Bölzer Preview Hipster Christmas Carol

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Black/death ‘n’ roll band Bolzer premiered a track that sounds like the pretentious hipster occult version of the Beach Boys from their upcoming debut LP, Hero.  Their prior EPs had a few creative riffs in boring, meandering , and more boring alt rock songs. Rather than increasing the amount of actually meaningful musical content or improving their songwriting skills, Bolzer have tailored themselves to target the hipsters consuming the idiot safe-space pseudo-metal promulgated by Profound Lore, Vice, and MetalSucks. Will the bearded, flannel cutoff short short wearers be grossly offended by the runes tattooed onto Bolzer’s beer bellies?

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SAD HIPSTER WREST EVICTED FROM WAREHOUSE

Leviathan mainman and convicted domestic abuser Jeff Whitehead (a.k.a. Wrest) is being evicted from the Portland Oregon warehouse he maintained as a storefront for his Devout Rcrds label/record store and the “anarchist print shop” Eberhardt Printsop. Whitehead is the victim of allegedly evil capitalist landlords who want to commit the horrible act of leasing their hard earned property at market price, which happens to be double that of what Wrest can afford. Therefore, Wrest has tapped his neo-communist friend Neil Jameson (who is publicly living out a similar midlife crisis) to help beg for moneytarget=”_blank” rel=”nofollow external” from “the miserable collective workforce” a.k.a. you, the consumers.  Yes, you have read correctly- Wrest is so desperate to save a commercial “Anarchist clothing line” from having its free-market commerce shut down by other free market commerce that he has stooped to digital panhandling.target=”_blank” rel=”nofollow external”
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Roots of Evil: The Origins of Metal

With the fiftieth anniversary of metal music around the corner, forthcoming years will witness an increase of publications dealing with the history, legacy and defining characteristics of the genre. This could finally resolve the lack of consensus that still exists regarding the definition and origins of heavy metal.

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Sadistic Metal Reviews: 10-23-2016

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Humans and metal bands are self-replenishing resources. There are always more to burn!

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Martyr – Extracting the Core: Live 2001

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Coming from the French-Canadian progressive metal powerhouse that later loaned members to Gorguts, Extracting the Core shows us Martyr playing a live set of their classic works. Before you wince: this is one of the better-produced live albums available such that it is indiscernible from a good but not excellent studio job; all instruments are clear and mixed in a way that fits expectations of studio recordings, and crowd noise is minimal. As a live album, it preserves everything you might want to hear from a band on record or live with a bit of extra energy in the vocals as musicians trying to cram ten thousand notes into six-minute songs howl at the audience with a high rate of exertion. The real question regards the style of this musically-erudite band, which brings up the question of poetry versus burritos.

A burrito, as you may know, is one of nature’s most perfect foods. A wrap of flour and lard encloses ingredients ranging from guacamole, pico de gallo, and carne asada to Spanish rice, sour cream and refried beans, and the whole thing is then consumed with the aid of delicious picante and verde sauces. What makes a burrito excellent is that instead of choosing what to have for dinner, you have everything, but in a form more convenient even than a sandwich. One cannot praise this Mexican-Spanish-Texican-Californian dish enough. But when composing metal, it becomes a brutal force. As Socrates tells us, all events have causes. What is the cause of a song? One either intends it to tell a story, or assembles a few musical theories into contrasting elements and makes a burrito of it. As with the burrito, uniqueness is lost in favor of a kind of sameness of differentness, where each song has everything and the kitchen sink, but over time — much like the constant pounding brutality of early Napalm Death or later Suffocation-inspired bands — it all starts to become the same, different variants of essentially an identical idea. With a poem, the form of the song and techniques used reflect the content; with a burrito, the content of the song reflects the need to include many different things in the form. You can analogize to variety shows, pluralism, unitarianism, and even Christianity itself — a compilation of a dozen religions, mostly Greek, Hindu, Jewish, Nordic, Babylonian and Egyptian — if you feel the need. But the point is that while the burrito pleases everyone, it does not achieve the distinctive expression that makes a song evocative of experience, thought or perception, which is what makes a poem or song stand out. It feels like something you have encountered, or something you wish to, and more than creating a solid impression it creates a space of balanced parts ambiguity and clarity, which makes you want to launch into it and battle for the beautiful to win out over the mundane, boring, pointless, directionless and entropic. In a burrito, this space does not exist because it is being used to hold all those delicious ingredients together.

Extracting the Core overflows with delicious ingredients. Head shredder Daniel Mongrain may be one of the most interesting guitarists in popular music. His jazz-influenced leads — this means dialing back the simplicity of rock music and accepting more complex harmony and corresponding technique — both display impressive technique and the ability to write a melodic solo with multiple emotions. All instruments show great proficiency, from the adept technical drumming that avoids overshadowing other instruments, to a subtle but present bass and complex riffing with difficult time signatures all nailed perfectly. The problem is the means by which this band composes: requiring a burrito means that a band must default to, at the core of each song, the simplest possible construction which can include all of its elements. When the randomness is removed, what remains is a simple speed metal song, with Meshuggah-style abrupt off-beat (as opposed to cadenced, like Metallica) speed metal riffing that alternates with hard rock and thinly-disguised jazz fusion riffs.

Essentially, this album is Pantera after music graduate school, much as Meshuggah simplified Suffocation and Exhorder and then amplified the degree of texture at oddball timings to produce their overrated material. While it is mournful to admit this, it kills the album and makes the listening experience one of tuning out the over-dramatic and busy riffing to get to the solos. In addition, in order to support the burrito, Martyr adopt many different voices of composition, from Supuration-style alternative-progressive metal to nearly hardcore, and the result injects further randomness. It would be better, as Gorguts did, to give this band a song template varied enough to tempt them but purposeful enough to channel these energies toward more musical profundity through instantial contrast in a prolonged and developing narrative.

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Interview with The Inverted Katabasis author Dean Swinford

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We were fortunate to get some time for a chat with Dean Swinford, author of Death Metal Epic I: The Inverted Katabasis. As a person with extensive experience in both death metal and literature, Swinford provides a great deal of insight into both.

You’ve walked dual paths in this life, both metal and literature. Do you see any parallels between them?

