Dutch metal label Hammerheart Records announced that it would release three releases from Brazilian band Mystifier, Wicca (1992), Göetia (1993) and The World Is So Good That Who Made It Doesn’t Live Here (1996). The first two of those releases constitute the essential works from this band and its greatest historical impact during the fertile 1989-1994 period of black metal.
All three albums will be released in deluxe vinyl and compact disc editions after an unspecified remastering treatment. The label also intends to release a live album on DVD plus compact disc or vinyl sometime in 2015. Describing the arrangement as a “long-term agreement,” the label and band seem to have hammered out a distribution deal for present and possibly future works, since Mystifier has been active again over the last decade after a long absence.
Starting their musical career just after the Norse boom in black metal in the early 1990s, Mystifier appealed to the raw and primitive side of the new genre explored by other tyrants such as Sarcofago, Blasphemy, Impaled Nazarene and Beherit. Their primal and uneven hymns created a destabilizing force even as the hip kids mustered themselves to make slick versions of the new genre. As we enter the second decade of elevator black metal, this infusion of unsystematic hatred should help even the score.
When people want to say something “controversial” but inoffensive about metal, they talk about how great 1980s speed metal was. I beg to differ: that music had a few standouts but for the most part was exceptional only in pulling metal out of its 1970s slump into audience-pleasing hard rock, and most of it was boring and repetitive like the punk on which it was based.
Powerlord create a functional hybrid between Judas Priest and early Metallica with The Awakening, but songs develop more like the middle-of-the-road heavy metal of the 1970s. Like dolphins swimming, songs dive from surface to chorus and resurrect, with perhaps a bridge but often just a break, and then do it again until the end.
Nostalgia for the 80s seems misplaced when listening to this 1986 recording re-mastered for a new generation, or the 40-somethings who want to recapture some of the joy of youth by purchasing things. It completely fails here, because the 1980s were essentially a hybrid time. Caught between the salaryman mentality of the 1950s and the licentious 1970s, with fear of the ugliness of the late 1960s resurrecting, the 1980s showed America pulling itself apart between two extremes, those who wanted to join with the Soviets and those who would rather die by nuclear warfare than yield to them. This created a powerfully unstable social climate but also meant that to stay in the middle, artists had to focus on the trivial. From that you get goodtimes metal like Powerlord which avoids hitting anything too hard, but repetitively tears into known quantities that the audience has been proven to enjoy.
Some say The Awakening helped found the power metal genre. Aside from the fact that power metal means “speed metal,” this statement may be true but does not change the fact that this music owes more to its 1980s backdrop than to heavy metal itself. It repeats itself, goes nowhere, and while not fully random like bad metal, also has no internal dialogue and so seems really pointless unless the sound itself of repetitive downstroke riffing makes you excited.
Norrønasongen Kosmopolis proves to be a fine album in a style only tangentially related to metal, but fails to rise to the point of making me want to listen to it again. Folk music can be comforting, sometimes interesting, but is usually known for being participatory, that is a group of people around a campfire singing as part of a ritual.
Solefald come to us from the entertainment fringe of folk, which here is a combination between the bands that play in the background at a Renaissance Faire and the kind of music that might be used in a low budget Romantic comedy to establish that the characters are indeed in Norway. Norrønasongen Kosmopolis features songs composed in layers, such that the band sets up a repeating pattern and then other instruments layer within that while vocals between male and female trade off, chanting lyrics of apparently great lutefisk significance.
Then it breaks into this with dinner theater style dramatic breaks where other vocalists join in abrupt transition to another pattern, like the scene has changed or perhaps the lyrics have referenced something terrifying, like a moose roaming free in the local churchyard. All of it is well-executed, with pleasant flutes and string instruments, and the vocals are elegant, but the artistic intention behind this is confused. It tries to organize itself around vocal events which do not work without visual cues, and it specializes in the kind of sing-song rhythms that work best with a “Little Vikings” playset or uncritical audience at the aforementioned Renaissance Faire. When metal guitars intrude, it is as a background instrument that makes the mix louder without adding much of musical note, which makes the vocals even louder.
At the local pub, these songs would be more fun to sing if their parts fit together in a method that allowed people to remember them and have fun experimenting within that known framework. Instead, we get a serial sequence of repetitive frameworks which change randomly for reasons unrelated to the music. That probably qualifies as “progressive” in the dissolved metal scene of today, but in reality, it is the kind of drama that attracts pretentious people looking for something mentally easy to digest. The result guarantees tedium for those who dare notice, and comfortable but random background music for the rest.
Texas old school death metal (which is to say, “death metal”) band Blaspherian return after the triumphant Allegiance to the Will of Damnation with a two-song EP showcasing a newer style which is both more brooding and more raw, chaotic and abrupt. (more…)
The quest for the palatable metalcore album continues.
