The Best Underground Metal of 2014

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William Burroughs often wrote about the “edge,” or the liminal threshold between states. The last real edge year for underground metal was 2009 when strong contenders and new voices united to defend extreme metal against the onslaught of imitators making Potemkin village metal from hipster flair and lite-jazz fireworks but underneath it, nothing but disorganized songwriting and an absence of something to express. As the underground has come back with a vengeance, it has begun to displace the imitators because their music simply does not measure up. This has created a backlash as the hipsters defend their territory with guilt, ostentation, pretense and surface-level novelty. On the other hand, the underground has produced some strong contenders. And so we move forward through the past to the future, remembering that what is true is eternal, and trends, novelties, fads, hipsters and other transient moments pass quickly away…

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Blaspherian – Demos (Compilation of Death)

Compilation of Death Records has re-issued the a classic demo and rehearsal from a band of recent vintage but oldschool origins, Blaspherian. Their thunderous death metal sounds like Incantation and Obituary covering Deicide but has a voice of its own and unique perspective. It also carries forward the old school sensibility of building intensity and contrast in a morbid mood that is not self-echoing and redundant. Songwriter Wes Weaver (Imprecation, Infernal Dominion) avoids solos and other adornments to focus on tunneling riffs that are distinctive and create interplay with others in each song to give every song a unique feel within the lexicon of symbol and emotion that death metal addresses. Like the bands that inspire it, Blaspherian aims to create an immersive atmosphere of doom and morbidity in which it can bring forth other emotions in layers, such that the “mixed emotions” feel common to much music is not something achieved at the peak of a song, but is a constant in which the emotions mixed vary like a texture, revealing new combinations under the shifting striations of darkness.

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Blood Urn – …of Gory Sorcery and Death (Terrorghoul)

Death metal of the classic style fascinates this young band who write music much like the early years of death metal but with more of an emphasis on melodic bridging material, avoiding the pitfall of using melody as essentially a production technique and instead causing it to highlight songs that come alive with a ferment of conflicting riffs. Vocals use the old-school method of shadowing riffs and the salad of phrases itself fits together and creates a deepening mood. While on the heavier and slower side of death metal, this demo is varied enough to touch on all areas of the genre, assembling rich textures as a means to develop depth to the emotions in each part of the song. Unlike many newer bands, Blood Urn decided not to follow a single identifiable influence but instead sound like a study of European and American death metal rendered by someone approaching it with a fresh vision.

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Cenotaph – Riding Our Black Oceans (Chaos, re-issue)

A re-issue of this album restores it to its rightful place in the death metal canon. After the immensely powerful Gloomy Reflections of Our Hidden Sorrows, the thunderous Mexican death metal band Cenotaph changed their style to an airier and more intense high-speed melodic death metal sound. Unlike contemporary “melodic death metal” this style embraced the vigor of death metal by expressing it through sequences of tones that added melody without obscuring structure and darker moods, and Cenotaph displayed its customary acumen for songwriting by keeping each track centered around an idea that came forth not only in the whole but in the shape of its riffs. In the years following Sentenced North From Here and At the Gates The Red in the Sky is Ours, many bands attempted this newer style but few made it as vicious and uncompromising as Cenotaph.

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Conquering Dystopia – Conquering Dystopia

Conquering Dystopia creates instrumental mental that hybridizes death metal styles with progressive heavy metal and some of the newer progressive styles like that of At War With Self. The result often sounds a lot like Joe Satriani’s older works in that clear theme is expressed and highly repeated, but varied with other instrumental detours which strengthen it as the song progresses and all the pieces fit together more an in interrupted linear way than the geometries of pure death metal. While this is like most commercial rock indulgently emotional, the underlying music is good and the technique interesting without leaving service to what each song needs, which keeps it not only topical but interesting.

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Dead Congregation – Promulgation of the Fall (Martyrdoom)

Although this band gets mentioned as the foremost in the “Incantclone” series of bands inspired by streaming columnar detuned tremolo underground metal in the style of Incantation, Demoncy and Havohej, Dead Congregation draws influence as well from the subtler structuring of older Immolation in its use of melody to underscore is otherwise a thunderous series of chromatic rhythm riffs needing a center. Although songs vary in completeness throughout the album, generally these storming high-intensity dirges fit together well and produce an encompassing atmosphere which both crushes and awes the listener. If anything, this band could let up on the classic technique and float more of their own aesthetic ideas now that they are established.

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Demilich – 20th Adversary of Emptiness (Svart, re-issue)

Back when death metal was viewed by just about everyone as an incompetent genre of malcontent losers who would go nowhere and who were complaining about our new consumer+hippie paradise, a few bands emerged who saw the emerging genre not as a style but as an artistic voice with unlimited possibilities. One of these, Finland’s Demilich, created an album so circuitous and bizarre that the metal press basically dropped it and ran in fear, as did many fans. For those who discovered it however, Nespithe presented unlimited potential as to how death metal could adopt technicality and yet not be mastered by it and forced into the type of generic jazz-blues-rock theory that served to actually limit what musicians could conceive of and execute. With its twisted passages and seemingly erratic rhythms, Nespithe resembled a strange machine risen from the bowels of earth to conquer humankind. Instead, it inspired generations of fans and musicians to visualize death metal as a broader language than many wanted it to be. This re-issue pairs up older works with a handful of newer songs to make for a complete experience of this distinct voice and its concept.