I definitely see lots of parallels between the two. Indirectly, you can find groups in any metal subgenre that work with myths or legends of some kind. More directly, so many metal songs have connections to specific books and stories by modern authors.

Beyond that, so many of the thank you lists in the liner notes specifically mention authors and books that influenced the musicians. I’ve never seen that done so consistently in any other modern music genre.

Both metal and literature are ways to, and I’m paraphrasing Dante a bit here, walk through the dark forest. I guess what I’m doing is joining the two so that I can write about the ways that the two paths become one. Just a note about the images in the interview — I’ve included some sketches from my journals to go along with the questions. I draw a lot when I’m writing and I think the images help to show how I worked through and continue to work through ideas for the books.

Figure 1. One of my characters (David? Nekrokor? Svart?) in the woods

Figure 1. One of my characters (David? Nekrokor? Svart?) in the woods

Your book, Death Metal Epic I: The Inverted Katabasis, is a fictional account of early 1990s Florida death metal — but it’s clear it was influenced by events that were far from fictional. What inspired this book, and how does it connect with your own story?

You’re right that the book has a number of features taken from my own life, but I’ve put them within the context of someone in an early 1990s Florida death metal band. I grew up in Miami and I was the music director of the college radio station at Florida International University.

A friend of mine did the metal show at University of Miami, and he also ran the metal section at Yesterday and Today Records. As you know from your experience in college radio, it’s pretty thrilling to talk to people from the labels, meet people from bands you like, and, of course, get music sent to you in the mail.

The places in the book are places I’ve lived in or traveled to, so in that sense, it’s a way for me to revisit different parts of my life. I’ve always liked coming of age stories and novels about artists and musicians. This seemed like a way to write that kind of book, but in a context that I’m familiar with. Also, I wanted to write something relatively light and funny that still dealt with some deeper themes.

I used to write stories that were more surreal or fantastic in their approach. I still use that kind of voice for the “metametal” chapters in the book. As I got older, I started to realize that it was more interesting and satisfying to write a story about every day events, about getting annoyed at your friend or suffering through the stomach flu.

One of the things I’ve always liked about metal is that it tends to be very escapist. I like songs about dragons, ancient rites, and forgotten deities precisely because I don’t encounter those things on a daily basis.

One of the things I’ve always liked about metal is that it tends to be very escapist. I like songs about dragons, ancient rites, and forgotten deities precisely because I don’t encounter those things on a daily basis. I guess if I’m doing anything new in the book, I’m taking that escapism and juxtaposing it with the kinds of struggles a lot of people seem to encounter as they move into their twenties.

Figure 2. Journaling with a portrait of Nekrokor

Figure 2. Journaling with a portrait of Nekrokor

Do you think death metal was inspired by literature? If so, what, and how did it shape the genre?

Oh, sure. I mean, if Tolkien’s orcs made folk music of their own, what would it sound like? When one of Lovecraft’s protagonists hears the batrachian choir that tips him into madness, what does he hear? And I think that it contributes to literature through what you could call the “poetics” of metal lyrics and the textual features of liner notes—the mix of images and lyrics paired with personal notes and lists from the musicians.

You mentioned in an email to me that you’ve found some metal lyrics that remind you of Neoplatonism. Could you explain what you mean?

Neoplatonism refers to the synthesis of pagan and Christian philosophy into a kind of mystical and theological framework that had a pretty broad influence until the early modern scientific revolution. I write about its influence on the astronomer Johannes Kepler in another book of mine, Through the Daemon’s Gate. I guess because I’m interested in Neoplatonism, I see traces of it everywhere. I don’t want to go into too much detail on this, but one specific example I could talk about is pretty evident in Inquisition‘s Ominous Doctrines of the Perpetual Mystical Macrocosm. The idea of the macrocosm influencing the microcosm comes directly from Neoplatonism. The concept that space is a kind of tomb is evident in classical literature as well. In Cicero’s Dream of Scipio, the narrator ascends into space, where he speaks with the ghost of his dead grandfather. It’s no accident that the last word of each part of Dante’s Commedia is “stars.”

Another idea that Dagon mentions in the liner notes is what he calls the “eternal quest for infernal tone.” That idea of the true disciple uncovering the most diabolic tone is linked to the thematic concern of the album, which is the power that the macrocosm exerts on those of us on earth.

In Neoplatonism, the interlocking spheres of the cosmos produce tones that are perfect and inspire order in the sublunary realm. That’s the mystical element of Pythagoras’s theories on tonal proportions. The key shift from Pythagoras to Dagon is that, while the Ptolemaic universe was seen as orderly and divine, Inquisition’s musings tend more towards a contemplation of the universe as infinite chaos.

Do you still listen to metal? If so, what inhabits your player these days? How does this differ from the hazy glory days of the early 1990s?

Of course. I still get excited when I discover a band. Plus, I do most of my writing while listening to music, so I like to get something new as a writing reward when I meet some kind of deadline. I just picked up the two Atlantean Kodex albums and I am loving those. It helps that their myth-themed approach is just the kind of thing that I write about in my book. I mean, the second one is based on the same Robert Graves book that my character Juan is obsessed with, so I had to check it out!

I’m also really into some of the newer Inquisition albums, as mentioned above. Other current favorites include Obscura, Mournful Congregation, and this Dutch doom band Officium Triste. Of course, I still listen to all the classics, too. I listen to Candlemass and Solitude Aeternus a lot. As I’m writing these books, I try to listen to music that corresponds most with the plot. So, right now I’m trying to listen to things that meet the approval of Svart, the mastermind of Desekration.

Figure 3. Journaling and sketch of Svart's record shop

Figure 3. Journaling and sketch of Svart’s record shop

Do you detect any influences from Gothic or Romantic literature in death metal? If these aren’t direct influences, do you think the two genres converge on similar ideas because they’re writing about similar experiences/concepts?

I think you’re probably right. You could probably catalog a lot of specific references, everything from the Frankenstein samples on Morpheus DescendsRitual of Infinity to the painting by Caspar David Friedrich on the new Atlantean Kodex album. As far as similar experiences and concepts, I’d say that metal lyrics, like Gothic and Romantic lit, use fantasy as an indirect way to represent complex emotions like longing and despair.

