Haken – Vector

British progressive metal darlings Haken return with “Vector” the 5th studio album and follow up to the acclaimed “Affinity.” Massively heavy and decidedly darker In tone, this release sees the chaps changing things up a tad, but fret not, it’s just the right amount.

After a rather short yet unsettling introduction track “Clear”, that perfectly sets up the darker tone of Vector with a baroque tinged keyboard performance, we are treated to the most Haken-esque track on the album, “The Good Doctor.” This song has all the usual twists and turns we’ve come to expect from the sextet. 8 string guitar riffs a plenty, quirky-jagged keyboard accents, soaring and hooky vocal parts, with downright funky bass work.

Veil is perhaps the most progressive song and also the longest on the record, which falls in line with their discography. Every Haken album Must have a song over ten minutes apparently! Around the seven minute mark this song take on a Steven Wilson/Porcupine Tree personality replete with a slide guitar harmony.

The more 70’s Genesis and Gentle Giant influences seem to have evaporated this time around in favor of a harder edge. Organ sounds are still used throughout the album as in Veil but that is about the only remaining facet of that sound.  Also of note is that there are no fun/silly type of songs reminiscent of “Cockroach King” or “1985.” It makes sense considering the subject matter and most likely wouldn’t fit the overarching concept, but this further hammers home that Haken is changing their album makeup and sound.

“Nil By Mouth” is easily the heaviest song Haken has written thus far. Starting off with a Devin Townsend/Meshuggah groove cascading into more familiar Waters …it’s a bit confounding as to why this is an instrumental track however. There is plenty of room for vocal parts and   A vocalist as talented as Ross Jennings would certainly find no difficulties in finding the right spots to place them. Aside from the one grievance, the track acts as a good transitional point in the record acting as a climax of sorts.

“Host” is the antithesis to the preceding track. With a touching and lyrical flugelhorn solo courtesy of guest musician Miguel Gorodi and lush vocals, this is perhaps the most touching song Haken has written since “Earthlings.” Especially considering the lyrical content, the ending of this song is one the most powerful moments on the record, emotionally and musically. If there is a Haken song that could bring the listener to tears, this is the one.

Of particular note is how far drummer Ray Herne has elevated his perfomances. While his parts were by no means inferior on previous effort, Affinity, this time around every part is just a bit Extra. Extra complicated groves, beats, and fills. “Nil by Mouth” is essentially a drum solo, where Herne is allowed to flex’s his drum chops to their max. The superb recording quality from Adam “Nolly” Getgood is breathtaking not just from a beautiful drum sound but overall band mix. It feels and sounds “real”, for lack of a better description, In a world of overly polished and replaced/sampled instrumentation.

For studio album number five, Haken could have easily just rested on their laurels and they would please their fans regardless. This album sees them crafting their most accessible record yet, which is not a bad thing. With this accessibility the album feels decidedly more succinct than previous efforts, but the overall effect is much more potent this time around. There is absolutely zero filler material to be found. The decision to be heavier and darker definitely reflects  our current global cultural climate and casts a wider net into the vast progressive metal fanbase, all the while not varying the core principals in Haken’s sound. Highly recommended!

Top Ten Records of 2018

Haken – Vector 

A band like Haken could easily rest on their laurels, release the same album over and over, and I still would be a fan. Such is not the case with Vector. This time around Haken crafted a decidedly heavier and darker affair. There were no real “silly” type songs akin to “Cockroach King” or “1985”, and while I love those songs, this album is all the better for not having anything like those. They also seemed to take a more song-oriented approach, with a more direct and succinct writing style opposed to just crafting prog for prog’s sake…which they are certainly good at doing! The album feels, dare I say, short? In my eyes this is welcome since as soon as Vector ended, I felt the urge to start it right back up again. Highly Recommended!

Hamferð – Támsins likam

Desolate. Haunting. Crushing. Devestating. These are all words that come to mind when trying to describe Támsins likam. As beautiful as it is heart wrenching, Hamferð crafted an amazing record that should be given much more attention than it has received. Highly Recommended!