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Desecresy – Chasmic Transcendence (Xtreem)

Desecresy combine Swedish death metal, doom-death metal and atmospheric influences from black metal to create towerlike scenes of dark moods in collision. With Chasmic Transcendence, the band update the formula with more easily separable rhythms to riffs and use of melodic transitions to intensify the building sense of doom. It builds grinding tension and discharges it in lengthy melodic passages which expand beyond their origins into new landscapes. Add to this a tendency to use lead melodic rhythm guitars over its power chord riffs and this makes for a haunting listen that resembles a descent into the underworld. With this third album, the band shows not only its staying power but the depths of the well of its creativity in not just re-inventing older styles but finding a new combination of them and using that to express a perspective which elaborates upon the basics of the genre and gives them new elegance and power.

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Enthroned – Sovereigns (Agonia)

Famed for their high-speed melodic black metal, Enthroned take the populist approach of middle-period Dimmu Borgir — before it went into its final stage as warmed-over hard rock — and craft it with greater urgency and the instrumental approach of older black metal. The result more resembles the later Bathory albums where heavy metal, proto-black metal and post-Slayer death metal influences merged to create a potent ferment. Sovereigns does not achieve the vast contrasts and epic sense of loss of earlier black metal, but upholds a battle-spirit and pushes it into song with strong melodies that do not lapse into the cloying saccharine world of “feelings” — personal observations based on personal perspective — but instead appeal to emotions, or the shared sense of importance and value to certain things which might be eternal. This album breaks up the formula slightly with slower songs as the album expands, in the style of Hypocrisy Penetralia.

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Entrench – Violent Procreation (War Anthem)

Following in the steps of Merciless, who could be seen as the stylistic ancestor of this band, Entrench craft speed/death metal with melodic underpinnings and a frantic but strident voice which guides riffs much in the way Dio narrated his own songs. To the Merciless formula of adroit ripping riffs concluding in both ambiguity and alignment, Entrench adds a Kreator style of finality to both vocal and guitar phrase, making these songs less emotional but more solidly violent. While speed/death hybridization usually ends badly, here the essence is speed metal riffs played as if by a death metal band in the context of a rhythm more like that of death metal. The result is satisfyingly impact-oriented but for it to take the next step to where Merciless is, it will have to coordinate its melodies and cultivate ambiguity both for it to resolve and preserve to keep the dark sensation produced by the riff-style of death metal, minor key melodies and mentalities outside those of the herd.

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Heresiarch – Wælwulf (EP, Dark Descent)

Attempting to forge a niche for itself in the Incantation/Blasphemy inspired style that has become a de facto underground currency during the past few years, Heresiarch create a muddier and more obscure version of their previous works, focusing less on tunneling riffs and more on simple two-chord riffs introducing songs that expand to greater degrees of structure with the slightest hints of melody. The band, in hoping to take war metal to the next dimension, probably consider their work to be unstudied and arising on impulse, but these songs show a clear pattern of development from the grinding to the structural and as a result, take the listeners with them on a journey of finding beauty in darkness and coherence in chaos. The violent slamming intensity remains but by lessening its consistency the band achieves a greater sense of contrast, like raising a sacred object higher above the marble floor to ensure that when it shatters the pieces are irreducible.

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Kever – Eon of Cycling Death (Dark Descent)

Perhaps one of the most inspiring releases this year, Eon of Cycling Death wears its old school influences in Suffocation and Morbid Angel on its sleeve but without imitating them in pale imprint of their technique without understanding their essence. Instead this band forges on with a kind of fantasy death metal that shows them living an alternative and parallel timeline to these bands, developing the basics they innovated with a voice specific to these individuals regardless of what time they are born into. Percussive riffs give way to an ensemble of death metal styles united by rhythm and space which convincingly outline the ideas of each song and then give them depth through internal dialogue. On top of it, an abrupt and croaking vocal gives new life to a very familiar technique with its guttural but carefully sculpted sonic enunciation.

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Massacra – Enjoy the Violence (Century Media, re-issue)

One of the great classics of death metal, long passed-over for more dramatic acts, gained new life with this re-issue. Massacra created their early music in the style which stretches from Slayer through Morbid Angel and emphasizes fast strumming of rapidly-colliding riffs which emphasize ambiguity and openness over the kind of certainty that works well with more percussive styles. Enjoy the Violence is like a rollercoaster between extremes where all things lead back to the same point, but the experience is changing enough that it is almost unrecognizable as the same. With the remaster, some of the weaker sound from the earlier recording is corrected and bonus tracks are added, giving new life to this under-recognized classic of the genre that was more highly influential among musicians than fans, and took on new life in the bands it influenced.

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Massacra – Final Holocaust (Century Media, re-issue)

This foundational album of death metal by Massacra has been re-issued by Century Media with bonus tracks and a booklet rich in information. That provides a good introduction to this view of the death metal style, which instead of attempting to be “heavy” aimed for shock and awe with fast riffs and convoluted songs that somehow emerged into an almost peaceful calm after chaos and combat. Massacra derive their strength from the ability to write fast-fingered riffs that capture the thrill and terror of being alive into a single moment and use this to make basic clashes within life into a mythology of trying to conquer empty spaces with the will and sensibility of a warrior wandering a dystopian wasteland. While this album was forgotten in the day mostly due to its mids-heavy (in contrast to bass-heavy) production and relative availability through distribution contracts more circuitous than its riffs, it rides again in new form.

