Remains – Evoking Darkness

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Old school death metal band Remains returns with its fourth release Evoking Darkness which shows inspiration from the Swedish and American greats of mid-90s death metal merged with the type of bluesy and infectious integration of classic heavy metal that made Clandestine a powerful album, albeit placed in a style that is closer to a cross between older Dismember and Unleashed. The band does not attempt to innovate in aesthetics but creates a sonic charge with the energy and unsettling corruption of mainstream archetypes which defined death metal during its heyday.

The band produced an impressive body of work with its 2012 demo “The True Essence,” the …Of Death EP the following year and Angels Burned in 2014, and follows up on those with simpler, tighter songs that eschew pure grinding in favor of a well-blended integration of metal styles designed to be both audially compelling and unnerving in the method of classic death metal. Songs rotate around a central break from the verse/chorus pairings, repeating themselves in both introduction and egress from that core confrontation. Lead guitars drop in with a variety of styles integrated into organic but energetic explosions of clusters of notes and lengthy fret runs. Vocals take on the gruff exhortations of older Dismember and give it the percussive rhythm of American death metal like Malevolent Creation, crafting a narrative of violence with a lining of excited morbidity. Remains shy away from the melancholic and dark side of death metal and instead converge on its region of pure energy, with music that delights in the finely-picked textures of Swedish death metal alongside the percussive power of Florida death metal. Herein lies where Remains can improve this work, which is that the hard rock/heavy metal integration into the death metal does not always emerge triumphant and often consumes the death metal portion, and extremely basic chord progressions which do not give songs much room to expand in structure or melody. The aesthetic, energy and atmosphere remain perfect and can expand over time as this band matures.

Most people will be floored by how Evoking Darkness not only stays true to the old school sound but gives it life through a voice of its own which is not expressed in style but in these songs themselves and their unique takes on the riff forms from the past forty years of metal. Where Remains shows its power is in the fitting together of these meticulously crafted rhythms so that riffs both flow and contrast one another; while greater harmonic or melodic death would enhance this, it alone makes Evoking Darkness more listenable than all but a few of the retro-death albums which fit together blockily or unevenly. These riffs balance each other in dissymmetry and create a sense of an evolving lacuna which propels the listener forward to see what comes next. Not only do riffs counterpart each other well, but their internal rhythms show a study of the power of the riff itself, and the album flows past without lapses or discontinuities. It shows vast improvement over the previous album from this band and signals a path to their future, since Remains has built a framework upon which more complexity, both in complexity of structure and use of tone, can be built.

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.

Related:

Of Power Metal and Other Tales

1. Introduction
2. The Two Faces of the Genre: European and American Power Metal
3. European Power Metal
4. Power Metal of the United States

 

Introduction

There stood he, on his chariot made of gold
He did reveal the trinity of secrets old.
A sceptre of iron could mercy bring.
A shield of gold, the Creator and king,
And the great sword of steel.

– Manowar, Secret of Steel

It has been asserted that the earliest application of the term ‘power metal’ was the 1982 Metallica demo of that same title; then how exactly has it come to label the fantastic, spirited, even ‘fruity’ kind of music that is currently known as ‘power metal’? Well, the fact of the matter is that the term simply did not catch on with what eventually became the thrash and speed metal genres, whereas the melodic speed metal in Germany (Helloween, Blind Guardian, Running Wild, etc.) developed in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s to coalesce into the genre now popularly known as ‘power metal’. The reason why these bands were labeled differently from their more traditional sounding forerunners was their thematic and musical distinction; these bands dispensed with the darker, ‘doom and gloom’ perspectives of archetypal metal in favour of a much more positive, almost ‘happy’ outlook, and this really came through in the refreshing and inquisitive albums produced in the genre’s youth.

Power metal is something of an enigma in the annals of heavy metal: how does a movement deeply immersed in the fantastic folklore of Europe and beyond, and which borrows openly from Queen and the like, relate at all to the more twisted and obscure worlds of death and black metal? The answer is that the whole genre cannot be measured linearly as you would the passing years; it is to be viewed, rather, as a healthy maple tree, with dozens of branches emerging from the trunk, all headed in different directions but with the same fundamental constitution. Heavy metal represents, after all, a perennial expression of the epic, the tragic, and the victorious, and it would surely be unjust to evoke these eternal artistic truths merely through the medium of the Gothic nightmare, the Lovecraftian dreamscape; power metal exists, therefore, as a keen and adventurous opposite, enabling metal to travel to places impossible in other, darker vehicles.

The Two Faces of the Genre: European and American Power Metal

While the power metal of Europe is characteristically bright and optimistic on both the lyrical and instrumental fronts, the bands that derive from the United States take on a bit of a different slant; their work is generally darker, and more focused on building upon the foundation started by the NWOBHM, etc., which admittedly makes ‘USPM’ sometimes difficult to distinguish from good old-fashioned ‘heavy metal’. The distinction, however, is an important one, and to help delineate the differences between the genres, we need to recall the common elements that allow us to classify the Europeanbands into ‘power metal’. Sure, there are the basic similarities that are inherited from the same earlier English and German bands, but the crux pf European power metal is its fundamental underlying aim: to illustrate a mythic world (which could very well be our own reality interpreted in an imaginative light) that is at once real and fanciful, and to do so with a generally enthusiastic persuasion. If we are to throw all the European and American bands of the style under the same ‘power metal’ banner, then this intent, this ‘underlying aim’, must be identical in USPM.

If we consider the early black metal movement from Norway, and how it sought to unearth hidden truths through a dark, mystical aesthetic, we may actually find a parallel to what we mean. While both indubitably desire to ‘illustrate a mythic world at once real and fanciful’, black metal clearly purports to showcase an altogether averse side of that reality when power metal simply means to approach it like a narrative, a folk legend, demonstrating its nature through popular song and poetry. In a kind of microcosm of this, power metal from Europe is the visualization of things of the light, of a dramatic victory of life over death, whereas stateside power metal tends to convey a colder picture of these things: the former focuses on the regal hero, and his conquest over his villains and oppressors, whereas the latter focuses on the villains and the oppressors, and its hero is not so much the Aragorn of Tolkien fame, but Conan the Barbarian rather, a powerful yet lawless ‘antihero’ in the style of Omen’s ‘Axeman’!

When the bands from Europe broach whatever subject it is that they wish to express, it will be in a style that is as precise and accurate as as it is dramatic and theatric; the raw power of the music is dropped in favour of an immaculate finesse: this is simply in their nature. As for the Americans, however, a central goal is outlined from the beginning, and the path towards it is narrow but straight and unyielding, concentrated on the living rhythm of the thing rather than on the fine points of its aesthetic and artistic impressions. There may be yet other differences, to be sure, but none of them are more divergent than this simple preference in method; European and power metal are brothers at heart with similar identities and similar intentions. Now, to deliver the best of power metal post-haste!

European Power Metal

Whenever somebody thinks of power metal, he is likely thinking of the particularly dramatic style growing out of Europe, unless it is the popular barbarians in Manowar; indeed, Helloween’s ‘Keeper of the Seven Keys’ albums, Blind Guardian’s ‘Tales from the Twilight World’, and Rage’s ‘Secrets in a Weird World’ are veritable classics of the type. The music itself is, generally speaking, a sort of joyous hybrid consisting of Iron Maiden, thrash metal, and J.R.R. Tolkien, and is ultimately united by a strong sense of adventure and myth as is evinced by the themes widely explored by virtually every band involved in the scene. So, a taste for speedy rhythms, confessedly goofy, ‘cheesy’ lyrics, and plenty of high-calibre guitar solos is pretty much mandatory for anyone who wants to walk in the footsteps of the following albums…


Blind Guardian “Nightfall in Middle-earth”

In a word: What would Tolkien say?

As far as rankings go, this is the only album that is absolutely set in stone on this entire list. ‘Nightfall in Middle-earth’ is the ascendant apex of power metal; it is the crystallized embodiment of the genre’s ideal. The reason for offering such profound adulation really comes down to the band’s ability to transcend the limits of power metal whilst playing within them; they have nailed the ‘folky’, popular element of music with a peculiar ingenuity that comprehensively impresses upon the basic musical format of the genre; in other words, Blind Guardian has done for power metal what Johannes Brahms had done for Romantic music with his ‘Hungarian Dances’.

In narrating a large portion of Tolkien’s most ‘historical’ epic, The Silmarillion, Blind Guardian succeeds in demonstrating the raw power of a living mythos and a visceral pathos, as well as the simple wonders of storytelling, through a dynamic interplay between a tight rhythm section and an innovative mastery of the axe that Herr Ohlbrich presents for us, the audience; and the vocals of Hansi Kuersch, the real conduit of the myth’s passion, are never better, cutting through the music with a certain feeling that conveys the appropriate emotion, the appropriate strength needed to evoke the right imagery. ‘Nightfall in Middle-earth’ is an independent artistic monument: it is not a mere ‘ode to Tolkien’, or some such tribute, but a fully accomplished string of songs that successfully brings the majesty of Tolkien’s mythic world to the equally wonderful world of metal.


