Resurrecting the best of the underground

eye_of_death

It is a seldom-known fact that you get more of what you allow to exist. In a musical community, this means that whatever albums sell enough to attract some audience will produce imitators.

When a community is thriving, this means that good albums replace bad. When a community is dying, it means that labels pump out thousands of near-duplicates in an effort to reap profit.

The community that proves intolerant of the bad is a good step, but the community must act in the corresponding opposite, which is to celebrate the good. To hold up all that is excellent means that more of it will come, because it is rewarded.

As we pass through the 20th anniversary of the demise of death metal and black metal, which perished in a flood of imitators who pushed the quality material to the periphery, it behooves us to celebrate the excellent and use it to push aside the rest.

What follows is a partial summary of the highlights of the last five years. These are albums that should be played loudly, given to metalheads at Christmas, forced onto MP3 playlists and constantly affirmed as excellent. This is the only path to better metal.

Blaspherian – Infernal Warriors of Death

blaspherian-infernal_warriors_of_death Underground metal began with Slayer, which mixed hardcore punk and heavy metal to make a new sound, inspiring in the next generation bands like Bathory, Hellhammer and Sodom who made a darker and more detuned sound. By the time the genre flowered in the late 1980s many bands integrated the Hellhammer style of bass-heavy thunderous material alongside the faster Slayer style of tremolo phrasal riffs. Picking up from that era, Blaspherian combines the thunder of Deicide and Immolation with the simplicity of early doom-death, creating songs that simultaneously use primitive parts and arrange them into more than the sum of those parts. A morbid and violent atmosphere emanates from this music as it rolls through a few basic riffs per song, setting up a Possessed-style verse chorus but then like Incantation and other old school acts, expanding on that context to create a ritual atmosphere. This mysticism of thunder and subterranean blackness pervades the resulting metallic onslaught which favors the dark, antisocial and evil side of metal. What defined the underground was this stepping away from the modes of seeing that most people use to look at society, and to instead associate itself with the bestial forces of nature and occultism that array against any form of order that has no goal but itself.


Beherit – Engram

beherit-engram When Beherit makes an album, the result will not only open full throttle on the ears of its listeners, but also change how we think of black metal. Its violent and simplistic early days took the deliberate primitivism of Blasphemy and Sarcofago and made from it violent amalgamation of dark moods and the unleashed human id which wants nothing more than to crush this overgrown, spoiled, decadent and indulgent world of directionless people and purposeless activity. With Drawing Down the Moon, Beherit created a standard that few bands could exceed, which was an album both inventive in its use of occult symbolism and distinct for its memorable, infectious and yet dread-intensifying riffs. After years and permutations later, Beherit returned to the fray with an album that aimed to expand the relationship between black metal and ambient music and operate as an album, moving us from one frame of mind to another through immersion in fragments of idea that add up to a whole picture. This is no trivial task! Engram begins in tribute to Venom and Bathory and ends in an entirely different style where hermetic atmospheres mingle with riffs that seem to use ancient numerology to achieve the balance between ear-addictingly hook-laden and a dark mood like atavism which creates a feral disconnection from the failed mentality of this world and transports us to another. The violence seems subdued at first but emerges in the mindset this album creates. It literally reprograms the mind, much like the thought objects that its title references. Better than most of its critics realized, Engram showed black metal a new way but that set the bar too high for most of the hack ‘n slash three riff crowd. It remains a testament to what this style can achieve even two decades from its foundation.


Sammath – Godless Arrogance

sammath-godless_arrogance-cover_photo Sammath always made quality black metal that favored the duality of the original work: primitive/barbaric and yet elegant/beautiful. Shocking as it is, black metal appears designed after the dictatorships of Stalin and Hitler, which favored fancy uniforms and grand ceremony as they bombed, murdered, and subjugated their way across the world. If you can imagine a beautiful warplane with graceful curves and an inner beauty, and then visualize it destroying 10,000 enemies without mercy or even a pause for a snack, that is the sound of the new Sammath. It combines the elegant melodies and song structure of the band’s first album with the battering ram war machine approach of their middle works, resulting in an album that has the melodic elegance of early Immortal but the attack speed of Morbid Angel. Not only that, but this album shows across the board upgrades in songwriting for this Dutch band, with no extraneous material and tightly integrated arrangements.