You’re writing a paper on prosopopoeia, which I’m told is a rhetorical device in which a speaker or writer communicates by speaking through another object or person. How do you think this applies to metal?

Yeah, that’s right. I’m working on a paper that looks at corpsepaint as a kind of mask, especially given statements by Dead that he used corpsepaint to become or give voice to a victim of the Black Death. What’s interesting is that prosopopoeia is a device that seems to clearly apply to black metal performance — Dead popularized corpsepaint, but so many bands still use it — but the rhetorical device is also evident in the lyrics on De Mysteriis. There are more than a few examples in the lyrics of address from the point of view of a long-dead spirit. I think that’s interesting in the context of medievalism, or the ways that contemporary culture still uses or speaks through the Middle Ages as a way of talking about our own time.

Do you think this type of “mask” applies to black metal and hardcore punk more than other genres? Why would a genre need to conceal the origin of its thoughts — do you think that determination lies more with the band, or what the audience can tolerate?

I think that idea of masking occurs in every genre to some extent and probably waxes and wanes over time. Right now, it seems like it’s often used more as a genre marker than anything. You can buy an action figure of Lars Umlaut, the Guitar Hero character modeled off of the guys in Immortal.

In The Inverted Katabasis, you utilize a literary figure known as the katabasis. What is this and how does it apply to death metal and other underground genres?

Right — the katabasis is the mythical journey to Hell. It’s just a name to describe a kind of journey that lots of mythic heroes undertake. In most cases, it’s linked in some way to a quest against death or against the realization of one’s mortality. Orpheus goes to Hell to rescue his lady, but it doesn’t work out so well. He ends up wandering the world like a depressive, plucking doomy odes on his lyre until he gets ripped apart by Maenads. Dante’s journey into the underworld is a katabasis as well.

I’d say the connection to myth is really important. I remember seeing Nile a few years ago and it felt like they had, if even only temporarily, resurrected the dead gods.

So, an inverted katabasis is a journey out of hell. There’s a word for that, too. It’s called an “anabasis.” But I liked inverted katabasis better because it sounded more like something that could work as an album title. For David Fosberg, the inverted katabasis is an escape from the minimum wage hell of his life in Miami. Plus, my ironic treatment of the trope helps to put the book in its true genre, the mock epic.

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Several of the people I’ve talked to about this book have found in David Fosberg an uncanny portrait of the years following a successful second-tier death metal release that pushed the limits but never got big. Why do you think so many of these bands vanished into obscurity?

Thanks for that. In a lot of ways, I’m writing about metal, but I think that this trajectory is probably pretty common for people in any number of fields. The moment I’m writing about in the books goes from the time that death metal was big enough for bands like Napalm Death, Carcass, Cathedral, Godflesh, and Morbid Angel to get some major label attention to the influx of black metal that seemed to bring everything back to small, purposefully obscure labels.

In a lot of ways, this seems similar to the way the skateboarding industry crashed in the early nineties. As far as all the great bands that vanished into obscurity, my guess is that it’s because life is hard and, ultimately, releasing an album (or a book, for that matter) isn’t going to change that.

Do you think death metal has a place in education? If you were to teach death metal, say as a form of literature or art, how would you introduce it to your students?

Sure. There are a number of people working in that direction. Martin Jacobsen at West Texas A & M teaches a course on metal and literature. There’s an International Society for Metal Music Studies. Nicola Masciandaro and others have done a lot of work on theorizing black metal. I think if I were to link the two in a class, I’d do it as part of a broader exploration of medievalism.

You’ve moved on from death metal, but haven’t quite left it behind; it seems to live in your thoughts. What do you think is the enduring appeal of death metal? Did it have an artistic or generational statement to make that was profound then and remains so today?

That’s a good question. I think the way it pushes musical limits is important. Even with something like the speed of drumming featured in that recent Wall Street Journal article. For me, I’d say the connection to myth is really important. I remember seeing Nile a few years ago and it felt like they had, if even only temporarily, resurrected the dead gods. That process has long been an important part of human culture.

In another interview, you said that your own musical project had “layers of ambient keyboards and lyrics taken from myths, the sagas, and so forth.” Do you think you were ahead of the times, having seen how black metal shifted in that direction after its initial thrust (Neptune Towers, Beherit, Ildjarn, Wardruna, Burzum)?

I wish! I recorded it in a radio station studio like the one I describe in the book. By the time I started to figure out what I was doing, I had to return my studio key in a situation pretty similar to what happens to Juan. I still think there’s a way to use this approach to make something interesting. Maybe someday.

Yours appears to be one of the first entries in the “death metal literature” genre. Do you think this field is going to grow?

I think so. Since I’ve been getting my book out there, I’ve met a lot of people who seem really interested in the possibilities of metal lit, or whatever you want to call it. Kriscinda Lee Everitt has started a journal for metal themed fiction called Despumation Press, so anyone who has a story to tell should send in a submission.

Speaking of growing, I understand that The Inverted Katabasis is part of an ongoing series. How big does it get? Do you have fantasy worlds like Mordor and Hogwarts for us?

That’s right. The current plan is to do three books. What’s more metal than an epic trilogy, right? It might be even more metal if I never actually finish. I try to make the bands, characters, and albums in the books as convincing as I can so that they take on a life of their own. That’s probably one of my favorite parts of this. I really enjoy the creative process of inventing new band logos, albums, characters, and liner notes. Who knows? Maybe someday, someone will cover a Katabasis song or try to recreate the groundbreaking work of Astrampsychos.

Figure 5. The Astrampsychos logo and some notes on the ocarina

Figure 5. The Astrampsychos logo and some notes on the ocarina

What’s your next step in your career as a death metal writer — are you going to continue working on the books linearly, write short stories, or return to music and use it to accompany the next volume?

Right now, I’m trying to finish up the second book of the Death Metal Epic. The next one is going to be called The Goat Song Sacrifice. There will be new characters, new bands, new struggles for David Fosberg to endure.

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The Best of Underground Metal of 2013

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I used to loathe end-of-year lists. They struck me as a pointless chance to advertise what should have been obvious before. Over the years they have risen in my estimation as a way not only to mark the year, but to bring up the gold that gets lost in the chaos of everyday life. And yes, they’re also shopping lists for the metalhead in your life.

