7 Albums That Changed My Perspective On Music, Part 2

Symphonic death metal, Tom Petty covers, and pirates all appear in these albums that radically changed my view on music!

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After plenty of news on Light Dawning, its time to jump back into the metal for another look at killer albums that totally redefined my perspective on music.

Part 1 over here focused on 8 albums that radically changed what I thought was possible in music as a teenager well before I started working with Metalunderground. If you missed it, that one covered genre-bending, breaking, and making albums from Amorphis, Opeth, Samael, Peccatum, Tristania, Katatonia, Dimmu Borgir, and Arch Enemy.

After becoming a writer with MU, the number of albums that hit my inbox monthly exploded to a level I’d never possibly be able to keep up with. I’ve had the pleasure (and pain) of hearing some truly bizarre, and in some cases unbelievably awesome, albums. From big names to indie bands I guarantee you’ve never heard of, there’s a whole world of music out there that’s ready and waiting to expand your horizons.

The Alien Blakk – Bekoming

alienblakkThis one hit my speakers way back in 2010, and I can’t believe this album remains almost completely unknown in metal circles to this day.

Their Facebook page has 75 likes. There is no Bandcamp page. The official website looks like it was made ’95. NONE of the songs from this album are on YouTube or Spotify.

Contrast that with the fact that The Alien Blakk mastermind Joshua Craig has composed for a ton of video games and T.V. shows, in addition to working in the studio with a ludicrously wide range of bands.  David Ellefson and Kevin Talley perform on Bekoming. Mark Hamill (yep, Luke Skywalker and the voice of The Joker himself) does a voice over on the first track. What the WHAT?

On the first listen through of this wild ride of non-traditional metal, I remember idly musing that if Faith No More hadn’t broken up (and remember, this was a solid seven years before they got back together) that a modern day rendition might sound something like this.

There’s a really wide range of styles and song directions on the album, from totally bizarre to hauntingly emotional. The album features an absolutely killer cover of Runnin’ Down A Dream that sounds even better than the original as an amped up metal tune. Bekoming is an absolute trip, and one that’s a serious pleasure to take every now and again.

I wish I could embed a video here of the music, but to this day I’ve never found any online. You’ll just have to grab the MP3 album on Amazon and take the journey for yourself.

Alestorm – Captain Morgan’s Revenge

maxresdefaultQuite a few odd sub-genres in the metal world popped up over my time at Metalunderground that often faded back into obscurity, from djent to the bizarre resurgence of nu-metal to the totally unexpected pirate metal.

Of the latter, Alestorm was easily my favorite band, pumping out some really solid drinking songs that also happen to be killer metal tracks. Opening track Over The Seas from Captain Morgan’s Revenge had me immediately hooked, and the chanting, anthemic chorus to the title track only drew me in further. With fist pumping, gang chanting songs like Set Sail And Conquer, you can’t really go wrong here.

When I first heard Captain Morgan’s Revenge back in ’08, Megan and I held a pirate party that night and invited friends and family, drinking a whole lot of – you guessed it – Captain Morgan. Sadly we didn’t know about The Kraken Black Spiced Rum yet then.

That’s OK though, because the epic closing track Death Throes Of The Terror Squid (yes, that is a real song title) wouldn’t appear on an album for another three years. The latest album No Grave But The Sea has lost nothing of the ferocity or the humor, with the amazingly-titled Fucked With An Anchor an absolute treasure of hilarity.

Although there are other bands like Swashbuckle and The Dread Crew Of Oddwood nominally in the same category, Alestorm is really the only band with that sub-genre title to nab a major label and keep on going strong at the same level throughout the years.

And yeah, yeah, I know, Running Wild is actually the original pirate metal band, but frankly they don’t really put that theme forward in the sound nearly as much as Alestorm and are really more a power metal band than an explicitly “pirate metal” one.

Leprous – Bilateral

LeprousBilateral’s totally weird ass artwork could have landed it in my earlier look at fantastic albums with ridiculously bad covers.

Like with those other releases, ignore what’s happening visually here (not that that should be a problem for the digital generation that doesn’t hold albums in their hands anymore).

Bilateral was unquestionably the best prog release of 2011, hands down. I still listen to this album a couple of times a week nearly seven years later.

Every track offers something unique, from the frantic two minute and 45 second Cryptogenic Desires to the 10+ minute Forced Entry, which never gets boring for a single second of that lengthy run time. Ihsahn of Emperor appears for some harsh vocals on fourth track Thorn, and there is a fabulous collection of varied tempos and vocal stylings throughout, like the low-key piano opening to Mb. Indifferentia that just builds and builds and builds to a vocal climax.

Sadly, I haven’t been a fan of any album from these Norwegian prodigies since Bilateral. Follow-up release Coal was unlistenable garbage and I still can’t wrap my head around how anyone liked that obnoxiously repetitive excursion in sonic pointlessness. Down the line, The Congregation and Malina are both just tepid and less interesting versions of Bilateral, with a few dashes of the obnoxiously repetitive nonsense that was that lump of Coal.

Oh well, they’ve got this one album that’s still among the top releases in all of prog metal, ever, so they deserve some major praise anyway.

Solstafir – Svartir Sandar

solstafirSomewhat like Katatonia, Tiamat, Amorphis, and Samael before them, Solstafir is a band that started more on the extreme metal side and then became something very, very different.

2011’s Svarti Sandar was point blank just completely different than any style of metal I’d ever heard before.

There’s a strong base of atmospheric post-rock, but tempered by legitimately heavy aspects, and a tendency to create these big, wide open sonic adventures that bring to mind vast landscapes.

