Grim Gauntlet March: Day Two (2019)

Kull – Exile (2019) – Emerging from the remains of the once great Bal-Sagoth, we have Kull. Folks, I was surprised that pretty much all of my affiliates in the rock and metal industry had never heard of Bal-Sagoth before, almost driving me to a point of slight depression. Such a majestic and noble act as Bal-Sagoth, with a full hexology (only partially completed in some aspects, but I will let that slide) and a massive multiverse of worlds and characters had simply gone unheard by many people and I just couldn’t figure out why.I used to jam Bal-Sagoth on my way to work every morning, their CD’s were a mainstay before the days of MP3 and cellphone playlists.

After a fifteen year (The Cthonic Chronicles released in ’06) absence, the guys are finally at it again, but with a new frontman in tow that I think people will prefer a bit more to Lord Byron’s rasps. He was never really the greatest harsh vocalist, but with a narration voice like that, it’s perfectly fine. If you haven’t, definitely listen to a few songs from Bal-Sagoth just so you can hear what it was like. I recommend “Atlantis Ascendant” or the Starfire Burning Upon The Ice-Veiled Throne Of Ultima Thule album. Also, there was an album based partly on Marvel’s Silver Surfer, The Power Cosmic. We might be missing a key role in The Infinity Gauntlet saga with Marvel’s Avengers Infinity War and Endgame, but you can think about what might have been with this album. The very reason I’m suggesting these albums to you is apparently because no one has heard of these guys in my industry. Or at least, it seems that way. That being said, let’s get to the album.

According to my press release, this was to be the seventh Bal-Sagoth record, but as Lord Byron has left I would imagine that lyrical topics may have changed a bit with his departure. That being said, the album rises into majestic landscapes with opener “Imperial Dawn” as the band’s new frontman Tarkan J. Alp tries his hand at some narration elements with the thundering “Set Nakt Heh.” Though I feel that these may be a bit thrown to the background, there’s definitely an effort put there to at least emulate what Lord Byron was known for in this band. However, Alp has something that Lord Byron hasn’t offered this band since their very debut and that’s death metal growls. Bringing back this long-buried element to the band will definitely stir up feelings of nostalgia for those who only loved the first disc, A Black Moon Broods Over Lemuria (and I used to hear that from people all the time several years ago, you know – back when some people still knew of the band, but I guess those people got sucked into the black hole that we just discovered).

Alp is a tremendous vocalist in terms of extremity, so I think that fans who may have found Byron’s harsh work a bit gimmicky in later eras of the band will feel right at home with this incarnation. “Vow Of The Exiled” features backing synths, playful guitar nodes and ferocious death metal vocals all working together with a punishing drum performance to deliver a performance that I found both pummeling and majestic. However, I found the recording to be a bit low in the mix, which no amount of volume raising could help. I’m not quite sure why the disc was recorded at such a low volume, which definitely takes some of the punch out of the synths. Additionally, I find that the vocal end seems to be overpowering in some sections, like with “Hordes Rise” for example. It can be very difficult to hear the synths over the drumming (and they need to be raised throughout the whole mix, to be honest) and I’m still wondering why they’re thrown so far to the background. I hated when Sigh did this and I cannot believe that I’m living in a world where I have to say that the mighty Bal-Sa…I mean, Kull is committing the same capital offense. I love the heaviness of it all, but I just want to hear those synths a bit more. I was listening to Atlantis Ascendant a few days ago and you just can’t help but not hear those synths, which makes it so damn memorable in my opinion. God forbid, there are some fantastic synth parts here too – they’re just not at the level they need to be. My volume is at seventy right now, there’s no reason why I should be struggling to hear and discern pieces on this album. Which is another problem – everything sounds completely mashed together. It isn’t that the band are showing signs of wear, it’s that whoever mixed this album needs to never touch a mixing board or a mixing program for the rest of their life. Why aren’t these synths blasting my ears out right now? Why are the vocals so damn loud? Only the guitars are at a decent level, which can only be said when the drums aren’t pounding. Did they think they were mixing death metal or something? Because this isn’t just some ordinary death metal band, this is mother fucking Bal… I mean, Kull. I gave this disc one good listen, but I just don’t think I can get through a second one. Something’s just off and it’s irking me to no end. I repeat, there is nothing wrong with the composition, it’s the mix. What did they use to mix this album? Who mixed it? You had one job.

