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Considering his involvements with the highly popular Death and the relatively well-known Massacre, it begs the question as to why nobody seems to have checked out any of Kam Lee's future projects. With vocalists such as Napalm Death's Barney Greenway citing him as an influence, how the hell did he get so overlooked? Perhaps he's one of those "you know his name but never checked his shit out" kind of artists. Everything he's been involved with is absolute gold, but of the numerous projects he's had, The Grotesquery is beyond any doubt his finest work. The band's albums follow an ongoing storyline, even though I myself haven't actually figured the story out since I only bought the albums digitally and can't find the lyrics anywhere.
I've heard the project described as the "King Diamond of death metal", and I can't say that that's too far off. While I am not a huge King Diamond fan, I know enough about his work to comprehend what he's all about, and that my metal brethren, is the knack for dark concept albums. Each track on the album begins with a speech narrating the overarching plot, though I've only been able to make out some of the words. It can get a bit distracting, but it makes the impact of each song hit that much harder. The production is one of the few problems the album has, however. For the most part it's fine, but the mixing is way too loud; I actually had to turn it down a notch just to give it a proper listen.
With that very minor nitpick out of the way, the album as a whole is absolutely fantastic death metal, even if it does nothing new. Kam is at his absolute best vocally, delivering a savage performance complimenting the music the way only he can. The guitar work is absolutely solid as well. While I actually don't really like most of Rogga Johansson's work, (not because I dislike his playing, because I think he's excellent, I just find most of his projects rather derivative and generic) for some reason he has the best brought out of him whenever he works with Kam. Perhaps maybe it's just the style, but it's entirely possible that I wouldn't enjoy the record as much if it wasn't for Kam's presence.
The biggest strength of "Tales of the Coffin Born" is in the bludgeoning atmosphere shrouding every second of it. Every song is meticulously crafted so that each moment hits you like a ton of bricks. In fact, the 3-minute-10-second mark of the opening song "Coffin Birth" contains one of the single greatest riffs I have ever heard in a death metal song, and I've heard literally HUNDREDS of them. Whatever it was that Rogga did to execute that riff so well....let's just say that other DM guitarists need to take lessons from the guy.
I am literally blanked out of reasons to praise this album. You have to hear it for yourself. Not only is it undoubtedly one of the best, if not the best, records Kam has ever had a hand in creating, it may very well be one of the best straight-up death metal albums of 2010, if not the 2010s altogether. Stellar songwriting, flawless (if a bit loud) production, some of Rogga's best riffing ever, and an intriguing storyline to go along with it, "Tales of the Coffin Born" is proof that an album doesn't have to be original at all to be incredible.
The Grotesquery, along with the more primitive Bloodgut, is one of the more conceptual projects assembled with the prolific Swedish death metal personality Rogga Johansson, who handles the guitars here. He is joined by a number of longtime collaborators (bassist Johan Bergland and drummer Brynjar Helgetun), but the real draw to this is probably the involvement of death metal 'royalty' in vocalist Kam Lee, who most will recognize from Massacre, but has himself featured in a number of other projects since that time. In fact, this isn't even his first dance with Rogga, the two having put out the Bone Gnawer debut Feast of Flesh the year prior to this, which featured a more brutal and churning style of death metal. Not that Tales of the Coffin Born lacks some punches of its own, being pure throwback death metal, but the inclusion of the atmospheres and story elements curb it from being a total zombie-mosh slug-fest. Actually, outside of some of the Putrevore, Revolting, Ribspreader and Paganizer material, which I'm quite partial to, The Grotesquery is one of Johansson's strongest acts.
Now, I'm on record as never having been the biggest Massacre advocate, finding them average at best even when their style was a novelty. Far less interesting songwriters than Death, Pestilence or Obituary of the time, with an air of 'me too' written about them in the miasma of early Earache, Metal Blade and Nuclear Blast signings. They were also later responsible for Promise, one of the worst fucking records ever recorded by a death metal band in history, or ANY metal band, for that matter (I've certainly scored that abomination lower than every studio record other than the Hellyeah debut). Yeah, I know it's an anomaly and half the band either denies taking part in it or wants very badly for us all to forget it out of existence, but you can imagine I just don't approach a Kam project with a lot of high expectations. To be fair, it's not because of 'Master' K. Lee's vocal prowess (with that one exception). He was fine on the first Massacre disc as well as his stint in Denial Fiend, and in truth his personality is a large part of what makes Tales of the Coffin Born an enjoyable experience. Ghastly guttural growls with a lot of gut-saturated sustain, balanced off against a higher pitched snarling voice that very often felt like Deicide if not so closely conjoined. He's also got a gruffness that resembles Rogga himself in some of the bands he has growled for.
Musically, this is a total old school hybrid of American thrash-influenced songwriting aesthetics reminiscent of bands like Massacre, Malevolent Creation and Deicide with the meatier Swedish tone inspired by the usual suspects who influenced many of Johansson's other projects. Brynjar's bullet train double bass builds an undertow beneath the largely mid-paced material comprised of a lot of primitive tremolo picked riffs, palm muted chuggery and few craftily carved open chord sequences. A few of the grooves felt like faster Bolt Thrower, but the major difference is all the sampling and 'narrative' stuff used in the songs, from faint industrial clanking to cheesy intro monologs that set up the tunes proper. Although I mostly enjoy this, there are absolutely a number of pretty generic rhythm guitar progressions like the lazy groove in "This Morbid Child" that simply feel too familiar to stand behind. The Lovecraftian horror which spurs on the lyrics isn't exactly represented with a lot of interesting musical ideas, though I'd say Rogga gets into it in a more complex, varied manner than many of his bands, with a goodly number of riff shifts, and a badly needed bit of lead and melody work.
