Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Today's history subject: Phlegethon

In Greek mythology, Phlegethon is one of the five rivers in the underworld. Yeah, the ones ruled by Hades, with the burning flames and stuff. The other four are called Styx, Lethe, Cocytus and Acheron (other Metal bands as well). It is said that Styx was in love with Phlegethon, but she was consumed by its flames and also sent to the underworld and Hades.

That was the Greek History lesson. Now let’s get to the cool story, the one about Finnish Death Metal.

Phlegethon is one of the first and most respected Finnish Death Metal bands. And if you have no idea was Finnish Death Metal is, just remember that it’s pretty similar to its Swedish cousin, but it sounds a little darker and it evolved into something slower and pretty much doom-like.
Phlegethon was formed and recorded some demos in the late 80s, before releasing their only official production, an EP called Fresco Lungs in 1991. But the band disappeared shortly after that release; according to leader Lasse Pyykkö; because they’d lost their inspiration. They reformed briefly in the early 2000s and recorded a few new demos that inspired Lasse Pyykkö to form other bands. And so Phlegethon was put on hold again…
The good news is that two years ago, Xtreem Records released Drifting In The Crypt a double CD compilation that features just about everything Phlegethon ever recorded. Just like the Spanish label did with Funebre’s Children Of The Scorn a few years ago. Label boss Dave Rotten (!!) really is a Death Metal maniac, you have to thank the man for these awesome releases.

Funebre's Children Of The Scorn: The other Finnish Death Metal classic

I’m not going into the details of “what sounds like what” and about “why this demo sounds cooler than this one” simply because in this CD’s booklet, you’ll find a fantastic interview of Lasse Pyykkö conducted by one of Death Metal’s finest specialists, Oliver “Zoltar” Badin. They’ll tell you everything you need to know about Phlegethon and about each one of the recordings.

Phlegethon's complete discography on this 2CD compilation out on Xtreem Records

Briefly though, note that CD1 contains the 1989 & '90 demos, and that they sound pretty much like all of the early European Death Metal demos: harsh, raw, very clumsy and very Slayer-like. They also have that insane and freaky atmosphere that made this period so special. Nothing really outstanding here, just another pioneer Death Metal band, with a taste for twisted riffs and weird song names (“Encapsulation Of The Ark Of The Covenant”). This latter song is probably their best song ever by the way; almost 10 minutes of insane thrash/death Metal riffing and a bunch of cool melodies.
Promo 95 on Disc 1 is a joke. Somehow in the 90s, some bands thought that mixing rock and Death sounded cool. They called it “Death Rock” and some bands actually released well-known records. Remember Carcasss horrible Swansong? Or Blackstars’s self-titled?

Strange song names and also strange artworks...

CD2 is a little bit more interesting as it contains the famous Fresco Lungs EP, which pretty much sounds like the demos, but with everything being much better. Obviously better sound, but also better musicianship. Some old songs were re-recorded, like the fantastic “Ornaments” or the aforementioned “Encapsulation Of The Ark Of The Covenant” (still didn’t get that name!). You also get to listen to 2 bonus songs released back then, very doomy and Sabbath-like “Stone Me” and the weird techno-shitty one “Without Tea Waters”.
But things really get interesting with the 2006, '07 & '08 demos. With all the old-school Death Metal revival that went on, Phlegethon reunited and recorded a couple of new songs that show that they still ruled, and that their cult status isn’t an accident. The awesome riffs are still here and so are the twisted melodies. Really outstanding Death/Thrash Metal.

It’s a shame the band didn’t reform long enough to actually release some official new material. However, this experience was exiting enough to restart Lasse Pyykkö’s inspiration. This guy is a Death and Doom metal maniac and he soon started recording with an incredible amount of bands. Check out Metal Archives if you want the exact count, I’m just going to mention 2 of them: Claws (Death Metal) and the infamous Hooded Menace, my personal favorite, probably one of the best Extreme Doom Metal acts around. But that my friends, is a whole other story…

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Are heavy metal fans GOOD hard rock fans?

Seriously, do you know any exclusive hard rock fan? I mean someone that specifically likes hard rock. Not a classic rock/pop fan that sometimes listens to “louder” bands, or a heavy metal headbanger that likes AC/DC.

The thing is, a lot of hard rock bands are thrown into the big “METAL” category, they find themselves signed on metal labels, they are treated in metal magazines and they sometimes even share the stage with metal or even extreme metal bands. For some, it’s a good opportunity. Sahg have toured with Enslaved. They share some band members and they know that their bigger possibilities in terms of sales and touring lie within the metal sphere. Plus their music isn’t exactly hard rock, it’s very doomy, 70s and Black Sabbath-like. Therefore, having Sahg to open for Enslaved does make sense.
Black Stone Cherry are signed on Roadrunner records, that has a tradition of working with hard rock bands, especially in the US where there still is a place on some radio station for such music. Again, makes sense.

