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Peter Atkinson Goes Huge in Part 1 of this Massive Coroner's Report

By Peter Atkinson, Contributor
Tuesday, May 13, 2008 @ 11:36 PM

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Pagan Fests, "In Thrash We Trust," "Tyranny & Bloodshred" and "Invaluable Darkness" tours, a Gigantour with some real teeth, add a flurry of new albums by extremists far and wide and it's a been a pretty brutal spring. So much so that there was such a pile of stuff to wade through for this thing, I ended up having to split it into two parts.

This would represent the thrash/death chapter, as you can see below with reviews of the likes of Testament, Dismember, Soilent Green, the outrageous Zimmers Hole, etc.

Some time next month, Part II will have more of a black metal flavor, with interviews with Emperor frontman Ihsahn, who's second solo album AngL will be out later this month, and the next great epic Norwegian band Keep of Kalessin, whose Nuclear Blast debut and fourth album overall Kolossus - due in June - more than lives up to its name.

And speaking of Norwegian black metal, I also hope to have a report on the "True Norwegian Black Metal" exhibit in New York by photographer Peter Beste - if not an interview with the man himself. To coincide with the release of his book of the same name, Beste will have some of his stark, often chilling, and unflinching photos of bands like Gorgoroth, Mayhem, Enslaved, Immortal, Carpathian Forest and 1349 in their natural Norwegian environs on display at the Steven Kasher Gallery on West 23rd Street in New York until June 7. It looks pretty bad ass - see for yourself at www.peterbeste.com.

But I digress. Two of the most mind-blowing extreme metal releases you are likely to hear all year came out just weeks from on another recently - one from a likely suspect, and the other from someone you might not expect.

Sweden's Meshuggah have a long history of scrambling skulls, and they serve up another heaping helping of math-metal insanity with their latest, Obzen. Florida's Hate Eternal, on the other hand, are known more for their break-neck, yet somewhat clinical, death metal bombast than anything else. But the band's fourth album, Fury & Flames, is quite a departure when compared to its predecessors, going off on some wild, free-form tangents that take a good while to get your head around.

I got the chance to speak with both Meshuggah and Hate Eternal over the last month or so, and this is what they had to say.

MESHUGGAH: Mind Fuckers

There's only so far a band can take things. And when your last album was essentially one 47-minute track divided into 13 random movements, your only real options are to go longer and more convoluted, or tighten things up and really bring the hammer down. Meshuggah chose the latter with Obzen.

Yet while Obzen may boast nine distinct songs, even at its most basic, its surreal sense of structure, timing and groove is utterly otherworldy. And where like-minded contemporaries - Dillinger Escape Plan, Protest The Hero, etc. - are spastic and disjointed, Meshuggah's mathematical precision and sheer brute force make even uber-technical fare like "Pravus" concussive and convincing.

"Any album we do tends to be a reaction to what we just did previously," said guitarist Mårten Hagström from Stockholm, where the band were preparing for their just-concluded U.S. tour opening for Ministry. "So coming from Catch Thirty-Three last time, which was this monumental kind of a soundscape thing, this time we went back to something of a more live approach, a little bit more dynamics between the songs and get back to the aggression of it."

Meshuggah is one of the few bands in metal that has a sound truly their own, after starting out nearly two decades ago playing Bay Area-inspired thrash that quickly mutated. Discordant, obtuse and bowel-looseningly heavy thanks to the eight-string guitars employed by Hagström and Fredrik Thordendal - played over the elliptical time signatures of drum genius Tomas Haake - Meshuggah meld prog, metal and industrial elements with into something utterly distinct.

"People tend to think that metal is non-trendy," Hagström said. "You talk to real hard-ass metalheads and they're like 'we're the music style that's very diverse and I like metal because it's so noncommercial and not trend-sensitive at all,' whereas I think it's the opposite. I think it's so trend sensitive, it's just that it's trends within it's own little bubble, so you have the resurgence or re-occurence of stuff that's been going on for years. Now it seems like people are trying to find new ways of merging things together, instead of trying to do it in a manner of their own, they're just taking metal and trying to channel it through something that's already been around.