Helloween “The Keeper of the Seven Keys” Pt. I & II

In a word: The epitome of power metal

It is an indisputable fact that Helloween is no less than the very quintessence of power metal; from the triumphant ‘Initiation’ to the epic climax of the title track in Pt. II, there is nothing that escapes the boundaries, nothing that does not inherently belong in what the genre has come to mean. The outstanding evidence for this thesis can be found, as vague as it may sound, in the general spirit of the music: there is an excited, joyous pitch that pervades every aspect of the albums, and it draws the listener into the music, attempting to transport this transcendent gladness unto him. This is musically accomplished through a fast, upbeat rhythm, quick and virile riffs and solos, and of course through rich, charming vocals of Michael Kiske that are at once evocative and powerful.

Beyond the individual components, however, Helloween is a band that brought to metal not only a new and positive way of playing, but also a more or less original perspective on metal: they have come here in good humour, to have fun, and to never take life more seriously than it has to be. The final effect of all this is a pair of albums that are perhaps the most widely imitated in the entire genre, and the real cause of this is obvious: nowhere is the singular idea of power metal more manifest, more alive, and more euphoric than in ‘The Keeper of the Seven Keys’.

 


Gamma Ray “Land of the Free”

In a word: Helloween reborn

With original Helloween visionary Kai Hansen at the helm, Gamma Ray can and should be perceived as the true heir to the ‘Keeper’ albums of the late eighties – building off of a passionate drive forward on all instruments, and with Hansen’s emphatic vocals in firm control, all of the basic ingredients that conspired to make Helloween what it is are fully intact. What makes Gamma Ray so important, however, is that its creation of ‘Land of the Free’ ends nearly a decade of sterility from the Helloween camp; Gamma Ray has effectively resurrected the original spirit that caused the birth of so many clones.

As for the album itself, there is a sincere approach to the songwriting; there is a definite connection between all parts to form a good, coherent song; the riffs are brighter, more focused and vibrant, whereas the percussion lays a strong, fertile foundation for every melody, every chorus; in short, the masters reveal in ‘Land of the Free’ how to really invoke the mad and happy spirits of power metal. Interestingly, in an event that is based more in fact than in coincidence or irony, ‘Land of the Free’, at 1996, was released right before the resurgent waves of power metal took shape at the end of the nineties, just like the ‘Keeper’ albums in the twilight of the eighties…


Lost Horizon “Awakening the World”

In a word: Death metal turned upside down

Assembled from the remains of the death metal band Luciferion, Sweden’s Lost Horizon apply its former Satanic autonomy and egoistic ambitions to a new, far more personal mode of free will and individual freedom and power. Energetic and motivated, ‘Awakening the World’ moves quickly, showcasing a fluent sense of songwriting and technique that gladly transcends the sterile plains and generic conventions of recent power metal. The players have a strong taste for the old-school, and yet their collective synergy, with a special mention to the tireless guitars, which provide a seemingly inexhaustible supply of clever hooks and passionate leads, is wholly innovative in its united vision and dynamic execution; this makes for a convincing display of refreshing songcraft, which in turn injects something original and commanding into the old-school template; in summary, the legendary Helloween undergoes yet further renovations, and is re-invigorated into one of the few leading warriors of modern power metal. Indeed, excluding the few pointless ‘minitracks’ found on the record, ‘Awakening the World’, with all of its vigour and spirited determination, is the perfect testament to the full extent and capability of the independent human will.


Blind Guardian “Tales from the Twilight World”

In a word: Only Blind Guardian could merit such blatant disregard for the rules

Having released two speed metal classics in ‘Battalions of Fear’ and ‘Follow the Blind’ just prior to this record, Blind Guardian were ready to move firmly into the nascent realm of power metal. Rather than dropping all established identity in their process of growth, however, the guys from Krefeld, Germany initiate a deep melodic shift into the existent speed metal basis, allowing a subtle change to make a significant effect on the overall sound. The result is a more focused, more defined direction than what the two previous efforts had known; in addition to a lyrical and mythological construction that builds on what they had already started, albeit primitively, this meant that ‘Tales from the Twilight World’ became the first real power metal album that Blind Guardian would create.


Angra “Temple of Shadows”

In a word: Fresh, unique, articulate

It is certainly not an oversight of ours to include a Brazilian band in a list of allegedly European acts, but it certainly would be an oversight on anyone’s part to exclude Angra for that fact alone; indeed, Angra actually exemplify the strictly European style, often much more so than its intercontinental counterparts. On this particular album, ‘Temple of Shadows’, we believe that Angra hit its creative peak, even without Andre Matos, the legendary songwriter who had such a profound effect on their earlier records.

Angra has always been about fusing the flashy and melodic speed of early power metal with an accurate and concise technical performance arrayed in a way that many have termed ‘progressive’; this is no different on the present album, where speed and ‘progressivisms’ take on appropriately supplementary roles, allowing the melodies to embrace centre stage, and, apart from the occasional yet needless sentimental moment, they excel in the spotlight. With a concentrated, coherent method of songwriting, not to mention the impressive technical prowess of either axe, the melodic leads and solos are certain highlights of every song and, combined with a strong, classic understanding of the chorus and its importance, they are both literally and figuratively instrumental in making ‘Temple of Shadows’ a modern power metal classic.


Running Wild “Black Hand Inn”

In a word: Iron Maiden meets Accept meets Captain Blackbeard meets six bottles of rum

A typical occurrence in the development of any which power metal band is an attachment to some particular image or identity that is somewhat removed from ‘ordinary life’. So, in addition to faeries, elves and dragons of Italian symphonic bands like Rhapsody, we have Blind Guardian paying particular homage to the worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien; Grave Digger unearthing the historical remains of old, forgotten battles; and Running Wild, a band that was evidently dissatisfied with singing about the devil and had moved on to pirates instead.

There is not really a substantive or profound depth that drives the music onwards; this is simply a band that lures the listener in with the promise of a fun, exciting story about pirates (which is of course told by a drunk), and then promptly barrages him with easy, carousing rhythms that are inevitably met by a strong, anthemic chorus. Iron Maiden make their presence known on this record through the occasional galloping riff, as well as the many guitar harmonies, whereas the Running Wild anthem is unmistakably imbued with the infectious talents of their fellow Germans, Accept. Altogether, the band’s vision is not any higher than what many contemporary ‘folk metal’ bands attempt; namely, to create inebriated, party music. The difference is that, with their reliance on the well-tested techniques of bands like Iron Maiden, Accept, and Helloween, and with a perfectly suitable theme that can rouse any prole to drink, these Teutonic pirates actually succeed where the faux-vikings fail dismally.


Pagan’s Mind “Celestial Entrance”

In a word: Symphony X done right

While Pagan’s Mind is often referred to as ‘progressive metal’, we happen to think of its work as being far more along the lines of modern power metal, which is mainly due its focus on drafting songs that emphasize the traditional melody and rhythm combination, as opposed to whatever it is that actually constitutes the average Dream Theater album; when Jorn Lofstad launches into a solo, we can safely wager that it will not be prolonged into the pretentious affair of noodling for half an hour a la John Petrucci.

This is a good album because the band has (1) a firm grounding in the basics of what makes metal what it is; and (2) because they have just enough impetus to advance: where others might founder in the sterile waters of mediocrity, Pagan’s Mind actually manipulate its excellent instrumentation into well-structured compositions that reflect a band that clearly knows what it wants to achieve, and accordingly goes out and achieves it. So, through a strong sense of rhythm and a penchant for the dramatic, Pagan’s Mind combines the intricate work of a clever, flashy guitarist, the reliable rhythm section, with a typically illustrious vocalist to construct Celestial Entrance, an album that sounds precisely what its title implies: the epic adventure into the astral spheres.

Power Metal of the United States

It can be argued that while the charismatic and often operatic vocals lead the advance for the European bands, it is the powerof the simple yet efficient riff that drives the American bands forward. Indeed, the feeling of an honest, ‘blue-collar’ sentiment pervades many of the more emblematic records of this kind, and it does not get any more present than in an old-school technique of guitar playing; nothing fancy, nothing extra, it just gets the job done. This does not in any way blunt the efforts of these bands as they endeavour to create something epic, something that can even be called ‘mythological’ by the standards of our day; on the contrary, the stripped-down sound of many early albums helps produce the effect of being of modest birth, which allows them to be classified as ‘popular’ and even ‘folky’, the proper requirements of any nascent myth. Finally, to cite the execution of these theories, we give to you nine of the best USPM albums extant… (We have given the Americans an extra album due to their superiority in the sheer quantity of good power metal albums released over the years.)


Manowar “Into Glory Ride”

In a word: Comprehensively feudal

When it comes to picking the best Manowar album, any one of the first four would be a respectable choice; every which one is a proud testament to band’s core spirit, to the band’s purely honest will to play the kind of metal that is more barbaric than civilized, more feral than cultivated. ‘Into Glory Ride’ strikes a particularly powerful chord for us, however, and this is as much due to its consistency as its extra concentration on the epic narrative, which is constructed in an almost ‘cartoonish’ tribute to metal and to death.

