Thursday, August 15, 2013

Album Review: Darkane - The Sinister Supremacy

Darkane - The Sinister Supremacy
(2013 Prosthetic)

There are few things in this world that I look forward to as much as a new Darkane album.  Several years ago, when I was becoming bored with music as both a listener and a musician, a friend loaned me a copy of Darkane's then-new debut, Rusted Angel . . . and changed my life forever.  That may sound like the words of a fanboy, but if so, it's the honest truth.  Rusted Angel was far too good to be a rookie release, and yet it was the breath of fresh metal air that I needed.  Even though I listened first for the guitar riffs as I so often do, I couldn't help but notice the schizophrenic vocals of one Lawrence Mackrory, shifting from death growls to black metal rasp to semi-clean thrashy parts.  I was reminded of Chuck Billy's diverse work on Testament's Low, which is one of my favorite albums.  Combined with the awe-inspiring musicianship Darkane offered, Rusted Angel not only became a quick addition to that list of favorites, but also ended up at the very top, where it still resides.

Then I found out that Lawrence had left the band, having been more of a temp in lieu of a permanent vocalist (actually preceded briefly by Speed Strid of Soilwork) and that touring duties and the next album would be handled by Andreas Sydow.  The rest of the lineup remained intact, but the following Insanity didn't really click for me, not only because of the change in vocal style (more of a typical "barked" thrash style) but also what I think of as a more Meshuggah-influenced direction that lacked the melodic guitar work present on the debut.  With each album that followed, more of the elements I liked most returned to the Darkane equation, but it wasn't until Demonic Art - with yet another new vocalist, Jens Broman, out in front - that I really put my fanboy uniform back on.  Having seen the band on tour twice at that point, first with Andreas and then Jens, I was really, genuinely excited for what the next album would bring . . . and then Jens left the band.  I figured that would be enough to kill Darkane or lead to a lengthy delay before a new album would be recorded, but a familiar name reappeared: Lawrence Mackrory.  The Rusted Angel lineup was back together, this time for The Sinster Supremacy.

I intentionally waited a month to write this review, to make sure I was listening to the new album with "fresh ears" instead of as an ecstatic fan finally getting what he wanted.  I spun the CD repeatedly, usually mixed in with other new releases (Hypocrisy, Amon Amarth, etc.) to compare production quality, an area where Darkane has sometimes lagged.  Try as I might, I have not found anything not to like about The Sinister Supremacy.  For all the emphasis I have placed on vocals to this point in the review, it is still the melodic intricacies presented by guitarists Christofer Malmström and Klas Ideberg that speak most to me as a musician, especially the violin-like sustained tones that are a signature of Darkane albums.  Peter Wildoer, who those unfamiliar with Darkane may know of through his part in Dream Theater's drummer search, likewise makes it abundantly clear that he is one metal's best, and criminally unknown for being a man of such talent.  The drums tend to ride pretty high in the mix in Darkane recordings, but the sonic balance on The Sinister Supremacy is spot-on.  It's only Jörgen Löfberg's bass that seems a bit understated, although I think this is due to his part in the evolution of Darkane's overall sound rather than issues with the mix.

The songwriting seems to be more in line with that of Demonic Art than previous albums, with less chug-chug riffing and more melody, but don't take this to mean that The Sinister Supremacy isn't heavy.  Rather, it's the subtle elements in the dual-guitar approach that peak out from shadowy corners to surprise you, not the every-note-harmonized formula of certain other Swedish bands that has grown predictable.  Wildoer's complex usage of cymbals is far more impressive than a double-kick barrage (of which there are plenty, never fear!) and his role in the writing process has never been more obvious.  And lest I forget the vocals that I spent so much time writing about earlier, Lawrence Mackrory proves that his diversity is everything it was 14+ years ago.  There is more emphasis on clean vocals than on prior albums (comparable overall to Demonic Art) and virtually no black metal shrieks, but this is not quite as commonplace as with a band like Soilwork or In Flames.  With a bit more growling and vocal range, I'd go so far as to compare the vocals to Scar Symmetry, but the thrash vibe is far more apparent in Mackrory's case.

