Quicksand at Mohawk, Austin, TX, 10/21/2021

So, I went to a big show a few months ago and now I’ve made it to my first club show since everything went to shit. Being back in the sweaty, dark and dirty Mohawk was kind of weird at first, but I’ll admit, it was nice being back in downtown Austin seeing live music. There were days when I didn’t think this was ever going to be a thing again. Credit to the Mohawk folks for checking vaccine status/negative test results and keeping the capacity for the crowd down. Things didn’t feel as shoulder-to-shoulder as this place can sometimes get.

So, first club show back was New York’s sort of post-hardcore band Quicksand. I’ll admit that I completely missed the first iteration of these guys in the 90s, but I’ve been a really big fan of their post-reunion output. 2017’s Interiors was one of the pleasant surprises of that year for me. Even though they record as a three-piece, they brought out Cave-In/Mutoid Man’s Stephen Brodsky as an additional guitar player. They pulled off a really tight set with songs sprinkled from throughout their pre and post-breakup periods. All-in-all, this was a pretty cool little show to start back on the club show horse. Even though, it really seems like a bad idea to start up mosh pits. Smashing and sweating all over each other is still just a poor decision.

Ex Deo-The Thirteen Years of Nero

It seems like there was a joke going around a few years back that had the basic gist of “everything I know about history I learned from Steve Harris”. You’re reading a heavy metal blog so I’m assuming you get the joke, but if not, Steve Harris of Iron Maiden writes a shitload of songs centered on historical events. Ex Deo feels like a chop off the block of Mr. Harris.

Ex Deo is Maurizio Iacono’s (vocalist of Kataklysm) Roman Empire obsessed side project. In theory, I really dig this project. It’s an obvious passion project for Iacono and it feels like he puts as much effort into it as he does with his main gig. However, in practice, I’ve been quite critical in that, despite the differences in subject matter, it’s sometimes very difficult to tell where Kataklysm ends and Ex Deo begins. Musically, they are extremely similar in their very He-Man approach to death metal. Plus, a good chunk of Ex Deo’s lineup is composed of other members of Kataklysm. It’s really not much of a shocker that the two projects kind of blend into one another.

The latest album may be my favorite of the Ex Deo releases up to this point. The main reason being that this one stands further afield from Kataklysm than the other Ex Deo albums do. There are more orchestrations and use of traditional world instruments are this album that give it a bit more of an authentic feel than their past albums.

3.5 flip flops out of 5

Insomnium-Argent Moon

Yet another pandemic resultant EP release. Seems like so many bands used their forced time off the road to write a few songs and we are now seeing a bunch of these songs being released in EP form. Insomnium has released this gracefully melancholy four song mini-album as their response to the pandemic shut down. It’s been one of the better direct responses to the uncertainty felt by many of us during this time.

Musically, this is pretty much straightforward Insomnium fare. It’s beautifully lush melodic Scandinavian death metal. They are continuing to incorporate more and more clean vocals into the proceedings.

I think the best summary of these songs comes from band leader Nille Sevanen in the liner notes. “In the spring of 2020 the world shut down. Everything was cancelled. Everyone was forced to stay home. Every fragile morning was full of uncertainty, fear and anxiety. As a band, we soon realized that we need to keep working. We need to keep writing music if we want to get through these strange times. And somehow the mood and atmosphere of those months were channeled into an idea of making an EP of ballads. Four songs, four videos. Something a bit different. Something we had not done before. These dreary tales and songs may seem desolate, but they really have the opposite purpose: to bring hope. For music, art and stories will carry us towards the new dawn.” I don’t get inspired by much, but this passage hit home with me. Listen to these songs and see if they don’t inspire you as well.

4 flip flops out of 5

Carcass-Torn Arteries

Finally. Feels like we should have already had this album in our grubby little hands for a year at this point. This was was in the can last year, but was put on hold due to the pandemic. Instead, they put out the Despicable EP as a tide-me-over until the proper album could be released.

It’s been quite a wait for them to follow up the stellar comeback album, Surgical Steel. This latest release doesn’t have quite the ferocity of the prior release, but it is right there in terms of quality. Feels more like a mid-tempo thrasher on this one rather than the all-out blitzkrieg of Surgical. Subject matter is the technical surgery-flavored splatter-fest you’ve come to expect out of these dudes. Song titles again are among the best in the business (Eleanor Rigor Mortis, Flesh Ripping Sonic Torment Limited, Kelly’s Meat Emporium, Wake Up and Smell the Carcass). Bill Steer still remains one of the unsung guitar heroes in metal. He just manages to come up with creative riff after creative riff.

And how’s that for a different sort of album cover. It’s not everyday we get a sculpture for an album cover; let alone one made up of veggies. Rest assured, by the time you make it to the end of the liner notes, the veggie heart has decayed into a putrid, blackened mess.

This is just a classic thrashy death metal album. One designed to be played loud and to definitely annoy the neighbors.