This year our list is surprising even to hardened cynics. At a time when metal is bragging up and down the Williamsburg alleys about how “innovative” and “ground-breaking” it is, that novelty turns out to be the remnants of the 1980s: emo, pop punk, shoegaze and indie. The real innovation is as always underground, because to get out of the hive mind one must first remove oneself from participation in normalcy.

Thus what you will find here is not what you will see in either (a) the big-label-financed slick magazines and web sites or (b) the majority of small zines and websites out there. That is because the genre as a whole has shifted from creation towards an idea to emulation of the past, or reaction to the past by trying to adulterate it with outside influences. Neither approach succeeds.

When a reviewer chooses an album, he should pick one that will last in your collection. Your time is limited, as is your money. Thus we look only for works that you can purchase and enjoy over the years, and can return to with a sense of wonder and discovery as new angles and nuances emerge. This standard seems high, so they call us elitists. What we really are is people who love metal and want it to be strengthened by its best, not weakened by accepting its worst.

The following albums are those that merit such a standard:

argus-beyond_the_martyrsArgus – Beyond The Martyrs

Rejecting the notion of newness in itself, Argus returns to fundamental influences from the 1980s and makes a band that sounds like a fusion between Mercyful Fate, Iron Maiden and Candlemass. Guitar riffery is designed to be inventive and interesting in its own right but is trimmed down to what fits the function of each song. As a result, these songs “sound like” the classics in more ways than one. They are thoughtful and deliberate, purposeful and driven. Classic heavy metal riffs merge with meandering leads that somehow pull it all together, under the mournful voice of a vocalist who clearly enjoys classic Candlemass both in vocal delivery and sense of melody. See full review / interview.

autopsy-the_headless_ritualAutopsy – The Headless Ritual

Autopsy are famous for their contributions to death metal which notably peaked in Mental Funeral where their chaotic tendencies got wrapped up in their sense of atmosphere and produced a dark ambling journey into the subconscious. Of their later works, The Headless Ritual gets close to such a balance although it aims for something more everyday. This is an album that wants to deliver classic death metal thrills, and it does so with moderately paced songs that balance melody and savage chromatic riffing. Chris Reifert’s drumming pirouttes and grapples through vicious tempo changes as riffs unlock a Lament Configuration that is equal parts nostalgia and invention.

birth_a_d-i_blame_youBirth A.D. – I Blame You

What happened to real thrash, like DRI and Cryptic Slaughter? In much the same vein as hardcore punk before it, thrash was so intense that it burned out after only four years of real presence. Birth A.D. wisely choose not to “bring it back” but rather to pick up as if thrash were a party and the next day, the hung over participants awaken among the ruins. They’ve sharpened its message, which merged the anarchy of punk with the search for societal purpose of metal, and given its riffs the S.O.D. speed metal infusion without unduly modernizing them. As a result, these two-minute songs hit hard and retreat into the jungle, leaving behind their sardonic lyrics mocking society for being so stupid. When the record stops playing, there is a sense of both having received too much information to process, and a sadness that there isn’t more. See full review.

black_sabbath-13Black Sabbath – 13

Realizing what Black Sabbath meant to fans not just as a named entity but as a phenomenon, Black Sabbath integrate the sounds of vocalist Ozzy Osbourne’s solo years into their later, more refined music, with citations to Master of Reality as well. The result is a powerful album that is more pop than their original works but, in a time when nu-metal rages on the radio, reclaims heavy metal as having a voice of its own. It also pushes controversy, affirming a presence of God in this world for good or ill at a time when most people want to get polemic one way or the other. A supporting cast of sprawling but hard-hitting songs make this a great immersive lesson and transition from regular rock to metal for new listeners. See full review.

blitzkrieg-back_from_hellBlitzkrieg – Back From Hell

This band shares members with Satan, who also re-entered the fray with an album of strong tunes. Like Satan, Blitzkrieg know how to simultaneously avoid “changing” for change’s sake (inevitably a lateral move to other contemporarily popular genres) and nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, making instead an album that fits into their catalogue but doesn’t deny the older, wiser status of its members. These are mostly straightforward songs with melodic choruses and driving, riff-centric verses, plus nimble-fingered and harmonically-aggressive soloing. See full review.

burzum-sol_austan_mani_vestanBurzum – Sôl Austan, Mâni Vestan

People said they wanted old Burzum back. The spirit of old Burzum comes back in this ambient album. It’s a bit more hasty and less refined by fanatical attention to detail than his previous works, but it creates the same world, only zoomed forward in time. It is both a practical and imaginative album. In style, it resembles a cross between Tangerine Dream, William Orbit and the Scandinavian folk music of Grieg, Hedningarna or Wardruna. Strongly ritualized, it unfolds like a descent through mythical worlds and finds its own balance. One of the best offerings in this field. See full review / interview.

centurian-contra_rationemCenturian – Contra Rationem

For years many of us have wanted this Dutch band to catch a break. They have written several albums of relentlessly pounding, rhythmically intense riffing that somehow doesn’t add up. First, writing the whole album at high speed means that soon it backgrounds itself; second, there was always a lack of melody or song structure to hold it together. Centurian have improved on the latter two and toned down the former to a great degree, such that this is no longer trying to be Krisiun but more like a more Angelcorpse/Fallen Christ approach to Consuming Impulse. The result showcases this band’s dexterity with riffcraft and creates an intense atmosphere of violence. See full review.

condor-nadiaCóndor – Nadia

This entry album by a new band shows a lot of promise in tackling the power metal format and trying to give it the balls of death metal and funeral doom metal. This contemplative, mostly mid-paced album shows a sense of atmosphere as manipulated by riff, in the death metal sense, given a somewhat upward curve and heroic spin in the best tradition of power metal. Although it’s a new act, and still organizing itself, Cóndor shows that life remains in true metal that can be explored by revisiting its motivations. See full review / interview.

derogatory-above_all_elseDerogatory – Above All Else

In the tradition of Vader, Mortuary and other fast phrasal death metal bands, Derogatory invoke the classic death metal form with an album of nicely interlocking riffs that reveal a basic but distinctive structure beneath each song. This album is not self-consciously “retro” so much as it is using the voice of the older style, and while it doesn’t expand stylistically, it has found a voice of its own. See full review/interview.