The music is simple, written to the effect of a moving rhythm and a rousing anthem; the corresponding lyrics are more charming and pompous than they are cheesy, and they are essential in creating a medieval atmosphere of outlaws the ‘anything-goes’ attitude of the Wild West. The best reason for this band to receive the highest rank, however, is not merely for its flawless presentation of an honest yet primitive idea, but for how direct and how iconic this idea has become in its fullest execution: Manowar truly represents the fundamental vision of American power metal.


Iced Earth “Burnt Offerings”

In a word: An honest monument to the memory of Dante’s Inferno

In contrast with virtually every other featured in these lists, ‘Burnt Offerings’ evinces a conscious effort on the part of the songwriters to something darkly malignant, something sinister. Although firmly rooted in the melodic tradition of Iron Maiden, this album is steeped in the Faustian temptation to explore the infernal plains, to pursue the flame of self-discovery. This nefarious vision is revealed not only through the thematically relevant lyrics that cover everything from tragic love to Dante’s Inferno, but more importantly through the music itself: the guitars in particular exude a deep and molten darkness, providing profound and often chilling melodies as well as a layered rhythm that either gallops forth rapidly, or marches on slowly in a mystical calm not far removed from that of many doom metal acts. The dynamic vocals of Matt Barlow are at once dramatic, powerful, and are perfectly eloquent in conveying the appropriate emotion, especially of sadness and of wrath; the percussion, on the other hand, is straight-forward and simplistic, which is all that is needed to contribute to the pulsing, imperial rhythm. All of this is assembled and passed through an abyssal, velvet production that infuses the music with an invaluable sense of enduring darkness.

‘Burnt Offerings’ is really about an inverted heroism, a nocturnal pathos that gasps dryly and thrashes uncontrollably in the unfathomable depths; it is the musical monument to Satan’s legion as summoned by John Milton in the 17th Century. Where other American bands of this style commonly create something revolving around ‘practical reality’, Iced Earth is instead inspired to invoke an album that is crafted in the genuinely artistic sense, which enables ‘Burnt Offerings’ to really draw out its genuinely artistic qualities, which include but are not limited to its potent aesthetical romanticism, its fiery rebellion of a righteous condemnation, and finally its paradoxical delight in striving for the impossible.


Sanctuary “Into the Mirror Black”

In a word: Rhythmic power as opposed to moronic groove

Just before the stifling effect of the grunge scene overwhelmed the Seattle area, there was still a band that truly believed in the basics of heavy metal: Sanctuary. ‘Into the Mirror Black’ is the second of two quality albums made by a band that really epitomizes American power metal: heavy and forward riffs planted in a traditional format of composition, clear and stylized vocals, and lyrics that directly relate to practical reality and human emotion.

In Sanctuary’s case, the lyrics are particularly philosophic and investigative; they deliberately seek out the answers of some of the more obscure questions, and employ the technique of asking their own questions to the desired effect of placing emphasis where emphasis is needed. There is an almost poetic meter to the way that the lyrics are stressed, a rhythmic harmony that is evenly matched with an intelligent creation of riffs that accord with the meter of any which verse. This is important to remark upon not only because one of the key aims of this record is the exposition of several lyrical themes, but mostly because ‘Into the Mirror Black’ is built fundamentally around rhythm, and this particular sense of rhythm is not so much manufactured through the percussion and bass as it is by the guitars and vocals. So, yes, of course there are the lightning solos, the pounding battery and the occasional melody, but far more essential than all of this is the bold, relentless rhythm to which all else is subservient.


Crimson Glory “Crimson Glory”

In a word: Romanticism as Mary Shelley knew it

In the typical metal band, there is likely an emphasis on something, a particular area in which the band excels; we can mention that Slayer, for instance, was exceptional in pacing forward at a speed that few could immediately handle; or we can mention that Bathory was brilliant in evoking simple but dreadful subjects through simple but abrasive songwriting, and somehow being all the more fearsome for it. In this vein, Crimson Glory is excellent at putting together a song that subsists, indeed thrives on its melodic intuition: without that keen, delicate pulling of the strings, without the subtle taste in melancholy, everything would disintegrate.

All aspects of Crimson Glory, from the dramatic introductions to the starry chorus, from each sad rhythm to every slender, passionate solo, all of it depends on this fully pervasive emphasis on melody. The reason for this has already been hinted at: ‘Crimson Glory’ is a tragic album. Melody is seldom more useful than in conveying a deep and immutable sadness; the notes, while sufficient in number to prevent an outright dirge, are usually slower, downcast, hopelessly inflected by that precious melancholy sought by every romantic poet. While this album is obviously not overtly tragic, its subtleties are more than enough to allow us a glimpse of its true pathetic nature; indeed, its character is not really like that of the despondent misanthrope who cannot view life without seeing death as well, but more like that of a patient lover, the lover who is momentarily divorced from his opposite and yet at heart knows and feels that she is destined to return.


Manilla Road “Open the Gates”

In a word: A legendary band in the right circles

Manilla Road released several cult albums that have become essential to the traditional and power metal genres. ‘Open the Gates’, like sister records ‘ Crystal Logic’ and ‘The Deluge’, utilizes a low, throaty production that conveys their unique guitar and vocal sounds in the rough and hardened way that best suits the fundaments of classic Manilla Road. The axework resembles something sanguine and archaic: an image of an army of rusting skeletal soldiers is evoked by the creaking riffs that rumble over the heated rocks of the battlefield, as well as by the elongated solos that twist and turn in no predictable pattern until the tracks’ climax and descent is fulfilled. The music establishes the appropriate imagery for what the collective imagination of the band envisions: wide, perilous landscapes marked by the comings and goings of dread legions and tyrannical dragons; the colour scheme pervading the artistic schema is a vivid and unmistakable red in the likeness of a fast and ageless fire.

Nestled in the gentle plains of Kansas, Manilla Road has established a firm foothold in the annals of heavy metal with the attainment of an identity that is entirely its own; even with the most modest of song structures, ‘Open the Gates’ is successful in its ambition to recreate a fiery, mythic world through a dramatic and persuasive vocalist, destructive and bloody riffing, and that ever persistent struggle to perceive and grasp the Epic, the richest content in every story.


Savatage “Hall of the Mountain King”

In a word: Let the curtains fall

There has always been something purposefully theatrical about Savatage – the sense that the band is putting on some poignant story between the curtains is never absent in any Savatage album. Before Jon Oliva remembered his Italian roots and emphasized the story over the metal, he was deeply involved with an album that is actually more metal than it is melodramatic. The musicianship in ‘Hall of the Mountain King’ is fairly intricate and developed, although Jon’s brother Criss is rarely shy of occasionally firing in a simply, catchy riff; on the whole, however, the music is classy and orchestrated by a general motif revolving around that old art of telling tales the Italian way.

It might well appear that Savatage is not really of the American type of power metal; this is true to an extent, since these New Yorkers definitely focus on a neat and theatrical presentation of an appropriate theme; it is equally true that the music certainly comes across as Classically inspired, even going so far as to include a metal rendition of Grieg’s legendary ‘In der Halle des Bergkoenigs’. Beyond all of this, however, there is a peculiar, indefinable ‘dirtiness’ which is indisputably American by nature that infiltrates all aspects of Savatage; from Jon’s gritty vocals to Criss’s riffs and reckless solos, the bold advance of the Yankee puts its taint on a seemingly neoclassical, a seemingly European band.


Omen “Battle Cry”

In a word: Just look at any track title…

Beyond the justice and the caprice of society, beyond the state of sedentary existence, the law of the lawless rules unchallenged. Omen immediately brings to mind two possible landscapes: the first is of an exiled band of brigands and strongmen, fighting whomever for food, fun, or coin; the second is of a post-apocalyptic world similar to the dystopia of Snake Plisskin fame. In the end, however, the sights, smells, and noises of any age are irrelevant, for the fundamental idea that this album conveys is a timeless one: the barbarian, the ‘law unto oneself’ ideal of savages everywhere; it is unquestionably the focal point of this highly direct and uncompromising album.

The music is equally straightforward; quick yet still mid-paced verse sections are clearly rhythmic, nothing extraneous whatsoever; the chorus is typically anthemic, beckoning the listener to join in this gladiatorial brawl, or at least to sing along. However simple this album comes across as, it does not suffer anything by it, for really its execution of the perennial imagery of fighting outlaws is efficient and apt; after all, one can hardly expect or even imagine any band to arrange a full, technically adept orchestral composition to record the legends of a Conan or a Mad Max.


Hammers of Misfortune “The Bastard”

In a word: Mystical legends as told by a Satyr

While Mike Scalzi may be more renowned for his work in The Lord Weird Slough Feg, a band supposed to be at the forefront of a resurgence in traditional metal, we find that his more interesting project is undoubtedly Hammers of Misfortune. An outstanding reason for this assertion is that hammers is a novel production, a band that provides us with a much needed new perspective on heavy, trad, power, whatever kind of metal that this album actually falls into; ‘The Bastard’ is refreshing for this alliance of multiple concordant elements, for its eclectic understanding of musical creation.