There’s another issue I have. The narration portions (like at the very beginning of “Lucifer’s Crown”) can sometimes be lower than everything else, even though they are very important. I think all of the narration and non-harsh vocal portions should have been recorded on separate tracks and raised high in the mix. This is the story after all. Then we have the harsh vocals themselves, which aren’t actually necessary to begin with as the whole record could illustrate a story with not one harsh moment uttered and we know that from some of the pieces on Battle Magic. Remember that one? Though as the harsh vocals are raised so high in the mix here (or perhaps because the synths aren’t loud enough) we’re getting drowned out soundscape, which a lot of fans directly came for. Why would you drown out the majesty? That’s what this act is all about and why they do what no other band on earth has been able to do. They’ve always told some of the best musical stories, regardless of what Byron was muttering on about in the background.

In my opinion having mixed albums before, I think that Alp is at a five and needs to be at about a three. Just because there are death metal portions (some sections of “Of Stone and Tears”) doesn’t mean that we drown out the atmosphere, which you can barely hear in the background right now folks and I just don’t think I can finish this because it’s really upsetting me. Granted, there are some chunkier parts here; but if I can’t hear the most important part of this band, they’ll just sound like everyone else. Though maybe that’s the nostalgia of youth talking. There is also a section at the beginning of “Aeolian Supremacy” that clearly shows Alp running out of steam. I can tell, because I’ve been there before. When you start sounding more like Hulk Hogan and less like a demon, it’s time to take a break and get a bottled water or something. Then you wait a few minutes and give it another go. I’ve deleted whole fucking tracks because I thought I sounded like shit on them and there’s still shit that I don’t like on some of our albums and will refuse to listen to.

Ah, here it is – at about four minutes and twenty-five seconds into “Aeolian Supremacy”, the best part of the album for me comes into play. It’s those triumphant synths that remind me a little of Frog’s theme from Chrono Trigger. Triumphant synths with pounding bass in the background that actually accentuates the performance because the synths are so loud in the mix and we get a sense of volume, rather than greatness being drowned out. There’s also a slight nod to “Hatheg-Kla” at the end of this one. Not bad. Sure, there’s another song here called “Of Setting Suns and Rising Moons” but it’s not that great and the album should have ended with “Aeolian Supremacy.”

All in all, I feel that Kull’s Exile is decent enough for fans of Bal-Sagoth, Fleshgod Apocalyse and SepticFlesh, but I’m just not as pleased with this one as I was with any previous Bal-Sagoth offering. Again, it’s not the musicianship, nor the composition that I found to be lacking – it’s the mix. Maybe they’ll do a special mix in the way that Sigh did a special mix for some of their albums specifically tailored to Japanese ears (note: the difference is that the guitar melodies and synths were pushed way up to the front and I’ve always preferred that). Until then, I’ll just have to deal with Exile the way it stands and judge that accordingly.

(11 Tracks, 57:00)

7/10

1013 – Result Of An Iron Age (2019) – A weird little dose of experimental black metal, 1013 definitely caught my attention and that’s not because there’s a copy of the album sitting on my desk either. “Oathblade” features a little bit of everything right from the start, whether that be creepy chimes of death, twisted circus music, harmonica and even some familiar tremolo riffs. There’s a spoken word portion in it as well. “The Worst In Me” switches gears as blast beats and icy riffs seem to duet between softer atmospheric portions and frightening soundscapes. This kind of album might even cause psychosis after repeated listens. “Misanthrophic Delerium” sounds at first like a bit of twisted grunge, for some odd reason I heard the opening riffs of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” as the style changed to introduce one of few featured harsh vocal efforts. This is the kind of album where I often didn’t know what the vocalist was singing about, nor did I think there was any singing to be had on the disc. Rather there’s a fair bit of spoken word vocal sections that seem to cover that part, as the main focus of the album seems to be creating a void. As in literally, creating a void. It’s equally thrilling that there now exists a void in which to reference, as this review was written on the day science discovered an actual black hole. An actual void. A force that is so powerful, it has the ability to stop time itself. We now have proof of the great void and this record is a reflection of that I feel. If there’s one statement I can make with absolute certainty, it is that each track feels as if it is being warped and twisted through some kind of vacuum. With “Deconstructural Integrity” the mood changes to allow for alien theremin and what I’d actually consider to be a dazzling riff in the background. It is a shame that this riff was cut short and replaced with what I’d consider to be a bizarre take on folk music with melodic synths in the background. When we get into “The Black Book Of Death” comes off like an ordinary black metal track, at first – but then the void comes in and there’s so much twisting that the whole thing goes the way of Kentucky and harmonicas soon enter the room, as well as those mutilated grunge riffs I noticed earlier. Maybe there’s a DSBM sense to the vocals, but even with that, the performance is so oblong that I just can’t help but keep listening. This disc is like a car crash that you just can’t stop from rubbernecking, because there is literally no telling as to what kinds of musical landscapes you’ll hear next. The title cut sounds a little bit like disco mixed with weird Mega Man X4 synths. At least at first, there’s a kind of crystalline sense there which reminds me of the satellite stage. However, it feels like a mirror reflecting effect taking over much later which eventually leads back into black metal. “Son Of Monotony” sounds pretty standard-fare for black metal until the very end, where some absolute absurdity comes into the mix. Unfortunately, that small amount of time is the best part. The folks elements are starting to lose their luster now as well, which is why the song title feels sufficient. “Nashiteric” however features some rather interesting horror moments, complete with a woman screaming. It eventually embraces Mega Man X synths and prog, before rolling into dissonant black metal and then over to slight key taps and folk elements that aren’t out of character for a visual novel. Albeit a western visual novel, which can still be pretty good. There’s nothing special about “Beyond The Grip Of Humanity” and I feel like I’ve heard that one already. “A Day Too Late” doesn’t start to get interesting until the very end as “Conduit Closing” offers what feels like the theme for a mystery in a futuristic world. The fact that the keys faded there is probably the worst part of the album, I would have loved to trip the light fantastic a bit more. Damn conduit closed on me. How do I open that back up again?

