Review: Testament - Brotherhood of the Snake

Label: Nuclear Blast
Runtime: 45 Minutes
Released: October 28th, 2016

What a year it's been for the return of old-school thrashers! Following hot on the heels of sensational albums from their contemporaries in Megadeth, Anthrax, and Death Angel, Testament aren't about to shirk in their duties to the denim-clad gods of thrash. Since these Bay Area originals rose like a phoenix from the ashes with 2008's triumphant return The Formation of Damnation, Chuck Billy and company have been putting out regular hot slabs of gritty thrash metal every four years that never deviate too far from the template laid out in 1999's exceptional album The Gathering, but nonetheless show flourishes of originality and invigoration despite the long road this troupe of titans has tread over the years since the salad days of the 80's metal scene.

While the band feels that it's one of their strongest records to date, Brotherhood of the Snake was plagued with difficulties from the beginning of the recording process, with iconic vocalist Chuck Billy stating that the album was "probably the most difficult record we've ever done." Brotherhood's music was written entirely by guitarist Eric Peterson and the band entered the studio having never heard or practiced the songs before. Despite the stress and miscommunication plaguing the production, the finished album feels tight and well-played, a fitting testament to the sterling musicianship of the band as a unit. Legendary drummer Gene Hoglan returns once more, providing his own unique voice to the rhythm section, paired with long-absent bassist Steve DiGiorgio for a call-back to the nuanced brutality of The Gathering.

Review: Sacred Steel - Heavy Metal Sacrifice

Label: Cruz del Sur Music
Runtime: 47 Minutes
Released: October 14th, 2016

German power metal. There, now that we've weeded out the lactose intolerant, it's time to dig into Heavy Metal Sacrifice, the latest release by Sacred Steel, fronted by the 'siren of metal' himself: the incorrigible Gerrit P. Mutz. Heavy Metal Sacrifice is Sacred Steel's ninth full length album since their debut almost twenty years ago and their second for Cruz del Sur Music. One of power metal's undeniable workhorses, Sacred Steel have achieved admirable consistency of output over the years while never quite attaining the recognition afforded their peers. Will Heavy Metal Sacrifice break the cycle and usher Mutz and company into the gates of Valhalla?

It's impossible to discuss Sacred Steel without touching on the elephant in the room: Mutz's vocals. So let's get the obvious out of the way first. While they have been honed and refined over the years, the core of Gerrit P. Mutz's vocal stylings remains relatively unchanged over the past several albums. But would it still be Sacred Steel without the high-pitched nasal vocal attack? What Mutz lacks in range he more than makes up for in uniqueness, which has lent the band more than its fair share of fame and notoriety over the years. From time to time the vocals take a dive into growl territory, which are actually quite well done, but these passages are the exception rather than the rule. The bottom line is that if you couldn’t get past the vocals before, you'll likely find that little has changed.

Review: Virvum - Illuminance

Label: Unsigned/independent
Runtime: 40 Minutes
Released: September 16th, 2016

"A journey to a place where timelessness reigns and nature blooms in strangest colours; a heavenly place far beyond comprehensible perception." - Guitarist Nic Gruhn on Illuminance

Technical death metal is a tricky thing to do right. On one hand, technicality and mind-bending flourishes of brilliance at blazing speed come with the territory and rarely fail to impress on the initial spin of the latest tech death platter, but what about the songs? The carefully crafted structures that leave the listener bobbing their head for days after the first listen in fond recollection of a verse or bridge that not only impressed, but imprinted itself into their subconscious? Metal of a progressive and technical bent often struggles to gain a foothold in the rocky crags of an adult mind, fatigued by the frequency of new releases and struggling to simply absorb the sheer quantity of input flying by on a daily basis. Some of the best technical and progressive albums are 'growers', artistic statements that need to be chewed over and absorbed in order for their heart and soul to be bared to the listener. But what if you could have both? Memorable passages that seep into your thoughts as soon as you hear them, with additional layers to be peeled away and savored over future listens? Enter Virvum and their stunning debut album Illuminance.

Review: Meshuggah - The Violent Sleep of Reason

Label: Nuclear Blast Records
Runtime: 58 Minutes
Released: October 7th, 2016

It's difficult to believe that the monolithic institution that is Meshuggah has been littering the metal landscape with the precisely bludgeoned corpses of their contemporaries for almost thirty years now. Love them or hate them, the Swedish quintet is undeniably one of the most influential visionaries of modern heavy metal. The Violent Sleep of Reason marks Meshuggah's eighth full-length slab of rhythmic pummeling since their inception, and what a marvelous and brutal ride it's been--from the thrash roots of Contradictions Collapse to the mechanical pulse of obZen and Koloss, Meshuggah are always upping their game and giving fans new musical elements to pick apart and examine for years to come. 

Far from content to merely invent one of the most popular sounds in modern metal and inspire hundreds of younger bands, Meshuggah are always pushing the envelope while remaining true to their core sound. Much to do was made of the new album being recorded live, and while fans were skeptical at first, the difference between The Violent Sleep of Reason and Koloss is stark and immediately apparent. The new tracks feel alive and bristling with a human energy that has been lacking in Meshuggah's past few releases. Gone is the almost metronomic machine-like precision of tracks like "Bleed"--replaced by a lurching juggernaut trampling over a vast aural soundscape. The whole affair feels organic and spontaneous, a feeling that the band haven't captured since they recorded 1998's Chaosphere.

Bucking tradition as a matter of course, the longest cut on the album is up front and center on track one. "Clockworks" sets the stage for what's to come with Tomas Haake's unrivaled spastic drumming joining with the rest of the band in a series of polymetered grooves. As the third single released from the album, "Clockworks" got a deluxe music video treatment from Nuclear Blast Records and gets into the heads of the band as they lay out the rhythms--literally.

Other standout tracks include "MonstroCity", a song packed with so many riffs it will take a dozen listens to fully appreciate it, including an insanely catchy descending guitar riff around 3:45. "Ivory Tower"'s stuttering solo hearkens back to the discordant leads that permeated the classic Destroy Erase Improve album. "Stifled" ends with a soundscape that builds as a wall of sound under the pummeling riffs and emerges abruptly as the drums and bass disappear, leaving the final  minute and a half of the track to sweep you off your feet though a feather-bed of resonant swells. Sustained guitar cuts through the atmosphere with clean notes and subtle feedback, leading directly into the maw of the beast that is "Nostrum"--the second preview single.

"Nostrum" centers around a rumbling low verse riff that calls to mind a deep warning foghorn bellowing out its call over stormy seas, whether to warn incoming ships of rocky crags or tentacled monstrosities lurking below the black waves is left up to the imagination of the listener. The tempo slowly builds before unleashing the full fury of the album's fastest guitar solo--a cutting wind slicing through the waves, driving the listener inevitably and inexorably toward their eventual doom on the sharp rocks and guttural unearthly growls that close out the song.

Closer "Into Decay" rumbles fuzzily out of your speakers and morphs into a verse riff of slow single-string sludgy bends. It's a fitting final track that concludes the album on a simplified groove before fading out with a squeal of feedback.

Like all Meshuggah albums before it, The Violent Sleep of Reason will be well-received by long-time fans and maligned by their habitual critics. If you didn't like Meshuggah before now, The Violent Sleep of Reason won't change your mind. For better or worse, the band sticks well within their comfort zone when it comes to composition, and while the recording process has changed considerably--to the benefit of the album's production and feel--there is no significant evolution here that will convert skeptics into true believers.