The vocals, consisting of both male and female, both clean and bestial, are at the crux of the record, giving the unique story behind it an appropriately dramatic, even thespian approach: each voice seems to resemble either a character involved in the concept or an aloof narrator. The riffing is similarly diverse: the guitars flow easily, albeit in irregular patterns, curling and bending through each phrase, allowing an almost serpentine atmosphere to materialize; this does not, however, restrict the players from constructing rather inspiring melodic passages, or from submitting a low and swaying rhythm. ‘The Bastard’, for all its eccentricity and deviations from what we might call ‘normal songwriting’, is still an album with a resolute identity; in both lyrical and strictly musical content, Hammers of Misfortune is yet another metal band that invokes the spirit of a folky, medieval tradition to create a folky, medieval album.


Cirith Ungol “King of the Dead”

In a word: Where doom metal and fantasy collide

‘King of the Dead’ is one of those albums that defy any single classification: it is not only doom, it is not only power, and it is certainly not at all NWOBHM. There is, however, a single band that can be distinguished above all others in terms of influence: that band is Black Sabbath. While many of Cirith Ungol’s defining characteristics are fairly different from those of ’Sabbath, the traits in guitar wizardry are more or less identical; the movement of the song is wholly dependent on these slow, rumbling, repetitive riffs that crawl on and on; the song builds up into a zenith a behemoth of strength, powered by these simple, dreadful riffs that never relent. The vocals, on the other hand, are unique and virtuosic; Tim Baker’s voice is a mild shriek, as it were, a high-pitch, high-volume rasp.

The overall sum of the parts is a skeletal aesthetic that complies with the overt motif of Tolkien’s ghostly legion, which is of course ruled by the king of the dead. The black, crumbling riffs partnered with the neat, scratching solos depict a horrible chamber whilst the uncomfortable vocals unleash the eternal anguish of its prisoners. The name of the band and of this album really epitomizes the nature of both: Cirith Ungol is not content to simply look through the Lord of the Rings and be amazed at the immortal elves, or to stand in awe of a defiant, manly heroism; infact, Cirith Ungol will never be content until every proud and noble city is the lair of maggots and goblin filth, until every tall man is made short and swarthy due to some dark hubris; indeed, Cirith Ungol will never be content until every path, every secret passage becomes the private hunting ground of wild and wicked spiders.



In the sky a mighty eagle
Doesn’t care about what’s illegal
On its wings the rainbow’s light
It’s flying to eternity

– Helloween, Eagle Fly Free

 

Written by Xavier

Under a Toltec Moon – Memories on Mexican Metal

1. Introduction
2. A desert walk
3. Nahuatli steel
4. Pactum: M.O.D.L.
5. Mortuary: Blackened Images
6. Transmetal: Amanecer en el Mausuleo
7. Cenotaph: Riding Our Black Oceans
8. Shub Niggurath: The Kinglike Celebration
9.  Sargatanas: The Enlightenment
10. Aztec rites of darkness
11. Xibalba: Ah Dzam Poop Ek
12. Funereal Moon: Beneath the Cursed Light…
13. Avzhia: The Key of Throne
14. Demolish: Remembering the Cabalisticae Laments
15. Argentum: Ad Interitum Funebrarum
16. The Chasm: Conjuration of the Spectral Empire
17. The resurrection of the necrocults
18. Necroccultus: Encircling the Mysterious Necrorevelation
19. Yaotl Mictlan: Guerreros de la Tierra de los Muertos
20. Infinitum Obscure: Sub Atris Caelis
21. Denial: Catacombs of the Grotesque

Written by DevamitraObscuraHessianPearson and Xavier with Eduardo (Shub Niggurath / Necroccultus), Demogorgon (Avzhia), Marco (Xibalba) and Joel (Mortuary)

Introduction

In Mexico the god appears; thy banner is unfolded in all directions, and no one weeps.

The Hymn of Tlaloc

Goedel’s law tells us that no logical system can anticipate all of the demands of reality, because reality as an inarticulated mass of events and causes is naturally bigger in scope than any description of reality. The fallout from this is that every society loves to have a no man’s land, an anarchy zone and a lawless frontier. It’s hard to talk of Mexico as a singular entity when it is comprises so much more. It’s a former Spanish colony, containing the vestiges of two of the greatest empires to walk the earth — the Aztec and Maya, both of whom were warlike, enjoyed human sacrifice, and compiled more learning that any modern group would voluntarily undertake. In addition, it’s also part very learned place, part chaotic third-world disaster, and part anarchy zone. From this ferment comes some of the best metal to grace the earth. After Scandinavia and the US, Mexico produces the most quality underground music. And even more, the Mexican bands seem to “get it”: they can reconcile a nihilistic morality, technological warfare and even gutter-level fighting sensibilities with the arch, elegant and imposing formality and bravery of the past.

A desert walk

Muerte. That word, in Mexican art, embodies religious and historical streams of life so much more than the anglosphere’s clinically worldly emphasis on death as medical phenomenon. This muerte is a gate to antiquity, a divine storm, a holy mystery – contemplation of its secrets connects the Catholic superstition, still so powerful and affecting to common people, to the cruel and decadent rituals of the Toltecs and Olmecs, when no purpose higher could be envisioned than to bleed for the gods. Glimpses into Mexican tradition most often involve the morbid signature of supernatural belief in a strange form of unearthly life, represented by the skull worship of the Day of the Dead and the various devil masks and bizarre colourful monsters decorating the fiestas, as in embodiment of death metal aphorisms such as “the past is alive”.

It would be fairly easy and obvious to point out social ills, crime rates and poverty as motivating factors for religiously oriented fatalistic thoughts, but for the psychologist and the occultist the pathology of the morbid mind is not only a reaction, it is also a cause itself, deeply ingrained in behavior and culture. To go into this sphere in depth would require another kind of a broader study and it is hardly of interest to most of our readers, so we shall mostly be occupied with the mythical, visionary image of Mexico, closest to us who are far away. It is the land of the eagle and the scorpion, of the peyote cactus and tropical steam, of the sea and the canyon. As we see everywhere in the world, the landscape becomes the structure of the mind, which gives life to stories and archetypes showing the apparent chaotic complexity of nature in symmetrical solutions. And musically, what can offer better representations of the occult-mathematical beauty of life than the hymnals of muerte: Death Metal and Black Metal?

To this day, Mexico has not produced vapid mainstream metal sensations nor hard rock imitations to speak of, at least not ones that would have entered our awareness. It’s as if the inward drawn nacional spirit shuns the idea of establishing false identities and masks of life through exports, but instead entertains the Mexicans with whatever art or entertainment the local masses wish to be produced – but this is a realm mostly obscure to outsiders. Even in order to scratch the surface of Mexican rock and metal, one needs to stress the importance of such luminaries as Luzbel and Transmetal, names mostly unknown even in cult metal collector circles. As a more recent example, the astral and progressive death metal of The Chasm has certainly been gathering well deserved praise and attention in the underground, but as a phenomenon it’s still far from gracing the cover in Terrorizer or Decibel magazine.

Nahuatli steel

As the youth of the world tripped in the pseudo-spiritual chemical bliss of the 60′s, the seeds were sown in Mexico as well with an interest towards Rock music merged with esoteric and mystical themes, but true to its violent century, the nation oppressed its bravest minds, declaring them “communist”. Thus was quenched the initial surge of Heavy Metal, as clubs were closed, magazines censored and subversive content in radios minimized. Everywhere else the initial 70′s where the pivotal time for the realization of all kinds of “satanic” and “occult” music manifestations, so in the case of Mexico it took at least a decade to recover from vandalism espoused by the government.

As the wave of Americanization hit Mexican youth culture in the early 80′s, it was inevitable that some unique voices would rise against manipulation and show their own kind of “metal mass”, inflected with the Catholic superstitions and violent streets they saw all around them with innocent, idealistic eyes. Two names especially can not go unmentioned: the original thrashers Death Warrant from Ciudad Juarez and the more classical but frighteningly psychic Luzbel from Mexico City, one of the greatest metal institutions to rise from the sand of Mexico and a prophet of Doom Metal themes and aspirations.

Huizar, the maniac behind Luzbel, managed to also put forth with his comrades at Escuadron Metalico label a series of compilations which in the mid-80′s showed the sounds of the new metal generation inspired by, mainly, American thrash metal and European speed metal. These “Proyecto” vinyls featured Transmetal, Ramses, Six Beer and practically everyone else who dominated the end of the 80′s when finally Mexican metal was too strong to be quenched by sporadic police raids and random accusations of blasphemy and iniquity. These troubles were akin to an anvil upon which the hammer of the light bringer shaped and pounded the minds that were to break free of the shackles of social upbringing and even “humanness” itself.

Eduardo: Well, to have a live appearance was not easy at all, because many people in Mexico (until this day) are a very difficult audience towards the Mexican bands. But we showed them that we were true about our ideals and that we gave 666% in every show! So we got the support of all the metalheads and they gave us in return a total storm of headbanging and full support. These were unforgettable moments to Shub Niggurath.

Joel: There was a small metal scene hungry to hear more extreme metal, so we always had great support from the beginning. I think there were more people supporting the scene than there is now supporting new metal bands, it’s a weird thing! Authority and “normal” people, as usual here, they didn’t understand our music. Sometimes the police were around looking to bother us, came up to the rehearsals and trying to get us, but never had luck, hahaha! And the people, those normal people, were the ones to send the police. I remember a show in Guadalajara or Leon in which the flyers had a circle in our logo and said: Watch out, Catholic, don’t assist! That was really funny.

