Where are you on the Goodreads challenge?

We’re five months into the annual Goodreads reading challenge and I’m chugging along, having hit 13 out of my goal of 21, so its safe to say we will probably surpass that number before year’s end.

What did you set your goal to, and how far along are you? Cruising along or need to pick up the pace? Here’s the 13 books I’ve read so far this year:

conanConan – Adventures In Age Undreamed Of

2d20 RPG Campaign Setting

Modiphius Entertainment

2017

Read my review here!

 

 

1Xas Irkalla

Original System RPG

James Vail

2018

Read my review here!

 

 

devilsnightDevil’s Night Dawning

Dark Fantasy Novel

Damien Black

2016

Check it out at Goodreads

 

 

accursedAccursed

Save Worlds RPG Campaign Setting

Melior Via

2014

Read my review here!

 

 

uncagedUncaged: Faces Of Sigil

Planescape RPG Accessory

TSR

1996

Read my review here!

 

 

51nM0L2MRvLThe Eighth God

Dark Fantasy Novel

Paul Lavender

2017

Read my review here!

 

 

fiascoFiasco / Fiasco ’10 Playset

GM-less cooperative RPG / Adventure Set

Jason Morningstar

2009 / 2010

Read my review here!

 

 

gurpsmarksattacksMars Attacks

GURPS RPG Campaign Setting

Steve Jackson Games

2016

Read my review here!

 

 

horrorsHorrors

Earthdawn RPG Supplement

FASA

1995

Read my review here!

 

 

wraithWraith Knight

Dark Fantasy Novel

C.T. Phipps

2016

Read my review here!

 

 

darkmageDarkmage

Dark Fantasy Novel

M.L. Spencer

2017

Check it out at Goodreads!

 

 

Exalted_Second_Edition_Core_BookExalted 2nd Edition

RPG Campaign Setting

White Wolf

2006

Check it out at Goodreads!

 

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Xas Irkalla: Black Metal Insanity In RPG Form

Xas-Irkalla

Did you see that image above and think it was a logo for a black metal band? Yup, me too, and I think that’s exactly what what the designers were going for with this ultra bleak (and ultra awesome) new tabletop game.

In a nutshell, Xas Irkallla is the RPG equivalent of the terrifying esoteric oddity of a Deathspell Omega album colliding with the blackened violence of any given USBM band. Its dark and grim and mind bending and unpleasant, like being trapped in a Gustave Doré painting.

1Rather than your typical d20 open game license entry, Xas Irkalla features a unique ruleset, and it is woven very well into the fabric of the game.

The rules are simplified and fairly easy, but show off the theme quite well. While a good deal different than players may be used to if they stick to Pathfinder or a system like Modiphius’ 2d20 rules, the mechanics here are easy to pick up and flow well.

Loads of character advancement options are available that reflect the dark insanity of the setting, but don’t get too attached, because characters are going to die frequently and messily. You are squishy like a Call Of Cthulhu character, and in a universe that’s more actively deadly, like an even more horror-focused Warhammer.

2While there are a couple of minor nit picks in the layout and formatting where you can tell this is more of an indie affair, overall I’m pretty impressed with the quality of everything on display, from the art to the design concepts.

Xas Irkalla is an incredibly disturbing version of roleplaying, and that can’t be said enough. As a vast intersection of wildly different worlds and realities pulled together by the dreams of dead psychics, things get deliciously weird.

You might have a qliphotic, tentacled sorcerer in a wheelchair next to a spear-wielding gladiatorial slave next to a soldier from an ultra-advanced space-faring society next to a mischievous trickster god in the party.

4The setting is just relentlessly grim. As someone who writes apocalyptically bleak grimdark fantasy novels, I’m down with that, but obviously a group who wants to play the heroic paladins saving the peasants from evil will not be on board with this setting.

What you get here is a radically different experience than the typical RPG. Xas Irkalla ends up somewhere at the cross section of survival horror, esoteric U.S. black metal, the Cthulhu mythos, a nightmare wrapped in an acid trip wrapped in a sweat lodge hallucination, and even darker, more dreadful things.

After a successful crowd funding campaign, Xas Irkalla is now available digitally, but this is the sort of game you want to hold in your hands, and I’m eagerly looking forward to a physical edition landing soon.

3

Telling Time In A Fantasy World

“High Noon” and “7 o’clock” don’t exactly exude a fantasy feeling….

Coming up with names for fantasy characters is a struggle all its own, but that’s only part of the battle when building a new world from scratch for a book series. Deities, countries, landmarks, seasons, and even days of the week all have to be taken into consideration.

Like with the main character naming conventions from Light Dawning, I knew I wanted the way in which people distinguish time to veer away from modern words and phrases, but at the same time I didn’t want it to go completely into the overblown high fantasy side of the equation. Light Dawning is a low fantasy novel with a strong horror flavor, so the names also needed to run towards the darker side.

The hours of the day needed to give a distinct feel so that you know this world is different from others, while still making sense at a glance without having to look up terms in a glossary. I want to draw the readers into the world more with little details like this that constantly remind them where they are, and that Cestia is very much not the same as their home on Earth.

