Heavy metal documentary The Distorted Island: Heavy Metal Music and Community in Puerto Rico will see release on December 18, 2014, at an unveiling at the Museum of Art of Puerto Rico in Santurce. Tickets are limited to 300, but free of charge, and can be acquired from the organizers.
The Distorted Island: Heavy Metal Music and Community in Puerto Rico explores the birth and growth of the metal scene in Puerto Rico, zooming on on how local bands have survived for three decades thanks to strong strong community ties, while highlighting the cultural and historical challenges faced along the way. The film is the brainchild of Dr. Nelson Varas-Díaz, professor and director of the Puerto Rico Heavy Metal Studies program, and fellow academics Osvaldo González-Sepúlveda, Eliut Rivera-Segarra and Sigrid Mendoza.
Local artist Kadriel Betsen will release a new promotional poster each week until the film’s release, with each image showcasing a different angle of approach to the topic matter. These posters will familiarize the public with some of the individuals interviewed for the film and set the mood for an appreciation of Puerto Rican metal. For updates, see the Puerto Rican Heavy Metal Studies Facebook page.
The job of a record reviewer embraces nihilism in a way most people will never experience. Much must be removed — nostalgia for the musicians who shaped much of your teen years, sympathy for a musician who died far too young, desire for metal to awaken from its slumber — in order to clearly analyze the music and answer the basic question all reviewers should ask themselves: if I were a casual to moderately involved fan, on a limited budget, would I buy this record?
With Slaves to the Grave, Rigor Mortis returns after a challenging history. The only speed metal band with death metal influences to get signed to a major label, the band unleashed Rigor Mortis after which band politics forced out the vocalist almost all sources agree was their best, Bruce Corbitt. The band surged forward and released its instrumentally most exciting material on the Freaks EP, but completely lost direction with Rigor Mortis vs. The Earth, which reflected the band members pursuing their individual directions and losing a cohesive sound.
Now after band members have spent time in Ministry, Warbeast, and Gwar, Rigor Mortis re-form to re-take the stage and carry on where they might have picked up after that first album. Stunned by the lugubrious death of guitarist Mike Scaccia, the band soldiered on with this crowd-funded album release, still facing its greatest struggle which is that “its strength is its weakness,” and having many strong individual performers means finding direction and balance is a challenge. Slaves to the Grave takes the fast tremolo speed metal approach of Rigor Mortis and slows it down to give it the rhythmic approach of bands like Kreator, Sodom and Destruction which makes it very catchy. Into this, the band members drop varied influences from other music of the period and contemporary metal. This is not really a followup to the first album; more likely, it is an attempt to do what Rigor Mortis vs. The Earth tried to — modernize its sound and find balance between technicality and rhythmic hook choruses — but with the original lineup.
The problem with Rigor Mortis vs. The Earth is that, while it contained some of the greatest songwriting to emerge from this band, it was completely disordered, both as an album and as individual songs. Band members seemed to wander on stage to contribute their specialties, then vanish into the background as the band zeroed to a mean in order to preserve the integration of each song. With Slaves to the Grave, Rigor Mortis assert much more control over their work, but try hard to include all of their strengths. Vocalist Bruce Corbitt writes hook-heavy choruses that are highly motivational, where Mike Scaccia specializes in melodic guitar. Those two are in tension because guitar jams like to expand, where rhythmic hooks require keeping flying speed and then hitting it with dramatic tempo changes. On this new work, the band separate the instrumental bits from the song itself, creating a kind of “oasis” within the song arrangement where the guitar can unleash itself.
Slaves to the Grave takes on a number of influences. From modern metal, it inherits the trope vocals that chant in cadence with the guitars and drums in the style that Pantera (nice guys, but the death of speed metal through norming) picked up on and metalcore really took to the wall, but luckily this does not happen at full intensity very frequently. The band uses its classic technique of overloading verses so that they have two parts, a simple placeholder and a texturally more intense second half that prepares for the chorus. This gives the music more of a theater and lets the hook of the chorus integrate more with the song as a whole. Unfortunately, someone decided that mid-1980s German speed metal drums would be essential here, so most of the percussion emulates this style which not only becomes overbearing but is too simple for this music. A little Dave Lombardo influence here would improve things quite a bit. These songs fit together tightly like ancient walls and there are no random, rambling or irrelevant discursive bits, which shows the professionalism of this band.