Does the "reunited" lineup surpass their original effort with The Sinister Supremacy?  Close, but not quite.  I say that only because, for all their talent, the superb musicians in Darkane have not - and possibly cannot - create something that is as fresh and unique as Rusted Angel was back in 1999.  Fortunately, this is only because of the sheer amount of excellent metal music that has come between then and now, and not because the band is in any way diminished.  Stylistically, it's "melodic technical thrash" rather than "melodic death metal" or another standard subgenre, which makes it hard to describe to a first-time listener.  The writing, performance and production are all fantastic, and it's only because of Rusted Angel's perfection that I consider The Sinister Supremacy to be Darkane's second-best release and thus rated 4.5 out of 5.  If you want something that's aggressive but not heavy-handed, technical without taking a prog approach, and melodic without being "pretty" then this is an album you need to hear.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Gear Review: ESP LTD AW-7 Alex Wade Signature Guitar

Maybe it's a sign of the times - or of my "advancing" years - that there just doesn't seem to be as much new gear to be excited about as there used to be.  Another possibility is that the span between when a new product is announced (at NAMM, for example) and actually becomes available for purchase has either a real or perceived tendency to grow.  When I launched this blog, the Carvin V30M was high on my list of products to review, because I was buying one based on specs, which is pretty much the only option for someone wanting a brand new Carvin product.  I pre-ordered one as soon as Carvin's NAMM announcement was made, and the wait was maddening.  When the amp finally arrived, I didn't have time to really put it through its paces for months, so it was no longer new to the marketplace.

LTD AW-7 Alex Wade Signature Guitar in Blood Red Sunburt finish.

Well, this review isn't for a Carvin amp, but rather for the LTD AW-7 Alex Wade Signature guitar from ESP Guitars.  For those of you who aren't familiar with it, the AW-7 was announced at Winter NAMM last year, but didn't start hitting dealer shelves until well after Summer NAMM.  (I know that Alex Wade is in the band Whitechapel, but honestly wouldn't know a Whitechapel song if I heard one.  Alex posts from time to time over on the forums, so I was familiar with him that way . . . from back when I had spare time in which to visit guitar forums.)  I got to try one out at a local dealer as soon as it arrived, as I kindly asked them to call me the moment they got hold of one, but had only a few minutes to fondle it.  When I came back later to buy it, someone else had beat me to it.  As luck would have it, the shop was able to "hijack" another AW-7 from their dealer rep before it shipped to another store, so I may have bought the last unspoken-for one in the distribution pipeline at the time.  That was last fall.  I didn't actually get around to playing it until shortly before Christmas, and just recorded with it for the first time a couple weeks ago.  Finally, a proper test, and the AW-7 did not disappoint . . . but more about that later.  I review what I buy, and the specs are all the incentive I needed.  Read on!

Over the years, I have grown to prefer the 25.5" scale length over all others.  I don't get along with shorter or longer scales, even if they might offer certain benefits at different tunings.  My other guitars are ALL 25.5" and I had no intention of changing a working formula this time around.  The scale length, "thin U" neck profile (ESP's description) and extra-jumbo frets put this closer to Jackson territory than the flatter profile of an Ibanez or rounder, thicker Schecter.  This is a major factor for me, since most of my guitars are Jacksons.  The bridge is of the string-thru fixed variety that recalls the Fender Telecaster (or hardtail Strat) rather than the more prevalent Tune-O-Matic, which is another selling point for me.  Third, I was very impressed by the six-string version of the DiMarzio D-Activator pickups I purchased for another guitar a year or two back, and was eager to hear what they could do with a low B in the mix.  I definitely wanted a mahogany body (as with my other sevens) for warmth, combined with a maple neck and ebony board for a little "snap" that some wood combinations can't achieve.  The locking tuners, ESP-branded but suspiciously similar to Grovers, are a nice touch and hold tune exceptionally well.  Aesthetics are a consideration for any guitar bound to show up onstage eventually, and the so-called "Blood Red Sunburst" finish has the dark appearance so many metal guitarists like, while still managing to look classy.  The pickguard won't be to everyone's liking, but this is the only guitar I own with a pickguard, and I was glad to have it.  Also, for those who are tired of pointy headstocks, the AW-7 has the headstock that for many years was only offered on the Ron Wood signature model.  Probably not a lot of crossover appeal there, but I dig it. 