The band isn’t afraid to experiment, with extremely concise 1 – 3 minute songs next to 11 minute tracks that build up over time.  The sound shifts freely between haunting, slow moving segments and fast paced tracks with harsher vocals.

While Svartir Sandar overall is probably my favorite album, the best track from Solstafir is probably She Destroys Again from the Kold release. I always identify the song with the music video and see the two as one in my mind.

I was pretty bummed that Gummi left (or apparently was kicked out under unpleasant circumstances) back in 2015, as he was a big part of what made the band great, but he’s got his own project Katla now, so there’s a silver lining there for fans in getting two bands instead of one.

Freak Kitchen – Land Of The Freaks

freakHahah, oh man, a phrase like tongue-in-cheek doesn’t even begin to describe Freak Kitchen. I mean, Land Of The Freaks has a song called God Save The Spleen.

What’s interesting about this oddball album is that its not really a comedy release like you might be thinking. This isn’t Psychostick or Weird Al.

Freak Kitchen consists of incredibly solid musicians recording awesome metallic rock, and it just happens to frequently be silly in the extreme or even laugh out loud funny.

From the suburban soccer mom take down Honey, You’re A Nazi to the baffling Smell Of Time, and even Michael Jackson-esque pop flourishes on Sick Death By Hypocondria, there’s an absolute grab bag of oddity here, but its all wrapped up in a stellar sound.

 

Septicflesh – Communion

septicfleshI was never  particularly interested in the previous albums from these Greek demons, but you better believe Communion got my attention.

From those curiously evil guitar lines opening Lovecraft’s Death, it was clear this was going to be something special. Lots of bands add “symphonic” to their descriptor, but Septicflesh absolutely marries the symphonic elements to death metal in a perfect way, ending up both a horror movie soundtrack and a full force death metal album.

The review I wrote on this album ended up being like two solid pages long as I listened to the album over and over for hours that day. I even took my laptop and headphones to a house party that night so I could listen through again!

Septicflesh does a pheneomenal job on this album of keeping things fresh and interesting between songs, with totally different tones and tempos between songs like Anubis or Babel’s Gate (an absolutely crushing number). Sunlight, Moonlight has clean vocals and goes a totally different direction from the destructive power of the title track, but both sound like they belong together.

That’s a tough balancing act to maintain, but these guys did it. Even crazier, follow-up album The Great Mass manages to top it!

 

Tiamat – Amanathes

tiamatI picked this album up alongside Moonspell’s Night Eternal,and Ihsahn’s AngL all on the same day at our local Hastings (remember when record stores were a thing?!?).

Simply put, I’ve never hit the jackpot like that before. Those are three of my favorite albums from all of these bands, and that’s a day I’ll never forget.

Although significantly less heavy than something like Septicflesh, Tiamat still does a stellar job presenting subversive themes,  rejecting both god and the devil.

“Amanes” in particular has always struck me as a song about growing up and realizing Satan needs to be cast aside just as much as god. There’s a wide range of sounds in the 14 song journey to reach that conclusion though, from the empowering Equinox Of The Gods (ending with a creepy children’s voiceover segment), to the remembrances of glory past on Will They Come, to the straight up melancholic Misantropolis and Amanitis. For good measure, then there’s heavier and darker tracks like Raining Dead Angels.

I didn’t often give out 5/5 ratings when I was reviewing professionally, but this was one of those discs that got a perfect score.

8 Albums That Changed My Perspective On Music, Part 1

From sax-driven prog to gothic metal, these albums radically changed my view on the musical world

If you go beneath the surface of whatever mainstream tracks are hitting the regular radio rotation, there’s a whole other world of music waiting to discovered that break genre barriers and create unbelievable soundscapes.

While my musical focus is on the metal side, this is true of just about any style if you check out the more underground bands. Looking back at the bands that got me into metal, there are a handful of absolute gems that really stand out for changing what I thought was possible in music, and today we’ll look at eight of those perspective-altering albums.

Part 1 below focuses on albums I originally heard in my teens and early 20s before starting to work in the metal journalism field. Past that point the number of bands I heard on a monthly basis absolutely exploded as press releases from all around the world hit my inbox. There were plenty of albums in that flood of metal that radically changed my concept of music, but we’ll get to some of those next time around.

Amorphis – Am Universum

148By the time I heard Am Universum I was around 15 or 16 and had been diving into black metal from the likes of Dimmu Borgir and Emperor. While I had heard some of the less heavy and more experimental stuff from Tiamat or Therion, I can safely say I was NOT expecting what Am Universum had to offer when the album was recommended to me.

Amorphis has shifted between several different vocalists and has very distinct periods in the band’s history, changing radically in sound from early releases like Tales From The Thousand Lakes to the melodic death metal of more recent albums such as Circle and Under The Red Cloud.

Smack dab in the middle of that transitioning is the oddball Am Universum, which is nothing like any previous or later Amorphis album, ditching all harsh vocals and going on a psychedelic and progressive trip.

Just describing the album is a challenge all its own. It’s Pink Floyd meets melodic death metal, but minus the death, driven by sax, keyboard, and some truly killer hooks. Simply put, there needs to be more music like this that doesn’t care about fitting cleanly in a genre slot.

I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing members of Amorphis before, and it always seemed like they were ready to forget Am Universum exists and aren’t interested in playing the material live, which is a damn shame.

Samael – Passage

103If one album absolutely defined and dominated my teen years, it was unquestionably Samael’s magnum opus, Passage.

