Category Archives: Review

Underground Sounds: Substratum – Permission to Rock

Label: Swords & Chains Records
Band: Substratum
Origin: United States

Nothing beats a good slice of old-fashioned heavy metal and that is precisely what Seattle heroes Substratum deliver on their album ‘Permission To Rock’. It’s denim and leather, with a good nod to the crossover skate culture in a sound that is clear-cut, crisp and energetic.

After their sci-fi-vibey ‘Stratosphere’, this album embraces the cheese fully. Four faces on the cover, a big logo and a dominating posture over a city in smoke. Bursting planets encircle the faces of the band members in this still-futuristic landscape. It’s… interesting? But hey, we all love that He-Man-quality of heavy metal, so let’s dig in!
‘Rough Rider’ is exactly what you expect. Rigid, tight riffs and biting vocals, that are surprisingly low in the mix, sometimes even hard to hear. Not really a downer, because vocalist Amy Lee Carlson has a venomous snarl and brings that narrative in harmony with the music. The music is diverse and never takes you on a path or repetition, with their reach-for-the-sky attitude. Tracks like ‘To Nothing, To None’, put them in line with bands like Accept and maybe even a bit of Iron Maiden here and there.
The anthemic quality of their sound is also undeniable, with a tune like ‘Exxtremer (Permission to Rock)’, they step into the domain of Twisted Sister and their ilk. Tasty guitar licks and mellow passages that just make you feel so good. Man, I want to go buy a bandana and rip the sleeves of my jeans jacket. At least, if I get permission to rock! Interestingly, the latter songs on the album take on a bit more of an epic edge. After the brief intermezzo ‘Triangulum’, we get the galloping might of ‘Up on Wheels’, which is a fist-pumping closer to this record.

Underground Sounds: Vilkacis – Beyond The Mortal Gate

Label: Psychic Violence Records
Artist: Vilkacis
Origin: United States

Made in New York, but with roots in the dense woods of the Baltics, the project Vilkacis is like no other. Single-minded, unrelenting and filled with vicious vitality, it rends and tears at you with its sonic splendor. This is the second full length by this singular entity, featuring similarly mesmerizing artwork as on the preceding ‘The Fever of War’. This is ‘Beyond the Mortal Gate’.

Vilkacis is a project by Mike Rekevics, who you might know from Fell Voices, Vanum and ofcourse the generally praised Yellow Eyes. The lupine theme is ever present it seems in his work, which always has a particular flavor and sound, that can hardly be confused for anything else. It took quite some years to bring forward this new release, but it’s well worth the wait.
One think I notice, is how the rhythm really drives the sound of Vilkacis. Rekevics is after all a drummer, and his knowledge of the way the beat effects the total song clearly is vast and used to the best possible effect. After the intro, ‘Defiance’ launches in all its depravity, yet this is restricted to the lyrics. Musically, the song stands like a rock against the tide. Grand, rigid riffing and a regal elegance to the sound. It’s defiance with a backbone, with force and strength. The vocals could perhaps be sharper, but their burly, brusk delivery fits in with the whole vibe of the record.

The trick would seem, is to avoid any of the regular pit falls of black metal. The harmony and beauty needs to emerge from the chaotic rumble and decrepit sound, the lo-fi aspect makes it hazy and eases in that unity. There are no keyboards on a track like ‘Sixty Three’, no polished production, but the raw splendor that is black metal that is carved out by Rekevics like a true craftsman.

In the following two songs, the flow of the music takes on an even more atmospheric shape. Yet, it lacks the mournful, meandering elements. Vilkacis blazes on, regardless, yet still manages to capture the right emotions in the music. The title track becomes the crescendo to a mighty piece of music.

Underground Sounds: xSERVITUDEx – Path to Amnesty

Label: Rage Records, Life.Lair.Regret Records
Band: xSERVITUDEx
Origin: United Kingdom

Fresh blood in the UK hardcore scene, that’s what xSERVITUDEx  delivers with their raw, straight edge sound. Edge metal, that’s what the band calls their sound on this first EP, titled ‘Path To Amnesty’.

