Saturday, March 26, 2011

Woods Of Ypres - "Against The Seasons: Cold Winter Songs From The Dead Summer Heat" Review!!

As promised, it's time for our latest CD review at the SMS, and surprisingly, this is the first album by this band that I've reviewed on here in almost 16 months! But with no new releases to focus on this month (surprisingly), I'm making a rare dip into the Sault Ontario archives this month to take a look at Woods of Ypres' debut EP, "Against The Seasons: Cold Winter Songs From The Dead Summer Heat"! Often called "Woods I" to go along with their later album numbering, this was the debut release for Woods of Ypres during their beginnings in Windsor, Ontario. Recorded at Spectre Sound Studios in Tecumseh in August 2002, the EP was self-released in October of that year in limited quantities before being re-mastered in 2005 by producer/then-bassist Dan Hulse at Obsidian Sound in Toronto, and properly released with new artwork through Krankenhaus Records that summer. Around that same time, a limited run of "Against The Seasons" cassette tapes were issued by Night Birds Records. It's the re-release that I'm reviewing today, which is no different from the original save for better production. This features Woods of Ypres' original lineup, including guitarist Brian McManus, bassist Aaron Palmer, and drummer David Gold, who would later become their frontman before his 2011 passing and the band's breakup. On this EP, Brian and Aaron share vocal duties, with Brian doing the black metal parts and Aaron covering the clean singing on all but the first two songs. (Updated on September 28th, 2012)

Both the 2002 and 2005 pressings of "Against The Seasons" are out of print, but the remastered EP is available through various internet sites and retail locations, and it's not terribly hard to find compared to many other local bands' CDs. Officially, the album is available for download from iTunes for $4.95 or 99¢ for each individual song, so click here to buy it on iTunes! A re-release through Earache Records has been suggested in the past, but nothing concrete has been set. Torrent files and similar free downloads are readily available online, but please support the band and buy the EP! Featuring five songs clocking in at over 30 minutes of music, let's start with the introductory track, "The Shams of Optimism"! (Each song's title below is linked to a YouTube upload of that song.)

"The Shams of Optimism" is the introduction to "Against The Seasons", but is essentially just the first 3/10ths of an almost 10 minute epic when combined with track 2, "Crossing The 45th Parallel", so I think it would be best suited to review the songs together, as they always are live. Compared to what you'd normally expect from a black metal band, both of these songs reflect the winter season, nature, and a feeling of loneliness in such an environment, which are recurring themes in later Woods of Ypres songs. After a short guitar intro sets the mood for "The Shams of Optimism", the black metal kicks in at a fast and heavy pace with great pounding drums from David Gold! The vocals kick off with Brian McManus' more than capable black metal shrieking, which isn't very easy to understand, but suits the heaviness of the material! Things get more varied in guitar melodies to end the intro while Brian's relentless vocals keep attacking you until "Crossing The 45th Parallel" kicks in. "The Shams of Optimism" was relentess and full of singing, but "Crossing The 45th Parallel" is more diverse and drawn out. You can tell they belong together as a song, but the two portions stand on their own as well. Brian unleashes some great black metal screams early in the second part, and his guitar melodies contrast well with the fast paced relentless blast beats, without resorting to just a wall of noise.

Luckily, when the song just starts getting repetitive, a harder riff kicks in about 3 and a half minutes into the second song, helping shake things up a bit and give the song some much needed diversity. Late, things get softer in tone and more melodic, which adds to the epic feel of it all, but Woods of Ypres made sure to end on a brutal note before fading out! I do think that the combined "Shams/Crossing" song does get repetitive and too drawn out at points, particularly in "Crossing The 45th Parallel", and I would have cut it down and combined the songs into one 7 minute song, but the lyrics never get repetitive, continuing to tell a well written story! The lack of a guitar solo also hurts, but this is something to get used to for Woods of Ypres' first 3 albums. The drumming's top notch, Aaron's bass is a constantly effective presence, Brian's singing fits the song, and there's some nice guitar melodies to go along with it all! Great song for black metal, and there's a reason why it leads off Woods of Ypres' concerts!

Third on the EP is "The Sea of Immeasurable Loss", which starts on much of the same heavy note that characterized the previous two songs, including pounding drums, solid guitar playing, and another solid black metal scream! Then 40 seconds in, things get soft like the beginning of "The Shams of Optimism", though with the addition of drums and black metal singing, which did sound sort of out of place over music that light. The heaviness kicks in not long after again, which sounds similar to past verses, but a bit more melodic than they had previously. The lyrics seem to follow from where the last 2 songs left off, seem to speak of personal inner turmoil and a nomadic journey, which show more of the lyrical strengths they had even then. 2:41 in, the first clean vocals pop up in the song, courtesy of bassist Aaron Palmer, who does share some vocal similarities to David Gold with his tone, so you might confuse the two. It's good singing too, but it's lower in the mix than it should be. I like how Aaron and Brian sing overtop of each other, adding layers onto the song that are pretty cool to hear! Overall, this very entertaining song does show more variety, especially with the occasional softer interludes and the inclusion of clean singing, but a guitar solo, a proper "end" rather than just a fadeout, and higher mixed clean vocals would have been a big help.

