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Having already become a one man suburb of the Swedish death metal scene at large, Rogga Johansson has begun complementing his original projects (or not so original, depending who you ask) by partnering up with a few veritable death metal legends. He's already done this with the venerable Kam Lee, and with some success (The Grotesquery), so when I heard he was teaming with the Master himself, one Mr. Paul Speakmann, I paid attention. Now, being that I'm a fan of Paul's vocals a lot more than the music on most of his offerings, and often I really like Rogga's writing a lot (or not, he's just got so many bloody projects), I was immediately interested in the possibility that the best of both worlds would collide here into an album more memorable than...how it looked.
Thank fuck, it is alright! We're not talking an inconceivable amount of effort here, but somehow that ghoulish countenance present in Speakmann's growling seems to get a hellish injection from the playful derivation of Rogga's riffing, which is more or less his usual hybrid of d-beat and Floridian fluidity. Sulphur Skies is far from brilliant, mind you, but had it been written as the third Master album in the 90s, or just some other random record from that period, I think it might hold a sort of cult classic status. Most of the tremolo guitar patterns are rather predictable, but there's just that marginal level of genuine evil in their construction that is so often lacking from the more boring cadre of nostalgia bands. With twelve tracks, I could certainly have done without about 4-5 of them, and would rather the rest had been strengthened up. All are relatively concise at around 3 minutes each, and feature a few rhythm changes and diabolic leads, but the quantity could have been shelved to tighten up even an EP's worth of material with more quality riffing and this could have been something really special among the crowded rebirth of the 90s so prevalent lately.
Got no issue with the sound of it...the vocals just have that usual gut ripping quality to them, unmistakable for any other vocalist in the field. Bass lines are thick, the whole record feels really visceral like a killer stalking his prey, and perhaps more importantly, there's no mercy when he catches up. Riffs and leads are stricken with a rawness that doesn't eschew clarity, so Sulphur Skies sustains its violent ethics even when churned out at the highest volume. I would not have minded some more variation in the songwriting, but then I could say the same for most efforts both these guys have involved themselves with in the past, and it's the reason I usually pick out a few tunes and then find the rest skippable. But, to this album's credit, it's definitely a fun enough ride that you won't always want to escape in the middle of the experience...it takes you right back to those crucial early 90s when death metal had an air of excitement and danger about it, and I think that is what both parties intended when they got together to record it. Well enough done, but if they put out another it'd behoove them to sink a little more time and effort into sculpting a genuine new classic.
The percentage of projects which Rogga Johansson is involved in that sound like every other project which Rogga Johansson has been in is over one hundred percent. I don't even need to listen to this release to know what it's going to sound like. Remarkably, people flock to the dude like fifty year old metal fans flock to Iron Maiden concerts. Much like Iron Maiden, Rogga has been doing the exact same thing forever, is unabashed about it and doesn't seem like he has any interest in anything other than the Swedish death metal which he pumps out like an overworked assembly line that's been making the same product regardless of quality for aeons. In reality, I have no problem with any of Rogga's music. It's very good to use as a baseline for measuring Swedeath. It's perfectly average. It's pretty fundamental stuff that you really can't hate, even if we can be honest about it's redundancy. Paganizer has made appearances in Contaminated Tones several times already and the verdict was similar to my opinions here. Humanity Delete also ran into some problems but was a better effort. Johansson and Speckmann, is the same message, the same style that we've come to love or be bored by and offers the same thing we either love or are bored by, but with Paul Speckmann on vocals.