Int he artwork and titles, an oriental theme reverberates, yet this is hardly present in the content of the music, which deals with anguish and hardship. A bit of H8000 is definitely in there, but you can read all about that here.

The peculiar intro sets-up an oriental atmosphere forxSERVITUDEx, which is soon shattered by the first track. ‘Temple’ breaks down the door in full stride, with dissonant, screaming guitars, jagged riffing and vocals that are spat and screamed with furious conviction. The grinding bass lines and tight-strung drums put a bit of a metalcore vibe into the sound of this band. The sheer intensity of the tracks is immense and ‘Stained’ hits repeatedly, with sharp cuts.

Lyrically, the band is as blood-soaked as it gets, full of pain and anguish, connecting their themes to the straight edge philosophy on title track ‘Path to Amnesty’. You constantly get that nineties vibe with this band, thanks tot he rigid sound, the fire that drives it. Certainly, the buddhist theme you may expect is sorely lacking here, but hey… What do you do.

Underground Sounds: Wayfarer – World’s Blood

Label: Profound Lore
Band: Wayfarer
Origin: United States

It’s hard to not draw parallels between Wayfarer and Panopticon because both embody atmospheric black metal that relies on the folklore of the United States. If the second embodies the northern wilds, than Wayfarer takes the west as their home and inspiration for their latest record ‘World’s Blood’, their third full-length release.

Featuring members of Cobalt, (ex-) Kitezh, Blood Incantation and Centimani, there’s a definite amount of experience in the formation. In a way, the band has captured the soundtrack to Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Blood Meridian’. Their use of dusty, sun-beaten soundscapes and long, meandering passages evokes the image of a frontier land, a lawless place where blood and gold are equally abundant. That alone makes this the music of its own mythology.
The way the album opens would almost suggest a stoner record, but then galloping pace hits full speed and you know this is something else. Yet, even the slow, atmospheric parts of ‘Animal Crown’ hold that mirage-like quality in the way the sound just shimmers into a whole. It takes the edge of the blistering tremolo riffs and feisty drum work in other parts of the song. Vocals are roared, in a bellowing, desolate form. This works just as well with the doomy ‘On Horseback They Carried Thunder’, which carries its own distinct mood of darkening skies in the desert. Barren, yet full of venom and threat.
That feeling of desolation is best conveyed on ‘The Crows Ahead The Warcry’. A slow, trudging track in parts, but when that melody line picks up its pace, you want to gaze at the sky, raise your arms and scream defiance. What a majestic showing, yet sticking right in that atmosphere with at thick nod to the might of the Nordic black metal gods. The sound shifts to something more ethereal and dreamy on ‘The Dreaming Plane’, which I suppose the title already gives away.
Yet the true brilliance of Wayfarer radiates on ‘A Nation of Immigrants’, with its acoustic play, distant, murmured vocals and folky string-picking. The thudding drums set that western vibe as well, taking you right to that frontline, where life is hard and rough. That’s the story Wayfarer tells us, which they do with a particular shine!

Underground Sounds: Yob – Our Raw Heart

Label: Relapse
Band: Yob
Origin: USA

Listening to Yob has given many people a special experience and the wait for a new album was long. The trio from Oregon has a solid string of releases in the noughties, had a hick-up before their ‘Clearing the Path to Ascend’ masterpiece in 2014 and after that things dried up for a bit.

Of course, there are always many reasons for a drought in releases, but in this case, the health of singer Mike Scheidt definitely played a part. At least, judging by interviews like this one. We are lucky that one of the most beloved bands in the doom genre has now returned with a fine slab of doom to sink your teeth into. This is ‘Our Raw Heart’, probably to be heard at Roadburn soon again.

Yob doesn’t use cold or eerie sounds, but massive riffing that claws to the heavens in a struggle of despair and grief it seems. Yet these always feel veiled and just the turmoil under the surface. The vocals are capturing an instantly take you into the mind-swirl that is ‘Our Raw Heart’. The music often relies on the heavy pummeling, though never chooses to be sharp and directly expressive. There’s a pensive nature to the music that is undeniable, with that transcendental, meditative quality to it.  An album that sets you to thinking and reflecting.

