Sucker For Punishment: Dig Your Fingers In

For some crazy reason the Canadian province of Alberta is on one hell of a roll when it comes to metal these days. The underground extreme side is thriving, yielding death metalers Revenge, primitive thrashers Blackrat, grind aces Wake, and old-school speed metal upstarts Gatekrashör. The Weir delivers first-rate noise, Chron Goblin excel at stoner rock, Death Toll Rising is tremendous tech death, Villainizer is capable of wicked satire and even better thrash metal, Viathyn is extremely promising power metal. The polished, much-improving music of Kobra and the Lotus, the feral modern thrash of Mortillery, nihilists Begrime Exemious, the late, great Weapon. Right now Alberta metal is as healthy as the Athabasca oil sands are an ecological disaster.
The best band of the lot might not be the coolest by North American standards, but Edmonton’s Striker is one of the most gloriously spot-on speed metal outfits on the planet at the moment. Signed to Napalm Records on the strength of their shockingly good self-released 2010 debut Eyes in the Night, the quintet made a huge leap with Armed to the Teeth, a rousing collection of highly melodic tunes that hearkened back to 30 years ago. Back then metal was metal and not divided into subgenres, and bands were never afraid to combine aggression, flashy hooks, and soaring lead vocals, and this band, led by guitarist Chris Segger and singer Dan Cleary captured that feeling perfectly.

Teaming up with producer Fredrik Nordström, Striker is out to further refine that sound, and the end result is City of Gold (Napalm), a record that steers that classic sound towards something a little modern and aggressive, but never for a second loses touch with what makes that music so appealing in the first place. No matter how extreme the music gets, as on the throttling “Crossroads”, the hook is always king, and this record is loaded with knockouts. “Bad Decisions” pulls off ‘80s Scorpions minimalism beautifully, “All For One” approaches the relentless pace of peak Arch Enemy, while “Mind Control” cranks the party metal riffs. This is high-energy heavy metal at its best, European in sensibility yet, to the band’s credit, unrelenting enough to appeal to the younger crowd on this continent. You need this album.

Also out this week:

Autumn’s Dawn, Gone (Eisenwald): Metal’s so funny sometimes. All the hyperbole can be added to describe this Australian band’s debut album to make it sound metal – “despair”, “depressive”, “shadowy” – but in actuality, only one word applies: Swervedriver. This album sounds totally like Swervedriver, with a few double-kicks and screams tossed in for good measure. And when I compare a band to Swervedriver, whose 1993 album Mezcal Head is a classic, that is very, very high praise. Call your music anything, fellas, but don’t call it “depressive black metal”. It’s much, much better than that. Listen and purchase via Bandcamp.

Crimson Shadows, Kings Among Men (Napalm): Power/traditional heavy metal bands that employ growling vocalists tend to stick in my craw, but for some crazy reason this Toronto band makes it work surprisingly well. Perhaps it’s because the guitars are so vibrant and flamboyant, capable of DragonForce-level shredding, or perhaps it’s because of the inclusion of a second vocalist who sporadically provides some well timed singing. Either way, this second album is a blast from start to finish, exuberant, catchy, and very convincing.

In Flames, Siren Charms (Sony/RED): I’m as shameless an In Flames apologist as you’ll ever find, having thoroughly enjoyed their post-2000 turn toward mainstream metal. Their last couple albums following up the excellent Come Clarity didn’t exactly show consistency, but the good still outweighed the bad enough for me to give mild recommendations for both. This new album, though, is so consistently awful, a collection of tepid, uninspired tracks that place too much emphasis on softer sounds. When they do turn up the volume, like on “Rusted Nail”, it feels like an uninspired rehash of Reroute to Remain hooks, feeling more somnambulistic than empowering. There’s nothing wrong with a band streamlining its sound, and In Flames’ success over the past dozen years is a sterling example, but this album takes things too far, losing touch with what made their past records so enjoyable. They sound creatively adrift, and desperately need to be pulled back before all hope is lost. If it isn’t already.

Lonely Kamel, Shit City (Napalm): The bazillionth Scandinavian retro rock band, Norway’s Lonely Kamel treads the same blues-derived path as Graveyard, but despite a couple above average songs “Freezing”, “Shit City”) there’s just not enough here to distinguish the band from all the other like-minded acts saturating the market at the moment. The music swings mightily at times, but it needs more personality.

Megaton Leviathan, Past 21: Beyond the Arctic Cell (Seventh Rule): The latest by the Portland project helmed by Andrew James Costa is a graceful blend of the more progressive side of doom, with enough massive yet comforting drones and melodies to remind one of The Body. What grabbed yours truly the most, though, is when Costa sings, like on “Here Come the Tears”, as he concocts vocal melodies so strange, alien, and compelling that it sounds like Damo Suzuki fronting a doom band.

The Order of Israfel, Wisdom (Napalm): There’s nothing wrong with playing a similar style as Saint Vitus, imitation has long been accepted in metal. And the tunes on this debut smoke in that lumbering, swinging, doomy way that Vitus was – and still is – so great at. Those vocals, though, detract from the music, sounding like Randy Bachman as opposed to aptly reflecting the power of the instrumental arrangements. The guy can carry a tune, but only barely, and unfortunately this style of music demands a lot more than that.

The Sabbathian, Ritual Rites (Svart): The latest doom project by Chad Davis, who’s best know for is work under the Hour of 13 moniker, takes a slightly different approach, employing the services of former Nattsol singer Anette Gulbrandsen, which adds a distinct feminine air to the music. She handles the role very well, too, taking on a more powerful, robust tone than expected, much like Farida Lemouchi of The Devil’s Blood. Unlike Leif Edling’s psychedelic-tinged doom project Avatarium, though, the music is a lot more rigid, a lot more conservative, but on this three-track release the approach works very well, enough to leave you looking forward to a proper album from this cool new partnership.

Steak, Slab City (Napalm): As rampaging as Orange Goblin, as hazy as Kyuss, as psychedelic as Monster Magnet, this British band serves up some mildly satisfying sludge on its third album. The only problem is that there’s not enough staying power to sustain an entire album, as each song starts to bleed into the next. It’s the same old problem: the mechanics are spot-on, but stronger songwriting is needed.

Not metal, but worth hearing:

Esben and the Witch, A New Nature (Nostromo): The Brighton, England trio’s evolution has been fascinating to witness. Featuring three raw musicians with no formal training, the band took an instinctive approach to making dark, gothic music, and the result was frail and unpredictable early on, but with each new release got tighter and a whole lot more confident, to the point where now they’re regarded as a ferocious live act. So when they decided to work with Steve Albini on this self-released third album, you could sense where all this was going. Indeed, the masterful Albini has the band sounding incendiary, epic tracks “Press Heavenwards”, “The Jungle”, and “Blood Teachings” combining the visceral intensity of Suicide and Swans, the discipline of Can, and the feral aggression of early PJ Harvey. Led by Rachel Davies – whose singing often takes on a Beth Gibbons quality – and featuring a vicious rhythm section (an Albini trademark), it’s hard to believe this is the same band that sounded so tentative three years ago. This is one of the year’s best, one a lot of metal fans will be wowed by. Listen and purchase via Bandcamp.

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