Reissue Radar: Morbid Angel – Altars of Madness (1989)

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Earache Records is doing another one of their brief, ultra-limited record sales. This time, they are releasing Morbid Angel’s classic Altars of Madness on vinyl; they claim that this release will be one of their “Full Dynamic Range” remasters, which purport to not be afflicted by the brickwalling that took over popular music with the advent of digital recording. Needless to say, this is certainly a classic of death metal, although many on DMU prefer the versions of the songs here that appeared on Abominations of Desolation. Anyone who isn’t fortunate enough to grab this vinyl and wants a version of this album with improved dynamic range regardless will probably have to scrounge up some cash for an original pressing.

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Incantation rejoins Relapse Records, working on 10th album

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Relapse Records and Incantation both recently announced through their various websites (including Incantation’s official page) that Incantation is rejoining Relapse’s roster. Incantation’s most recent studio albums (including 2014’s Dirges of Elysium) had been released through Listenable Records; this change of record labels coincides with the band’s upcoming album, which is currently being recorded at the band’s own studio. Incantation will also be touring Europe in April alongside Morgoth, Darkrise, and Omophagia, as well as playing the Czech “Obscene Extreme Festival”. Hopefully, the new album will not be afflicted the “tiredness” a DMU contributor saw in the band’s recent studio work.

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Mortuary (FRA) – Nothingless Than Nothingness (2016)

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Not to be confused with the Mortuary on the Dark Legions Archives from Mexico, this Mortuary started as a contemporary of the great Massacra, although they didn’t get a studio album out until 1996. Nothingless than Nothingness is separated from even that by 20 years, so the usual rhetoric about evolving or dramatically changing bands applies, but this band’s early material may very well have been inspired on some level by Massacra’s works; at the very least, Final Holocaust and similar was pushing Mortuary towards velocity and intricacy of individual riffs over minimal backing.

To get it out of the way – Nothingless than Nothingness has very little to do with that style, and instead takes cues from pre-Slaughter of the Soul melodic death metal; while less obvious about their melodic influences than most, material on here reminds me of… well… Thy Black Destiny, of all albums. Sacramentum’s 1999 effort may have seemingly little to do with this recording, but its similar use of monophonic melody, variety of texture, hints of contemporary black metal instrumentation, and gradual gestures towards a more rock-oriented form of songwriting (such as frequent breakdowns and vocal emphasis) make for an eerie similarity, if far from an exact one. This is backed up by a band that is technically accomplished in the pedestrian variety that I’ve long since come to expect from modern death metal. One thing that did stand out, however, the vocalist, who showcases his proficiency in adding dimensions to the songs by varying up his rhythm and the textures of his growls; the way he interacts with the drummer, in fact, is probably the strongest point of this album and something other death metal bands could learn from.

Nothingless than Nothingness arguably ends up ahead of the pack for at least having one superlative element worthy of study. Unfortunately, the compositions are afflicted by a few of the problems endemic to modern metal music. First of all, most of these tracks showcase haphazard breakdowns that enter abruptly and contribute little to the ideas of the song. This issue is exacerbated by the fact that Mortuary uses extended sections of blast beats to good effect, so hearing the band dwell on their weaknesses is disheartening. The other problem is that even though many of the individual sections are musically interesting, they’re arranged in a fashion that is attention-deflecting at best and essentially random at worst. If Mortuary put more effort into making coherent arrangements, they’d be a serious force to be reckoned with, but the lack of organization is such an enormous blow to an otherwise promising and well done album.

Mortuary’s latest album will release officially on January 18th, for those who are still interested.

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Melechesh – Enki (2015)

Melechesh - Enki (2015)
Back in 2010, Melechesh’s previous album (The Epigenesis) made its way onto our “Best of 2010” list. I don’t know what to make of that, but this year’s batch of Melechesh doesn’t live up to that hype, despite sticking to the band’s signature mixture of streamlined extreme metal with older substyles and (importantly) a Middle Eastern folk garnish. The problem here is a common one – directionless, flat, almost random songwriting. Whether or not this afflicted previous works by the band is hopefully something someone more versed in their past might be able to shed some light on.