empyrium-into_the_pantheon-coverEmpyrium – Into the Pantheon

Combining funeral doom metal with European folk music creates for Empyrium a fertile style that is showcased here in a retrospective of the best of their career presented in a rare live setting. Expect plenty of use of silence and resonance to build up these songs, which start slowly and then become engaging before evaporating into more esoteric conclusions. While most funeral doom aims to be dark, Empyrium creates an emotional contrast like a Gothic band, with beauty arising from chaos only to be strangled by inevitability and fall again. See full review / interview.

graveland-thunderbolts_of_the_godsGraveland – Thunderbolts of the Gods

Following up on 2012’s Lord Wind release, Polish/Italian artist Rob Darken unleashes a new work under his black metal brand Graveland. Like the band’s second career-defining Memory and Destiny, this release features Bathory Hammerheart-style guitars which mix speed metal and black metal to produce rhythmic riffing as a backdrop for keyboards and vocals, now featuring also human female vocals and violin. The result is a collision between heavy metal, neofolk and epic movie soundtracks that evokes the glory of the ancient past.

master-the_witchhuntMaster – The Witchhunt

Paul Speckmann is a metal institution who has stayed with death metal from its genesis in the early 1980s through the presence. His latest, The Witchhunt, showcases the stable lineup he has used for recent releases but tones down the overall intensity to focus on songwriting. Fast riffs blend together with touches of melody and the classic Speckmann vocal patterns which resemble the struggles of daily life turned up to eleven. Where previous Master works of recent vintage tended to blend together, on this one each song is distinct. See full review / interview.

profanatica-thy_kingdom_cumProfanatica – Thy Kingdom Cum

Taking a hint from Necrovore and intensifying it through technical prowess, Profanatica step back from the longer melodic riffs of Profanatitas de Domonatia and instead write short, cyclic phrases within compact rhythms in the style of the ancient Texas death metal cult. The result is like a primitive album with complexity embedded in it as melodies expand within fixed riff forms, uniting savagery and beauty in the service of blasphemy. As with all Profanatica works, this is experimental to the extreme, but Thy Kingdom Cum ranks among their most listenable releases. See full review /interview.

rudra-rtaRudra – RTA

The Singaporean maniacs return with an album that uses more traditional melodic death metal riffing but retains its rhythmic structure based on speed metal and possibly the Hindu rituals described in its lyrics. As with most Rudra releases, RTA does not aim for the pop song idea of hitting a sweet spot and luring in your ears. It is the construction of an experience, in this case a dark descent that forges a resolve to continue through warfare and a martial stilling of the reckless personality through militant silence of the soul.

satan-life_sentenceSatan – Life Sentence

The rougher edge of NWOBHM that was a kissing cousin to speed metal emerges again in this highly musical album from Satan. Like their groundbreaking early 1980s works which presaged the debut of Metallica and birth of speed metal, Life Sentence features inventive riffs in classic song format in which melodic development in the vocals harmonizes riffs to bring songs to a conclusion. Shy of speed metal mostly because it relies on relatively fixed song format which emphasizes verse-chorus riff pairs, this album nonetheless reveals both the greatness of NWOBHM and its continuing relevance in a time of tuneless songs and random song structure. See full review / interview.

summoning-old_mornings_dawnSummoning – Old Mornings Dawn

After black metal fully constituted itself in the early 1990s in Scandinavia, people looked for the next development along these lines. Some went to dark ambient, but others like Summoning and Graveland instead explored longer melodies and more drawn-out, atmospheric songs. Summoning take a medieval and Tolkien-inspired approach in contrast to the more martial outlook of other bands, and produce as a result immersive waves of melody that evoke a more organic society. With Old Mornings Dawn, these Austrian metal maniacs build on the emotion of Oath Bound but exploit it in more compact and separable songs, making one of the more intense metal statements of the year. See full review.

von-dark_gods_seven_billion_slavesVon – Dark Gods, Seven Billion Slaves

Following up on Von’s early career material like Satanic Blood is not easy; in fact, it’s impossible. A band would either have to re-create that minimalist style and risk irrelevance, or embark on a campaign to dress it up as something it is not. Von has opted for something else entirely which is to create a minimalistic core within a rock opera style of black metal, producing one of the more puzzling but satisfying releases in the underground metal world this year. See full review.

wardruna-runaljod-yggdrasilWardruna – Runaljod – Yggdrasil

Combining folk music, world music, droning found noises and the type of ritualistic dark ambient that emerged from the end days of black metal, Wardruna is a black metal side project that offers a different vision of music. While earlier works seemed detached from the end listener, Runaljod – Yggdrasil embeds the listener within a wave of ceremonial sound that aims not to be forebrain listening as Western rock is, but a mentally ambient experience that overwhelms by addressing all of the senses and channeling that experience toward a realization.

warmaster-blood_dawnWar Master – Blood Dawn

Underground death metal continuation act War Master released a four-track EP, Blood Dawn, amidst personnel changes and other upheavals this year. Like the previous Pyramid of the Necropolis, Blood Dawn focuses on futuristic and yet ancient concepts, almost like Voivod taking on Robert E. Howard or Edgar Rice Burroughs. From this vast concept come songs that both grind their way to nihilism and implement the death metal method of matching riffs into an internal dialogue from which a conclusion emerges, creating a pocket of mystery which is filled with wonder and violence.

Album of the year:

imprecation-satane_tenebris_infinitaImprecation – Satanae Tenebris Infinita

There is no completely fair way to pick an album of the year from a list with this many strong contenders, but Imprecation win this one on both substance and situation. For substance, this is a solid album that combines a black metal sense of ritualistic song development with the death metal tendency to make abstract riffs into an organic whole. For situation, Satanae Tenebris Infinita sees a band that started in 1991 and is famous for releasing its discography of demos in 1995 finally reach a stage where it can release a full-length album independent of any past influences. In addition, Satanae Tenebris Infinita hits hard and does not relent. Each element serves a purpose toward creating a transition in moods, like a perpetual parallax as continents shift. If death metal was waiting for a direction forward, Imprecation have opened that gate to a new occult science and art of subversive metal. See full review / interview.