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Massacra – Day of the Massacra (Century Media)

Century Media compiled several early Massacra demos into a single disc, paired it with extensive liner notes and pictures, and remastered everything for an insight into the rise of the Massacra sound while it was recognizable as what would emerge on the first two and most influential Massacra albums. These recordings show the band merging its early influences into a style and then finding its own voice within that beast, allowing it to compose distinctive and evocative songs immediately including several pre-album tracks with some duct tape still visible. While this might appeal most to Massacra maniacs, it also serves as a useful introduction to new fans who may appreciate the heavier production and more aggressive primitive approach here as a means of transitioning to the albums that follow, which focused not so much on slamming impact as a kind of sky architecture of riffery.

CD Booklet

Nausea – Condemned to the System (Willowtip)

Straddling the line between grindcore, crust and old-fashioned hardcore — which are inches apart as it is — Nausea return with this recording of older and newer tracks alike. Carefully pared down to incorporate only necessary elements and keep energy high, Condemned to the System demonstrates the simpler style of punk composition with all of the riff power of early grindcore, including several tracks (and pieces thereof) that later made it to the first Terrorizer album, World Downfall. The listener who can forget that heritage however will discover merely a crushing, efficient and streamlined album of enjoyable but hard-hitting punkish music that will not win awards for extremity or technicality, but shows care applied to songwriting so that a listener does not feel lost in a sea of riffs or drone, but can isolate each song in the mind and appreciate its individual attack.

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Nunslaughter – Angelic Dread (Hells Headbangers)

While some may be tempted to categorize Nunslaughter as dinosaurs, the fact remains that this band takes the raw ingredients of power metal, speed metal and most death metal and makes a stripped-down, hardcore-punk style ripping version of this that remains highly listenable even if not particularly distinguishable on a song-to-song basis. Like other collections of many short songs, such as Dead Infection or Carcass, Angelic Dread operates like many small insights into roughly the same idea. Somehow, what this band creates never gets old, in part because they understand their riffs as a language from the same basic source, and in part because like a thrash band their song format carefully fits the particular clash of the two riffs (with a few budget transitions, and sometimes rhythmic variations, Nunslaughter uses two riffs per song on average) and the need of presenting them in the best light. The result is compelling and enjoyable and upholds the best tradition of riffcraft and expressive violence in underground music.

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Oppression – Sociopathie & Gloire (Preposterous Creations)

Merging Oi!-style punk with some enhancements from black metal, tracks are short (2-3 minute) affairs. Melodies are catchy, yet wistful lines grounded in simple guitar and bass riffs, with vocal alternating between manic shrieks and an idiosyncratic, youthful attempt at melodic singing. Using the more linear style composition of punk, as opposed to the riff-stacking song construction used by much of black metal, each song contributes a sense of motion that builds the album up over successive tracks. Production values are what one would expect for this style of music; clear enough to make out each instrument, but raw enough to preserve low-budget ethos. This is a release that is not attempting to invent a new genre, but rather one which seeks to renew genres that had collapsed under their own entropy. The strange aesthetics may be off-putting to some, but if those can be sublimated into the spirit of this album, a refreshingly honest work will open itself for enjoyment.

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Personal Device – Microorganismos del Mal

First there was the faux 80s crossover thrash revival with party retro-thrash bands like Toxic Holocaust and Municipal Waste, then bands like Birth A.D. bounced back with actual thrash and reformed the genre. Now Personal Device take it a step both further and in a different direction by being a classic hardcore band that informs itself with early speed metal like the first Metallica and Nuclear Assault albums. The result is bouncy fast and precise punk like Ratos de Porao or even middle-period Bad Brains that is thoroughly enjoyable with riff breaks that resemble “The Four Horsemen” or maybe even “Live, Suffer, Die.” Their guitars are remarkably precise which creates an unusual sound for punk that by making it mechanistic makes it seem more inexorable than like protest music, and the result is a more testosterone-fueled and warlike approach. Mix that with the surging chord changes of speed metal and the fast repetitive chanted choruses from thrash, and you have a high-energy band. Its flaws are that experienced listeners may find this a bit too transparent, and that many of its rhythms are similar, but the band has administered its style with an editor’s red pen handy, cutting out any lesser parts, which gives it more staying power than all but a few albums in this stylistic range.

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Ripper – Raising the Corpse (Underground Defenders)

Much like Merciless, Ripper know to invoke a melodic hook with a rhythmic hook and gradually bring a song into unity, at which point they hammer home the infectious chorus until the audience is ready to carve it into their own flesh. While some may point out that little new occurs here stylistically, and many of these riff forms can be traced back to Slayer or Destruction, what Ripper does well is keep this music high-intensity without falling into sameness and to streamline into an effective delivery mechanism that outgrows the confused collision of styles that was the mid to late 1980s. This approach fits within the early speed metal model that formed the basis of great hook-laden German bands like Destruction and Sodom, and this tradition continues with Ripper. Where Ripper succeeds is in removing extraneous material and cutting to the core of its music, eliminating some of the distraction and randomness that blighted later work from the German bands.

