny, with short bursts, hard-hitting beats, semi-danceable beats, solid cymbals and rim drumming all packed into a space just shy of nine minutes. No matter the style, Andy always plays with a ton of conviction and his performance is a huge asset to the band.
Lily Hoy is not a name most people would know but if her performance on this album is anything to go by, it is a name that people will get to know very quickly. Her voice has an incredible amount of raw power in it, which she uses to absolutely CRUSH songs like “Behind the Mirror” and “Let Me Show You the Night.” Lily also has a more melodic side to her voice that makes the softer moments on this album that much better. “Sanctuary” is probably the best example of this even though it is not a ballad. Even then, Lily goes back to belting out high notes with a ton of power midway through the song as a precursor to the tempo change.
Master Sword have put together one hell of a debut here. It is one of the few recent albums in power metal that is both unique and original. This album puts the POWER in power metal and should mark the start of a fantastic career for Master Sword as they have nowhere to go but up. Even without getting any of the references in the lyrics, it is easy to recognize why this album is special. You can also tell it is inspired by a video game because some of the keyboards have that classic “video game” atmosphere to them, which makes this album even more fun.
Living it Up,
But Giving a Fuck
Catharsis has been getting a bad rap. The record has been widely cast as a return to Machine Head’s less than stellar experiments with nu-metal, which all but sunk the band around the turn of the century. However, while this ninth outing is certainly a departure from the complex thrash epics the band have staked their reputation on since 2007’s The Blackening established them as modern metal titans, it’s less a departure from that template than the furor surrounding it would have you believe.
To write off Catharsis as “a 74-minute rap metal album with a song that sounds like the Dropkick Murphys in the middle” is not only unfair, but entirely inaccurate. There is at most one “rap metal” song on the album. It’s called “Triple Beam” and it rules. Sure, it sounds like Limp Bizkit, but it’s the best Limp Bizkit song since the Chocolate Starfish days, and if the Jacksonville crew dropped a song like this in 2018 we’d all be talking about what a great throwback it was and we’d all be champing at the bit to get our hands on The March of the Disco Elephants. Obviously, everything’s relative and and the fact is that Machine Head are not Limp Bizket. The lyrics are definitely stupid, and I’m still not entirely sure whether there’s “no metaphor”, or if I’m meant to “read between the lines” but the track is still lot of big dumb fun along the way. And, again, it’s one song!
Rather than a throwback to the days of “From This Day” and “American High”, Catharsis can more accurately be described as a mix between the bouncy experimentation of The Burning Red (1999) and the eclectic aggression of The More Things Change, (1997), by way of The Blackening (2007) and everything after. The tellingly-named opener “Volatile” is a straight-up rager that’s the most traditional thrash metal song they’ve written since their sophomore record, while the following title-track is a six-minute epic that stands strong alongside anything from their modern era. Even the Strapping Young Lad-aping “Beyond The Pale” makes a lot more sense in context and later cuts like “Hope Begets Hope” and “Kaleidoscope” seem pretty in line with the band’s traditional approach. Rap metal this is not. What Catharsisis, in reality, is a 74-minute, melodically-driven, modern thrash metal record. …with a song that sounds like The Dropkick Murphys in the middle.
Let’s talk about “Bastards”. Leaving aside the terrible slam poetry version: at worst the song itself is perfectly serviceable for what it is – musically at least, which discussion seems beside the point anyway since what people seem to be taking issue with in this song is its lyrical content. The word that gets thrown around time and time again, whenever this song gets brought up is “cringy”. However, I’m personally struggling to see what’s so cringy about it.1 The song is exceedingly earnest, but that shouldn’t necessarily imply a lack of quality. It seems like people’s gut reaction though is that the moment anything is sincere to is to be derided, which is exactly the kind of apathetic outlook the song is rallying against. “Bastards” doesn’t preach a political platform, rather it is a song of personal resilience. It isn’t telling you how to live your life, it’s about staying strong in defeat and finding the strength to go on when things seem hopeless. Such things can often come off as heartless and contrived but that simply isn’t the here either. As Flynn explains:
That song is based off a conversation my wife and I had with my two boys, the day after the election in America. It was a really intense conversation, it was a really difficult conversation. I was really affected by it and I ended up writing this poem the next day. When I was done writing, I just picked up a guitar and I started playing those chords and singing the chorus… and at that time I thought that was it. … There was no plan to put it on the record.