Shining – X: Varg Utan Flock

Niklas Kvarforth keeps enduring and consistently releasing great suicidal black metal-ish rock-ish albums. X: Varg Utan Flock continues this tradition and while it’s not changing anything stylistically, that’s not necessarily a detriment. X is most definitely a solid record that seemed to be overlooked!  

AHTME – Sewer Born

Some of the nastiest and catchiest death metal I’ve heard in a long time. The grooves come fast and hard. They don’t stop until your neck snaps and slacks over unable to bang any further.

Tribulation – Down Below

Looking for the catchiest, sexiest, chunk of blackened rock n’ roll? Look no further than this incredible record.

Obscura – Diluvium

Just when you thought Tech-Death couldn’t evolve, Obscura’s Diliuvium up the ante by infusing raw musicality instead of technical chops. That’s not to diminish the chops this band possesses because, holy shit, these guys are frightening behind their instruments. Perfectly paced, technical, but also musical as hell and memorable, this could easily be their best work yet.

Arsis – Visitant

After a five-year hiatus, Arsis deliver the goods with this masterful record of techy-thrash flavored metal. Visitant finds their sound matured and refined that honestly rivals for their best work to date. This record could be the definitive Arsis record, and in my humble opinion, it freaking rips.

Psycroptic – As the Kingdom Drowns

Following up to a game changing record is tough. Equaling one is even tougher. Psycroptic return with an album chock full of majestic passages, hooks, and brutalz all in one delicious epic package.

Gorod – Aethra

This Record is nuts. Gorod keep pushing the boundaries on technical death metal pushing it to musical heights. The fantastic guitarwork continues to impress spin after spin. These guys are doing something special and I will most certainly be listening to Aethra well into 2019.

Craft – White Noise & Black Metal

While “Fuck the Universe” will always be my favorite Craft record, WN&BM is a worthy entry into the bands bleak catalog. The more “rock” styled tunes were my favorites, but any fan of misanthropic/nihilist BM should check this record out.

The Sea Within – The Sea Within

The concept of the “supergroup” is not new and in the progressive rock/metal circles this holds even more truth. The Sea Within are certainly no exception! The pedigree from guitarist and singer-songwriter Roine Stolt, keyboardist Tom Brislin (Kaipa, The Flower Kings), bassist Jonas Reingold (The Flower Kings, Tangent), guitarist & vocalist Daniel Gildenlöw (Pain of Salvation), and drummer phenomenon Marco Minnemann (The Aristocrats, Steven Wilson, Joe Satriani) is in the upper echelon of Prog rock royalty. With such high profile musicians are The Sea Within capable of crafting Prog Greatness or Prog Mediocrity? Let’s find out.

The album starts off with an impressive opener “Ashes of Dawn” that harkens influences from Pain of Salvation’s more recent work peppered with both bombastic and tasteful drumming courtesy of Drumming phenom Marco Minnemann. Out of nowhere a quite passionate saxophone solo by guest player Rob Townsend culminates into a Prog-Chops fest that appropriately announces the band has arrived and demands your attention.

“An eye for an eye” is where things start to take a change with a more overt 70’s influence that one would guess would surely be the work of Roine Stolt. Things in the later half of the track take on a few different layers with a jazz-ish piano trio part that’s more Chick Corea than Dream Theater.

“Goodbye” proves an inconvenient and somewhat jarring change of pace with the track featuring vocals via Casey McPherson. A great and tasteful singer in his own right, but after twenty plus minutes of vocals by Daniel Gildenlöw the change in vocals was almost too drastic. I was completely distracted and pulled out of the atmosphere by this decision. At only 4 minutes this track is tossed in almost as an afterthought, quickly getting out of the way for instrumental track “Sea Without” serving as a sort of bombastic intro to Beatles-esque “Broken Chord.” Honestly those two tracks could easily have been one epic Prog song!

And that is the predicament that The Sea Within finds itself. It seems to struggle to find its own identity through its mixture of 70’s drenched Progressive worship of bands like Genesis and Yes mixed with a healthy dose of Modern sensibilities like Pain of Salvation, Black Bozo, and even Big Big Train. At times beautiful, other times fun and even a bit silly, The Sea Within’s debut is most worthy of taking the time to dig into. While it could stand to shave off about twenty minutes of play time in hopes of being a bit more concise, the record is sure to find a rabid fan base. For a debut record of a self proclaimed supergroup, it will certainly not disappoint fans of these high caliber musicians.

