Rivers of Nihil – Monarchy Reviewed

Back when the first Rivers of Nihil album released, my readers were pretty split. The enthusiastic ones notified me of its existence and others scoffed at it being vapid metalcore. I never got around to formally reviewing it, but I did like it quite a bit. They managed to achieve a good balance of heavy and brutal elements with melody and technical solos.

I jumped on Monarchy to find out what they’d been up to since their debut. I have to say, I have pretty mixed feelings. Let’s start with the bad. They seem to have caught the chugging fad going around. Maybe this was present on the debut, but I don’t recall it sticking out like this.

Chugging on a single note or chord in various rhythmic patterns doesn’t do it for me. It is a strange phenomenon that so many bands succumb to it. I guess it probably feels impressive to lock in a sufficiently complicated pattern and get it to groove. This may sound interesting to some people. But it ignores too many aspects of music to make for interesting repeated listens. The album doesn’t have a ton of this, but I have to cringe when it happens. It sticks out.

Now for the good. The album has a lot more variety than the first one. They have straight up death metal parts, highly melodic parts, atmospheric parts, different tempos, and these disparate sections flow into each other naturally.

The soloing is as good as ever, and I think these form the highlights for the album. Some solos are slow meanderings around the melodic idea. Others are technical, chromatic, bizarre distortions. I hear the most creative ideas in the solos, and they are sparse enough to be a nice treat. They are placed where they are needed, not in some stock position of every song.

Speaking of which, the songs can feel a bit formulaic. You have fast, chugging rhythms in drums and bass. A held chord fills out the sound, and then some extraneous atmosphere in the upper register like a held single note with a filtered synthetic guitar sound. The song structure usually alternates between staccato forms of the above and a heavier legato form.

I love what they’re doing when they are at their most complex. They can layer a lot of technical and varied ideas in such a tight way that the whole thing still has a relaxed groove to it. This is what they do best. It feels lazy when they settle into the uninteresting chugging parts. It’s almost as if they needed some filler to complete some songs.

Overall, the added atmosphere is welcomed. The tight melodic playing has been stepped up a notch, but the album as a whole has not gone in the right direction. I can only reservedly recommend this. I’ll give it a 7/10.

Here’s a sample:

Goatsnake – Black Age Blues Review

I was excited when I saw reviews for the new Goatsnake come out. A doom/sludge band that plays up the blues influences. Greg Anderson. Album of the month. What more could someone ask for?

I’ll say up front that the first listen was a catastrophe. Blah, blah, blah, necessary disclaimer about not wanting to give negative reviews, but I tend to only listen to one new album a week, so …

I liked almost no aspect of it. Both doom and blues are all about feeling the music. I felt none of it. There were some original riffs, but many of them are tired cliches we’ve been hearing since the 50’s.

I’ve played a bit of blues. I know that it is structurally repetitive, often featuring some 12 bar variant on I, IV, V, I7, and that’s it. It features a head or single riff that gets developed. But traditional blues don’t “feel” repetitive, because the riff really gets developed with a clear forward motion.

I think where this album fails the most is in its repetitiveness. Some songs have a single riff repeated probably 100 times with no development or soloing. They sometimes bring in extra instruments like a harmonica to drive their theme home. These parts are slightly better, but still feel repetitive and tired.

I’ll try to make this point in one other way. The reason the repetitiveness of a blues chart doesn’t feel repetitive is that the performer feels their way around it. This makes it messy. Time gets bent to suit the mood. Goatsnake have some tempo changes, but the overall band plays in a very rigid manner. The play on the beat rather than on the back of the beat.

I know this is going to get misinterpreted. I can hear the complaints already: you can’t say a doom band is bad because they aren’t playing the blues properly. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying they’ve appropriated parts of the blues that are uninteresting without bringing anything along that would make me want to listen to it.

