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Distorted reviews - 13/04/03.

Ken Blackmore guides you, in alphabetical order, through the best of last year's extreme metal crop.

Agent Steel - Order of the Illuminati (Scarlet)
OK, not so much extreme metal, but speed-power metallers Agent Steel have been with us now since the early eighties are worthy of your respect. Having split with long time vocalist John Cyris Agent Steel returned with singer anew, Bruce Hall, and released this cracker of an album that's almost on par with their seminal Unstoppable Force, released way back in 1987. Typical Agent Steel and typical metal, OOTI contains riffs and solos aplenty, from first track 'Avenger' to the emotional 'Enslaved' to sing-along closer 'Human Bullet', the talented Juan Garcia (lead & rhythm guitars) the main driving force behind it all, he there from the beginning, and now until kingdom come. Cracking stuff, and with traditional metal from Iron Maiden to Iced Earth as popular as it has ever been, Agent Steel are well worth checking out.

Akercocke - Choronzon (Earache)
England's black metallers, Akercocke, have done themselves a huge favor by signing with Earache (which now also boasts Deicide), for they have the means to launch them onto an unsuspecting world who thinks UK black metal begins and ends with Cradle of Filth. This, their third album, on sheer musical talent alone, will undoubtedly propel them into the major league, spoken in the same foul breath as such figures as Dimmu Borgir and the sadly missed Emperor. Opener 'Praise the name of Satan' is a 7-minute plus affair of growls, shrieks and heavy, heavy riffs, guaranteed to leave you beaming with satanic joy. And after an eerie instrumental third track 'Leviathan' (and also the first video from the album) starts doom-laden with agonized vocals before building up threatened momentum - check out the riff and lead in the mid-section, amazing. Masterfully produced with legendary producer Neil Kernon, so we're not talking buzz-saw guitars or paper-thin drums here, folks; "Choronzon" is a tour-de-force in extreme black metal that deserves all the devilish acclaim bestowed upon it - praise the name of Akercocke.

Clutch - Slow Hole To China (River Road)
Ah, my beloved Clutch… This release of these 12 rare and unreleased tracks from America's premier rockiest/grooviest band is so good that it put to shame many other bands who released original material in 2003, and yes, Metallica, I'm including your "St. Anger" piece of crap in that category too. How can a band tour as much as Clutch - they are ALWAYS on the road - and write so many good songs? From the clever title track to contender of the best riff ever written - 'Sea of destruction' - to the hilarious 'Guild of mute assassins', Clutch have that rare knack of penning classic after classic song while making every one unique yet still highly listenable. A definite high point of 2003, and these were songs that were lying around, folks.

The Crown - Possessed 13 (Metal Blade)
Everyone I spoke to who's heard this album can't get over how damn good this thing sounds. If you've never heard Sweden's The Crown before, think loads and loads of riffs that heralds back to the early days of '90s Swedish death metal, with a slight, cheeky punk influence jamming with a younger, leaner and drunker Motörhead, and you're coming very, very close to the blissful sound of The Crown. Boasting a killer production this, their sixth album, captured many metal fans' attention in 2003, and with pummeling tracks such as 'Cold is the grave', 'Zombiefied!', 'Are you morbid?' and 'Kill 'em All' (spot the metal-nods, trivia buffs?) it was no wonder. Solid, well-played, memorable songs are the order of the day with The Crown, and with the promise that they've just completed re-recording 2002's 'Crowned in Terror' with long-time vocalist Johan Lindstrand (who was absent for that particular album) things look very rosy for The Crown and their legion fans indeed.

Destruction - Metal discharge (Nuclear Blast)
Those of you who are regular readers of my metal spewing will be in no doubt of my feelings for legendary German thrashers Destruction, so I will spare you my high-spirited rant of just how devastatingly good these guys are. 'Made to be broken', 'Desecrators of the new age', 'Vendetta', and the incredible 'The Ravenous beast', quite possibly the most shredding song Destruction have ever written, main men Schmier and Mike, along with new drummer Marc Reign have once again come up with the goods that continue to awe and amaze. And if you're lucky enough to get the double CD case you get seven extra tracks, from demo versions of various Destruction tunes to covers of 'Killers' by Maiden, 'Whiplash' by Metallica and the controversial 'USA' by Discharge, already getting our über-boys into hot water in the States. Whilst not as frantic as 2001's "The Antichrist", or as memorable as 2000's "All Hell breaks loose", nevertheless "Metal Discharge", is a crisp, tightly played slab of raging thrash metal that will disappoint none of its fans of both the band and the genre.