Long Distance Calling – Boundless

Germany’s Post-metal powerhouse Long Distance Calling return with “Boundless.” The title of this record couldn’t be more apt, for LDC take a no holds barred approach to songwriting this time around blending all elements of rock, metal, prog, and ambient textures resulting in a compelling and often times emotional listening experience.

Opening track “Out There” begins with a rather simple but huge sounding drum fill cascading into heavy soaring riffs that finally lead into ending that wouldn’t be out of place on one of Steven Wilson’s solo records. “Ascending” kicks things off sounding downright like Mastodon or High on Fire but quickly takes a left turn to riffs that channel Tool or even Cave In. The use of keyboards definitely give Tracks like “One The Verge” a welcome change in texture from the otherwise guitar heavy instrumentation’s

This record took a few spins to really appreciate, but I chalk that up to how multifaceted the writing and songwriting is. Heavy, ethereal, and oftentimes downright Cinematic In scopes, ”Boundless” is exactly as it’s advertised. The record takes you on a journey where the lack of words snap vocals lets the music do all the talking that’s necessary.

This is not just for the post metal Russian Circles fans either. Fans of Steven Wilson, Mastodon, Tool, or Cave In will definitely find an album to appreciate.
Boundless

Hamferð – Támsins Likam

Doom has always dealt with terms of love & loss, depression, and the struggle to endure. The devastating album Támsins likam by Faroese Sextet Hamferð is no different in that regard. However, what is different is their desolate and haunting brand of funeral doom that which also references death and black metal but is wholeheartedly genuine in its beautiful bereaved clarity.

The thing that struck me the most throughout my Initial listen was the agency to the band’s arrangements. While we are talking about funeral doom here, and many bands have exploited the dirge tempo aesthetics to death, Hamferð’s music doesn’t always move at funeral procession pace. The songs breathe and contract at a rate majority of band’ s in the same genre don’t seem to. The dynamic shifts from soft to heavy are drastic but rife with impact, each time. The arrangements of the songs, and even the order of the tracks, highlight this fact. There are clever whole band accents (mainly drums and guitars) that pull the listeners ear in a direction only to be offset by a unique vocal harmony or string section that I always was surprised and excited by. While many bands in the doom idiom (especially stoner) use repetition sometimes to their own detriment, Hamferð show that well fleshed our chord progressions with vocal dynamics and additional instrumentation (piano, strings, etc) add a depth to the overall emotional experience crafting a truly memorable listening experience.

Of note is the vocals. Vocalist Jón Aldará (also of Barren Earth fame) delivers an impeccable performance ranging from death rasps that could easily give Mikael Akerfeldt in his glory days a run for his money, Agonizing screams channeling the ghastly being in which this album references, to soaring and majestic clean vocals which are some of the best in the business. While the music of Hamferð is certainly strong enough on its own merits, Aldará elevates the performance to stunning and unforgettable levels.

The opening somber moments of “Fylgisflog” with its ethereal and solemn guitar introduction really sets the scene for this record. The slow burn adds the introduction of Aldará’s vocals giving way to the crushing heaviness of the rest of the song starting at the four-minute mark. I was left stunned at this transition as gooseflesh plagued my body. This example of dynamic building is exemplary of Hamferð’s whole songwriting approach. The latter half of “Hon Syndrast” takes things even further with a black-ish metal part complete with a slow traditional blast beat used at EXACTLY the right moment. However there is some slight respite on the record with the song “Frosthvarv” which takes things in a slower more delicate approach. With the punishing repetition of the final riffs of “Vapín í Anda”, they are making sure you don’t leave this place unscathed. After the re-Introduction of the opening them the emotional havoc inflicted by the end of the song will leave you in shambles…I mean this as the highest compliment and with respect to the atmosphere in which this work was most certainly intended. The hurt never ends.