4 flip flops out of 5

Hooded Menace-The Tritonus Bell

I always hate it when bands slip under my radar. Hooded Menance is one such band. It looks like these guys have been plugging along since 2008 and have produced a number of albums in that time. It is only now with this latest release that I have had the pleasure of filling my earholes with their wonderful mix of NWOBHM/thrash inflected death metal.

Seriously, this album simply feels like coming home. It feels familiar in all the good ways. The riffs are just classics. The leads are warm and friendly. Damn. I really don’t know what else to really say about this one except that this is how I like my death metal done. It’s not grinding to the point of aggravation. It’s not obsessed with the grotesque. It’s just a classic metal album that tells some tales of the darker corners of the world and mind.

I guess I’m going to have to go back and explore the back catalog. These guys are keepers.

4 flip flops out of 5

Wormwood-Arkivet

Pure white cover outside. Bleak ruins of mankind inside.

Yeah, right up my alley.

This is another of those albums which took a long time for me to actually get my hands on a physical copy. This one came out in August of this year and I’m just now in a spot to review it. Not sure if this is a problem in the supply chain due to the pandemic or what. At any rate, it’s here and I managed to score a signed copy of the album as a neat little bonus.

On to the musics. Arkivet is the follow up to 2019’s Nattarvet. Musically, the band is humming right along with a melodic black metal sound with some influences of a pagan/folk nature in places. My only complaint regarding the album might be the production value and the sheer lack of any bottom end to the sound. The production just gives the album a slight tinny sound. The general gist of this album is about mankind’s impact on the world and the damaging influences we have raged on our planet. From self-inflicted environmental and pandemic related catastrophes, Wormwood do not shy away from castigating mankind as a whole and ultimately lands on the premise that we are pretty much getting what we deserve. As said earlier, for me, this album is preaching to the choir. Album closer, The Gentle Touch of Humanity, is a perfect indictment of us all.

Not exactly a heart-warmer, this one. But, in times like this, maybe it’s important to have art that is courageous enough to look at the bleak underbelly of our existence. Hell, it might just help wake some people up.

4 flip flops out of 5

Panopticon-…And Again Into the Light

This one has been a long time coming. Originally released back in May, I am just now getting my hands on a physical copy of this album. There was an initial run of LPs released that were completely gobbled up during pre-sale and I was only able to get my hands on a copy after the record company found a few additional copies from the initial pressing. I guess that’s a sign that your cult level band has an extremely rabid fan base.

After the expansive and ambitious double album, The Scars of Man…, this latest release feels more like a traditional black metal album. The last release showcased a separate album of bluegrass, acoustic and country inspired songs along with one centered on a more black metal focus. This new album only has one full song in the bluegrass vein in the title cut which opens the album and one acoustic interlude about midway through the album. Austin Lunn again handles all instruments and vocals on the album with the exception of the violin and cello parts. It feels like this album is centered on the struggle with mental health and the ongoing deterioration of the natural world. Even though some of the songs are simply brutal (Rope Burn Exit and Moth Eaten Soul, for example), it feels like the message contained herein is more one of hope than of despair. The liner notes from Lunn recount going through personal struggles and that this album is the result of attempting to navigate through some rough waters.

In all, I feel like this is a solid addition to the Panopticon catalog, but not one of the strongest attempts. I miss having more of an interplay between both the black metal and bluegrass/country elements. However, I can understand the decision to pull back a bit and return to basics after the ambitious Scars of Man double album.

3.5 flip flops out of 5

Iron Maiden-Senjutsu

Senjutsu (Black Vinyl)

Look at that magnificent bastard. Fucking Snaggletooth Samurai Eddie is the thing that I never knew that I needed in my life. And now that he’s here, I’m completely in love.

The new Iron Maiden album is here! The new Iron Maiden album is here! (You’ll have to picture me dancing around like a raving lunatic)

OK, look, this is my favorite band of all time. I have Eddie tattooed on my left calf and I’ve seen them live more times than I can count. But let me dispel you of any notion that I’m going to take it easy on my dudes. Quite the contrary. I hold these guys to a very high standard. They’re the band that truly turned me into a metalhead and I expect them to deliver even if they are in their sixties and 17 studio albums in at this point.

So, let’s get to it. Starting with the artwork. Eddie is always a key component to every Maiden release and I think they just knocked it out of the park. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen Eddie wielding a samurai sword (see Maiden Japan), but this is the first time he’s sporting the full samurai regalia. And those teeth!! Goddamn, that’s just a tasty addition to his trademark sneer. They’ve kind of stuck with the Eddie on a stark black background on the front cover as they did with Book of Souls. I kind of wish there was a bit more of a background, but the inner gatefold photo of Eddie basking in his glory of battle in front of a temple brings the goods as far as detail. Also, inside the packaging you get multiple shots of the new Eddie in various poses. All in all, Maiden is just the best when it comes to packaging and presentation. Top notch job.