Graveland – Thunderbolts of the Gods

graveland-thunderbolts_of_the_gods Later Graveland inhabits the difficult zone between black metal, the Conan soundtrack and ambient neofolk. These albums are harder to distinguish at first listen because songs are based on the interaction and harmonization between different melodies instead of the emergence of a single guitar line melody which then defines the song. Starting with Memory and Destiny, Graveland morphed into its own genre with more in common with Summoning and Empyrium than conventional black metal. As a result, few know how to understand these albums, but it appears the best approach is to listen to them as albums and to fully intend to lose yourself in the sonic environment they create. Most descriptions of Thunderbolts of the Gods will combine “lush” with descriptions of martial power and motivation because true to its name, this is an album not just about war, but the reasons for war that mix sociology and theology in a potent brew that stimulates emotions deep within your average red-blooded metalhead. Like the earliest of Graveland releases, these describe lonely Celtic nights in the frozen Pagan mountains while waging warfare against unnamed unending enemies (like a buffet gone wrong). Not only does Graveland possess the same epic vision as before, but now the band has added epic instrumentation including layers of keyboards, synth instruments, strings and a guitar line that now organizes the other melodies instead of trying to dominate all alone. The result is like being lost in a book more than tapping your foot along to a record.


Profanatica – Profanatitas de Domonatia

profanatica-profanatitas_de_domonatia Many are turned off by the somewhat amateurish album title but they should stick around for the music, which combines the best complex long-phrase tremolo riffing in the Incantation school with the acerbic and vigorously rhythmic black metal for which Havohej/Profanatica are famous. Before you can say “I vomit on God’s child!” (and you should say this daily) the album tears into its circuitous riffs that give relatively straightforward compositions an air of esoteric bafflement in addition to enjoyment of a good tune with forward momentum and acrobatic guitar work. While this album is not as raw and purely rhythmic as earlier Profanatica, it makes up for that by creating instead an air of mystery and paranoia, like walking into the court of a Satanic adversary and being told to justify oneself. Vocals retain their traditional rasp and as usual, Paul Ledney’s drum playing adds a richness of rhythm that most bands do not have. The result is pure enjoyment of the musical aspects of this band with the constant blasphemy as a garnish. Its inventive riffing and foray into death metal territory adds a depth to black metal that corresponds to the raw aggression this band has always used as the charge behind its warhead of apostatic occultism, and in this album the entirety comes together for a complex series of moods within a similar idea. If anything, this improves on older works which could be too straightforward for repeated listening, where Profanatitas de Domonatia holds up as a musical companion.


Demoncy – Enthroned is the Night

demoncy-enthroned_is_the_night Always an outlier, Demoncy saw its greatest career height when it produced a death metal record with black metal atmosphere in Joined in Darkness. Not content to revisit past victories, Demoncy launch in a melodic direction and mix death metal and black metal influences into a smooth voice by always retaining the black metal atmosphere and refusing to get into the more abrupt stop/start mentality of death metal which loves contrast. Black metal is after all about emergence of ideas instead of discovering them at the end of labyrinth, and so Demoncy creates an album where riffs establish atmosphere and song structure provides gathering mood, creating a momentum of dark emotion which eventually dominates the entire experience. Unlike most black metal bands, Demoncy prefers to create atmosphere through steady application of layers and then selective removal, which avoids the charge into the abyss sensation but instead creates a sense of slowly sinking into the depths of human emotion. Riffs and ideas on this album borrow from the classic years of death metal, specifically the first two albums from Unleashed, but add to it the sense of an arch-predator on vigilant patrol above a wasteland of miserable, helpless souls that Joined in Darkness made so effective. Instead Demoncy lets these riffs ring out and then join simultaneously simpler and more cryptic song structures to create a sense of delight in the possibilities of darkness.