The production on Támsins likam is superb. Modern tech death this is not. There are no overly produced sample laden drums and the mix is not compressed to all hell. The mix is full and feels gargantuan the space it fills. All the levels for the crushing Guitars, punchy bass, minimalist keys, booming drums, and vocals are perfectly balanced and complimentary to one another. It literally sounds like you are sitting down right in front of the band while listening to this record…or should I say being lowered down into your grave?

While comparisons to “Dreadful Hours” by My Dying Bride, “Brave Murder Day” era Katatonia, and Shape of Despair are certainly apt, it should only serve as reference point for the uninitiated and do nothing to diminish this work which certainly stands out in the rest of the doom pack. Devoid of any trend or adherence to the current metal scenes Támsins likam forges its own path, one of utterly majestic and transcendent doom metal for the modern age.

Perfect Beings – Vier

If you can imagine in your minds third-eye what a quintessential classic prog band would sound like filtered through a modern sensibility and perfect production, Perfect Beings is exactly that. Like a train ride crossing the plains of the Prog Rock timeline, Vier traverses this terrain with somewhat mixed results but never derails, leading to an interesting and captivating experience to listeners with a deep attention span.

Vier, German for four and the namesake title of this grand prog experiment is thusly and conveniently split into four separate parts. “Guedra” opens the record with retro drenched Prog worship. This part is most notably influenced by classic Yes. “The Golden Arc” is a bit heavier and mathier, less 70’s inspired overall, but yet positively proggy. “Vibrational” is as the name suggests extremely and essentially all ambient/atmospheric. Rounding off the album is “Anunnaki” which is a summation of all these disparate parts.

Instrumentally speaking, these guys can play and play they do.  “Enter the Center” provides some room for Levin to channel his inner Bill Bruford mixing bells, chimes, and flurries of fills reminiscent of classic “Red” era King Crimson. “The Persimmon Tree” is a keyboard tour de force offering a complex and captivating arrangement of strings, percussion, flute, and of course piano resulting in a haunting and melancholy theme. The vocals are the real highlight of this group as the complex three part harmonies of bands like Yes and Gentle Giant are fully replicated here.

These blokes proudly wear their influences on their sleeves and throughout each song flagrantly wave it in the listeners face. The influence is so uncanny at times it borders on replication of other bands, namely Yes, King Crimson, and even Steven Wilson. While imitation is the best kind of flattery, one must wonder that with as much talent that Perfect Beings clearly possesses, what else they could muster if not so intent on channeling their influences. That said, It’s impossible not to feel a warm sense of nostalgia for all things progressive especially on tracks like “The Blue Lake if Understanding” and “Patience” whose erratic structures offsetting wonderful vocal harmonies, and lush atmospheres would warm the heart of even the most jaded Prog head.

Throughout this almost hour and thirty minute Prog epic, your ear will lean to the familiar as well as the unknown. Take note, this music is not for everyone. Perfect Beings have crafted Vier with the hardcore Progressive rock/metal crowd in mind and they do this without a single shred of apology. If you are a fan of The Beatles, Yes, King Crimson, Genesis, and possibly even John Carpenter, Vier is just what the doctor ordered. This is music for Prog’s sake.

Vintersorg – Till Fjälls del II

Sweden’s folk metal hero and possible cultural ambassador moonlighting as a metal band, Vintersorg is back with his 10th album in what appears to be a direct sequel to his first proper full length from twenty years ago,“Till Fjälls del II”.

If you have never heard Vintersorg before, surely you are at least familiar with Borknagar in which he is also the vocalist.   Andreas “Vintersorg“ Hedlund’s voice is instantly recognizable and majestic in its timbre. He is also the master of the unbelievably catchy metal chorus that compels you to thrust your fists in the air and sprint to the nearest forest to headbang uncontrollably. I don’t speak Swedish (duh) but I gather the lyrics are just as catchy and hook laden as their delivery. Seriously, the choruses are so infectious you will be humming them hours later.

As a sequel of sorts to his debut record, both sonically and visually the music is nostalgia laden as well as a return to form. With the album titles roughly translating to “To The Mountains” it should be no surprise that the subject material harkens to the beauty of the natural world of Sweden’s landscape and heritage. While I actually hold the philosophical laden releases of “Visions from the Spiral Generator” and “The Focusing Blur” as the apex of his career, the more folksy and nature inspired material of his earlier works “Cosmic Genesis” and are obviously also great in their own right.