So, how are the songs? Man, I wish I could say that this one lives up to the promise of the artwork. Overall, it’s kind a a retread. The performances are all top notch, as to be expected, but the songwriting just doesn’t feel all that inspired. There are quite a few songs and riffs on here that feel like they have been stripped straight from previous Maiden songs. Also, this is a very mid-tempo Maiden album from start to finish. There’s no Aces High or Trooper-style ripper on here. None of these songs just come charging out of the gate and grab you by the throat like some of those early albums. Maybe its the age setting in, but hell, I would have even taken a Be Quick or Be Dead on this thing just to get the blood pumping a bit.

As with a lot of the more recent Maiden albums, there are a lot of really long songs on here and most of them start out with a clean guitar/Harris bass intro/prelude thing. Hell, it seems like they’ve been hitting this song structure hard since the Blaze Bayley days. I don’t know if it was written into a contract when Dickenson and Smith came back that Harris gets to fuck around with some bass line intro shit at least five times an album or what, but it is really starting to feel like they need a producer with the balls to step in and say “Enough.” There is just a decent amount of fat on some of the longer songs that really needs to be trimmed. And I say this as a fan of long songs! However, if you’re going to have a 12 minutes opus, you’ve got to make sure that every part of it serves a purpose. The Time Machine, Darkest Hour, Death of the Celts, The Parchment and Lost in a Lost World all suffer this malaise. The title cut is a nice bit of majesty and a grand way to start the album. Stratego is a nice cut for a single. It has a trademark bouncy Harris galloping bass line and a nice catchy chorus from Bruce. Lead single, Writing on the Wall was an interesting choice. I can’t quite nail down what sort of influence this one came from, but in a weird way, it kind of reminds me in places of Kvelertak when they are at their most folksy. I have no idea if the dudes in Maiden are listening to Kvelertak, but it would be kind of cool if they did. This has to be the most unique song on the album or at least the one that strays farthest from the formula. Lost in a Lost World kind of sounds like a retread of something like Sign of the Cross. Days of Future Past is a nice little Smith/Dickinson composition. It’s one of the short songs on here and I think this one really works because it is just tight in its delivery and it has a really cool Smith riff that doesn’t feel like something we’ve heard before. Starting with The Time Machine at the end of Disc One, the album kind of just grinds to a halt. All of the remainder of the songs kind of fall into the pattern of the modern Maiden formula as described above. Slow clean start, some Harris piddling and then crescendo into a mid-tempo gallop. Darkest Hour came about because I’m guessing Bruce went to the movies and was impressed with Gary Oldman. Death of the Celts is basically The Clansman, Part II. The Parchment feels kind of like it features a watered down version of the riff from To Tame a Land. I would really like them to play this one live, however, just to hear Bruce introduce it with something ridiculous like, “And now! It’s time! To write! On! The PAAAARRRRCCCCHHHMEEENNNTTTT!” Album closer, Hell on Earth, is in the same formula as the preceding songs, but for some reason this one works better than the others. It’s probably the best of the bunch of long songs. The opening clean guitar part is truly goosebump inducing.

All in all, this one is a bit of a disappointment. Any other band I may have given a bit more of a pass to, but as stated before, the bar is very fucking high for Maiden. If we’re looking at the post-2000 Maiden, when Dickinson and Smith rejoined the band, I’d probably end up slotting this one down with Dance of Death as my least favorite modern Maiden album. I’d probably end up giving this one a bit of a leg up on Dance simply because of the artwork.

A very lukewarm 3.5 flip flops out of 5

Sprit Adrift-Forge Your Future

Brought to you by the letter “F”, Spirit Adrift has dropped this little EP as a “everyone-is-stuck-at-home-and-can’t-tour” in-between meal snack. Nate and his homies must have been Morbid Angel fans to keep rolling with this alphabet album title thing they’ve got going.

So, you’ve got three songs to tide you over until the next proper Spirit Adrift release. I’ve got to say that at least two of the songs on here, the title cut and album closer, Invisible Enemy, are better than anything on their last release, Enlightened in Eternity. They both have that classic unapologetic 80s metal-up-your-ass riffage. The middle song of the bunch, Wake Up, just doesn’t quite measure up to the other two songs on here. Kind of feels like something one of the also-ran NWOBHM bands like Tokyo Blade or Tygers of Pan Tang would have put out.

Not a bad little release overall. However, much like most EPs, it just leaves me wanting a bit more.

3.5 flip flops out of 5

Wolves in the Throne Room-Primordial Arcana

I hope you got your pelt cloaks washed. You want to look your pagan best for the dropping of a new Wolves in the Throne Room album.

Yep, with the dissolution of Agalloch, it feels like the Wolves are the band to carry the mantle for the Pacific Northwest vein of black metal. These guys bring a bit more mysticism and embracing of nature than some of their Norwegian brethren. This latest release feels a bit like a centering album for the band and an almost stripped down rendering of their sound. It feels like this album brings an equal level of brutal and ambiance in presenting their embrace of the primitive. Although it doesn’t possess the ambition of some their earliest work, this is still a very solid selection of songs.

3.5 flip flops out of 5