(For his first post of the week, Andy Synn takes aim at three of last month’s most sacred cows… but is he here to slaughter them, or just give them a little push?)
Last month saw the release of several new albums from some pretty big and (in)famous names (well, in Metal terms at least) and a resultant storm of press and PR both leading up to and following on from these releases.
And, to be honest, I wasn’t sure whether it was really worth us commenting on them. After all, they’re all well past the point where write-ups and reviews are going to have any sort of major impact on album sales, and have reached a stage in their careers where the fans are going to praise, and the haters are going to hate, no matter what.
Case in point, I’ve seen people calling the new Cannibal Corpse album “boring” even as others declare that it “pushes the Death Metal genre forward” (it doesn’t, but it’s far from “boring”), I’ve read posts claiming that Gojira are either “just a generic groove-metal act” or “the greatest band of the century” (they’re neither, as it happens), and observed several sites giving the latest Vreid a perfect 10/10 score (c’mon guys, it’s good, but do you really think it’s on the level of, say, Master of Puppets or are you just spitting hype because you know it gets clicks?).
That being the case, however, I still feel like there’s a place for a more measured and “objective” analysis of each of these releases, one which doesn’t exist just to confirm the pre-existing prejudices of its readers, which is why I decided to step up to the plate, take one for the team, and attempt to bring a little bit of balance to the force, by reviewing them all myself.
CANNIBAL CORPSE – VIOLENCE UNIMAGINED
It would be extremely cliché to say that if you like Cannibal Corpse then you’re going to like Violence Unimagined. But it’s true.
It would be much more interesting, however, to say that if you’ve been reticent to climb onboard the Corpse-train before now then VU will probably serve as a great jumping-on point, not only because it’s a damn good (occasionally bordering on great) example of just why the band have long-since earned – and continue to earn – their legendary status, but because the initiation of long-time producer (and Death Metal legend in his own right) Erik Rutan into the fold as a full-time member has clearly helped rejuvenate the band’s enthusiasm (and, dare I say, imagination) – especially when compared with the slightly lacklustre approach which (with certain exceptions) dominated the group’s last couple of efforts.
From the frantic pacing of opener “Murderous Rampage” and the helter-skelter, face-in-a-smelter, assault of “Necrogenic Resurrection”, to the back-breaking brutality of “Condemnation Contagion” (my personal favourite) and the chug ‘n’ churn, thrash ‘n’ burn, assault of “Follow the Blood”, there’s a lot of really good tracks here (mostly during the first half-to-two-thirds of the album – the manic “Overtorture” being a key exception), where you can tell that not only are the band firing on all cylinders but are having an absolute blast while doing so.
Of course, there’ll be some who’ll get unreasonably mad about the fact that Violence Unimagined doesn’t reinvent the Death Metal wheel or overhaul the band’s sound (and there’s a whole other article to be written about why newer/younger bands doing this sort of thing are praised for their “old school values” but older, more seasoned acts are often criticised for not “progressing”), and there’s definitely something about the production that takes a bit of getting used to (the best way I can put it is that during some of the faster parts the album starts to sound a little “brittle”, and Alex Webster’s bass is unexpectedly buried for most of the record)
But, when all is said and done, the band’s fifteenth(!) album just goes to show you why it’s important to stick to your guns. Sure, more popular gimmicks and trends may come and go, the band’s star may wax and wane with the seasons, but as long as Cannibal Corpse still have the chops and, more importantly, the passion for what they do (which, if nothing else, this record proves emphatically), then there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be able to keep on giving birth to albums of unquestionable integrity and unmatched intensity for years to come.
GOJIRA – FORTITUDE
If there’s one thing I think we can all agree on when it comes to Gojira is that they are a polarising band, more so than ever in the aftermath of Magma, the group’s biggest – but, in my opinion, most uneven – record yet.
So it goes without saying that some of you will have made up your mind about this album already, and what I’m about to write probably won’t make a damn bit of difference either way.
But if you haven’t… if you’re interested more in the who, where, why, and how of the record, rather than just being told why you should/shouldn’t love it… then this review might just be for you.