At the end of the day, 1013 created a record with more ingenuity than eighty percent of bands these days. Especially the more popular, formulaic acts. I realize that this won’t be everyone’s thing, which is why they sent it to me. This kind of music is my forte, which is why my mind is probably shattered from years of neural psychosis gleamed from listening to this kind of music. Oh, well – it can’t be helped. In any case, I definitely recommend the void friendly sounds of 1013’s Result Of An Iron Age, even though I really wish that there was a little bit more in lieu of cybernetic synths utilized here and not just in “Conduit Closing.” Especially considering the fact that there’s a gynoid head on the front cover. Where’s all the robot stuff? Oh well, guess I’ll listen to some more synthwave if I want to hear that.

(11 Tracks, 58:00)

8/10

Puppy – The Goat (2019) – Although we have a pummeling groove-heavy act that switches between metal and alternative rock, I find myself extremely turned off by the frontman. That’s not his fault though, but it’s the same reason why I don’t sing. I can’t deny that his pitch and harmony are there, but he sounds like he’s singing through his nose and that’s a bit of a turn-off for me. Maybe you can somewhat compare him to Tobias of Ghost, but only if he’s having a bout of sinusitis. Even so, there are some rather catchy pieces here that might come off attractive after enough listens and certainly have enough structure to keep me from being bored by a constant cut to the chorus, even if there are definitely a handful of pieces made for strictly radio play. Puppy isn’t terrible from a musical factor and there are definitely far worse bands that you could be listening to, but I don’t necessarily dig their “rush to pop” approach which more or less throws the heaviest moments of this record into literal “happy puppy” territory. I guess if you wanted Ghost to have a bit more groove you’d dig this one, but you’ll have to forgive me if I was looking for something a little darker.

(12 Tracks, 44:00)

7/10

The Clay People – Demon Hero (2018) – I realize that this is a late review, but I definitely wanted to cover it as I’m a big fan of the act and having heard that they were returning back to the direction of their popular self-titled album nearly twenty years ago, I was beyond excited and had every right to be. After several listens I can say that these industrial Nu-Metallers are definitely back at it and better than ever. Folks, I’ve played the opener “Utopian Lie” nearly a hundred times now and just can’t get enough of it. The song not only comes off as a banger, but I can lyrically relate to it and so much so that I had the perfect video idea. It’s similar to the video of thousands of media clips being shown on a screen, with the camera zooming out to reveal a child; but I wanted it to really make sense in today’s society. I wanted to show how open-ended the internet is, so there would be memes, YouTube videos and even horrifying and graphic imagery. Why? Because it’s out there. The whole time these videos are showing, the guys are playing, but it looks like they’re part of the screen. It’s very hard to describe without actually showing you, but it’ll essentially look like they’re coming through the screen. The last video of course, would be a nuclear explosion. Then as we scroll out, we find that it’s just a normal kid standing around on his phone with his peers. He puts the phone into his pocket and just walks off like none of it even mattered. Why? This shows desensitization to media, which is the big takeaway from the song I think. Despite the massive media overload from all sides of the emotional spectrum, the user is unphased. That sends a pretty powerful message.