Divine Eve – Vengeful and Obstinate

divine_eve-vengeful_and_obstinate Divine Eve combine death metal with the newer veins of doom metal, mixing in classic heavy metal and punk to give the genre more of a listenable approach and higher energy. What results is a command to battle that suffuses with the dread and morbidity of doom metal but joins it to a violent but almost boyish delight in the possibilities of music and life itself. As a result despite its doom inclinations and death metal styling, this album more resembles the adventurous explorations of a world falling apart that bands like The Doors embarked upon a generation ago. Guitar work prefers the boxy charging approach of punk bands or minimal acts like Cianide and Motorhead, giving these songs a bounding energy even when they slow down and removing the polish that later death metal used to obscure its dark intent. Although this is an EP and so runs shorter than an album, it gives a vision of Divine Eve joining the style and substance of their 1990s EP As the Angels Weep with the material most of the band released as Crimson Relic and some of its recent appearances. Rumor has it that Divine Eve are currently working on new material for release in the near future, which makes it more exciting that this promising release presages onslaughts which may amplify the promise it unveiled.


Blotted Science – The Animation of Entomology

12 Jacket (3mm Spine) [GDOB-30H3-007} Modern metal makes itself hard to like, both because it is a hybrid and thus a loss of direction, and because it is fundamentally annoying, being based in the late hardcore style of “carnival music” where the goal is to make each riff dramatically contrasting the rest, resulting in a type of randomness that appeals to lost teenagers in a lost land. Blotted Science take that approach to its logical conclusion by removing the vocals and the randomness, and preferring instead to stack together related riffs that initially do not appear to be so, causing songs to flow together like collapsing buildings where many disparate parts suddenly become a single momentum. Most reviewers will focus on technical ability, which is not lacking here, but the real triumph of this band is using adept songwriting to pull together a mess of a genre and make something better out of it. These songs, like those on Gorguts Obscura, embrace the chaos of life and impose order on it in unconventional ways, much like objects seen through a microscope do not resemble the physical whole seen without magnification. These songs speak to a delight in the power of music itself and the imagination to twist and obscure a message only to bring it out with greater impact after a roller coaster of riffing distorts reality and deranges the senses.


Tags: , , , , , , , ,

28 thoughts on “Resurrecting the best of the underground”

  1. Aaron Lynn says:

    I hold the conviction that Godless Arrogance is the best black metal album of the 21st century. Absolute mastery of the art.

    I haven’t heard that Blotted Science, however their debut was pretty vacuous.

    1. thewaters says:

      Agreed! Godless arrogance is seriously overlooked even among my group of friends. I think the main problem is the mix, the drums are very high and drown out the guitars when it is listened to at a high volume.

    2. trystero says:

      It just is. It hands down is. This is not good for 2014 this is flat out some of the best metal music. I do sorta kinda wish it didnt try to beat the current crop of black metal bands (*stares at Mayhem*) at their own game but that is a matter of personal taste.

    3. fenrir says:

      I cannot agree more!
      They finally made *the album*. This is their contribution to the immortal legacy of metal.

  2. Putita Culona says:

    Graveland – Thunderbolts of the Gods seems to me almost like a random choice. I wouldn’t have guessed that one among all Graveland records.

    1. Anthony says:

      Personally, I prefer Will Stronger Than Death and Cold Winter Blades above all other new Graveland, but Thunderbolts of the Gods is a decent choice. It’s perhaps the most polished and perfected example of the Memory and Destiny method of composing, which seems to be the main milieu that Darken composes in nowadays.

      Maybe that’s why I like WSTD and CWB more than his other new stuff. They’re the outliers of the bunch. CWB sounds like he’s trying his hand at a synthesis of the Lord Wind way of composing and the crazed symphonics of Emperor, whereas WSTD is almost like a throwback to Thousand Swords but in the modern, more ambient Graveland style.

  3. Shit 666 says:

    Atrocity’s Todessehnsucht. More albums like that. Insanity + Creativity + Spirit. Write songs that go places – don’t be Xasthur.

    1. discodjango says:

      You are absolutely right.

    2. Anthony says:

      One of the only modern death metal records that hits the mark in that sense is Crypticus’ They Called Me Mad! (The exclamation point is part of the title.)