The absolute highlight is the gentle ‘Beauty in Falling Leaves’, where it’s for large parts just guitar and the wavering vocals of Scheidt. Even when the song swells to its full, climactic sound, it remains an easy flow, with a warm and calming sound. The gruff vocals carry with them a passion that is undeniable. The almost 17-minute epic is a testament to the singular genius, that is Yob. Of course, afterwards some more heavy pummeling is delivered with ‘Original Face’, which relies on the heavy drumming and bass, while the vocals sound more like Amebix‘ Rob Miller. Yet, something in the sound harks to the calm and soothing nature of Earth. Particularly, there at the very end with the title track and it’s languid riffing. Mountainous, rugged but completely flattened out and easy to traverse. A record that meets all expectations, with a final ascending into the clouds, leaving us mortals wondering what it is we’re doing.

 

 

Underground Sounds: Runeshard – Dreaming Spire

Label: Independent
Band: Runeshard
Origin: Hungary

Do you like your dragons? And your dungeons? Or are you a big fan of Rhapsody and their type? Then you probably want to give Runeshard a spin. This Hungarian group plays dreamy metal, with a bit of power and some symphonic black to make up a grand sound on this all too brief EP.

The project is a solo endeavor by Bálint Kemény, who has also been active in bands like Numénor, Astor, and Niburta. Playing the guitars and keys, he sets you up for something grandiose and boisterous that reminds me mildly of Bal-Sagoth.

It’s that layered sound, the density of the riffs and the interplay between the vocals and booming spoken word that make that link most tangible on ‘Dreaming Spire’. The vocals are actually offered by Alethiuz, who offers both gruff sounds and narrations. The bombastic sound never ceases to rise during the tunes and only intermittent parts of fantasy music break the tension.

That path is followed forward on ‘Crimson Gates’, which has lyrics that see the hero pronounce his determined position and posture. Notable in the key passages is that here and there they receive a slick guitar solo companionship, giving them even more dynamic effect. The epic, jagged pace on ‘Atlantean Sword’ makes me think of bands like Turisas too, as we already reach the end of this brief taste of magic, offered by Runeshard.

Underground Sounds: Vėlių Namai – Kúrir

Label: Self-released
Artist: Vėlių Namai
Origin: Lithuania

I’ve shared music by Vėlių Namai before, for the reason that it is exceptionally beautiful, harrowing and evocative at the same time. This time Julius Mité is delving in a different piece of earth, namely that of Kurland or Kurzeme. Though parts of this are lost in history, this is believed to be the realm in the west of modern-day Latvia, currently also called by the same name, and western Lithuania.

With ‘Kúrir’, a sound is being delved into. Moving away from the ambient vibes of previous records, this feels much more like entering the catacombs of history with more synth-based sounds, stronger beats and a different level of intensity and forcefulness, but that’s never a bad thing, is it?

Instantly, you recognize the almost dungeon synth-y vibe to the sound. Though not falling into the dusty tomb cliché, we do experience that claustrophobic experience on ‘Sussrúmnir’. It swells up at some point with a clearly traditional element, which is a persistent thing in the music of  Vėlių Namai. This is different though, it takes you really to a human place in history with the deep drones and easy passage of the sounds.

This record feels more like story telling as well, it really takes you through somewhere, instead of letting you simmer in a mystical atmosphere. On both fronts Vėlių Namai performs great, but for me tracks like ‘1042’ and ‘Sventovit’ speak to the innovation in a more concrete way. Granted, I’ve been to Lithuania and Latvia and have seen these lands and meditated on their past and for that, this recor is the perfect soundtrack in all its warm, overwhelming glory.

 

Dungeons, Wilds and Ancient Past: A journey

Daily life can be quite a drag and I vividly recall the sense of otherworldliness that hit me when I played these oldschool RPG video games as a kid. Something about their sound just got to me, because it took you to that ‘other place’. It’s not much different with modern games, though my last efforts where with World of Warcraft and, repeatedly, Skyrim.