That being said, there are still another ten tracks on the disc. Next we have the fiery “Bloodletter” which sounds like it came right out of the nineties Nu-Metal era and should come off as a real blast from the past. This one could have been on the self-titled album, no question. “Now” comes off similar and should leave listeners with the same level of adrenaline as the prior, but I think the bridge section is classic Nu-Metal and really gives me chills. A guitar solo isn’t bad either. There are actually quite a few guitar solos on the disc and they certainly aren’t a detriment to it. “Enemy” reminds me a little of Disturbed’s The Sickness, which came out around the same time as the self-titled Clay People disc. Obviously, Disturbed aren’t playing that kind of music anymore, so it’s good to see these gentlemen picking the style back up and showing the world that industrial tinged Nu-Metal isn’t fucking dead. “GenRX” continues to bring the thunder, yet it also brings along some fancy prog and a couple of cheerleaders. The drumming is rather notable too. The second portion of the song carries a bit of an atmosphere which is completely unexpected and makes the cut a necessary standout. After that we have the more tribal “Illuminatus” which also gels with me being a bit of a conspiracy nut – but not flat earth, Eddie Bravo. I’m still not convinced of that one. I think the song is about Alex Jones, whom I never took stock in to be honest with you. The guy always seemed like a plant and when I found out that his father worked/works for a government branch I found even less of a reason to trust him. Especially considering all the money he has in survival gear. I definitely believe there is information being shared out there that could change certain ideas about the world as I was invited into a server where that kind of stuff was being shared. However, the kind of materials that were being shared in said server were getting to be a bit less conspiratorial and more like information that I would personally have no business looking at, period. So I simply exited the server realizing that curiosity does kill the cat and I don’t have nine lives. The truth might be out there, but I’m not willing to go to those depths to find it. I’ll leave that to braver souls. At any rate, “Illuminatus” is definitely one of the band’s best cuts and certainly makes up for their “Jump Around” cover.

“HexMachine” is another killer cut that comes packed with a killer chorus and another great solo. This one definitely gelled me with me as well, making for several noteworthy numbers right near the end of the disc. The Clay People’s weirdest experiment however comes in the form of “Strange Day” which I abhorred after the first listen, but once I absorbed it a few more times the song really started to sink in and has become one of my personal favorites on the album. Without a doubt, this is one of band’s most mature tracks and does contain a rather crunchy ending that makes the whole thing worth it in the end. “Strange Day” would have actually made a good single, even though it’s not indicative of the record as a whole. “Palegod” is a real thrasher, sounding like it would feel right at home playing during the end credits of a nineties New Line horror film. It’s also classic Clay People. The last cut here was actually a single and my first impression of the new album. That of course was “Colossus” which delivers with its thick grooves and punchy chorus. This is a great way to end an album and I hope there will be more to come, because it has been far too long since we’ve heard music like this. The solos are also well-appreciated. Maybe they weren’t big during the Nu-Metal days, but they fit today. Tacked onto the disc is a cover of Prodigy’s “Firestarter” which is kind of cryptic as their frontman died this year. I wasn’t necessarily ecstatic about this one, but a friend who had listened to the disc on their bandcamp said that he felt this was the best version of “Firestarter” that he’s ever heard.

As far as the production is concerned, the same friend also complained that many portions of the album sounded louder than others and that it felt off. I didn’t have this problem however, so it could be his speaker or headphone settings. The disc sounded perfectly fine when I listened to it from my bluetooth speaker or my Sony earbuds, so you shouldn’t have this problem depending on how you choose to listen to the album. I do realize that this disc came out around the end of last year, but I kept putting it off until I could do it no longer. That’s because The Clay People truly offered what the fans wanted and gave us a disc in the style of their best releases with some necessary progressions that helped the act, rather than hindered it as happens with so many other bands that attempt to update or improve their sound. The added guitar solos and slight bits of prog, not to mention some of the drum acrobatics, definitely helped the flow of this piece from beginning to end. I won’t say that the record is amazing and there are a few songs that left me a bit numb, but I will say that there are more than enough cuts here to warrant a full purchase. If not “Utopian Lie”, then you have “Enemy”, “GenRX”, “Illuminatus”, “HexMachine”, “Strange Day” and “Colossus” with an honorable mention in “Now”. Granted, your views will probably differ on my picks, but to each their own in that regard. If you’re looking for a Nu-Metal throwback with a bit more pizzazz than some other acts are attempting to reconfigure in the modern era, then you are going to find it here. Demon Hero is definitely one of my personal favorite discs of last year and I’ll be playing songs from it for a long time.

