Abysmal Lord – Disciples of the Inferno (2015)

abysmal lord - disciples cover

Article by David Rosales

Yet another sludgy, heavy-treading death metal album with Sarcofago pretensions arrives at our shores. All the production candy is present, from the attenuated, dry fog that takes away the annoying reflection of shiny exteriors to the thick and bassy tone of the instruments that gives them presence but is not impertinent. Abysmal Lord Disciples of the Inferno fills all of the requirements for your average death metal fan’s enjoyment and seal of approval. But it is ultimately irrelevant, and moreover, it is definitely an unnecessary accessory.

Listening to Disciples of the Inferno reminded me of listening to one of those post-Haydn Classical or Romantic-era composers who were certainly above average, but never truly found their own voice and rather latched on to the conventions of the time. You’ve probably heard one of these many Mozart clones (I’m talking to you, Kuhlau) who produced decent works of great technical competency that never rose above their models in artistic merit. This is the sort of album that is good enough an imitation that you want to go listen to classical albums that influenced the origins of their style.

Abysmal Lord Disciples of the Inferno proves an entertaining listen during a couple of tracks, although as I said, it mostly just urges one to go listen to classic giants of the genre. Furthermore, past the first of the album, the music is decidedly samey and rehashed riffs along with uninspired progressions mark the early death of the music.

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Necrosemen – Vglns (2015)

necrosemen - cover
Review by David Rosales

Necrosemen play the kind of war metal going on death metal that has become increasingly popular in recent years. There are several reasons for this, and popularity being what it is, none of these are particularly flattering. This style of music concentrates on the texture generated by the sheer, gross output of a good amplifier through high-quality effects, a deep voice and blasting drums. The most prominent value – if we may call it that – this music has is the shock of its production quality and the immensity of its sound. It’s “darker” music for the average moron. Then, there is the fact that this sort of music is extremely easy to write. Very little artistic insight is needed and minimal technical competence (learn a few key pattern styles, be able to play them with a metronome, and that’s about it) suffices to come up with a couple of these songs.

In terms of its composition, this Vglns could not possibly be more derivative than it already is. Not only are the patterns tired and tried, patterns that never really were spectacular to begin with, but they’re also lazy riffs that rely on the impact of distortion and big sound. The problem here is that these tremolo-laden riffs are “atmospheric” in the same sense that a constant blast beat barrage becomes a blanket and background. When you have a uniform set of these parading one after the other, with minimal variation, what you have is a blanket of guitars with “cool tone” over a blanket of pounding drums, and an occasional growl here and there. Now, very few changes are all right when you have a long composition whose aim is literally to create an atmosphere, and when, in the grand scheme, a real journey is traced from beginning to end. But Necrosemen give us between 4 and 7 minutes of utter sameness while expecting to be taken seriously as metal.

For those who would dare point fingers at bands like Incantation who also play a minimalist style of death metal, I would point out that the difference lies in that the classic band presents an articulate differentiation of songs within a relatively homogeneous style. Such differentiation between riffs and their combinations into mega riffs are varied enough to constitute different meanings as the music slows, speeds up, the phrase is inverted, is cut off, or is extended. At the same time, the similarity is such that they stay within range of the aura of what was expressed before and is cohesive with the “topic” of the album (and band) as a whole. In the case of these new bands, what we have is riffs that are virtually the same being played again and again through the song and through different songs in the album. The only difference between them is the particular notes played. In short: there is not enough vocabulary to actually say more than a sentence.

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Field Reporting: Legion of Steel Metalfest & Conference Academic Presentations

An auditorium in Sacramento
Article by “AR”

The weaknesses of the San Francisco Bay Area “metal scene” have been in full display this October. The anticipated California Deathfest was thrown into disarray when death metal band DISMA was kicked out for political reasons – namely due to a past musical project of vocalist Craig Pillard (INCANTATION) which utilized imagery of the Third Reich. Besides the headliners of AUTOPSY and IMMOLATION, and a few less notable exceptions, this left the lineup of the “metal” nights filled with the grind/crust/punk mixture that is popular among a less discerning crowd. This suggested to outside observers that the interests of the promoters lay more with political agendas and popularity contests, than appreciation of metal music.