Vorph’s semi-legible vocals mixed into the utterly revolutionary (for the time) twist on black metal gripped my 14 year old brain and never let go. Samael was essentially my religion for a good number of years there.

When opening track Rain took on the absurdity (and horrific immorality) of the Biblical flood story, I was hooked. When the keys on Angel’s Decay came in I felt like my whole world would be forever changed, having no idea black metal was allowed to do that. When fifth track Jupiterian Vibe opened with a bongo beat, I knew there was no going back. Lo-fi kvlt nonsense wasn’t going to cut it for me anymore. 

The album’s intense darkness was tempered by an uplifting vibe (which would get much stronger in later albums) and it also ditched the direct Satanic messages of previous Samael releases, creating something wholly unique in the metal world at the time.

Peccatum – Amor Fati

2698Emperor frontman Ihsahn has made a huge impact on the metal world, but its actually not that iconic black metal band that bowled me over nearly as much as some of his other side projects.

Ihsahn’s first few solo albums sit solidly in my favorite releases of all time, but its his side band Peccatum with wife Starofash (then going by Ihriel) that had my jaw dropping as a teen.

The phrase “avant-garde” hadn’t ever been uttered in my presence when I popped on Amor Fati, so I didn’t have a fucking clue what I was in for on opening track One Play No Script. The absolutely bizarre harsh vocals meshing alongside the clean female singing had me intrigued and I had to keep listening through, trying to wrap my head around the odd sound effects of No Title For A Cause.

It was third track Murder that shattered everything I thought I knew about music, opening with orchestral strings seeming to have nothing to do with metal, and then suddenly erupting with harshly dissonant shrieks and guitar riffs perfectly matching the string instruments.

Even though I was the kid into the unknown metal bands everyone else hated, I knew I was onto something here that was truly underground and different, and it left a lasting impression. Ever since then, I’ve been on the lookout for the most progressive, unexpected, and avant-garde music I can get my hands on. I can easily say that I never would have braved bands like Abruptum, Painkiller, Unexpect, or Sigh without Peccatum’s influence on my listening tastes.

All of Peccatum’s discography eventually made it into my rotation, with Lost In Reverie perhaps an even better album than Amor Fati, and just as bizarre (although in different ways). The oddity of Peccatum is also on full display in Source Of Tide, a band from Ihsahn’s brother, as well as the later Hardingrock project that would match up Emperor style black metal with spoken word poems and hardingfiddle.

Opeth – My Arms Your Hearse

opethHearing My Arms Your Hearse for the very first time is easily one of my favorite childhood memories. It happened on my 14th birthday in a very unexpected way. I was out at a restaurant with the family and opened a birthday present from my older brother, who didn’t live with us.

I was pretty stoked to see it was a game development bundle, which I was really into at the time, and this was back when PC software came in those oversized boxes and had huge manuals with the disc case floating around in all that empty space.

I opened the box up to look through the contents, and discovered the software had all been a ruse — tucked underneath the manual was a copy of Opeth’s My Arms Your Hearse, secreted away from parental view.  I just smiled and put the box away, waiting until I could get home to listen in private. My folks are incredibly religious, and things with names like “progressive death metal” were certainly not allowed in our home.

Opeth would end up being my #1 favorite band from that moment onward for more than a decade (until the release of Heritage, but we won’t sully fond reminiscing with that unfortunate debacle), and meeting Mikael Akerfeldt on a tour bus in ’08 was the whole reason I quit my day job and got into freelancing to begin with.

At the time, there wasn’t an album in the world that sounded ANYTHING like this one. Atmospheric and melodic acoustic segments, full force death metal, sections that melded the two, and those poetic, mysterious lyrics all came together to create a powerhouse that catapulted Opeth to the top of the underground metal kingdom.

The cry of “When can I take you from this place, when can we scream instead of whisper” was essentially my personal anthem for a lot of years trapped in a home situation I didn’t want to be a part of at all. I listened to this thing late at night on my headphones while the parents were asleep hundreds of times, diving deep into the esoteric sounds and dreaming strange premonitions in my slumber.

Tristania – World Of Glass

R-1328847-1351110700-2177.jpegFrom Samael’s track Together to the similarly titled We’re In This Together from Nine Inch Nails, there are more love songs in the heavy realm than you might expect. Tragic romance and forbidden love are hot topics in the gothic and symphonic metal realms, especially in the earlier Tristania albums.

In high school, my girlfriend and I fell hard for Tristania with the Widow’s Weeds album, but it was World Of Glass that would stick with me the longest. Third track Tender Trip On Earth is so unlike any love song you’ll ever hear that I guarantee you’ll never forget it.

When you add in the anti-religious themes of the album (which was very appealing to me at the time), you had the perfect storm for a romantic black metal kid whose parents hated his pagan girlfriend. There’s much more appeal to the album than just that aspect though, from ninth song The Modern End’s post-modern take on music to closing track Crushed Dreams having this amazing gothic atmosphere that still stands up to anything today.

At 17 years old when I finally saved up enough money to put a CD player in my vehicle,  opening track The Shining Path was the first song I ever played to properly christen the car.

Katatonia – Last Fair Deal Gone Down

kataI will never forget the feel of unfolding this album’s thick, four square insert (back when physical packaging was still a thing) and exploring the interior artwork and lyrics.

Sadly, I haven’t been digging the latest output from this genre-morphing Swedish institution, but there was a time when Katatonia was among my go-to musical outlets.

Much like Amorphis, the band has radically changed sounds, going from death metal to a depressive rock sound.