Although I have played the AW-7 through everything from the aforementioned Carvin V30M to a little Crate practice amp, I recently started tracking rhythm parts for an upcoming project through a Fractal Audio Axe-Fx II processor.  I'd already done some rhythms with an Ibanez RG7321 equipped with a DiMarzio Blaze Custom bridge pickup, and the tone wasn't drastically different, although I did find that the D-Activator bridge pickup responded a little more consistently to my playing, albeit in rather hard-to-explain ways.  The two guitars have a number of common characteristics - bridge type, body and neck woods, scale length and fret size - so it was an easy transition.  However, the AW-7 stayed in tune much better over the course of the session.  Is it worth the extra money?  Well, even if the quality of common materials were identical and the Indonesian construction of the Ibanez was on par with the Korean build of the LTD (which it wasn't, although not THAT far off) the inclusion of better pickups and locking tuners quickly account for the greater expense of the LTD.  The finish looks amazing, even if the flamed maple is a thin veneer rather than a true maple cap as found on much more expensive guitars.  Tonally, it absolutely buries the no-name stock pickups of many guitars, and I'm glad that ESP and/or Alex Wade saw fit to skip active pickups and go with the D-Activators.  Everyone has different tastes, but I personally am 100% happy.

The specs of the AW-7 may not appeal to those guitarists with a very precise set of requirements, and it's only offered in one configuration with one finish, which means no Floyd Rose or EMG or 27" neck option.  However, if this single offering covers your needs, you'll be hard pressed to find a better seven-string guitar without spending well over $1000.  If it'd shipped with a hard case or gig bag, that would have been nice, but after a few months, that's the only complaint I can come up with.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Album Review: Nile - At the Gate of Sethu

Nile - At the Gate of Sethu
(2012 Nuclear Blast)

There are few events in the death metal community that generate as much buzz, scrutiny and discussion as new releases from veteran bands.  In an era when terms like "technical" and "progressive" mean such different things to different people, such descriptions lose a bit of significance when trying to put into words what an album really sounds like.  Nile is indeed a technical band, and a career-spanning love affair with exotic instruments, haunting chants and schizophrenic arrangements is as musically progressive as you'll find.  As such, it's unfair to review such a release without giving it several start-to-finish listens, which is both a challenge and a pleasure if you're a Nile fan.  That said, At the Gate of Sethu may leave more than a few listeners wondering what has become of their favorite purveyors of Egyptian-themed metal.

From the opening notes of "Enduring the Eternal Molestation of Flame" comes the uneasy feeling that something is different.  Several somethings, actually.  The guitar tone is less layered, a bit less crushing to put it in proper Nile-worthy terms.  The drums sound more natural, more like being in a room with George Kollias than listening to the triggered assault you would expect through a polished studio effort or heavy-handed concert mix.  And as is abundantly clear on "The Fiends Who Come To Steal The Magick Of The Deceased" that immediately follows, Nile is plotting a new course in terms of extreme metal vocals.  If the preceding Those Whom the Gods Detest hinted at vocal diversity, then Sethu reveals Nile's true intentions.  In addition to co-guitarists Dallas Toler-Wade and Karl Sanders sharing vocal duties as in the past, former member Jon Vesano contributes at numerous points throughout the album.  The use of gutteral growls is somewhat diminished (although still very much present) and more of a spoken/yelled "ranting" style pops up here and there.  While in truth this isn't by any means overdone or out of balance with the more traditional vocals, some listeners will inevitably raise their eyebrows and wonder if this element is to their liking.  It took a few spins for me to become comfortable with it, as well as the changes in guitar and drum production.

What musicians will appreciate in all this is more clarity and transparency, making it easier to pick out who is doing what.  The bass guitar (alternately played by Karl and Dallas from song to song) is better-represented than on any Nile release I can think of, and the guitars and drums don't get muddy.  The downside of this is that, compared to not only previous Nile albums but also other modern death metal releases, there is a certain first impression of a "thin" production.  However, as I mentioned earlier, one listen is not enough to appreciate what is offered here.  There is certainly no lack of epic moments, and while the song structures are what one would expect from Nile after so many years of increasing expertise, perhaps the most important quality here is an oft-understated ability to weave catchy, memorable progressions into the musical chaos.  Of particular note is "Supreme Humanism Of Megalomania" for its surprisingly straightforward battering ram of riffage, which becomes immediately familiar as soon as you hear it a second time.  Some bands try so hard to shatter songwriting convention that their arrangements become a chore to listen to, but Nile can deliver lasting impact whether through a sandstorm of blast beats and churning guitar solos or in a relentless war-march.