There are some good doom guitar playing moments when they ditch the blues riffs like the breakdown in the song “Black Age Blues” or really the whole song “House of the Moon.” I also really like the heavy guitar tone. I attribute this to Anderson’s experience in the drone scene.

The lyrics are a turnoff. There’s only so many times you can hear “Coffee and whiskey / ‘Til the cows are comin’ home,” before hitting next to skip the track.

Overall, I didn’t enjoy listening to this one bit. I won’t deign this with a number rating to avoid the offense people will take at their beloved band being rated so low by some nobody on the internet.

Here’s a sample:

And here’s a sample of blues music. Note that it is just as repetitive and the riff is just as simple, but the first 30 seconds has more development, time manipulation, soloing, and feeling than the whole album Black Age Blues combined:

Wilderun – Sleep at the Edge of the Earth

A few months ago I did a quick listen through Wilderun’s newest album, because I kept seeing excellent reviews pop up here and there. I had never heard of them, so I didn’t even know what genre to expect. I thought it sounded like pretty standard folk/symphonic/power metal, so I stopped listening to it and never reviewed it.

Last week I was struggling for what to review this week, so I decided to give this another shot. I’m glad I did. This is one of those meticulously constructed albums where every song has its place and is necessary to the whole. I thought the first track was a nice gentle introduction, but on subsequent listens I realized the acoustic and doubling of instruments on the melody not only set up the mood for the rest of the album, but it also served to emphasize a recurring theme.

The following four tracks are labelled “Ash Memory” Parts I, II, III, and IV. As someone that just proclaimed loving cohesion, these tracks should be the highlight. The names aren’t merely for show. These clearly make a single cohesive unit: epic start, slow movement, a sort of scherzo, finale (with recapitulations of earlier parts). It roughly follows the form of a symphony.

Content-wise, it is fine. The grouping is not my favorite on the album. They know how to push the epic buttons with long sweeping melodies over fast repetitive patterns and driving bass line. The melody itself is catchy, but I start to feel the repetitiveness of it by the end now that I’ve listened to the album many times. My favorite iteration is Part II where they show what it sounds like in a true folk setting with layered vocals, many acoustic instruments, and traditional drums.

“The Garden of Fire” gets heavier with some more technical metal. This is probably their weakest song. They do some interesting things incorporating in mandolin and symphonic elements, but melodically and technically nothing stands out. The earlier melody comes back, too.

The rest of the album finishes off with more of the types of things we’ve heard already. Their real strength comes at parts where they can focus on the melodies and harmonies with clean singing and acoustics. This sometimes translates well into the metal parts, but sometimes it gets repetitive.

Overall, I’ve enjoyed listening to this one quite a bit. It isn’t album of the year, but I’ll check out their next effort for sure. They do a lot of stuff well. Overall, I give it an 8/10. Here’s a sample:

Krallice – Ygg Huur Reviewed

Ah, Krallice. Everyone loves to talk about you. Lovers of experimental music praise you for the genius of bringing new techniques to black metal. Black metal lovers hate you for not being true black metal. Now you drop a new album with no warning that no one knew you were working on.

I’ll admit that back in 2012 I was not ready to review Years Past Matter. I only gave it a 7/10 and admitted I didn’t get it. Buried in some 2014 blog post, I mentioned in passing that I had gone back to the album several times, and each time it got better. I love that album now. I think it is excellent. But that is another review. The point is that Krallice can take a lot of time to digest, and this has only been out for a week.

As usual, I think genre tags hurt here. You can’t go in expecting black metal or death metal with some experimentation. Like basically anything Marston is involved in, this is an experimental band first and maybe some black/death influences second. If you treat the band as something else, you’ll be in for a disappointment.

Ygg Huur is a pretty big departure from their previous effort. First, the album is much shorter. Second, the tracks are much shorter. Practically speaking, this means nothing gets as much development time. It is closer to Behold… the Arctopus in its rapid pacing. Each song has a few core ideas that get passed around, embellished slightly, layered in different ways, and then it’s over.

