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A Fragile King was one of the best death metal records out there in 2011; magnificently good riffs and terrifying vocals, I just couldn't fault that record and I span it obsessively for months on end. Still return to it at a moment's notice. So yet another disappointment from a death metal band this year with Splinters, which is Vallenfyre's sophomore slump. This is a great-sounding album by some veteran talents who, for whatever reason, have lost the ability to write songs.
Well, riffs. The guitars on this album are the problem. Most of the stuff here is slow and dreary, and not in that good sort of Winter way. Just slow and dull. There is a stronger scent of the lead guitar style from recent Paradise Lost albums on tracks like opener 'Scabs', though in general the doom *metal* influence has been toned down in favour of a crust-influenced writing style that simply uses a lot of very slow tempos. Like a boring version of Nuclear Death Terror with much less d-beats. 'Bereft' could have been a terrific death doom monstrosity recalling early recordings by the Peaceville Trinity; instead those whining leads seem awkward and tacked on, while the rhythm does nothing but boom and boom behind. It reminds me of Baldrick's poem 'The German Guns'.
Gregor Mackintosh's vocals are still fucking killer of course. His thunderous growl is among the best you can hear, and I hope he ends up in some future incarnation of Bloodbath. Or at least doing guest vocals on a Torture Division track. Adrian Erlandsson's drumming is nothing less than spectacular, especially on a track like 'Instinct Slaughter' or 'Cattle' where he plies a grindy mix of punishing d-beats and blasts. These mentioned songs are decent to listen to, but purely because of the sonic impression they leave with the brutality of Erlandsson and Mackintosh combining into one fist-shaped dent in your skull. Sadly, the writing itself still isn't up to much.
Fuck this. I really wanted to like this. Three years of waiting for a sequel to that absolute champ of a debut, and this is just dry heaves. I personally don't mind a total lack of originality when the performances are as awesome as they were on A Fragile King, but rather than crafting the masterful guitar riffs that made the debut so damn good, Splinters is nothing more than guitar tone audio porn that happens to have an awesome vocalist and drummer joining in.
Hearing that a band affiliated to Paradise Lost have just released an album would not normally be something that would get my blood boiling with anticipation. I confess that as metal took a hold within my psyche some years ago, PL were not one of those bands who made a great impression. Good they may have been but for me, upon hearing Forest Of Equilibrium there was no turning away from that particular casting of doom's shadow. I will make an effort to revisit Paradise Lost's most renowned works to see whether my more developed musical palette will induce any greater understanding or appreciation. Still, in the meantime we have a 'death metal with doom touches' release from Gregor Mackintosh, the Paradise Lost guitarist. Forget his past, how do Mackintosh and cohorts stack up in the gore-soaked and battle ruined landscape of contemporary death?
I cannot discuss this record without mentioning the guitar tone. The audio engineering minds and long experience of these practitioners has been bent toward the meatiest, meanest, most all-consuming encapsulation of the 'Swedish' guitar sound, and in all fairness they have pretty much succeeded. This muscular crunch reminds me of Goatsnake as well as the obvious Swe-death luminaries, and fittingly it really works best for me on the slower, doomier passages, such as with Aghast. In fact, that could almost actually be a Goatsnake track, with Mackintosh's guttural choke replacing Pete Stahl's bluesy croon. Drums are centred nicely in the mix and have plenty of clobber to punctuate the dense guitars. I found the kick drum to have a slightly irritating rattle to it during the faster moments, but really it's an unimportant element within the overall sound and was probably exacerbated by my listening on headphones. Generally the production was very heavy in a rather (too) modern and polished way. Perhaps this took the edge off of some less than riveting moments dispersed throughout.
I have to admit that while the band work best when they allow the riffs to ooze together in a crushingly heavy morass, the faster work left me feeling rather less excited. In these moments I found the album drifted by in an unremarkable way, failing to register much in terms of memorable passages that demanded repeated playing. When the band explores its full dynamic range though, as with album highlight Bereft, within which gothic leads weave, or the aforementioned Aghast, they demonstrate the ability to move between doom, d-beat, and latter day Celtic Frost/Tryptykon heaviosity. Wolves Of Sin demonstrates a nice balance of tempos and at just over 3 minutes doesn't get too stale, and closing track Splinters demonstrates a nice atonal droning behind the crush, bringing a sense of the abject to the fore.
