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. Sean Reinert guest drums this time around providing the knack, flair, and gravity to this record as one would expect. Original drummer Ben Levin is still present but provides Percussive textures, peppered in throughout. “Enter the Center” provides some room for Reinert 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

 

Belphegor – Totenritual

Belphegor, Austria’s blasting prophets of blasphemy unleash their latest offering of blood soaked blackened-death metal with Totenritual. Staying the course as they only know how, this album pummels and defiles the listener in the best way possible. Helmuth and the rest of his Satan obsessed cult members aren’t reinventing the wheel here, but rather expanding upon the fertile ground they have spent years tilling and corrupting.

As the successor to The Conjuring, we find new tempos and arrangements further explored here. While there are still blast-beats for days, new skin beater Bloodhammer expands his brutal drumming palate for more variety this time around and it is a welcome change. There are a multitude of tempos, textures with clean guitars, and overall variety in songwriting not seen at this depth previously. While most fans know what they are going to get from Belphegor, there are enough twists and surprises to make this a compelling listen and a strong contribution to their sizeable catalogue.

Abhorrent Decimation – The Pardoner

Hailing from the U.K, Abhorrent Decimation dish out a unique brand of death-core with their debut record, The Pardoner. The most succinct summation of this album would be total sonic nihilism. Each track broods with absolutely devastating mood pieces as either song intros or interludes a la piano, orchestrations, or downtrodden clean guitar riffs. This is juxtaposed by ear drum obliterating dissonant guitar riffs against a maelstrom of double bass drums and blast beats, and red in the face death growls. Even when they hint at melody, the counter part is crushing heaviness. There is no respite to be found throughout the 40 minutes of sheer mood destroying music found here. And I take it, that’s exactly the point. The Pardoner is ugly, depressing, and heavier than a semi truck full of bowling balls. Not for the faint of heart, just the way I like it.

Noumena – Myrrys

Finnish metallers Noumena return with their 5th full length album, “Myrrys” which is chock full of their distinctly Finnish brand of gloomy melo-death.

After a three year hiatus, “Myrrys” is accurately self described as “A celebration of 90’s melodic death and melancholic Finnish mollie tunes.” This is also the first record the band’s lyrics are supplied fully in their native Finnish, which certainly adds an air of mystique to the music. Throughout the record, rife with straight ahead meat and potatoes drumming, über catchy riffs, bear like death growls, and soothing femme vocals to balance things out, Noumena never cease at delivering the goods.

The production is quintessential melo-death supplied by the mighty Dan Swanö! This collaboration certainly couldn’t be a coincidence considering the gravitas the Swanö name brings to a melodic death metal recording. At times it feels like Noumena are channeling the lineage of some of Dan’s older projects mainly “Tonights Decision” era Katatonia, through a more metal lense.

While they certainly aren’t reinventing the wheel here, that’s not necessarily a detriment either. The other elements with the female vocals and traditional Finnish instrumentation certainly add a level of spice that similar bands of the genre seem to lack. Fans of catchy depressive rock metal In the vein of older Amorphis, Insomnium, Daylight Dies, and Older In Flames should certainly find something to enjoy here.

Rings Of Saturn – Ultu Ulla

2017 sees the return of Sci-Fi tech-death masterminds Rings of Saturn with their 4th album of otherworldly, futuristic brand of aliencore that could actually be from the year 2047, Ultu Ulla.

For a band that took the deathcore/tech-death blueprint and expanded on it exponentially, to absurd levels, this new record does the impossible: making brain meltingly complex music accessible to a wider metal audience. The additions of guitarist Miles Dimitri Baker and drummer Aaron Stechauner certainly must be a defining reason for this. The guitar and drum interplay are simply inhuman in terms of speed and complexity, making us wonder what alien technology was used to allow a human to play with such speed.