The following were considered, and then not so much considered:

  • Morbosidad – Muerte De Cristo En Golgota. This is like Krisiun or Impiety rendered in the style of Mystifier, or like any of the war metal bands that imitated Blasphemy but with a dose of downtuned Sarcofago. It’s not bad, but aside from high intensity rhythm, it doesn’t have much to offer. Thus think of it as Satanic death techno performed on muddy guitars.
  • Fates Warning – Darkness in a Different Light. Bands: don’t try to roll with the trends. You were good at something else for a reason. This album has strong smary indie rock influences on its vocals and the result is embarrassing to be caught listening to. Riffs are reasonable, but don’t particularly develop, and emphasize space and consistency more than something with a personality.
  • Grave Upheaval – Untitled. Not bad; mostly rumbling noises, very true to form. Unfortunately, also doesn’t go anywhere. It’s an atmosphere piece of one dimension.
  • Warlord – The Holy Empire. Some sort of rock-metal hybrid from back in the day, this form of power metal uses mostly lead riffing anchored by static open chording. The dominant instrument is the voice, more like Rush or Asia than most metal. It’s pleasant but lullabye and too close to rock music.
  • Hell – Curse and Chapter. Do you know how far I would have run to get away from this back in the 1980s? It’s NWOBHM/early power metal without much melodic movement in the riff, so there’s a lot of chugging and shifting but not much actual motion. Nor will you have much actual motion as you listen to this… in fact, you might find yourself immobile and snoring.
  • Battlecross – War of Will. This is traditional metal affected by metalcore aesthetics. The vocals follow the surge pattern of later hardcore, and the melodic riffs use rhythmic “chasing” to accelerate patterns older than Chuck Berry. The result is so distracting the band can’t compose a song, but instead write a riff pair and then leap into a blast beat to transition.
  • Enforcer – Death by Fire. Here we have another band from Scandinavia creating highly musically-literate, catchy and otherwise perfect music. The problems are twofold: (1) it is a clone of 1970s styles that are liked for their innocent pop cheeze (2) while it is emotive, and aesthetically appealing, it is also empty.
  • Queensryche – Queensryche. Since the band went legal on each other, there’s now two Queensryches… this one sounds like Coldplay. The same posi-pop vibe and expansive chorus feel drives this work, and it has a similar outlook on the world, which is a sort of pathological compulsion to make things beautiful instead of finding beauty where it is rare. Unsettling.
  • Leprous – Coal. If this Queen-slash-bad-indie band gets anywhere in metal, it’s time to bury the genre under warm ruminant feces. Power metal mixed with dramatic English pop. The result is bracingly twee with metal riffs batting about in the background.
  • Iggy and the Stooges – Ready to Die. Almost all reviews of this album will waffle, because it is good, but it’s not distinctive. It all kind of flows together, as if the band paid more attention to the aesthetics of sounding like themselves than whatever’s driving them. But how do you “be punk” when you have a paid up retirement plan and health insurance?
  • Abyssal – Novit Enim Dominus Qui Sunt Eius. This was the hip thing for a few weeks, but shows you that you cannot revive a genre by imitating it through outward form. These songs use all the right pieces, but in a random order, and thus create no mood except nostalgia. And I piss on nostalgia’s grave.
  • Tyrant’s Blood – Into the Kingdom of Graves. Great title, has a Blasphemy ex-member, can’t go wrong… right? There’s a lot to like about this, but it doesn’t hold together. It embraces the “hotel buffet” style of offering many different riff types in a single song that ends up distorting any coherence. Storming Perdition Temple-style fast metal explodes into melodic mid-paced riffs and then ends up chugging deathgrind, lost and adrift on the seas of making a point.
  • Cultes des Ghoules – Henbane. It’s ludicrous that so many in the underground were fooled by this comical album. It’s a lot of bad heavy metal riffs interrupted by “avantgarde” noise, samples, etc. — the usual cliches — so that you don’t notice it’s bog-standard. This is hipster incarnate.
  • Acerus – The Unreachable Salvation. Galloping uptempo yet mid-paced heavy metal with a lot of Iron Maiden and Mercyful Fate. Not bad, but not particularly expansive to anything more than that aesthetic role.
  • Aosoth – IV: Arrow in Heart. This album, like Immolation, got credit because people expected it should. Its strong point is listenable songs with some technicality; its weakness is that they express nothing strong. It is Participation with an A+ for method and a B- for content.
  • Sodom – Epitome of Torture. This rather sentimental, somewhat modern-metal influenced take on a speed metal album is very catchy and represents Sodom’s most professional work, but also loses the unique perspective this band offered on the world around it. This is more like the heavy metal albums of their youths, heavy on emotion which makes their repetitive, chorus-heavy approach almost too saccharine.
  • Grave Miasma – Odori Sepulcorum. I have wallpaper. It’s named “It’s 1991 again and you can rediscover things you believed in once again.” It sounds like a mishmash of 1990s era death metal and yet, because it’s wallpaper, it never comes to a point. It just creates an atmosphere.
  • Týr – Valkyrja. Power metal of the newer stype seems to me it has a mystery ingredient, and that is devotional music. This sounds like church music, with sweeping choruses and whole-note cadences, and it has an admitted power, but it also loses much of what makes metal powerful: it’s not protest music, nor is it music that tries to cover ugliness with beauty, but music that finds beauty in what is considered ugly.
  • Onslaught – VI. Eager to effect a return to the music business, Onslaught speed up their punk/metal hybrid but adopt the vocal styles and constant driving mechanical rhythm of modern metal. The result is unrelenting but also disconnected and monolithic. The catchy choruses don’t help and seem almost to mock the rest of the music, which sounds like a pilotless threshing machine gone amok in a pumpkin patch…
  • Death Angel – The Dream Calls for Blood. In the 1980s, speed metal bands had a certain annoying rhythm where they tried to be as obnoxiously bouncy as possible while ranting as intensely as possible. With modern metal much of the internal rhythmic interplay has been eliminated, resulting in something that sounds like chanting Stalinist propaganda with guitars strobing in the background.
  • Bölzer – Aura. Like Oranssi Pazuzu, Bölzer experiment in disorganized slowed black/death/heavy metal with mixed-in weirdo alternative rock. Weirdo alternative rock has existed since early rock bands made a name for themselves by being odd. The problem is that it doesn’t connect to form an impression, only a sense of instrumentalism.
  • Coffins – The Fleshland. Doom-death with some quality riffing, Coffins nonetheless manage to inevitably get lost in each of their songs and fill the void with noodly pentatonic leads, distracted tributaries of non-essential riffs, and “atmospheric” repetition.
  • Metal Church – Generation Nothing. This shrill metal band has always struck me as more in the heavy metal camp than speed metal camp, and here it’s borne out. The riffs don’t have form like speed metal riffs do but are mostly static based on rhythmic repetition. Focus is on the voice, which wails. Not bad but annoying and kind of empty. Also, older guys trying to bond with the new generation is awkward when done this way.
  • Malthusian – MMXIII. Like many sonic experiments, this band relies on style to shape content because style is the substance of the experiment. The idea here is to combine the Incantation-clone death metal that is trendy with melodic progressive touches, including some sneakster modern metal influences. The result loses what could have been and fails to transition to what it wants to be.
  • Stratovarius – Nemesis. When did this band get so bad? The first track sounds like a rip of Heart’s “On My Own,” and the rest of the album proceeds in this fashion: combine classic metal riff archetype with classic 1980s vocal melody, add some flourishes and hope it’s good enough. I liked it better when this band was more speed metally and less pop.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HmuHHGfUBEE