Already before the decade was over, the most evil of the bands inspired by Thrash, namely Mortuary, Pactum, the inimitable Toxodeth and Transmetal (who tightened their sound album by album and still continue to do so after more than 20 years of career) had overtaken the gap between the international underground and the Mexican one. Suddenly the Judas Priest and Scorpions influence as the mainstream Mexican sound was replaced by a streetborn brutality and occult gore visions that would have made Slayer shudder. Studio and recording conditions were hardly ideal, but creating an easily digestible sound was hardly the intent of these iconoclasts, who repeated the slightly anterior efforts of the Brazilian scene in unleashing a torrent of noisy darkness easily mistaken for hardcore punk as the antithesis to forgetfulness and ignorance in adult human life.

Joel: Musically, our influences were basically Slayer, Venom, Possessed, Celtic Frost, and some classical masters. Lyrically important were the things inside my mind, my way to see this life, and obviously some great writers like Nietzsche, Poe and Lovecraft influenced us. Before Mortuary, each of us were playing in various bands songs of the bands that influenced us. When I was a child I studied some basic piano as well.

Eduardo: Also I had musical experience before Shub Niggurath: we created the Death Thrash Metal band called Tormentor. This was the origins for the unnameable abhorrence later known as Shub Niggurath.

Pactum – M.O.D.L.

A mob of confusion, alike crawling insects, attacks the strings as early blasphemists Pactum struggle to make sense of violent, anti-religious ideas called forth by their satanic subconscious in Mexico City’s extreme response to Bathory and Sarcofago. While the anally raped vocalist rants meaninglessly on, the guitars manipulate suggestive, dischordant layers of picked notes and speedy runs that often sound chaotic but on a closer listen reveal an affinity with classical construction much like the early methods of Burzum and Ildjarn to call forth elegance from pieces of degeneration. Be it dissidence, incompetence or imagination that made Pactum to mangle the pieces of thrash they built upon nearly inrecognizable, the originality and harsh, spontaneous electric discharge that carries these songs onwards makes for a curious and surprising listen for those who are able to listen to the nearly unlistenable. In “M.O.D.L.” the band has discovered one of the valuable early lessons of black and death metal, that of desecrating the sanctity of rigid social structure by defying musical conventions and bringing the expression closer to the fractal noise of nature.

Mortuary – Blackened Images

The elaborate and malign death metal of Mortuary is one of the most recognized funereal voices of early Mexican scene in cult circles and totally deservedly so, as the melodious and grinding old school sound hasn’t dated one bit but preserves the vital energy field of the times when death metal was not taken for granted, the quest for the ultimate density and sobriety. The rhythmic intensity brings to mind the debuts of Morbid Angel and Vader while the gloomy melody disposed as the interconnector of the more thrashing riffs is without question Central or South American in character (think: “INRI”). Joel Alanis’ voice escapes the trap that caused problems for many a thrasher, holding the rhythm of the syllables in position when reciting the blasphemies in English, and his powerful roar commands the fast, climactic and concise songs effortlessly to their logical conclusions. Even today Mortuary’s short but perfectly articulate album could serve as a protocol for building enjoyable but deep death metal, one that incites both head-banging and heart-scrutiny as the ultra-infectious “Reign of Dead” and “Asphyxiation” attack your brain with sensations from beyond and memories from the depths of the layers of mental programming.

Transmetal – Amanecer en el Mausuleo

As the inaugural saints of muerte spread their leathery wings over Michoacán and the 80′s were drawing to a close, Mexico’s silence was ruptured by these mangled, hellspawned shouts and nearly arbitrary riff structures envisioned by the scene’s godfathers Transmetal as the path leading to the aerie of the future. Simple and pitiless like a less experienced Sepultura or Slayer debut, this early collection sees Transmetal attempting to bludgeon their way through a barrage of speed metal in an endless call-and-response of rhythm riff and hoarse barking. Germans had invented most of these figures and refrains as early as 1984 but the untamed desert frontier of their homeland does bestow Transmetal with a rancor bringing it closer to the most subterranean and spontaenous garage punk bands that had the chance to practice their instruments on brief relapses from fighting social corruption. The sketchy but decisive melodies of “Temor a la Cruz” and “Fuerza Invisible” hardly represent an international or even local pinnacle of art, but they were enjoyed by a legion of punks and metalheads for their absolute breakup with the more mainstream appealing qualities of traditional heavy metal.

If there is a style of metal one thinks of in regards to Mexico, it must be Death Metal, in its brutal but most oblique forms, the sonic heir to Aztecs’ solar blood rites and Toltecs’ shadowy sorceries, an amalgamation of heretical thought inspired by Crowley and Lovecraft with a deep respect for the sacred and universal forces of nature which permeates the continuity of godforms in Catholic religious language in shades of traditional paganism which it overtook in surface but never in spirit. The first of these classics was undoubtedly Mortuary’s famous “Blackened Images” (also one of the earliest important Mexican releases sung in English) but no underground Death Metal maniac would forget the splendid, churning visions of Shub Niggurath (“Evilness and Darkness Prevails”, “The Kinglike Celebration”) or Sargatanas (“The Enlightenment”) either, not to mention the virile luminary Cenotaph (“The Gloomy Reflections of Our Hidden Sorrows”, “Riding Our Black Oceans”) whose lifeblood still runs in the veins of the most prized names of today’s underground (The Chasm, Denial and Hacavitz among others feature former Cenotaph members).

Demogorgon: Our ancient strain of blood has always been important to us, as on it are real human sacrifices and that is something we deeply connect with. We are proud of it and it deserves all of our respect. But anyway, we are mostly influenced by European Black Metal.

Joel: Definitely the legacy of our past has been influential in what we do, also the current situation in which the country has plunged. All the ups and downs of the past of our culture influence us directly or indirectly. The difference is the window from which we look at it, it’s definitely not the same as for the rest.

Eduardo: Mostly these bands’ message is about Death, destruction and occultism. If I’m not wrong, only Xibalba took our cultural roots into his concept – they even wrote “Unique Mayan Black” on their debut album. Cenotaph, Mortuary, Shub Niggurath, Tormentor, Deus Mortis, Deadly Dark, Necrophiliac and Pentagram among others were influenced by the Florida and Scandinavian scenes when they built Death Metal during the late 80′s and the early 90′s. My influences have always been bands like Morbid Angel, Deicide, Bathory (old), Sodom (old), Nihilist, Therion (demos), Thergothon, Winter, Necroschizma, Bolt Thrower, Slayer (old) and H.P. Lovecraft’s masterpieces. In Shub Niggurath, Arturo (who handled vocal invocations) was always in charge of the lyrical concept. Regarding “Evilness and Darkness Prevails” I only did the guitar solos, after that I had to leave the band. I have nothing to do with “The Kinglike Celebration” – for me this is not the real Shub Niggurath. For me, this was just some kind of project, without Arturo there, I am not sure about the result.

Cenotaph – Riding Our Black Oceans

Coming off the back of an excellent debut in the form of ‘The Gloomy Reflections Of Our Hidden Sorrows’ and losing a prominent member in the form of Daniel Corchado, Mexican horde Cenotaph radically altered their sound aesthetically and showed a refinement of production and to a smaller extent, musical technique. Whereas the first full-length resembled a prototypical version of Nile, with an exotic though nonetheless esoteric and original take on New York death metal (think Incantation, Morpheus Descends), ‘Riding Our Black Oceans’ owes its musical framework, when speaking of instrumental technique, to European metal, most notably the first two albums of At The Gates, with a much more classicist approach to melody. With the outgoing of previous throatman Corchado a new vocal makes itself at home, not far from the tortured howls of Anders Friden. The same sense of aggression is also present in this work, but is less of a catharsis than the aforementioned Swedish band or the German act Atrocity, and has a motive towards evoking a nostalgic depth, rather than a psychological-emotional one. The percussion is chaotic and structurally brings to mind a more rigid and maze-like ‘Beneath The Remains’ by Sepultura, with more adventurous battery that evokes their ‘Morbid Visions’ record. Acoustic guitars embellish and interlock with these intricate arrangements, and are an obvious nod to Mediterranean and Southern European music. This stylistic admixture works brilliantly, rather than being a work that is merely imitative of an established style, it works the more obvious traits for its own ends, borrowing rather than copying. Cenotaph make a very distinct and profound work here, one of the finest releases to come out of Latin America.

