Satanic Warmaster’s Fimbulwinter

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After four long years of anticipation and relative silence peppered with the occasional single or demo, Werewolf, the mastermind behind the revered Satanic Warmaster, appeared from nothingness in 2014 to plant upon the world his fifth menhir, Fimbulwinter, a coffin-like oblong monument that reiterates the brilliance of honest-to-goodness black metal, a statement that plants itself steadfastly in soil tainted by the likes of superficial imitation, mislabeling, and appropriation.

Sporting with it the classic dark-dim-dungeon production that has long characterized his music, Werewolf’s return is packed with riffs and melodies put into motion by buzzsaw guitars that shear and slice and blast throughout the record, forming a wide and colossal stomping ground for the vocal work’s wicked-sharp wretches and throes, the drive behind the album’s thematic power, one that is much more focused and specific than on previous Warmaster works. On this outing, Werewolf invests himself in his performance like never before, straining himself to the farthest stretches his growls can take him, shrieking and ripping and tearing with undeterred prowess to match the album’s tenebrous intensity, which, unlike its predecessors, most of which were willingly cavernous and suffocated, is just clear and full enough in its joyously organic production to allow the notes to become individually discernable, like bricks that build into the music’s thorn-covered sonic wall, a decision that forms part of the record’s decidedly atmospheric approach, featuring a new sound that shimmers like hoarfrost yet is dense like billowing storm clouds and wintery fog, building into buffeting and blistering holocaust winds that echo the unstoppable assaults of Battles in the North-era Immortal, winds that welt and skin, cruelly and monstrously, yet give way to hidden melodies that swirl like the blizzard blasts they form, all complemented by the sounds of serpentine winds, crashing thunders, and raven calls that are sprinkled throughout the album. All of it combined—from Werewolf’s vocals that vividly become the whipping and lashing of storms, to the icicle-sharpness of the music—allows the album to create its own realm of ice, the ambition of the aforementioned Battles fully realized here. Opener “Fimbulwinter’s Spell” unleashes a thrashing and limitless chilling expanse of overpowering and freezing notes, cutting with sleet and rime, stabbing and numbing like frostbite—it’s the album’s horrendous virtue, its promise of doom under the weight of eternal cold.

But even in the most visceral of attacks, the songs build into larger monoliths that shift and change like the crevices or cliff-valleys of teeth-like mountain stretches, those all-consuming blizzards giving way to acoustic reprieves or the silken touches of ambient synth, or breaking open into gentler, sometimes folky melodies that give the album the singular mystical touch of medieval darkness, all of it reminiscent of classic Satyricon and, in turn, the passionate might of Bathory’s Hammerheart, exemplified by “Funeral Wolves,” which forms at first as a hopeless storm, and then gives way to the beauty of ice and snow and frozen moonlight, or “Dragon’s Egg,” which lays down a reverence of heraldic, ancient creatures, a song that is principally characterized by awe and dread, and then transforms into a genuinely climactic sense of discovery.

In every way, the album bears the spirit of its eponymous mythological apocalypse: massive and colossal, the album leaves the misanthropic dungeon occultism of previous Warmaster records in place of a cloudy, almost fantastical vision complemented by its cold, desolate glimmers and treacherous peaks, enormous in scale and scope without resorting to exaggerated snapshots of enormous battles or worlds in crisis—it’s a terribly personal apocalypse, like being caught in an endless valley of freezing snow and growing ice in total solitude, the album possessing the much-coveted mark of mature black metal: that elusive balance between sorrow and aggression, all of its elements swirling together to create an inspiring, intoxicating mixture. Even the most adventurous of the album’s songs, like the mighty “When Thunders Hail,” which features a joyously danceable, classically folk riff and ghostly northern lights in the form of those velvety synth touches, is both uncompromisingly abrasive yet underlined by a charging, razor-like solemnity that appears silhouetted through the thickly brewed and ever-slashing guitar attack. In its sound, and in its songwriting, the album is graceful and strong, being intimately familiar with grimness but capable of rising to moments of pristine wonder, like the boreal tunnels of “Nuin-Gaer-Faun,” which are witness to the glories of both the album’s destructive sway and the underlying moments of driving somberness that appear between and within the swings of the axe.

In its entirety, in its cohesion, and in its individual songs, the album is thoroughly majestic and dignified, beautiful, even. As awfully misused as the word “Epic” is, it really, honestly fits here—the record’s atmosphere creates the distinct sensation of a place of unending winter, built by equally arctic music, capturing a sense of otherworldliness, another of black metal’s mystifying powers. As “Winter’s Hunger” ends in waves of synth and flourishes of frosty guitars, it feels like a book’s end, like leaving that otherworld far behind as it shrinks in the horizon. While the album is 52 minutes long, it never overstays its welcome, and save for the third track, “Korppi,” a cover, which feels a little bland when in the context of its surroundings, the album is absolutely grand. Werewolf lives up to the legacy he has built in Satanic Warmaster, and once more, he delivers a masterwork to fit into his canon. While apart in tone and ambience from his original works, it remains as part of his lineage of pure and true black metal, and it stands out as a spectacular contribution, a mesmerizing album that manages to contend its own force even against the best on offer from other masters of the craft, especially in the year of its release. If this is the direction Werewolf wants Warmaster to take, a contrast even to the singles he released leading up to Fimbulwinter’s, and if he can make another record to match the greatness of this one, he can take all the time he needs. After all, the future looks very bright.

Why not take a quick listen?