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Embryonic exhumations – Unearthing classic demos

Ras Algethi – Oblita Divinitas
Helheim – Walpurgisnatt
Alioth – Channeling Unclean Spirits
Graveland – Drunemeton
Tsjuder – Ved Ferdens Ende

Ras Algethi – Oblita Divinitas

If the architecture of the great Gothic cathedral, with its upward arches, towering spires and cosmic domes laden with images of the suffering divinity on this earthly realm, had been constructed as a kind of sacral road sign to the eternal paradise beyond, then the music of Ras Algethi’s demo is a fitting soundtrack of cathartic expression, a release from the pain and misery of the mortal existence. Like the immortal Oneiricon – The White Hypnotic album to follow, ‘Oblita Divinitas’ relies heavily on the sounds of the mighty organ for it’s intensity as an imposing beacon of death, magnifying the mournful, melodic patterns that guide the listener through the distinct passages of these songs. Where the organ picks up on the general idea of a riff that’s introduced first, the guitars go on to elaborate this phrase in an almost improvisational, though highly restrained, story-telling manner. The bigger picture develops more gradually – far more slowly and funereal than the full-length – and the organs and percussion eventually give way to the austere logic of the main riff, with clever variations that manipulate this momentary freedom from time and space, or blissful acoustic passages that prolong and reflect in it (anticipating ‘When Fire is Father’, one of the most memorable songs on ‘Oneiricon’), before the other instruments return in an emphatic transition, taking the music to an even deeper level of suffering. Ras Algethi show a very mature compositional style from the onset, not just giving a vague sensation of sadness, but carefully detailing the journey with a reference point of possibly going beyond the world that causes it, re-addressing this emotion as a painful longing for release. –ObscuraHessian

Helheim – Walpurgisnatt

Ghoulish, ethereal and enwrapped in a magnetic tape production reeking of ancient tombs and broken 4-trackers, Helheim’s vision of industrial black metal is far more elemental than the connotations of that description during the last decade. As with the primitivist throbbing drum machines of Mysticum and the ambient blankets of Sort Vokter, the aim is ritual-hypnotic music which does not try to spice up black metal in order to make it more comforting or exciting; instead, it challenges one’s concentration by looping, returning and rewiring little fragments and pieces of riff in powerful early Norwegian black metal language, conducted by the raging screams of the now-deceased vocalist Jon A. Bjerk. The svastika simulacrum depicted on the cover highlights the natural difference with the smoother approach of the other Helheim of the same era, famed mostly for the vagrant mythological epics of “Jormundgand” – this Helheim rather spits in the face of the observed tradition in order to bring forth the subconscious terror of life and death that has been embedded in the mythos of all ancient cultures and bring across a pertinent message to the civilization (macrocosmically) and the black metal of our time (microcosmically). –Devamitra

Alioth – Channeling Unclean Spirits

Remember how disappointed you were the last time you heard a new Varathron or Rotting Christ album? If the same lack of consistency and effort permeates other areas of Greek society, them having descended from the mythic glory of Athene into debts and poverty needs hardly the prophetic eye of Cassandra to fully explain. As in Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novel “American Gods” the lost European deities are found prowling the Wisconsin backwoods, Chicago based Alioth’s mystical and sensual tribute to Hellenic black metal ca. 1993 is admirably not only a continuation of the electric technoid dynamo drumbeat and an application of the palm muted speed and doom riffs in esoteric underground context; it’s also a highly logically strung sequence of moods as if the physical organization of pain and pleasure in a Dionysian ritual theatre, succumbing with the heavy held back moments of “The Channeling” and “Apocryphal Dimensions” and rising through the interludial “Invocation” and “Invocation II” to softly expire orgasmic relaxation. So much could be created out of this basic concept that it’s a pity the full-length album has remained cloaked in the depths of the primal sea, while Wargoat Obscurum iterates far less subtle (and far less interesting) metal with Cult of Daath. –Devamitra

Goreaphobia – Morbidious Pathology

Goreaphobia’s debut album wouldn’t have been quite so eagerly anticipated without a strong back catalogue of minor releases such as the ‘Morbidious Pathology’ demo, which provides an unexpected listening experience if Mortal Repulsion is the only recording you’ve heard from the band. Where the full-length communicates visions from the abyss through the blank eyes of an old mystic locked in a lucid dreaming state, this demo is full of enough youthful energy to express the paranoia of a thousand souls trapped within the claustrophobic confines of their own mortality. Variations in riffs reflect these tightly packed structures, seeming to progress with not so much a linear logic than the re-arranging of parts of the whole, like limbs being removed from a body and sewn on to somewhere else entirely until the true grotesqueness of humanity is revealed. As with Mortal Repulsion, despite the physical connections to Incantation, there is a stronger similarity to the craftsmanship of Immolation and albums that would come in later years, such as the complex and disjointed but melodically evocative Here in After. The lead guitar work, though highly restrained, possesses a sense of neoclassical refinement that bridges some short-burst riffage with eloquent but totally disturbing solos. This demo shows the beginnings of an all too rare experiment in Death Metal where you can observe the maturation of a consistant idea as it goes through the turmoil of a tortured, temporal existence. –ObscuraHessian