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Sorcier Des Glaces – Ritual Of The End (Obscure Abhorrence)

Flowing dark melodic forest black metal band Sorcier des Glaces burst onto the scene as any appreciation for this style of Graveland and Immortal influenced black metal fully waned as the initial loss of momentum in the genre caught up with its inertia. Since that time, the band has continued its path of making naturalistic long-melody black metal with the distinctive wandering tempo and phrasal development that many of the French bands also explored. With Ritual of the End, Sorcier des Glaces present their vision in a more focused style that nonetheless preserves the inconclusive nature of their earlier music, becoming like a vision of the woods at twilight equal parts promise and ambiguity, revealing the continuous nature of life through its inability to achieve finite endpoints. When metal mistakenly went toward faster/more extreme variants of the past, it lost the majestic beauty which inspired imagination as well as aggression, and Sorcier des Glaces return it.

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Varathron – Untrodden Corridors Of Hades (Agonia)

One of the original Greek black metal bands, Varathron returns with higher speed and more dominant melody in a style that approximates what Borknagar and other later black metal bands tried to do, with some nods to music since but fundamentally a sensibility closer to Rotting Christ Thy Mighty Contract. Keeping energy high with frequent changes but return to theme and focus on a melody or progression at the heart of each song, Varathron expand their repertoie and craft an album that speaks enough of a contemporary language to dominate that style with the vocabulary of the older era, invoking both a return to and a continuation of the past. While the influence of the present time makes itself known, it remains under control of the guiding forces behind this band that seek to open the imagination instead of gratify self-image, and as a result more possibility emerges here than in other contemporary works.

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Witchblood – Hail to Lyderhorn (Aurora Australis)

Attempting to uphold the values of classic black metal while introducing to them some of the more recent developments in tradfolk-inspired music, Witchblood combines the catchy attack of Venom with riff technique from mid-90s black metal and adds its own voice, which consists of equal part narrative bardic style and an idiosyncratic ability to make memory-haunting tunes. The result features a range of techniques from the history of metal, including NWOBHM-inspired riffing right alongside streaming tremolo picked melodic riffs, but this band makes it work by keeping focus on an essential melody in each song paired to a vocal rhythm designed to deliver a foot-tapping chorus, as bands like Sodom or Destruction did years ago. The result takes the Venom school of metal, upgrades it with black metal, and restores it to a 1980s delivery that is both clear and dark and then infuses that with the type of ancestral identity and epic sensation of purpose that arises from folk music. Through this, Witchblood creates its own form of metal that shows clear roots in much older traditions.

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Woodtemple – Forgotten Pride (Sacrilege)

Showing more of an influence from Following the Voice of Blood era Graveland, Woodtemple return with a more focused version of their flowing black metal. In the past, the music more resembled flowing hills in a landscape of vast breadth, but now greater internal contrast makes what is portrayed closer to a mountain range with ragged crags over deep valleys. The addition of floating female vocals and gentle keyboards allow the band to put more aggression into guitars and bass, keeping vocals semi-backgrounded which produces the effect of reducing the “human” feel to the music. As a result, songs come together with more focus, making this the clearest statement from Woodtemple yet made. Like most metal in this style, Forgotten Pride creates an effect of distance from the human world, isolation and a focus on the larger picture through a lens of large leaps in time, but now creates another hypnotic effect in a distancing from humanity itself. This band, while not a Graveland side project, features Graveland composer Rob Darken on bass.

Album of the Year 2014

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Sammath – Godless Arrogance (Hammerheart)

Godless Arrogance features nearly constant high-intensity rhythmic riffing and finally has a production to match which emphasizes internal harmony but projects vocals and guitars to the forefront, creating an enveloping wall of sound. Drumming is violent martial battery without the happy kickbeat tendencies of overly rock-trained drummer; percussion here is more like punk, hard-driving intensity to channel the guitars, which alternate between abrupt chromatic confrontation in the Demoncy style to gentle unfolding melodies much like were found on Strijd. Bass folds into the guitar, and vocals are the high-volume bluster that reduces distorted vocals to a sound like a whisper spoken close to a microphone in high wind. The result is incessant and unrelenting but also has an inner life of melody that gives it depth and allows it to manipulate riff context like a death metal band while evoking ambient atmosphere in the best tradition of black metal. For resurrecting the black metal spirit of great beauty hidden within massive aggression and alienation, Godless Arrogance deserves to be seen as the best album of 2014.

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Gorgoroth to release Instinctus Bestialis in early 2014

gorgoroth-black_metalNorwegian black metal band Gorgoroth have announced a tentative schedule for their new album, Instinctus Bestialis. In a recent interview, the band stated that their goal was to have the album released by the early part of 2014, later adding that the demos had already been finalized.

This will be the band’s first release with this lineup; having replaced vocalist Pest with Atterigner, vocalist for modern black metal band Triumfall. In 2009, Gorgoroth released Quantos Possunt ad Satanitatem Trahunt, which saw the band furthering their post-millennial style of playing black-flavored heavy metal, relying primarily on verse-chorus arrangements.

Most relevant for their ’90s work, the decade saw Gorgoroth perfecting the style of melodic narrative metal, linear yet intriguing in its possibilities. Simultaneously unsettling and inviting, Gorgoroth bridged the gap between the progenitors of the genre and the many bands that would later follow.

The band will be touring in support of Instinctus Bestialis, starting in March and beginning in Europe, with Hoest from Taake on vocals. No tour dates have yet been announced.

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Sadistic Metal Review: Xoth – Hostile Terraforming (2014)

xoth hostile terraforming

Article by Lance Viggiano.