From the opening seconds “Jökelväktaren” with its blackened metal intro instantly let you know where this record stands. Throughout the six plus minute track different shades of epic sounding black metal are interspersed with more folk sounding melodies. This really is the template for the rest of the record as majority of the material follows this format. And really, there’s nothing wrong with that. Aside from a couple tracks with acoustic passages and female vocals like “Vårflod” and a flute outro on “Fjällets Mäktiga Mur” we kind of know what to expect. But that shouldn’t diminish the enjoyment one iota.

Vintersorg is one constant in this chaotic world, seemingly incapable of crafting inferior work. With current events seemingly never ending with unbridled negativity it should be no wonder why anyone wouldn’t want to retreat to the mountains and escape it all. And for nearly 70 minutes, you too can escape to them even if just for a short while on this epic musical journey.

Municipal Waste – Slime and Punishment

After a four year (mostly) dormant period, the crossover revivalists Municipal Waste return with a grime drenched piece of political catharsis with Slime and Punishment. In just under 30 minutes run time, this is a call to arms to unearth your denim jacket and get caught In a mosh.

The Waste crew aren’t playing games and certainly upping the aggression this time around. While plenty of the humor and tongue-in-cheek song titles are still ever present, there is a aggression to the music that hasn’t really been heard previously, or at least to this extent. Songs like “Breathe Grease” hammer this concept like a blacksmith bashing away…only your skull and eardrums are the anvil. “Amateur Sketch” starts at a frantic pace leading its way to a Megadeth-esque breakdown. Throwing gas to the grease fire that is this album are the grind-core length tracks “Enjoy the Night” and “Excessive Celebration” which clock in at 00:49 and 1:29 respectively. These are offset by the more mid-tempo jams of “Slime and Punishment” and “Think Fast” which help round out the album overall.

While the riffing, d-beat laden tunes are rife with energy fans of the band, or for anyone that’s ever heard thrash/crossover before for that matter, should know what to expect. They aren’t reinventing their sound by any means, hell, they are doubling down and capitalizing on their influences. But honestly, does anyone really want Municipal Waste to try their hand at expanding their palate to, say, prog like Vektor? I think not. We all look to MW for a quick, fun, and often too short of a time. If partying, moshing, and quick infectious tunes a la Anthrax and Nuclear Assault sound like fun to you, jump in, the Slime is warm.

Archspire – Relentless Mutation

The third album in any bands career can be tricky. it is usually seen as the pivotal release to see if a band can evolve their sound or phone it in by reworking material mastered from their first two. With the well received The Lucid Collective, one wouldn’t blame Archspire for going the route so many have and play it safe. Quite the contrary, the Vancouver crew have achieved something few bands in the tech death scene have been able to accomplish, namely expand their melodic foundation at the same time as doubling down on technicality and retain integrity. While these two elements have of course been featured exclusively in their previous work, Relentless Mutation brings a fresh perspective to their writing and progressing upon it tenfold.

The most notable improvement, which cannot be understated, is the guitar work of axemen Dean Lamb and Tobi Morelli. On previous efforts, majority of the riffing, while technically impressive and played with conviction kinda lacked any real impact. A lot of the parts kind of felt like sped up technical exercises and not really song-like. While any tech death band worth their salt will have the obligatory masturbatory shredding aspects, Relentless Mutation offers a balance to this chaos. The contrapuntal nature to the guitar and bass parts adds a serious depth to the brutality. The progression of the guitar writing from the previous album is so much more advanced its somewhat jarring.

From the neck break pace of opener “Involuntary Doppleganger” with its almost neo-classical main theme that lowers down to the 8th string bowels of the guitar,  featuring a melodic solo, and finally leading way to a somewhat jazzy clean guitar part really showcases whats in store for the listener this time around.  “Human Murmuration” starts with a Muse like arpeggiation leading to a grooving guitar drum dialogue, which is unlike anything found on TLC. “Remote Tumor Seeker” doubles down on the signature machine gun-esque hyper blasting courtesy of Spencer Pruitt. And while a song like this may have previously been filled with guitar exercise riffs, the faster “tech” parts found here almost sound like Johan Sebastian Bach on a cocaine fueled bender: unrelenting 16th notes, with cascading notes playing counterpoint at its most extreme. All of this leading up to the grooviest and catchiest outro on the record.