While doing so is controversial, it makes sense to group all of the metal hybrids which organize themselves as post-hardcore bands did under the metalcore banner. This is because compositionally they are heading in the same direction. That direction involves high contrast stop-start riffing and use of fills instead of connecting riffs together so their contrasts form a narrative, as death metal did.
Cognizance leap into this fray with a new EP, _Inceptum. The cyber-title reflects the mania in metal since ’94 to seem like the next generation, of something. But stepping past this, _Inceptum presents two songs of medium length in the metalcore style. The vocals are open throat and lead the rhythm of the song, which plays off against it jazz-style with the drums and by alternating between percussive rhythmic riffing in the “prog-death” style and sweeps/fills as has been the tendency of metalcore since Necrophagist. Lead guitars take the license they get from jazz fusion in the rock school and break from rhythm, which allows more flexible exploration of related themes.
This exceeds the norm for metalcore. These songs still spend too much energy on being catchy and creating contrast, which reminds me of the 1980s carnival metal they sold as an alternative to speed metal, mixing gothic, hard rock, heavy metal and industrial in these sample platter albums that went nowhere but would distract you with something “new, unique, different” (NUD) every iconoclastic second. The tendency of vocals in metalcore to blurt out a repeated rhythm is offensive not on an aesthetic level but a musical one, as it forces the rest of instrumentation to discoordinate. That was sort of new when Napalm Death did it… twenty-five years later, it plays out as contrived. Where this band shines however is in their ability to tie together songs with a central harmonic theme and thus despite the wide range of technique, still use the craft of songwriting to guide listeners through a musical experience more than an aesthetic one. Lead guitars are far above average and make the best use of their flexible style, although sometimes the melodies and patterns that emerge could be the basis of additional songs in their own right.
As they saying goes, with metalcore “you either do or you do not,” and many of us firmly underline the do not option because we prefer death metal for its greater expressiveness. Among the post-metal hybrids however Cognizance provides one of the better options by keeping musicality at the center of their songwriting and refusing to allow it to be swallowed up by instrumentalism, pushing back against the most wanky aspects of the metalcore genre. Musical performances show competence extended to the point of some comfort with the performance, which allows this band to relax a bit and write some songs instead of spending too much time using Visio to script their riff transitions. While _Inceptum shows us only two songs, it reveals a positive side of this band that may offer new breath for the flagging metalcore genre.
Very few albums are truly horrible in the sense of doing something every moment that repels the senses. Instead, they are just bad, meaning inept at achieving an effect, often to the point where you wonder why no one questioned the attempt somewhere in the process.
Av Oss, For Oss could well be the missing Alestorm album. Its songs always revert to bouncy faux-Nordic style that might fit a Disney ride or guest musicians on a motorized Viking longboat tour of the marshes of Louisiana. Musically, nothing here is incompetent, but it also lacks any inspiration and plods along with nothing to offer and then loses track of itself, and falls back on the same shorthand. There really is no point discussing the album beyond saying that because no album can redeem itself from that point.
I remember acquiring an early Einherjer album which people swore was just the bee’s knees. Hipsters really talked that way in the past but thankfully they’ve moved on to newer phrases like sui generis and “off the chain.” Back then it seemed unfocused but short. Av Oss, For Oss just seems like people sketching out a rough guideline and then writing to fill, and when they get something that qualifies, never looking back. Hit record, then print, and hope some money wanders in the door.
What is really missing here is a sense of proportion and of the parts relating to one another. Instead we get a random flow of boring riffs put together in nonsense order with heavy repetition and when the song goes nowhere, as said above, it falls back on a few patterns these guys really like. Individual parts are well-executed but without energy or flair, which makes me think this band should just break up and donate members to better bands who need competent people to fill basic roles. They are far from alone, since post-1994 black metal generally sucks, but this album just double-underlines the point and then writes it, Bart Simpson style, in endless repetitions down the chalkboard.
Black metal surrendered to a farce back in the mid-1990s. This farce took the surface ideas of black metal and used them to enclose the same old crap that rock music had been passing off for at least two decades at that point. Blodhemn resurrects those glory days with an album that is not just random, but boring, and completely pointless.
H7 consists of songs about songs. That is, these are songs written by someone listening to black metal and trying to make a version of that, instead of attempting to understand the cause-effect relationship that pushed Norwegian musicians in the early 1990s to create some of the most epic and interesting music that heavy metal has ever seen. That is not to say that this album lacks moments of interesting riff, or transition, but that these things are put together into a package that drones through repetition and “unexpected” expected changes, linked up with riffs that are boring because they are predictable.