The melodic touches I had been expecting were scarce though, and while the album closes leaving the ears ringing, and Mackintosh's growl is full of conviction, ultimately Vallenfyre fail to produce enough stand out moments to earn a place in the end of year lists. There are simply too many tracks that drift by without leaving much trace in the memory banks. The guitar tone dominates and leaves the overall impression of relative monotony at times, as some of the songs lack too many nuances beyond the constant striving for heaviness. I'd love to hear some of the gothic-style leads and atmospheric touches I remember of Paradise Lost, so tantalisingly glimpsed in the track Bereft.
In the end though, Vallenfyre, for all their intent and monolithic tone, remain in the shadow of more illustrious peers. I hope there is more to come by way of dynamics in future works from this band. If so, they may yet step from the darkness and cast shadows of their own.
With a line up consisting of members of My Dying Bride, Paradise Lost and At the Gates, Vallenfyre made themselves known with the 2011 debut "A Fragile King" and has since gained a fairly good amount of attention for their more old school and moody take on death metal. The main force behind this metal project started by Gergor Mackintosh of Paradise Lost has sort of a vent for the guitarist as a way to deal with the passing of his father in 2009. Such themes of mourning and depression was heavily present of the band's debut, both musically and lyrically, as most songs had a moody and slower pace and tone to match up with the saddened and emotive lyrics. This aspect was one of the things that made me like the debut so much, as the aspect of it going in a bit of a different direction, adding emotion, a little technicality and melody like it did while still remaining inside the boundaries of a familiar brand of traditional death metal made the album very, very enjoyable.
But with "Splinters" the doomier side of the band's sound has been pulled back a bit in place for a much more abrasive and punchier sound, creating a noticeable change that "Splinters" brings is that it is considerably more diverse than "A Fragile King" with plenty of nice grooves, more melodies and has more of an evolved feel, with these ultra grimy, distortion slathered, harmonios (at times depressing) riffs and fantastic, in your face drumming, making it closer to more death n' role type sound, something to the effect of Entombed and even Carcass at times. This more abrasive sound makes the a bit easier to get into, more in your face and much more blood pumping than before, but keeps things melodic and memorable. That being said, the doom influence is still very much present, such as on tracks like "Aghast" which is also one of the longest piece on this album, is a brooding dirge filled with some really nice guitar leads and a bleak atmosphere. On the other extreme, the most violent and visceral track would be probably "Instinct Slaughter" which is a no holding back, extreme death metal track. None of the other tracks go too far either way though, but the brooding doom and the visceral death metal bleed into each other really seamlessly, making the sound feel and sound pretty varied, wiether they be fast and brutal death metal tracks or the more emotive and depressed doom tracks.
But while the album as a whole is very enjoyable, one thing that Vallenfyre loses points for is their lack of originality. Everything about this record has been done before, and anybody going into it will not find any surprises or new ideas to blow them away with. At its core it is a pretty basic death metal record, and the material it does show off, while good, is nothing new and nothing special and it does take away from the overall appeal of the record a bit when what the music here does doesn't really separate it from bands like Grave or Entombed. But where "Splinters" lacks in originality, it does make up for with this sort of finesse and passion. The music is very tight, very clear, very intense and very enjoyable. It's one to check out, nothing mind blowing or "avant garde" but its a good time and worth listening to.
Paradise Lost members Greg Mackintosh and Adrian Erlandsson make up the core of this UK powerhouse. "Splinters" is the band's sophomore effort after the critically acclaimed debut, "A Fragile King", in 2011. Vallenfyre was formed by Mackintosh after his father's death and served as a therapeutic purgation. The response was overwhelming and led to the "project" becoming a band. Along with Mackintosh (guitars, vocals) and Erlandsson (drums) is bassist Scoot (Extinction of Mankind) and new guitarist Hamish Glencross (My Dying Bride).