Last Fair Deal Gone Down is another album much like Amorphis’ Am Universum that I absolutely was not expecting based on the underground metal I had been hearing at the time.  You can tell there’s a metal influence in the sound and the songwriting, but you won’t find any screams or blast beats here.

The melancholy feel, injecting in both a downtrodden atmosphere and occasional moments of hope, definitely spoke to me as a kid, with songs like Transpire in particular feeling like they were tailor made for my ears. The album really breaks a lot of genre barriers along the way, like with the truly oddball We Must Bury You. 

Last Fair Deal Gone Down further sits in a unique position on the band’s output, arriving after the relentlessly bleak Discouraged Ones but before more modern takes like Viva Emptiness or Night Is The New Day. It’s a forgotten entry in the band’s output that’s well worth returning to from time to time.

Dimmu Borgir – In Sorte Diaboli

dimmuI first got into this long-running (and now long-absent) Norwegian band as a teen with Enthrone Darkness Triumphant, which sat proudly in my pawn shop-bought Discman during church outings and study hall alike (yes, my Discman, and it skipped like a mother fucker all the damn time).

Near the end of high school, Spiritual Black Dimensions was in heavy rotation when I finally got a car and needed to blast some metal on the way to work. It would be a few years later though when Dimmu Borgir really hit me with the combination of style and substance on concept album In Sorte Diaboli.

The album arrived just as physical media was starting to take a major hit in favor of digital, and going to the record shop to pick up your favorite band’s new release was still a thing. I poured over every last millimeter of the insert on this one, studying all the writings online I could find to piece together the album’s story of a priest who has doubts about his religion.

Arriving before ICS Vortex was booted from the band, for me this is the pinnacle of Dimmu Borgir, perfectly expressing the sound and lyrical concepts that the band stands for. There are some really unexpected elements on the album as well, like the odd mounting keyboard intro to The Sacrilegious Scorn, or the unexpected interlude The Fallen Arises, which frankly sounds like it belongs on the Planescape: Torment soundtrack.

Arch Enemy – Anthems of Rebellion

0bca00632f837ee66fac9d99f1a442f5a227648fWe’ll wrap up this first look at albums that radically changed my outlook on music on a incredibly energetic note with Arch Enemy’s Anthems Of Rebellion, which first graced my ears in Cisco class junior year of high school.

I had no idea that death metal was capable of being this anthemic or fist pumping, and my world sort of exploded when I figured out that the hell beast vocalist was a lady by the name of Angela.

Silent Wars is such an incredible pump-you-up track, but hands down my favorite has to be Leader Of The Rats, with its throat-shredding vocals and tasty riffs that sort of demand spontaneous headbanging. Playing this disc in your car makes you feel like you should be in a high speed chase.

There are many more albums I’ve had the opportunity to review over the years that would radically change how I viewed music, so stay tuned for the next entry! In the mean time let me know — what albums exploded your brain and made you re-think the concept of music?

The Witcher: Beyond The Games

GOG invites me to write about the awesome fans of this decade-old franchise!

Since leaving Metalunderground, I’ve been shifting focus on the professional side to handling PR for bands and writing about gaming of all stripes. Recently I got the opportunity to team up with Gameskinny and the illustrious GOG (purveyor of all things good, old, and DRM-free!) to write about the impact of the Witcher series of games.

Somehow its been a full 10 years since the first game was launched, so needless to say there’s been a bit of celebrating from GOG and CD Projekt Red. Those three massive games have spawned a ton of content from the adoring players, from cosplay to fan art to some truly stunning short movies.

There’s been nudie calendars, jaw-dropping monster cosplays, neo-noir faux book covers to make you drool, and much more from fans devoted to the franchise. Take a look at my full run down on Witcher-inspired fan creations right here!

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New Autumns Eyes Album Coming This Halloween

Get stoked for a killer fall-themed metal experience!

autumns-eyes-3I always love it when my favorite things collide, and that’s what happens whenever Autumns Eyes releases a new album, combining horror, a fall atmosphere, and metal together as one!

At the crossroad between a hallowed holiday and the cusp of a dead cold winter is where you’ll find Autumns Eyes mastermind Daniel Mitchell. After many seasons of seclusion and intermittently hitting the studio, the recording process has finally wrapped up for the new album titled Ending Life Slowly.

Mitchell is no stranger to the darker side of creativity, and crafts music free of constraints or label interference. Ending Life Slowly strikes a balance between somber reflections on mortality and full-force screaming metal, with cover art to reflect the album’s dreary nature crafted by Indonesian artist Sorrow Grips (Gojira).

Due out on October 31st, Ending Life Slowly serves as the first full-length album from Autumns Eyes since the 2012 release of Please Deceive Me. Halloween and the death of Fall is a perfect time to be reminded that sometimes life ends far too slowly.

Mitchell had this to say about the impending album release:

“Living in New England has always made it easy to draw from the month of October for creative inspiration, with life breathing its flaming colors into all the surrounding trees. Unfortunately, these themes can only be revisited every so often before it becomes repetitive. That’s why I reached into the month of November for inspiration. A time when Fall is still thriving, but where color has faded and the trees are bare as skeletons.

“While a walk through the woods here in October can be a relaxing activity, doing the same in November carries an overwhelming sense of dread. You’re surrounded by death, and the trees no longer sway and breathe with the air. They’re cold, stiff, bare, and knock together like bones breaking in the sky.

autumns-eyes-1“This atmosphere is what fueled the writing process for Ending Life Slowly, with death and decay surrounding every element of each track. It’s a cliche topic to write about in heavy metal music, but my approach here was focused more on the immense weight death can hold over one’s shoulders. To sit an truly contemplate what it means for all things to come to an end was a sobering experience to say the least.