That the structural side of this album is so underwhelming is belied by the good first impression that Melechesh makes with their polished sound. They succeed in combining their three aesthetic streams where many bands stumble with two… or less. For instance, the band constructs almost every riff and phrase they use from vaguely exotic scales like the Phyrgian dominant, the double harmonic (“Arabic”), etc. This indicates greater dedication to the aesthetic than, for instance, Nile, and doing something similar in your own work will probably get you further in the long run than merely tossing in some instruments that are culturally relevant to what you’re trying to imitate. Not to say that Melechesh doesn’t add in extra instrumentation, but it’s skillfully incorporated into their sound to the point that it never seems incongruous. The older metal and rock elements, in comparison, don’t make themselves as immediately apparent, but they imbue this recording with a strong sense of conventional musicality that makes it easy to pick up off the shelves and listen to by the standards of its nominal genre.

The deception this entails means it took me a bit to pick up on how little of the content here was actually making its mark. Enki showcases its share of isolated musical ideas with which one could build a song, but arranges them in an entirely haphazard and arbitrary fashion. The general lack of dynamics also helps in building an environment full of interchangeable content – one entirely folk interlude (“Doorways to Irkala”) and some halfhearted soft sections does not an adequate substitute make. It may be that drone and repetition form an integral part of Melechesh’s songwriting, but the best bands to rely on such techniques don’t simply vary themselves through minor variation, but arrange such in a fashion that allows for actual in-song progression. Melechesh’s failure to do so combined with other aspects of their style make for an experience that decays to irrelevance shockingly fast.

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Phlebotomized – Immense Intense Surprise & Skycontact

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People forget that the 90s were among other things a pervasively trivial time, which was one of the things that death metal was rebelling against. We finally got over the terror of the Republican 1980s, and the ex-hippies took over and that meant we were due for some good times. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure satirizes this best with its view of adult society in Southern California as completely oblivious, obsessed with the inconsequential and generally wrapped up in itself without any purpose or direction to life beyond consumer glory.

Immense Intense Surprise reveals this mentality of triviality, which is the concept that you can take something very ordinary and cover it with shiny objects and unique, ironic and different (UID) adornments and somehow it will be transformed into a revolutionary idea. This is not so: the underlying idea remains in control. In the case of Immense Intense Surprise the underlying idea is that same alternative rock that everyone else was pimping back then, but they have dressed it up as bouncy technical death metal of the Afflicted school, meaning that you will not find any epic or amazing melodies or song constructions here, only technical tricks on guitar and keyboard.

To keep us distracted, Phlebotomized constantly change layers of vocals, synths, drums and lead guitar that sounds almost plasticine in its tendency toward “chaotically” repeated similar structures. And underneath? Quite a few hard rock and classic heavy metal riffs reborn, some influences from 70s rock, and a bit of death metal that as with all ill-conceived hybrids, builds itself around the vocals. Notice also the novelty song structures. This release distracts from a missing core with a surface level of weird, much like so many people distract from their absence of soul with “interesting” personalities.

Not all of Immense Intense Surprise & Skycontact — a combination release of two late 1990s albums — is bad. Much of this material shows insight in songwriting and an ability to craft a good tune. Phlebotomized interrupt themselves on the way to a good song by instead of finding a voice for their many influences, trotting them out in serial fashion, creating the kind of “variety plate” music that fails to endure over time. Think, people: there is a reason these albums went out of print in the first place after haunting the sale bins of used record stores across the world. Surface-based music does not endure. They were not alone in their quest for experimentation. Bands like Disharmonic Orchestra, Supuration and Mordred were each trying to re-invent death metal by mixing in influences from previous genres. The problem with such a conflicted approach is that it destroys the voice of the genre which had achieved clarity, and replace it with the usual modern grab-bag of options unrelated to a purpose.

Phlebotomized put out an earlier album, Preach Eternal Gospels, which spent quite a bit of time in my CD player during the 90s because it was good, solid B-level boxy death metal. Bands at that level either accepted second-tier status and moved on, or became consumed with the desire to be the next Dismember or Morbid Angel and so embarked on a path of accessorizing their music to make it stand out. Their only real problem was that the mainstream rock discovered that tactic long before they did, and they were better at it.

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5 albums that ruined metal

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If you create anything of beauty in this world, people will be attracted to it. They will want what it has, but because achieving that would require them to change themselves, they will instead make a version of your beautiful thing that fits their needs. This will become popular and soon idiots everywhere will adopt their dumbed-down version of your beautiful thing, effectively ruining what you have created.

Over the course of metal’s lifespan, it has several times been afflicted with the curse of popularity. During the middle 1970s, bands began cloning what Black Sabbath did and mixing it with the more radio-friendly sounds of Led Zeppelin, Cream, The Who and Deep Purple. The result gave metal such a bad name it required an underground genre, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, to renovate it with punk energy and DIY spirit. Then in the late 1980s, speed metal bands started selling out and making radio-friendly jive that quickly destroyed the genre because no one wanted to associate with it anymore. Only a few years later in 1994, underground metal imploded as clone bands and outsiders began making imitations of the new sound that used songwriting conventions and “values” from other genres. Most recently in the 2000s metal became “socially acceptable” and became basically a cover story for lite jazz and indie/emo which now could claim they were groundbreaking and authentic.

But I digress. Let us look at a brief history of bands that helped ruin metal and see if we can figure out where their influences ended up in today’s milktoast hybrid metal.

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Pantera – Cowboys From Hell

Before this album came along, speed metal had a certain gravitas to it. Songs were about war, human moral conflict, literature and the apocalypse. Then along came Pantera and injected a bro-sized dose of personal drama into it. After Pantera, speed metal included talking about how angry you are, getting drunk and starting fights about whose jeans are out of fashion this season, and raging about your inability to retain women who are not covered in naturally-growing wool. It was a strike of Idiocracy against the intense music of Metallica, Nuclear Assault, Overkill, Testament, Anthrax and Megadeth that dumbed it down to the Belieber level, just with more angsty testosterone. Not only that but the complex songs got replaced by verse-chorus and lots of “emotional” vocals accompanied by softer guitar parts. The path to death for speed metal started with this watered-down, dumbed-down, ego-drama path to stupidity. Luckily after they had made their money, Pantera disappeared and the band members went on to more reputable projects.

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Cannibal Corpse – Tomb of the Mutilated

In the year that death metal reached its peak, Cannibal Corpse release an album that made death metal accessible and in doing so, made it a satire of itself. This is Dethklok before Dethklok. Borrowing from the percussive style that Suffocation innovated, Cannibal Corpse took out all the complex songwriting and replaced it with somewhat complex riffs in predictable format. It took away difficult rhythms and topics and replaced them with I-puke-blood style blockheaded lyrics. They also introduced Pantera-style songs about sexually mutilating women because women are difficult and sometimes all one can get is a brojob back at the frat house. This album crushed the growing death metal movement by putting a giant IDIOTS AND SYCOPHANTS WELCOME sign over the door to the genre and convincing people that songs with blockheaded gore lyrics and simplistic structures under grunting incoherent vocals were more “death metal” than the complex music of integrity that defined the genre at the time.

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Cradle of Filth – The Principle of Evil Made Flesh

Point your TARDIS back to 1994. Black metal was in full-swing, having just put forth all of its founding works and then exploded in a media-fueled inferno of murder, anti-Christian and politically incorrect sentiments. In come the “smart” people who figure they can make a buck off this new phenomenon. Their formula: make Iron Maiden style metal with the new screechy vocals and make it emo so that kids can feel like it sympathizes with their horrible lives where their parents just totally control them and stuff. Then mix in the usual “teen paranormal romance” rambling about vampires and evil and you have baby food for coddled toddlers. It took some brains to like black metal, but Cradle of Filth asks nothing so challenging of its listeners! Even more, this band introduced the “carnival music” style of putting radically different riffs next to each other so that the listener loses track of song structure entirely. These songs are basically advertising jingles and warmed-over Goth rock stuck into second-rate metal, but all the kiddies brought their sweaty dollars to Hot Topic because they felt it “understood them.”

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Meshuggah – None

Right in the middle of 1994 it became clear that black metal and death metal had left the building. They had said what they wanted to; people had to either top it or find some easier and sleazier way to do. Ripping off the percussive textures of Exhorder, Prong and Exodus, Meshuggah came up with a “new” style that consisted of over-extending ideas from previous and better bands. It’s worth mentioning that Meshuggah’s first album was 80s speed metal with death metal vocals, but that it was extremely boring. Meshuggah figured that if they just made their style more dramatic and used lots of choppy riffs with shiny new “complex” polyrhythms, they could fool a new generation into liking their stuff. Without fail, it worked, and now metal bands find it necessary to incorporate the worked-over 70s groove with two-chord texture riffs and claim a “djent” influence. At its core, this band remains the same bad 80s speed metal that failed on its first album.