Hostile Terraforming is the result of a lot of instrumental practice and absolutely no artistic or even musical ambition. Every moment is technically precise in the pursuit of puritanically banal phrases which fake variation by playing the same motif in a higher octave. Cyclical song structures allow the players to shred freely while never needing to establish an emotive core. The EP lasts only as long as it takes for the musicians to run through every show-off-in-a-public-space rite of passage stylistic flair which is recited in the most obsessively canned manner – essentially a musical diet of Doritos and Pepsi. Like all such outfits, the drums are produced to resemble a typewriter thus ensuring maximum clarity so the listener can hear every soulless tap and click as the performer slavishly follows the guitar around like a gimp-clad submissive. Yes, there are musical pauses to give the bass guitar its obligatory solo which has no purpose within a greater melodic arc of the song; not that the drunk dive bar crowd notices or cares.

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Depressor – Filth / Grace (2014)

Depressor Filth Grace

Article by Lance Viggiano.

In its best moments punk music transcends volk-rage by serving as a cracked mirror reflecting the forlorn realities that industrialization and intangible goal of perpetual progress wrought as this civilization awaited technological rapture to deliver its destiny among the stars. The reflection was always unclear because of its nature as folk music, marred by smudges and dust that lead it to misdiagnose the cause of its own woes. Depressor spiritually and musically channel this ethos while stepping into the well-worn boots of Godflesh resulting in a body of work resides between industrial, doom/death and punk music. The artists understand that heaviness is not merely a novelty or a token, but a vessel.

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Sadistic Metal Review: Chalice – Chalice (2014)

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Article by Corey M.

Chalice is a real shit show. From a purely musical perspective, the self-titled EP Chalice is transparent hard rock with some metal-ish riffing that never gets quite as aggressive as Deep Purple. Now indeed, aggression is not the only or even most crucial element that goes into making good rock or metal, but Chalice fall fa(aaaaaaaa)r short in every other facet of songwriting and performance.

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Question – Doomed Passages (2014)

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This review was contributed to Death Metal Underground by Neil Sigmundsson.

The best albums are greater than the sum of their parts and provide the capability for listener immersion due to their length and integration but the song is still generally the most important and most fundamental compositional unit in death metal. Paying too much attention to atmosphere, musicianship, individual riffs, or other aesthetical and shallow (though important) qualities of an album can lead to overlooking compositional shortcomings, especially after the mind starts to fatigue or when listening to dense material. This is the case with Doomed Passages, which feels convincing – and in some aspects it is – but suffers from a number of flaws that might be missed during casual listening. That being said, even though the music of Question is imperfect, it is modest and sincere and at its best moments overflows with contagious vigor and energy that leaps fearlessly towards the abyss, a mark of the upper echelons of death metal artists.

First, praise is due to some of the mechanical and aesthetical elements of this album. The roaring, expressive vocals, replete with various single-syllable exclamations and grunts, are highly enjoyable and benefit from a cavernous quality due to studio-induced reverb. The drums are commendable in their creativity and in demonstrating a subtle understanding of the level of activity that best complements any given situation. Rumbling double bass creates a “rolling” sensation of high momentum at certain tempi. The production is deep and clear, and has a bit of cushion, but more separation between the instruments might have been beneficial.

There are two truly excellent songs on Doomed Passages: the second and fifth tracks. “Nefarious Conclusion” is the most structurally rigorous composition on the album, being basically linear but still having a clear exposition, rising action, climax, and falling action. This results in a rewarding experience. 0:00-0:50 is an example of creating variation, exploration, and motion out of a single phrase. The drum build-up to the invigorating climactic riff is genius; it sounds like transitioning from walking to running. The transitions at 1:15 and 4:34 are somewhat rough, but not enough to harm the composition. “Universal Path of Disgrace” has one of the most memorable riffs on the album, a sprawling eight bar tremolo-picked cycle. After the second occurrence of this riff and its accomplice, the song heads logically into a strange middle section that sounds like being in an unstable, slightly psychedelic limbo. A climax and resolution emerge from there. This song offers an interesting journey but it is slightly less satisfying than “Nefarious Conclusion.”

Aside from these two tracks, the remainder of the material on Doomed Passages shows promise and has shining moments but suffers from various problems. Some of these issues are abrupt transitions (“Mournful Stench” at 3:35), weak conclusions (“Devoured from Within”), and segments that overstay their welcome (the introduction of “…Bitter Gleam of Inexistence”). However, the major recurring problem and the biggest downfall of Question, though it is not immediately apparent due to the large number of riffs (many of which sound similar), is the purposeless, wandering song structures. In their template, Question take a single riff or a small group of riffs that act as an “anchor,” and they dance a bunch of ideas around that anchor before departing in an uncertain, random direction. This resembles a very relaxed version of what Slayer pioneered on tracks like “At Dawn They Sleep,” which completes two verse-chorus cycles and then departs radically from pop structure. The difference – and it’s a significant difference – is that Slayer maintained a strong narrative and a sense of purpose and tension throughout the entirety of their songs, whereas Question is usually content with wandering aimlessly. That Question can string a huge number of riffs together without the result sounding like patchwork is impressive (see “Grey Sorrow”), but cohesion alone does not make death metal of lasting quality, and as a result an appreciable amount of this material feels pointless and is frustrating to endure.