"Splinters" is conceptually the same approach as the group's debut albeit enhanced due to the superior production by Kurt Ballou (Skeletonwitch, Converge). The band felt the most efficacious way of creating a primitive sound was to use Ballou and GodCity Studios. His uncanny ability to delve into harsher realms elevates this sophomore effort and expands upon the band's dreary delivery. While it is a remarkable piece of art, the album is angular and finds many different avenues along its course.
From the opening chords of "Scabs" you can immediately hear Mackintosh's signature guitar sound. Those opening riffs harvest the same bleak authority that Paradise Lost possessed in the early 90s ("Gothic", "Shades of God"). Like "Scabs" the album is stocked with faster starts and stops that descend into sweeping doom passages. The seven minute "Bereft" is built on mournful melodies that build to a crescendo at the four minute mark. Other cuts like "Instinct Slaughter" and "Savages Arise" clock in at less than three minutes and recall the early Swedish death movement. The production standards place enough fuzziness on the strings to recall early Dismember and Nihilist complete with Mackintosh's scathing guttural voice.
This extreme genre's finest exhibits can be found in the late 80s to early 90s by titans like Hellhammer, Celtic Frost and Napalm Death. It is in that company that I feel this English band belongs. Vallenfyre have created one of the year's best albums. "Splinters" is an uncompromising display of aggressive music with enough hook-laden grooves and soulful melodies to make it dynamic and purposeful.
This reveiw can also be found at this address:
An average Saturday night in an average bar. A few seasoned metal musicians have met for a pint or five to catch up since they are all off the road at the same time for once. As the pints go down their discussions become more sentimental and creative. They start remembering the days of their youth and then someone pops the inevitable idea to start a project reliving the musical glory of days gone. As creative ideas from a drunken mind are usually met with approval from other drunken minds, they all agree the idea is splendid and thus the gauntlet is thrown. Coming months they start to realize it might not have been such a splendid idea after all, but no one really wants to be that guy who calls everything off. They record an album, more old-school than the old school itself, and the fans cherish “Hey, the boys are back in form!” They eventually record another album living off the hype before finally returning to their main acts, obviously more musically refined than the crude compositions they spat out in their early days, and eventually the project born and breed over too many pints that night fade into obscurity leaving naught but a small note in the history books. This could have been the story of Vallenfyre. It’s not!
Sure the members of Vallenfyre started out in death metal acts, which have since evolved into other musical territories. Sure, their debut album was met with the exact hype one can expect when well known musicians return to their roots in the midst of a retro-wave. Sure, the guitar sound has the chainsaw buzz sound written all over it. Vallenfyre though, goes way beyond the standards of your average retro super group. At first glance the expected musical characteristics are there to find. The Stockholm influences are apparent in the guitar sound, particularly in the tremolo heavy up-tempo parts and the melodic Dismember-inspired Maiden-esque lines, whereas the doomy sections has Asphyx written all over it, but Vallenfyre sophomore disc ‘Splinters’ has much more to it.
The first thing noticeable is the way Glencross and Mackintosh utilize the Boss HM-2 sound. Despite wearing the typical buzzing sound the guitars are exemplary clear giving room for all nuances. On an album where the riffs are upright brilliant that can only be of an advantage, I particularly like how they sometimes combine a solid riff with a mood enhancing lead like in the title track without neither disappearing in the mix. The mood has an overall dark and slightly melancholic feeling to it, a sense of unease that you really cannot put your finger on. It is simply there to torment you and render you helpless in a desolate world. The guitars sure get the job done to invoke these feelings whereas Mackintosh vocals put the last pieces in place. Despite not being that varied, they are well articulated and have a simple raw power to them, giving them a sense of uncompromised dominance. They are excellent in their simplicity and I cannot help but wonder why they have not showed heir ugly face before the formation of Vallenfyre.
As mentioned the riffs and leads show true brilliance on ‘Splinters’. I combination with the vocals the listener is treated with quite an awesome dark and disturbing album foreboding ill tides without hope of salvation, no paradise will ever come. Not all songs are of utter top class, but at the same time there are no fillers found on ‘Splinters’. All songs have their place on the album serving a purpose not only for the overall mode, but also for variation beyond the changes in doom-, mid- or up-tempo.