(11 Tracks, 42:00)

8/10

The Megas – Skulls EP (2018) – I remember offering these guys an interview that was like a billion questions long and you should never do that in this industry. For that, I humbly apologize as I believe I was geeking out a little after the release of History Repeating. Though not a successor to the former, this recording (released on Halloween) did offer a Mega Man 4 sampler in the form of Skull Man’s theme, “Cracked Skulls.” I must say, I’m quite taken with it, as it seems to be much in the vein of the previous album, albeit with more experimentation in lieu of keyboard synths. The chorus is extremely catchy and definitely caught my ear.

However, the next part of the EP is something completely different. Now, I knew The Megas were trying Goth on for size when a mysterious tape appeared online under the name, The Belmonts. The few cuts offered there were more than enough to please me, with “Burn” being one of the best songs I’ve heard from this group, period. They’ve gone into the deep realms of Goth, merging Depeche Mode with The Smiths and Sisters Of Mercy in a way that feels just natural. Even though this is technically the opening for Super Castlevania IV, it sounds almost nothing like it. To be honest, it sounds better. I won’t lie to you when I say that I’ve probably played this song a few times a week and it still seems to find its way into my playlist. As far as Goth cuts are considered, this my favorite of last year by far. That being said, there are still two more songs here.

“Wicked Child” is of course a piece that I wanted to cover myself years ago in metal, but I’m definitely digging the evil techno synth approach here. The Megas have already surpassed themselves as a VG rock cover band, but with The Belmonts they’ve really matured into something that none of us expected. Without a doubt, The Megas and The Belmonts are two of the best projects going on in video game music right now. The eighties new wave feel can be felt throughout the piece in great detail. It’s a wonderful throwback. Finally, we have “Vampire Killer” which is of course the main Castlevania theme. You would have expected them to save it for a full album, but this is fine. We’re back to a heavy smattering of synthpop, maybe with a slight darkwave feel. This is also the only song on the album where 8-bit chiptune pieces are utilized and it also contains the heaviest guitar moments. It also features Amanda Lepre as a secondary vocalist. Once again, a great eighties feel is had, especially when the whole thing embraces synthwave and features an odd duet between three vocalists. It is very difficult to harmonize that many vocalists, but they’re able to do it and that’s what matters.

To be fair, I didn’t like “Wicked Child” or “Vampire Killer” as much the first few times, despite being in love with “Burn.” Though I’ll admit that they’re both growing on me. Even so, “Burn” is simply outstanding. That one can be played at my funeral as far as I’m concerned. The piece transcends the whole VG cover genre and lights the sky on fire. While I’m not as fond of the other tracks, I certainly didn’t hate them. “Cracked Skulls” shows that these guys are moving in the right direction as far as the Blue Bomber is concerned and the other two Belmonts cuts show a love for Goth, synthwave and dark rock as well as a notable nod to the games that inspired them. I daresay that aside from Mega Man, the Belmonts may have already revealed their best cards.

However, there is one more thing. In December of last year a free song was offered, which is actually a Mega Man X cover for Chill Penguin. Now, this could mean that there’s a Mega Man X album in the works and only The Megas could do that story justice. It’s after all, around the time that Mega Man grew some balls as a franchise and started moving into more adult storylines. The name of that song was “Chill X-Mas” as it was holiday themed, though the song lyrics could be easily tweaked later and I noticed sections that may have been changed to align with the Holiday spirit. I have a feeling that they’re already working on a story for Mega Man X and this one was just a simple rewrite for Christmas. Does that mean we’re getting another double album, this time with separate discs for both Mega Man 4 and Mega Man X? It’s very possible. The guys have been working on a lot of material over the past number of years, so I might very well be right about this. If it’s true, it’ll be awesome. But then we have The Belmonts, which is a completely different project. So if a debut album from The Belmonts comes out later, then that would be equally awesome. I’m just speculating though. All in all, this EP is quite amazing from a band that everyone but the media are talking about, but I digress. The Grim Tower highly recommends The Megas’ Skulls EP.

(4 Tracks, 21:00)

9/10

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