As hinted at above, there are simply too many riffs on Doomed Passages, a large proportion of which are interchangeable and forgettable, appear only once, and serve no vital function. Question demonstrate that they know how to overcome this problem in multiple ways (developing phrases, relating riffs through common or similar phrases, writing highly memorable riffs, returning to previous ideas in different contexts, etc.), but they need to apply these habits more diligently. There are focused passages, and there are highly memorable riffs, but ideally all of the passages should be focused and all of the riffs memorable and necessary. Thus, whereas many death metal bands have simplified their song structures to the detriment of the music, Question can actually benefit from being somewhat more repetitive in order to remove the forgettable and less evocative riffs and develop only their best and darkest ideas. This can be done while retaining the narrative, exploratory song structures. It will occurs more  naturally and easily when the music is written and played with specific purpose and direction. More dynamics might also help in stressing important sections, as the sound sometimes blends into a monotonous stream. The digital, compressed production is of no help.

Another lesser issue with Doomed Passages is that consonance sometimes feels out of place when it appears in the midst of the generally dissonant and chromatic music. The interlude “Through the Vacuous River” is the most blatant offender, though the riff at 5:28 of “Universal Path of Disgrace” is questionable as well. While consonance is not vital for this music to express something meaningful, there is potential in its skillful application, as demonstrated by 3:00-3:35 of “Mournful Stench,” a section that arises at an appropriate time but is unfortunately not fully developed. The acoustic final track also works fairly well in context. If Question would hone their skills at incorporating consonance into their musical language, the wider range of expression will provide them with more tools for communication.

The standout songs on this album prove that Question is capable of writing intense and adventurous narrative death metal of the highest caliber. All of the tracks have redeemable and enjoyable qualities and marks of skilled craftsmanship, but most are hampered by the flaws discussed above. To further improve their already above average music, Question need to at least  scrap the forgettable riffs and instead develop more extensively their best ideas while taking  the reins and writing more directed and focused compositions. The second change can be realized either by forcing the songs to move toward clear climaxes and satisfying conclusions or by finding some wisdom and inspiration that can be represented in and communicated through the music. These young musicians are certainly technically proficient but need to write more coherent compositions if they want to inspirit their music instead of joining the ranks of so many other failed techdeath endeavors.

Readers may listen to Doomed Passages on Chaos Record’s Bandcamp page.

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Witchblood – Hail to Lyderhorn(2014)

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Article by David Rosales

Witchblood is a black metal band that falls on the darkest corner of the folky side of the fence. While not specifically minimalist, Hail to Lyderhorn is a very simple and straightforward music that leans completely on the guitars for content and texture. This album may get repetitive or even a little thin at times but its saving grace is its coherent diversity of textures and techniques. The scant but effective use of keyboards is laudable, being effective as it is magnetic.

The guitars function as one only voice most of the time, with a trusty bass for a spinal chord. The meanness of this portion of the instrumentation places great stress over the role of percussion. The drums have now to fill up spaces and act like the second rock in the bolas of an Argentinian gaucho. To Witchblood’s merit, this is accomplished more than satisfactorily, with drums that compliment or mirror the metal strings, rising to the occasion as required.

Comments will be made about the quality of the vocal performance, which is neither deep, rich nor very powerful. Despite this, the overall result of the music in Hail to Lyderhorn does not seem affected negatively noticeably because of this. In part this is because, as with the instrumentation, the vocalizations were performed well within the boundaries of their limits, allowing them to perform effectively, and therefore avoiding the possible blunders of overextension. We may also want to point out that the textures for guitar riffs and their chosen registers stay clear of the space in which the voice moves. When the guitar’s approach changes (for example, arpeggiating chords into higher notes), the vocal approach also changes, sometimes to a haunting witch chant.

Released in 2014, Witchblood Hail to Lyderhorn is a deserving release that might have escaped the radar of most fans who would otherwise have derived much value from it. While it’s no classic or game changer, this album is nonetheless a low-key example of shrewd amateur efficiency and spirit.

Editor’s note: “Hail to Lyderhorn” was briefly covered in our best of 2014.

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Death Metal Underground’s Best Albums of 2015

It took some time, but despite the deluge of content constantly bombarding us and aspiring metal fans worldwide, we’ve been able to reach some level of consensus on 2015’s worthwhile metal music. Not to say that we’re in perfect harmony (If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll note that there’s some room for dissonance in our musical language), but the hope is, like what our recent reinspection of 2013 revealed, that some of this material remains interesting for more than the year it was released.


 

Album of the Year
Kaeck
Stormkult

A wrathful reminder of what war metal should have been: a melodically-structured, chromatic holocaust to the god of this world. Jan Kruitwagen’s leads awe listeners and are optimally placed to hold attention just as each rhythm riff runs its course. An impenetrable mix rewards repeated listening to an album that may surpass Kruitwagen’s work on Sammath’s Godless Arrogance. March to Kaeck’s martial heartbeat or revel in shit.

Reviews:

 

Recommended Albums

 

Desecresy
Stoic Death

Bolt Thrower meets ritualistic black metal. Rather than cathartic bending into climactic oriental leads, Desecresy diffuse tension by methodically varying into bizarre melodies with carefully placed, otherworldly leads to a steady metronome.
Mid-paced riffing in the style of Bolt Thrower builds tension with melody and drifts off into space with variations and well placed leads. Where Bolt Thrower themselves shoot a rifle at the ballon using rhythmic change to introduce another riff or dramatically bending the riff into a climactic, oriental short solo, Desecresy insert ritualistic blackened leads for dramatic contrast with the rhythmic, power chord riffing.