‘Splinters’ holds well for repeated listens part to the strong varied material and part to Erlandssons’s drumming which are the ugly frosting on this disgusting cake. His drumming has lifted albums like the The Haunted’s self-titled debut and does it once again. Being strong enough to stand out on its own, like the insane technique used in ‘Cattle’, its high place in the mix make it not only a part of the rhythm section but also an integral part of some leads, particularly with the galloping guitar work in ‘Odious Bliss’ and ‘Dragged to Gehennah’. Curiously enough, the lead guitars, drums and vocals all share a high place in the mix and yet they are all crystal clear without the production losing its slightly rough edge. An excellent way of using the musical strong points to create an atmosphere driven by leads, riffs, drums and vocals and I really cannot come up with another example of an album where the production is using all the excellent musical resources in such a resourceful way.
Vallenfyre are lucky to live in a digital age where accessing music is easy. Had this been 20 years ago this gem would have gone me by completely due to the butt-ugly album cover. Going through the goods at a record store I would have favoured something that looks like it would have reflected the insane melancholy inside. Since the times are different I am glad to have discovered ‘Splinters’ and every time the album fades with the abrupt closing of the title track the instant urge is to push play once more. That is what ‘Splinters’ do to you, it creates an urge for more, more of the ill-boding darkness declaring paradise forever lost.
Originally written for www.metalcovenant.com
Splinters is another of those retro death metal records of which the production values alone will no doubt spin a lot of heads. I only wish mine was among them, because when I break this down to a musical level alone, there's just not much interesting happening and I feel like this entire wave of throwback extremity is surely and steadily starting to jump a shark. That's not to mock the efforts of Gregor Mackintosh and company, since they at least generate a solid effort at contrasting moderate-speed Swedish death metal with the harrowing death/doom of Gregor's mainstay. But when the considerable smoke clears from this sophomore experience, I don't think there's a single riff I feel like revisiting, and that doesn't speak of its chances when there are a few hundred other comparable records vying for the same attention spans.
Splinters is not a far cry from the Vallenfyre debut, only it seems a bit more raw and attitude driven, like a hybrid of modern Asphyx/Hail of Bullets with late 80s Paradise Lost, ancient Celtic Frost/ Hellhammer grooves ("Odious Bliss") and then some creatively bankrupt d-beat riffing passages which remind me quite a lot of tunes by the latest in the Entombed-core craze. You've got sad little melodies woven through the meatier, flesh-torn distorted rhythm guitars, but unfortunately they all feel really plain and simplified to the point that they can't even touch the genuine melancholy and gloom cast by Gregor's earlier material with Paradise Lost (Gothic, Icon, etc). The drumming is quite fantastic, in fact I love how the album opened with just the simple string of crushing chords and then a mighty fill which put me instantly in the mood to enjoy this...only it turns out that much of the material really lacks that sense of explosive excitement and so many of the riffing patterns are derivative to the point that I wanted to skip over them and hope for some light in the mist. At best they erupt into some semblance of almost-memorable punishment ("Savages Arise"), but the notes just never fall into place for me to fully invest myself into these songs.
On the plus side, for a lot of younger fans, or people who just want the enormous guitar tone you'll find amongst those bands attempting to out-Swede Sweden, the sound on this album alone is likely to make it one of your weekly favorites. Combined with Gregor's enormous, brick-faced growls, it does pack a loud punch somewhere in between Nails and Hail of Bullets. Now if only the chords chosen were thoughtful, interesting or at least bluntly evil in effect, there would be something more than a mere visceral thrill in listening through this. The slower, doom parts never make me feel doomed, just sort of run of the mill seeing that they come from a guy who has been part of some of the best tunes the field has ever offer. The speedier bits are just analogs for a thousand other bands, showing some life in the old limbs of the performers but never once presenting something that sticks. I'm usually a guitar guy, so if I'm paying more attention to Adrian Erlandsson then Gregor and Hamish, that tells me something. On the whole though, if you want Grave, Dismember, Entombed and Unleashed updated yet again with the crush dialed up, this is likely to sate that craving...I just think there are so many other bands doing it better, and a severe lack of nuance and atmosphere (beyond the guitar tone, I mean) send this one pitching into an opaque void, while A Fragile King managed to hover for awhile longer over that same precipice.