Welcome to Secret Steel, the fifth chapter, “Black Metal 1: An Unholy Union”
Death by 1000 Cuts
I’m not going to make a Futurama joke, so if you’re looking for that LOOK ELSEWHERE. “One-man death metal band” is not something one hears very often. One-man black metal bands have been all the rage since the 90’s, and I’ve heard of at least a single one-man heavy/power band (Ironflame). But I’ll be damned if I can recall any one-man death metal bands. That’s not to say they don’t exist, I’m sure they do, but they are certainly fewer and more far between than one-man bands in black metal. All that to say that Ripped to Shreds is a one-man death metal band, and for one dude making all this noise, it is astonishingly good. Scratch that, that makes it sounds as though it is “good for a one-man band.” It’s not. It’s good for any band. Ripped to Shreds consists of one fellow on guitars, vocals, drums, and bass: Andrew Lee. He handles all duties and has given this album a neat aesthetic touch right off the bat: it focuses on Chinese history. Now we’ve got a double gimmick on our hands—a one man death metal band who plays songs themed around Chinese history. However, even if Ripped to Shreds was a full-fledged five member death metal band, even if the lyrical focus was focused on death metal’s well-trodden lyrical grounds of death, gore, and mutilation—without any mention of China—I would have the same opinion of it: it absolutely rips.
The most obvious point of comparison for Ripped to Shreds is the early 90’s swedeath scene, particularly the mighty Entombed. The HM-2 guitar tone is strong with this one and omnipresent throughout. But these riffs, man. Hoooo boy, these riffs! I don’t think there is a sub-par riff on the entire album. Each song strings together an astonishing amount of memorable and just simply crushing riffs one after another. And not only are these riffs influenced by Entombed et al., there is a distinct flavor of the warmasters themselves, Bolt Thrower. If the description “predominantly influenced by Entombed and Bolt Thrower” doesn’t get you drooling, you might as well give up on death metal. Most of the material here is stunningly fast, and though it is influenced from a old favorites, it comes across as bracingly fresh. One of the best examples is about 4:00 into “Open Grave.” The music fades out and we are treated to silence, until—oh shit—all of a sudden the song kicks back in full force with a demented scream and a mutilating riff. Although most of the fare here is fast, some of the most interesting and mind-bending moments come during slower portions as well. Take, for example, the middle section of “Talisman to Seal the Hopping Corpse Before It Steals Your Qi” where Lee uses some eerie, arpeggiated chords that lead into a slow groovier number, which leads into a faster groovier number, which leads back into a thrashy death metal assault. It’s one of the most compelling moments on this album, or any album that’s been released this year for that matter. And this album is full of those moments: the sustained, haunting lead guitars all over “Open Grave”; and the slow-burn intro that kicks into d-beat madness leading into “撿骨 (Bone Ritual)” are two that pop into mind immediately. On top of one of the tastiest riff collections in recent years, the guitar solos are stellar. They are shreddy, but not in Slayer-esque death metal fashion. The solos remind me more of something I might expect to hear on a prog-metal album: they shred, yes, but there is a sense of melody, nuance, and emotion underlying each of them. I mean, holy shit, listen to the solo on “撿骨 (Bone Ritual).” That could have been written by John Petrucci if I didn’t know better.
So that’s the guitars. But everything on this album is fantastic. The vocals are a real treat. All in all, they’re a vicious, mid-range, raspy brand of death growl. Perhaps my favorite part, though, are Lee’s paroxysms of random death metal noises. He regularly sounds like he’s had his throat sliced or is choking on human body parts or maybe just vomiting. Indeed, in a recent Decibel interview, Mr. Lee described his vocal strategy as, “Vocals I just held a Shure SM7 in front of my mouth and vomited on it.” It shows. The vocals are monstrous and take the aggression up a notch. In the same interview, Andrew claims that he is not super consistent with his drumming practice. I can’t tell. The drumming here is magnificent. He varies up his beats nicely and has a knack for changing up the rhythm of a riff in interesting ways with the drums. If this is him not practicing very much, what would he sound like with a more dedicated schedule? Finally, the bass pretty much follows the guitar riffs, but the riffs are so tasty that the bass sounds amazing running around behind them. Also, the bass pretty much never does a slower or more simple version of the guitar riff, which makes for a mighty impressive performance.
