Akercocke – Rape Of The Bastard Nazarene

Author: BD Joyce

Akercocke – Suits You Sir!
  • Artist: Akercocke
  • Album: Rape Of The Bastard Nazarene
  • Year of Release: 1999
  • Country: UK
  • Label: Peaceville
  • Format: Digipack CD
  • Catalogue Number: CDVILED647

It’s difficult to overstate the impact that Akercocke made when they broke out of London’s underground extreme metal scene at the tail end of the 1990s. Although the UK had played a huge role firstly in the genesis of metal itself via Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, and Venom’s unholy racket had been one of the catalysts for the development of thrash and black metal in the early 1980s, outside of a fertile grind and death-doom scenes centred around Napalm Death, Carcass and Paradise Lost, the UK had been little more than a bit-part player in the global explosion of black metal and death metal emanating from the Scandinavian and American hotbeds. Cradle Of Filth, despite the polarising nature of their aesthetic, were the only British black metal band at that point that had successfully transcended their local scene, and despite the best efforts of a congested and incestuous London community, there were few bands that seemed especially likely to replicate Cradle Of Filth’s success, let alone challenge the best that Norway, Sweden or even the Netherlands had to offer at that time. So when Akercocke emerged, seemingly fully-formed, complete with striking sartorial choices and a high concept vision together with the ability to realise it, it was a stunning bolt from the blue, and they were almost immediately transformed into one of extreme metal’s most intriguing and forward-thinking bands. Rape Of The Bastard Nazarene is at once a statement of the band’s overt and seductively blasphemous Satanism, and a slightly (but only slightly) rough and ready template for a sound that they would perfect over a sequence of outstanding albums that would end only with their initial dissolution in 2012.

It would be a mistake to dismiss Akercocke’s first album on the basis that it is not yet the perfect realisation of their sound, however. While they would go on to make more impressive albums, their debut transcends its occasionally under-powered production with a succession of songs virtually over-flowing with enthralling ideas and impressive musicianship. Akercocke also succeed because, like many of metal’s most iconic bands (and perhaps contrary to the protestations of some fans who maintain that the music is the only thing that counts), they offer more than simply excellent music. First comes the name, and linked to this, the thematic conceit of their first album. In a scene stuffed to bursting with death metal bands referencing some kind of unpleasant bodily mutilation, and Tolkien and Norse mythology-obsessed black metal bands, the mysterious and esoteric name of Akercocke, not unlike their British contemporaries Anaal Nathrakh, was impossible to forget once heard. This moniker gains an additional layer of interest when one learns that the name was taken from Robert Nye’s re-telling of the Faust mythos, specifically a capuchin monkey given to Faust through Satan himself. It also lends some depth to the band’s avowed Satanism, something far beyond the cartoonish facade of the many bands that have invoked the devil’s name and image through the years purely (and frequently successfully) to shock. Their spiritual beliefs bring a palpable authenticity to their music, and serve to enhance the genuinely disquieting atmosphere imparted by the songs themselves, and also the black mass-style interludes and invocations that are often utilised to bridge one song to another. Finally, the band’s aesthetic, encompassing their instantly recognisable monochrome artwork (generally featuring sexual images of women in various states of undress) as well as their be-suited onstage presence, demonstrates both a seriousness of intent and the creation of a totally immersive and coherent universe in which the band operate, and which the listener is able to completely lose themselves in.

Of course, all of this has function in complement to the music itself – if the songs failed to match the impressiveness of the concept, Akercocke would have been as dead in the water as any other style over substance band. Fortunately, this is resolutely not the case with Rape Of The Bastard Nazarene, and therefore all of the peripheral elements serve only to strengthen the whole edifice, an edifice that would be further reinforced by the albums that followed. As soon as ‘Hell’, the first track proper kicks in, following a suitably eerie chanted declaration which acts to prepare the listener for the upcoming assault, it is immediately clear that something startling and unprecedented is taking place. The band could so easily have launched into one of the many ripping riffs that populate the album, but instead prioritise atmosphere, by choosing to delay gratification, ‘Hell’ commencing with seething, demonic discordance, and almost whispered vocals. Once the crunching guitars do finally surge into action, the song continues through a whirlwind of ferocious tremolo riffing, complex tempo changes and intriguing rhythmic ideas. ‘Hell’ represents the infernal genesis of a riffing style that is highly individual and instantly recognisable. More often than not, Akercocke are ostensibly playing a slightly avant-garde version of death metal. The most aggressive tracks on this record generally combine snatches of single string tremolo blasts with lengthy passages of spidery, technical melodies, the twin guitars frequently alternating between unison sections, and segments in which they break into split harmonies that generally eschew classic metal intervals for something considerably more evil-sounding. The nearest comparison would be early Morbid Angel, or perhaps Nile at their most direct, although it should be noted that the trace elements of thrash that are so apparent on Altars Of Madness are almost entirely absent from Akercocke’s sound. What makes Akercocke so unique though, is the fact that they are clearly not just a death metal band. Philosophically, their Satanism places them much closer to orthodox black metal, and although musically the band share little in common with mid-90s Norsecore, the way in which they are able to imbue their music with a sense of awe and majesty allows them, in combination with a subtle use of synths, to straddle the death metal / black metal divide with skill. Finally, the progressive touches which will become significantly more pronounced as their discography is expanded is of a piece with a black metal scene that, as the 20th century drew to a close, was introducing a plethora of different sounds to the black metal template, resulting in the dramatic transformation of previously orthodox bands such as Enslaved, Dodheimsgard and Thorns into wildly progressive musical explorers.

As the album progresses, it’s clear that although all elements of the band’s sound may not be fully-realised in the way that they will be on The Goat Of Mendes, they are all discernible to varying degrees. When they all coalesce, as they do on early career highlight ‘Nadja’, or the monumental ‘Justine’, the results are astounding. ‘Nadja’ seamlessly welds a memorable Morbid Angel meets Beherit tremolo riff to some slick and dextrous lead playing, and overlays the whole with some truly vicious vocals. Another feature of the Akercocke sound is the clever use of contrasting vocal styles, which frequently overlap to create a disorienting feel, and ‘Nadja’ leans heavily on high-pitched screamed vocals to wonderfully unsettling effect. The complexity of the rhythmic interplay between David Gray’s outstanding drumming and the guitars, and the harmonic counterpoints that the guitars create completely belies the band’s naivety as a recording act, and frankly, the level of compositional sophistication displayed here put Akercocke at the forefront of a small number of death metal bands forging new paths for the genre in 1999. ‘Justine’ demonstrates a similar melodic intricacy, and the way in which this spellbinding track evolves from an introductory section in which the band give the impression that they are rising, undead, from eldritch depths, through a subtle electro section, Gray’s patterns mimicking the breakbeats of drum ‘n’ bass, before finally climaxing in an extended progressive death metal instrumental section is utterly unique. The hint of electronics on this track is a thread that runs through the album as a whole, and a tantalising glimpse of a set of influences that run rather deeper than the obvious metallic touchpoints. This thread is audible through the ghostly interlude ‘The Goat’, and ambient outro ‘The Blood’ and although the band use these sounds cautiously on Rape Of The Bastard Nazarene, they are well-integrated enough into the Akercocke sound that they do not feel jarring or incongruous.

In fact, nothing on this ambitious debut feels out of place, even if it does not all quite hit the heights of ‘Nadja’ and ‘Justine’. In ‘Zuleika’, Akercocke give us the only track on the album that feels like a demo-level recording. The somewhat stock riffs fail to take flight and inspire in the way that they do elsewhere, and overall the song lacks the distinct personality that ordinarily makes the band’s music so memorable. Despite this though, the slightly unclassifiable blackened death metal is reminiscent of such legendary oddities as Mystifier and Root, and thus helpfully serves to connect Akercocke with the more obscure reaches of the extreme metal underground, burnishing their metal credentials, and again displays a wide-range of less obvious influences. Additionally, although the strength of the material renders it a trivial problem, the production is inconsistent at best. While at no point is it poor enough to prevent the band’s many ideas from connecting with the listener, it would be of minimal surprise to discover that Gray’s drum parts were the recorded sound of him pounding wet cardboard, and although the drum patterns themselves are outstanding, they don’t quite drive the band forward with the taut energy that the songs deserve.