“I always look at music as sonic therapy, but this was the one time where music couldn’t offer any kind of solace. It just reminded me that life can either go by too fast, or it can end too slowly.”

Check out the album’s artwork and track listing:

  • 1. Death of October
  • 2. Break the Skin
  • 3. Your Last Day
  • 4. Moments Into Memories
  • 5. The Honest Liars
  • 6. Couldn’t Hold On
  • 7. Far Away From Fading
  • 8. Internal Arson
  • 9. Open Your Eyes, Not Your Wrists
  • 10. Under the Skin of the Sun

 

autumns-eyes-artwork

A Whirlwind Tour of Horror Roleplaying

From investigative mythos madness to hilarious cartoon parodies, there’s a whole lot of tabletop RPGs out there for the horror fan!

October is prime time to put that dungeon-delving 5th edition campaign on hold and temporarily put away that shiny new copy of Starfinder to dust off all the horror RPG manuals!

While there are plenty of the usual suspects everyone knows about — like Call Of Cthluhu or Vampire: The Masquerade — horror gaming has a lot more to offer than just those staple entries.

Those settings and adventures that are well known tend to get rehashed, again and again, to the point where they lose any purpose. I mean, how many times has Expedition To Castle Ravenloft been printed in new editions and formats at this point? How many editions of Call Of Cthulhu have re-tread that introductory Haunted House adventure?

Instead of giving you the same thing yet again, I’m going to take you on a tour of some more offbeat horror offerings ranging from toddlers facing the monster under the bed to geriatric cosmic horror and beyond!

Trail Of Cthulhu

trailAlthough very much in the same vein as Call Of Cthulhu, the Trail system goes in a different direction, simplifying the rules and focusing solidly on the investigative aspects.

The biggest change is that investigative skills never fail. The players always find the clue, the question is just how much info they really get from finding the clue.

The tone and descriptions change quite a bit here as well, with many varied (and in my opinion, much better) explanations as to what any given mythos entity might really be.

In 2014 I put together my own four episode, police task force campaign inspired by the first season of True Detective using this ruleset’s offbeat interpretation of Yig (complete with opening video / music sequence like a TV show). It was easily the best game our group ever played.

There aren’t a ton of print scenarios you’ll find in stores for Trail, but what its lacking in quantity is made up in quality with the nearly 400 page mega adventure Eternal Lies. If you don’t mind PDFs, there are a ton of digital scenarios for this system available through the publisher and at sites like DriveThruRPG or Paizo.

GURPS Horror

gurps_horrorThere have been a handful of different iterations of this particular tome throughout the years in different editions of GURPS, but I’m a fan of the 1990 release.

It’s kind of amazing to look back at this one and see what they list under recommended reading and viewing for books and horror movies, as its quite different from what you’ll see in similar sections of newer RPG manuals.

Despite the artwork being sort of silly throughout, there are some solid tips in here for running a horror campaign, and it features a really comprehensive overview of all things horror related.

From multiple iterations of the werewolf myth, to mad science, to non-horror hoax fakeouts, to 1920’s home brew hooch gone terribly wrong, and even onto cosmic Lovecraftian horror, really no stone is left unturned here. If you want a great idea spring board for a scary campaign, you can’t go wrong with GURPS Horror.

Little Fears / WOD Innocents

littlefearFor all the horror games available out there, not many are willing to tread into territory focused on bad things happening directly to children, or of having players take on the role of vulnerable kids.

Although there have since been a few attempts at this same idea by various publishers, Little Fears is probably the original and most influential role playing game to have players take on the role of kids in a world where nightmare creatures are real.

Its a very, very different experience than your typical sword and sorcery game, or even a modern horror storytelling campaign.

Around the time that the World Of Darkness was being rebooted from its ’90s angsty goth roots and updated in the ’04 – ’09 era with games like Promethean or Vampire: The Requiem, there was another take on this same idea with World Of Darkness: Innocents. If you dig the White Wolf style, you should check that one out, as it doesn’t tend to go for such astronomical used prices as the original Little Fears.

Slasher

slasherThis innovative World Of Darkness entry is really quite different in that it has YOU playing the slasher villains!

A scorned nurse angel of death, a calculating intelligent killer like Hannibal Lector, an unstoppable killing force bent on revenge, any slasher you can imagine can be built with these rules and put together into a coterie of malignant evil.

The cover and title are a little misleading though, because the description and front artwork give the impression this is a standalone World Of Darkness title like Vampire or Changeling. Its actually a (much larger than normal) source book for Hunter, and requires that base book to use.

Shadow of the Demon Lord

shadIf you’ve done Warhammer to death or want something a little newer that is superbly dark and horror-focused without leaving fantasy behind, Shadow Of The Demon Lord should be on your must-have list.

This one is very much inspired by the fantasy post-apocalypse world of Grim Dawn, and it offers a killer combo of Warhammer, D&D, and Call Of Cthulhu.

Corruption and insanity are built directly into the rules, rather than being tacked on extras in a supplement, as its assumed your characters will have to do something awful or immoral at some point in order to survive.

I remember some years back picking up the Dragon Age tabletop RPG box set that billed itself as “dark fantasy roleplaying,” but being disappointed that it really didn’t fit the bill as advertised. Shadow Of The Demon Lord meanwhile brings the darkness, and in spades! I covered this one in a lot more detail earlier this summer right here.