 

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MetalSucks Apologizes for Shameless, Libelous Hit Piece, Immediately Deletes Post

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As you may be able to tell, the URL reads: “Apology Destroyer 666.”

Yesterday, July 18, MetalSucks put up an apology after realizing what deep shit their imprudent and absolutely thoughtlessly made “Deströyer 666 are OFFICIALLY racist” posts had gotten them in. I’m late again, I see. Well, what do you do, huh? Then again, I honestly, honestly didn’t expect MetalSucks to be so spineless, skinless, and cowardly.

MetalSucks has picked the wrong fight and come out with their tail between their legs and their collective three-inch dick in a miniature cast, and have deleted all of their Destöyer 666 related articles after making strong, irreversible and outright libelous accusations about someone’s character. All of them have been vaporized. Except for their cocky references in their “Top Ten Posts on MetalSucks This Week.”

YOU FUCKING HACKS FORGOT SOMETHING

Guys, those links don’t lead anywhere! How will we see such awesome posts?

Yeah, the bastards got gored and their damage control is to just purge everything. The scruples-lacking senseless twits even deleted their stupid, last-minute apology. Holy SHIT, did MS actually believe nothing would happen after doing something as dirt-fucking-stupid as trying to defamate a band that obtains raw fucking life force from controversy and not giving a rat’s ass about it?

While MS claim in their half-assed apology that their original inflammatory articles were deleted because “Black metal band Deströyer 666 have been receiving death threats,” it’s apparent that the actual cause for both an apology and subsequent article deletions was possible legal action on the part of the infuriated band, as well as a very convincing Facebook post several hours earlier where frontman K.K. Warslut reiterated the names of MetalSucks co-founders Matt “Axl Rosenberg” Goldberg and Ben “Vince Neilstein” Umanov (as well as the latter’s address). Yes. Deströyer 666 doxxed MetalSucks. Now, it’s just a theory, but it’s possible that the deletion of the apology itself is most likely due to the veritable flood of “HAHA GET REKT YOU STUPID FUCKS, FINALLY” comments that completely consumed it (a shit storm that has also spread to the rest of their recent posts).

Aside from its false “don’t want nobody hurt” excuse, perhaps the most thoroughly insulting thing about the apology is that it’s simply signed “MetalSucks,” letting Axl hide behind the comfort of anonymity and his site’s entity, rather than growing a pair and apologizing for his bullshit. “Oh, shit, MetalSucks is sorry.” What a hack. The prick puts the burden of his adult responsibility on a trademark, rather than confronting the problem he started. Spineless. Skinless. Cowardly. And I guess nobody at his worthless, sensationalist site thought anything of it.

If you want to read the apology, as well as the attempted character assassination that started the whole mess, you can find it all on Google (or Yahoo’s) lovely, lovely cache function in the search results page. Speed on, Deströyer 666, and don’t ever let anybody tell you what to do.

Axl Rosenberg: Best or GREATEST Journalman?

Holy shit. HOLY SHIT. Another grand piece of extremely informative investigative journalism by the clowns at MetalSucks. I move under a rock for a few months and this is what my ass is blasted with as soon as I start surfing the web? This is what I’m coming back to post on? I’ve had a bunch of shitty pieces all lined up and the first thing I decide to post upon coming back is a reaction to this? Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ. So you read it on MetalSucks first, folks. Actually, don’t read it on MetalSucks. Just read it here: Deströyer 666 is officially totally racist!

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Gee, when’d MetalSucks’ finest bum-tickling asswipe figure that one out? Here, let’s check to see when EVERYONE in the FUCKING WORLD did.

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Holy moley, give the goon squad at MetalSucks a god damned PULITZER PRIZE! Man, Axl really had to dig deep for this scoop. If he really wanted to have a little neck beard sprinkling of triumphant pizzazz, maybe he could’ve waited until twenty-fucking-seventeen for the album’s 20th anniversary to break out this fascinating piece of news! Aw, man. I guess this revelation will completely negate the band’s entire career and reputation, just as it did Phil Anselmo–and Inquisition’s Dagon–in the eyes of the fans who totally cared and just willingly threw away their love for their music overnight.

What’s next? Will Axl Rosenberg finally write his long-awaited career-making piece on Satanic Warmaster and how Werewolf is totally a Nazi? He should watch out, though, seeing how his shitty site knowingly name-dropped them as a notable feature in their post for Hell’s Headbangers’ Hells Headbash Part 2 DVD, which features a performance by the totally Nazi super Nazi band who are racist and Nazis (did you know they’re fucking Nazis dude?). Hopefully he’ll condemn Polish underground sensation Mgła for being on the same label as Satanic Nazimaster, those racist motherfuckers!

Goodbye, Lemmy.

Lemmy Kilmister passed away last night. He was 70.

“Legend”, “Icon”, “The embodiment of Rock ‘n’ Roll”. There are a mountainous lot of words to describe Lemmy Kilmister, and all of them righteous in their own way. What can be said that hasn’t been? The man made a legacy that grew in his own lifetime, and during his years, he received recognition for it in the forms of endless adoration and admiration. Without Motörhead, extreme metal would be a very different place, if even a place at all. The band informed and injected heavy metal with a sense of unparalleled speed, propelled by weight and agitation that set the stage alight for raunch and aggression.