Shub-Niggurath – The Kinglike Celebration (Final Aeon On Earth)

From the extra-dimensional plane of unspeakable horrors that’s revealed in our nightmares by black, arachnoid creatures, prying open our sub-conscious to witness terrible visions, comes this brutal classic of Lovecraftian Death Metal. As a later album in the old-school tradition, ‘The Kinglike Celebration’ has the strength of dynamic and coherent composition under the unmistakeably nefarious atmospheres that could only come from the first generation to be instructed by the likes of Possessed and Sepultura. Unlike more recent acts such as Portal that also delve into the Non-Euclidean realm of Howard Phillip, this work remains an highly geometric one, as if to frame the malevolent world of the Ancient Ones within the scope of human cognition, enabling the sensations of fear and awe and involuntary submission to the higher, evil will. The symmetrical structure of these songs oversee a central melodic theme being deconstructed with the horror of trembling and ominously churning, Deicidean riff-work that builds to a majestic revelation of cosmic power, usually embellished by eerie synths. From this expanse, the band reintroduces the central riff, re-contextualising it through powerful lead overlays and purposeful percussive and rhythmic enunciation, with the crescendo-inducing prowess of a Classical symphony. Shub-Niggurath advance the pulsating Slayerisms of Deicide’s first album to encompass thoughtful formulae of occult melodicism and awaken the unspeakable entities of the grand, cosmic hierachy.

Sargatanas – The Enlightenment

These blasphemers from Guadalajara were around as early as 1986 according to their biography. Only denizens of the infernal layers know what they must have sounded like back then, but their full length revelation is also nothing less than ancient and horrific, of deeply atmospheric and disturbed vision of extended, simple and dragging death metal torment. Shunning the eloquent melodies of Cenotaph and likewise the rhythmic energy of Mortuary, Sargatanas withdraws into ascetic and morbidly elongated tremolos pillared by blasphemous growls mostly maintaining the emotionless, yet commanding tone of satanic artifice, as a stone statue summoned to unholy life and crushing Christians with no haste or passionate compulsion – determinate, almost peaceful. The meditative quality is carried to the extreme in mid-paced or even slower songs such as “Fear and Suffering” or “The Proclamation” (featuring drum patterns motivated rather by ritual ambient than Dave Lombardo) making it even somewhat plodding. The band barely animates for a gloomy rendition of Possessed’s “Satan Curse” in a version that sounds like bubbling lava or tremors preceding an earthquake and one of the most delightful tracks on offer, the chaotic “Satanist” whose main riff recalls Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” and as many other tracks on here, is seemingly randomly interrupted for a mock satanistic prayer. In any case, this inward bound attraction and solitude of vision will open only to deepest underground death metal cultists and fans of subtle terror based on psychological expectation and illogical mood cues, examples of which are found plenty in Mexican horror movies and early black metal in the vein of Samael and Barathrum, which undoubtedly heavily weigh on Sargatanas’ study list regardless of this band’s origins being placed even further back in the dimension of time.

Aztec rites of darkness

Without prior knowledge it would be easy to assume that the Black Metal biosphere of Mexico would have been overtaken by bulletbelted battalions fueled by alcohol and sexual lust, but instead some of the most purely mystical and meditative classics of the 90′s underground arose from under the wings of Guttural Records, the all time prime supporter of Mexican occult metal who still keeps cranking out occasional re-releases of material whose quality is, occasionally, simply beyond our dreams. To name some, if you have not heard the most moving moments of Xibalba, Avzhia, Funereal Moon and Shub Niggurath, you don’t know how astral and insane Black Metal can simultaneously be while resorting neither to “progressive” nor “raw” clichés, instead being alive with the fervent force of Mexican demons that feast on the souls of succumbed sorcerers, the experience and experiment being total.

Marco: We have been listening to Metal music for a long, long time. We began by listening to a lot of ’70s bands (Purple, Priest, etc), we experienced the radical change and the explosion of the new bands from the ’80s (Venom, Bathory, etc.) and we just grew with the evolution of this music through the end of the ’80s and the beginning of the ’90s. I think all of this music has influenced us a lot. Books that have inspired us throughout all of this has been ancient literature from the pre-Hispanic cultures of our homeland – with special focus on the Mayan topics mainly, though we also like H.P. Lovecraft’s books. In those days, there were not many bands like us around. I remember that on the few gigs we had, some people were just staring at us, and some other were just enjoying the sound. It was really small and we just seem to get more attention from other countries than ours. Sometimes, regular people were inventing silly stories about bad things happening to them simply because we were about to play on that day. I don’t think the media was focused on this kind of extreme music back in those days, as it is now.

Demogorgon: Avzhia was formed with influence from Death, Thrash etc. Metal, absorbing and swallowing the blackest of these styles of Metal to form a dark and melancholic sound. Musically we were influenced by the old school of Black Metal, bands such as Bathory, Celtic Frost, Hellhammer, etc. and ideologically for example Emperor, Dissection, Satyricon, Black Crucifixion, Grand Belial’s Key, The Black, Tormentor, etc. We were never schooled musicians, we started doing it simply like we felt at the time in the earlier 90′s and we’re still doing music the same way. Avzhia was the only Black Metal band playing in the midst of a lot of Death Metal bands, we remember brutal mosh pits and hostility… so when Avzhia took the stage the audience seemed to be taken by a great fucking depression! In the early 90′s it was a big challenge to keep moving forward into the majestic world of Black Metal.

Xibalba – Ah Dzam Poop Ek

Like Cenotaph, but in the context of a Nordic black metal band, Xibalba take obvious cues from mid-period Darkthrone and Burzum’s ‘Det Som En Gang Var’, and use various aesthetic tricks to distinguish the artistic and ethnic context herein, whilst also succeeding in not letting grandeur overwhelm the beauty of their work. Flowing, harmonic riffs, much like an upbeat version of ‘Panzerfaust’ work their way through catchy, waltzing rhythms that would fit nicely into balladic pieces, sounding just as apt as an interpretation of ethnic, triplet based patterns, transferred onto the modern drumkit. Samples to introduce particular songs use ancient Mexican folk music to accentuate the ‘Mayan’ character of this record, this is done sparingly and is non-excessive, charming and ensnaring. This album is strictly traditionalist in its execution, but successfully incorporates unique, exotic elements into its framework, retains its dignity without compromising it’s honesty. This was released in 1994 and was a time where many metal acts were on the verge of signing artistic death warrants by trying too hard to be different. Xibalba continued the legacy of black metal’s orthodoxy and breathed new life into it.

Marco: I think “Ah Dzam Poop Ek” is a great album, we express the essence and the atmosphere of our past in every song. Maybe it could have had a better production, but in the end that is the sound that captures the environment we are related to. And it’s good to stay away from a trite, standard and expected programmed sound. We hope to release our new album soon.

Funereal Moon – Beneath the Cursed Light of a Spectral Moon

Easily one of the most obscure and horrifying symphonies ever composed on the Mexican soil, the drug-addled, hypnotic and twisted black ambient scenarios of Funereal Moon despite the Guttural Records connection bear little resemblance to the warm crusted ground of Xibalba or the quasi-Nordic beauty of Avzhia – or any other formal black metal for that matter. If you have heard some of the unsane abstractions concocted by the French black legionnaires or Texan congregation of Equimanthorn on their mostly private tape mayhem, you might have an inkling of what to expect. Subsonar synths throb, cheap reverbs multiply growling voices to comical intensities, layers merge into a ritual cacoon of violent concentration in a macabre crescendo of not-so-subtly erotic (especially in the hideous “Vrykolkas (White Irish Eyes)” backed by whiplashes and female moans) palpitations begging for release through the dagger of the proponent. When synthetic guitars and mechanically stumbling drumscapes kick in to approximate occult metal architectures, the effect is close to what Black Funeral evoked years later in the industrial black metal revivals of “Az-i-Dahak” and “Ordog” – here achieved without any excess stylistic measures, simply thrown in your face in the name of blasphemy and contempt. Cheesy and immature to the extreme, but at the same time mercilessly compelling like an exploitation movie, these desolate voices of sorcery seem somehow one of the closest to the alienation and horror of the Mexican “Nocturnos dominion”, where immoving cacti stand upon the chaparral as guardians of twilight and coyotes raise their chant to the bloodred moon, all ensorcelled by the forgotten spells of Tulan sorcerers.

Avzhia – The Key of Throne

From out of Mexico City’s chaotic and concrete urban sprawl arose this monumental Black Metal album as a statement of militaristic and natural order, inextricably linked as they would have been to the inhabitants of Tenochtitlan, the former capital of the great Aztec civilisation. Avzhia here develop the ritualistic and prolonged, ‘Pentagram’ by Gorgoroth-like phrasing of ‘Dark Emperors’ into even grander arrangements panning across vast battlefields and landscapes, bringing keyboards to the foreground for a sense of epic melody that resembles Graveland’s ‘Creed of Iron’ being guided by the expansive compositions of Emperor. There is none of the lead guitarwork that’s central to ‘In The Nightside Eclipse’ in forming esoteric musical themes, so the symphonic majesty of ‘The Key of Throne’ is simply and effectively accompanied by the fullness of sweeping powerchords and this approach brings a lot of primitive but intelligent flavours to the sound and the composition as far as bringing the themes to a successful conclusion is concerned. When stripping away the keyboards from the guitars to reveal the simple beauty of an idea, almost Punk-like riffs of the sort Impaled Nazarene are infamous for are unleashed in a warlike clash of thought and action. With the inclusion of the keyboard, there’s a sense that Avzhia might have heard Skepticism’s ‘Stormcrowfleet’ as the same feeling of ethereal beauty and earthy power is evoked. The bass plays an important role as well, during the drawn-out riffing, reminiscent of Primordial’s ‘A Journey’s End’, folkier parts can be heard echoing underneath like a dormant race building its power to strike, and strike it does as the full instrumental ensemble combines to reiterate this idea. Perhaps this is Avzhia’s vision, like the Norwegian Black Metallers once possessed, of Satan’s adversarial power conquering the modern, Christian lands, once again appeasing with the blood of fallen enemies the ancient gods who had long ago died for their race.