Dark Heresy / Black Crusade

blackcrusadeThere’s a whole lot of horror in the Warhammer universe, with that franchise often given as the baseline example of what is meant by the term “grimdark.”

Although they no longer have the license, for several years Fantasy Flight put out a stellar line of Warhammer 40,000 games and accessories, and they didn’t skimp on the horror, either mundane or supernatural.

While in Dark Heresy you can play as agents of the Inquisition rooting out heretics and battling the forces of Chaos, the unexpected Black Crusade line of games had you playing as the bad guys.

There’s a ton of storytelling potential there for disgusting Chaos cultists who worship the lord of plague Nurgle, or time-warped Chaos Space Marines who want vengeance on the Emperor, to just regular old downtrodden citizens of the Imperium who are tired of being stepped on and are willing to make a deal with the devil to improve their lives.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer

buffyMy wife and her extended family are all big fans of the show (they hate the movie, obviously) but honestly I’m not too big on it, as I didn’t grow up with it and never got attached. Just to round all the bases of fandoms hating me, I should probably point out here that I don’t like Dr. Who either. Come at me, bro.

So what’s this game doing here? Simply put, the rules are fucking inspired. This has got to be, hands down, the absolute best RPG system for any modern day game I’ve ever come across.

It’s essentially the World Of Darkness d10 system, except that there are no dice pools. Absolutely every action is handled with one single d10 roll, and the target number is always the same, so you always know immediately whether you failed or succeeded, and to what degree you succeeded.

If you have a group of newbies, or a group that isn’t interested in a rules-heavy game, you should be using this system. When we play Call Of Cthulhu, we ditch that game’s clunky d100 system and use this rule set instead. Seriously, this is some elegant game design, even if you don’t care about the series its attached to. Who would have guessed you needed to head to Sunnydale to find the best RPG system?

Ten Candles

There’s no question Ten Candles is one of the most interesting examples of style-meets-substance on the RPG front in years. The title is literal — you play by the light of ten tea light candles, and when then last one burns out, the game is over.

Even more deadly than a typical Call Of Cthulhu campaign, it is assumed there will be no survivors at all by the game’s end. The developers describe it as “a game about being pushed to the brink of madness and despair, searching for hope in a hopeless world, and trying to do something meaningful with your final few hours left.”

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Pathfinder APs

path1I’ve been following Pathfinder for a lot of years now, even before the end of Paizo’s run with the Dragon and Dungeon magazines.

I have very fond (and amused) memories of asking a game store owner if he had gotten the next issue of Rise Of The Runelords and being met with a blank stare and a “are you sure that’s a real game?” Now no game store in their right mind would even think of not carrying all things Paizo.

Along the way the game (and its fanbase) has changed quite a bit, and I’ll be honest here — it’s no longer my go-to system.

There was a time though, when Paizo was delivering surprise after surprise and constantly kept the fans always wanting to know what was coming next. Carrion Crown had to be one of the most unexpected adventure paths to arrive, covering a different horror trope in each volume, from a House On Haunted Hill scenario in the first adventure,  to Frankenstein’s Monster (in full D&D golem glory) in the second, werewolves in the third, and so on.

path2Even more unexpected was the Cthulhu mythos scenario from fourth adventure Wake Of The Watcher, providing stats and backgrounds for various cosmic horror monsters. I read that issue over and over to get Paizo’s unique take on the darkness between the stars and all those things man was not meant to know.

That adventure would go on to inspire its own full Lovecraftian adventure path called Strange Aeons years later, which kicks off with the classic scenario of the investigators not knowing who they are or why they are in an asylum.

Although the Strange Aeons path is really more combat-focused than this sort of game should be, if you want a King In Yellow campaign for D&D rather than Call Of Cthulhu, do yourself a favor and pick up these adventures.

Horror Rules

horrorrulesI grabbed this one on a whim while perusing cheap used RPG books on Amazon and I’m glad I did.

It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and this is a fun little system for some one-shot horror games with a good dosage of comedy, utilizing some interesting and unique ideas. The art isn’t great, but it more than makes up for that with heart and some wink-wink, nudge-nudge action at the reader.

I think what most sticks with me is that the publisher is called Crucifiction Games. I still can’t figure out if that’s supposed to be a dig at Christianity (as in the crucifixion was fiction), or if this game is by a Christian company that didn’t realize the combination of words looks really bad for them. Either way, I sort of love it.

Tooniversal Tour Guide

tooniversalHold up now, what the heck is TOON doing here? Horror isn’t always candles in the dark or people going mad when they realize their existence is utterly pointless.

Sometimes, its hilarious comedy instead (you really wanna tell me Tucker And Dale Versus Evil or Dead And Breakfast aren’t horror movies?).

If you haven’t played the overlooked TOON, its literally Saturday morning cartoons — Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Marvin the Martian, the whole bit — translated into a tabletop RPG, and it’s awesome.

The Tooniversal Tour Guide was a supplement meant to expand the game’s range out into unexpected places, letting you play different kinds of cartoon stories involving ’50s monsters, Mad Max style car battles, or supernatural themed toons like the Real Ghostbusters.

If you look carefully on the cover, in the left corner you may see a purple tentacled thing hailing from the Crawl of Catchoolu segment, which has your cartoon investigators facing off against the Elderly Ones. Yeah, you read that correctly. It’s a good time, and something to try out if you need a humorous roleplaying night that isn’t Paranoia

Many More!

kuroI’ve got a pretty extensive collection of RPGs (the word “vast” might not be uncalled for), from seriously old school unknown gems from the ’80s to the latest 2017 releases, but there are a few horror entries I haven’t had the pleasure of picking up yet.