Fourth is another live favourite, "A Meeting Place & Time", which David Gold has said is inspired by Sault Ste. Marie in past live performances. The longest individual track on the EP, this song features the most clean singing of the album, and it also has the most distinctive sound to it. The guitar riffing has a great sound to it, keepin a heavy but folksy rhythm to start, along with another soft guitar interlude before launching into a heavy black metal verse. Brian's black metal singing is more reserved here to match the slower mood, but it's probably the easiest to understand of the EP so far. You don't get much of it though, mostly in the early verses. This song has a more conventional structure to it than the past songs on "Woods I", which isn't bad, but it loses some unpredictability. That said, it's not nearly as repetitive as "Crossing The 45th Parallel" got late, so take that for what you will. Aaron's clean singing fits the song and intended mood well, but it's clear from more recent live performances with David singing that Aaron was more limited vocally here. Similar tone, but worse range. The guitar work stands out the most to me here, but the bass lines are well played when detectable, and David's drumming suits every portion of the song! Not the heaviest of the EP, but "A Meeting Place & Time" leaves one of the bigger impressions, and the soft outro is a nice inclusion. If you prefer the doomier clean-sung material from later Woods of Ypres albums, this will probably be your favourite song on this EP!

The final song on the EP is "Awating the Inevitable", the shortest non-intro song of "Against The Seasons". After a slow mood-setting guitar opening, things pick up fast and heavy to close Woods of Ypres' debut out with blast beats, heavy melodic riffing, and some very solid black metal shrieking! They seem to be throwing their all into the opening here, and it shows! Brian and Aaron's singing is as good as it's been all album, and we even get a bass solo midway through! The bass, though well played, felt buried in many of the earlier songs, so it's nice to see Aaron get some more attention with this solo! Not the fastest bass solo I've heard, but the pacing fits the song better here, and segues into the following riff well! This song ends really strongly with some nice varied guitar playing and harsh vocals, a softer stretch, and a heavy breakdown to fittingly end the EP with the only proper "ending" for any of the songs! Another fast and well played track, this shows all of the band's then-strengths, and leaves little behind, though a guitar solo would again have been nice!

So how does Woods of Ypres' debut EP hold up nine years later? Well, I can safely say that this is the heaviest pound for pound release of their career to date, but at the same time, their sound has evolved a lot since then. 2/3rds of this lineup have long since moved on, and it wasn't until David Gold emerged from the drumkit to pick up the rhythm guitar and microphone that a lot of the doom metal influences emerged, so this is only a subsection of the sound they've came to embody in present years. Even back in their 2002 infancy, Woods of Ypres played black metal differently than most, using nature, the seasons, and personal feelings as lyrical influences, with no makeup to be found, and these topics bled from their music! Brian McManus' guitar work was never crushing, but it didn't have to be, as it was always melodic and felt like it fit the mood that Woods of Ypres were trying to set. His vocals were very good for black metal, employing the evil and harsh tone that it's best known for, and Aaron Palmer's singing was similarly good! Though we only heard it on the last 3 songs, he had a deep voice that suited the songs, especially on "A Meeting Place & Time", which was a good showcase for his vocal work. Aaron's bass work on the other hand felt buried on many songs, but when you could hear it, it came through well!

David Gold showed the drum skills that only brightened Woods of Ypres' first three albums, showing relentlessly fast and proficient skills on each song! This was their first album, so it's natural to expect flaws though. Aaron's bass work was buried amongst the other instruments way too many times, and the earlier songs had moments where they dragged and got slightly repetitious. I can't speak for the original demo's quality, but this remastered 2005 version of "Against The Seasons" has great production, and Woods of Ypres fans should notice that! I know some people (myself included) enjoy the versions of these songs that newer David Gold-fronted lineups have played that feature more clean singing and heavier and deeper harsh vocals, but if you're a devoted black metal fan, you'll absolutely enjoy this album more than some of their later work. I recommend "Against The Seasons" especially for fans of "Woods III: The Deepest Roots & The Darkest Blues", as that's their other "black-centric" album, but any true Woods of Ypres fan will enjoy their debut on it's own merits! Though not the definitive portrait of their overall sound, "Against The Seasons" was a solid debut release that set the tone for their future heavier material, and definitely give it a spin for some solid Northern black metal!

So what are we reviewing next month? Again, I won't state anything right now, especially given the high amount of albums in the works or recorded but unreleased. For a preview of what could come out next month that we could review, click here to check out our "Where Are The New Albums?" post from earlier this month! Actually, our April update in this series is in exactly one week, so remember that! All of those, plus Destroilet's debut EP, are new releases that I know are at least partially recorded, so any of them could be next! The only exception would be a possible new Mike Haggith album, as it'd be too soon from our "Suspended Animation" review. As always, if more than one new local metal album comes out next month, the most prominent of the two will get the review. What if no new albums come out again though? If that is the case, I'll review Foothill Road's 1994 debut album "Seventy", to tie in with next month's local debut of guitarist Mario Carlucci's current band Sneaky Pete. So there you have it, next month's CD review, pencilled in for April 24th-30th, will either be Foothill Road or something brand new! Stay tuned for updates on that, and more!

I'll be back tomorrow with a new news post featuring some big updates from Dismembertainment. What's that? If you don't know, I'll tell you guys tomorrow! Thanks everyone!

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