In these songs, careful attention to what black metal bands did in their glory days shows through in a penchant for certain dramatic riff types and transitions. These do not make the song, and frequently Blodhemn introduce a promising start then take it nowhere, either dropping into paint-by-numbers riffing or the post-Ulver carnival style where riffs do not relate to each other but provide “contrast” which ends up producing a song devoid of emotion or anything else that requires consistency, development and purpose. Vocals fit the trademark late-90s Norsecore rasp and many of these riff archetypes come from the proudest moments of Satyricon and Darkthrone. In particular, percussion shows a diligent understanding of how Fenriz produced a throbbing intensity of sonic force that swept listeners up into its mystery.
Unfortunately, no amount of doing the parts right can save H7 from its destiny, which is as a summary of the techniques of black metal without delving into the content that those bands labored to provide. As a result, even when promise emerges, it soon becomes lost in the flow of random and pointless activity. Blodhemn and H7 are good things to avoid, unless you really adore tedium and bootlicking.
Deathcore relies on trope to the point where the style becomes almost all convention with little variation within. Joining other styles like rap and techno, it reduces itself to minor deviations from a norm and so the difference between bands, albums and songs becomes less important than currency.
Decimation attempt to restore deathcore with many of the stylistic methods of later percussive death metal, specifically Suffocation Pierced From Within, and are remarkably successful in doing so but because of their extensive reliance on deathcore passages may not make the threshold for many death metal listeners. When looking through history, we see deathcore arising from the Cannibal Corpse axis where vocals lead the music and guitars exist to blat out rhythmically hook-centric riffs in coordination with drums but in support of vocal rhythms.
Decimation upgrade this to giving the guitars more leeway at the ends of phrases and between verses, where the band use phrasal riffing and open strumming to generate interest. They even write in melodic lead riffing over high-speed strumming in the way Suffocation would, which infuses these songs with a new energy but will probably offend deathcore purists. If you can imagine a hip-hop troupe who broke every other phrase to play full-on bebop, the effect is similar here in that it makes return to the deathcore that much more jarring but puts into play enough for the ears to listen to that the deathcore parts become more like rhythm comping to build up for the sweetness. Deathcore fans will note that the characteristic lack of variation in technique and approach to rhythm is consistent on the deathcore passages.
Where Decimation excels is in assembling songs around an idea despite surrounding it with a riff salad. These songs sound more composed than your average deathcore song in that they have a center and changing layout to reflect what that is, but less “composed” in that unlike classic deathcore they do not attempt to create a rhythm groove and ride it, alternating with a chorus, into the ground. Bass-intense vocals fall into cadence with guitar during verses, but range free for fills and choruses, allowing the range and texture of vocals to expand. Drums adopt the overactive style of post-Suffocation deathcore but keep an emphasis on varied internal rhythm to produce expectation rather than sheer repetition and breakdown as both techno and deathcore tend to do.
Reign of Ungodly Creation will split death metal purists. If you could listen to Cannibal Corpse alongside Suffocation and Kataklysm, this 37-minute diatribe will appeal and seem to expand on those conventions. If like many you preferred death metal before it started imitating post-hardcore, there may be too much deathcore in here for you. This perspective is entirely understandable, as the deathcore portions of this album use a few common forms in many variations, where the death metal segments vary more widely in form. It is more infectiously rhythmic and disciplined than most deathcore and so could well inject some needed life into that flagging genre.
After Black Sabbath invented proto-metal, people mixed together hard rock like Led Zeppelin and came up with a new hybrid they called heavy metal, but it lacked the intensity of Black Sabbath. The New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) fused the energy of punk and garage rock back into the music to restore the alienated energy, and Witchfinder General numbered among its strongest arguments.
Bands making music of this nature face a challenge: the entire rock community is based on making things sound smooth and grandiose in the kind of narcissistic ecstasy that people who want to be the center of attention for their 15 minutes exhibit, and this clashes with the need to sound like a combat unit taking a break to bash out a few tunes. As the Witchfinder General Live ’83 release shows us, this band had great intensity when they could focus their energies in that fashion.
While Death Penalty features the same excellent songwriting, matching vocal melodies that evoke the ambition without regard for convention that made Ozzy Osbourne the favorite Black Sabbath vocalist, and powerful riffing that expanded beyond the rock vocabulary to the side door of speed metal, the more refined production convinced Witchfinder General to play these songs more slowly and to layer on additional lead guitar and production effects to “enhance” the sound. The result is that much of the energy dissipates into a 1970s rock filter, and the production emphasizes a thin guitar tone to which the band adapts. Other than this disadvantage, Death Penalty shows us Witchfinder General at their most powerful.