It was with interest that I heard of the “Legion of Steel Metalfest & Conference”, held over the course of four days this week and consisting of a “metal market”, “academic conferences” about heavy metal, and two night of music featuring most notably San Francisco death/speed metal stalwarts INSANITY, rock/heavy/speed metal band STONE VENGEANCE, and punks FANG, bands who never quite “made it” but who have been doggedly performing since at least the 80s. Only able to attend one night, I chose the night headlined by INSANITY, and showed up around 1PM to catch part of the conference, speculating that it might be some sinister affair where effete academics plot how to force their agenda on innocent hessians, but also open to more positive possibilities.

Missing the first three presentations, I arrived for “Becoming Death Itself: What Heavy Metal Offers Biblical Scholarship” presented by Charlotte Naylor Davis, of Great Britain. Her short presentation focused on the lyrics of METALLICA’s “Creeping Death”. Most interestingly, she pointed out that METALLICA presents the biblical story of an vengeful tribal god killing first-born children as a celebration of the power of death, and invites the audience to assume the role of the Angel of Death during the chanting climax of the song. This embrace of what is unpalatable or uncomfortable in “polite society” is part of what makes metal music powerful, and sets it apart from the happy illusions of most popular entertainment. Ms. Davis was a knowledgeable and enthusiastic presenter and I was disappointed the topic was not continued for longer.

Next was Mr. Shamma Boyarin of the University of Victoria, who first talked about Israeli “oriental metal” band ORPHANED LAND, who utilize the imagery of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. My ears perked when he mentioned how metal bands freely use themes from many different religious and occult practices, but in “obeisance to none”; i.e aesthetically, not dogmatically (paging Fred Nietzsche!). However, Mr. Boyarin chose to switch tack and talk about how ORPHANED LAND’s music was “breaking down barriers” between the religions and cultures of the Middle East, which seems to be a happy fantasy, if even desirable at all. Next was discussed an Indonesian band, MANRABUKKA, whose lyrics delve heavily into the Koran. A passage of the Koran, quoted by the band (Surat Al-Kafirun, “The Unbelievers”): “I do not worship what you worship. Nor are you worshippers of what I worship… For you is your religion, and for me is my religion”, evoked the religion-rejecting lyricism of bands like MORBID ANGEL and DEICIDE, but also that such advice is poorly-followed in those areas of the world torn by dogmatic conflicts. However Mr. Boyarin somehow brought the conclusion back around to “breaking down barriers”. I would recommend developing some new conclusions and exploring these interesting ideas further!

Next was Addison Herron-Wheeler of Naropa University, who read passages from her book “Wicked Woman: Women in Metal From the 1960s to Now”. The cynics among us may sigh in expectation of the women-as-oppressed-victims narrative that is popular these days, but as her reading mainly dealt with the singer of the 60s occult pop-rock band Coven, musically far distant from metal, I zoned out during this portion and can’t report much. If women in metal are going to be discussed as a separate topic, the most deserving individual may be the fascinating Lori Bravo of NUCLEAR DEATH, who has hitherto been mostly ignored.

Next was a presentation by Dolev Zaharony of Israel. Mr. Zaharony discussed the history of metal music in Israel and how the government/media, ever-paranoid and faced with the difficult task of molding the mixed population of young Israel into a single culture, filtered out all references to heavy metal, and one assumes much else. Mr. Zaharony spoke as one who had been passionate about metal since his teens and had lived through many phases of metal culture in Israel, as well as been a musician. This presentation was enjoyable as he spoke informatively, without any attempt to politicize.

Finally was a viewing of clips from the documentary “Distorted Island”, which focuses on the heavy metal scene of Puerto Rico. This was at times interesting and at times irritating when the documentary attempted to impose narratives on the music, for example highlighting a band because they are all female (though the music sounded pretty awful), and thus an example of triumph against the sexist metal scene. This method is currently trendy in musical documentaries, and one of the many problems with it is that filmmakers end up focusing on mediocre bands at the expense of excellent ones, if the mediocre bands better fit the narrative.

This is a problem common to analyses of metal which prioritize social aspects over the music itself: they lose sight of the reason why the social scene arose in the first place – to celebrate and appreciate the MUSIC, its power and its ethos. Once any other element of the culture is made primary, the goal is lost and the music will become merely an accessory, and necessarily devolve in quality. This same effect can be seen with the hipsters who use metal aesthetic to dress up boring indie-rock, to the collectors who obsess over obscure releases that were forgotten due to their middling quality.