I doubt I can come up with anything new to say about the man, but at least I can pay my respects, and say goodbye. Despite having never met him or even having looked at him in the flesh, I feel like I’ve lost a part of me, a hole that grows the more the news of Lemmy’s passing weighs down on me. Like many other metalheads around the globe, his music was a stepping stone into my appreciation of heavy metal, one of the genre’s very first bands I ever heard, and the one that created a ravenous hunger for raw, thrashy, ugly music that grew into a love of Tank, Bulldozer, Warfare, Venom, Celtic Frost and Bathory—his pupils, his children. Motörhead has always been and always will be a favorite, and despite the homages and imitators and the band’s own unrelenting output of music, they remained clearly and uniquely themselves, a crystalline image and sound dwelling in my mind, powered by the gritty and grizzled rasp and the thundering bulldozer bass of the weathered pillar himself. We all knew he was going to go, but we didn’t think he would go so suddenly.

It’s always odd to think that something you love is gone forever.

Rest in peace, Ian Fraser “Lemmy” Kilmister. You old bastard.

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I always knew the only way
Is never live beyond today
They proved me right
They proved me wrong
But they could never last this long
My life, my heart, black night, dark star.

Capricorn.

The Death of the Expanded Universe

Just a short moment of silence for one of the grandest and greatest fictional universes ever established. From the Yuuzhan Vong to the Thrawn books, from Jedi Outcast to the Legacy comics. It’s all gone, for better or worse, all turned to relics from a past where this new trilogy existed only in the imagination.

But as I watched Awakens, and I saw Poe Dameron’s blue X-Wing and Kylo Ren’s shuttle land, I felt excited: excited for all the new expansions possible in this new canon, from games to novels and short stories to comics. Perhaps a little removed compared to all the old stuff taking place right after the original trilogy, but closer to good and honest Star Wars than the prequels ever were.

And hey, it might take a little while for the really good stuff to appear. But it’s a whole new world to explore, and I’m strapped in. Here’s to the new EU, with whatever old elements that may return and all of the new ones that may arrive.

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In Payne and Suffering

 

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“To Make any kind of sense of it, I need to go back three years. Back to the night the pain started.”

Snacking on unhealthy doses of painkillers and wielding an arsenal of guns for every occasion, Max Payne seamlessly blends neo-noir with visceral third-person shooting for a memorable and highly quotable action game. Set in the grim, ugly streets of New York’s seedy criminal underbelly, the titular undercover cop with nothing to lose dodges police, goons and bullets as he attempts to escape a web of violence and find the truth about the death of his loved ones.

Released in 2001 and developed by Remedy Entertainment, the game has aged remarkably well and remains a gritty and compelling shooter thanks to innovative gameplay and fantastic art direction. While some of the polygonal likenesses plastered onto the jaggy models don’t have quite the charm they did way back when, the photographs-as-textures still look good, along with the brilliant animations and particles that flash and pop throughout the game.

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Like a Monet, it all looks much better from farther away.

Muzzles flash, bolts twitch, hammers slam, bullets sear through the air and tear into walls that chip, wood that bursts, blood that splatters, and glass that shatters. Every weapon has a satisfying kick to it.

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Holes form everywhere, and bullet casings accumulate on the floor.

And, while the graphical prowess of the game has inevitably grown archaic, the real eye-catcher comes in the presentation of cutscenes.

Rather than risk their narrative through in-engine cinematics like Jedi Outcast and Grand Theft Auto III, Remedy saved time, money, and the story’s impact by presenting it in highly stylized graphic novel pages, riddled through with near-poetic and rock-hardboiled narration from the main character himself, as well as lovably grand and lovably bad voice acting provided by supporting cast.

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The abundant cutscenes dish out style and substance, taking cues from many hardboiled films and comics.

Throughout the game, Max is cynical, sarcastic, and all human, his reactions and emotions the product of danger, desperation, and rage, his quips and comments constant and charming as his boon-of-a-voice ponders and meditates through his journey down dingy tenements, brothels, gothic nighclubs and mafia manors, a trait that heavily defines the character and tone of the game even outside exposition.

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“When darkness fell, New York City became something else, any old Sinatra song notwisthstanding. Bad things happened in the night, on the streets of that other city. Noir York City.”

Unlike many other games that attempt a dark story, Max Payne accomplishes its attempt with extreme success, thanks to a mix of humor—like stumbling across mobsters sobbing over period soaps or discussing their favorite movie endings, hearing them hassle a malfunctioning soda machine, or whistling while using the toilet—and grimness. While captured, the man torturing Max introduces himself:

Pleased to meet ya. I’m Frankie ‘the bat’ Niagara.

‘Niagara, as in you cry a lot?’ He had a baseball bat, and I was tied to a chair. Pissing him off was the smart thing to do.”

The following frames have Max receiving a few fierce blows to the head.

The game drips with character, understanding the subtle balance between noir and schlock, leveling in at a wonderful mix of both. It’s highly quotable, obviously cheesy, but also genuine in every way that counts. It’s homage and also bona fide, John Woo and noir’s journey to hell combined, with references galore and dramatic zooms, shots and angles that pepper the action. To punctuate encounters the camera will sometimes zone in on the last enemy killed, allowing the player to keep shooting as the body trickles blood and falls limp, and when using the sniper rifle the camera becomes a POV, following the bullet’s course as it hits.

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“The word was out. A deadly virus released into the city’s corrupt circulatory system. Something wicked this way comes. Max Payne at large.”