Flash forward and it is on the record. Twice. But there’s no denying that it’s the genuine article. And if you don’t like it then there’s at least three other songs on the record about having oral sex in public to make up for it.
Catharsis almost comes off like the work of a split personality. For every heartfelt expression hopeful resilience and political unrest, there is seemingly a big cheesy party song to balance it out. Along with the aforementioned “triple beam”,2 “California Bleeding” is a feel-good party anthem complete with doo-wop backup vocals whose hard-living ethos is revived later in the game on “Razorblade Smile”, while “Screaming At The Sun” sounds like something bring Me The Horizon would have come up with a couple of albums back (think more “Alligator Blood” than “Blessed With A Curse”). Going into Catharsis Flynn promised a “very grooving” and “more melodic” album, and that’s exactly what he and the rest of Machine Head have delivered, and it’s often these catchier and more immediate sections which make for the album’s most enjoyable.
In fact, the record shares many of its more objective faults with its immediate predecessor. Much like Bloodstone & Diamonds before it, Catharsis is far too long and much of the material towards its back end proves superfluous and largely forgettable, before delivering one last hurrah towards its conclusion (“Game Over”/”Razorblade Smile”). “Behind A Mask” and “Heavy Lies The Crown” are cut from the same cloth as “Sail Into The Black”, “Damage Inside” and “In Comes The Flood” before them; and while, honestly they’re more fully realised takes on their sullen template, their tenancy to drag somewhat is accentuated by the odd decision to place them back to back. Still, there’s nothing on here that ever feels as forced and ill-fitting (nor as inherently weak) as “Beneath The Silt” and the reprise of “Bastards” in “Eulogy” makes the record feel more like a complete work rather than one tailing off into uneven excess like its predecessor.
Robb Flynn’s voice might be showing its age at this point (the dude turned 50 last year), otherwise the band sound entirely rejuvenated on Catharsis. The album’s marketing and roll-out strategy was certainly questionable, and its understandable why people would have reservations going into this record. However, the end result is hardly the disaster it’s been made out to be and, if anything, the band sound more relaxed and rejuvenated here than they have for some time. If Bloodstone & Diamonds was the sound of the band trying to recapture the magic of The Blackening and coming of as somewhat stilted and ingenuous in the process, then Catharsis is them rediscovering the joy of making music by, quite simply playing the songs they want to play rather than writing to a template they think their fans expect of them; and—if anything, its that sense of fun and sincerity that comes through strongest on this record.
1 There is of course the issue of Flynn dropping the N-word. It would be better if he hadn’t done it, and it seems unnecessary. But given that he has done it, then at least it’s in the best possible context for him to have done it in. Still, for all his irony and exclusivity, it probably would have been better if he’d just not done it really… (especially given that he already used it (in a similar context) in “Slanderous”, which is something no one seems to talk about…).
2 Also not a “gymnastics metaphor“. Google it.
This was a banner year for death metal by any measure.
Here are some of our favorite death metal releases from 2017.
The diverse spectrum that encompasses metal music’s many sub-genres could be likened to various mythical races united under two opposing banners, staring each other down as they make ready to charge and turn the field red with the other’s blood. From one year to the next, the advantage may tip from one side to the other, but in the grand scheme of their eternal conflict, the forces of light and darkness have tended to be equally matched. 2017 saw the forces of melody and order take the advantage in the eyes of the reclusive bard that tells this end of the year tale, though naturally his is not the final word on such things, and other codices in the grand archives of metallic exploits deserve your consideration. Still, these are the 50 acts of heroism that defined the year, because too much has occurred to settle for a mere 30.
2017 has proven to offer up the tightest race we have seen in a long time in the quest for the gold! So without any further ado, here is the creme de la creme of the year!
December’s still a month, right?
Larry zealously and over-enthusiastically ranks the British power metallers’ discography.
The last of three articles on the awesome Mammothfest in Brighton – Day One and Two reviews already published on 21 October.
Josh cuts to the quick of Sweden’s masters of melodic death.