The production is also of notable improvement. The guitars are so much more full sounding across the sonic spectrum, for both highs and lows. The bass sits just under them, offering a nice low end foundation for the drums to further fill out. The snare drum is prominent in its auditability, but thankfully it sounds like a “real” snare offering a satisfying attack during the insane barrage of blasts found throughout. The vocals are just above all of this, but never overwhelming. This is no small feat considering the vocals from Oliver Rae Aleron, which are spit out & quasi-rapped with the same intensity and vigor as the other instrumentation.

Relentless Mutation while still holding true to their self-described “Stay Tech” aesthetic in which Archspire revels, heightened melodicism and songwriting not only stand out from the pack, but all the while decimating the competition. Opposed to the masturbatory endless shredding and noodling found on the previous releases, the deep counter point and song craft offered here is something to behold. If tech death is your game, Archspire is the name you need to check out, and quick. Stay Tech indeed.

Top Ten Records of 2017

  • Alluvial – The Deep Longing for Annihilation This collaboration of Keith Merrow and Wes Hauch and album seemingly came out of nowhere and maybe that’s why it struck such a nerve with me. Creative riffing, heavy as hell, and emotionally varied, vocals be damned, this album crushes. I had it on endless rotation from the day it came out until I saw them open for Animals as Leaders. I certainly hope this wasn’t a one-and-done collab.
  • Caligula’s Horse – In Contact I too shall sing the praises of this wonderful record. It really is the perfect blend of accessible alternative rock and progressive metal. The balance between both styles is truly the highlight of the record, at once heavy and catchy as well as emotionally varied & deep. I’ll be jamming this 2018 still, guaranteed.
  • Decapitated – Anticult Despite the controversy surrounding the band at this point in time, I feel like this record has been written off. After revisiting it for this end of the year roundup, this album still kicks ass. Vogg is one of my favorite guitarists and Anticult is no slouch of a record. 10/10 still would recommend.
  • The Faceless – In Becoming a Ghost – Fantastic comeback record from these LA based tech death champions. Both refining and expanding on the sound from Monotheist, IBAG is the singular and most true vision of Michael Keene. While he has always been The Faceless to me, this album he has really come into his own as an artist.
  • Leprous – Malina – Although a bit more straightforward and decidedly less “metal” than previous releases, I really enjoyed what this record had to offer.
  • Mastodon – Emperor of Sand Everybody’s favorite band are back with their finest offering since Crack the Skye. The more rock like direction they took for this album was greatly appreciated. Amazingly infectious songwriting, crushing heaviness at just the right moments, and still keeping their prog elements alive EOS was some of the most fun I’ve had listening to music in 2017.
  • Pain of Salvation – In the Passing Light of Day Daniel Gildenlow is finally back and what an album this is. Finally adding some heavy elements back into the mix to better offset the more roots-rock vibe from the previous few albums. A rewarding cathartic emotional experience like only Gildenlow can deliver.
  • Archspire – Relentless Mutation The Canadian purveyors of Tech Death return with a record that most certainly lives up to their motto of “Stay Tech.” Equal parts ridiculous and refined, these guys have elevated their sound tenfold. While the songs are Tech as all hell, there is a musicality, catchiness, and dare I say tasteful writing style that underlies the entire album.
  • Akercocke- Renaissance in Extremis While this is in no way my favorite release from the British gentlemen, I was just elated to have a new Akercocke record to listen to! There are some missteps and parts I could do without on this album, but overall I found it more enjoyable than not.
  • Abhorrent Decimation – This album came to me at just the right time. Its straight to the point, non-stop barrage of heaviness, and uneasy atmosphere was my go to when I needed to left off some steam and fast.

Honorable Mention: Broken Hope – Mutilated and Assimilated