Self aware, the game never backs away from being deadly serious, ponderous or funny. As Max puts it in one chapter:

“After Y2K, the end of the world had become a cliché. But who was I to talk, a brooding underdog avenger alone against an empire of evil out to right a grave injustice. Everything was subjective. There were only personal apocalypses. Nothing is a cliché when it’s happening to you.”

Story-wise, it also takes the player on a psychological ride through Max’s mind, an aforementioned personal apocalypse that dips and turns throughout each of the game’s chapters. His nightmares and hallucinations are creepy levels, his thoughts a whirling brew of trauma and depression.

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“Somewhere, the baby was crying.”

His nature unfolds through simple interactions and observations of the environment around him. Amongst flippable switches, flushable toilets and useable soda machines, important news broadcasts, notes and books on tables, computer monitors, photographs, instruments, and corpses, each eliciting a unique reaction, can catch Max’s attention.

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“I had just gotten my fifteen minutes of fame,” as the local news station comments on Max’s involvement in the death of a fellow DEA agent.

The gameplay is comprised of solid shooting—weapons follow some level of realism as bullets’ flight paths can be observed and dodged, prompting mobility during firefights. Max is fragile, but so are his enemies—a direct blast from a shotgun can insta-kill the hero, as well as a thug. Shots have to be led, forming a slight learning curve for players used to hitscan shooters or auto-aim, a curve highlighted by the lack of down-the-sights aiming and a single, pixel-wide white dot serving as a reticule.

However, to aid the player during impossibly hectic gunfights or sudden encounters, the player can slow down the action thanks to the game’s mechanical masterwork: bullet time, which allows the player to aim accurately or plan approaches, a power contained within a small hourglass near the player’s health that drains quickly and only refills with each enemy killed. Bullet time also allows Max to perform a “shoot dodge,” the classic side jump as guns blaze performed in many a classic shoot ‘em up movie.

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“Gognitti bailed. I made like Chow Yun Fat.”

Bullet time has to be saved and used wisely, though, prompting the player to react quickly and strategize, as the squishy Max and his inferiority in numbers makes each new area more dangerous than the last. He can eat some of the painkillers he finds along the way, but Max is in for a difficult quest.

The game’s a hard one; cover is everywhere, and weapons are always available, but enemies hold no punches, positioned anywhere they can and with the same guns you wield. To add to the chaos, the difficulty adjusts to the player’s skill, which can make certain situations unpredictable for the unprepared. Fast reactions, as well as clever use of audio cues and sound effects, are the bread and butter of Max Payne’s style, forcing the player to use everything they possibly can, especially their bullet time, to their advantage.

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“Turn around, walk away, blow town. That would have been the smart thing to do. I guess I wasn’t that smart.”

A few minor gripes do exist. The game’s weapons aren’t quite as balanced as they should be, and eventually the Colt rifle will practically replace every other gun in Max’s impossibly large collection. Occasionally, making jumps will be difficult during the odd platforming section, mostly due to Max’s proximity to the camera and his short, goofy hop. And, in some cases, patience will have to be learned by eager players who rush in blindly without checking corners or edges for sneakily placed enemies. However, the game is never unfair, and the gripes never rage-inducing, as the power of Max Payne is contained within its virtuoso execution of third-person action and its compelling story.

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“From now on I would always find time for her. It was a hollow promise. Too little, too late.”

If you want a game that’s wholly unique, even in today’s market saturated with black and white war simulators and angsty heroes, one that’s also unrelentingly packed with thrills and character, Max Payne is one of the best choices available. It’s a challenging game, and the writing is spectacular, sleek and mean. It stands as a blood-crusted ride alongside an anemic mind on a one-way trip for revenge, one setpiece at a time, through graffiti filled streets in a snowed-in city to burning buildings and metallic skyscrapers. And it’s hilarious, in a morbid sort of way. Play it on PC—the console ports are awfully dark and their controls are obtuse, and the Game Boy Advance version (which does, in fact, exist), while cute, cultures many problems that make it only a light snack to satiate a serious Payne hunger. Look for the dirt-cheap trilogy bundle on Steam during the holidays—the sequels are equally good, if not better, so there’s nothing to regret.

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“Colder than a walk-in fridge. Cold as a gun.”

And Then There Was Silence…

After five long years, Blind Guardian returned to Denver on the cold night of November 11, 2015.

There’ve been a couple of shows where I’ve sort of not been with it, you know? Every once in a while a band comes by where I sort of feel inclined to go but don’t quite feel excited or super enthusiastic about the whole deal. But I’ll admit: the moment I heard Blind Guardian would go on tour I started counting down each day until the night of the show. Without any kind of overblown hyperbole, I think I can safely say that it was the most anticipated show in our neighborhood of states (I met a guy in line for tickets who drove from Utah). Blind Guardian, along with fellow and older German metal masters Grave Digger, played at Denver’s Summit Music Hall on the first snowy night of autumn’s steady decline.

Of course, upon entering the hall’s threshold the crowd formed into a welcome sight of assorted and colorful tour shirts, along with a veritable carnival of lovingly adorned battle vests and jackets (one of the non-musical highlights for me, every time)—some simple, others crowded in a wide and varied assortment of pins and patches, back patches slowly but surely beginning to drown in the encroaching waters of surrounding emblems. I love that stuff.

By the time Grave Digger came out on stage, the merch line that ran the length of the hall had dwindled to a few stragglers, and the crowd, while not fully gathered, had concentrated on the floor.