"When I was kid and got into metal, what metal was to me was music where people tried to change things. Listening to the Bay Area thrash that was the counter-movement to the hair-do bands, it was refreshing to be into something that felt like an experiment, and that's what we've always been about.

"The most thrilling thing about being in this band is that the creativity we use, it's like 'let's see where we can take ourselves now. What happens when we try not to restrain ourselves and just let our minds go free?'" he added. "That's the exciting stuff. That's the part that we love about doing this. So that reflects on everything we do."

Even though Meshuggah - whose lineup is rounded out by singer Jens Kidman and bassist Dick Lövgren - have seen their appeal spread to a much larger audience in recent years - Obzen debuted at #54 on Billboard in March - thanks to tours like Ozzfest and the enthusiastic word of mouth each of their albums has garnered, musicians and music geeks all but worship the band and its unconventional dynamics. Meshuggah's music has been added to the catalog at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and analyzed as part of the 34th Annual Meeting of the Music Theory Society of New York State in 2006. Even their Wikipedia entry reads like a reverential thesis on structure, timing and theory - even though none of the band members, ironically, had much, if any, formal musical schooling.

"It's so weird, I guess it's a way of trying to define what we do," Hagström said. "People say to us 'you sound like a metal band, but you sound like no metal band I've heard before.' I think that is a compliment because that means regardless if people like it or not, we make some kind of impression. You can analyze it all you want, and we're flattered that people put the effort into it.

"The real reason [we make music] is to satisfy ourselves, I know that sounds arrogant, but we're very self indulgent. Music, to us, is about emotion and atmosphere, and by doing what we're doing, we're trying to create an atmosphere - and that's the end of it."

"I see this band as being guys who want to write music that we feel is cool. The technical aspect, the instrumentalist part, is so very secondary. It's all about the songs. People tend to think that we try to make stuff hard, or tough to keep up with, but we're basically looking for a different way to groove."

HATE ETERNAL: Emotional Brutality

Hate Eternal founder and mainman Erik Rutan went into Fury & Flames with a heavy heart and an entirely new line-up.

Rutan's long-time friend and former Hate Eternal bassist Jared Anderson, who he'd been talking with about returning to the band, died in October 2006, just as songwriting was commencing on what would become Fury & Flames. Working with another former bandmate, ex-Ripping Corpse guitarist Shaune Kelley, drummer Jade Simonetto - who basically talked himself into the gig - and Cannibal Corpse bassist Alex Webster - who had played on the first Hate Eternal demo - Rutan and company crafted a vicious, incredibly dark album that takes velocity, technicality and sheer brutality to new heights. Unlike the slick, crystalline precision of Conquering The Throne or King Of All Kings, Fury & Flames is a raw, turbulent work aswirl in cyclonic drums, galloping bass lines and a cacophony of guitar churn topped by Rutan's feral, multitrack vocals that sound like something out of "The Exorcist." Traditional riffs and song structures are noticeable in their relative absence here - the crushing "Para Bellum" and "Tombeau (Le Tombeau De La Fureur et Des Flammes)" being notable exceptions - giving way to a wall of unrelenting death metal fury - for lack of a better term - that bobs, weaves and attacks from every angle.

“After Jared passed away, it influenced the album tremendously on the creative end of it," Rutan said from his home in St. Petersburg, Fla. "I was [producing] all these albums back to back - Six Feet Under, Vital Remains, Through Eyes of the Dead - during a really tough time and the only way to keep my shit together was just play guitar and let it out. That's always been my way of dealing with things, playing guitar.

"I really didn't have an intention with where this record was going to go. I told myself I'm just going to write whatever comes naturally. That's the way I've always written songs, I'll hit on a riff and think 'well, that might make a good tune,' then play on that and see where it goes. From there, I just continue the process and get together with everyone and make it happen."