      I think you hit the nail on the head with the “insanity” part. Most stuff today just seems too safe. Even bands that the average listener might define as insane are still playing to an established standard (or market expectation, if you’re more cynical). Stuff like Portal, Ulcerate, etc. is really anything BUT insane.

  4. impreincantolation says:

    Pretty good list. Shoulda gone with best of last 10 years, that way you would have gotten Key Of Throne too. Nevertheless, all awesome stuff.

    1. impreincantolation says:

      Ummmm… I guess I meant 15. My bad!

  5. discodjango says:

    I have to admit: I never really got into Blaspherian. Maybe I should check them again from time to time to see if I will be able to appreciate their music, but for now I prefer the last Imprecation album.

    1. Richard Head says:

      I admit, the first time I spun Infernal Warriors of Death, I thought I was hearing something solid but relatively generic, especially for post-2010 death metal, and where the fuck are the solos?!

      You will be rewarded for listening in time, though. I just listened to it this week and here are my most up-do-date thoughts on the album as a whole; it is really a very organic evolution of the sound from American (especially New York and Florida) bands in the mid-’90s era, which is where all the best stuff happened. Blaspherian goes back to that style, then moves it forward one step at a time, rather than trying to mix it with other disparate influences or playing overly complex shit. It’s an album of quality, it deserves a spot among the classics because it recalls a sinister spirit without merely reiterating the rituals established by its masters.

      1. discodjango says:

        Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the album!

  6. thewaters says:

    My only qualm with Engram: some poorly chosen vocal patterns, and some of the silly, boincy rythms(ie, Pagan Moon)

  7. Richard Head says:

    I had a Blotted Science album, Machinations of Dementia, but I stopped listening a long time ago. It barely feels metal at all, really, but it *is* a hell of a trip if you are fan of extreme precise musicianship and unorthodox composition. There is one song near the end that is made up of the same notes and tempos of the prior song, all played in reverse. It is truly a mindfuck.

  8. SERIOUS QUESTIONER says:

    >”Sarcofago and made from it violent amalgamation of dark moods and the unleashed human id which wants nothing more than to crush this overgrown, spoiled, decadent and indulgent world of directionless people and purposeless activity.”

    Brett how did you get to this specific scenario and conclusion?
    Is it suggested on the lyrics? Did you get this just from listening to the music? How??

    1. Music, lyrics and statements by members of the band.

  9. Aaron Lynn says:

    Also, where is Satanae Tenebris Infinita?

    1. Good point; this should be included. I was trying to minimize Texas bands since the list tends to be heavy in them. War Master is another case in point.

  10. Seriously Transgender says:

    You can actually hear the music more clearly through the lining of the rectum. Or perhaps you and your boyfriend try plugging your headphones into one another’s anuses to enjoy hearing the amplified sound of your prostates throbbing and pounding. What is it about your question that is supposed to be serious?
    Let’s see about SARCOFAGO…
    Violent amalgamations-check
    Unleashed human id-check
    Desire to crush worthless humans-check
    Not so clever to ask half ass questions that you only pretend to want answered.

    1. Serious Projection says:

      Not so clever to respond to half ass questions that you only pretend you don’t want to answer. Yet you do.
      Squat on my boner squirt.

    2. SERIAL QUESTIONER says:

      1. Was this supposed make me horny?

      2. If not, is it okay if I am horny anyway?

  11. azarath says:

    Lord Wind

  12. Heretic says:

    Thanks, I’d never even heard of Sammath before. Such new sounds…

    I understand that black metal died long ago. Whatever fucked up shit that any of us can exhume in the name of black metal, then, is quite tolerable from my point of view.

  13. Heretic says:

    However, there are still some who would like to keep the tradition alive. The “black metal never died” persons are, to me, then, the “Holocaust deniers” of the Black Metal Gemeinschaft.

  14. Weltmacht says:

    This is a pretty solid list of more contemporary metal. I think the only additions I’d make from this time period would be Avzhia’s “the Key of Throne” and Summoning’s “Oath Bound.”

  15. fan says:

    thanks for the excellent album reviews

Comments are closed.