Formulas Fatal to the Flesh (Earache)

Defiantly shattering the Motley Crue template, heshers no longer consider it fashionable to revel in the satanic trappings of the '80s. With Formulas Fatal to the Flesh, Tampa death-metal freaks Morbid Angel put their own spin on enlightened '90s occultism by worshiping Chthhulhu, Habsu and Amah-Ushumgal-Anna (a triumvirate of Sumerian gods), touting a belief system that is nonetheless suspiciously similar to the Church of Satan's gospel of unimpeded will and self-worship. Same shtick, different packaging.

A tamer beast but not in the least defanged, Morbid Angel has found its stride on Formulas, having evolved from one-dimensional, decibel-fixated speed-demonism to the more groove-oriented joint exemplified by “Prayer of Hate,” “Nothing Is Not” and the anthemic “Invocation of the Continual One.” The guitar tracks are melodically layered instead of just showcasing ax hero Trey Azagthoth. The band has slowed up, tuned down and, finally, discovered (I hate this word) dynamics.

We get a break midalbum from the infernal bellowing and thrashy grind with the quaintly macabre instrumental “Disturbance in the Great Slumber.” You know the drill: harpsichord synth, pipe organ, knelling bells and all those other implements of gothic ambiance. In this instance, it's actually chilling – or at least not as kitschy as it could be. While the quietly mesmerizing “Hymn to a Gas Giant,” a Spanish-guitar piece in reverb, and “Hymnos Rituales de Guerra,” a pummelfest of Kodo-like drumming, seem like errant jaunts on the musical map, they somehow make sense on this mytho-hodgepodge of an album.

Rapturous and revitalized by their pagan make-over, these long-locked, buffed-out manly men are still the blaspheming headbangers they've been throughout their decadelong history, only now their colossal roar has found validation in ancient texts. Indulge them. (Andrew Lentz)

Do or Die (Hellcat)

Bands from Boston are notoriously derivative. Even the most original ones in the pack, like the Modern Lovers or the Pixies, wore their influences in plain view, as if to inform their collegiate clubby followers, “See, we're familiar shit, ain't we?”

The Dropkick Murphys – four young 'uns from the Irish-American enclave of South Dorchester, along with a scene veteran from the 'burbs on guitar – are indeed proud to be part of a long line of boot-boy punkers. Their lineage is immediately recognizable, which is pretty much the source of their charm. From Slade, to the Clash and SLF, to the U.K. Subs and this era's Swinging Utters, the Murphys do anthems whose cues come from pub sing-alongs and football chants, all married to distorted chords. Toss in a little bit of the Pogues, and you've got the Murphys in a nutshell.

This full-lengther, neatly and powerfully produced by Rancid's Lars Frederiksen, makes the argument for American Oi about as strongly as possible. Although the lyrics are inevitably about working-class solidarity and tragedy (the guys are Irish, after all), and although the melodies are right out of the Clancy Brothers songbook, this is muscular rock at its peak. When it roars along at full tilt, it's awesome, as in “Noble,” a tribute to a fallen comrade, and the parody of the Kingston Trio's “M.T.A.” (a favorite of the New England mug-hoisting set) titled “Skinhead on the MBTA.” Where it isn't impressive is when the theme is beaten into the ground without the shout-along chorus, as on “Barroom Hero.” In fact, the Murphys should take a few lessons from their forepappies in the fist-in-the-sky department: Simpler chants are easier for the besotted and the sober alike to bawl along with. Also, they should avoid folkying from here on in; songs like “Finnegan's Wake” are better left in the hands of those who make a living on the Black and Tan circuit, particularly those who are apt to play the song's proper chords (the Murphys' version had me scratching my head).

They still make mincemeat of most punk bands. Sticking doggedly to the themes they know and trust, the Murphys avoid looking like pontificating prats, and, God love 'em, there isn't a single instrumental wank afoot. Like their neighbors the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, they bulldoze their chosen genre right into the ground – which, for the DMs' Doc rock, is the best and only way to go. (Johnny Angel)

Country Blues (Revenant)

Dock Boggs was a coal miner, singer and banjo player with a voice that could cut through trees. He played banjo in a spare, single-note picking style, banging out each tone with a sound hard as nails. He lived in the musically rich, murderously violent moonshining hill country of southwest Virginia, and like many Appalachian musicians early in the century, he played blues, old hillbilly tunes, and the traditional Celtic, English and Southern folk ballads that linger on in the Southern mountains to this day.

Boggs recorded only 12 songs in his prime – in '27 and '29 – but the result was some of the most intensely haunting rural Southern music ever recorded. In Dock's voice and hands, the ancient plaints found their perfect incarnation, as if distilled over the years and centuries down to the bedrock of his flint-hard voice, haunted by demons of violence and fear in trigger-happy Prohibition-era Appalachia. Such hardness repels sentimentality, even when Dock makes a stab at it. Not even the jaunty rhythms of the banjo can shake off the sense of present evil in these shouted tales of happy revenge, casual shootings and utter, desolate tragedy. (When Dock sings, “The man who won my darling girl/Will feel the bite of my .44,” I tend to believe him.)

The oldest song is the deadliest, and the most pitiless. A dark, chilling spangle of notes opens “Pretty Polly,” its darkness like a warning of death: “I used to be a rambler, I stayed around in town/I courted pretty Polly, and the beauty has never been found.” The relentless planging propels without mercy toward the murder to come: “Pretty Polly, pretty

Polly, you're guessing about right/I dug on your grave two-thirds of last night.” (Ending not happy.)

Dock gets wacky, too. “Hard Luck Blues” is my kind of cartoony tune: “Got me a cat and a piece of cheese, I placed it on her chin/Wife got frightened in her sleep one night, she took the rat, cat and cheese all in.” So there it is; take it – an old ghost for to haunt you. Hail Boggs! (Tony Mostrom)

River Under the Road (Lazy SOB Recordings)

Yes, early-20-something Ana Egge sounds older than she is, precociousness having become as popular in country music as it has in basketball or violent crime. I'm much more impressed, frankly, by this Austin-via-New Mexico newcomer's deceptively languid wariness. In her best songs, she sounds small-town in a way that has nothing to do with practiced rural authenticity – vigilant, in other words. Willing to consider you, but not necessarily biased in your favor.

River Under the Road, Egge's debut CD, boasts numerous appealing songs and a few terrific ones, all sympathetically performed by pedigreed Austin backing musicians. Highlights include the title track, a rolling, faintly mystical meditation co-written with Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and “Fairest of Them All,” which illustrates everything thrilling in Egge's delivery. It's hard to say what feels so rotten in this catchy, catty little gone-to-the-city tale, but the feeling stems straight from the extra beat Egge inserts in the line about “red, red lipstick.” With no theatrics, no throat-growling, just rhythm, Egge delivers a condemnation that has nothing to do with principles; it's personal, and permanent. And fierce.

Her weepies don't work so well. The problem is partly lyrics (too many brambles and roses), partly delivery. Like many young Austiners, Egge strives so hard for plainness that she sometimes achieves it. But she's a sensitive, potent performer, and when she sings about “a town of 50 people/who like to sit and stare,” you can feel their eyes on you. (Glen Hirshberg)

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