Yet for all of Fury & Flames' seeming entropy, a lot of meticulous scripting and rigorous rehearsing went into the album, according to Rutan.

"Me, Jade, Alex and Shaune did a ton of work together ahead of time, that's one of the luxuries of owning a studio [Mana Recording Studios where Rutan has produced dozens of albums for everyone from Cannibal Corpse to Lizzy Borden], we worked together for months and we made the songs solid. We didn't even record until everything had been practiced, and it definitely paid off. I think that's why it's so involved and there are so many elements."

This is the fourth line-up Rutan has worked with in as many albums with Hate Eternal, and a parade of all-stars has come and gone over the years - including Anderson, bassist Randy Piro and drummers Tim Yeung and Derek Roddy. Though Webster is a fill-in, albeit as good a one as you'll ever find, Rutan is thrilled with the current band situation, which survived the rigors of putting Fury & Flames together and its first tour - opening for The Black Dahlia Murder - that literally began with bang when Hate Eternal's van was involved in an accident soon after leaving Florida.

Fortunately, no one was hurt - Rutan got banged up pretty badly in a similar crash several years ago - but Hate Eternal barely made the first gig in New York, arriving in time to blast out a few songs after Black Dahlia had finished, and then had to shoot the video for "Bringer of Storms" overnight after the show.

"I would say I'm better off working creatively with people who are happy to be a part of what we're doing," he said. "I love Hate Eternal, I love doing records and touring, those things are a priority to me and to have guys in the band who are as enthusiastic and excited about it as I am definitely makes a much better working environment

"It's hard dealing with lineup changes and whatnot, but it's harder having guys who are not happy or have different motives. The situation I have with Shaune and Jade, and Alex playing on the record, has been an awesome environment, it's a great feeling being surrounded by guys who are loving what we're doing, and doing it for the right reasons."

Though he played a series of festival gigs with his old band, Morbid Angel, in 2006, Rutan said he has no plans to reconnect with them as they gear up for their own shows this summer - and look once again for a second guitar player - in spite of the obvious temptations, not the least of which is the return of bassist/vocalist David Vincent.

"It was one of the best times I've had with the band,” he said of the festival shows. “I've always loved playing with Morbid Angel, so to actually do it again with the guys was killer. I still love Morbid Angel, I'll always love Morbid Angel, that will never change. We make tough decisions in life, and I left Morbid Angel to focus on my producing and focus on Hate Eternal, and both of those things are flourishing because of me leaving Morbid. "You've got to make the gut call. Morbid Angel needed a full-time guy and, god, I've already got two full-time things going on, so something had to give. I would say it's highly unlikely it would happen ever again, but you can never say never on anything because you never know. I always leave the door open."

REVIEWS: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

ARSIS - We Are The Nightmare (Nuclear Blast)

Technical death metal doesn't come much more "technical" than this. And while that's not always a ringing endorsement, given the mess so many hacks make when they try to blend dexterity and brutality, Virginia's Arsis pull it off with often astonishing aplomb. We Are The Nightmare is a veritable feast of fleet-fingered guitar runs and scattergun drumming that chase after one another like dog-fighting warplanes, soaring, diving and twisting at dizzying speeds. "Shattering The Spell" or "Failing Wings of Hopeless Greed" are so manic and involved they can induce seizures. Yet the band are able to weave it all together enough so that, for the most part, it makes some sense. There are actual songs going on here. Nightmare doesn't just sound like a bunch of gifted jack-offs trying to outdo each other. When things do threaten to spin out of control, a quick, chunky riff or deft melodic bridge gets everything back on track. And that, by itself, is pretty amazing. B+

BELPHEGOR - Bondage Goat Zombie (Nuclear Blast)