Dimmu Borgir - Death cult armageddon (Nuclear Blast)
One of my favorite albums of last year, DCA is the album that will finally thrust Dimmu Borgir into the metal premiership, and I can think of none who deserve it more than these black metal Norwegians. In the year where Metallica literally shocked the metal world with their non-effort "St. Anger", Dimmu Borgir left the rest of the pack behind with this superb, creatively-dripping album of atmospheric, almost cinematic musical epics. 'Allegiance', 'Lepers among us', 'For the world to dictate our death', 'Progenies of the great Apocalypse', Dimmu Borgir have crafted tunes to accompany the Four Horsemen as they blaze cross the Northern sky. And building on their orchestral partnership (this time using a 46-piece orchestra!), they have taken black metal into realms undreamed of back in 1983. And for that they are to be applauded.

E-Force - Evil forces (Seasons Of Mist)
When bassist and vocalist Eric Forest was asked to leave Voivod 'cos original singer Snake was returning to the fold, he lost no time in getting together his own band, naming it E-Force and recording an album that made the best of us sit up and take notice. Coming from several years of recording and touring Voivod's "Negatron" and "Phobos" (an awesome album), it's not surprising that EF is somewhat splashed with dashes of his former band, but there's enough musical talent and dedication in this furious foursome to overlook such obvious influences. 'Satanic forces', 'Forest of the impaled', 'Belief', 'Disorder', there's a major thrash metal band here struggling to break free of the Voivod and Slayer clichés, and once they do, E-Force will be a loud, noisy kid on the block. Watch this space.

Exhumed - Anatomy Is Destiny (Relapse)
Like fellow gore-hounds Impaled before them, no matter how hard Exhume try they will never escape the Carcass comparisons. It's not really a bad thing, though I am loath to enjoy any band who willfully plagiarizes, for apart from the aforementioned Impaled, there really aren't that many bands in the extreme metal scene that are playing anything like Exhumed. And play well they do; "AID" is a sheering, musical assault on your senses, dual vocals, riffs all over the place, pounding drum rolls, all captured gorgeously (grotesquely?) by Neil Kernon - a busy man in 2003. 'In the name of gore', 'Consuming impulse', 'The Matter of splatter', you won't believe that gore metal (or whatever it's calling itself this year) could sound so good. Apparently Kernon was concerned that the sound on "AID" was 'too clean', but the band wanted it as clean as he could give them, and in my opinion Exhumed's face-shredding battery sounds all the better for it. Highly recommended.

Goatwhore - Funeral dirge for the rotting sun (Rotten)
Those of you who still mourn the demise of the now legendary Acid Bath need fret no more. Sammy Duet, once guitarist of those lords of evil, now pedals his wares in the jaw-droppingly good Goatwhore, and seriously, if you haven't heard of these guys before now then you are missing out big time. This, their second album, is twisted; evil, satanic, blasphemous, sick metal played to perfection, with a killer production that propels Goatwhore into your room, its head spinning round spewing green vomit everywhere. 'The Black art of deception', 'Vengeance of demonic fury', 'Blood guilt Eucharist'; this is relentless, grotesque metal that is slowly seeping into the genre's consciousness, poisoning all it touches. A definite highlight of 2003, and a name to watch.

Iron Maiden - Dance of death (EMI)
For a bunch of ole geezers, they simply get better and better, don't they? Building and expanding on 2000's 'Brave new world' Maiden threw away any doubt they had regarding writing sweeping, almost classical inspired songs, if anything they launched into this album with vigorous zeal .'Paschendale', 'Face in the sand', 'Journeyman', the incredible title track, Maiden did what they did best and stamped home a classic album with classic songs not heard since "Powerslave". I won't waste your time or mine writing more on this superb album that you haven't heard or read for yourself, rather than to say that this was one of the top albums of 2003, period.

King Diamond - The Puppet master (Metal Blade)
I've never been the biggest King Diamond or Merciful Fate fan - music is great, vocals give me a migraine - but I have to admit that this album took me by surprise. Based on mannequins seen hanging in a theatre in Budapest one foggy evening, cue Diamond's dark imagination running into overdrive, backed with a damn good Power metal soundtrack complete with haunting female vocals and eerie, periodical music and you have a concept record for Gothic Horror fans and metal-heads alike worth talking about. And the vocals aren't as annoying this time round!