Akercocke – Rape Of The Bastard Nazarene

These criticisms are minor complaints though, which do little to diminish the enjoyment of a supremely confident debut. Akercocke play with the kind of dismissive arrogance that one should expect from devoted Satanists, and fortunately the quality of the material matches the intent of the delivery. Even in the early stages of their career, the band have a firm grasp on the art of channelling their vision into hook-laden songwriting, while keeping things interesting via continual tempo shifts, and subtle rhythmic changes. Their riffs and melodies are often breathtakingly intricate, but although the band impress with their technical proficiency, they also clearly recognise the value of dropping into a ferocious d-beat tremolo riff to allow the listener to bang as well as scratch their head; combining beauty with brutality to thrilling effect. In their more experimental moments, they are also able to generate captivating metal from less obvious ingredients. The droning, almost ritualistic discordance of ‘Marguerite & Gretchen’ sounds familiar now, in a modern black metal scene populated by the likes of The Ruins Of Beverast and Schammasch, but in 1999 this was hugely innovative and unconventional, and it has barely dated in the years that have followed, much like the vast majority of a masterful album. Akercocke would go on to make better records, but Rape Of The Bastard Nazarene retains the magick that it radiated on its release, and remains a landmark in extreme metal, as well as the first step in an endlessly impressive career.

Score: 87%

Agnostic Front – One Voice

Author: BD Joyce

Agnostic Front – One Voice
  • Artist: Agnostic Front
  • Album: One Voice
  • Year of Release: 1992
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Relativity Records
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: RO 9222 2

Despite their enduring status as firstly, innovators of crossover thrash and hardcore and latterly, widely respected elder statesmen of the heavy music scene, Agnostic Front have largely failed to capitalise on their reputation either commercially or critically, with the possible exception of the acknowledged importance of their first two albums to the genesis of a strain of punk rock that has arguably been refined and improved upon by a number of bands that they themselves have inspired. If they were ever going to break through and enjoy more sustained mainstream success, it is likely that One Voice was their best opportunity. The release of Metallica’s monstrously successful self-titled effort, which found stratospheric popularity in 1991, redefined the possibilities for more extreme sounds, and in the years that followed, bands such as Fear Factory, Machine Head and Biohazard all found the kind of success that has always eluded Agnostic Front with sounds that owed more than a little to the music that had filled the scuzzy clubs of New York City in the mid-1980s. Part of the reason for this might have been the fragmented nature of a band that had become used to losing their main songwriters after the release of every new album, and had also been hampered by the prison sentence of lead singer and primary lyricist Roger Miret. But fundamentally, the main reason that Agnostic Front were unable to seize the opportunity presented to them by circumstances was that One Voice is a mediocre album that lacks the sonic heft and precision song-writing of the albums that it ultimately trailed in the wake of.

Some of this mediocrity is a consequence of poor sequencing, which breaks one of the unwritten rules of album production, and loads the majority of the best tracks on the record towards the back end. While this does ensure that One Voice finishes strongly, it leaves the listener with a misleadingly positive impression of the album as a whole, which never quite recovers from the disappointment of the slew of average songs that litter the first half of the album. It’s as if what should have been the perfectly smooth and pristine concrete foundation has been spoiled by a careless footprint, left by a construction worker clocking off early. As if to underline the sense of anticlimax, first track ‘New Jack’ raises hopes, with a blizzard of feedback and chugging guitars that are surely, inevitably, the prelude to the all-out brutality of a legendary thrash riff to rival ‘Angel Of Death’, or ‘Battery’. However, the anticipated explosion fails to ignite, and in its place is a middling blast of rather generic D-beat punk rock. ‘New Jack’ is the sonic equivalent of returning home from the supermarket to find that you’ve unwittingly bought non-alcoholic beer instead of 7% IPA to chug down in front of the big game, or caffeine-free coffee the morning after you just haven’t had enough sleep, and it appears that the simplistic excitement that Agnostic Front could be relied on to supply even if the songs weren’t quite there has been mislaid in a bid to sound a little more professional, a little more considered, a little more musical.

The title track, which appears as the second track in, exemplifies the issues that afflict the album, consolidating a number of problems into a 3 minute blast of unfortunately forgettable hardcore. Although compositionally, Agnostic Front achieve probably their most natural balance between punk and metal to date on One Voice, sonically, the album is very much a metal album. The guitars, presumably in part because of the arrival of Matt Henderson on lead guitar, replacing Steve Martin (not that one, again), favour the scooped-mid crunch that had become the most imitated tone in metal since the release of the aforementioned Black Album, and the overall mix swaps the full and organic tones that tend to pre-dominate in punk rock for a heavily (in fact over-) compressed and dry metallic scree, which seems to reduce the entire possible frequency range to a monotonously narrow spectrum, which can’t help but leave the record feeling a little undercooked and even sterile. Particularly egregious is the dreadful drum sound which, prefiguring one of the more disappointing production trends of the 21st century, opts for a trebly click instead of a thunderous bass-drum bottom end, ensuring that the many sections of the guitars galloping their way along the low-E string in synch with Will Shepler’s sterling double-bass work sound tragically underpowered. The production issues are compounded by the odd choice of a minute-long instrumental (‘Infiltrate’) as the third track in, which is not quite an intro or interlude, but simply a snatch of chunky, moderately diverting riffing which goes precisely nowhere. Frankly, it all speaks of a band that hit the studio armed with a clutch of good songs, but no real vision of the album that they wanted to emerge with, all the while nursing the belief that they would be sufficiently inspired by the recording process to magically produce a masterpiece. ‘Infiltrate’ is evidence enough that this belief was to prove hopelessly optimistic.

Their inability to produce consistent quality across the entire is especially unfortunate, as the highlights of One Voice are actually among the best tracks of the band’s career thus far, and good enough to transcend the sub-par production. ‘The Tombs’, which appears to be an autobiographical tale of rough justice inspired by Miret’s own experiences of the US prison system, is a rare example of the band exhibiting an uncharacteristic level of musical dexterity and capacity to progress and develop which has remained largely untapped to this day. A punk sense of harmony crashes headlong into thrashing riffs that verge on Voivodian in their dissonance, the vocal phrasing is rhythmically intriguing and Henderson’s guitar solo decorates a speedy bridge section with a surprisingly fluid virtuosity which underlines the metal component of their sound spectacularly. From this point in, the overall calibre of the music trends mercifully skywards. The stuttering riff and bouncy hardcore of ‘Over The Edge’ is vital and refreshing, and ‘Crime Without Sin’ utilises the space between the blunt-force riffs and hanging chords in a way which resembles Biohazard covering Helmet to brilliant effect. Until now, Agnostic Front had generally filled every available second of their traditionally short running time with breakneck crossover thrash, failing to heed the lesson offered by many of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll bands that the sense of dynamics and tension that can be derived from the notes un-played can be one of the most powerful weapons in a band’s arsenal. ‘Crime Without Sin’ shows that Agnostic Front have themselves reached this important realisation and it brings a welcome variety to the album.

Best of all is the penultimate track ‘Force Feed’, which demonstrates all of the most thrilling facets of the band’s sound, but crucially, allies the serrated chugging of the D-beat thrash with the kind of memorable vocal hooks that are generally lacking from the rest of One Voice. There’s nothing overly poetic or cloaked in mysterious metaphor about a chorus that repeats the phrase “Force fed lies”, but it does demonstrate the enduring power in aggressive music of a rudimentary slogan used well; and in the same way that “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me” will never fail to elicit a reaction in the live arena, on a smaller scale, the same is likely to be true for ‘Force Feed’, precision built for the band’s live show. The song would be perfectly adequate even without the absolute demolition caused by the ripping mid-tempo mosh riff that dominates the final section, but its addition elevates the track from very good to classic-adjacent, and almost demands the pressing of the repeat button as soon as things draw to a close.

All told, One Voice is a frustrating album. Mystifyingly back-loaded, it provokes a certain amount of musing on the question of how important pacing and sequencing is to an album. Would the same songs in a different order create a different artistic statement? Perhaps on the more naive and visceral likes of Cause For Alarm, all about the temporal experience of the sound, the order of the songs is relatively less important. But One Voice has designs on offering something more than energy and excitement, and has clear pretensions in terms of representing some form of definitive and lasting statement of exactly what Agnostic Front should be at this point in their career. And therefore, correspondingly more thought needs to be given to creating something coherent that flows from the first to the last track, something that most of the successful metal bands of that era were adept at producing. Had Agnostic Front deconstructed One Voice and put it back together, Frankenstein-like, in a different configuration, the songs individually would clearly be no better, but the album as a whole could be improved. The other factor which weighs against Agnostic Front in 1992 is that where once they were at the forefront of creating something novel and even extreme, One Voice pales a little bit in comparison to the records it was up against at this point in time. Pantera’s Vulgar Display Of Power, for example, was released in the same year, and delivered a potent cocktail of ultra-muscular metal which out-performs the not dissimilar One Voice on almost every criteria imaginable. ‘Fucking Hostile’ is the sound that Agnostic Front are reaching for, but failing to grasp, and nothing on One Voice comes close to replicating the kind of intensity that Pantera seemed able to maintain effortlessly, albeit blessed with the kind of sharp, punchy production that Agnostic Front so desperately needed. As it is, One Voice is an occasionally brilliant, but mostly average record that just cannot compete with the best that the metal and hardcore scenes had to offer in 1992. Musically, it is probably the band’s most accomplished album thus far, but lacking the pure exhilaration of their earlier releases, it is ultimately less essential, less vital, and less worthy of your time.