Of those I haven’t played, there are probably three I’ve most had my eye on and want to pick up next.

chillFirst up is the hard-to-find Japanese horror game Kuro from Cubicle 7. This indie developer has put together some amazing tabletop RPGs like The One Ring (easily the best Lord Of The Rings roleplaying game ever) and World War Cthulhu, so I’m confident that one will be worth the buy eventually.

Going back further to the golden era of tabletop gaming, I sadly missed out both on Chill, and on the constantly praised Unknown Armies.

Anybody had any experience with those systems? Let me know what you thought and if it’s worthwhile to lay down the cash to pick ’em up used these days!

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Fantastic Albums With Ridiculously Bad Covers, Part 1

How did music this awesome get artwork this awful?

For those who don’t know, I recently made a massive change in my life, parting ways with my primary freelance job of 10 years at Metalunderground. I honestly thought I’d be the content manager over there until the day I die, but life got in the way of that plan.

Obviously my love for all things metal hasn’t diminished just because I’ve switched jobs however, so I’m been spending some time falling back in love with my genre of choice as a fan, rather than as someone who has to listen as part of the daily grind for a paycheck.

If you’ve been into metal for any appreciable length of time, you’ve likely noticed that its a genre marked by distinctive and striking cover artwork, both good and bad.

ccProbably the first thing that comes to mind would have to be the infamous covers of Cannibal Corpse albums — but if you erroneously think those are extreme, then you clearly haven’t bothered looking past the surface into the insane realm of underground goregrind or pornogrind bands. Seriously, I’ve seen some things in my years as a metal news journalist that would make your eyes explode and your soul fade away.

Thankfully, its not all gore and gaping anal cavities, as there’s plenty of significantly more elevated and esoteric covers, and on the whole heavy metal has some insanely talented artists.

Spawn-of-Possession_2-480x480Pär Olofsson, Travis Smith, Seth Siro Anton, Claudio Bergamin… these artists and many more have left their mark on the metal world with absolutely killer art.

Over the last few years I had the honor of rounding up the best artwork for each year and covering it in December at Metalunderground during our yearly best-of articles.

Looking back through all my favorite albums over the decades, I noticed something curious however… sometimes amazing albums have some truly abysmal artwork!

Therion – Theli

My older brother got me into Therion with the Vovin album a long, long, long time ago (somewhere in the neighborhood of ’97 as a middle schooler not too long after Final Fantasy VII came out).

While I haven’t been crazy about every album released from this legendary Swedish symphonic metal unit in the more modern era, there is a lot to explore in the band’s discography, from the early death metal of ’93 album Symphony Masses to the (no I’m not kidding) 2012 French pop covers album Les Fleurs du Mal.

Therion has always covered a lot of ground musically and lyrically. I first learned about the religious rites and rituals of the Yezidis from a Therion track decades before the extremist terrorist group ISIS would try to exterminate that group of people.

teliOne of those wide ranging albums is Theli, a summer ’96 release through Nuclear Blast, which was a very different label then than it is today.

In comparison to Vovin and the band’s more recent releases, Theli is a little rough around the edges, but this is still a gem of the symphonic sub-genre.

What’s even less polished, however, is the truly godawful cover artwork. It looks like one of those Windows 95 maze screen savers.

Someone put together a really awful flat “3D” style Anubis head in a program like Spatch or Bryce and then threw it on… what is that even? Is it a body, or just a random collection of vaguely flesh toned pixels? Also, what the hell is going on with the highlighting behind the text? This is occult symphonic metal, not The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air. Good fuck.

The image above can’t really do justice to how awful the cover looks, which is even worse in real life (remember when people bought albums for the whole package, including looking through the art/lyrics insert?).

On the music side though, To Mega Therion is a fucking classic song, and the fact that its never graced a fantasy or sci-fi movie score is sort of absurd. If there was a gun to my  head and I had to choose though, I’d probably say though that my personal favorite song here would either be Nightside of Eden or Invocation Of Naamah.

Freedom Call – Master Of Light

OK, so this is a totally different sub-genre and musical focus than the previous album, massively shifting gears from ’90s symphonic metal to modern epic power metal.

While Therion is pretty high minded and occult-focused, Freedom Call is way more on-the-nose… and way more fun. Picture Alestorm or Steel Panther, but they aren’t kidding, and are just saying what they mean.

freedomecallThe first song on the Master Of Light album is literally called Metal Is For Everyone, and these guys aren’t being ironic assholes about it — they are literally saying that metal is for everyone, so fuck off with that elitist shit already (except Freedom Call is too happy and positive to ever tell anyone to fuck off with that elitist shit already).

I almost feel bad about including this cover here, since it seems a good bet someone from the band did the drawing, and probably put a lot of effort into it. I mean, I’ve got no artistic skill when it comes to drawing / painting at all, but still, this looks awful. It’s like some bad fan art of an ’80s cartoon, and even for that its pretty bad, with all the proportions and musculature way, way off. Also… why am I looking at that dude’s nipples at all?

But we haven’t got to the best part yet… which are the band promo pics from this album cycle. I introduce you to Manowar meets Styper, but in “bubbly positive metal” edition! Should I be head banging? Should I be aroused and questioning my sexuality? Should I be preparing to invade Mordor?

I dunno, just listen to the album and have fun. For those wondering, no that isn’t Photoshop — that dude’s beard is pink. Why? Because fuck you, that’s why.