It was encouraging seeing Grave Digger perform, and more encouraging still to have heard so many members of the audience sing along to some of their post-80’s material with such joy. While Grave Digger marked a place for themselves in their early years, the band slowly fell into the Running Wild trend of semi-yearly releases, each less distinguishable from the next, although just as electric and edible—if you took each one of the inspired tracks from each record, you’d come out with a solid stand alone. But their brand of head-rattling, beer-swilling Priest-and-Maiden-laden speed metal, while perhaps not the most accomplished as far as albums go, translates well onto the stage, as the muscular riffs of unrecognizable tracks from their horde of recent works rang out with the very clanging bombast the band built their career with, Chris Boltendahl, the band’s vocalist, croaking out lyrics with gusto and prompting the crowd to participate through his unintelligibly German accent.

Grave Digger are old metal dudes—their long hair could fit the wrinkled chin of a wizard who can read the hearts of men. As members of the Priest/Maiden/Head-inspired onslaught that erupted from Europe, Boltendahl, along with the rest of his band mates, is fifty—minus the man behind the goofy and loveable keyboard-playing grim reaper costume (complete with a floppy Muppet mouth that sings along to the tunes)—and the wonder of their performance is in seeing old metal dudes doing what they love, especially axe man Axel “Ironfinger” Ritt, who saw fit to take off his jacket (the only upper body garment he was already wearing) at the start of the set. Jesus, the guy’s a beast. He’d spiral into mad, sharp solos, letting the heat emanating off his steely weapon ooze onto him as he looked like he was about to erupt in a Pentecostal tongue-talking bout, “oohing” his way into riffs and flexing through chords, eyes closed as a spirit passed through his whole being. And despite being thin and somewhat gangly, the man manages to channel the hot streaking bravo of an iron pumping metalhead straight out of Heavy Load or Thor through his dimly toned biceps and leftover abs. He alone was the powerful replacement for the pyrotechnics a band like Grave Digger sorely needs and sorely misses when playing a small stage, matched perhaps only by Boltendahl’s recognizably raspy vocals and mannerisms, a heavy metal showman lost through time, prowling the stage like a young Rob Halford and giving a glance infused with wickedness to any too unwise to look him in the eye.

Grave Digger, knowing their legacy and their success, couldn’t possibly go without a couple of universally recognized opuses, despite most of their material coming from less familiar records—their set was not complete without classics like “Headbanging Man” (their very appropriate opener), “Witch Hunter” and “Heavy Metal Breakdown”, the latter of which saw Boltendahl sing while clad in his very own battle vest. However, and I must say “however,” the enthusiasm and catchiness of the stuff they played—so fervently rooted in the thrashy speediness that birthed them—is enough to inspire renewed familiarity with their startlingly large discography (seventeen full lengths, vs. Running Wild’s sixteen). It’ll be a nice adventure to see what I can mine from their winding maze of works.

After Grave Digger left the stage, the crowd waited for a half hour before transitioning into an anticipated murmur that grew into a loud “Guardian” chant the moment the band’s Red Mirror-themed backdrop was placed on the stage.

The evangelical power of Blind Guardian appeared then—ushered in by the band’s welcoming, friendly, and appreciative way of addressing the audience—the same power that can make a forty year old with a beard shake his head in wonder, whisper “beautiful” after an interpretation of “I’m Alive”, and elicit an echoing reply from the youth next to him, the very same power that can erupt into a music hall full of an audience that knows every lyric to every song played on stage, the same power that can lead to a four minute chanting of the closing, bisecting lines to “Last Candle”—both evenly distributed amongst the hall—as vocalist Hansi Kursch looks on in pride and pleasure, drummer Frederik Ehmke providing a skeletal beat as the band smiles and mouths the same lines. Introduced by shadows and the ominous choir that bleeds into the song, the band broke out into a simmering rendition of “The Ninth Wave”—an appropriately operatic and theatric opener that set up for the entire show: a display of skill and passion from one of the most beloved bands in all heavy metal.

And I do say “most beloved”—Blind Guardian have established themselves as an institution thanks to their pioneering brand of thrash-infused power metal that gallantly and genuinely dives into high-borne fantasy with discernibly loving care. They have become a constant for any and every sort of metal enthusiast unrelated to the grounds of power metal’s usual over-the-top shenanigans. The thin family man with the Nile baseball cap, the big Native American man in the Saxon shirt, the wide kid with the Bathory back patch and Windir back shape and the grim looking dude in the Emperor hoodie were all there, together, for the same thing: Blind Guardian.

Without a second of rest, the band dove right into “Banish from Sanctuary”, and the show formally opened. That song alone illustrated the power of Blind Guardian’s live performance—few bands can bring their studio recordings to life with such absolute precision, and the German troupe does it with natural ease. I’m really thankful for the Summit’s sound quality; the sound was clear while being loud enough to fill the hall, unlike other venues where you can’t make out a single note in the din and your clavicle starts to rattle around like an epileptic snare drum. But praise goes to Blind Guardian and their uncanny ability to recreate their signature and sharp sound, tone, density and breadth of their albums with startling faithfulness—every guitar note and every drum pattern, burned into my memory, came to life vividly on stage, minus a few ad-libbed moments from Hansi. And Hansi. Man, Hansi. The guy is a goddamned singing machine; he inspires chills of awe as he hits every note with astounding fervor, and seeing the man’s facial muscles pop out like inflamed arteries as he raises his voice to a glass-breaking pitch—especially how he turned the grand “stormbriiiiiingeeerrr” from “Tanelorn (Into the Void)” into a shrill Halfordian high—is absolute magic.