All in all, this is a super-duper-fantastic death metal album. It takes influence from some of the best death metal out there and uses that template to create something fresh, immediate, and—most importantly—savage. I think it will be hard for another band to outdo this one in 2018. And what makes that statement shocking is that Ripped to Shreds is just getting started. This is the first release by this death metal titan; and what a debut it is. Put this one on and get ready to be…well, you know. See band name.
With darkness as my guide…
A largely unknown band at the time, Garroted unleashed their debut demo, In the Court of Nyarlathotep in 2016. This young band surprised the hell out of a lot of death metal listeners; even the stodgy “no death metal is good after 1993” types couldn’t help but take notice. That four track demo was packed full of twisted riffs and old school sensibility, but it never lost sight of its riffs in favor of dissonance or janky compositions, as many these days do. Two years later, Garroted returns with another four track release, this one aptly titled as Of Damnation and Abyssal Terrors.
In the two years since we last left Garroted, the members have steadily improved and perfected their craft. Indeed, they’ve improved to the point that this latest offering almost sounds like a new band. While In the Court of Nyarlathotep was largely impressive in its own right, it was probably due to the band’s adherence to riffs as law, with a foot in both the old school sound and the disjointed followers of Demilich that made things so pleasurable to listen to in spite of its youthful belligerence. This new offering doesn’t abandon what they’ve done before, instead they’ve built upon that foundation and have begun striking their own path.
Compositionally, Of Damnation and Abyssal Terrors does not disappoint. No riff or fill or vocal line sounds forced or out of place in the least bit. Everything (yes, everything) flows naturally, be it the off-putting rhythms sandwiched between bursts of prime aggression during “Otherworldly Subversions (Part I: The Crucible)” or the brakes being slammed on during “Pandemonium (Otherworldly Subversions Part II)” that leads to a rolling, percussive break or the blasts that somehow lead into jazzy prog during “Into the Shivering Forest”. That being said, the band’s strongest track here is “Crimson Thirst” which is a nonstop rush of high speed riffing with some really gnarly dual soloing ever put to death metal. This is a multifaceted release that continuously reinvents itself despite not veering far from their original formula of twisted and eldritch death metal. Regardless, in spite of how cool their debut release, the stronger production and more competent instrumentation reveals a much more focused and virulent band.
Two of the most notable improves over the debut lie with the rhythm section. The bass seems to play a much larger role, with many notes and walks shining brightly through the din, adding a slight tech-death feel at times (though it’s fleeting). The drumming is ramped up past ten as well, with a nonstop barrage of double bass runs, blasts, and head spinning rolls that flit by in a second. It’s one of really cool performances that really require concentration to full understand everything that is going on and to focus on that frantic cymbal work that seems to tie the whole performance together nicely.
If you somehow managed to sleep on the hype that came with the debut and still haven’t bothered looking into these guys yet, correct that now. Of Damnation and Abyssal Terrors proves, beyond a doubt, that In the Court of Nyarlathotep was anything but a fluke. Garroted have improved impressively over the past two years, showing that a band can be heavily influenced by the past yet not be hindered by that. This is proof, beyond any realm of doubt, that death metal has not stagnated.
Over 35 years is a long, long time.
This will in all probability be a great year for Brian Ross, you see. Not only his much-beloved Blitzkrieg is back for more with another record (the one we’re about to review, of course), he’s also going from strenght to strenght with Satan, arguably the most successful NWOBHM reunion alongside with Hell and due to release a new album later in 2018. After decades struggling with not-very-wide-ranging distribution (and, sometimes, without any dotted lines to sign at all), now both bands are connected to strong labels (Satan with Metal Blade, Blitzkrieg with Mighty Music) very willing to give them all the backing they need to deliver the goods. It’s heartwarming to see one of the most resilient NWOBHM stalwarts achieving high levels of recognition so late in his career – and, with such good vibes surrounding Ross and his cohorts nowadays, it’s pleasantly reassuring to listen to “Judge Not!”, the 9th all-original full length in Blitzkrieg’s ongoing history. Far from reinventing the heavy metal wheel (and, let’s face it, who would ever want them to do such a thing?), the 5-piece just focused their collective strenghts into writing and recording good songs, and the resulting album is perhaps their best since 2002’s “Absolute Power”, easily ranking among the greatest achievements in their 35-year-plus cannon.