Austrian sick fucks Belphegor are back with a vengeance with their seventh full-length. Taking their inspiration here from the demented writings of the Marquis de Sade, the trio serve up depravity and devil worship smothered in black/death metal gravy that is both grotesque and compelling. "Justine: Soaked in Blood" and the funereal "Sex Dictator Lucifer" pretty much represent Zombie's perverse yin and yang, and Belphegor present it all with such loving matter-of-factness - as opposed to the ludicrous shenanigans of, say, Pungent Stench - that you might wonder what the hell's wrong with these guys. Perhaps you're better off not knowing. B

CHILDREN OF BODOM - Blooddrunk (Spinefarm)

The vocals have never been great and there are friggin' keyboard solos in every song, yet Finland's Children of Bodom keep coming up with winning albums despite a couple pretty big strikes against them. Blooddrunk, the band's sixth full-length, is more of the same and then some. Bodom's melodic thrash is a bit more melodic and thrashier here than on previous outings, making for an album that is at the same time catchier and heavier. "Hellhounds on My Trail," Roadkill Morning" "Smile Pretty for the Devil" and title track match brawn, flash and grace with anthemic songwriting for a total package that really kicks ass. Alexi Laiho's raspy screech is as unapologetically harsh as ever and the synth twiddling of Janne Wirman continues unabated on Blooddrunk, but - save for the mellower "Banned From Heaven" where they both stand too far out - it hardly matters, as the album's Top 25 debut on Billboard in April would seem to prove. And if the kids don't care, who am I to complain? A-

DEVIAN - Ninewinged Serpent (Century Media)

A flat, pedestrian debut from ex-Marduk frontman Legion and drummer Emil Dragutinovic’s new band. Forgoing balls-out black metal for much more of a death-and-roll situation, Devian don’t quite muster the engaging riffs or crafty songs to really make it work - like Immortal frontman Abbath managed to do on the album he did last year with his sideband, I. Instead, much of Serpent is merely a dull roar. And the caterwauling of Legion, who didn't really sound all the great with Marduk, to be honest, only drags things down further. D

DISMEMBER – Dismember (Regain)

Sort of the Swedish death metal equivalent of The Ramones or AC/DC, Dismember have stuck with a sonic formula that has served them well for 20 years. Yet like those other bands, Dismember have been able to sound fresh and relevant, relatively speaking, while others in their ilk have strayed and stumbled – Entombed, etc. – or merely disappeared. Despite the loss of founding drummer and main songwriter Fred Estby, the band’s self-titled eighth album rips, delivering a rough-hod pounding with some surprising dynamic flourishes. The Maiden-like guitar interplay of "Under A Blood Red Sky" is nicely done, adding an air of sophistication. And the mammoth hooks of "Tide of Blood" provide for a mid-tempo breath-catcher before things get all frantic and brutal again on "Combat Fatigue." B+

ELUVEITIE - Slania (Nuclear Blast)

Anyone curious about Pagan metal but afraid of ending up with something that sounds like the soundtrack from a Renaissance fair ought to give the second album from this Swiss troupe a try. Slania is much more often metal than age-old woodland folk, as the barn dance/battle anthem theatrics inherent in much of this genre's acts - Turisas and Korpiklaani, for example - are kept to a minimum. "Primordial Breath," "Bloodstained Ground" and "Tarvos" are heavy as hell - even with the accompanying whistles, flutes, fiddles, hurdygurdy, etc. - thanks to their bracing melodic death metal guitaring and charging tempos. Eluveitie seem more intent on incorporating the disparate folk elements into a metal framework, instead of the other way around, and it makes for a presentation that doesn't sound so damn weird. B+

FIREWIND - The Premonition (Century Media)

Not exactly the most "extreme" band in the world, but what the hell. And here, once you get past the inexplicable cover of the “Flashdance” theme “Maniac” — which actually does boast a nice punch, despite the inherent suckiness of the song itself —the fifth album from Greece's Firewind is power metal gold. Rock solid, ballsy songs, great vocals by Apollo Papathanasio - awesome name - and a welcome touch of restraint from guitar whiz Gus G make The Premonition a hell of a lot more satisfying than the empty masturbation of, say, Dragonforce. Gus G’s guitar pyro fits nicely within the context of each song, never making them seem like mere showcases for his obvious chops. And sleek, yet beefy tracks like “Mercenary Man” and "Into The Fire" are about as good as this stuff gets. B+