Preface out of the way, I'll make note of some of the stuff that I really did enjoy. One thing which Sulphur Skies has going for it is in fact Speckmann, whose vocals are pretty good on the release and offer a bit of differentiation and interest. At times the words at the end of phrases trail off in, what I imagine to be, a stream of dribble down his beard. I wouldn't be surprised if somewhere behind the curly grey quills escaping from his face like prisoners jetting out of a POW camp, is John Tardy. There is no comparison here to Speckmann's bitterness and emotion in Master or Death Strike but Speckmann never seems tired or bored. He must be one of those guys that just unconditionally loves death metal. Still, the tracks here emit a certain level of timidity which ensconces the release in the kind of aura which you would find above a man painting his house with a toothbrush or hovering next to a seventeen year old in a first grade math class. Even some of the longer screams are not nearly vicious enough. Some other notable moments are the various leads that appear throughout the release. The first of which, several notes held out over the dross death metal underneath, comes into focus near the end of second track "Spiritual Wasteland," and again in third track "Taste the Iron," a song which I imagine has a lot to do with laundry. Slower moments on Sulphur Skies rekindle those memories of hearing Into The Grave for the first time. In my case, it made me actually put on the classic album instead of listening to Johansson And Speckmann. You can't argue with classics and this just emphasized what Sulphur Skies is missing - the evil.
If I had to pick out a highlight, it would be title track "Sulphur Skies." The one track summarizes the entire release. It's a blitzing beast of predictability and Rogga-riffs. The main recurring verse phrase is rather awesome and memorable. The lead at the end is well situated. The drumming of Brynjar Helgetun is precise and compliments his old compatriot Rogga. If I had to pick out a final lowlight, it would be the pacing of this album, also an issue with many other Johansson led releases. It's twelve tracks, all basically exactly the same length, with similar structures and not a huge amount of differentiation between tracks other than the occasional memorable intro riff. "Vile Stench and Decay" is one such track with a memorable introductory riff. At it's heart, this is a death metal fan's album. If you're the kind of person who has no restraint when it comes to Death Metal, you'll probably love this. If you like death metal that is complex, difficult and unique, there is none of that here and for that reason, it's not my chalice of blood.
Originally written for Contaminated Tones
Rogga Johansson & Paul Speckmann: a match made in hell. The former an underground forger of Swedish death metal, through the outlets of his many projects such as Paganizer, Revolting, and Ribspreader; the latter a forger of the underground itself, pioneering the death metal sound through primordial acts such as Funeral Bitch, Abomination, Death Strike, and of course: Master.
The only thing new on this offering is in the form of a collision and collusion of these two distinguished figures. Speckmann’s snarl is immediately recognizable and unequivocally welcomed as the overlying complement of Johansson’s riffs, immediately discernible as Swedish in composition, production, tune, and in line with the solid d-beats and double bass of Brynjar Helgetun. Although, and unfortunately, the few shredding guitar solos take a back seat to the rhythm and are not nearly as pronounced as they should be in the production.
Variety is happily, or, depending on your perspective, unhappily barren. Aside from slightly mid-paced tunes like “Taste the Iron” or “Vile Stench and Decay,” all you get is straight-forward death metal. With some, as it is with me, such is all that is needed. Sheer originality can be supplied by other bands, not these guys; the proverbial mantra of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” rings entirely true in this case and the aggression and anger is at the forefront, flowing from the vocal and guitar chords.
The lyrics, if not prescient, are undeniably conscious. Verses like “Agendas not even hidden, no one can stop them anyway…” can be interpreted as a description of the current U.S. administration under Obama with drone strikes devoid of due process, attacks on the fourth amendment through sly demagogy, and tapping of phone records and other ostensibly private forums. Or take this as an ultimate and abject description of global events: “Empires like graveyards, the abundance of war is taking its toll. The fires rage all over the world, nothing can ever quench them. A need to kill and conquer rooted deep in the soul, a need to herd the masses, into a world of doom.” Such lyrical content explores the enduring human condition and the situations unfolding and continuing all over the world in many places like Syria or North Korea.
Speckmann’s perspective is wrought with raw emotion and realistic to the point of pessimism, as can be heard on the spoken coda of Master’s 2012 album The New Elite: “…Escape? There is no escape from the tyranny of the U.S. government; so death will be the best solution for myself.” Call him what you will, but Paul Speckmann is not optimistic; nonetheless, in consequence, he is not unrealistic either and his pessimism allows for a description of the world that is more grounded in reality rather than sugar-coated by some form of mind-deluding soma. Even the track titles are blatant reflections of Speckmann’s mindset: “Everyone Rots,” “The World Is Set to Burn,” “The Stench of Mankind.” Each song is riddled with the grit of reality: past, present, and future.