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Subterranean Masquerade – Vagabond

I was absolutely blown away by 2015 full-length The Great Bazaar from international crew Subterranean Masquerade, which was probably the best prog metal release of that entire year. From Middle Eastern-themed prog to full-force death metal, that album had it all, and it wrapped everything together into a cohesive package.

subtNeedless to say, I couldn’t wait for this year’s follow-up album Vagabond, which is even more experimental and multi-cultural in its presentation of diverging musical styles. From sax to ’80s synth, there’s a little of everything here.

The only thing I wasn’t stoked about? The weird art, as seen to your left.

Yeah, I get that this was almost certainly done on purpose to make a point connecting to the music, but you can’t ignore the fact that this is still essentially a little kid’s pen drawing in a notebook. I mean… what the hell?

Even if we see it as some sort of message about unity and having a sense of child-like wonder, I still never would have looked at the cover in a CD store and thought to myself “hot damn, I’ve got to pick up this album right away!”

That may be all for now, but these were just three out of many, many albums that are worth hearing while having oddly bad artwork. What’s the worst art you’ve seen on an album that otherwise kicks all kinds of ass?

Coming of age… and killing demonic clowns

Finally saw IT! Sadly, it will be my last theater movie for a long time…

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The smash success of fall blockbuster It was the last movie I’m going to get to see at the theater for quite some time (so please, please don’t spoil Star Wars for me before it comes to VOD). After a year and a half of sitting at movies with us without complaint, our little angel Gannicus decided to finally trade in his halo and become a monster.

He adorably tried to sing along to Beauty And The Beast, stared in slack-jawed wonder while shrieking “woah!” at Rogue One, and even quietly watched all the action in Logan, but sadly with It we got a dose of terrible toddler syndrome, and the age of getting to sit peacefully in the auditorium to catch a flick are over.

This change in behavior with the onset of age was a surprisingly on-point metaphor for the movie itself, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

So what did I like about it? Pretty much everything, and even some things I didn’t think would work. Normally I’m not a fan of comic relief in movies, but It is surprisingly hilarious with the quips the kids from the Loser’s Club would throw out at each other. These interactions frequently felt like what a group of kids out of earshot of any adults would say or do.

My favorite movie line now is probably “You punched me in the face, made me walk through shitty water, dragged me to a crackhouse, and now I’ve got to kill this fucking clown.”

What didn’t I like? Really only two things: the decidedly un-scary Pennywise (Skarsgard was just a high pitched, whiny dancing clown… not a menacing evil from beyond time and space), and his teethCGI teeth.

When he was standing still in the sewer the teeth had a killer look, but as soon as they chomped down, the illusion was shattered. CGI gets used heavily in the ending sequence as well, and it just didn’t need to be.

I just can’t stress this enough… if you are making a horror movie, then the only words that should even be in your lexicon should be “practical effects.” If you’re thinking of using a computer to whip up something scary, you’ve already failed.

Here’s the thing though, and this wasn’t apparent right of the bat… It isn’t actually a horror movie. It belongs solidly in the same category as Goonies, Super 8, or Stranger Things, and not in the same category as Baskin or The Void.

No one was more surprised by this fact than me, but trust me, the movie is still completely worth seeing, and actually works better for focusing on the coming-of-age kid adventure aspects than on the killer clown aspects.

It’s been a lot of years since I saw the Tim Curry TV mini-series or read the book, so I can’t recall if its actually more prevalent here or if I’ve just noticed it more now, but this version of the story seems to be making the point that Pennywise was just a metaphor. I don’t actually think there was meant to be a literal monster at all.

it_2017_2_758_426_81_s_c1“It” was the kid’s transitioning into adulthood while learning to overcome their “demons,” whether it was a rapey dad, an overbearing mom, a brother gone missing who will never be found, the prejudice of a town that doesn’t tolerate your skin color or your parent’s education decisions, and so on.

This really comes into focus in the ending fight scene. Unknowable evil entities from the angles between realities (“Todash Space” in King’s mythos) aren’t defeated by failing to be afraid of them. That’s nonsense. They wouldn’t care in the slightest about how children feel about them, and they wouldn’t utterly fail to kill a small group of children after wiping out large portions of the town in every previous cycle of waking.

It seems more likely that the kids just concocted this idea about bad things happening due to one particular evil entity at specific intervals to handle the sad reality of life. It was their way of coping with the realization that missing children will be forgotten about – literally postered over in one scene of the movie – after enough time passes and another child goes missing.

stephen-kings-it-sink-scene-2017-987362Another dead giveaway is the blood soaked bathroom scene (which was harrowing, by the way), arriving after they took the time to show Beverly secretly buying tampons earlier in the film. This one really struck a chord with me because we’d recently seen some really unpleasant (and not particularly well done) bloody period “horror” in the abysmal Excision.

Rather than a killer clown trying to scare a little girl, this scene was clearly about Beverly going through puberty and experiencing menstruation for the first time. Her pedo dad, who only saw her for what she could offer him, didn’t see the blood at all, but her close friends immediately recognized the problem.

I’m wondering how much of that was left over from first director Cary Fukunaga’s original vision for the film, which reportedly diverged from the source material and focused on the plight of the kids as they grew up more than on the clown.

Either way, whether you choose to see the movie as a straightforward telling of a monster that wakes up every 27 years or a metaphor for something else, It was a surprisingly strong flick, especially for a King adaptation. Can’t wait to see what’s done with the second one coming in 2019, and hopefully by then little Gannicus will be able to sit still at the movies again!

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