If we went searching for a spirit animal for this album, it would probably be mid-1980s Iron Maiden. Many of these chord progressions and the general rhythms used resemble those from the speed metal years of Iron Maiden, but also, the arrangements of these songs mirror the tendencies that the NWOBHM band developed. Songs blast through verse-chorus pairs, work themselves up to a break, reprise their main theme and then launch into instrumental cool-downs. This balance allowed Iron Maiden to stay hookish but also work in the depth they knew would keep their albums from being essentially aggro-pop, and it worked for them for many years, so it is intelligent of Rigor Mortis to pick up this vein. Other influences are Testament and earlier Rigor Mortis itself, which is cited through similar but distinctively altered chord progressions and melodies. “The Infected” for example shadows “Die in Pain,” “Poltergeist” shadows the break return in “Revelations” by Iron Maiden, and other fragments show up repurposed as new riffs. Unlike earlier works, the melody in Slaves to the Grave is built into the chord progressions, giving the songs more harmonic space. Scaccia takes advantage of this with numerous instrumental passages. These show a greater study of tone than earlier works, but lack the frenetic architectures of his lead guitar on Freaks and drifts closer to the rock, metal and jazz influences of Rigor Mortis vs. The Earth. This allows songs to slow down, expand a bit, and become more distinctive because they release less on pure rhythm and more on melody.
This album offers well-composed songs that straddle the line between the raw fury of early Rigor Mortis and the instrumentally-advanced but compositionally disintegrated material of its later works. The most death metal track, “Curse of the Draugr,” and the first half the album deliver the greatest punch. The concluding ten-minute instrumental on the topic of Roman gladiators could perhaps be left off without damaging the album at all, since it is sparse in context and driven by vocals instead of guitar composition. The instrumental track sounds like the instrumentals from the later years of Death, but with less focus on pure theory and more on an emotional side to the music; metal fans will be lucky if future metal-jazz hybrids heed this direction. On the whole, Slaves to the Grave shows Rigor Mortis at its healthiest point in two and a half decades. For those who want the first album done again, it will not satisfy, but this will be more of a hit with melodic speed metal and technical metal fans.
Funeral doom innovators Skepticism plan to record their fifth album, Ordeal, live at Klubi in Turku, Finland on January 24, 2015. This marks a departure from their normal process of recording in studio but enables the band to record the album and video simultaneously for release on their new label, Svart Records, having transferred from Red Stream Records.
Visitors to the live show will also receive a re-issue of the first Skepticism 7″ EP originally released in 1992, which will be unavailable to the public. Skepticism formed in 1991, and recorded through the 1990s before unleashing their first full-length, Stormcrowfleet, in 1995.
Attracting fans for their ability to merge melody, theatrical song structures in the Celtic Frost style and abrasive slow and ponderous riffing in the best doom-death style, Skepticism took doom metal to the next level of slow and grinding music creating a pervasive sense of dread and resistance.
With their 1995 album Stormcrowfleet, Skepticism defined the funeral doom genre as entirely separate from the warmed-over rock of stoner and mainstream doom and, along with Winter, showed an entirely different direction for the future of that style. Since that time, Skepticism have released four full-length albums and two EPs to enthusiastic response by a dedicated fanbase.
As mentioned in our review of Cuff Transient Suffering Through the Ergosphere, this Canadian two-piece tries to combine the extreme aggression of Deeds of Flesh style technical gore-grind with the musical experimentation of later Cryptopsy. The band creates sci-fi themed albums with catchy, energetic and mind-abradingly simple riffs in droning brutal arrangements.
In an attempt to have their music reach the old school death metal audience, the band and its label Gore House Productions have allowed us to stream a track from Transient Suffering Through the Ergosphere named “Spastic Craniotomy.” Give it a listen and see what you think of this pummeling gore-grind with modern technical death metal influences:
Joining the crowded field of late model death metal that tries to tie together the influences of the last decade of chaotic metal hybrids, Cuff introduces a style that aims for a hybrid of Cryptopsy-styled brutal death metal and recent West Coast brutal death/tech-death/gore-grind hybrids like Deeds of Flesh. This album delivers basic linear riffs with compelling rhythm while sneaking back in some of the technicality and lead-guitar melody of older death metal, in addition to imaginative Voivod-style sci-fi lyrics.
Transient Suffering Through the Ergosphere — the ergosphere is the liminal region just outside the event horizon of a black hole where energy can be sampled from the rotation of the field — brings out the intensity through raw technique of these genres but stops short of a new style. It uses the brutal percussive death metal late genre addition of vocals in trope with drums and guitars, creating an almost GWAR-style comical insanity, alongside more of the styles of explosive grinding popularized by Cannibal Corpse. While much of this follows the late grindcore model of technicality, touches of musical creativity hide in many details and niches.