The bass lines sound tight with a plodding tone, some squirmy fills, and as mentioned, the drums are executed with robotic accuracy, but not in a bad way... they simply sound flawless and voluminous in both the kick and snare-work. Like the recent outings of Paganizer or Ribspreader, The Grotesquery really goes for a deeper end effect that stirs your entrails as if by a spoon in a cauldron, but there's also a lot of studio clarity here that won't turn off fans of more contemporary, technical death metal who don't require it to sound as if it was recorded in a cave in 1993. Tales of the Coffin Born isn't terribly eerie or compulsory like its lyrical subject matter, so don't expect the slowly building terror of a Lovecraft tale to translate itself meaningfully into the song structures. It's more of a brutal and clinical sort of old school modernization that just happens to target a more eloquent brand of horror than the usual misogynistic gut-spilling. Aesthetically there have been dozens of other records on which the music and lyrics fit better together, but just on its riffing, vocals, and production alone, Tales of the Coffin Born is a really solid effort that holds up across a number of listens. You might not remember the album long after spinning it, but when engaged in the neck straining experience itself it won't let you down, especially if you're a sucker for old Massacre, Cancer, Bolt Thrower, Jungle Rot, and the like.
When in 2009 Kam Lee returned to the scene recording an album with Rogga Johansson under the logo of BONE GNAWER it was like a blessing to me. Leader of MASSACRE, one of my old time favourites is back! And there’s also that Swedish bloke in the line up, who keeps recording albums under dozens of names and whose CDs I keep buying, loving his style and undisputed death metal dedication. To me Rogga fuckin’ rules! These two did one good album and all of a sudden I found out that they also plan to put out CD of another project, called THE GROTESQUERY. First reviews I’ve read already were very weird… People only complained, talked about the uselessness of having two bands, which play similar style of music. But similar doesn’t mean it’s the same! You must be one lazy bastard, if you think that both BONE GNAWER and THE GROTESQUERY are too alike. Obviously you didn’t bother to go deep within the music, its structures and something called concept.
The opening song just shreds. It’s called “Coffin Birth” and brings catchy mid paced riffing in total old school style, similar to such bands as SIX FEET UNDER and BLOODBATH for instance, but with the exception of some industrialized sound effects threw within one of the motives, what underlines its might and energy to great effect. “This Morbid Child” is even slower and it’s maybe not so good as I expected, luckily the next track “That Thing which Lurks In the Shadows” is much better, as it’s very heavy and massive, the riffs weight a tone here – and what’s intriguing, this song really reminds me some good old tunes from ACHERON.
And when I mentioned this American legend of Mr. Crowley I really started to have a feeling that THE GROTESQUERY is similar to it more than just often. Many of the riffs have similar vibe and the vocals… well, they just have the same sound and powerful energy, they're also sang in very specific, almost narrative manner. But of course THE GROTESQUERY throws in many other things than just mid paced or slow riffage – there’s quite a bit of melodies on here, like in “The Terrible Old Man”, actually one of my favourite tracks on the album. A real masterpiece is the final song though, “Fall Of The House Of Grotesque”. Its opening, melodic riff is just epic, definitely one of the best on entire album.
But I can honestly admit though that most of the songs THE GROTESQUERY offer stands on equally high level. There are two or three exceptions, like “Spirits of the Dead” (it just doesn’t feel like so killer and sounds again very much like SIX FEET UNDER), but really most of the stuff is great. My one minor complain would come to the fact that THE GROTESQUERY sticks to one tempo throughout the album too much, so that it may seem monotonous a bit. I guess few faster nails to this coffin would do it well, but really it is a small imperfection on otherwise killer old school death metal masterpiece.
From all the aspects of THE GROTESQUERY debut album I have to underline few more things. First being all those intros thrown between each song, in order to keep the concept of the album and maybe also introduce you more into it. They may sound bit cheesy sometimes and may even annoy, but who cares… Everyone who’s into KING DIAMOND-esque concepts of (gothic) horrors will love it - I do, the story is awesome and do equals some of the best metal concept horror stories. Then, the production of “Tales of the Coffin Born” is just superb – so thick and brutal that it’s able to crush the buildings around you! The bass guitar sounds like a hammer beating your bones and drums are fuckin’ powerful. Kam Lee’s vocals kill – I absolutely love them, they’re really mighty and give an extra feeling to THE GROTESQUERY music. Finally, I think all the performances in here are top class, the front cover of the album also is one of the best I’ve seen recently (maybe together with latest HIDDEN MENACE’s album!) and so fuck those, who only moan on the imagined similarities of THE GROTESQUERY to BONE GNAWER. To me, “Tales of the Coffin Born” is great, devastating death metal album, definitely one worth getting.