Score: 66%

Afghan Whigs – Congregation

Author: BD Joyce

Afghan Whigs – Congregation
  • Artist: Afghan Whigs
  • Album: Congregation
  • Year of Release: 1992
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Sub Pop
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: SPCD 130 / 98787-0130-2

Congregation is Afghan Whigs’ third album, and their second on the pre-eminent label of grunge, Sub Pop. Despite being in the right place at the right time though, and despite the album itself receiving considerable acclaim on release from a broad range of publications, it failed to catapult the band to the kind of gigantic success enjoyed and endured by some of their contemporaries. In 2020, it is largely a footnote in the history of that particular era of rock ‘n’ roll, even if lead Whig Greg Dulli went on to enjoy a certain amount of low-key success after the band split, temporarily as it transpired, in 2001. This came firstly with the critically-adored Twilight Singers, and then also as half of The Gutter Twins with kindred spirit Mark Lanegan, whose career has followed a similarly circuitous route to its current esteem. Although their music shares many of the traits of their more popular contemporaries, the fact that Afghan Whigs failed to so much as hitch a ride on the coattails of Nirvana, Soundgarden and Mudhoney in the early 90s is fairly easy to understand. Congregation is simply too scrappy and difficult, striking out in numerous directions and containing plenty of moments of inspiration, but lacking either the pure thrill of the white-hot punk rock riffage employed by the bands at the heavier end of the grunge spectrum, or the broad melodic appeal of Pearl Jam or Pixies, the record found no natural audience, and as such Afghan Whigs were ever-destined to exist as the outsider’s outsiders.

A low-key intro sets the tone for the rest of the album, a sparse drum beat emerging from the silence quickly joined by a crash of brittle, discordant guitars, and the haunting voice of Miss Ruby Belle intoning the menacing lyrics “Eat my imagination / Taste my imaginary friend / I know your ass is fine / But I’m the only one who can say… / That it’s mine”. Belle is reputedly personifying the opiate pull of heroin, and Dulli’s dark, fascinating and even confrontational lyrics are one of the most intriguing elements of Congregation as he explores the darker sides human intimacy in a way that sets the Afghan Whigs apart from some of their more quotidian peers. The brief ‘Her Against Me’ segues directly into the thematically similar ‘I’m Her Slave’ which casts off any ambiguity, making very clear that the ‘Her’ of the title is most certainly not a lady that one should involve oneself with, and perhaps one that Dulli can never untangle himself from: “Get off that stuff, she said / And I’ll stone you instead / Unchain yourself said she / And tie yourself to me”. It’s unclear to what extent Dulli is performing a role here in terms of the sometimes dissolute characters that he inhabits across the album, but there is a gritty authenticity to his delivery that suggests that Dulli is writing from at least a modicum of experience. If ‘Her Against Me’ prepared the listender for an album of gothic folk, in the vein of Chelsea Wolfe, this notion is quickly disabused by the ultra-90s sounds of the first track proper. A scratchy, swirling guitar figure combined with a tom-heavy tribal drum feel makes for a percussive verse, leavened by a tender chorus, and the obvious touchpoints are Dinosaur Jr, Fugazi, and any number of early 1990s bands rushing into the open space in the mainstream cleared by the the incipient alternative rock revolution led by Nirvana, Janes Addiction et al. It’s a curious phenomenon that in a 21st century rock scene that sometimes appears dominated by retrogressive sounds, the kind of noisy, but vaguely tuneful off-kilter rock pedalled by the Afghan Whigs has fallen dramatically out of favour, and as such, Congregation cannot help but sound rather dated, not that this lessens its considerable appeal.

The element of the Afghan Whigs sound which really separates them from the pack is the unusual influence of funk and soul, snatches of which bubble to the surface from time to time. Their love of these forms of music is not an affectation – the band followed up Congregation with Uptown Avondale, a covers EP including versions of Supremes and Al Green tracks among others, as well as incorporating other standards into live sets – but we should also not overstate the presence of these influences in their music either; this is not a Nation Of Ulysses or Minutemen album after all. On Congregation at least, the band’s noisy guitar scree dominates proceedings, but there is a subtle use of clipped funk guitars throughout some of the more interesting tracks, the rhythm guitars channelling Nile Rogers. This serves to highlight the Afghan Whigs ability to assimilate a wider array of sonics than the average grunge band, whose listening habits start at Black Flag and end at Black Sabbath. To be clear, there are worst bands to emulate than Blacks Flag and Sabbath, but it is refreshing to hear a band that is able to deploy a broader modes of expression, as it expands the emotional range of the work. It is no surprise that the songs that in many ways define the album are both the most successful at synthesising the various facets of the band’s sound, and also the most dynamic in terms of volume and melody.

The first track that makes a lasting impression is the splendid ‘Conjure Me’. Once again, a funky guitar line, this time run through a wah-pedal, is practically ever-present, and the guitar lines of Dulli and Rick McCollum dance across each other constantly, tracing deceptively clever patterns, weaving the “web of conspiracy” of which Dulli sings, suggesting one perspective of a tempestuous relationship. For the first time of the album though, ‘Conjure Me’ really takes flight when it reaches the chorus. The way in which Dulli’s wounded wail breaks as he sings in a higher register gives it an especially heart-breaking power, before a more spacious and open bridge section releases the pent up tension of the song, the band collectively releasing a breath that they didn’t know that they were holding. The title-track is even better, the highlight and centrepiece of the album in fact. ‘Congregation’ is an up-tempo driving beast, which gradually escalates to an almost celebratory chorus. Dulli is found here in full preacher mode, standing tall on the dais, hands raised invoking almight power, screaming “I am your creator!” It’s a thrilling moment, and demonstrates just how good a band the Afghan Whigs might become were they able to compile a whole album of songs of this calibre.

Unsurprisingly though, for a band that were clearly still developing their sound, Congregation contains a number of songs that are rather less impactful than the aforementioned highlights. This really starts to show during the mid-section of the album which drags horribly, as similar sounding songs begin to merge together, lacking the kind of memorable hooks or transcendent vocal melodies to distinguish them from one another. ‘This Is My Confession’ is the best track of this part of the record, Dulli’s all too honest lyrics adding an unsettling quality to a sparse musical accompaniment, which pairs intricate folky guitar lines with a more conventional, early REM-style song structure. Lines such as “I’m lyin’ now / I always do / I know my way around the truth” certainly open the band to accusations of misogyny, but I would argue that they are laden with enough self-awareness to suggests the possibility of redemption. ‘Dedicate It’ explores exactly the same sound, which is rather wearying, however, and at this point the listener may feel that they are ingesting a bland meal in which the base ingredients are all present and correct, but the chef is not quite skilled enough to add the right mix of seasoning at the right time to transform the dish into layers of interesting flavours. The slightly incongruous cover of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘The Temple’ from Jesus Christ Superstar actually fares a little better, with the odd 7/4 time signature grabbing the listener’s attention due to it’s off-kilter rhythms, and a superb and wonderfully prominent bassline ensuring that the attention, once grabbed, does not wane.

The album concludes with ‘Miles Iz Ded’, originally a secret track, but thankfully upgraded to official status on the represses of Congregation, and this off-the-cuff tribute to the legendary Miles Davis is a fitting end to the album. In many respects, bearing no resemblance to the jazz man that it pays tribute to, it is the album’s most straightforward and succinct track. Raging crashes of chords provide a visceral and exciting backdrop to Dulli’s melodic yelp, repeating the chorus refrain over and over again – “Don’t forget the alcohol / Ooh baby, ooh baby”. Not quite as sophisticated as the more overtly poetic wordplay that peppers the rest of the album admittedly, but the immediacy of a hook reputedly based on an answerphone message left for Dulli on the night of Davis’s death in 1991 is perfectly suited to the grunge-punk fervour of a track that is every bit the equal of the kind of raw, but melodic, punk that Nirvana, Fugazi and Mudhoney were purveying at the same time. ‘Miles Iz Ded’ is a good argument for intuition over conscious thought when it comes to rocking out, and suggests that perhaps Congregation might have been a better album had the band let rip with a little more freedom a little more often. As it is, Congregation is a more than solid album that is at its best when it fuses discordant rock with infectious melodies, and plays on the band’s ability to infuse their slightly offbeat indie-punk with shards of funk, folk and strafing slashes of noise. There is plenty to enjoy here, but no songs strong enough to really transcend the context of the album in a way that might have given the band the kind of underground hit that could have raised their profile at a time when they were within touching distance of mainstream popularity. Congregation reveals talent and potential in abundance, but not the songwriting nous or focus to fully capitalise on either. As such, it will likely remain a good example of credible 1990s rock, but will also remain undisturbed by adventurous rock fans looking for overlooked albums ripe for rediscovery.