Once the changes in production and delivery sink in, there are still a few eyebrow-raising moments, especially if you purchase the version of Sethu containing two bonus instrumental tracks at the end.  As opposed to some of the "interlude" pieces scattered here and there (as is typical of a Nile album) it seems to me that the bonus songs needed only vocals to place them among the pantheon of Nile's finest material.  Furthermore, ending the album with two instrumentals seems an odd choice, although certainly not unique to Nile since this is a common practice.  I'm not complaining, but it just strikes me as strange.

If you are a longtime Nile fan and recognize their evolution from one album to the next, At the Gate of Sethu could very well become your favorite amongst the catacombs catalog.  If, on the other hand, you are 100% insistent that "your" bands don't change formula, you may find yourself at a bit of a loss.  This is still Nile, and perhaps the best Nile has sounded in years if not ever, but it might not be until their next album is unleashed that it will be decided if this is a defining moment or just flirtation with stylistic changes that eventually fall by the wayside.  To my ears, this sounds like a transitional release of sorts, and while it surely stands on its own as a brilliant example of Nile's genius, I still find myself ranking it behind their past few albums at 3.5 out of 5. 

Gear Review: V3M 3 Channel 50W Micro Guitar Amplifier Head

Life has a way of interfering with important things like trying new gear and blogging sometimes, and worse yet is when it gets in the way of reviewing a product that you've actually had in your hands for a long time.  Upon launching Extreme Metal Musician, my first intended gear review was going to be that of Carvin's then-new V3M "micro" tube head.  Well, that clearly didn't happen, and EMM has been gathering dust for several months.  But I don't feel right about reviewing anything I haven't spent significant time using, and the truth is that I hadn't put the V3M through its paces . . . until now.  Having rehearsed and gigged with it recently, I feel that the time has come.  If you're considering the V3M yourself, read on!

Carvin V3M Micro Amp Head (shown with optional rack kit) - as shown on

The first, perhaps most important detail to consider about the Carvin V3M is that it is very much its own beast, not simply a downsized version of the original V3.  Furthermore, it is not a copy of another, better-known "classic" amplifier.  The concept of a compact guitar amp head is not new, but the V3M ushered in a new era of full-featured tube heads in such a format.  By using EL84 tubes, Carvin was able to offer a full 50 watts of power (which can be lowered to 7- and 22-watt modes via a switch) and three channels without sacrificing functionality.  As is typical of Carvin, they make you purchase a footswitch separately, either the stripped-down FS22 or the V3M-specific FS44L-V3M.  Spending $44 on a footswitch is a bit of an annoyance when you're already paying $600 for the amplifier, but Carvin is hardly the first company to charge for a footswitch.
FS44L-V3M Footswitch

It's worth the expense, however, as you can activate the clean channel, switch between the two distortion channels, and engage the boost and reverb from the footswitch.  If you're like me and like a little `verb on solos, you'll be pleased with the V3M's digital reverb, and it's feasible to hit the boost and reverb switches simultaneously for a proper solo boost.

So, how about those distortion channels?  Does the V3M have what it takes to deliver extreme metal tones?  Yes, it definitely does, and Carvin did something that more amp manufacturers should do, which is to voice both distortion channels the same.  There are few things more irritating than dialing in a great rhythm tone but finding that you can't get an equally great lead tone on an amp's second distortion channel, or vice versa.  Each channel on the V3M has its own EQ, plus an EQX (EQ expander) toggle and voicing toggle on each, which recalls solid state amps (like my beloved Peavey XXL) that offered extensive versatility.  All of these are accessible from the front panel, and allow for an absurdly wide range of clean and distorted tones.  The 12AX7-driven distortion is fully capable of death metal, and the EQing flexibility is very impressive.  That said, the V3M does not sound like [insert favorite high-gain amp name here] and shouldn't be dialed in the same way; it doesn't have Marshall JCM roar or Peavey 5150 grind, but that shouldn't be expected. 

I spent quite a bit of time tweaking the EQ settings in practice, made some pretty drastic changes during soundcheck at my latest gig, and have found a sort of "happy medium" since then.  This amp is much more speaker-intensive than any other I've played as far as EQ settings are concerned, and with so many different options, it's easy to go overboard.  Drastic EQ changes are reflected in the amount of hiss the V3M generates as well, as I had virtually no noise with a mid-scooped tone but starting getting some squeal as I started boosting the midrange for a punchier soloing tone.  For that reason, I strong suggest dialing in the distortion channels exactly the same, finding a suitable tone and leaving it that way on one channel, and then making adjustments on the other channel.  Once you're really happy with your settings, match them up again.  For me, this means having one distortion channel for six-string guitars and one for sevens, but it could just as easily be a subtle variation for rhythm/lead switching.