In the spirit of culling the mediocre, Charlotte Naylor Davis and Dolev Zaharony were the only two I witnessed whose presentations passed the bar of quality, knowledge, and true enthusiasm; as well as being free of political propaganda. I would recommend them for any future conferences. Note however the limited sampling which I was able to attend; there may have been other hidden gems.

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Austaras – Prisoner of Sunlight (2015)

Austaras - Dragged Into Sunlight
An old issue of Sadistic Metal Reviews once contained some interesting commentary on the subject of Agalloch – drop the “metal pretense” and possibly see album sales soar. The counterpoint is that there’s always an audience for rock music disguised as some sort of metal, but if Prisoner of Sunlight (Austaras’ first full length album after an allegedly post-black metal inspired debut EP in 2011) is to be believed, there’s also an audience for rock albums that don’t bother with the deception. As a mopey, vaguely depressive, pseudo-artsy post rock album that’s presumably been done a million times before, Prisoner of Sunlight is unsurprisingly less offensive than the halfway approach of a Deafheaven or a Myrkur or whatever the kids are forgetting about these days, but that’s not quite enough to make it worthwhile.

Above all else, Prisoner of Sunlight is a flat and directionless experience. The band builds their songs out of short chord progressions and brief guitar leads with little in the way of heavy metal styled riffing. They promptly do little to develop or elaborate on their musical ideas beyond the occasional break in for slow acoustic passages. Vocals are notably entirely clean sung, and stylistically they’re pretty much the standard Mikael Åkerfeldt for better or worse. I suppose you could say the technique needs some work to really shine, but they’re otherwise competent and perhaps stylistically appropriate. Any ambitions the vocalist has, though, are stamped on by the sheer flatness of the songwriting. Other elements fail to add any real interest to this – occasional synthesizer lines and generic rhythmic backing aren’t quite the selling point I would hope for. On the other hand, the album does nothing particularly wrong – no particularly jarring moments of randomness or especially obvious pandering to youth demographics, but the sense that Austuras focuses on texture and ‘ambiance’ above all else, while not necessarily a flaw (since some musicians can pull it off effectively), is a dealbreaker.

Ultimately, Prisoner of Sunlight is not a good album, but it isn’t even a bad enough album to laugh at. You might get the impression that more popular post-metal bands would sound like this if they too stripped all the metal from their approach. Perhaps they would; the lesson here is that you need a better understanding of how to vary your music if you’re going to write “atmospheric” metal. That’s more difficult than it would appear on first glance.

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Upcoming tours: Suffocation

Poster for Suffocation's "Obliterating North America 2015" tour
Suffocation has taken a previously scheduled show at Housecore Horror Festival III and apparently expanded it into a short tour. Not a great deal of notice for possible fans, but this gives fans of Suffocation throughout the USA (but mostly the southern parts) a few chances to see the band perform. There probably hasn’t been enough time since the band semi-officially announced an upcoming studio album for them to actually perform any new tracks, but you never know. As usual, the balance of formative early work and less powerful later work may vary throughout the tour, so be ready for the possibility of either should you choose to see Suffocation in concert.

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Phil Anselmo Forms New Extreme Metal “Supergroup”

Phil Anselmo being the lovable goofball he is.
Article by Daniel Maarat

Tough guy empowerment activist and former heroin addict Phil Anselmo has formed a new extreme metal “supergroup.” Scour features members of metalcore and post-hardcore bands Pig Destroyer, Cattle Decapitation, Decrepity Birth, and Animostiy. Anselmo claims they play “predominantly, in my ear, modern-ish black metal sounding, thrashy black metal type stuff.” All underground metal fans can do is wait and hear if former Pantera frontman is describing randomized first wave black metal with breakdowns, the Britney Spears black metal exemplified by Aura Noir slowed down, or Gothenburg melodeaf influenced metalcore with nu-metal vocals.

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Nightwish, Endless Forms Most Beautiful, and ideological conveyance