Score: 68%

Abigor – Quintessence

Author: Brendan Blake

Abigor – Quintessence
  • Artist: Abigor
  • Album: Quintessence (with a note on Origo Regium 1993-1994)
  • Year of Release: 2012 (Origo Regium 1998)
  • Country: Austria
  • Label: End All Life
  • Format: A5 Digibook DCD
  • Catalogue Number: EAL066

This is a curious and fascinating release from Austrian mainstays Abigor. It comprised at the time, both the best of their then current thinking in the form of a re-recorded and reimagined version of one of their strongest albums (Channelling The Quintessence Of Satan), and a compilation of their very earliest demo recordings from the early 90s. This intriguing mixture of essentially non-original material is likely to be of great interest to the diehard black metal fan not already cognisant with this material, given the justifiably high regard the band is held in by black metal fans in general, but probably of limited interest to more casual acquaintances.

Because of the nature of a release like this, a note on the specific contents is necessary, especially as some of this material has been officially released beforehand – I also own a copy of 1998’s much less comprehensive Origo Regium 1993-1998 (jewelcase CD, limited to 1500 copies on Napalm Records, NPR052). I will not spend any time repeating myself by reviewing that as well; suffice to say that it comprises a selection of demo tracks from the four complete demos presented in the Quintessence package. Disc 2 of Quintessence contains Abigor’s first four primitive demo recordings in full (it slightly mysteriously misses 1994’s “In Hate And Sin”, but there is more than enough to get your teeth into here). These are presented in slightly achronological order, starting with demo #2 (“Lux Devicta Est”), then #3 (“Promo Tape 2/94”), #4 (“Moonrise”), and finally Abigor’s very first foray into black metal, “Ash Nazg…”. The line-up for each of these four demos was P.K. (guitars), T.T. (drums, guitars, “bass”, keyboards), and Rune (better known as Amestigon’s Tharen; vocals).

There is much written about the Abigor demos online, and it’s well worth pointing out that if Abigor had not gone on to release their legendarily strong string of early albums, this demo collection would go down as one of those unmissable collectors’ items documenting the fascinating development of black metal across Europe (and indeed the world) during this period of time. As it is, we are left with a bunch of recordings of tracks that would latterly be regarded as classics when better recorded on their fantastic debut Verwüstung / Invoke The Dark Age. The six track “Lux Devicta Est” (1993) offers less than polished versions of ‘Diabolic Unity’, ‘Kingdom Of Darkness’ and ‘Midwintertears’, but even at this immature stage demonstrates Abigor’s unique preoccupations at the time. It incorporates their obscure mixture of Norwegian tremolo-picked blackness with keys, samples, and the faintly medieval atmospheres favoured by their first few albums. It is clear that the band are heavily influenced by classical tropes, and the intricate and chaotic musicianship they would later perfect is present, despite the weak production values. When I say weak, as with all things in black metal, this is a relative thing. To my ear this is pretty decent, especially in comparison to some of the far murkier corners of my record collection (Absurd, Moonblood, anything from the LLN, even Deathcrush). Tharen’s vocals are not as strong as those of Silenius when these songs were re-recorded for the debut, veering between an Abbath-esque croak, Regan (of The Exorcist), spoken or chanted passages, and a high-pitched screech that even reminds me of Fleurety or Bethlehem. They are functional rather than awe-inspiring, but the flaws in the vocals and production, and the unfavourable comparisons to Verwüstung aside, the inherent genius in the musical DNA of these songs is plain to hear. What some may regard as schizophrenic leaping from blasting Norseness to acoustic guitar and near-ambient interludes (foreshadowing the likes of Summoning) actually is a hugely refreshing reminder of a time when black metal was not so strictly defined by genre tradition, and bands all over the world felt they were free to put their own stamp and bring novel ideas to the table without fear of scene reprisal. The sheer inventiveness of even the early Abigor recordings shames many of the later, more conformist black metal bands, even as Abigor I am sure would see themselves as being part of black metal’s Satanic orthodoxy. ‘Crawl Back To Your Cross’ is a highlight for me, being a song not re-recorded for use later on, and so has become a forgotten gem.

“Promo Tape 2/94” and “Moonrise” (1994) are similar in quality, presenting early versions of near-classics ‘Eye To Eye At Armageddon’, ‘Universe Of Black Divine’ and ‘My Soft Vision In Blood’. Abigor’s tactic of combining virtuosity and medieval themes is the defining vision of the band, and placing it in the context of their wider body of work, a perhaps wrong-headed comparison I keep coming to is that of Satyricon – starting with an approach that was firmly backwards-looking, but over their career moving towards more modern or even futuristic concerns (Satyricon went urban with Rebel Extravaganza, Abigor went sci-fi with Satanized). Obviously, Abigor have never achieved the mainstream appeal of Satyricon during their evolution, but it is a testament to the bands of this ilk within the wider black metal scene, that the very best artists tread their own paths without slavishly imitating others. The final three tracks are from Abigor’s very first demo, “Ash Nazg…” (1993), and the production quality and musicianship reflects this – raw, primitive, and very much a curio rather than essential listening, but as a completist it is nice to have it here in its entirety. Even on this, the baby version of ‘In Sin’ (and the parts of ‘Shadowlord’ that were later incorporated into it) are worth a cursory listen from those with an interest in the early 90s black metal scene in all its myriad forms.

The second disc is a re-recording and reimagining of 1999’s undisputed classic Channelling The Quintessence Of Satan. I have always had a broad suspicion of bands re-recording earlier albums, as often I question the motivation behind it. What novel ideas are they bringing to the table, and if the answer is largely minimal, what is the point? Channelling is already one of my top 3 Abigor albums (Supreme Immortal Art being the high watermark, with Channelling and Nachthymnen competing for second place). The re-recording is nonetheless a masterclass in modern black metal – it fully embraces Abigor’s chaotic aesthetic, with a pristine cold production that doesn’t pander to modern symphonic tendencies, and re-makes already solid gold tracks, invoking mid-period Emperor, although new frontman A.R. elicits as many comparisons to Attila Csihar as he does to Ihsahn. T.T.’s drumming is as blistering as ever, and while the band’s commitment to not repeating riffs may leave the listener initially perturbed, this is a classic example of an album that benefits from repeated listening with headphones, as you pick up new refrains and ideas on every listen. This is about as good as it gets when it comes to late 90s black metal – even though this re-recording dates to 2009. It is firmly within the mould of Scandinavian BM of the time, and has therefore lost some of their medieval predilections, but is an untouchable piece of chaos black. Whether it is any improvement on the original I guess is a matter of personal preference; it is sort of redundant, and as with the original needs to be listened to as a complete work of art rather than a set of individual songs, but it is pretty damn perfect.

A quick note on the packaging: as everyone knows I am a massive sucker for pretty packaging, and Quintessence is an excellent example of how to do this – a handsome A5 digibook format, utilising the Dürer artwork from Channelling…, but also includes photos of the cassette demo inlays and early shots of the band from the 1993-1994 period. This certainly makes it much more attractive to the collector. So ultimately… not exactly essential, despite the quality of material on display here. This is a collection aimed at completists, not casual listeners, but definitely worth picking up if you want to scratch beneath the surface of 90s black metal.