Although the length is just under thirty-five minutes, sparing us from drawn out intros or unnecessary synthetic aesthete, (by all means such ingredients can be useful within the right context and circumstances) this is more than an hors d'oeuvre in anticipation of the upcoming Master album in September 2013 or whatever multitudes Rogga Johansson has cooking up, this is a heavy main course of Swedish death metal with a side of American growl. I welcome this offering, and await another, from such a match made in hell to fill my death-metal-craving, and so should you.
Published in Mane Stage: http://manestage.blogspot.com/2013/07/album-review-johansson-speckmann.html
When you get two heavyweights such as Rogga Johansson and Paul Speckmann collaborating on a project, you hopefully feel a severe rush of excitement as I did. As long as I've been a fan of Paul Speckmann from his bands Master, Abomination, Funeral Bitch and other various bands and projects, I know him to be a man of quality with no shortcuts taken in his music. On the same token, Johansson himself possesses an impressive list of credits from Paganizer, Revolting and into Humanity Delete, not to mention everything in between. If you are an extreme metal fan and are not familiar with either of these men, eternal shame on you for existing at all.
Sulphur Skies is a death metal undertaking of vast importance and much-detailed scrutiny. When these men assign themselves to projects, it's usually microscopically evaluated by the elitist automatons in the movement, ready to strike down the effort with an uninformed keystroke or predetermined opinion. They seem to get scorn for not recreating the wheel with every release, but a simple standard of quality and dedication always trumps a staunch switch in style to assuage the easily lulled masses too scared to accurately define dedication. Once you are familiar with both of these guys' respective catalogs, you follow for life or your deviate for something easier to dissect. After going through the album once, now thrice for pleasure and measure, I can say that this collaboration is a winner all over.
What is offered here in Sulphur Skies is a generous amount of death metal speed, slow and crunching groove-inspired volatility, and well constructed vocal patterns. After being battered about with the opener, “Everyone Rots,” I'm not able to settle down for one single second. “Taste the Iron” is a slower entry into ugly brutality as Speckmann growls about suffering within an iron maiden device, a long-abolished and primitive form of amusing torture that still brings a smile to this old man's face. My personal mental illness aside, the next track in “Sulphur Skies” has some of the best riffing around; the true art in death metal guitar isn't vying for some tired technically-advanced foray into flailing pinch harmonics or lightning-fast scale humping, and I wish more musicians would realize this. These riffs and arrangements here are Death Metal 101.
Some of the really powerhouse tracks here are influenced by many years of tiling a soil long dried up by horrifyingly boring and trite bands attempting to lay new soil to an already rich field. Among those ancient influences, there is no larger champion that Paul Speckmann; his influence has been long felt and disgustingly under-appreciated for too many years. You can most certainly hear some of his moody Sabbath bass influences in the 'slower' tracks, but there's an unmistakable viciousness to the guitar work, especially in “Vile Stench and Decay”, which has some great tonal brashness. While I'm constantly reminded of Revolting and the recent Bone Gnawer EP ala Rogga's guitar work, this only adds to my personal enjoyment because as ugly as it can get, Johansson manages to disfigure it all so perfectly under the caustic shroud of bare-bones rudiment.
Going into this for the third time in one sitting, I grow more impressed with the level of intensity from this record. Johansson's guitar prowess is becoming something of an underground legend. Sure, some people seem to find his riffs overused and almost obligatory, but there an undeniable darkness that emits from nearly every riff the man produces that settles in your soul and grows like a festering tumor fit to burst. Moving past this euphemistic malignancy, simply put, Rogga himself is long associated with quality. One listen to “The Real Victims” and you might just understand the correlation between good death metal and plasticity feigned for the sake of posturing. There is no technical brilliance here, no over-saturation of production to kill the essence of the album, and no mix-matching of styles foreign to the intended mark. All instruments, while clear and mixed well, do not compete with one another for mock superiority, and that makes the album even more enjoyable.
For people who enjoy their death metal with a generous meshing of antiquity and modernization, you should really take in this pairing and enjoy the simplicity of one deadly and historical meeting of the minds, and how wonderfully sick they are!
(Originally written for www.metalpsalter.com)