Nightwish - Endless Forms Most Beautiful (2015)
Review by Daniel McCormick

It has been said that there is non-overlapping magisteria confining the world of scientific inquiry outside the the realm of “human purposes, meanings, and values.” (Stephen J. Gould) John Keats once said science presents a “cold philosophy” with a “dull catalogue of common things” that reduces life to terms insufficient to the subjective needs of man. Upon this assertion they then heap arguments of moral relativism, theology, and social revision which are based on their personal feelings and beliefs. This is common for religious or political figures but one also encounters this thinking in artists as well. In conversation one can easily find an artist prattling on about how x-piece speaks to man’s soul, or how true beauty lies in one’s personal interpretation, and that judgement is merely a subjective experience, that art itself communicates on levels that can not be directly observed or defined. All manner of feeble logic can you encounter, yet there is at heart a mirroring of intention. What they attempt is to self insulate from reproach, to self aggrandize through idealizing, and to manipulate your willingness to believe comforting thoughts. Because, to them, empirical definitions inundate the mind with a materialist philosophy that somehow cuts out the beauty from the universe around them. They say life is “too mad for mere material chains to bind” (Alexander Pope), and that “knowledge is not happiness, and science but an exchange of ignorance for that which is another kind of ignorance.”(Lord Byron)

There is a fundamental flaw in this anti-science rhetoric which stems from its untenable premise: that methods of inquiry lessen the artistic value of a ‘thing’. My view is much different; when I understand something (a process, an object, etc.) it allows me to observe with keener insight the object as it actually is. For instance, I am no less able to appreciate viewing the sky because I understand that the color I see is the result of lightwaves interacting with molecules, that these molecules are held in the atmosphere by gravity, that what I am seeing is the projection of the information my senses feed my mind, and that my mind and my senses are a direct result of millions of years of evolving characteristics. Like Darwin himself, I believe “there is grandeur in this view.” There is magnificence in grasping the chain of events, that all complexity today is directly a result of the low entropy state of the Big Bang some fourteen billion years ago, or that all life today is a direct descendant from a common ancestor that happened to have evolved billions of years ago on this watery green rock.

Of the untold bounty of scientific progress there are a few ideas more open to criticism than others but none seem as targeted as evolution. This theme of biological descent with modification and/or natural selection is an important idea, so important in fact that it is to our benefit to communicate this effectively, because its importance draws in so much unsubstantiated criticism. In other words, it is an imperative to communicate the theory and evidence effectively so as to combat its antagonists who are ever reproaching science and the philosophy of inquiry for some perceived wrong it has done them, or their group. Because of this constant willingness to attack empiricism, it usually falls to the popularizers of science to keep public opinion from drifting over the precipice and into the cult of the faithful and superstitious. It also becomes an imperative to demonstrate that works of art are in no way diminished by focusing on scientific research.

From this perspective I find myself listening to the eighth full length album from Finnish power metal band Nightwish. Endless Forms Most Beautiful focuses on artistically communicating the understanding of science in a very easily approached manner. Musically, this is what I have come to expect from Nightwish: a sound that is overly popular with a power metal base that drifts between heavy metal, hard rock, and light classical influences. Female vocals drive the bulk of the music, and the structural variations add a bit to what may otherwise falls into the formulaic. The performances are all flawless, over produced, and nearing the mechanical with over the top choruses, strings, keys, acoustic guitars, etc. You could simply say the album is extraordinarily inoffensive, mainstream, and essentially a work of metal music accessible to all ages, and potentially those not traditionally in the category of metal enthusiast.

What makes this interesting is the underlying premise carried through out the album. You can derive it from the album title which is itself a fragment from the ending chapter of The Origin of Species:

“There is grandeur in this view of life, …whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”  – Charles Darwin

The work is presented in a layman, artistic, fashion but emphasizes many specific ideas underlying the theory of evolution. This is furthered by the addition of narrations from Professor Richard Dawkins which includes the rather famous beginning passage of Dawkins’ own book, Unweaving the Rainbow. The sung lyrics may bear at times an odd nonlinear sappiness, a positivist’s perspective on the war of nature, but they also paraphrase words from scientists like Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, and Stephen Hawking. While the general theme may be summarized as awe the presenting of this includes the happenstance of self replication, the scale of space time in which we exist, the chance of beneficial mutations, etc. Hefty complex subjects which are admittedly not delved into with expert authority, but presented in a way which will hopefully draw some scientifically illiterate person to partake the grand art of autodidacticism.

Collectively, there are issues to be taken with this method of communication, at least if you’re a die hard metal enthusiast like me, but as an expression bent on the popularizing of science I can see where this album has value. It in no way replaces the dozens of books I have on the subject, but it does build from and give insight into the substance of the information. The greatest show on Earth may well be the greatest show in the universe, and we know the party doesn’t go on forever so I urge you to make good use of what little time you have to expand your understanding and to appreciate things for what they offer to more than just yourself.

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones.”