The set list consisted of carefully selected offerings from the band’s catalogue, a mix of classic and recent material including must-haves like “Time Stands Still at the Iron Hill”, “Imaginations from the Other Side”, and “Wheel of Time” (which was the massive opener for the band’s first encore), along with obligatory but equally impressive blockbusters from Beyond the Red Mirror. In particular, the hop-and-a-skip of “Prophecies” provided a nice, musical segue into the strong, vicious rendering of “Last Candle” which, as mentioned above, brought the crowd alight in a brilliant moment of interaction—one of a few that marked the show with a mirthful and heartfelt exchange between band and audience. That’s another facet of the band’s skillful showmanship: those wonderful handpicked moments where they expect as much from the audience as the audience expects from them. “Lord of the Rings” served as one of the show’s pinnacles, almost everyone bunny hopping to the chorus and filling the hall with singing, including goofily operatic tenor-style intonations that rung to the side of the floor that took the time to vocalize every strum in the song—stuff that only ever sounds like it appears on a live album, which, coincidentally, the band announced was forthcoming and, to the glee of everyone present, Denver’s show is set to be a part of it.

Jesus, the fans. Jesus, the fans. It’s impressive to see such a willing audience for such a willing band. From every angle there were dudes going berserk—singing their hearts out, pantomiming theatric gestures and expressions as they furiously headbanged, doe-eyed dudes looking out with hopeful eyes towards heroes finally come to them. And I was one of them. I was singing along to “Nightfall” and “Time Stands Still” and “Valhalla”—the chorus of which became another chant that lasted minutes after the song—all the while raising my hands and craning my fingers to cup invisible goblets of violet fire. I was screaming from a crippled diaphragm, as loud as I possibly could at that point, along with the audience: “GUARDIAN”, for minutes on end, after the band left the stage for the first time, a begging chant so loud and resounding that it almost seemed to force the band out for an encore, a sequence that repeated twice that night to everyone’s delight. Who else but Blind Guardian to feint twice.

And how couldn’t I? During the second encore, the band (of course) played “The Bard’s Song – In the Forest” (after “Into the Storm”, which included the dialogue intro “War of Wrath”—which the man behind me recited perfectly), and I felt like a train had hit me as it all came rushing back. I remember: after a particularly harsh day at school and a particularly awry encounter with family, I’d sit in a dim room, close my eyes, and sulk. You know, as kids do. But one of the constants of those days was both parts of “The Bard’s Song” (“Forest” and “Hobbit”), a piece that lifted the spirit and always succeeded in making everything feel just a little better. And right there, standing right there, at that very moment, I suddenly realized the significance of this band not only to me, but to so many other people in that audience, each one singing—from the deepest part of themselves—the reassuring anthem to the disenfranchised and desolate that is “In the Forest”. Those same mythical bards that invited the somber to leave troubles behind had become a tangible reality on that stage, and for the first time for many. All of a sudden, a crowd sang a personal source of consolation and shared in the opening up of wounds and anxieties as they gathered in the promise of a positivity that imprinted them, that they could carry with them in their hearts and minds, just as the lyrics of the song itself offer: “Tomorrow all will be known/And you’re not alone/So don’t be afraid/In the dark and cold/Because the bard’s songs will remain/They all will remain.”

“In my thoughts and in my dreams/They’re always in my mind/These songs of Hobbits, Dwarves and Men, and Elves/Come close your eyes/You can see them, too.” Unfortunately, the band doesn’t often follow up with “The Hobbit”, which is a great shame. I remember when I was younger and the closing lines of “In the Forest” came up, leading to the slightest pause before the opening of its partner piece. I would sit there, totally overtaken by the assurance of a monumental tale to come and assuage the fear of tomorrow, one of such moving greatness it could stir frisson every time and without fail. And what could be greater than The Hobbit, condensed and communicated through the heights of passion made music? While meant for kids, Tolkien’s prelude hides and veils quite a few moments of darkness, from Gollum’s monstrous nature and murderous intent placed in the midst of a fanciful quest to Bilbo’s fear and meek understanding to Thorin’s desperate greed, elements that Blind Guardian takes and enlarges in a song that churns and careens with the wondrous and understated emotional heights of the story. I am utterly convinced that the complete “Bard’s Song” is one of the band’s most magnificent shining moments of potency.

When the band played “In the Forest”, my eyes watered. Just a little, though. I ain’t afraid to say it. Everyone enraptured and mystified after the long-expected constant of Blind Guardian’s live shows, Hansi declared the end and announced “Mirror Mirror!” bookending it all with one of the best-loved standouts from Nightfall in Middle Earth, an emphatic execution—which sounded sublimely apocalyptic—of a musical war that the band masterfully orchestrated in their signature chaos of theater-meets-speed metal. No one was still in the final, world-ending revelry, as the band closed with perhaps their most wondrously rousing and anthemic concoction. And finally, after an hour and a half that seemed far, far shorter than it was, the band saluted the cheering, frantic audience, and left to the background’s orchestral sounds of “At the Edge of Time”, sent off by a final band name chant. Then, with murmurs overtaken by that unavoidable silence that drips from the air in the sudden absence of a show’s bombast, we left to stumble home, enchanted, our hearts beating in our hands, as heavy metal’s bards and some of Germany’s most hallowed sons prepared for the next destination where they would soon spread their incantations. Also, Andre Olbrich gave a little six year-old girl a guitar pick, which was adorable.