Macabre - Murder metal (Season Of Mist)
"Sitting at my table/having some tea/chatting with this bloke/who's dead from strangling/I'm a lonely man/in need of company/I only have to kill men/to make them stay with me." It could only be Chicago's Macabre, those whacky serial-killer metal-biographers. Macabre graced us in 2003 with 'Murder metal', and it sounded like nothing else released last year. Produced by Neil Kernon, he not only captured the Macabre sound, but tied it up and did all kinds of unspeakable things to it. 'Acid Bath', 'The Hillside Stranglers', 'Dorthea's Dead Folks Home', 'Poison', 'Morbid minister', Macabre are part death metal, part punk, part children's nursery rhymes (seriously), come on, what's not to love about these guys?

Morbid Angel - Heretic (Earache)
There's a lead break in the middle of 'Beneath the hollow' that takes the song on two different paths while still maintaining the essence of its core. And it is this uniqueness that has catapulted MA into the major league with this crowning release, giant steps forward from their mildly disappointing last album, "Gateways to Annihilation". The sound on this album is incredible; it is death metal, but almost futuristic death metal. And it makes tracks like 'Praise the strength', the eerie 'Place of many deaths' and 'Stricken arise' in particular sound years ahead of their time. Make no mistake, in a genre bursting with brutally talented bands Morbid Angel are the undisputed Kings of death metal.

Naglfar - Sheol (Century Media)
I have found myself listening to more and more black metal in 2003, though high-polished, "posh" black metal, not your crappy little moped BM with tiny guitars and suitcase drums. Sure, there are those who berate the fact that BM is not supposed to be or sound acceptable, that it should remain Underground and sacrosanct to the chosen, unholy few, but I say boo-hoo to them. Naglfar are one of those who are riding high on a wave of fire by being not afraid of producing high-quality, polished yet blasphemous black metal, and good for them. Don't get me wrong, this is not Dio - "Sheol" fucking rips, man, the sonic equivalent of having a piano fall on your head. But it sounds good. And with top-notch tracks such as 'Unleash hell', 'I am vengeance' or the incredible 'Force of pandemonium', you simply can't deny the devastating musicianship and sheer dedication that has gone into this.

Nevermore - Enemies Of Reality (Century Media)
As more and more kids wise-up and start to turn their backs on nu-metal and those jumping, baggy-pants idiot bands, looking for something heavier and different, it's bands like Nevermore that will guide these kids onto the path of metal righteousness. Nevermore, led by the versatile Warrel Dane are on the verge of world metal dominance, for they are a rare band where no matter which genre of this clouded scene of ours you happen to fall into, like Iron Maiden, there's something for everyone in a Nevermore record. And "EOR", their 5th album, doesn't disappoint. Riffs, riffs and more riffs, check out the third track, 'Never purify', for a gonad-crunching tempo that will have you pounding your head with metal abandonment. 'Create the infinite', 'Ambivalent' 'Enemies of reality'; this is high class, intricate metal that will hopefully boost Nevermore into the big arenas where they belong.

Slayer - Soundtrack To The Apocalypse (American Recordings)
After years of promises and reassurances the Slayer box-set finally saw the light of day at the end of last year. Was it worth the wait? Kinda. If, like me, you were put off by the extortionist price of the ultra-fancy box-set and got the cheaper, simpler version, then you would have gotten a 4-disc set, three of those CDs of music, the other a DVD. The first two discs are the 'best of' from Slayer's American/Def Jam albums, so there's no Metal Blade "Hell Awaits" or "Show No Mercy" tracks here. Live tracks, yes, but no originals. There are a couple of rare, Japanese-only tracks at the end of disc two, such as 'Unguarded instinct' and 'Wicked', as well as the blistering Ice-T collaboration 'Disorder', but since these tracks, apart from 'Disorder', are not regarded as Slayer classics, there's nothing worth writing home about here. Things pick up on disc three, with "shit we've never heard", such as home recordings, studio rough mixes and live stuff, as well as the ultra rare 'Ice titan' from way back in 1983. All very well and good. But it's the DVD, "shit we've never seen", that's almost worth the price of this box-set alone, with 17 live and other Slayer-moments for your approval. Some tasty numbers here too - early live songs such as 'Praise of Death' and 'Aggressive Perfector' to name but two - as well as brief interviews and Slayer collecting the Kerrang! Award for "Heaviest band in the world". It would have been nice if they had included their past videos here, as they are just as ultra-rare and unseen by the average Slayer fan as Jeff Hanneman's home recordings. The 60-plus page booklet is a nice addition, full of photos and quotes and other facts and figures of interest to the Slayer fanatic, and I guess you'd have to be a fanatic to get this. It's by no means essential, but if, like me, you love your Slayer, then you already have it. Doesn't mean I'm gonna buy those Kerry King sneakers this year, though…