Rather than using the standards like “8 AM” or “High Noon” or “Midnight,” I came up with my own system of daily time that gets included in each chapter heading, along with the location where the chapter takes place, to give a frame of reference to the reader.

The daily time segments from earliest to latest are:

  • Light Dawning
  • Morningtide
  • High Sun
  • Aurora
  • Radiantfall
  • Dimmet
  • Eventide
  • Twilight
  • Gloaming
  • True Night
  • Stars Fading

The time slots aren’t necessarily exact or consistent across the seasons (since water or mechanical clocks aren’t commonly available in Cestia during the occupation, and Radiantfall or Dimmet is likely to come earlier in the day during the winter season).

In general though, each time slot is roughly around and hour and a half, and has three versions: early, mid (marked just by the base name), and late. So for instance, it might be early Radiantfall, Radiantfall, or late Radiantfall as the time slot progresses. The TOC below shows you how the time progresses over the days in which Light Dawning takes place.

How do you feel about changing up the times, names of days, and seasons in fantasy and horror novels? Do you prefer something that sticks to the standard modern day systems, or like a little more originality for flavor?

toc

What’s In A Name: Coming Up With Words And Phrases For Fantasy Worlds

A look at how I picked the names for the main characters in Light Dawning.

For fantasy and sci-fi writers, a whole lot of time is usually spent on picking names for characters and locations. Has this word been overused in other worlds? Does it sound too modern? Does it go too far and sound too bizarre?

I’ve found that sometimes the more tongue twisting fantasy names tend to be distracting and really draw me out of a book if I have to look at it and try pronouncing it repeatedly (this really hit me when reading The Darkness That Comes Before with names like Anasûrimbor or Cnaiür) .

When writing Light Dawning I knew I didn’t want standard American sounding names (so no Richard, Jack, or Robert) but at the same time I didn’t want to go overboard into the fantasy side either (so no Blipdoolpoolp or Xanathar).

After coming up with a lot of odd sounding fantasy names I wasn’t altogether happy with, I decided to start throwing words based around character traits into a translator and seeing if I could find anything in random other languages that felt otherwordly while still not being ludicrous, and that’s how I landed on my protagonist names.

The main character is a woman infested with insane, sentient whispers from a place that the religious think of as heaven but is really more akin to hell. If she speaks her inner truth and lets those internal whispers out, the world could change drastically for the worse. To reflect this I picked the name Tala, which is both Swedish and Icelandic for “to speak or chatter.”

Brushstroke Picture Frame: https://www.tuxpi.com/photo-effects/brushstroke-photo-frame

Another character is a thief and a coward who is stuck somewhere he can’t escape. He’s literally mired down by a darkness in his soul that won’t let him go. I went through a lot of different ideas on this front, but eventually settled on Myrr, from the Swedish word myr, meaning “mire or morass,” reflecting both the unpleasant physical location and the concept of being stuck.

The third protagonist is a religious fanatic whose primary goal in life is to get through the darkness of the night, burn a city to the ground, and see the light of a new day dawn over the ashes. Because he is so focused on shifting the balance between light and dark, I settled on Erret (Albanian for “dusk”).

Brushstroke Picture Frame: https://www.tuxpi.com/photo-effects/brushstroke-photo-frame

I went through a lot of different languages and iterations on character names to try to come up with a cohesion in naming while building up a unique world with inhabitants who have different cultural practices that vary by region.

For instance, the characters from the main city in the book tend to have short, clipped names like Myrr, Otta (Icelandic for “fear”), Kina, Shan, and so on.

What sort of names do you prefer in fantasy and sci-fi stories? Something modern and normal, something outlandish and fantastic, or somewhere in-between?

For another look at how picking names can even impact something as simple as telling time in a fantasy world, head over here!

Games I Had To Hide From The Parents

Whether due to apostasy or pixelated blood sprays, these games all had to be played on the down low….

At the risk of sounding like that old man yelling for the children to get off his lawn, I’ve got to say that kid’s today don’t know how good they’ve got it on the gaming front. Rewind 20 years, and we didn’t all have laptops in our bedrooms and smart phones for getting in some quality RPG time at line in the grocery store.

We had to work for our games, and that was often complicated by the fact that gaming wasn’t really considered a legitimate outlet or serious industry back then. Attitudes have definitely changed, now that parents are just as likely to be playing Rock Band or hogging the Switch as the kids.

When you threw in the fear many parents had at the time of Satanic cults and video games causing violence, some us of had to work doubly hard to play the latest games. Considering that I went to a private Christian school during my middle school years, you can probably guess what my parents thought of video games in general and role playing games in particular.

Although there was a massive list of banned games in my home as a kid, I actually got off better than some of my class mates. I remember one kid in particular who wasn’t even allowed to play Cruisin’ USA on the Nintendo 64.
What could possibly justify banning a racing game with no violence or objectionable content of any kind? Because a fully clothed girl dances while holding your 1st place trophy at the end of a race, and that was just too smutty.

fuck       This was just too risque for 12 year olds to see apparently
In an environment like that, getting to play anything with demon enemies or a supernatural bent in the slightest was a careful balancing act. They usually had to be played late at night when the parents were asleep, or else by going over to a friend’s house whose parents weren’t as crazy on the religious side.

Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night

castlevaniaSOTNWhile a horde of games in the same style have since flooded consoles and handheld devices, when it came out Symphony Of The Night was revolutionary.

To this day it remains an excellent game that has aged well (with a few minor issues), but what’s notable is how some of the Japanese attitudes towards western religions broke through in the original text.

In the opening segment as Richter and Dracula are arguing, that big bad vampire is amused by Richter’s characterization that he steals men’s souls and turns them into salves, idly responding “perhaps the same could be said of all religions.”

Couple that little exchange with Alucard using items that cause gigantic pentagrams to appear on the screen, and SOTN was definitely a game to play on the down low if I didn’t want it removed from the home in a religious purge.

Revelations: Persona
persona

You might not expect it from the pixelated graphics and unrefined gameplay of this earlier era, but there were some seriously subversive ideas getting thrown around as gaming was just getting its footing.

On the PC side you had games like Fallout introducing the first same sex marriage possibility in a video game, and then on console there was the oddball PS1 RPG Revelations: Persona.

Once again the Christianized west wasn’t quite ready for some of the text coming from a game rooted in Japanese culture, which has a very different take on demons and religion. Although it has aged horribly and is nearly unplayable now, as kid I couldn’t get enough of this game with its non-traditional RPG setting (a Japanese metropolis) and cast of characters (teenage high school kids surviving the apocalypse).

The moment that most sticks out when I first realized the game was going to get tossed if discovered was when one character off-handedly mentioned that Christian winged angels are actually based on the goddess Nike, and not on anything found in the Bible. Throw on the fact that the party could negotiate with the demon hordes instead of slaying them, and you had a perfect storm for a game every religious parent would loathe.

Vandal Hearts

vandalhearts
There are so many classic PS1 games that tried pushing the boundaries of gaming in new directions when we started counting polygons instead of pixels.

Vandal Hearts is an interesting example that and had a story deeply rooted in politics (which is actually oddly relevant to modern day U.S. in a lot of ways).

That wasn’t the reason why I had to keep my Vandal Hearts sessions relegated to late nights or weekend mornings before the parents got up, though. Nope, that was squarely on the shoulders of the GIANT GOUTS OF BLOCKY BLOOD that went flying across the stream whenever you defeated an enemy.

They are sort of hilarious to look at now, but at the time this was about as gory as a game could get. Oh yeah, and then there were the flaming pentagrams when your wizard characters cast spells — that was a surefire way for a game to get banned!

Diablo

diablo
While I managed to sneak quite a few games into the house that would have been otherwise declined, there wasn’t even any point in trying to install Diablo on the family computer.

Flaming letters? M rating? Giant demon guy on the cover? Yeah, check and mate. Wasn’t going to happen.

When the original came out I had to stay over at a friend’s house to play this classic of the ARPG genre on the weekends.

When the sequel landed, it took trips to a local internet cafe and to part with 4 bucks an hour to finally get to play Diablo 2! Years later I found that particular gem at Goodwill for a paltry $2.99 and couldn’t believe my luck.

Baldur’s Gate

baldursgate
There was an irrational terror of the phrase “Dungeons & Dragons” in my home growing up, no doubt brought on by the ludicrous Satanic Panic of the ’80s.

That D&D logo was the kiss of death, which made getting Baldur’s Gate really tricky.

There was no way I was going to miss this renaissance of the CRPG style, so I had to immediately throw the box away at the store and instead just keep the manual and CD insert.

That insert was a thing of beauty, flipping open and holding all 5 (yep 5!) discs… it also happened to have flaming skulls on each panel, which resulted in a frown and a “harumph” when my mom saw it sitting by the computer.

To this day It still amuses to me to no end that the flaming skulls were more acceptable than the words “Dungeons and Dragons.”

Final Fantasy 7

ff7I wasn’t one of those kids who got new consoles for Christmas or was just given a car by the parents. As a teenager, I had to save up a whole lot of money for a very long time to get a PS1, and it was all for one reason — Final Fantasy 7.

Now, the game itself was approved and everyone knew exactly what title I’d first be renting once I had enough to buy the Playstation (yeah, having cash enough to outright buy a new game was another matter, so renting was the way to go that weekend).

What caused the problem wouldn’t pop up until playing for a few hours…

It might not be apparent based on how they are viewed today and the powerhouse industry that has developed, but there was a time when games were thought of as just for children.

While any given Battlefield or Call Of Duty will have soldiers throwing out some expletives — and there are series like Kane And Lynch or GTA 5 where racial slurs and F-bombs drop from meth head mouths with great frequency — once upon a time the notion of someone saying fuck or shit in a video game was unthinkable.

Final Fantasy 7 might have been the first game I ever played that had those dreaded four letter words in them, and I knew as soon as Barret Wallace started talking that I’d have to be strategic about not letting those dialog bubbles pop up on the screen whenever a parent might be walking through the room. Not long after, Final Fantasy Tactics caused similar problems, but man was it ever worth the tight rope walk to play!

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!

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?