Mgla’s Exercises in Futility

(All rights to respective owners)

(All rights to respective owners)

Have you ever wanted to curl up into the fetal position and contemplate the feeble nature of existence? Well, have I got the record for you! Matter of fact, even if the answer is no, Mgla’s Exercises in Futility is a stellar black metal album that’s still worth a listen or two.

It’s the third and latest album from the Polish duo of M (vocalist, guitarist, bassist) and Darkside (master percussionist), both members of Kriegsmaschine, a very solid addition to the great canvas of European black metal. While the former focuses on satanic themes, Mgla (“fog” in Polish, pronounced “mgwa”) instead takes an approach to the darkness that dwells within and without humanity, not being as expansive as Deathspell Omega and their anti-cosmic objective, nor as outright introspective as, say, Austere or Gris. Instead the band does away with mysticism and melancholy, focusing squarely on the emptiness of simply being, a perspective that has grown to a fullness in Exercises, which, as the title implies, bears a barren nihilism in its ashen core.

And, hand in hand with its overarching theme, the band’s sound lacks much of the fanciful niceties that many profound black metallers have adopted, instead taking on their substance with a heftier black metal sound that avoids the often seen stringy, synth and tremolo approach of Paysage D’Hiver and other classic acts, fleshing out the riffing style that the subgenre wields to become burlier and meatier—powered in great part by the crashing, plodding and steadfast drums and the thick, concrete bass—all in conjunction with piercing, melodic buzz-saw guitars that sizzle above the pounding, burning riffage, sounding sepulchral, tenebrous, bleak, and earthy—the production is clear and unburdened by usual black metal tropes, giving it an organically loud and ragged rawness. It’s an overpowering sound, one that’s meant to drive desperation in its darkest moments, as it grows to a shuddering crescendo. Take the very first track, which leaves its rails and enters a cathartic tunnel, ending the song with a sorrow that elicits so much of the album’s underlying emotional center.

It’s a powerful combination, actually, that takes into account the maturity of the band’s cooperation of precisely-worded lyricism and their brazen, bleak soundscapes, which dips into powerful moments that belie a very sentimental subtext to the album’s nihilism, moments that contrast with the dejection and spite driven into the lyrics. “II” opens with a hostile declaration powered by a hovering engine of peering malevolence that cracks open into something that can be described as “heartbreaking”, a shift that returns throughout the song. The melodic tremolo-driven riff of “IV” grows in anxiety as its chorus nears, tearing the song to a wrenching climax as the haunting lyrics are croaked in a furious lamentation—a constant in M’s throaty, low-ranged growls, a dominating force that adds gravitas to the record—the song’s tragedy a sudden contrast from the contempt and bile-ridden rasps of “III”, which runs on a consistent rising and falling of oppressive, piercing notes. And, perhaps most strikingly, “V” runs a gamut of chaos, perpetuated by Darkside’s fantastic cymbal work and never-ending precision pedals, and the hair-raising, tyrannical, grinding, churning riffs that bear down on the song like a choke-hold, reprieve offered only by the sudden and singular appearance of synth, a ghostly echo that surfaces in the song’s closing moments, a touch of silk amidst a ravine of sharp rocks. And that’s all without mentioning “VI”.

Lyrically, the band is a cut above many of their contemporaries; while songs occasionally border on excessive wordiness, the slip ups are minimal when the actual writing is taken into consideration. Despite the language barrier, the lyrics demonstrate a great command of English, one that’s ambitious enough to attempt something as grand as an album reflecting on the blindness of being. Each song expands upon the record’s theme of nothingness begetting nothingness, damning even the very symptoms of sentience, with the system of human emotional response considered an illusive crutch and a curse. It’s admirable, actually, how thematically consistent and thorough the album is; there are no diversions from the darkness—the album starts off grim, and ends with a thesis statement that declares the worthlessness of all things, highlighting the naivety of sadness and misery, firmly planting the singular absolute truth to existence: we create storms in a glass of water, one that will evaporate with the passage of time—one day, the celestial gasses that fuel the stars and make life possible will burn out, and the universe will become eternal darkness. The only consequence to trying to free yourself from the shackles of our reality is well-deserved madness.

To be honest, what else can I say about Exercises in Futility without dragging it out? It might not be spectacularly monumental in the same way In the Nightside Eclipse or Slaughtersun are, but it stands as a monolith of solid, wonderfully executed black metal, a no-nonsense slice of the real deal that sounds thoroughly, refreshingly desolate and cold without resorting to goofy or blasé imagery. Musically, it’s powerful and precise to a tee, managing to balance melody with a dismal severity. Lyrically, it’s well spoken and utterly fierce. It might not be a record that can convince those averse to black metal’s dismal charm; however, for the aficionado, it’s a fell-winged work that dips into the heart of despair.

M’s label, No Solace, has uploaded the album in its entirety on YouTube. Give it a whirl:

Machinae Supremacy’s Deus Ex Machinae

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(Album cover straight out of the Machinae Supremacy site. All rights to them.)

So video games are cool. And heavy metal’s cool. What if… what if both of them combined and formed something awesome?

Well, it’s sort of happened, I guess, if you take the time to look at the myriad of virtuoso cover bands and guitarists making over the top metal versions of renowned and beloved video game music. Just look at all of the Pokemon ones. So many Pokemon ones. And that’s kind of it: there’s so many covers and remixes; it’s not bad, but it’s such a saturation and regurgitation of material combined with a novelty factor that it devalues the tenth rendition of Fire Emblem’s “Together We Ride”.