The rise in popularity of styles like ambient, film music, dungeon synth and such suggests I am not the only one and that is a good thing. People need a little bit of magic in their lives don’t they? The imaginative experience of playing a game of Dungeons & Dragons, playing a video game where you are the warrior-hero, or perhaps make some music. I come across a lot of this and sometimes it’s really good, sometimes it’s not. Let me take you down that forgotten path for a bit.

Blót Heathen – Migrations

Origin: Italy 
Label: Dark Coalition Records

Orlando Li Mandri and Leonardo Sorrentino are probably not of full-blooded Viking descent, but it inspires them enough to let them create ‘Migrations’. The idea is to catch the migrations of old when the people were in an uproar and moving away from where they had their homes and origins. This seems ancient history, but it emulates something very in the present. We are still not granted homes and food shortage and political upheaval forces us to move onwards. The music emulates that movement with drones and sounds that resemble animals, packed and trodding down the road. Tribal vocals sound on some tracks, where forgotten instruments resound and horns blare in the distance. It captures our continuously in-transit state, whether we let our minds wander or are actually on the run, which people still are.

The Gamelan of the Walking Warriors – Gamelan Beleganjur and the Music of the Ngaben Funerary Ritual in Bali

Origin: Italy
Label: Akuphone

This is a recording-collection, gathered by Vincenzo Della Ratta, PhD in Ethnomusicology from the Sapienza University (Rome). As a specialist of the gongs music from the Austronesian cultures of Southeast Asia. It captures the listener instantly with the magic of gamelan music. The rattled, drumming sound is hypnotic and in that sense seems to emulate the journey onto death nicely, as I easily drift away to this sound that follows a completely own path. The Balinese music is repetitive, dense, but mostly simple and taking the listener away towards other realms. The thudding drums are incessant, but the metallic gamelan sounds are simply ever present and rattling onwards. You almost have to move to it, shake and rock gently on this journey to the beyond. Wow…

Kink Gong – Tibetan Buddhism Trip

Origin: France
Label: Akuphone

The eerie chatter awakes me from my haze of gamelan music, but i’m entering a much more dense trip with this recording by Kink Gong. Laurent Jeanneau, the man behind this project, has recorded over 160 albums. He has plenty of material to work with and by manipulating and cut-pasting the mantra chanting with various effects, the word trip is definitely the most fitting for this aural experience. Its repetition is even more intense than the gamelan as the pieces continue and I find myself immersed in its incessant chatter and otherworldly nature. I imagine mountains and the high-places where these cultures dwell and were recorded, in Tibet (free Tibet!) and China. Finding calm in the flow, reaching deep within the self. ‘Tibetan Buddhism Trip’ is a beautiful distillation of the ancient Buddhist culture.

Gargoylium – Chroniques de la Citadelle

Origin: France
Label: Self-released

But what if we move over and under into the world of phantasy and imagination? This we do with the tunes of Gargoylium, a one man project that creates black metal and dungeon synth of the highest quality with a medieval vibe. Ever walked through a castle in that strange, top-view setting like in Zelda? This is the soundtrack of my dreams after playing these for hours upon hours. ‘Chroniques de la Ditadelle’ captures the grandeur of ancient castles, perhaps even from the viewpoint of a Gargoyle sitting high above, rigidly gazing out over the adjacent domains. Pleasant notes, with a mild reverberation for the spacious, stone halls of the old buildings take you from the high peaks to the dungeons. Particularly ‘Le Tombeau des Valeureux, Repos des Preux’ embodies the sonorous, underground tranquility one could find in the abondoned vaults of these ancient castles. Yet, there’s always a sense of might and glory. It even features the neighing of horses on ‘Gloire aux Trépassés, Par le Destrier de La Mort Menés!’. For a moment it breaks that wall of the strange, unreal world I’m in, connecting it to reality, but it fades rapidly with the bells in the great towers chiming and the sun touching the great, granite walls.