Demogorgon: To analize this album, well, it contains too few tracks but each one of them satisfies us and yes, there’s both ideological and musical evolution – but as always, firmly obscure roots that define Avzhia.

As the populist variants of Nordic Black Metal and Gothenburg Death Metal grew in volume and number, so did the attempts at “romantic” or “psychedelic” sound in Mexico, mostly misguided through a lack of coherence and real inspiration beyond the mundane wish to belong in a clandestine good-looking cult of gothic clothes; an unfortunate occurrence of middle class commercial mentality in a society otherwise unnaturally divided and polarized (the shades of civil war never left, nor the even deeper bloody roots of muerte culture). Prominent American label Full Moon Productions signed Argentum for their one interesting album, “Ad Interitum Funebrarum”, while many in the vein of cloak-and-hood-gothic Demolish and the rather interesting Black Vomit toiled in obscurity. The Chasm, a masterful brainchild of Cenotaph alumnus Daniel Corchado, advanced from Mexican beginnings to dominate the forthcoming decade (now in Chicago) with a progressive (structural, non-gimmick) Death Metal tour de force. Another relocator was the grinding, blasphemous and simplistic “bonehead black metal” group Morbosidad, whose several drummers died in accidents.

Demolish – Remembering the Cabalisticae Laments

To be honest, and there is a reason to be because we are not here to create empty hype and false promise, most of Mexican metal of the 1990′s was comprised of worthless copies aping whatever neo-gothic metal trend was looming in the world at large and it’s nowhere more clear than in this compilation of the successive 1995 and 1997 demos of Demolish and the progression from mediocre to bad influence. The bouncy, hyper-emotional and lethargic black groove of the first part “Reinforcement Laments from the Lamb” (That’s just about what I emitted halfway through this concoction!?) is an incriminating example of heavy metal dressed as black metal, enveloped in saccharine keyboards which occasionally would inspire a vomitous reflex from even that top hatted abortion of Dimmu Borgir (old). Suffice to say there’s a lot of Anne Rice-y occult romance and affective screaming and bombast with hardly any musical surprise or moment of interest, as they would probably distract from the singular intent of securing the attention of fat gothic Wiccan bitches. I guess you might be into this if Covenant’s mercifully forgotten “In Times Before the Light” or earlier Cradle of Filth was the best thing that ever happened to you in black metal. The older more creeping old school death metal influenced occult metal in the earlier recorded second part “Artis Cabalisticae” includes violent moments of hope, but not enough to convince any further than, say, that first EP from Portuguese womanizers Moonspell. Hardly any Toltec spirit here, so move along.

Argentum – Ad Interitum Funebrarum

Hooded Wallachians prowl the crenellated wall tops of ancient castles, Mediterranean bards wield their lutes as metallic Paco de Lucias and some thin, wimpy goth called Philix Pherboreon (is this a Harry Potter character?) attacks the cheap Roland determined to reign as nocturnal dominion over every Mexican black metal wannabe circa 1996. With surprising class and flair, Argentum’s hymns to darkness remind one that the atmospheres descended part from “The Principle of Evil Made Flesh” and part from “Goetia”, might not stand the highest in today’s black metal elitists’ repertoire but today, sounds more exciting and unique because of their severe emotional and dimensional indulgement in a nearly forgotten quest – to compose music, not meaningless random noise or robotic riff patterns. The band is undoubtedly at their peak with the sustained moods of “Enter an Encysted Hibernation” and other slower pieces such as “The Serpent’s Lament” which traces the ethereal scents of the black lotus much as My Dying Bride would have if they had obsessed with black metal during the time of their first album. When the bands decides to thrash onwards in speed, and yet retain the “gloomy” keyboards in “Mortuus Infradaemoni”, it’s undoubtedly a bad choice, sounding ridiculous and swamping their intentions of occult credibility observed with “Lections on texts including English, latin, Catalan, Creol, and Ancientdark Language & Spanish”. The question mark imprinted by this upon one’s brain is better than mere satisfaction, though.

The Chasm – Conjuration of the Spectral Empire

The Chasm’s fifth album in a productive and populated discography continues their journey through the astralic realms of the dead, traversing a heterogenous soundscape much like the cultural topography of Mexico itself. Where Corchado’s work with Cenotaph was inspired by the rhythmic power of Swedish Death Metal, this album is more in tune with not only the melodicism of old troops from Gotenborg like At The Gates, Unleashed and Dark Tranquility but the morbid disharmony of Norsk Black Metal classics ‘De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas’ and ‘Under A Funeral Moon’, which owe much to the Latin American primitivism of Sepultura that also goes into the sound of ‘Conjuration of the Spectral Empire’. The expansive melting pot of sounds and styles is guided by Shamanic visions that peer into the inpenetrable abode of Mictlantehcuhtli, coloured and contrasted by the opposing principles that intersect this psychic plane, giving this album a vast sense of direction proportional to the longing for ancient wisdom in a world torn from the continuum of tradition. From the very outset of ‘Conjuration…’, the winds of the Chihuahuan desert are conjured by guitars and effects, bringing to mind the main theme composed by Ennio Morricone for the nihilistic Western classic, ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’. Each song develops from or towards a single, clear and always beautifully poignant melodic idea, fusing the structural framework of early Dismember with the technique of Technical Death Metal bands like Cynic and Atrocity and their insistence on rhythmic and melodic interaction, although the use of inverted powerchords amidst the South American chaos and Melodeath flourishes, to create a more sombre atmosphere recalls the obscure Black Metal of Mütiilation’s second album. The Chasm avoid the pitfalls of Melodic Death Metal by having this focus, removing themselves from the tendency of bands to resemble a Scandinavian folk riff-salad with no conceptual reasoning behind it. Instead, songs qualify as movements and the phrasal development therein demonstrates an awareness of Classical music that restores the grand aspirations of the Swedes and therefore stands alongside the likes of ‘The Red In The Sky Is Ours’ and ‘Like An Everflowing Stream’ as monuments to the primal, cosmic darkness of our true, inner nature.

Through the international contact and amalgamation of principles brought about by simultaneously World Wide Web access and the extent of educating the young generation in English language (movies, videogames and music being elemental and important here) the new millennium saw Mexico closer than ever to its northern neighbour. Youth factions such as the hated “emo” culture would have been out of place in 1980′s conservative Mexico, but despite clashes between groups they are widely approved today. All in all, it seemed to weaken the unique characteristic of the Mexican underground which was the tough rebelliousness in speed metal and occult/mystical lyrical tendency in Death Metal. In other words, too many corpse painted posers (such as the unending repertoire of Azermedoth Records) and uneventful, funny “goregrinders” (Disgorge, the original of this style, still continues to exist) infected the underground.

Eduardo: Certainly this isn’t an easy way to get money, fame or groupies. If that’s what a band is looking for, it’s just a bunch of shitty losers. You should work because you love what you are doing, and doing this just to be a sell out and gain a living from the people who manage you is a completely Shitty attitude. Underground Death Metal is for true warriors who eat, shit and talk metal, and love it as a son! To know all the underground beasts that still dwell on the catacombs of the worldwide scene and support them as brothers… In Europe it’s awesome how the Metal way of life is still the way for the chosen to die with their boots on. Metal in Europe is bigger than other music styles without the need of being in a popularity contest. Metal is for metalheads and that’s it.

On the other hand, in Mexico, Metal has been taken as a trend. Every single metal subgenre such as death, thrash, black or speed has been invaded by stupid bastards with childish ideas and only commercial purposes. This is not only certain individuals, as even labels have mutated into money makers – signing bands created to give a commercial and false name to metal. They think that they know everything and even take the image of the old gods as costumes. Please! All those denim jackets full of patches from Possessed and Slayer, just to name a few, worn by kids of 18 years and claiming to be “thrash ’til death”! Jajajajajajajaja! Or the new trend of “old school death metal”? Please, when those bands were out, nobody cared about them! But now everybody is looking for those bands, jajajaja! Only the true ones we’ll meet at the end of the road. The other ones will escape to the next trend, because they never really belonged to us!

The resurrection of the necrocults

This is not to say Mexico’s soil doesn’t still bleed black at the desolate fullmoon hours. Old bands all the way to Luzbel are still sporadically active and the promised Avzhia offering “In My Domains” is one of our most awaited forthcoming releases in several years. Infinitum Obscure featuring The Chasm’s Roberto Lizárraga is a throwback to the days when death metallers weren’t afraid to expose religious mysticism, supernatural fervour and psychological “dark” addiction in one package, while Hacavitz and Yaotl Mictlan bring back the Aztec themes but do not retain the climactic level of Xibalba’s “Unique Mayan Black Metal”. Satanists who preach the ontology of Self and the theurgies of netherworlds remain plentiful, Denial and Necroccultus (both featuring scene veterans such as Supplicium’s Isaíah Huerta, Shub Niggurath’s Eduardo and Cenotaph’s Oscar Clorio) being probably the best of the bunch, and also for example Ravager enjoys wide exposure and releases on prominent European metal labels (while Avzhia sadly toils without a record deal).