Vader - Blood EP (Metal Blade)
After the success of "Revelations", surely one of the top 10 extreme metal albums released in the last few years, Vader continue their tradition of releasing a stop-gap while they busy themselves recording their next album, scheduled for the summer. And as the rusty leaves fell in autumn so did 'Blood', a 7-track metal assault from Poland's premier metal band. Kicking off with 'Shape-Shifting' (not a song about Odo from Star Trek, I'm assured), this has everything Vader are renowned for; break-neck speeds, thumping rhythms, tasty solos and musicianship that is second-to-none in this field. The mid-paced, doom-ridden 'We wait' is up next, which boasts the line "The absence of war/does not mean peace". They obviously aren't waiting for a bus, so. 'Blood' also comes with a cover of 'Angel of death', the Thin Lizzy version, not the Slayer classic. I unfortunately got the North American version (considering I'm now living in Vancouver), so I got the CD that includes 'Reign world forever', also reviewed in Distorted, and not "AOD" for some reason. Not that I would dare condone home-taping (cough), but anyone who has the ordinary EP and could arrange to get me a copy of 'Angel of death', please feel free to contact me.

Vital Remains - Dechristianize (Olympic Recordings/Century Media)
Unfortunately, it took the presence of Deicide main-man Glen Benton on vocals on this cracking Vital Remains album for people to sit up and take notice of this talented, yet underrated, band. No bad thing, I always liked it when bands have guests musicians and to hear Benton growl and choke his way through 8-minute plus tracks that VR are renowned for, well, it's worth the price alone. However, "Dechristianize" was much more than that, a superior album in a year that was clogged full of excellent extreme metal records. The blasphemous title track, 'Rush of deliverance', 'At War with God', Vital Remains, like the aforementioned Akercocke, don't so much thrash out a song as weave its devilry, constricting around your senses like an anaconda squeezing the bleedin' life outta ya. And, unlike the majority of the black & death metal bands out there, VR have a hint of melody running through their songs, with some tasty guitar licks and solos that amplify their sound. If ever there was such a thing as classy satanic metal, then this would be it.

Wehrwolfe - Godless We Stand (Magick)
From the ashes of Darkmoon comes this rabid beast, all teeth and claw and studded armbands, not so much pretenders to the throne of death metal, as gnashing at its heels. Most bands start from humble beginnings, Wehrwolfe arrived with a crash in 2003, their lyrics anti-religion without being satanic, and with a sound that comes across as Nile jamming with Immolation you can get a vague idea what these guys sound like. Like all debut records, there is room for improvement, but that's something to look forward to. With powerful tracks like 'MIA2 Battalion of Hate' and 'The Trinity Undone', Wehrwolfe, as incredible as they sound now, it boggles the mind to think what they could end up sounding like. A name for the future.

Zyklon - Aeon (Candlelight)
And finally we come to Z, for Zyklon, their second album, and surely one of the more devastating death metal releases of last year. Though they have their roots in Emperor, there is hardly any hint of the famed black metal group throughout, this is the sound of a band finding its niche and digging its big leather boots in. You have the fast - 'Psyklon Aeon'; the doom-ridden - 'Two thousand years'; and the unique - 'An electric manner', one of the more memorable DM tracks to hit our stereos in recent years. Big times await this gang of noisy Norwegians. A professional release from one of the big boys on the block.

So, there you have it, 20 albums worth my time and yours from 2003. I didn't have the room (or the patience!) to include other notable extreme releases, such as Skinless, Arch Enemy, Nasum, Mastodon, Diabolic, Lamb of God, Dying Fetus, plus countless others, forgive me if I left out your favorite. This year we have new albums from, among others, Exodus, Pig Destroyer, Voivod, Deicide, Cannibal Corpse and Slayer with Dave Lombardo back on the drum stool to look forward to - if 2004 is as half as good as 2003 we should be doing ok.
Here's to a very metal 2004, folks!

Ken Blackmore.

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