Part of what made earlier Krallice take a while to digest was trying to grasp the structure of their epic length tracks. This album feels more accessible in this regard. Already on the second or third time through I had figured out the pieces and structure.

On the other hand, there are definitely aspects that make this album less accessible. Their previous album seemed more coherent and melody driven. This album uses a patchwork of shorter motifs which makes the songs feel a little less coherent and more chaotic.

One of the things I praised them for in the past is their excellent use of counterpoint. This is still the case on this album. Krallice often has two or more melodic ideas that layer nicely. They strike the right balance of parallel and contrary motion between the voices.

If you were into Krallice for their epic builds, these still exist on some tracks (particularly “Tyranny of Thought”). They still have tempo changes that happen so cleanly one has to wonder how they manage it with no obvious metric modulation.

The evolution makes sense. Some parts sound just like old Krallice. Some parts are tightened up cutting of the fat. Some parts are new. I think the back half is much better than the first half. I always start the album thinking it is probably an 8/10, but then by the end I start thinking it is more like a 9/10.

So overall, I give it an 8.5/10. It is definitely recommended for fans of Krallice. I’m not sure they’ve changed enough for people who were dismissive of them before to pick it up and start liking it. Here’s a sample:

Arcturus – Arcturian Reviewed

To be honest, I probably wouldn’t write this review if it wasn’t my most requested album. This new album is quite a strange beast. It has some metal aspects, but also prog rock, dance, and electronica make their appearance. I know those words turned a lot of people off, but I went in thinking it would be a really cool idea if it worked.

I think I’ve said this before, but negative reviews are hard to write. When I hear a lot of stuff I like, I can spend the review talking about those things. This album never clicked for me. Except for a few tracks, I found it to be ordinary in every way.

The most interesting bits were the electronica parts. For example, the start of “The Journey” sets up a beat with shifting electronic patterns under a fluid violin. Then some acoustic guitar comes in and layered vocals. It actually sounds a lot like something Pat Metheny might make. That’s probably a bad thing, but on listening to this album, I awaited tracks like these as a nice break from the monotony of the others.

Take the track that follows. The verse is essentially two chords on repeat. The sound is almost doom-like but without the heaviness. The melody lacks any driving motion (of course, melody is intimately tied to the underlying chord progression, so when the chord progression lacks motion, so too does the melody). The song is one of the least memorable I’ve heard this year.

I’ll reiterate, most of the tracks aren’t bad per se. They are just totally uninteresting at their core. Sure, many have lots of things happening that can distract you like string sections, electronica, crazy vocals, but these tools only do so much for a few listens.

The standout tracks are “Crashland,” “Warp,” “Demon,” and “The Journey.” To me, these ones at least attempted to incorporate the extraneous techniques into a more fundamental role. The melody and chord progressions on these tracks have content, and the sound they achieve is unique.

Overall, I give this a 4/10. I often dreaded having to slog through the drab parts to get to moments of interest. Those moments are good, but too infrequent. Here’s a bunch of samples:

Pyrrhon’s Growth Without End Reviewed

Pyrrhon are an experimental death metal outfit. Their new EP Growth Without End is a short burst of violent energy. The chaos almost never lets up from start to finish.

Let’s start with the strongest two tracks. When Pyrrhon want to, they can create really weird, interesting new stuff. The two closing tracks showcase this ability. “Viral Content” starts with a a strange churning bass riff with some spoken word vocals. It is the creepiest thing I’ve heard all year.

The song then keeps building until it has a minor explosion into extreme noise. The burst is intense, but doesn’t last longer than it needs to before returning to the original idea. Upon the return, there’s a lot more going on with atonal and microtonal ideas pulling the song apart. It always feels on the verge of falling apart or reaching climax again.