Like the best of NWOBHM bands, Witchfinder General used shorter riffs than Black Sabbath and focused more on melodic guitar composition that echoed the previous generation of British heavy guitar rock. In addition, the band injected fast rhythmic riffing using a muted strum, and fast lead fills that allowed more flexibility in riff placement, but also borrowed from many of the progressive bands a more flexible sense of song structure. There will be the verse-chorus cycle, but it often transitions with a break that emphasizes some aspect of the song and allows the band to use variants of riffs for great contrast, before returning to the original cycle. To death metal fans, it may seem tame, but in the day it was a revolution against heavy metal convention, and these songs still stand tall with a power that all those artists who wish to be more polished than pugnacious cannot capture.
Much of the focus of songwriting wraps around the vocals which guide each song ably by taking the high register and infusing just enough melody into these riffs to give each passage a hook. Sometimes this limits what the band could spend its energy on, as we can hear through many of the incidental guitar passages such as the fade-out instrumental break in “Death Penalty,” but it also helps hold together these sounds which are bursting with energy and musical creativity. Much of this album sounds like later Black Sabbath with more caffeinated leads, but that is its voice and not its essence, which is a flexible view of songwriting that never loses the need for a charge of the light brigade in power chords against the pleasant illusions of the average rock fan, then or now.
Back around 1991 or so, Grave Into the Grave lived in every Hessian room across the land. It combined an intense rhythmic attack with a type of accessibility that did not on the surface resemble the pop music — generally downtempo bittersweet wailing indie-rock — of the age. Then the band seemed to drop out of reality.
Listening to Necropsy: The Complete Demo Recordings 1986-1991 has clarified for me exactly what I like and detest about this band. Unlike most bands of that era, Grave understood the concept of hook, in this case a rhythm that is fascinating enough to be instantly memorable. On the downside, the hook swims in what are ultimately predictable song structures borrowed from the lower echelons of 1980s speed metal. These demos show Grave developing its style from an early Possessed/Kreator hybrid into full-fledged death metal, yet the band never really breaks into what made death metal powerful. These songs cycle through verse-chorus with exceptions made to fit in some transitional riffs, but never construct themselves around an idea expressed in both riff and song. As a result, they come across as random outside of the one moment of clarity for the hook, at which point the brain goes to sleep waiting for the random power chord slamming to end and the hook to come around again.
The good parts of Grave should not be understated. At a time when most bands were trying to make themselves presentable to the average music listener by reining in their extreme tendencies, Grave leaped howling into the abyss with rigid and abrupt riffs that slammed home with the intensity of the big American bands. Much like style-mates Seance and Hypocrisy, Grave took Swedish death metal away from the melodic riffs and restraint into full-on textural assault with primitive rhythm as its guide. And yet listening back over this, one might wish for a little bit more of Carnage and Entombed in with the Malevolent Creation style riffs. The song structures are too simple to give these riffs room to breathe, so they just cycle, which is to say raw repetition “one removed” by introduction of a contrary or at least different theme. If tied together with some melody, more structure, or even a greater sense of internal dialogue between the songs, the early work from Grave would have been legendary and far surpassed Entombed and others who made big names for themselves in Swedish metal.
These demos progress from the prescient in style works of the 1986-1988 period in which bands were still figuring out how to work with the fertile ferment of Bathory, Hellhammer, Possessed, Sepultura, Sodom and Slayer. The Grave tracks from this era sound like a second-rate speed metal band imitating Possessed as death vocals ring out around clumsier versions of riff patterns you might find on a Heathen or Dark Angel album. As time goes on, the riffs pick up more technique and the clumsiness becomes an aggressive slamming rhythm mated to an adroit sense of pick-up rhythm that conserves and intensifies the energy of each riff. But, much as with Kreator, the riff is the hook and the “sweet spot” in the midst of relatively unrelated material, which means songs keep clunking along on the rhythm of the drums and vocals while the guitars do random stuff. It’s as if these bands never fully come together and are just too individualistic for their own good, Kreator especially. As the demos accelerate toward 1991, the technique streamlines into recognizable full death metal, but the song structures revert to the 1986 styles and despite increased proficiency remain just as clumsy in end result.
What emerges from these demos as a result is a crash-course in how to write great death metal riffs without writing great death metal. Grave faded before its time because it never knitted these power riffs into full songs, and went after the German model of a friendly rhythm with great hook in a song where everything else is essentially linear. This makes the listener fade in for the hook, then fade out, and end the listening session with no sense of continuity or overall impression of an event, emotion or attitude. In this, Grave — despite having mastered the science of death metal riffcraft — missed the boat on the innovation that death metal brought to the wider world of heavy music, and this explains why their work has not obtained the staying power assigned easily to bands with less-powerful riffing but more focus on integrative songwriting.