Demogorgon: Look out for “In My Domains” – this album is strong in itself, riff by riff. It’s raw while plentiful in melodic interludes, grim voices and depressive atmospheres. We do what satisfies us, then other metalheads can satisfy themselves with Avzhia’s music. It’s great to meet true people when we do shows. Avzhia is always going to exist in the dark side of true Black Metal and we will keep doing our work full of darkness of our Lord Sathanas. Grim, cold, melancholic and depressive are characteristics of what Avzhia is! Only the true emperors live, eternal life to Black Metal! See you soon wherever you are… on “In My Domains” tour.

Marco: We just like the sound of a good song, no matter what style it is. As long as it reflects honesty and passion, clearly away from the rules of the mainstream. We have made this music since the ’90s, and still I can have ideas for a song that sounds great, even when there’s hundreds of bands around. You just need to find the right notes and stay focused on the path. This music has been really distorted from the original roots. What makes it worth I don’t know, but maybe just to know the right path is still there and the fact that we’re contributing to it. I think it depends on the integrity and personal convictions everybody has. It’s all part of finding personal freedom or spiritual release.

Joel: We are satisfied with the music that we did. It represents the things we felt at that time, and it’s a real condition that still prevails. Songwriting for us has been a natural change in the evolution of the band, as new songs have the seal of Mortuary but are definitely not the same. We have an evolutionary progress, you’ll see.

Necroccultus – Encircling the Mysterious Necrorevelation

On the footsteps of Irapuato bands such as the Paradise Lost influenced Supplicium and the Chasm-ic A Perpetual Dying Mirror the mad inverters of music decided to go for an irate, warlike sound most akin to Vader’s most brutal incantations. For a fan of Sargatanas and earlier Shub-Niggurath, there are plenty of morbid mental cavities to succumb into in atmospheric death-thrashing of “Mirage of Death” or the more Northern sound of “Descent To Requiem”, actually close to Absu’s early efforts in mingling Swedish death metal and the more ritualistic and sensual sound of ambient black. As regrettably is the case with neo-death metal, there is a great temptation to succumb into a patterned safe manifestation of used riffs, which no longer have the capacity to shock or inspire but the most fresh and innocent listeners. One can only imagine what impact “The Necrosphere Within” would have had in 1987, but the lack of a honest exploration of death metal horizons arouses the question how long can “formulaic death metal” be “death metal” at all, since the genre was incepted to scare the listener into an acceptance of devious un-life. In a hodgepodge of riffs, the social instinct takes over and the music loses the “death-feeling”. A slight rescue is obtained by preserving much of the doom character of the members’ earlier bands, as well as wicked and proficient guitar solos. In total, “Encircling the Mysterious Necrorevelation” is far from bad, but it also lacks the essential magic and forceful intellect characteristic of Mexican metal peaks.

Yaotl Mictlan – Guerreros De La Tierra De Los Muertos

Yaotl Mictlan in a similar respect to Xibalba borrow stylistically from European black metal. Their debut full-length contains a battle-hardened ferocity not unlike Graveland’s ‘Thousand Swords’, and in attitude resembles a less esoteric version of the classic Polish black metal acts. Musically this has the precision and sharp execution of Enslaved’s ‘Frost’ album, but with is overlaid with meandering, arpeggiated guitar forms that bring to mind a more rock-inclined take on Burzum’s first album. True to backdrop, the band bring elements unique to their Mexican heritage to the fore, in the form of wind instruments, percussives and acoustic guitar passages that are distinct within flamenco music. This is no doubt a unique approach, and firmly grasps a sound it can call it’s own, though lacking the cohesion and charge to put them in the same tier as Xibalba or Avzhia. As a result of this, ‘Guerreros De La Tierra De Los Muertos’ comes across as a tiresome listen, but not without the occasional flourish of excellence. Now signed with Candlelight records, it will be interesting to see what results their next release will artistically yield, as there are moments of promise here.

Infinitum Obscure – Sub Atris Caelis

Often referred to as a clone of The Chasm, Infinitum Obscure do indeed share more than a few identifiable traits with their fellow Mexicans, most notably the tremolo picking and those galloping triplets that lend so much power and vigour to the rhythm. There is something that ultimately separates the two bands, however; that being the conceptual direction each band embarks upon: while The Chasm invokes a strong, dark atmosphere that emphasizes the mystical, esoteric passage through some evanescent portal, Infinitum Obscure are far more direct in organizing a forceful rhythm in such a way as to remain concentrated on a single, grounded idea, often reinforcing this focus by frequently returning to familiar themes. So, while their main inspiration might take flight into stranger landscapes, Infinitum Obscure are quite content to portray the lost chasms of this world with an evocative atmosphere of imaginative melodies and, most importantly, direct and uncompromising riffing. On ‘Sub Atris Caelis’, Infinitum Obscure’s sophomore album, these points are emphasized more clearly, making it their definitive accomplishment to date. The need to shake off the burden of being a mere clone band is eminently present; the band tasks itself with creating something altogether their own, resulting in a real sense of the epic emerging from the patterns interwoven throughout the record; each song is striking at something profound, grasping wildly in the search for solidarity. The consequence of these compulsions is an album that sounds like it is still very much in The Chasm camp; while really it has taken several progressive leaps forward, leaving us with a work of art brimming with the self-confidence of autonomy.

Denial – Catacombs of the Grotesque

Some of the most impressive new death metal from anywhere in the world, this churning, impactful and bodily animalistic accomplishment from former Cenotaph and Shub Niggurath madmen is not a joke. What Cannibal Corpse always intended with their chromatic, bass-heavy and relentlessly rhythmic one dimensional stream of riff becomes an amalgamation of melodic motifs and devastatingly experimental squeals in the hands of these  perpetrators, as the background noise boils and envelops much as the classic “Onward to Golgotha” did, while the constant, FX enhanced, ridiculously monstrous voice of Ivan Velazquez intones all the perspiring tension of underworld nexus, the twilight threshold of life and death where sorcerers and demons whisper secrets to the warrior, offering true and false guidance, representing the violent archaic generations that waged war on Mexico’s bloody soil and continue to make many lives into living hell. I have alluded to the monotone nature, which is probably intentional and it hardly detracts from enjoying this cryptic abomination for further and further listenings, as the heights such as “The Pestilent Pits of Disgrace” or “Necrotic Invocations” are deceptively complex mazes of chords and melodies disguised as straightforward infernal metal by the tight manner of production and the guitarists’ sparse use of leads or interludes. Most importantly, the unrelenting hopelessness of these afterworld visions will force the listener to abandon the illusion of safety and immortality that makes the common man succumb to faulty, immoral decisions from day to day, thus achieving one of the highest principles of death metal: mental change (abomination). One would hesitate to lift such a recent work to the hallowed pantheon of Cenotaph and Mortuary after a brief listening span, but if a candidate is chosen from this tournée, this must be it.

It can be said that while Mexico’s metal offerings are not especially plentiful, they are generally interesting and spirited while the best of the country are just about the best these genres have ever seen, on an international scale. Mexicans’ natural groundedness coupled with the mystical tendencies is an excellent standpoint for witnessing the oblique directions of Death and Black Metal from an unpretentious, furious, “Luciferian” angle. It’s almost a surprise there isn’t so much more of it, even though I’m surprised if any reader of this article gets a sense of scarcity regarding items of interest in Mexican metal. So, that being said, it’s about time we leave you to contemplate the mysteries of Toltecs and Satan in the consummation of the extreme, Romantic and evil compositional systems of these modern Mexican warriors and dreamers.

Marco: I think this music is very individual and very personal, and it can take you to a spiritual level, if you listen carefully. Our ancient cultures are based on spirituality, so that’s the point in our just making this weird mix. One song can take you to the top of the pyramids, and reach for the skies, and another one could take you to a scenario of a war against the conquerors. In the end it’s all about finding your own roots, it’s some kind of, another, resource to open your eyes and to step away from the enslavement of social rules and moral unconsciousness (Christian superstition included). In the end the people in power need a dormant society, so they can keep on corrupting, spreading corruption in every corner, and people are just playing the game. Only the connection to your roots will set you free.

Joel: It’s a matter of self confidence in all the things we do, the feeling of greatness inside, the feeling of power, to reach new levels in the extreme brutal metal music we make! I’m not here to convince anyone to do anything, we are selected persons, we the whole scene… the others, the weak, must die!

Highest hails from Deathmetal.Org to Joel of Mortuary, Marco of Xibalba, Demogorgon of Avzhia, Eduardo of Necroccultus and last but not least Noe of Guttural Records for providing in-depth thoughts from the original perpetrators of real Mexican Metal! All of these bands are active so look out for forthcoming events of true massacre of the highest order.

Once you decided to come to Mexico you should have put all your petty fears away. Your decision to come should have vanquished them. You came because you wanted to come. That’s the warrior’s way.

– Don Juan Matus