OK, so the V3M can do the "death metal thing" quite well, and has a better clean channel than any metal-friendly amp has any right to, but the truth of the matter is that tone is admittedly secondary for most people that first take notice of this amp.  It's the size that generates the most interest in the micro-amp niche, and Carvin has made the most of a very compact footprint.  The V3M is lightweight and can easily be carried in one hand, sitting securely atop small 1x12 or vertical 2x12 slant cabs with room to spare.  There are unfortunately some risks associated with this, namely in a gigging environment, specifically pertaining to the front controls.  Unlike the switches and knobs on most full-sized amps, the controls on the V3M are not recessed.  They are invariably in harm's way if you're moving around in close quarters, and snapping off knobs is definitely going to ruin your day.  My advice?  Buy the V3MRP rack ears (shown above) and a 4U rack case of whatever depth you prefer.  I went with a simple SKB shallow effects rack case and couldn't be happier.  That sets the front panel safely back and adds a line of defense to the V3M's solid but cramped chassis.

At the end of the day (or end of the set, anyway) the V3M can hold its own alongside veteran metal amps.  My experience has been that purchasing just the amp itself isn't sufficient for a gigging musician - the FS44L footswitch and V3MRP rack kit (and a case) are absolutely essential - but with $100 of extras, it is capable of the versatility that many larger amps don't deliver.  There is no compromising on features, but rather so many that finding the desired tones might take some guitarists longer than they're accustomed to. 

The Carvin V3M could very well be your ideal gigging amp, or one more tool in a diverse recording arsenal.  It has very few limitations when judged by its own merits rather than measured against amps with "classic" tones from years gone by. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

Passive Pickups in an Active World: DiMarzio D Activator vs. Seymour Duncan TB-15 Alternative 8

Over the past few years, name-brand pickups have become a staple of the mid-level guitars that previously warranted inclusion of only the "light" versions of premium pickups: EMG-HZ, Duncan Designed, and so on.  Some guitar manufacturers flirted with combinations of passive pickups and active gain boosters, but genuine active pickups weren't really typical standard equipment until fairly recently.  EMGs in particular are generally recognized as the go-to active pickups of the extreme metal world, but it's no longer unusual to see entry-level guitars equipped with OEM active pickups.  Meanwhile, not everyone cares for active pickups, so it's just as likely that a person will replace active pickups with passive as the other way around.  I have a couple of guitars with EMGs, but I still prefer the responsiveness of passive pickups any day.  Of course, that's not to say that I don't appreciate the balanced frequency ranges that active pickups are known for, so when I went looking for a different "flavor" of passive pickups, I decided to try something new: Seymour Duncan's Alternative 8 and DiMarzio's D Activator.

The D Activator (street price $60+ per pickup; also available in a neck/bridge pair) is touted as a passive pickup meant to preserve the balanced response of actives without getting "squished" by heavy pick attack or sounding sterile, both being common complaints about active pickups.  I installed the neck/bridge D Activator set in a Jackson Dinky (alder body, maple neck and fretboard, licensed Floyd Rose trem) as a replacement for the stock Duncan JB/Jazz set and played it at band practice through a Peavey XXL head, which is what I typically gig with.  (I usually stick with the bridge pickup for gigs, so although the neck pickups did get some wonderful clean and overdriven tones, that's not an area I'll focus on here.)  This particular guitar sounded "good enough" before, but the JB is notorious for a weird midrange spike and muddy low end, which is definitely not a good choice for playing death metal through a high-gain amp.  Playing on the bridge pickup, the D Activator was immediately smoother through the mids, and the low end was significantly tighter.  DiMarzio pickups have always sounded (to me) especially well suited to a very "vocal" lead tone that is dependent on pick attack, an area where I've never cared for the sound of active pickups.  I was concerned that DiMarzio might abandon that particular trait in favor of a more "flat" type of response, but the D Activator maintains the signature DiMarzio voice without any frequency scoops or spikes.