Earthencloak – Commune of the Gnomes

Origin: United States
Label: Self-released

I’ve grown up with the books, illustrated by Rien Poortvliet, at hand. Of course, I also watched David the Gnome at times, but I found it mildly cheesy at a very young age. The drawings of Poortvliet though, they captured me with the horrendous trolls and dark, grimy nature. The same seems to go for the Yawning Druid, who is behind Earthencloak. On ‘Commune of the Gnomes’, he captures the fascinating world under leaves and branches of the mythical Nisse from Scandinavian mythology. The dulcimer hammers on, creating that sound of tiny feet pattering over the branches. Songs like ‘The Trolls are Near’ convey the fear of my younger years, where ‘Conical Caps’ has that funny playfulness to it. The record also contains a cover, namely ‘Land of Elves and Gnomes’, by Acheulean Forests. There’s something profoundly soothing and peaceful to a lot of this album. Something uncomplicated and pleasant, that I find hard to catch in my daily life.

 

 

Underground Sounds: Mistwalker – Terra Nova

Label: Viridian Records
Band: Mistwalker
Origin: Canada

Isolation has always been a great source of music. And this definitely captures that. Mistwalker is one of the many projects from Greg Sweetapple. The  Canadian region of Newfoundland is one of the main inspiration for this record, which is the second full length by Sweetapple under this moniker, titled ‘Terra Nova’. A reference to the history of his region.

In total, he has released 8 full-length records, most on the regional collective label Viridian records. Musically, this project has been greatly inspired by the remote region of origin. That in itself makes this an interesting creative outlet to listen to!

The music of Mistwalker has a versatility with one binding factor, which is the melancholic overtones in the sound. In the introducing Juniper Lament’, I find similarities with the meandering, depressive pop songs of the ’90’s lo-fi scene, where the second track goes to a different place. ‘Terra Nova’ has a blistering guitar sound, metallic and cold, like the northern sea. From this point on, the sound reminds me of Glittertind in their primitive early days. A sense of the grand, captured in the clean vocals, and powerful arches. The guttural vocal part is particularly grim and venomous, leaning to the Bathory sound.

With a song like ‘Bloody Bay Massacre’, Mistwalker demonstrates the uncanny daring to touch upon topics, obscured by history. The doomy song tells of the Beothuk people, native to Newfoundland, who have been extinct for almost two centuries now. A song that is as a witness of a people, no longer able to accuse. It’s just one example of the local influences that fill the album and define its sound.
At times, the music is truly gritty and sounds like the unpleasant climate you might face in the realms like Newfoundland. A grey sound, with a feeling of desolate remoteness. All that is well captured in the sound of Mistwalker.

Underground Sounds: Cân Bardd – Nature Stays Silent

Label: Northern Silence Productions
Band: Cân Bardd
Origin: Switzerland

Nature is never really silent, but sometimes you find yourself in a spot where only the silent humming, gentle trickling of water and wind is what reaches you. That is where Cân Bardd takes you on their very first full length, which has a cover that kind of gives away something of what you can expect.

The Geneva natives have been at it for 2 years. The band consists of two members, namely Dylan Watson and Malo Civelli, who both share membership of the band Kaatarakt. That means the folky, traditional themes in their music are not really coming out of nowhere, but a more subtle take is definitely there on this recording.

A medieval, folky intro starts the record, including the ambient sounds required. Slightly dungeon synthy keys enrich the sound and create an extra layer of grandeur. The launch into the atmospheric sound is black metal with a lot of space. The sound is like a valley with a lot of open air for it to breathe in between on ‘My Ancestors’. The folk music never really leaves and even more, it takes the forefront on ‘An Evolving Painting’ with a strings effect.

Though the black metal parts of songs can sound dense and heavy, there’s always an element of condensed force to it. The sound never gets the full space of the spectrum, so folky passages and soothing synths are always at the edges. For example, check the song ‘Océan’, which harrowing cries and silent intermezzo’s, but also the waxing of the waves and burly drums of war. On ‘A Gift of Nature’, we leave the album in smooth tones, pleasant and warm.

A remarkable record by Cân Bardd, hard to really pin down as a black metal record but captivating nonetheless. Enjoyable to day the least!