Score: 75% (for the demos collection) / 85% (for Quintessence)

Aerosmith – Nine Lives

Author: BD Joyce

Aerosmith – Nine Lives
  • Artist: Aerosmith
  • Album: Nine Lives
  • Year of Release: 1997
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Columbia
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: COL 485020 3

Aerosmith’s twelfth album, Nine Lives, saw them back on original label Columbia, presumably keen to get in on some of the sweet multi-platinum action that they had missed out on since understandably failing to foresee the band’s incredible resurgence in popularity. It is appropriately titled – as well as surviving years of substance abuse, Aerosmith had managed to navigate their way through the vicissitudes of musical fashions to retain their position as one of the true giants of rock ‘n’ roll. The huge global success of Nine Lives also helps to bust one of the enduring myths of rock in the 1990s, that which holds that the advent of grunge ‘killed off’ 80s hard rock. Not unlike the similarly reductive suggestion that punk sounded the death knell for progressive rock, the idea that the 80s giants were redundant the moment ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ hit radio is simply not borne out by the facts. Grunge and alternative rock more generally may have shifted the zeitgeist and reset the boundaries in terms of what was and wasn’t relevant with respect to popular culture, but while Nirvana, Soundgarden and Jane’s Addiction were earning the critical plaudits to go with the sales, Aerosmith, Guns ‘N’ Roses and Bon Jovi released some of their most popular albums, and continued to be a huge draw on the live circuit. Indeed, it is an amusing coincidence that Nevermind and Get A Grip were released by the same record label, and they probably have a little more in common than many fans would like to admit. I would concede that at the turn of the decade, the likes of Cinderella, Warrant and Poison certainly did fade from view, but this was surely more of a verdict on the staying power of their own low quality musical output than because they were rendered unfashionable by a legion of Seattle-based opiate enthusiasts.

It probably helped that Aerosmith were adept at, not exactly moving with the times per se, but definitely flirting in their general direction. The band were content to adopt the slick, glossy production values favoured by many of their peers during the 1980s, and also successfully diversified their sound, allowing them to find a more broad-based popular appeal. As the tide turned between the release of Get A Grip and its successor, while avoiding walking into the Motley Crue-sized trap marked ‘Ill-Advised Grunge Album’, the band clearly adopt a much noisier and scuzzier sound this time round, as opposed to the pristine sheen of its predecessor. While this production is at times unsuited to the band, and at other times plainly irritating, the songs themselves are mostly very good. In fact, following the patchy and uneven set that had comprised Get A Grip, the release of such a strong and consistent group of songs is an impressive achievement.

As Aerosmith albums invariably do, Nine Lives starts at full tilt with the excellent title track. There’s no discernible riff, but the agreeable rumble of the guitars combine with a sneaky melodicism, and occasional bursts of serrated chords, to construct an understated throwback to their early days, when spontaneity and energy trumped studious songcraft. It’s a courageous move to choose this as the opener, when the obvious choice would have been the more ostentatiously catchy first single ‘Falling In Love (Is Hard On The Knees)’, which immediately follows. This track is much more standard modern Aerosmith fare, but is structurally unconventional, going straight into the huge and uncharacteristically minor key chorus, before dropping into an economic verse underpinned by some spidery rhythm guitar work, perhaps consciously aping the quiet-loud-quiet dynamic so beloved by the alternative rock that had seeped into the Aerosmith sound. Both melodically and lyrically, Tyler hits all the right notes on this track, adopting an amusingly self-deprecating form of wordplay that is a rather becoming, given the band’s advancing years. Indeed, it features one of his most riotous lines in “Don’t give me no lip / I’ve got enough of my own”.

‘Hole In My Soul’ continues the golden run at the start of this record, a pleasingly authentic ballad, which recalls the earthier sound of Get Your Wings-era Aerosmith. Not for the first time, the band plagiarise their own classic, ‘Dream On’, transposing a version of the piano line from that track into the guitars here, and welding the whole thing to yet another gargantuan chorus. The way in which Tyler works himself to fever pitch in a deliberate move to tug the heartstrings is undeniably overwrought and utterly cheesy, but the melody so adroitly weaves its way through exactly the path that the listener wants it to take, that this can be easily forgiven. Quite apart from that, ‘Hole In My Soul’ creates enough space in the verses to showcase some elastic bass playing from Tom Hamilton which adds another dimension to an already stellar song. The rhythm section are very much the unsung heroes of Aerosmith. Hamilton and Kramer provide a never-less-than-reliable foundation for the more flamboyant talents of the Toxic Twins, but frequently offer a subtle inventiveness that never overwhelms the guitars or vocals, but often function as either an interesting counterpoint or complementary support that perfectly match the requirements of the song.

Remarkably, for a band that have a long history of releasing patchy albums, there are relatively few missteps to be found on Nine Lives. Across 14 tracks, there is of course some filler, most of which can be found in its customary position in the middle of the album, as the excitement of the initial rush of adrenaline wears off. Even these songs are mostly palatable though – ‘The Farm’ intrigues with its Britpop chords and bounce, ‘Attitude Adjustment’ deploys a Stone Temple Pilots-style churning riff to demonstrate that Aerosmith are capable of successfully co-opting new sounds into their framework without it appearing too gauche, and even the mostly predictable and pedestrian ‘Kiss Your Past Good-Bye’ is not a total failure, with a stately guitar lick dominating a majestic outro. Even the most questionable song to be found on the album is imbued with a certain amount of naive charm that ensures that what could be embarrassing is instead oddly endearing. ‘Taste Of India’ is ultimately a well-meaning but flawed song, before we even get to the reductive cultural insensitivity of using a whole nation as a shorthand for the exotic. Rock bands have of course been doing this ever since The Beatles first sought to expand their own minds in the 1960s, and Led Zeppelin’s seminal ‘Kashmir’ has ensured that any rock band that seeks to evoke free-wheeling mysticism and open-mindedness will continue to utilise the Eastern-sounding scales that immediately transport us to a vision of an India that may or may not have ever existed. Aerosmith’s own version is somewhat half-hearted: the sitars and lush-sounding Bollywood strings track the main riff during the verse, as Tyler floats around microtonal melodies intoning laughable lyrics about “vindaloo” (honestly!) and the “tantric priestess”, but perhaps losing a little confidence in their opulent vision, the really rather enjoyable chorus ditches the pseudo-Indian elements altogether for a more straightforward sound, and the awkward compromise of the whole thing renders the track a hot and spicy mess. Even this is better than the horrific pop-country ballad that closes the original version of the album, ‘Fallen Angels’, where the tritest of lyrical content dooms a song that should really have been strangled at birth.

Lyrically, Nine Lives absolutely exhibits the best and worst of Aerosmith. The aforementioned ‘Falling In Love (Is Hard On The Knees) is amusing, and ‘Full Circle’, another highlight of the album, excels in a different way. There’s something extremely touching about an ageing band acknowledging the passage of time, and the naked vulnerability of this track (“Time, don’t let it slip away / Raise your drinking glass / Here’s to yesterday”) sounds authentic and affecting coming from a band who know that their fiercest and best days are likely behind them, but are committed to the only life they really know, the road and the stage. Such is the rich melodicism of the track, that they manage to negotiate the potentially disastrous cod-Irish folk of the musical accompaniment with aplomb and flair, something that it would be hard to imagine Aerosmith pulling off 20 years previous. At the other end of the spectrum is ‘Pink’. Musically, there’s not too much to dislike, and the hook contains enough musical sorcery to ensure that even the most concerted effort will not shift it from the listener’s memory. The lyrical content, however, is dreadful. To say that “Pink, as the sheets that we lay on / Pink, it’s my favourite crayon / Pink, when I turn out the light / Pink, it’s like red but not quite” is the worst kind of 6th Form poetry does a disservice to schoolchildren the world over who are quite capable of producing more interesting and nuanced work than Aerosmith manage here. The only saving grace is that there is a certain comfort in knowing that the bottom of the barrel has been reached, and the only possible direction for here is upwards.

The reissued version of Nine Lives that is the subject of this review closes the album with the monster single ‘I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing’, which was written by Diane Warren as part of the Armageddon soundtrack. It’s easy to criticise this kind of middle of the road ballad, which was intended by the composer to be sung by Celine Dion or Mariah Carey, but despite the fact that it resolutely refuses to rock, Tyler’s theatrical and sky-scraping performance carries an unforgettable melody as well as any multi-octave diva could, and the song deserves the popular acclaim that it found, even if it has since been rather over-played. It’s a curious conclusion to a slightly curious album. Nine Lives could live without the cluttered production that leaves the guitars sounding synthetic and processed, and continually threads unnecessary electronic sounds and effects into tracks, all of which add nothing other than a layer of white noise. The panning of all of the guitars into one speaker during the chorus of the otherwise raging ‘Crash’ is the most egregious of a number of strange decisions that undermine the strengths of a band who are at the best when they sound live and spontaneous. These decisions are also totally pointless – Nine Lives is a splendid and consistent album that stands tall on the strength of its mostly superb songs, and is more than good enough to ensure that this cat was far from ready to be put to sleep forever.

