January 8, 2019

New Light Choir - Torchlight

By Karen A. Mann. It’s difficult to know just where to begin in reviewing New Light Choir. With black metal, doom, death metal, prog rock and even a little NWOBHM in their musical arsenal, the Raleigh duo isn’t so much genre-defying as genre-transcending.
By Karen A. Mann

Cover art by Thomas Moran.

It’s difficult to know just where to begin in reviewing New Light Choir. With black metal, doom, death metal, prog rock and even a little NWOBHM in their musical arsenal, the Raleigh duo isn’t so much genre-defying as genre-transcending. Band members John Niffenegger (vocals, guitars, bass, keys, synthesizer, Swiss bell) and Chris Dalton (drums, synthesizer, wizard) display an intellectual musical curiosity that’s both innocent and wide-ranging. Their previous full-length release, 2014’s Volume II, hinted at their vision, while remaining true to their stated love of Tribulation-style blackened death metal. On their most recent release, Torchlight, that vision is fully realized, with the drama of Kate Bush calling over the moors to Heathcliff, the pain of Dawnbringer’s dying Sun God, the fist-pumping insistence of Thin Lizzy and Scorpions and the questioning morose of doom. Throughout, there’s a gnarled, blackened thread that sometimes hides and sometimes makes its presence well-known, stitching the band’s disparate elements together to make a musical canvas that’s theirs alone.

The album’s opener, “Grand Architect,” starts off in a singular direction, with a loping riff that would be right at home on a Trouble album. Shortly thereafter, it speeds up into the song’s main melody, which sounds like a blackened version of High on Fire. Niffenegger’s voice is clean, high and insistent as he sings of a “stargazing seer,” and “Grand architect of dreams.” This transcendent theme plays throughout, including the exotic “Omens,” which tells of “the way revealed: An opening into forever,” the Scorpions-worshiping “Psalm 6” and the album’s majestic showpiece, “Stardust and Torchlight,” which includes the lyrics:

As silver beams of starlight stream on lovers lost in dream.
And in the space between our worlds, where day and night collide.

Even the artwork, a painting of a gauzy sunrise over a roiling sea by 19th Century American Romantic landscape painter Thomas Moran, hints at the emotional turmoil brought forth on the album. The Romantics were intrigued by the violence of nature, and considered humankind’s attempts to subjugate it futile. Ultimately, they believed in the supremacy of the individual over the collective and emotion over reason. New Light Choir’s lyrics (mostly written by Niffenegger) concern themselves with the same heady, mythical themes, and feature protagonists who are searching for some sort of cosmic or spiritual transcendence.

There are times when New Light Choir throws all expectations out the window, and the most obvious of them is on the second song, the vintage-worshiping occult-rocker “Queen of Winter.” With organ and Mellotron accompaniment by Scott Phillips (Dalton’s bandmate in indie-rock band Goner and its electronic offshoot Gnoer), “Queen of Winter” easily sound like a lost song from a Blood Ceremony album. This is further proof that even a band as unexpected and beholden to genre as New Light Choir can find a way to surprise their listeners.

January 3, 2019

Death Fortress - Reign of the Unending

By Bryan Camphire. Reign of the Unending. It's a fitting title for a record released just before the fall of Fallen Empire Records, as the label prepares to lock up its gates. The venerable label's influence is indeed unending, and Death Fortress is a band best equipped to exhibit this fact
By Bryan Camphire.

Artwork by Raul Gonzalez.

Reign of the Unending. It's a fitting title for a record released just before the fall of Fallen Empire Records, as the label prepares to lock up its gates. The venerable label's influence is indeed unending, and Death Fortress is a band best equipped to exhibit this fact, as they have been releasing uncompromising music via Fallen Empire throughout the label's seven year history.

Death Fortress make records that sound like the band is playing live in your living room. It's a ferocious sound they've cultivated with heaping measures of muscle and teeth. In an era rampant with over-produced recordings, it's refreshing to hear a set as raw and powerful as this. To my ears, Death Fortress blends the bombast of Bleach-era Nirvana with the blasphemous bent of Belketre.