KATAKLYSM - Prevail (Nuclear Blast)

Canadian veterans Kataklysm have had a pretty spotty track record over their 15-year plus career, but they did manage to set the bar pretty high with 2006's masterful In The Arms of Devastation. Perhaps a bit too high. The follow-up Prevail is a step backward for the band, boasting a pedestrian death metal bluster that doesn't come close to delivering on the promise of its predecessor. "The Chains of Power" and "As Death Lingers" offer the requisite savagery, but lack that certain something that makes them anything other than ordinary. And the slower, chunkier "Blood of Heaven," despite its wicked guitar solo, or "To The Throne of Sorrow" with its swaggering hook, are just plain bland. Definitely a disappointment. C-

KREATOR - At The Pulse of Kapitulation (SPV)

This DVD/CD combo - previously issued eons ago on the Live In East Berlin videocassette, without the CD accompaniment - offers a trip into the thrash metal way-back machine. Kapitulation captures the band's historic 1990 show in East Berlin not long after the Wall fell. And we're talking Extreme Aggression-era Kreator – before they entered their dreary, decade-long “experimental” phase they now, thankfully, have shrugged off – when they were one ruthless live act. Kreator's vicious performance and the sight of several thousand newly liberated East Germans going ape shit is priceless. A gussied up 5.1 Dolby mix ensures the soundtrack - and CD - is good and LOUD! And as a bonus the Hallucinative Comas mini-movie - again, previously only available on videocassette - is tacked on to the end of the DVD portion. It's essentially all the videos from the Coma of Souls album tied together by a Poe-esque horror story about a homicidal doctor. It's nothing all the earth-shattering, and the videos all look the same, but there is a pretty grisly throat slashing in the middle that's pretty cool - if that's your thing. B+

SOILENT GREEN - Inevitable Collapse In The Presence of Conviction (Metal Blade)

Being named one of the "10 most important bands of metal" by Rolling Stone a decade ago seems to been more of a curse than a blessing for Soilent Green. Since then there's been two van crashes - the second of which nearly killed frontman Ben Falgoust - the murder/suicide death of former bassist Scott Williams and the Hurricane Katrina drowning of ex-singer Gene Rambo, among other things. Yet the ragin' Cajuns have been able to channel all this bad juju into some stellar, inventive death metal. Inevitable Collapse, Soilent's fifth album, is no exception. Its off-kilter, bayou-tinged grooves give the band's tumultuous histrionics a unusual spicy goodness - where else are you going to find banjos on a death metal album? And with “All This Good Intention Wasted In The Wake of Apathy” and “A Pale Horse and the Story of the End,” the band's grief, anger and disdain are unleashed with such vehemence that its proof-positive what hasn't killed Soilent has only made them stronger - and more pissed. A-

TESTAMENT - The Formation of Damnation (Nuclear Blast)