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VH1 “journalist” launches smear campaign against Bard Eithun

VH1 logo
VH1 affiliated journalist (and I feel guilty for using that term, because seriously, it’s VH1) Zack Sigel apparently was inspired by the recent Disma controversy, and has set his targets on Bard “Faust” Eithun in what is almost certainly an attempt to get his current projects (Blood Tsunami, Studfaust, etc.) pulled from the upcoming Martyrdoom Festival. Unlike Craig Pillard, Faust admittedly does have a criminal record to his name, having been imprisoned for the murder of a homosexual some years ago, but this doesn’t make the apparent goal any more noble. Whether or not Faust is the same person he was 20 years ago, witch hunting is not going to actually reform him, or usher in any sort of actual justice or utopian tolerant social justice city on a hill. Most of this article, however, isn’t a call to action against Faust, although the passages specifically condemning Faust’s actions come off as passive-aggressive at best. Instead, Sigel dedicates most of the article to whining about metalheads not immediately condemning bands for their ideological stances. Ironically he also pushes Deafheaven, despite their own ties to right wing movements, but odds are he won’t be turning on them for that any time soon, lest the ensuing cognitive dissonance explodes and kills everyone in a 500 mile radius.

We’re probably enabling him by acknowledging this article, but if nobody calls out this sort of pseudo-tolerant hypocrisy, everyone gets burnt.

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Album anniversaries – Seven Churches

possessed-seven_churches
A landmark in underground metal has been allowed to be 30 years old for some time now. We can’t have that, can we? Seven Churches is sometimes labeled the first “death metal” album by members of the press. I wouldn’t go quite so far as to say that, but it’s a crucial link between earlier speed metal and more advanced recordings that would come out only a year later. Musically, this fits in well with many of its immediate proto-underground contemporaries, like Bathory, Celtic Frost (at least on their faster material), and perhaps Show No Mercy era Slayer, although it benefits from an especially clear and powerful production given its vintage. Later works by the band more closely resemble extreme, souped up speed metal than the more evolved recordings of the late ’80s, but this album came in at just the right time to directly influence many aspiring (or at least aspirating) metalheads.

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Deathgasm (2015)

Theatrical poster of Deathgasm

The combination of metal and horror films presents a challenge because you cannot have two strong forces without having one trigger the other. In Death Metal Zombies (1995) it was a recording send from an on-air contest; in The Lords of Salem director Rob “Zombie” Cummings features a terrifyingly enigmatic piece of music that, played over the radio, invokes demons. In Deathgasm, a downtrodden teenage metalhead in New Zealand uncovers an ancient hymn for summoning a dark deity, and launches (nearly) the end of the world.

As with all in the genre of New Zealand horror, Deathgasm features a tight integration of absurdist humor with its horror plot. Like reading Mad Magazine, watching this film requires the viewer to be attentive to background details for extra laughs, but there are also outright comedic lines delivered at pivotal points in the plot. Much like the best underground films of the 1980s, Deathgasm also serves as a revelation of society from a metalhead’s point of view: boring, pointless, disorganized, with people already possessed by ideas before the demons even get the glimmer of personality transubstantiation in their beady little eyes.

Once having accepted that the plot will revolve around a teenage metalhead, his band, and an ancient curse, the viewer can proceed to enjoy this film for what it delivers: buckets of gore, wry laughs, and an honest sense of terror for these characters caught in an absurd world gone even more nonsensical. Protagonist Brodie just wants to make it through high school and away from his horrible foster parents, maybe picking up axe-slinging sweetheart Medina along the way, but his world has collapsed… and then the demons arrive.

Tightly scripted, and filmed with an eye for the natural beauty of New Zealand as well as as a pervasive creepy suspense that makes ordinary settings look threatening and surreal, Deathgasm applies perhaps the lightest touch working metal into the film as both topic and soundtrack, immersing us in the world of the metalhead facing a demonic horror that, like the adult world around him, is both incomprehensible and threatening. Look for the classic metal tshirts and other details of the underground metal world.

Unlike many horror films, Deathgasm follows more of the adventure movie plot (think: Die Hard, the apex of the genre if you ask me, which you didn’t) in that it involves humans attempting to surmount disbelief and low self-confidence to take on supernatural forces. Its characters, while caricatures, also reveal some of the truth of our varied social roles in this wonderful modern society. Rising to the inevitable conclusion, this film spills buckets of blood and guts and makes its audience identify with the struggle for survival against forces beyond our control.

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