After the obligatory, atmospheric intro, the weighty “Who is Blind?” bursts forth with heavy riffing and some pretty impressive drumming. Next comes the excellent “Forever is a Long Time”, and oh well, anyone who truly loves old-school metal will be hooked by this point. Granted, these are compositions like many bands (incluiding Blitzkrieg themselves) wrote in droves through the years, but everything is done with such finesse and conviction that you’ll probably be screaming along with the chorus of the latter even before it’s over. “Forever is a Long Time” isn’t a light-hearted song at all (singing about vampires that will never be able to die, you would hardly have a chance), but it’s immensely entertaining – and what else would you want from these NWOBHM flamebearers than severe amounts of uncompromising, headbang-inducing fun?
Assembling a stable line-up have always been a challenge for Mr. Ross, but it’s fair to say he always kept a good level of musicianship around him, and “Judge Not!” is no different. Long-standing guitar soldier Ken Johnson is accompanied by Alan Ross once again, and the duo are surely hitting their stride, with a strong display of consistent riffing and some truly engaging solos. Matt Graham is a young, talented drummer with commendable energy and tons of potential, and new 4-string player Huw Holding sure knows his trade, as some very interesting basslines (listen carefully to “Falling into Darkness” for evidence) are well enough to demonstrate. And oh well, Brian Ross is one of the defining voices of NWOBHM and British Metal in general, no less. He’s no longer a kid, you know, but it’s remarkable how strong his singing still is, perhaps getting even better with each year that passes. Just listen to him on the near-title-track “Judge Not Lest You Yourself Be Judged”, for instance: though surely not the most complicated vocal lines ever written in metal, Ross gets the job done with such enthusiasm, skill and charisma that the song is instantly rendered memorable as a result.
Blitzkrieg sounds rejuvenated from start to finish, and most songs here featured are pretty bloody good. “All Hell is Breaking Loose” grows on you with each listen, with commanding bass and a slightly more restrained, but still memorable vocal delivery. This particular piece is in the same mood as Theatre of the Damned’s “Devil’s Spawn” and Unholy Trinity’s “Take a Look Around”, adding emotional depth and a much-welcomed variation to the proceedings. After a number of mostly fast songs (“Angels or Demons”, for instance, is one of the best, with all those high-pitched shrieks Brian Ross is so well known for), the album does a healthy shift towards more hard-rocking waters, with both “Loud and Proud” and the excellent “Without You” being mid-paced numbers that allow the listener a time to breathe before “Wide Legged and Headless” lays the pedal to the floor once again. This particular number touches some pretty nasty topics, and some of its lyrics may be not taken lightly in times when sexism in metal is being called into question (is a song about necrophilia, you see), but I understand Brian Ross had Alice Cooper and his terror songs in mind rather than anything more questionable when writing this one. Incidentally, “Without You” presents Alan Ross taking over vocal duties, and the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree really, as he sounds like a mix of his father Brian with Klaus Meine – and it works pretty fine in a less forceful tune, actually being one of my personal favorites on the entire album. Oh yeah, it’s almost as cheesy as it gets, but it’s a damn lot of fun, and I like it! Even “Reign of Fire”, a song that I didn’ enjoy that much when it first came out as part of a promotional EP, sounds much better when included on the album’s running order, sharing its mood and approach with the tunes preceeding it.
It’s not a flawless album, that’s for sure. The aforementioned “Falling into Darkness” is uncanningly similar to “Sahara” from previous album Back from Hell, and the aforementioned “Wide Legged and Headless”, though far from spoiling the album’s flow, also pales somewhat after repeated listens. But delving too deep into such minor shortcomings would be nitpicking, as I seriously doubt anyone not engaged into writing a review or something will hardly give a damn about it. “Judge Not!” is not for all tastes perhaps, but those into British-standard-approved metal will most probably like it at first listen and find great replay value on this one. The production is top notch, and the artwork looks cool as well, a careful approach that really shows how seriously Mighty Music is taking its new signing. In a year full of promising releases on old-school heavy music, Blitzkrieg’s new stuff is up there with the best – and we’re all very thankful, no doubt. Ask no questions and go buy this one: they deserve it, you can take my word for it.
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.
Larry rounds up all the decent (and some not-so-decent) thrash releases for the headbang-happy year of 2017.
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?