Review and Interview:

 

Tau Cross
Tau Cross

Rob Miller returns from blacksmithing to his previous metallic occupation with an album of catchy post-punk in Motorhead and Metallica song formats. Thankfully free of the Godsmack and other MTV influences present on Amebix’s swansong.

Review:

 

Worthwhile releases

 

Cóndor
Duin

An effective album of mid-paced death and heavy metal riffing. There is no psychedelic rock pretending to be Black Sabbath “doom” here. Highly structured; the opposite of the random tossed riff salads of most modern metal. This band takes an approach more like that of classical guitarists toward melding death metal with progressive rock, blues, folk and other influences: it mixes them in serially and adopts them within the style, rather than hybridizing the two styles.

In other words, most bands that try to sound like progressive death metal try to act like a progressive rock band playing death metal, or a death metal band playing progressive rock. Cóndor takes an approach more like that of musicians in the past, which is to adopt other voices within its style, so that it creates essentially the same material but works in passages that show the influence of other thought.

Reviews and Interview:

 

Morpheus Descends
From Blackened Crypts

This vinyl 7” single features two new, well constructed death metal songs from one of from one of the few truly underrated bands in the genre. Those foresighted enough to purchase the identically-titled CD boxed set version received the band’s entire catalog in one of the rare remasters that sounds better than the original releases.

Interviews:

 

Motorhead
Bad Magic

One last Motorhead album of mostly Motorhead songs. Nothing “new” is introduced for those in the non-metal audience who disdain metal and wish to feel intellectually superior to the common headbanger. The final work from a relentless machine of a band.

Review:

 

Reissues

 

Grotesque
In the Embrace of Evil
Immolation
Dawn of Possession (Listenable Records)
Order From Chaos
Frozen in Steel (Nuclear War Now! Productions)
Carbonized
For the Security
Sammath
Strijd
Arghoslent
Arsenal of Glory and Galloping Through the Battle Ruins (Drakkar productions)
Blasphemy
Fallen Angel of Doom (Nuclear War Now! Productions)
Gorguts
Obscura

 

Those Left Behind
Zom
Flesh Assimilation

Crusty death metal of the better than braindead Benediction but worse than Cancer category.

Satan
Atom by Atom

I’ve possibly heard too much but Hanger 18. I know too much. Although not as degradingly vulgar as Surgical Steel, Atom by Atom results in a pretty tacky affair. Vocals are as emotional as in the first album, except that in here they seem even more disconnected from the music as the music veers into some sort of progressive speed metal akin to Helstar’s. (Editor’s note: I liked it, but David Rosales was critical)

Sarpanitum
Blessed Be My Brothers

The band shows promise with their Unique Leader-style rhythmic riffing and soaring heavy metal leads. While being above par for technical deaf metal, aping a different one of your heroes every few verses doesn’t make for particularly enjoyable repeated listening.

House of Atreus
The Spear and the Ichor that Follows

Fredrik Nordstrom’s Arghoslent.

Denner/Sherman
Satan’s Tomb

Technical power metal carnival music.

Iron Maiden
The Book of Souls

Nobody is allowed to edit themselves or turn on their bullshit filters in Steve Harris’s band anymore (Read a full review here).

Kjeld
Skym

Kvist meets the randomness of metalcore. Indistinct riffing and songwriting mix with pointless shoutout verses to past greats that makes listeners wonder why they aren’t just playing Sodom and Mayhem in the first place.

Malthusian
Below the Hengiform

Where are the riffs?

Throaat
Black Speed

Every Teutonic speed metal band gone Voltron.

Ares Kingdom
The Unburiable Dead

The band has no need to repeat half the song just so the guitarist can get over his refractory period and play another solo. This is also an extremely distracted riff salad in which the individual riffs can be brought in from sources as different as galloping power metal to thrashy death metal to alternative nu and groove “metal”. This is headbang-core for beer metallers and other social metalheads. This recording received two reviews in 2015.

Obsequaie
Aria of Vernal Tombs

A collection of interesting renaissance faire riffs written into songs that quickly wear out their welcome as metal, becoming RPG background music.

Sarcasm
Burial Dimensions

A few strong songs on a demo do not warrant a two CD set of Swedish death with limpid keyboards anticipating the steps black metal took towards mainstream goth rock in the late nineties.

Mgla
Exercises in Futility

This is the type of black metal as repetitive rock music that ignorant hipsters will praise as “ritualistic”. The album’s title sums the quality of its musical content: futile. (Editor’s note: I wanted to give this album a chance. It didn’t age well.)

Horrendous
Anareta

Gothenburg cheese and Meshuggah licks are less appetizing than a lead-laced Mexican lollipop.

Cruciamentum
Charnel Passages

Grave Miasma returns. This time with 1993’s atmosphere.

Crypt Sermon
Out of the Garden

Candlemass meets Soundgarden.

Vorum
Current Mouth

Every Teutonic speed metal band gone Voltron.

Exhumation
Opus Death

Solid underground metal in the spirit of Sarcofago that is perfectly well-written but does not amount to more than the sum of its parts; does not conjure up any long-lasting message.

