June 22, 2018

Khemmis - Desolation

By Calen Henry. Khemmis’ last album, Hunted, immediately grabbed me. Their “doomed rock and roll” combined melodic, epic doom with elements of stoner-doom, death-doom, and traditional metal for a wonderful “kitchen sink” approach to metal.
By Calen Henry.

Artwork by Sam Turner.

Khemmis’ last album, Hunted, immediately grabbed me. Their “doomed rock and roll” combined melodic, epic doom with elements of stoner-doom, death-doom, and traditional metal for a wonderful “kitchen sink” approach to metal. Desolation sees the band digging in to their signature sound and shedding much of the kitchen sink approach to create their best record yet. The album will likely cement their legacy alongside bands like Pallbearer and Power Trip as crossover darlings.

The vast majority of Desolation is Khemmis’ signature melodic doom: melancholy, slightly sinister riffs under soaring tenor vocals. This time they delve even deeper into melody, edging further towards traditional metal, with harmonized vocals lines, lyrical dual guitar leads, and even some lower register vocals reminiscent of the late David Gold of Woods of Ypres

The mix of traditional metal and doom carries through to the band's lyrics. They adopt a lot of the swords and sorcery trappings of traditional metal, but, in a time when traditional metal lyrics about the glory of conquerors' pillaging can seem problematic, Khemmis are refreshingly depressing. Truly living up to their self-styled genre, "doomed rock and roll," they sing of cursed bargains, doomed legions, sole survivors and the associated guilt, isolation, and desolation. It’s extremely fitting that the album is called Desolation, as that single word gets right to the crux of the album’s themes.

Photos by Nessie Spencer.

They also ditch other musical styles, except for death-doom, and the result is transcendent. The deep dive into melody juxtaposed against the filthy death-doom riffs creates a fantastic dynamic throughout the album, but it’s when the band directly mixes the two, giving us twin guitar shredding over galloping death-doom or harsh vocals over soaring guitar melodies, that their sound becomes truly legendary. Album opener “Bloodletting” showcases this beautifully, when soaring guitar and epic vocals suddenly break into a filthy death-doom riff accompanied by an extended twin guitar solo.

With the overall stylistic change, the album doubles down on melodic vocals and some raspy harsh vocals that are more black metal than death-doom, but they work extremely well with the band’s overall sound. The melodic vocals are even better than on previous albums, and the combination of lower vocals and faster tempos than Pallbearer sets Khemmis apart from their closest sonic touch point.

The production is also slightly improved over Hunted. It's a bit more dynamic, and although it's still brickwalled, the slight improvement makes a difference. There is no audible clipping, and everything sounds just a bit better than it did in 2015.

Desolation one of the year's best metal albums, and the stylistic changes mean that anyone not completely melody-adverse should check it out, even those not sold on Khemmis' previous material. The band has completely come into their own. Hunted absolutely floored me in 2015, and Desolation is leagues ahead of it.

June 19, 2018

Mercyful Fate - Melissa

An Autothrall Classic. Perhaps the only tangible quip I could launch against Mercyful Fate's seminal debut is that, compared to the King's next six full-length records (from both Fate and his solo band), I hold Melissa in somewhat lesser regard
An Autothrall Classic. Originally published here.

Artwork by Thomas Holm.

Perhaps the only tangible quip I could launch against Mercyful Fate's seminal debut is that, compared to the King's next six full-length records (from both Fate and his solo band), I hold Melissa in somewhat lesser regard, owed largely to the fact that the sum songwriting is marginally less infectious. Just about every stylistic die had been cast here which would serve Kim and his companions for decades hence, but in terms of sheer riffing stickiness and atmosphere, this album just doesn't have the same gallery of chops and leads as its successors. That being said, this album still deserves the forklifts of accolades dumped upon it, because Melissa remains one of the highlights of 1983. One of the better overall European metal records of the earlier 80s outside England. Heck, apart from Don't Break the Oath and the band's more divisive reunion disc In the Shadows (which I happen to favor, others not so much), it's probably the one mandatory purchase in their discography.

Melissa was actually my second exposure to Fate, having first bought the sophomore at a young age, and I admit it was underwhelming at first, if only because I had enjoyed the other tape more. But not only does this debut age well, it has managed to never accumulate much dust on its surface in going on thirty fucking years! Melissa still feels fresh and innovative, a more complex offering than what most of the group's British peers were capable of writing at the time, and also a hallmark of strong production values and deft musicianship. It might have taken time for some to adjust to King's eery and unnerving falsetto shrieks, which he lays on pretty thick throughout this, but there is no debating the amount of effort and professionalism in the compositions. Thomas Holm's cover art is remarkable, a screaming skull that bleeds hellish red light and gives a sense of sheer monument. The lyrics are maniacal blueprints for many themes Diamond would later flesh out in both his bands, with an emphasis on history, archaic horror, and occult topics fundamental to King's later pursuance of LaVeyan Satanism.

Pacing and production are key here, integrating the critical moments of atmosphere with the thundering, primal speed metal melodies and swaggering grooves that would come to define the group's sound as it supported the chilling vocals, which in metal music had simply never gone so 'over the top' without losing the gravity and impact of their subject matter. I realize that many outsiders to the band's sound, or power/heavy metal screamers in general (Halford, Dickinson, etc) must immediately find this vocal inflection comical in nature, but there was never anything remotely 'funny' about Diamond on these old Mercyful Fate records, he was a shrill specter that I took quite seriously even if I had to adjust myself to this timbre as the primary vocal tone. He's got his grittier end, mid range register also, but it's not quite so distinct. I wouldn't say that the melodies he summons up here are nearly so unforgettable as those he'd weave in later to several of the King Diamond concept albums, but for '83 this was pretty damn ambitious even when you placed it up against a record like Piece of Mind, Bark at the Moon or Balls to the Wall.