So here’s what’s so great about Machinae (pronounced just like “machine”) Supremacy’s Deus Ex Machinae: it’s a different approach to the blend, an album made up entirely of original material with a consistent backing video game touch in the form of a Commodore 64’s SID station (the component that makes the bleepy-bloopy sounds).

Right off the bat it bursts open with a bright sound—a mix of power metal and alternative rock—combined with a triumphant zest of computerized notes. The blend is something to behold, despite the occasional chug-chug riff that’s a direct product of the early 2000s alt rock catalogue. For the most part songs are very melodic, featuring memorable choruses that spark a sing-along instinct when they appear amidst the band’s intentional cyberspace tone—there’s just the right balance of melody and hardness in the music, and there’s never an overextension in either. It’s pretty cool, actually, how the meaner and/or faster songs (like the opener) feel like the hyperspace effect in Star Wars, the twisting tunnel of flashing blue.

If I have to say it more accurately: even without the SID station’s presence, the album manages to sound “video game”. Careening guitar lines—like the powerful, skipping hook right into the title track, which transforms into a pounding, grooving riff—are propped up against a strong, healthy bass that makes itself known in the mix, resulting in an intoxicating recreation of that old 16-bit style of chiptune composition, with the occasional, more traditional synth appearing for a cinematic element. Musically, the album introduces a band that’s ready to wrestle a rabid bear, including vocalist Robert “Gaz” Stjärnström, who swings, ducks, dives and madly weaves his way through songs like a thicker, bearded Dave Mustaine, putting on a very lean and mean show.

Actually, before moving on, Robert’s performance is of special note: echoing the aforementioned Mustaine (preferably in his prime) and an olden days Kai Hansen, his whiny, nasally intonation might take some getting used to. And, while his performance is solid, he sometimes lacks the range necessary to reach some of the music’s heights, like in “Return to Snake Mountain” and its assertive declarations of revenge, or the soaring ups of “Player One”, or the big “Toniiiiiiiiiight” in the title track, in which he replaces elevation with his signature whiiiiiiine. Still, he’s got enough pipes and skill to dial it up (or down) when he needs to (“Flag Carrier” and the upsettingly wonderful ending of “Player One” show him bearing down and soothing away), even if his inflection stays at the same general level throughout the album. And, as a fan of heartfelt and non-standard vocal work (God bless Mark “The Shark” Shelton), I ate it up with gusto.

As noted, the SID station is omnipresent (save for a couple of songs that do completely without it), and while it might take a while for it to appear in a song, it comes in and peppers it with the same effect as fairy dust—whenever it comes in, the song becomes sparkly, wonderful, special. It’s charming, and never feels overused, fitting in keenly with the band’s sound, never overtaking it, staying at just the right level to be a principle player while avoiding the ill-fated title of “gimmick”. It’s a treat when it’s there, an essential part of the band’s magic, one that also helps the music successfully blend its deeply embedded video game identity with the shining power of heavy metal—just take the break in “Return to Snake Mountain”, right before the rapid fire shred that takes the song back into its speedy storm, or the explosion of sound that starts “Killer Instinct”.

Here’s the deal breaker: the lyrics are dumb. Sometimes they’re decent, but all too often they fall flat on their face with goofy angst. I’d like to commend this album for avoiding any unnecessary “hey guys we’re totally gamer dudes” references. The closest line they stray is “Player One”, which is written to be a cathartic, encouraging ode to video game escapism and personal struggles, using the setup of an ambiguous arcade-style adventure game as its primary vehicle. It’s great: they manage to avoid a predictable (and annoying) element of game-centric music; they embrace games, sure, but they aren’t name-dropping consoles or famous titles and their key gameplay aspects. But, otherwise… the lyrics are dumb. Take a look at the opening lines of the album:

I feel all black inside like coal

I wonder if you know

An evil thrives inside my soul

The darkest place I know

I rage at everyone I see

Nocturnal fiends and all that be

Just keep away from me

Jesus. And that’s not counting the stuff in “Blind Dog Pride” and the title track, which are about rising up and showing all the old timers the real way to do things, all the while edging in on a family-friendly level of non-denominational anti-religion. It’s just enough to worry your mom about your attitude towards society, but not enough to really scare her.

This falls right into place with the next real flaw: some songs are filler that extend the album’s length past an hour. Specifically, the slower numbers that live on the thrill of the chorus, but offer nothing else; tracks like “Super Steve”, “Ninja”, and “Tempus Fugit” are calm segues into more enjoyable offerings, walking briskly to get to their particular “cool part”. They help to even out the pace of the album, separating the faster songs from each other, but that’s kind of it: they’re door-stoppers, shelf dividers. The band is at their best when they’re storming with menace, so it doesn’t sound all that natural when they try and shift gears to something more relaxed.

But really, those are the few flaws that mar the album’s overall prowess. For a debut, the band shows a lot of experience, due in no small part to the band’s prolific online discography, despite the occasional amateurish turn they might take in songwriting (which is generally adventurous and, at its best, thrilling). At its core, the album is a success—solid in most ways, and populated by memorable moments. But that’s just as an album; as a fusion between two cool things, it goes beyond “cool experiment” into something greater. Maybe not something as grand as a “triumph”, but definitely an undeniably enjoyable achievement, one that shows that the fusion between video games and heavy metal can be both possible and mature. Except for the lyrics, which are dumb. If you can look past the flaws and want something interesting, why not take a look? It’s free on the band’s site, after all.