The first album from the "classic" Testament line-up (though with Paul Bostaph replacing Louis Clemente on drums) in 16 years sounds, not surprisingly, like classic Testament. But it's the Legacy/Practice What You Preach-era sound that is represented here, not the more commercial-minded Ritual version right before the band imploded. And that's definitely a good thing. Add a splash of Demonic/Gathering oomph for good measure and you've got probably what just about every Testament fan was hoping for from this comeback outing. The hulking, chugga-chugga riffing of Eric Peterson, fierce soloing from an energized Alex Skolnick and Chuck Billy's grizzly roar are plentiful and powerful here, and when given a bit of death metal kick in the title track, "F.E.A.R." and "The Persecuted Won't Forget" add up to some of mightiest work Testament have ever done. The chunky "More Than Meets The Eye," "Afterlife" and "Henchmen Ride," with their infectious, boom-bastic choruses, can stand right up alongside old classics like "Practice" and "Disciples of the Watch" - and there's nary a "Return to Serenity" style ballad to found. Formation is all muscle. There are a few misfires - the musically solid "The Evil Has Landed" runs Sept. 11 up the flagpole about five years too late and "Killing Season" and "Dangers of the Faithless" are just kinda "eh" songs that seem like afterthoughts. And though Bostaph does a fine job on drums here, no complaints, it would have been cool to hear what human tornado Nick Barker could have brought to the table had his visa problems not interceded. Still, if this indeed a second life for the Testament of old - and not just a passing nostalgia fancy Skolnick and bassist Greg Christian are destined to walk away from again - then it's off a great start. B+

VENOMOUS CONCEPT - Poisoned Apple (Century Media)

On paper, Venomous Concept would seem to be a can't lose, well, concept. Half of Brutal Truth (singer Kevin Sharp and bassist Dan Lilker) joined by half of Napalm Death (drummer Danny Herrera and bassist Shane Embury, who here plays guitar). Ready, set, grind. Right? Well, not quite. Many of these "all-star" collaborations seem to suffer from, A.) too many cooks in the kitchen, or B.) settling for the path of least resistance. And here, it's the latter that applies. Instead of giving grindcore a needed boot up the ass, Venomous instead opt for straight hardcore, with the occasional blast-beat chaser from Herrera. And while Poisoned Apple is undeniably brutal and grating, powered by Sharp's iron-lunged holler, it's also largely unremarkable in a hardcore is as hardcore does sort of way. Take away the band's lineage and few people would probably give this any notice. And given said lineage, those who do are apt to come away underwhelmed. C-

WARREL DANE - Praises to the War Machine (Century Media)

Nevermore frontman Warrel Dane makes pretty much all the right moves on his terrific solo debut. Working with some proven pros - ex-Soilwork guitarist Peter Wichers, current Soilwork drummer Dirk Verbeuren and ex-Himsa guitarist Matt Wicklun - he plays to his obvious strengths as one of metal's premier vocalists, focusing on melody and opting for simplicity over epic grandeur. While Praises is by no means a sonic stretch from his work with Nevermore - or Wichers and Verbeuren's work with Soilwork for that matter, you can hear traces of both here - the material is succinct and understated by comparison, and definitely has something of a lighter touch. "When Me Pray," "Equilibrium" and "The Day The Rats Went to War" do deliver a bold, metallic crunch, but the bulk of Praises might best be described as abrasive hard rock - ballsy enough not to be wimpy, yet hardly bombastic. And that's just fine. It makes for a perfect vehicle of Dane's evocative voice and great range. And he clearly is not using Praises as an exercise in narcissism, as his singing and the music fit hand in glove. It's a well thought out work, well executed work that does Dane proud and is well worth checking out. A

ZIMMERS HOLE - While You Were Shouting At The Devil, We Were In League With Satan (Century Media)

When members of Strapping Young Lad and Dethklok join forces with a vocalist who goes by "The Heathen," you can be sure insanity will ensue. And the Century Media debut from Zimmers Hole certainly does not disappoint on that count. Unrepentantly METAL! with Jed Simon's booming riffs and Gene Hoglan's stampeding backbeats, unabashedly crude and often deliriously goofy, We Were in League takes the piss out the dead seriousness and self-importance of today's extreme music. The title track, "We Rule The Fucking Land" and "Hair Doesn't Grown on Steel" are spot on with their over-the-top bravado and razor-sharp wit. On the lowbrow side, with "The Vowel Song" - which features a "public service announcement" from Dethklok's Nathan Explosion - "Fista Corps" and "Anonymous Esophagus," Zimmers Hole are gloriously obscene and strike that Beavis & Butt-Head chord in all of us. Throw some horns and enjoy. B+

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