The human touch to this performance imbues the music with grit and gristle. The drumming is jaw dropping. This has been the case on all of the band's records and the clip is maintained throughout on this release. The vocals are another source of intrigue. Guttural howls are interspersed with hellish cries. These elements combined with gain-heavy guitars and low slung bass lines produce a high voltage of intensity to leave a lasting impression on the listener.

"Nearer to Purity" is a highlight. The momentum this track kicks up and the tension it creates is like experiencing a helicopter crash in a blizzard and living to tell the tale. Half of the tunes on this release have mid-tempo breakdowns. It's these moments that all at once provide reprieve and serve to strengthen the songs' potency. The music gets ratcheted up in these slow sections like a measured ascent that precedes a free fall. It's a sensation you can feel in your chest, and Death Fortress orchestrates the experience with mastery.

On Reign of the Unending, each song title on is concerned with power, and this theme is reflected in the energy of the playing. There isn't an ambient interlude to be found throughout the thirty-eight minute run time of this set. It's all blood and guts. The ferocity on display here lends the music its escalated heartbeat, which cuts a stark path through unforgiving landscapes. Death Fortress brings feverish heat to desolate atmospheres, which are richly realized on this release.

December 23, 2018

Beaten to Death - Agronomicon

By Matt Hinch. Back in 2011, this crazy-ass Norwegian band called Beaten to Death decided they were going to take up permanent residence in my head with Xes and Strokes. Seven years, two albums and a live release later, the “melodic grindcore” outfit return.
By Matt Hinch.


Back in 2011, this crazy-ass Norwegian band called Beaten to Death decided they were going to take up permanent residence in my head with Xes and Strokes. Seven years, two albums and a live release later, the “melodic grindcore” outfit return with a pretty swell Christmas present in Agronomicon.

In keeping with their vision for the band, Agronomicon was recorded 100% live. Also, as usual, they bend grindcore at will with their spastic enthusiasm. It's infectious. Their tempo change strategy must revolve around firing a rubber ball around the room and switching when someone gets hit in the head. Dirgy, death metal pummelling, ding, blasting grind, ding, groovy romp, clunk, Telecaster twang, thump, CHAOS. It seems like it should give my straightforward brain a headache but B2D just do it so well. Perhaps they do it too well and have spoiled bands with similar approaches. Names have been omitted to protect the innocent.

There's just something great about an album that can have you circle-headbanging one moment, throwing elbows the next, then swaying your hips and looking for a dance partner until you're spun back into a maelstrom of intensity and cathartic energy.

No matter how gut-wrenching B2D can get at times there's always another time that's totally uplifting. Or how angry they can sound, or disgusting, there's a jangly bit to throw open the shutters and dispel the darkness.

Speaking of gut-wrenching, angry, and disgusting, let's not forget about those vocals I love so much. Not just the leads but the well-timed gang shouts too. They're a good source of involuntary muscle contraction. All of the muscles. I hope I'm not the only one that connects with the vocal Hydra. Piercing screams, experimentation, and that growl. Oh, that growl.

The nature of that feral growl is my spirit animal. That makes about as much sense as building a house with an inflatable hammer but what I'm trying to say is deep down, that's what my inner beast sounds like. That's what this album does to you, man. Scrambles your brain. Like an egg in a frying pan on those old anti-drug ad campaigns. Without all the legal trouble and just as much social stigma.

Time and time again I'm wowed by how Beaten to Death can pack such intensity and creativity into such a short runtime and still infuse it with melody and movement. It's like a dramatic comedy stage play sped way the fuck up. It's definitely not mindless. I think it's their uniqueness that puts them over the top. No one sounds like this. Agronomicon throws more wood on the fire heating their melting pot of crazy fun grind. Why isn't this band more talked about? Or am I just too busy listening to them to hear the noise? I mean, it's like standing in a boxing ring taking endless body shots while being thrown from corner to corner all while laughing with euphoria. Doesn't that sound great?