Next up is the Seymour Duncan Alternative 8 (street price $80+) that is promoted as a high-output pickup that retains picking dynamics without getting too bright or too dark, due in part to Duncan's first attempt at using an alnico 8 magnet.  Although it's not pushed as a replacement for active pickups (Duncan is trying to sell their Blackout and Live Wire actives, after all,) it'd be impossible not to read between the lines in this case.  This time, I was replacing the stock SD Screamin' Demon in another Jackson Dinky (ash body, maple neck, ebony fretboard, licensed trem) that was grossly inadequate for metal.  I'm a big fan of Seymour Duncan's Full Shred and Invader humbuckers in ash guitars, and according to Duncan's website, the Alternative 8 falls somewhere in the middle, sort of overlapping the frequency ranges of two vastly different pickups that both happen to work great in a metal context.  I hit the ground running with the Alternative 8, trying it out at practice and then playing a gig with it ASAP.  The tight low end and high end clarity of the Full Shred are definitely present, as is the fatter midrange of the Invader.  The output is higher than either (and WAY beyond that of the stock Screamin' Demon) although it doesn't have the distinct midrange punch that the Invader is known for.  Dynamic without weird scoops or spikes?  Sounds familiar.

So, which is better, and is either of the passive pickups reviewed better than a comparable active pickup?  That's ultimately a matter of preference, and perhaps bias.  I have to admit to being a bit of a Duncan fanboy, so effectively combining two of my favorite Duncan pickups into one is hard to resist.  On the other hand, I've always liked the way DiMarzio pickups react to the subtle nuances of my playing, and simply hadn't tried one that was appropriate for the full range of techniques involved in death metal.  Both the Alternative 8 and D Activator are more to my liking than any active pickup I've played.  I do feel that the D Activator would be the better choice for someone looking to get the benefits of an active pickup in a passive equivalent without abandoning the whole "tone is in the fingers" mantra.  As for the Alternative 8, I would give it the nod in a situation where high output is required but harsh or muddy tone absolutely cannot be tolerated.

Album Review: Krisiun - The Great Execution

Krisiun - The Great Execution
(2011 Century Media)

Although there are certain bands of which I am a fan, whose output may not always impress me as much as a "favorite" band should, I find myself more and more drawn to albums that are interesting enough to listen to repeatedly, regardless of whose name is on the cover.  I am not a Krisiun fan, mostly because in my previous (and brief) listens to their earlier material, I just wasn't that interested.  Brutality and speed are both hallmarks of death metal to be sure, and nowhere more apparent than in Krisiun's music, but my tastes always lean more toward creative songwriting first and "extreme" qualities second.  Talented though they certainly are, Krisiun never "clicked" for me in the past, but The Great Execution has changed that, and dramatically so. 

It should be pointed out immediately that diehard Krisiun fans might indeed be a little put off by some elements of The Great Execution.  "Krisiun doesn't do slow songs," said my bandmate Alex, who is indeed a Krisiun fan and who encouraged me to buy the album, "but I like this."  Now, I wouldn't consider anything here slower than what I'd call mid-paced, but it's definitely different from what I remember of Krisiun's prior work.  The songs are more dynamic, which in turn allows some of the truly memorable guitar and drum performances to be better appreciated than in a constant top-speed assault.  Acoustic guitar passages are scattered throughout and expertly integrated, and Max Colesne's flawless use of toms at every called-for opportunity contributes to an epic feel that blast beats and double-kick alone can't adequately convey.

One of the characteristics of Krisiun that I find unique is how they achieve a convincing live-sounding mix that isn't beyond the realm of belief for a three-piece band.  Sure, there are plenty of places where separate lead/rhythm guitar tracks are used, but none of these songs would sound wrong performed live by a trio.  The bass gets a little too quiet in a few places, but generally the mix is full and balanced without any one instrument overpowering the others.  Alex Camargo possesses one of those voices that combines the right blend of growling and clean vocals to sound suitably pissed off, and like the instruments is right where he should be in the mix.  If you want to hear what everyone in the band is doing all the time, this is the album for you.

A few of the songs probably could be pared down slightly due to some repetition (the album is roughly an hour long) but there aren't any duds.  Overall, my take on The Great Execution is that it's still very much a death metal album by a veteran band that could appeal to new listeners and hopefully not alienate existing fans.  It has put Krisiun back on my radar, and I feel that it deserves a perfect 5 out of 5.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Album Review: Abysmal Dawn - Leveling the Plane of Existence

Abysmal Dawn - Leveling the Plane of Existence 
(2011 Relapse Records)

As cold weather and falling leaves are making abundantly clear, winter and a new year aren't far off, and even though I've never been one to have a "Best of" list in mind each year, it occurs to me that there are some releases that just shouldn't go forgotten.  After seeing them play a bar gig a few years ago, I became an instant Abysmal Dawn fan.  I bought their first album, From Ashes, on the spot.  The follow-up, Programmed to Consume, somehow escaped my notice for a while, but I remedied that ASAP, and was better prepared when Leveling the Plane of Existence was released in early 2011.  

In a landscape cluttered with bands trying to be more brutal, more technical or just more of the same, Abysmal Dawn is a band that stands on its own without needing to be propped up by gimmicks.  Naturally, it's impossible to listen to a death metal album without hearing the undeniable influences of the genre's originators, but Abysmal Dawn brings a lot to the table with Leveling the Plane of Existence.  There are abundant hooks and subtle melodies scattered throughout the album, but these don't sound forced the way that they do when some death metal bands attempt to utilize them.  The prime example is "The Sleeper Awakens," which despite being the closing track, sums up the entire Abysmal Dawn catalog.  It's death metal with some clean guitars and distinct melodies, but it's not polished beyond all aggression like so many formerly cutting-edge bands' recent works.  "Rapture Renowned" is another standout track, perhaps because it recalls the band's earliest output, while "In Service of Time" and "Perpetual Dormancy" showcase what Abysmal Dawn is about in its current incarnation.  The title track serves as a further reminder, however, that this is indeed a death metal band with the chops to hang with veterans who've been at this for a lot longer.

As a guitarist with a stated interest in guitar tone, the authentic pummeling of the rhythm guitars appeals to me as much through my car stereo or computer speakers as out in front of the stage, and precision isn't sacrificed to achieve brutality.  Meanwhile, jackhammer drumming and incredibly locked-in bass integrate with the guitars without distracting, and the tightness during the more technical parts is something that modern metal songwriters should pay attention to.  There is a tendency among many bands (especially younger bands with many, many hours logged watching YouTube guitar tutorials) to throw every single technique and tempo change into every single song instead of having a solid structure in place, and then relying on studio editing to make it work.  It simply doesn't sound believable to anyone who has spent any time playing in a band.  I'm not one to advocate mimicking bands, but having seen Abysmal Dawn live a few times now (and ticket in-hand for their next visit!) I point to them as "doing it right" on their recorded material.  Their frontman, Charles Elliot, delivers studio-quality riffing *and* some of the most brutal-yet-intelligible death metal growls onstage, not compromising one to excel at the other.  Their performances have only grown tighter with each album.

But there has to be a catch, right?  There is, and it's the production, or the guitar tones to be more accurate.  It's not bad - I love the overall atmosphere - but something doesn't sit quite right with me.  From Ashes sounded pretty raw, but there were a lot of black metal elements included that really evoked a Scandinavian vibe (let's say Dissection as a point of reference).  Programmed to Consume displayed a better production but far more emphasis on death metal.  Leveling the Plane of Existence basically goes all-out into death metal, as heavy as anything you could want in a top-tier label release.  The solos remain as focused as ever instead of drifting into the high-speed wanking or schizophrenic nonsense that many bands tend to dish out when the lead guitarist starts getting bored.  The issue is that as delightfully organic as the guitars sound, there are certain passages that get rough and somewhat muddy, or at least indistinct, especially some of the more intricate parts.  Perhaps it's a necessary evil, that technically proficient bands need a slightly slicker production - or in this case, a somewhat more refined guitar tone - to better convey certain aspects of their music.  That's really a double-edged sword in Abysmal Dawn's case, because there were a few moments when I found myself hoping that the next song or riff would be cut more from the raw-edged From Ashes cloth, meaning a blackened influence.  I wouldn't want to hear them sounding heavily processed and polished like so many other bands, but the very live-sounding guitars seem one or two EQ notches from sludge.

I almost hate to mention those non-issues as negatives, but the death metal genre is at a familiar crossroads, where there seems to be a resurgence of appreciation for the old-school brutal death metal and a love affair with all things technical ("progressive" perhaps?) in terms of both the playing style and the equipment involved.  Forced to choose, I'll side with Abysmal Dawn's more traditional death metal approach this time around, but I do think that a slightly more clear-cut production would convince some tech-metal fans who may be on the fence.  Regardless, the music is excellent, and I rate it 4.5 out of 5.