This song is really well made. It is highly experimental, yet keeps grounded around a single idea. It flows in and out of tonality. It has a clear sense of progression, and overall achieves exactly what it sets out to do: keep you unsettled. We’ll return to why I think the first few tracks are less successful at this in a bit.

The last track is also great for much of the same reason. Time gets all messed up with various tempos, pauses, and time signature changes. This works to keep the listener unsettled. The song closes with moments of heavy grooves and harsh guitar sounds over it.

The best way to describe why I love this track is that it is somehow the audio equivalent of watching an image get stretched and distorted. But maybe the image was something surreal to begin with. You can’t quite grasp what ties it together, but it still has a firm sense of a single thing getting distorted and pulled in all directions.

This is what I mean when I say Pyrrhon are making interesting and innovative music. I’m not sure I can think of anyone else that has achieved such a strange experience.

Now let’s talk about the first few tracks. They are extreme, chaotic, and fast. They clearly have riffs that tie them together, but I feel less of a sense of unity surrounding them. These tracks have much less innovation. They sound more like a band trying to be as harsh and chaotic as possible.

They aren’t bad, but it comes across as a sound that many bands could have produced as opposed to the final two tracks which are uniquely Pyrrhon. KEN Mode or Psyopus come to mind, though neither fits perfectly. The constant loud chaos isn’t as unsettling as the final two tracks, because it becomes noise after a while.

Overall, I like the EP, but don’t love it. I’ll give it a 8/10. Here’s a sample:

Between the Buried and Me: Coma Ecliptic Reviewed

I think we could sense this coming for a while. Between the Buried and Me have made their most cohesive prog epic album, but have essentially morphed into Dream Theater circa 2000. The album theme can’t be an accident. The songs are about what goes on in a man’s head while in a coma. If you’ll recall, Dream Theater’s Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory is about being in the head of a hypnotized person. Coincidence?

The first two tracks set the stage for the rest of the album. They have progressed towards a more melodic style, and structurally, they focus on building their ideas coherently. A problem that has always rubbed me the wrong way about BTBAM is their sudden shifts in ideas with no bridge between them.

Unfortunately, they also let certain ideas go on too long. By the end of the second track, I want them to stop singing, “You teach us what was.” The melodic idea is not interesting enough on its own to merit that much repetition.

By the third track we get what I’d like more of. They take something that could have been lifted right from some 80’s pop song, but they make it fit in their context. These unique ideas are what make BTBAM interesting and fresh. Unfortunately, they spend a lot of time just copying prog metal tropes. I can’t help but cringe when I hear ideas, riffs, and sounds lifted right from what people have been doing for the last 15 years.

About three-quarters of the way through “Famine Wolf,” they showcase that they can be great when they want to be. The guitar work is written with intricate counterpoint to the keyboard and other guitar. But then they lose it again to close the song out. It becomes lots of arpeggios around a chord progression which has that old school progressive vibe, but makes little sense as a musical idea.

After a few listens, I decided to cut the fifth track from my version of the album. It is one of the few places where they cross over to metal, but the album is vastly improved by removing it. The chorus is a cringeworthy anthem and the non-chorus part is a long string of clichés.

The second half of the album is a bit stronger than the first. They rely less on tropes and clichés. They infuse more original ideas into the prog formula, and the melodies feel less forced. I can’t help but think the first half was an attempt at hommage to their influences. I think the album would be infinitely improved if they focused on developing their own sound rather than copying someone else’s.

The album is quite good when they are on. They album is quite bad at other points. As with most prog metal concept albums, if they trimmed the fat, they could solve two problems at the same time: it is too long, repetitive, and drawn out; and it has too much extraneous stuff (filled with weak songwriting).

Once I stopped trying to take it at all seriously and decided to try to enjoy it for what it is, and I started skipping the worst parts, I kind of liked it. It can be quite fun and enjoyable. I think if they focused their efforts in the right place, BTBAM could take what they are doing here and make something truly excellent with it. For now, I give this a 6.5/10.

Here’s a sample: