Sucker For Punishment: When Less Equals Way More

The Canadian/American collaboration between singer/bassist Elizabeth Blackwell and guitarist Mat Davis bowled me over three years ago with the shockingly good Blacklands album. It was a big improvement on their 2010 debut In Witch Order, a clever blend of NWOBHM influences and the classic doom sounds of Pentagram. Not unlike Witchfinder General, only highlighted by Blackwell’s unique, husky singing. Now with a Juno Award nomination under their belts and a deal with Prosthetic Records, Castle is back with a swanky new follow-up that builds on that idea marvellously.
Although Under Siege (Prosthetic) sees no dramatic alteration of the band’s sound, it’s a far more well rounded, more confident Castle you hear. The gallop of “Distant Attack” grabs you immediately, the minimalist approach and ornate vocal melodies and expressive guitar solos echoing John Cobbett’s work with Hammers of Misfortune. The more the album goes on, the more you hear that much-improved melodic sensibility become the focal point, Blackwell and Davis leaving any trace of harshness behind. It’s a brilliant move, and suits them to a tee, as more nuance creeps into the music, highlighted by such standouts as “A Killing Place”, “Pyramid Lake”, and the excellent closing track “Evil Ways”. “Labyrinth of Death” particularly benefits from the stripped-down approach, producer Billy Anderson doing a terrific job layering Blackwell’s singing with rich harmonies. In the end Under Siege is all about the simpler pleasures in metal; by emplying a less-is-more approach, Castle, ironically, sounds more towering than ever.

It’s a fairly light week, but one with a couple of pleasant surprises:

California Breed, California Breed (Frontiers): A new band featuring members of Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and Black Sabbath? What a cheap way to advertise this collaboration between Jason Bonham and Glenn Hughes. But actually this is a mildly enjoyable dose of Blues Hammer rawk, sold well by Hughes, who is still capable of bringing power and soul to hard rock vocals.

Comet Control, Comet Control (Tee Pee): Featuring two former members of dearly missed Toronto space lords Quest For Fire, this new project predictably is similar, but the big difference is the emphasis of gigantic hooks amidst the sprawling psychedelic rock. The end result feels like a combination of Hawkwind and Swervedriver, a swirling, searing exploration of blasting guitars and sweet-sounding melodies, best exemplified by “Blast Magic, “Future Forever”, and “Hats off to Life”. Considering their former band, I suppose I should have seen this coming, but I don’t mind saying the strength of this album has blindsided me. It’s a glorious surprise.

Infernal Curse, The End Upon Us (Iron Bonehead): Solid, robust death metal from Argentina, featuring some delightfully gurgled and gargled vocals, drenched in reverb, adding to the already hellish atmosphere. It’s nowhere near as bold as Iron Bonehead’s best bands, but it’s bound to appeal to anyone who prefers the no-frills approach to death metal.

Infirmary / Aetherium Mors, Split (Bindrune / Eihwaz): The first thing that hit me upon hearing Infirmary’s four new songs is how for a death metal band the vocals are actually enunciated while delivered in the requisite growl. Talk about refreshing. Musically the tracks are excellent, too, plenty savage but always smart enough to leave enough room for guitar melodies and harmonies to spring forth. Although Aetherium Mors lean more towards black metal, the UK band is equally savvy when it comes to balancing filth and melody. Either way both bands give listeners maximum bang for their buck. Don’t sleep on this one, it’s a scorcher. Listen and purchase via Bandcamp.

Landskap, I (Iron Bonehead): The debut album by the UK band is a promising one, delving into the melodic psychedelic-tinged British doom of Cathedral and coming up with one dreamy half-hour record loaded with rich, pastoral atmosphere and strong melodies. Sequenced so that it slowly builds up towards a wicked, climactic Blue Cheer-style jam, this is a strong first effort by a band that would feel right at home onstage at Roadburn. Listen and purchase via Bandcamp. 

Mordbrand, Imago (Deathgasm): This debut album is a spot-on homage to classic Swedish death metal, but if it doesn’t stand out among every other Swedish death metal homage, what’s the bloody point? Personality, guys. Come on.

Timo Tolkki’s Avalon, Angels Of The Apocalypse (Frontiers): While Stratovarius has carried on without losing a beat after Timo Tolkki’s departure, the guitarist has struggled to keep pace with his former band. Avalon’s second album is a slipshod effort once again, loaded with patently forgettable songs, tepid production, and rendered inconsistent thanks to a bevy of guest vocalists. Perennial good sport Floor Jansen brings a touch of class to the likeable “Paradise Lost”, but the rest of the album bombs.

Tusmørke, Riset Bak Speilet (Svart): The quirky band’s second album is heavily indebted to the witchy English acid folk of the early 1970s, of course made even more peculiar thanks to its Norwegian lyrics. No, it’s not metal at all, but it’s typical of the folks at Svart, whose non-metal detours are always strange and fascinating.

Verberis, Vastitas (Iron Bonehead): This demo by the anonymous New Zealand band, which has been re-released by Iron Bonehead, is an intriguing find. Blending black metal and death metal is old news, of course, but there are moments, like on “The Primordial Rift”, where you can sense the music is on the cusp of a Morbus Chron-style breakthrough. With music this potentially good, there’s no shame in telling everyone who you are, guys.

Not metal, but worth hearing:

Emma Ruth Rundle, Some Heavy Ocean (Sargent House): The first thing you think when you hear the first couple minutes of Emma Ruth Rundle’s new album is, okay, I get it, Chelsea Wolfe, Marisa Nadler, Julianna Barwick. Dark, ethereal, enigmatic. However, the singer/songwriter, whom many Decibel readers will know from her work with Red Sparowes and Marriages, gradually crates an identity of her own on this extraordinary little album. The arrangements are bare-bones minimal, mostly featuring Rundle’s acoustic guitar and the odd bass, drums, and keyboards, but the focal point is her haunting, seductive singing, which subtly veers from dominating the mix to moving a little further back, showing tremendous versatility and sensitivity. Alternately lo-fi and so lushly atmospheric you expect it to have Vaughan Oliver cover art, it’s deliberately mysterious but doesn’t keep listeners at an arm’s length; instead songs like “Run Forever”, “Oh Sarah”, and “Living With the Black Dog” draw you in, making you want to lose yourself in the quietly enveloping music. Listen and purchase via Bandcamp.

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