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Opeth – Orchid

You can pitch a market one of two ways: on one hand, you can be “just one of us regular guys” and pull a Bruce Springsteen (or warmed over punk); on the other, you can claim that you are so far out and deep that only a few deep people can understand you. The best is to hide the former in the latter so that you are selling the “profundity” of sing-song music for children but it gives them a chance to pop on a Fedora and think they are really so deep, you know totally deep, that no one can be as deep as they are. Opeth sold itself on being “open-minded,” which is this message: we are different from the rest of metal because we use acoustic passages instead of just solid heavy metal riffs. What they choose not to tell their fans is that they are more like everything else that is not metal, so to like this stuff is to admit you fail as a metal listener and go back to pumping radio pap through your Beats by Dr. Dre headphones. But every underconfident basement-dwelling pretentious geek loved this stuff even though it consisted of a simple formula, soft verse and hard chorus, that is most famous for its use among nu-metal bands. Nonetheless, Opeth opened the door for people who wanted to signal to the world how profound and different they were, and now most bands are tinged with the same simpering pander that makes this music sickly sweet and an inch deep.

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Unaussprechlichen Kulten – Baphomet Pan Shub-Niggurath

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Named after a fictional work of occult literature in the Cthulhu mythos by H.P. Lovecraft, the “nameless cults” give their name also to this band who create modern death metal that remains true to the death metal style. Like Immolation circa 2000, carefully tuned guitars and use of odd diminished melodies create a suspension of reality that a rhythmic approach like that of the Deathspell Omega era “progressive” black metal complements and expands.

Baphomet Pan Shub-Niggurath cites from fully four generations of metal, mixing speed metal riffs with modern black metal and the aforementioned dissonant and complex death metal, but sometimes slides in old school death metal riffs and transitions reminiscent of the hybrid era of underground metal in the early 1980s. The tendency to offset rhythms to insert additional riffs comes from the newer style of black metal, which permits groove so long as it is disturbingly detached from consistent expectations, but the core of this album comes from the streamlining of death metal in the early years of this century that brought different chord shapes and dramatic conclusions to the genre.

Other influences work their way in here including a use of plodding cadences that would have fit onto a God Macabre or Afflicted album. Songs work riffs into a circular pattern that always returns to familiar themes for choruses but splits verses across multiple riffs using a Slayer-inspired pattern of working in a precursor riff, then changing riff, and then altering its texture and tempo with layers of drums, bass and vocals. Then the song culminates much like later black metal in a kind of revelation which melts down into the soup of primordial riff ideas that earlier served to introduce or complement themes.

For contemporary metal, Baphomet Pan Shub-Niggurath keeps its focus more firmly in the continuance of past traditions into the future than bands like Immolation managed. It does carry the tendency to be too emotive on its surface like Deathspell Omega, which leads to technique replacing content, but keeps this in line. This work impresses with the first couple listens and while it will undoubtedly socket itself into the secondary tier of death metal bands, crushes most of its contemporaries handily and displays a blueprint for death metal to get out of the metalcore funk and back to a newer version of its roots.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z15bfUxUEn0

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Convulse – Evil Prevails

convulse-evil_prevailsAs has been said countless times before, the worst record review is a waffle: “It’s OK for what it is, if you like that.” This corresponds to someone neither moved to ire or adoration by a work; in other words, it barely registered. Convulse is not like that. It is a band to both love and hate, but at the same time.

Evil Prevails should be loved for the rare moments of clarity in which riffs are glued together to reach a conclusion that makes sense out of them, causing a sense of rising above the confusion of life as the various dots connect. Themes add up and then grow, and this is where the band shines. They develop beautiful riffs from less interesting ones, and in those riffs, have a sublime sense of how phrase corresponds to emotion.

On the other hand, the dark side of this release is twofold. First, many of its riffs are simplistic in an American football death metal way, reminiscent of Carbonized or Grave but less enigmatic. Second, when riffs aren’t galloping across your forehead, the band likes to work in random rock, blues and jazz influences that don’t fit with the whole. These are not only incongruous, but relatively undistinguished.

Some might say that this in itself is an unorthodox aesthetic. By making a grab-bag of parts, Convulse is exuding deconstruction or nihilism, in other words. However, more likely, this mirrors a committee. The average is bad, but occasionally someone has a flash of inspiration; in the meantime, dramatic people who are good at what’s normally accepted are busy getting in their moments in the sun, showing off and getting promoted.

As a result, it’s hard to like Evil Prevails; it’s a mess with some nuggets of gold. If you like plodding bands like Gorement, the brutal riffs will not disappoint; if you like incomplete-synthesis bands like Afflicted you’ll enjoy the guitar fireworks. But more likely you will background the music until a nugget appears, have an “Aha!” moment, and then forget it as the churn goes on.

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