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Domains – Sinister Ceremonies (2014)

Domains_Sinisterceremonies
Guest post by former editor David Rosales

In the reception of a new work of art (rather than a commercial product), there are two main ways of going about evaluating its worth. The first is to assess its qualities on their own and their overall result as a unitary agent. The second is to consider its relative worth in terms of the time and place when it was produced as well as taking a utilitarian view point that can give a “function” to it. The first of these two is the hardest as it requires technical and philosophical insights working holistically, the background for which is not obtained through casual acquaintance of history or plain repetition of “classics” of the genre. It requires years of internalization of both composition methods and a constant meditation on the powers behind music as pertaining to the human mind. The latter is naturally the common choice by virtue of its extreme relativism, which makes almost any interpretation, whether negative or positive, admissible and excusable.

Sinister Ceremonies came out last year, apparently made some waves and popped up in “Best of the year” lists. While it did not make it to DMU’s own list, this may be more due to a lack of diligence on part of the staff than anything else. But given the limited manpower the site wields and the overwhelming number of records released per year, it is not surprising that even an outstanding record flies by unnoticed, let alone a commendable but unimpressive and ultimately irrelevant effort like Domains’. The opinion of the average metal journalist/critic/blogue means little after all, and their majority support of anything is an indicator of lowest common denominator appeal (fuck democracy).

Taking the simple-minded relativist stance, Sinister Ceremonies comes out with a full checklist as it is both balanced, intelligible, catchy, easy to listen to, and to some, perhaps even “brutal” and “dark”. Objectively, to be fair, the songwriting here is actually sober and very self-conscious. The constructions and composition methodology is clear textbook — but perhaps too clear. Its unimaginative and extremely conservative adherence to proven techniques at all levels from riff execution to build-ups and long-range developments are a sure score with conservative underground listeners with a mid-range attention span but fall short of a complete work. What this means is that while the album covers the basics of metal songwriting exemplarily, the full art of composition — its power to attribute meaning and direction to passages weaving into a story — is something that may be entirely foreign to the band.

Finally, the minor achievement that constitutes Domains’ “solid” composition is only a highlight because of the depressive state of affairs of the modern metal landscape, when mediocrity and capricious nonsense made by non-musicians (“professional” or not) reign supreme. In and of itself, Domains Sinister Ceremonies will garner passing and only temporary attention by some conservative types, but its shallow waters will prove an uneventful disappointment for the more serious listener in search of a dungeon to brave.

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Order from Chaos – Frozen in Steel (2014)

Order from Chaos – Frozen in Steel (2014)

Review written by Daniel Maarat for DMU

The complete career recordings of unsung underground legends Order from Chaos have been definitely reissued by Nuclear War Now! Productions in five CD and nine and 12 LP boxed sets. These afford listeners the chance to experience the clear progression and compositional refinement from the band’s primitive Hellhammer, Sodom, and first wave beginnings. The LP editions have the usual analog distortion of vinyl and the peculiarities of GZ’s direct metal mastering. Fortunately, the CDs are well mastered with identical sound to the original pressings though the vinyl editions have the bonus of a 124-page hardbound book with lyrics, personal photos, and a biography of the band.

Stillbirth Machine opens with an excerpt from Ligeti’s “Requiem”and immediately proceeds into angular riffed, Teutonic deaththrash. Only intros and outros distract from the aural assault. The guitar tone resembles Swedish death metal with the fully dimed Boss Heavy Metal pedals but the production was marred by the inconsistent levels of a drunk seventies rock producer manning the knobs in an aging studio. The follow up Plateau of Invincibility EP is similar in material but self-recorded onto eight-track tape. This more amateur but consistent (e.g. no noise burst solos) production would continue for the rest of Order from Chaos’s career.

Dawn Bringer continued the compositional elaboration. The songs were more experimental and the melody that characterizes guitarist Chuck Keller’s and drummer Mike Miller’s future band, Ares Kingdom, appears on a twisted cover of Voivod’s “War and Pain.” The martial marching beats of the hybrid war metal sub-genre of first wave black metal and the three chord, hardcore punk side of grindcore was birthed too. Ending everything is the start of the intentional raw noise for which that bastard sub-genre is known as Keller pries off his guitar strings and pickups at full volume to end the album on “Webs of Perdition.”

An Ending in Fire shows the perfectionism that differentiated Order from Chaos from most of their contemporaries in the death and black metal scenes to even the most passive listeners. Earlier riffs and songs were rearranged with completely new material into three epic compositions. The songwriting focused on clever compositional coherency and melodic congruity rather than the random masturbation and showmanship of technical death metal. “Conqueror of Fear” twisted many of the band’s similar, Teutonic works into a flowing five-track declaration of bassist Pete Helmkamp’s existential, social Darwinist philosophy later laid out in his controversial Conqueror Manifesto. “There Lies Your Lord! Father of Victories!” was wholly original to the album and among Keller’s best guitar work. “Somnium Helios” updated the punky “Nucleosynthesis” from the Will to Power EP as the beginning of a requiem for the Earth’s future solar immolation. Order from Chaos broke up after An Ending in Fire’s recording, considering the album as fulfilling the band’s musical vision. The session outtakes were released as the And I Saw Eternity EP included in the set. This is true progressive heavy metal. Speaking more of musical specifics and the evolution of individual riffs and songs is best left for future articles as that would spoil listeners’ enjoyment.

Frozen in Steel is a fantastic value for fans. Purchasing just Order from Chaos’s three albums alone would cost well over a hundred dollars on the secondary market. Nuclear War Now! Productions should be commended for offering all the band’s studio material along with the extra rehearsals and live shows starting at just forty. This is the most significant and well put together anthology of an extreme metal band’s collected works since Demilich’s 20th Adversary of Emptiness.

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