Score: 81%

Aerosmith – Get A Grip

Author: BD Joyce

Aerosmith – Get A Grip
  • Artist: Aerosmith
  • Album: Get A Grip
  • Year of Release: 1993
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Geffen
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: GED24444

Following their stellar tenth album Pump, which saw the band refine and perfect the sound of modern Aerosmith after a number of transitional efforts that charted their attempt to climb out of the rut that they spend more than the intended night in, it is no surprise that Aerosmith continued to utilise a sound that in many ways has defined them for much more of their career than the sound that initially caused their rise to prominence in the first place. As such, there is much to enjoy here, even if the self-confidence that came with the stratospheric success of their renaissance caused them to fall victim to an extent to that scourge of many a rock band – hubris. A familiar scenario in rock ‘n’ roll, the band’s feeling that they could now do no wrong, that they were bulletproof, led to the release of an overlong album on which the killer to filler ratio is a little less favourable than that which we found on Pump. We should not wish to eliminate this kind of hubris altogether – after all, this kind of vaulting ambition coupled with the capability to pull off a ground-breaking vision has been responsible for some of the most fascinating albums ever made – Physical Graffiti, The Beatles’ White Album, and Electric Ladyland to name just a few. More often though, the result is flabby self-indulgence, on which the reality fails to match the aspiration. The bands listed above were all progressive in their own way, expanding from their origins through successive albums that experimented with a variety of sounds and genres – indeed this diversity could be said to be a key component of their wide appeal. It is not unfair to Aerosmith to suggest that the core of their appeal is their comparatively narrow breadth of sound, and that their success has been a result of an ability to weld memorable singalong choruses to raucous riffing, and leaven the mix with the occasional ballad. Therefore, it is perhaps inevitable that 15 sprawling tracks of Aerosmith attempting to stretch a little beyond the fundamental principles that had served them well over the course of two decades was a bridge too far. The outcome is a good, but not great, album.

Although Get A Grip is hindered by flaws that could have been addressed with more judicious editing, this is not to say that the album is a complete failure. Even at its most meandering and patience trying, Aerosmith’s swagger and vibrancy is fully present in a way that it simply wasn’t on Night In The Ruts for example. Most importantly, a sense of joy and fun pervade the atmosphere of the record. At its best, Get A Grip showcases a number of the band’s strongest and most enduring songs, including a trio of quasi-ballads that are undeniably monstrous songs, even if they provoke some conflicting emotions with their obvious and calculated pop appeal. It was possibly not her pop appeal that saw the worryingly young Alicia Silverstone cast in the videos for ‘Amazing’, ‘Cryin”, and ‘Crazy’, but the partnership was extremely successful for both parties, and the ubiquitous presence of these promos on screens worldwide across 1993 and 1994 ensured huge sales for a third consecutive album.

The big singles cast a long shadow across the rest of Get A Grip, and the inconsistency of the rest of the album might cause one to question whether it is just a vehicle for the hits, but there are other joys to be found once the eyes adjust to the dimmer light among the silhouettes. After a pointless, but mercifully brief intro, which mystifyingly incorporates a brief snippet of ‘Walk This Way’, ‘Eat The Rich’ commences proceedings in fine style. One of the few truly hard-rocking tracks on the record, and something of a nod to the band’s earlier days, the song is driven at speed by a thunderously rhythmic and wonderfully greasy main riff, Perry snaking his way around the fretboard, forever building new shapes from the same limited materials. The song is a great example of the strides that the band (and their rapidly multiplying compositional partners) have made since the dark days of the early 1980s. Where once the quality of the riff would have been asked to carry the full weight of the song like an overworked mule, here it is just one thrilling facet of a song that develops through an understated verse which recalls their spiritual protégés Guns N’ Roses, with Tyler uncharacteristically singing in a much lower register, before yet another weighty riff is paired with an infectious and powerful chorus. The lyrics strike the right blend of sardonic, risqué humour and memorable hooks, and as a whole, ‘Eat The Rich’ makes for a tasty and satisfying meal.

As ever, Aerosmith are guilty of front-loading an album that starts like an unstoppable juggernaut, but finishes like an unreliable sports car that needs its engine tuned. ‘Eat The Rich’ is swiftly followed by the seriously groovy title track, boasting a filthy and monolithic bass-heavy feel that suggests the strangely appealing alternative history of mid-90s era Soundgarden as an 80s hard rock outfit. Not for the first time on Get A Grip, Aerosmith also recall their now-contemporaries Guns N’ Roses. An unusual case perhaps, of a band being influenced by another band who would not even have existed in the first place were it not for the inspiration of the band that they in turn are now influencing. ‘Fever’ maintains the momentum with a blast of up-tempo, shit-kicking country-rock, not very far away from the kind of sound that Jason And The Scorchers came close to popularising around the same sort of time. Basic in the best possible way, the song is full to the brim with ringing open chords, nifty licks and a virtually flammable rhythm section performance in which Aerosmith become the world’s best produced bar band, topped off by a firebrand turn on the harmonica from Tyler, all five members channelling their younger selves knocking out covers and originals as they toured Boston, New York and nearby cities on the hunt for the record deal they craved.

However, at the point at which hopes are raised of a non-stop white knuckle ride of an album, ‘Livin’ On The Edge’ brings a dramatic change of pace and feel that is rather jarring despite the high calibre of the song itself. On this track, one becomes aware that the band nurse an intense need to be perceived as serious and mature songwriters, after years of gleefully plumbing the depths of low culture. The song itself is superb – twinkling, almost drone-like guitars, and dextrous harmonies working cleverly with the chromatic chord sequences of the guitars, and memorable melodies bolstered by multi-tracked harmonies, which stack voices atop one other in a way that enables them to amalgamate almost into a single voice, reminiscent of prime Queen. Here, it would be churlish to argue that the band failed to meet their objectives, but in creating the simultaneous existence of two Aerosmiths which co-exist uneasily throughout the rest of the album, the band create a conflict in the mind of the listener that prevents the album from cohering into a unified statement, and this fatally undermines the overall assessment of this work. This feel is underlined by the sudden appearance of ‘Walk On Down’, a rare Joe Perry lead vocal, a complete throwback which stands out like a sore thumb amidst the glossy tracks which surround it. Generally speaking, I’m mostly an enthusiast for nu-Aerosmith, but given a glimpse of the kind of loose and effortlessly cool workout that could have sat comfortably on Rocks, I can’t deny that I find my resolve wavering a little, and wishing just briefly that the band would embrace this side of their personality once more.

From this point forward, Get A Grip swings wildly between mature, mainstream rock, infrequent blasts of more raucous rock ‘n’ roll, and pure filler. The desultory ‘Flesh’, pedestrian cod psychedelia of ‘Gotta Love It’ and simply dull ‘Can’t Stop Messin” all fall into the final category, although the last of that trio can at least be excused by the fact is was added as a UK-specific bonus track, and therefore never intended to be an integral part of the record. Why the splendid non-album track ‘Deuces Are Wild’ could not have been added in its place is a mystery. ‘Line Up’, co-written with Lenny Kravitz is marginally better, but even this feels like a rewrite of the excellent ‘Shut Up And Dance’ which distinguishes itself in a blaze of horn-augmented funk, with some of the heaviest guitars on the record pounding out an unforgettable syncopated riff that brings their earlier sound right up to date, and benefits from a full and polished production.

Sprinkled liberally across the second half of the record are the songs that were responsible for the band’s huge sales during the mid-90s, the aforementioned Silverstone trilogy. So bankable were Aerosmith at this point in their career, that both their previous and current labels were releasing best-ofs and box sets more often than the band were producing new output, and despite the generally obvious and repetitive track-listings of these compilations, they reliably shifted units in the millions globally. The best of the trilogy is ‘Cryin’. A portentous crash of chords dissolves into a sweet arpeggiated verse, with synths unobtrusive enough to add a subtle additional layer, rather than an overbearing distraction. A spectacular vocal performance from Steven Tyler brings drama and dynamics, and melodically, the song is one long hook, a yearning verse transforming into a soaring chorus that seems plucked from the heavens themselves. The song climaxes as the band dramatically drop out, and Tyler nails one more theatrical high note, and not unlike ‘Angel’ on ‘Permanent Vacation’, the track is a masterful display of entirely calculated brilliance. After something so perfectly pitched, ‘Crazy’ feels like a pleasant, but pale imitation, employing the same vaguely 1950s love song formula, but failing to generate the same level of magic from similar ingredients. ‘Amazing’ is better, but although one can’t deny that the John Lennon plays Elton John feel of the verse is well-executed, overall the track feels a little staid and predictable. It is ‘November Rain’, if Axl Rose had managed to dissuade Slash from adding the epic guitar coda that allows that particular song to jump into a whole other realm of heroic majesty, a majesty that sadly eludes the ultimately hyperbolically titled ‘Amazing’.