Sahg'III is a very good retro/heavy rock record

I love all the Black Stone Cherry albums, but their self-titled debut remains my favorite

But sometimes, hard rock fans and heavy metal fans really don’t get each other. I remember Firebird’s Bill Steer telling me once that there was a big misunderstanding about his band on heavy metal websites. His records were classified as “stoner rock”, and of course “metal guys that like stoner rock” didn’t dig Firebird. No wonder they don’t; Firebird’s got NOTHING to do with stoner rock!
I’d also like to mention Jorn, a Norwegian singer struggling to make a living out of his hard rock band. He’s a passionate guy with a unique voice, a perfect mixture of David Coverdale and Ronnie James Dio. If you don’t know the guy, I suggest you check him out; you won’t be disappointed.

Did you know that Bill Steer is a founding member of Death Metal pioneers Carcass?

But the most dramatic misunderstanding I can think of is THE QUILL. This fantastic Swedish hard rock band released 2 awesome records in the late 90s. And in 2001, they released a pure masterpiece, called VOODOO CARAVAN on SPV-a German Metal label. The reactions to this record really showed the difference between recognized hard rock specialists and “metal fans that like AC/DC”. The latter found the record “cool”, sometimes “heavy” and overall kind of “mellow”. On the other hand, hard rock specialists found the album PERFECT. The vibe, the warmth, the psychedelic elements, the fuzzy guitars, the groovy rhythms and the unbelievable voice of singer Magnus Ekwall...everything on this CD is perfect. By the way, Ekwall’s voice is the X-factor that makes this record one of my all-time favorites. This guys sounds like Chris Cornell meets Dio.

In fact, this record can be your “evaluator”. If you want to know weather your favorite magazine/webzine understands what hard rock is about: go check out their review of Voodoo Caravan. If it’s described as a classic, then trust the guys. If not, then just stick to reading their metal reviews….

VOODOO CARAVAN: your reliable hard rock reviews quality evaluator

Despite the awesome record, The Quill sold very little, they had some nice tours but things clearly didn’t work out the way they should have.
After Voodoo Caravan The Quill released 2 more records (“Hooray! It’s a Deathtrip” and “In Triumph”); that really pleased metal fans and kind of disappointed hard rock fans. The sound became “raw”, “heavy”, “powerful”: everything you need to turn on a metal fan with (basically big riffs with big heavy production). No more fuzz, no more psychedelic guitars, no more warm sound… These records can also be used as “evaluators”, but of course you’ll have to reverse the equation.
Things didn’t work out either with these records and the band more or less disappeared after In Triumph’s release back in 2006.

Just like it's cover artwork suggests: this album is not as warm and psychedelic as Voodoo Caravan

That’s why I was very surprised to see that THE QUILL was back with a new record! The bad news is that awesome singer Magnus Ekwall is gone, but the good news is that the new record (called “Full Circle”, released on Metalville – notice the label name) is good.
New singer Magz Arnar is not as outstanding as he predecessor, but his voice is powerful and perfectly suited to the music. The only problem is that he sometimes pushes it too much, but hey, he seems young and he’s got the potential. 
However, I still feel that the band has taken very few risks as the album turns out very predictable. But as said it’s still pretty good, and don’t forget it’s a comeback record with a new singer; maybe it’s not the ideal timing for experimentation…

The Quill is back with a new singer and a pretty cool new record

I really hope that The Quill will ignore everybody else’s opinion and stick to their guns. They really need to play the music they love, and I believe that we can trust Joe Atlagic (drums) and Christian Carlsson (guitars) in writing some pretty awesome genuine hard rock tunes in the vein of Voodoo Caravan. And screw it if metal fans fans find it too "mellow". 

And to mark my difference with the “Metal fans that like AC/DC”, I’m going to confess that my 2 favorite tracks on that new record are the ballads. “River Of A Moonchild” is a fantastic psychedelic song that reminds me of the Voodoo Caravan era and I love the country feeling and the blues on “No Easy Way Out”.

The conclusion of all this blabla is pretty simple:
1. Heavy metal fans are sometimes pretty lousy hard rock fans.
2. We really live in such horrible times that bands that release an album as awesome as Voodoo Caravan dot not instantly become notorious rock stars. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

SINISTER REALM makes your summer EPIC

There is a new “hype” around old-school heavy metal going on. Every label wants a new rooster inspired by the glorious early heavy and/or evil bands. What’s even more impressive is that the movement started on very specialized forums, the whole thing grew, cool reviews started to bloom all over the web. And now, you got very promising bands, playing Mercyful Fate-like stuff like In Solitude and Portrait signed on Metal Blade! A few months ago, people would laugh at Mercyful Fate fans… That’s probably one of the very first cases where the whole thing completely started on specialized Internet forums.

But let’s give credit to those who’ve always been there, like Shadow Kingdom Records. The label has not only reissued some fantastic records (Manilla Road’s Live After Midnight), it also promoted promising new bands like Argus (now on Cruz Del Sur) and Iron Man (who released their fourth record, I Have Returned, probably one of the best heavy/doom CDs released in a few years).  

And one of the most awesome bands on Shadow Kingdom is without a doubt Sinister Realm, formed by former Pale Divine John Shamus Gaffney and Darin McCloskey (the latter had to leave the band after the very good first record).
Their first record was already a great heavy metal journey with some doomy edges. But the new one, The Crystal Eye is a pure diamond.

Everything on this record makes it sound like a classic. It has the perfect length: 45 minutes. It contains 8 songs, each one of them being memorable with something specific that makes it stand out. You have the strong and powerful opener, a slow and very heavy song, a fast one, the epic killer title track, the melodic song, the power-ballad, the instrumental and the final epic that shows some interesting progressive elements. Absolutely nothing’s missing here!

All of the musicians are on the top of their game, and vocalist Alex Kristof is realy stands out. The man’s got a powerful voice but he also knows how to sing. What I mean is that he’s not like at 110% all over the album screaming his balls out and irritating your ears!

You also have to note the fantastic solos by new guitarist John Risko and of course the superb bass-lines from John Gaffney. His old-school style reminds me of the way Steve Harris stands out in Iron Maiden. Now he’s also the main composer here and he’s not very far away from perfection with tracks like “Signal The Earth” or “Swords Held High”. These songs are truly amazing, as they sound classic but very unique at the same time.

All in all, if you are into heavy metal, this is your album of the year. Therefore, even if the it’s cover is a little bit cheesy and although it’s not edited in one of those huge digipacks with a bonus DVD (where you can look at the band fool around in the studio for an hour and a half) The Crystal Eye deserves your complete attention. Definitely one of my favorites this year!

Make sure you check’em out right here

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


OK, I’m gonna be honest: I never really digged technical death metal. Really, Pestilence, Atheist, Cynic…I never got these bands and they create no emotions whatsoever in my deviant heart. And please don’t mention the AWEFUL brutal/technical death metal bands. How many of you still remember Pessimist???
I know some people who’d sentence me to death for saying that…
Anyways, there are some exceptions though, and they all share the same characteristics (I may be a jerk, but I try to stay logical). In fact, there is ONE simple characteristic: all the bands I like focus on writing SONGS, not just a bunch of crazy rapid riffs with wild and superhuman drumming.

The first band that obviously comes to mind is DEATH. I love Death, one of my all-time favorite bands, Chuck Schuldiner never released anything else than classics, classics and more classics. 
Then one day, I bought Omnivium, Obscura's third record by accident. I found it for a pretty cheap price, and just like when I’m at the supermarket; I never let such an opportunity slip through my hands.

And what a revelation it turned out to be! I love it, from the first to the last note, it’s brilliant. Very technical, sometimes totally insane, but the songs are still the main point here. There are several layers in fact, and you just rediscover the songs at each spin, from the apparently simple melodic death tunes like opener “Septuagint” to the killer instrumental “A Transcendental Serenade” (AWESOME bass lines!). There are also some cool choruses here and there as the band has reached tremendous heights in terms of songwriting.

Now what I love to do when I discover a cool band, is buying their previous records and listening to their whole production methodically.
Cosmogenesis is the band’s second record and it is also fantastic. Some people even consider it to be stronger than Ominivium. I understand them, but I do not agree at all. The thing is Cosmogenesis is more like a usual technical death metal record, the ones that I hate! Don’t get me wrong here, I still love it, but the songwriting here is not as smooth. The songs are impressively technical, totally crazy and sometimes you loose that focus. Still an excellent release though, with fantastic tracks like “Infinite Rotation” and “Noosphere”.  

Now comes Retribution, the recently re-edited first record. And as you might expect from a first record, it sounds raw, a bit naive and it’s not as good as the rest. It also lacks personality and sounds very much like…Death! There you go, now you know why I love that band!

I also need to mention that some sort of cosmic concept links the 3 albums, and they form a trilogy. The artworks are also fantastic, very complex as well and they perfectly fit the concept.  I just love such bands!