The instruments also sound stunning, with the better balance and clarity than the band's eponymous 1982 EP. Kim Jensen's drums are loaded, with a nice slap to the snare and some great reverb to the kicks that really measure off well against the guitars, though the cymbals and hi-hat seem a fraction more muffled. The bass lines are enormous and muscular when needed, like the close of "Evil" where the guitars remind me of the primary riff in Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" before that charging power metal finale; but Timi Hansen also slinks along with a creepy class through the record's more atmospheric climes. As for the guitars, they are just beyond compare, with an effectively chunky fiber to them that allows the looser, glimmering leads to wail and writhe above and really stand out. They're also incredibly busy here, constantly twisting and turning into some new 'banger of a riff and really controlling the tempo for King's lyrical tales. The leads are usually quite brief through the album, but none of the notes seem misplaced, and I'd rather a band give me some spikes of emotion and harmony rather than indulge themselves to the detriment of the songwriting.

"Curse of the Pharaohs" is a real bruiser, and one of my all time favorite Mercyful Fate tracks, but I'd have to give "Black Funeral" the pick of the litter, a thundering and frightening piece where King's voice and the triplet rhythm collide in a moonlit, haunted tower. "Satan's Fall" is the most ambitious in terms of its length and construction, with an opening segment that feels like an occult "Immigrant Song", and some grimy and shuffling riffs deeper in which are among Shermann and Denner's most inventive (Jensen also shines here with a few cadences in the bridge). That said, there's nothing here which even hinges on 'bad'. Pieces like "At the Sound of the Demon Bell" and the bluesy "Melissa" itself might not resonate with me as much as "Gypsy", "Night of the Unborn" or "A Dangerous Meeting", but they're all well written and stuffed to the ghastly gills with conscious effort and variation. Fuck, I listen to these songs now in 2012 and they still don't give me any impression of becoming 'dated', though as a huge King Diamond nutter I'm understandably biased.

No, it's not the eeriest record in the Danes' lexicon, but along with the rest of Diamond's works from '84-'90, this is well worth breaking out for another Halloween spin, since it's lyrics and concepts of witches, Satan and the restless dead make a great accompaniment to the aesthetics of the holiday. Granted, there's nothing so obviously cheesy or 'haunted house' here like you'd find on a Cradle of Filth disc, but instead more of a bite out of classic horror antiquity, a spiritual celebration of black/white films with Lugosi and Karloff. Like Dracula, The Wolfman or The Mummy is to nearly a century of film scares, this record serves as an aesthetic monument to its medium. How many heavy, power, speed, thrash, black and doom metal acts owe so very much to Mercyful Fate? The answer would be next to incalculable, so I'll just stick to 'all of them' and you can mark your own exceptions to the rule.

June 16, 2018

Hoth - Astral Necromancy

By Calen Henry. Hoth return with Astral Necromancy, following up to 2014’s Oathbreaker. Their debut EP Infinite Darkness mixed Skeletonwitch and Amon Amarth with Star Wars fandom, but didn’t predict the nuanced folky black metal of their debut full length
By Calen Henry.

Artwork by Dusty Peterson.

Hoth returns with Astral Necromancy, following up to 2014’s Oathbreaker. Their debut Infinite Darkness mixed Skeletonwitch and Amon Amarth with Star Wars fandom, but didn’t predict the nuanced folky black metal of Oathbreaker. Chronicling the rise and fall of a hero forsaking the light and succumbing to darkness, with the music becoming progressively darker as the character embraced darkness. Without referencing Star Wars it was easily read as a Darth Vader concept album.

Astral Necromancy returns to esoteric Star Wars concepts, but tells a larger, darker story with composition to match. In contrast to Oathbreaker, Astral Necromancy isn’t a chronological concept album but a collection of songs, all part of the same universe-spanning story. Musically it is more immediate with fewer folk and ambient passages, the majority of the album is either riffs or solos. The tone is set with “Vengeance”, a ripping track that opens the album at full burn. It introduces both the sound of the album, as well as the concept. Tearing through riffs and solos it talks of vengeance, both against old masters as well as time and memory; the desire and give in to darkness, and burn out the light, despite being born in it.

Like Oathbreaker, there is no mention of anything explicitly Star Wars on Astral Necromancy, but throughout the album themes of the dark side of the force recur; trading one’s soul for dark knowledge and in the process giving up one’s humanity to embrace darkness, isolation and anger. The duality of lusting for power and awareness of what is lost along the way permeates the album. Tracks like “The Horrid Truth”, “Ascension”, and “The Void Between The Stars” speak knowingly of what one loses along the path to the darkness, and contrast with tracks like “Passage into Entropy” and “The Gathering of the Accursed Artifacts” speaking of the power the darkness brings. “The Citadel of the Necromancer” and “Solitude” bring everything together. The latter describes the battle against and defeat of the Necromancer’s apprentice whose commitment to the darkness paled in comparison to the light of his former master. The former describes the Necromancer’s gnawing fear, as he waits in his fortress for a vision that never comes, that all the sacrifice will amount to nothing.

Astral Necromancy is approachable despite it's blackened space-ward gaze. The production is pristine with extremely precise drums, tight guitar playing and raspy vocal delivery that manages to be comprehensible. Though it feels leaner, it’s almost the same length as Oathbreaker, making it seem like Hoth have jammed two albums’ worth of riffs into one album and trimmed almost all the fat. It makes for an excellent musical complement to their previous effort, objectively better, but ultimately a complement, rather than simply superior.