As we evaluate Get A Grip, it seems strange to note that it is an album that is nearly thirty years old. Partly because these songs were the first Aerosmith songs that I really became familiar with and therefore it is difficult to accept that the passing of time since I was initially bewitched by their particular brand of hard rock has been so substantial, and partly because in some ways the album marks the start of an ongoing final phase of the band’s career. An odd reflection, when this ‘phase’ has lasted for longer than the rest of the band’s entire existence, but the reality is that at this point it is clear that Aerosmith have settled on a set of parameters that they intend to sit comfortably within for the rest of their career. As such, Get A Grip is both the perfect representation of the modern sound of Aerosmith, and also a bittersweet farewell to the band that they once were, but will never really be again. At times joyous and triumphant, at times uneventful and plodding, Get A Grip is an album that contains many moments to admire, but rather fewer to truly love.

Score: 65%

Abdullah – Graveyard Poetry

Author: Brendan Blake

Abdullah – Graveyard Poetry
  • Artist: Abdullah
  • Album: Graveyard Poetry
  • Year of Release: 2002
  • Country: USA
  • Label: MeteorCity
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: MCY026

Album number 2 from US hard rock/doom metal apologists Abdullah. I was really taken by their debut but am left somewhat cold by their sophomore full-length. I’m going to try and put my finger on exactly what it is that I think is lacking from this release as, on the face of it, it has all of the components of a fantastic record.

Broadly speaking, this seems to be business as usual. It is a well-played, well-produced slab of hard rock-inflected doom metal (or should that be doom metal-inflected hard rock?), with solid performances from all quarters. Jeff Shirilla’s vocals remain the centrepiece of the action, still reminding me of the clean vocals of Dax Riggs of Acid Bath rather than Ozzy Osbourne, and he dominates the sound with a melodic sense that harkens back to both the 70s and 80s originators of stoner/doom (Sabbath obviously, Vitus, Trouble) and their bastard children in the grunge generation (Alice in Chains and Soundgarden in particular). There is an occasional use of vocal effects, as well as some swirling noise that suggests that Hawkwind have been part of their audio diet during the time of writing.

After an inconsequential intro, opener ‘Black Helicopters’ is strong, with a noticeably upbeat tempo, and this is sporadically returned to throughout the running time, preventing this from degenerating into the fuggy, miasmic torpor of the worst of stoner metal. Lyrics are intelligent, and songs are in the moment catchy. There are even some welcome nods to the NWOBHM (I’m thinking Diamond Head and even Angel Witch, rather than Maiden), and some really old school rock nods to the likes of ZZ Top, all of which means this is a perfectly entertaining listen. For me the highlights of the album are ‘A Dark But Shining Sun’, ‘The Whimper Of Whipped Dogs’, ‘Deprogrammed’, and ‘Pantheistic’ – noticeably front-loaded on the album, suggesting that even the band knew their best tracks should be in the first half of the album.

So why do I not love this more?

I think this is a classic case of, “It’s not you, it’s me.” If you are an aficionado of the band or indeed the genre, this is well worth a listen. There is even perhaps an argument to be made that at the time Vitus and Trouble weren’t releasing consistently great albums, and hence this is a decent substitute – I stress that I mean the word argument, as I don’t agree (about Vitus at any rate; Trouble hadn’t released an album for seven years). At the time, doom and stoner metal had splintered and experimented in so many fascinating ways, ranging from the ultra-orthodox “true doom” camp, through funeral doom, drone, psychedelia, the stoner/desert rock crowd and borderline pop/hard rock. For me, after a brilliant debut, this is a disappointment and fairly middle of the road. It looks back lovingly – a decent show, but ultimately fairly bland.  A pity.

Score: 65%

Abigor – Supreme Immortal Art

Author: BD Joyce

Abigor – Supreme Immortal Art
  • Artist: Abigor
  • Album: Supreme Immortal Art
  • Year of Release: 1998
  • Country: Austria
  • Label: Napalm
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: NPR040

Supreme Immortal Art is Abigor’s fourth full-length album, and the title is suggestive of an immense arrogance and assumption of superiority on the part of the Austrian black metallers. Remarkably, it lives up to the sobriquet, standing tall as a singular and towering example of mid-to-late 1990s symphonic black metal. It’s not totally unique – there are clear similarities with Emperor, Obtained Enslavement and even to a lesser degree Satyricon and Dimmu Borgir – but there are also enough nuances and touches of individuality to enable Abigor to occupy a position head and shoulders above many of their contemporaries in what at the time was a crowded field, and stand comparison with the giants of the genre. This album is an extremely cohesive release that conveys a scale and grandeur that belies its relatively slim running time, and demonstrates that epic has nothing to do with the duration of a song, and everything to do with creating an immersive alternative universe that pulls the listener in, eliminating all external interference.

Supreme Immortal Art does this from the outset. It’s immediately obvious from the brief but bombastic intro, atmospheric synths swirling around martial drums, a little reminiscent of the loosely-related Tolkien obsessives Summoning, that we are entering that magical black metal territory, where music ceases being something that can be mechanically dissected into its constituent parts, and transforms into an all-encompassing cyclone of majestic feeling, inexorably drawing the listener into something arcane, something beyond. This feeling is enhanced by the fact that this music is singularly black metal, in the sense that it clearly not simply an evolution of what has come before, but something distinctly different. In the early works of Mayhem or Darkthrone (once they had fully transitioned from their death metal debut Soulside Journey), the influences of Celtic Frost, Bathory and the classic triumvirate of Teutonic thrash are detectable even as they are transformed and synthesised into new forms, but Abigor show little clear connection to prior iterations of extreme metal, offering a wall of sound that can only really be compared with their symphonic black metal brethren listed above, although even then, Abigor’s use of non-linear song structures, and their chaotic and restless sound, show enough subtle differences from their peers to distinguish themselves.

At the conclusion of the aforementioned intro, ‘Satan In Me’ explodes into life, a maelstrom of raging guitars periodically emerging from eerily discordant washes of grandiose synths, and perma-blasting drums. The lack of any real riffing combined with the complexity of the composition, is initially disorienting in the extreme. Repeated listens, however, allow the churning and ever-changing chords to begin to resolve themselves into something that becomes surprisingly memorable, even before the spiralling lead guitar melodies that pepper the latter half of the song provide something approaching a hook. The confounding nature of the song structures that frequently develop an initial idea through modulations of key and tempo-changes, rather than returning to recognisable motifs in recurring patterns is accentuated by what one presumes is an intentionally uneven production. As we know, symphonic black metal fairly quickly became a sub-genre smothered by slick, glossy production values and over-familiar synth sounds – thankfully Supreme Immortal Art evades this pitfall with ease, and the production instead creates a true assault on the senses, with drums, orchestral programming, keyboards and guitars taking turns to dominate the roiling turmoil of demonic polyphony that characterises Abigor’s sound.

The nature of an album such as this emphasises the primacy of the experience that the listener undergoes as he / she listens to it. Not unlike a religious ritual, Supreme Immortal Art is something to devote one’s attention to, and even to participate in. In this way, the mesmerising and enveloping nature of the songs truly captivate in a way that simply cannot happen if it is treated as background music to some other activity. This also means that it is difficult to identify any specific songs as obvious highlights or lowlights – the LP is more understandable as a single movement of music, and would lose little were the gaps between the songs removed altogether. That said, there are sections of the album that linger a little longer in the memory than others. For example, ‘Soil Of Souls’ initially introduces itself with mid-period Bathory-style acoustic guitars, mysterious and majestic. This is brief respite, before the band unfurl a sustained blast which is adorned with highly unusual and intricate melodic progressions, a world away from the more basic chromatic tremolo progressions of some of their peers, before the synths become the lead instrument throughout a spectacular mid-section, which leads to the climactic and gradually ascending neo-classical guitar figures which close the song, accompanied by cavernous, reverb-heavy toms. Indeed, T.T.’s performance behind the kit is rarely less than magnificent throughout Supreme Immortal Art. The drums are occasionally a little low in the mix, but he mixes prolonged double-kick blastbeats with more interesting rhythms that provide a personality and variety that prevents Abigor’s specific strain of black metal from ever sounding cold or mechanical. It is important to note that this does not have to be a bad thing – Mysticum and Aborym both confirm that melding an industrial edge to black metal can be utterly fascinating – but the more organic feel of T.T’s playing is perfect for Abigor.