Graveland – Drunemeton

It’s not difficult to understand the distaste that Darken has for the recordings commited to tape during Graveland’s infancy in the light of his recent catalogue of pristine, epic and Atlantaean creations. Some distance away from the expansive scenes of battlefields and expressions of Romantic nationalism, this ancient offering from the living master of Pagan Black Metal is totally shrouded in a necrotic production, like ghostly shadows moving through oaken forests, casting a spell within more cloistered and Druidic surroundings than the output of Graveland from the past 15 years. Alongside the visions that created the force of Scandinavian Black Metal in the early 90′s, this demo represents the reclusive and misanthropic esotericism of that era, especially the primality of the lowest fidelity cults, Beherit and Ildjarn. Sounding like the work of a punk ostracised by that increasingly over-socialised group for being too idealistic and inhuman, Darken conjures a lurid interpretation of hypnotic Bathorean riffing that develops through the echoing of majestic, synthesised voices that open this recording as though a prologue to ‘The Celtic Winter’. The experimentation with primitivism in ‘Drunemeton’ is so deconstructionist that the guitar technique becomes fragmented completely and subordinated to reveal gloomy ambient moods that amplify the silence of a forest at night before the dawn of battle. There’s a similarity to the Beherit song ‘Nuclear Girl’ in how the guitar is used more like a sample, reverberating it’s texture through the keyboards to emphasise a cloistered sensation, accompanied by monastic chants at other times. Culminating in the ambient classic, ‘The Forest of Nemeton’, this demo is the successful beginnings of Graveland’s exploration into unconventional and nihilistic territory beneath the folky phrasing of guitar-led melodic work, which would shape the dynamic of his entire discography to follow. –ObscuraHessian

Tsjuder – Ved Ferdens Ende

Fifteen years ago, we were too proud and lofty to listen to it, our sensory devices soothed and inflamed by Panzerfaust, Battles in the North and Høstmørke, while the new generation of neo-progressive and mainstream black metal bands sought to enrapture even wider audiences with movie soundtrack influenced keyboards and angelic female voice conjured by fat-bottomed gothic tarts. For the atmospheric maniacs only, as it’s hard to argue for its musicality against the likes of Vikingligr Veldi; but the epic wanderlust and distorted pagan death ritual of this demo’s centerpiece, “Fimbulwinter”, unfolding like a flower at dawn or the psychedelic mandala of LSD invading brain receptors, is one of the pure innocent and mesmerizing gems of underground black metal in this sacred and forsaken era. The primal Isvind-esque melody dance like ripples of waves on a forest pond, the hissing tracker production complete with the macabre clack of a drum machine and the dampness of a Nordic bedroom cellar permeate the recording to such a thickness of adolescent black metal fury that it’s hardly palatable to generic audiences then and now. Barely a trace of the fast norsecore of the more familiar debut album Kill For Satan is noticeable here, the only similarity being the guitarist Draugluin’s technique of bricklike tremolo chord architecture where rhythm plays little importance. While primitive, this compositional method bears an intrinsic beauty which is worthy of recapitulation when the pure augustness of early Norwegian black metal has mostly become forgotten in favour of seemingly more rich and elaborate indie stylings. –Devamitra

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Autopsy – Severed Survival

Although Chris Reifert’s work on the now legendary, but perhaps over hyped Scream Bloody Gore was compelling, it is hardly worth mourning the fact that this death metal genius would leave Death and form the mighty Autopsy. On the contrary it remains a blessing, and while Death would continue to churn out a few more solid death metal records, Autopsy would themselves create a few classics whose extreme visions of death would underlie much of the philosophical vision of countless metal bands. Undoubtedly, Autopsy would also influence the worldview of many fans who would learn to eschew the illusion and flight and fantasy of modernity, in favour of a sober glimpse into the workings of reality in all its horrifying and powerful glory.

Autopsy’s barbaric and seminal album Severed Survival offered the listener what would by 1989 arguably represent the nihilistic and amoral apex of the burgeoning death metal genre and thereby cement their place in death metal history. Primitive and raw, the power with which Autopsy frantically bash out these energetic incisions into the human psyche, indicates a desire to transcend and break down the perceived but illusory moral world order and come to terms with the cold harsh realities of existence. On Severed Survival, Autopsy unabashedly presents the listener with a sometimes shocking but nonetheless candid and unmitigated reality, smashing to pieces any presupposition of a cosmic moral world order. As listeners we are forced to come face to face with death, desperation and the unspeakably twisted and cursed elements inherent in the mechanisms of reality and in the collective human consciousness, which Autopsy, like a skilled pathologist expertly dissect and examine. Exhumed are the intense, destructive and “degenerate” elements that are not spoken of in civilized society but which nonetheless drive reality and remain active as motive within the omnipresent but subterranean catacombs of the human mind. Unquestioningly suppressed out fear or an inability to place these depraved realities within the context of our currently constructed, illusory but ubiquitously advocated a priori moral world-view, it is Autopsy who courageously revel in exploring the obscene and who seem bent on destroying illusion in favor of discovering, conforming to and coming to grips with the power of reality.

A bloody pile of discharge flesh

Is what you see as you face death

 On the ground is the lifeless meat

Stillborn child lays at your feet

Musically, Severed Survival is a conceptually flawless album that offers insight, contrast, and dynamic through its expert use of eclectic influences and moreover, succeeds in synthesizing musical and lyrical expression to form a complete experience also made possible through the phrasal composition inherent in the songwriting of all good death metal. Drawing on Celtic Frost and the simple power chord progression that made the latter’s work so completely unified and clear, synthesizing it with heavy metal’s tendency to express impending doom through the use of slower meditative riffs, and drawing on the frantic and schizophrenic lead guitar work of proto-death metal or speed metal giants, such as Slayer, Autopsy on Severed Survival  executed an effectively simple, dynamic and epic work whose elements united  to create a gripping journey that remains to this day, compelling, interesting and perspective altering. Highly recommended!

-TheWaters-

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