Most importantly, the songwriting this time around has improved significantly. The juxtaposition of harmony next to bowel rumbling breakdowns and peppered with ridiculous guitar shredding licks are done at their highest level in the bands discography thus far. Keyboards in the vein of Super Nintendo or PlayStation soundtracks have also been added further solidifying the futuristic/alien aesthetic.  The instrumental songs mixed in could arguably be the highlights of this record. Either the Spanish Guitar tinged “Unhallowed” or the melodic shred fest of “The Macrocosom” ROS is pushing their own creativity to the brink. Not only do these tracks break up the chaos but the variety and diversity these songs bring is such a breath of fresh air in the otherwise vacuum of deep space brutality ROS is otherwise known for.

Fourth albums are typically the testing ground for bands, either staying the course with similar material or attempting to expand in new directions. I’m happy to see that ROS has decided to go for the latter. Ultu Ulla is easily their best effort yet and hopefully a sign of even better things to come.

Leprous – Malina

2017 ushers the return of Norway’s progressive wizards, Leprous, on their 5th full length album Malina. On this outing, we see the band taking a step further into the direction explored on The Congregation (2015) but expanding upon it tenfold by moving into at once a more cinematic and somehow slightly more accessible sound with dizzying and even spectacular results.

To start, all the hallmark angular/syncopated guitar riffs, minimalist keyboard layers/textures, and of course bombastic polyrhythmic drum parts are in no short supply on this record. However, the main differentiation found this time around must be the slightly less overtly heavy tone via “drier” and less distorted guitars. There is barely any tremolo picking or “chugging” parts but in all honesty, it’s not really missed, and is certainly not radically different than what was featured on The Congregation. Leprous has always been able to sound devastatingly heavy without restoring to the atypical guitar techniques employed by 99% of other bands. Rather, the dense layers that evolve over the course of each song, coupled with the voicings from the keyboard parts and bass make Malina just as heavy as their previous efforts albeit in a different and refreshing way.

The album moves and evolves in a much quicker rate compared to The Congregation. With slightly more focused song structures, the tunes never meander enough to become dull or redundant. We are given the tasty bits with enough frequency to keep us satiated yet always hungry for more. There is an immediacy found in Malina’s material that was somewhat lacking on the previous album that is more akin to earlier albums like Tall Poppy Syndrome or Bilateral. Surely Baard Kolstad’s drum parts help in this regard, as he resorts to less tom driven beats to more traditional grooves this time around. The only lull has to be, oddly enough, the title track “Malina.” The minimalist approach here is taken to its extreme, ultimately leading to an anticlimactic resolution, leaving the tune feeling a little flat. Especially in comparison to the amazing follow up track “The weight of Disaster” that simply oozes classic Leprous.

Inar Solberg’s vocals have always been a strong point within the band hierarchy and unbelievably this album sees his performance elevated to even higher levels. Here we see his vocals often taking center focus, with layers of harmonies often capable of giving you goose flesh. Tracks like “From the Flame” with its shouted pop like chorus, catchy “woah oh oh’s” on “Leashes”, and countless other moments really showcase the vocal dexterity of Inar’s vocals. But no other song exhibits the vocal prowess more apparently than on “The Last Milestone.” This track is emotionally devastating: Against a chamber music cushion, Ignar’s soprano vocals soar to operatic heights, collapsing and cascading upon harmonies with himself. Even without the actual band present, this is arguably the heaviest track on the album.

A lot has been made at the slightly less “heavy” and accessibility of Malina. While in certain places on this record that may hold true however, this is still incredibly complex, dense, dark, and deeply emotional music. Rest easy, these guys aren’t going to be opening for Coldplay anytime soon. That said, hopefully this record will expand their ever-growing fan base as a band of this caliber certainly should be more well renowned. Current fans of the band and those who enjoy music with substance that can challenge the listener should take heart to this record. While I originally thought Malina should be a self-titled album signifying a new direction, at its core this record is what Leprous has been and what they always will be: Brilliant progressive music.