Similarly intriguing is ‘Eclipse My Heart, Crown Me King’. Another labyrinthine track, the opening segment showcases rapid palm-muted rhythm guitar work against a backdrop of halftime drums and synth, before being joined by an apparently vast choir of voices, which rises, as if from the infernal depths of the vortex that Abigor continually find themselves teetering on the edge of. Memorable instrumental passages follow, keyboards and guitars interweave faintly Scandinavian folk melodies, against a barrage of relentless blasting before the band abruptly pull the reins of the four horses of the apocalypse dragging the song to it’s cataclysmic end, complete with equine sound effects! Not for the last time, Abigor call to mind a less psychedelic and somewhat more orthodox black metal version of Arcturus, although where the latter band have their sights fixed firmly on the infinite expanse of space, Abigor open a portal to the fiendish abyss below.

Elsewhere, ‘Blood And Soil’ thrills with operatic vocals straight out of Orff’s ‘Carmina Burana’ erupting into ferocious black metal guitars, and deft cymbals accenting the baroque cadences of guitars and synths, unusually locked into unison, as opposed to operating in counterpoint as they do for most of the album. As the album draws to a conclusion, the penultimate track, ”Magic Glass Monument’ mutates from a relatively conventional slice of In The Nightside Eclipse-era Emperor worship, through some unexpected major key chord progressions of the kind one might ordinarily expect to find in the kind of folk / black metal popularised by Ensiferum and Finntroll, before the woozy synths of the final section plough a similar furrow to some of Sigh’s more playful work – black metal reflected back at itself in a funhouse mirror, a disturbing distortion of expected forms and norms.

There is very little in the way of criticism to levy at Supreme Immortal Art. The vocals of Silenius, while complementing the musical blitzkrieg, are somewhat generic and add little else than texture. In addition, some may decry the admittedly dated sounding synth sounds that pervade the album, and it is fair to say that what may have sounded authentically spooky in 1998 now sounds a little contrived and passe. Similarly, the orchestral instruments are unavoidably synthetic – one imagines that the band’s budget could not stretch to the kind of string and brass sections that would’ve been needed to bring the band’s most avant-garde ideas to life. Some may find this artifice distracting and off-putting, although in my view it simply adds to the aesthetic, evoking as it does a period of time during which some of the most enthralling music of all time was made, with refreshingly little regard for any prospect of mainstream acceptance or critical acclaim. Supreme Immortal Art is a staggering achievement, a blizzard of ideas which hangs together remarkably coherently. It’s also exactly what I personally want from black metal as a genre – the quotidian fervently obliterated by awe-inspiring cacophony, as Abigor build something that defies description as simply a collection of songs or compositions, but instead stands as a timeless monument to what can be willed into existence by the dedicated mind.

Score: 90%

Abigor – Channeling The Quintessence Of Satan

Author: Brendan Blake

Abigor – Channeling The Quintessence Of Satan
  • Artist: Abigor
  • Album: Channeling The Quintessence Of Satan
  • Year of Release: 1999
  • Country: Austria
  • Label: Napalm
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: NPR062

I thought Abigor’s previous album, Supreme Immortal Art, was close to perfect – a bombastic, baroque, swirling chaos of a black metal album that managed to stay just about the right side of falling over the edge into unformulated noise. It managed to maintain a balance between complexity, experimentation, grandeur, and quality songwriting, and remains a high watermark for “symphonic black metal”. A year later they delivered Channeling The Quintessence Of Satan, which, although a very different beast to its predecessor, represents for me the second of Abigor’s two truly great black metal records. After this I felt there was a slow decline in quality from the band, but around 1998-1999 they could do no wrong.

There is a significant line-up change – versatile frontman Silenius had left to concentrate on other projects (ambient black metal band Summoning, and martial industrial act Kreuzweg Ost), and was replaced by Heidenreich vocalist Thurisaz. Thurisaz is clearly less varied in his approach, but with the stylistic changes the band has made this isn’t a criticism – his rasp is a typical reverbed black metal one, contributing more to the percussion than to the overall feelings evoked by the album. The major change is just how metallic this feels. That might sound like a slightly odd thing to say, reviewing a black metal album, but hear me out – go listen to Supreme Immortal Art with all its orchestral touches and arrangements, and then listen to this straight afterwards. There is still much complexity here, but this is an altogether more brutal affair. The production has been beefed up significantly from previous releases, with the guitar and drum sound very much to the fore (the vocals are quite low in the mix compared to their previous output). There is very much a whiff of Abigor’s Apokalypse EP about this, but (and I doubt the band would appreciate the comparison) there are also similarities on occasion to both the early 90s Swedish melodic death and black metal scenes.

The drumming – as usual – is phenomenal, although less varied than some other Abigor releases I have reviewed. The percentage of blastbeating is higher than previously, which adds to the record’s intensity, rarely but effectively reducing the tempo to provide slower, more portentous moments. Guitars retain some of the tremolo-picked riffing from Apokalypse, but this time rather than recalling classic period Darkthrone remind more an unholy mixture of classic Emperor and Dissection. Keyboards play no part this time round, although samples of pseudo-industrial noise and strings occasionally punctuate the otherwise straightforwardly black metal assault.

I want to be clear – I think this is an utterly brilliant black metal record; perhaps not quite of the standard of Supreme Immortal Art, but certainly an excellent example of how a quality black metal album can be produced, encompassing both complexity and brutality. Despite their differences, this and Supreme Immortal Art will ultimately be Abigor’s long-standing legacy within the black metal scene. The band themselves felt there were some issues with arrangements and production values (hence their attempt to re-record / re-arrange it later on; something for another review), but once again I feel this is near perfect. I miss Silenius’ vocal versatility, but I admire the band’s continued commitment to variation and progression from record to record. Go listen and be impressed.

Score: 88%

Abigor – Supreme Immortal Art

Author: Brendan Blake

Abigor – Supreme Immortal Art
  • Artist: Abigor
  • Album: Supreme Immortal Art
  • Year of Release: 1998
  • Country: Austria
  • Label: Napalm
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: NPR040

Before reviewing this, I had a quick look through the opinions on the Metal Archives website (often a useful cultural barometer for this type of music, even if it is infested with kvltists, and has yet to impose a sanctions policy for hate-speech). I was somewhat surprised to see that Supreme Immortal Art, Abigor’s 1998 utter masterpiece, has been seen as somewhat divisive. Surprised, because if you don’t think this is one of the high watermarks for the mid-to-late ‘90s black metal scene, you are frankly just plain wrong.

Reading some of those reviews has meant I am going to write something slightly different from my original plan… more of a case for the defence. But this is not the defence of something that is probably objectively rubbish, but I just happen to love (there are plenty of those, whether books, films, or records). This is the case for the defence of a record that I genuinely believe to be one of the finest examples of black metal ever recorded. I’m not exaggerating – I think it’s that good. At some point I should probably write a Top 40 for the genre, and this would certainly feature.

OK, where to start? Supreme Immortal Art is Abigor’s first proper stab at “symphonic black metal”. The obvious touchstone is Emperor, and their spirit is evoked often. Abigor have never been quite as accomplished as the Norwegians they clearly admire, but they’re not doing a terrible job of punting in that direction. Building on their earlier strengths, every song here has both complexity and melody, but – and crucially, I think this was what was lacking on their last couple of releases – there is an emotional depth and swoop to the composition. Sure, there’s rage and hate and all the usual stuff you expect from a black metal record, but there’s a grandiosity to proceedings that wasn’t present before.

Some comment has been made about the prevalence of keyboards, and the production. It is certainly true that the drums are lower in the mix than usual, and if I have a quibble this would be it. TT is one of black metal’s most inventive drummers, and for his efforts to be buried in the mix is something of a shame – a remaster would be well-worth listening to. But to criticise the album for being keyboard-driven is short-sighted (I’m being generous there; the “no keyboards” crowd can genuinely go fuck themselves). This was 1998, and many of the greatest black metal records of the time were using keyboards, as bands had realised that vocals/guitar/drums could be limiting (Abigor had abandoned the pretence of bass guitar a couple of releases ago). Supreme Immortal Art exists within the great pantheon of amazing releases around the same time from Emperor, Tartaros, Obtained Enslavement, Limbonic Art and others – and is better than most (Emperor, notwithstanding). Ben asked me whether I felt there were any stand-out tracks… I think this should be regarded as “a piece”, but if pushed, I guess favourites would be “Soil Of Souls” and “The Spirit Of Venus”, but I think listening to these tracks in isolation is a mistake – they are part of a much greater whole.

This is an album that builds on Abigor’s previously demonstrated ability to construct complex yet melodic compositions, while adding a symphonic aspect that takes this to another level of black metal excellence. I’m going with 90% purely because of my quibble about the drum production, but I really cannot recommend this more highly. If you haven’t heard Abigor before – start here.

Score: 90%