I remember saying, around the time that Magma was first making waves, that it felt very much like a transitional record, one which saw the band testing out a bunch of new ideas – a simpler, more straightforward riffing style, a more streamlined songwriting approach, a stronger focus on melody – which mostly worked, but which felt a little stretched out over the course of a full album (if it’d been an EP I might have felt very differently).
And it looks like I was right about that, because while Fortitude isn’t perfect – the title-track is an obvious misstep (I can see what the band were going for in the way it sets up “The Chant”, and perhaps if it were only half as long it might work, but it very much overstays its welcome), and I’m still on the fence about the way the album ends (mostly because the climax of “Into the Storm” just feels like it should be the overall finale, although the ending of “Grind” isn’t a bad way to finish either) – it definitely seems as though Gojira took all the right lessons from Magma while also recapturing a lot of the creative energy which fuelled their initial breakthrough.
Tracks like “Another World” and “New Found”, for example, marry the band’s now more fully realised melodic sensibilities to the esoteric arrangements and proggy proclivities of The Way of All Flesh, while punchier cuts such as “Amazonia” and “Sphinx” fuse the organic power of From Mars to Sirius with the more atmospheric approach which first took on greater prominence on L’Enfant Sauvage.
And even the more obviously post-Magma numbers – particularly “Hold On”, which is an absolutely killer cut, no matter how you slice it – have significantly more pep in their step and more power under the hood.
Sure, a judicious trim would probably still help a little (I’d definitely cut down, or just cut, the title-track if it were up to me, and “The Trails” isn’t exactly vital) but there’s no denying – not if you’re being fair and honest anyway – that Fortitude is, overall, a very strong effort that combines many of the best elements of the band’s entire back-catalogue (sometimes, as in the case of “Grind”, which transitions from jagged Death Metal to rumbling Nu-Metal-ish groove to spacious, melodic Post-Metal ambience, all in one song) into one impressive whole.
VREID – WILD NORTH WEST
Despite having been performing together much longer (if you take into account their time in Windir anyway) than Gojira, it’s only very recently that the members of Vreid have managed to achieve that critical-mass of popularity which has made them both largely “critic proof” and “too big to fail”.
To an extent this is a testament to the band’s perseverance and self-belief, which has seen them rise from the ashes of tragedy to become a recognisable “name” in the Metal scene.
However, it also shows that reaching this point in a band’s career isn’t necessarily reliant on producing consistently quality work, as the band’s last two records are easily their most mediocre (some might even say “worst”), and seemed designed primarily to sell a more watered-down version of their sound to a wider audience rather than to add anything meaningful to their legacy.
Thankfully Wild North West is a definite step up from both its predecessors (whose low bar probably accounts for some of the ridiculously over-inflated scores it’s received), and actually sounds like the product of a band who’ve actually been inspired to create (they did, after all, make a whole accompanying movie to go along with the record) and not just the result of the group simply going through the motions.
Sure, it’s got its flaws – on the hand the band still occasionally play it a little too safe (such as during the relatively bland opening title-track) for their own good, and on the other some of their bigger swings don’t always pay off (though there’s a certain heartwarming nostalgia in hearing some of Valfar’s final synth compositions during “Into the Mountains” they don’t really add anything to the track, and basically just bring the song’s momentum to a screeching halt) – but there’s definitely more killer than filler to be found amongst the album’s many twists and turns.
In particular, songs like the predatory “Wolves at Sea” and the righteously riffy “Shadows of Aurora” both recall the band’s prime Milorg/V era – albeit with a touch more grim melodic grandeur and/or showboating swagger, respectively – while the spiteful “Spikes of God” is easily the most overtly “Black Metal” song the band have produced in over a decade, and shows that they’ve still got more than enough fire in them to balance out the brooding strains of “The Morning Red” or the more intricate, proggy storytelling of almost ten minute closer “Shadowland” (both of which are also well worth the price of admission).
So while it’s not exactly a blockbuster (there’s no giant mechanical spider, for one thing), Wild North West is definitely a step back on the right path for Vreid, and hopefully a sign that while they’re clearly not ready to give up on their grander ambitions, they won’t forget their roots either.