As with many things in life, this genre of recent brutal gore-grind mashup will not be for everyone. To those outside the genre, it seems to be ludicrously simple and repetitive. Within the genre, fans enjoy the duality of material that is both catchier than a Taylor Swift album and more extreme than early Napalm Death in terms of sheer rage-venting riffs mated to pounding, transgressive drums. Cuff intensify these aspects and, while not inventing anything new, push the sub-genre closer to the musicality of later Cryptopsy.
Transfusion of Bodily Fluids
Gorging the Sacred Carrion
The Transcendence of Mankind
Through the Ergosphere
Breeding Diverse Entities (Re-recorded)
Supreme Genital Goddess (CBT COVER)
Zach Smith (Guitar, Bass, Drums)
Bob Shaw (Vocals)
Transient Suffering Through the Ergosphere will be released November 18, 2014 on Gore House Productions. For more information, see the band website.
Neverlake attempts the holy grail of postmodern horror film: to unite the supernatural and the modern into a single narrative where one reveals the other. Despite focusing perhaps too much on “atmosphere” at the beginning of the story, the movie creates compelling supernatural narrative within a very modern plot.
The plot centers on a young English-Italian girl, Jenny, who goes to visit her semi-estranged father in the Tuscan countryside. A self-assured young woman who spends most of her time with her nose in a book, Jenny begins having visions of the supernatural connected to a nearby lake. As her father relates, this lake has been used for three millennia by Etruscans to commemorate their dead… and possibly, much more. The plot then develops in parallel between Jenny’s exploration of her thoroughly modern and dysfunctional family, and her deepening learning about the ancient lake with the help of a nearby group of children recovering from mutilating injuries. During the process, Jenny needles her father for more information about her Italian mother who died when Jenny was very young.
While the word “atmosphere” sometimes takes on a connotation of euphemism for boredom with a soundtrack, it does not fully take on that role here; the movie develops slowly and in retrospect, this is less necessary than the filmmakers thought and probably more intended to lull us into submission. That is an error because the wide pans of the lush Italian countryside tend to do that quite effectively. The first third of the movie sometimes lapses into atmosphere pieces that achieve less than their screen time; instead, a more plausible use of screen time would be to give us more of the geography of the house in which Jenny and her family is living, of which we see two rooms, which becomes disorienting later. The plot is cryptic but not “clever” in the sense of handily tying up a bunch of quirks into a plot that technically makes sense but slips too far beyond known reality to be interesting except as a kind of mental party game or hypothetical conjecture. Sadly, the film is blighted with a title that seems like a broken neologism and film posters that, at least in the US, make it seem as if this movie were about combat with lake-zombies. That poster served to simultaneously attract people who will hate this movie and exclude the people who would enjoy it. It deserves a second look.
Neverlake builds its tension on a solid plot and a mystery that enmeshes its different parts with one another to make a kind of self-referential maze. It reinforces this with music that intensifies the atmosphere and cinematography that brings out the isolation of its characters. The music fits within a strange zone between soundtrack, Dead Can Dance with no solo vocals, and some of the more recent ambient neofolk material. Although written using modern instrumentation, it captures an ancient feel, clearly familiar with both Carmina Burana and Ancient Airs and Dances. Keyboard symphonic music without solo vocals or consistent drumming gives this film the spacious air and gravity that it needs, where throwing in the usual alt-rock B-sides as many horror movies currently trend would have savagely trashed the atmosphere. Cinematography also reinforces the mood; the filmmakers opt for a dense, saturated scene with wide contrasts in color, allowing the lake to dominate like a gleaming life-form and to show people as somewhat washed out, empty and terrified. They do this without over-processing and thus ruining the lush natural detail.
The script for Neverlake strategically builds to a conclusion which is as intense as the earlier part of the film was vacant. This balance seems intentional, just perhaps miscalibrated. Daisy Keeping creates a simultaneously disingenuous and headstrong Jenny who stumbles perfectly into the role set for her by the script, while more mature actors manage to combine creepiness and standard postmodern adult vagueness and incoherence into a single mode, which makes them both comfortingly background and potentially complicit. Combined with the intensifying music and intensely naturalistic filming itself, the plot development helps create a sensation of slipping beyond the modern and known into a world of the ambiguous and threatening, which is then explained through the modern — but questions remain. For those who like a good horror film that is more internal existential and moral terror than chainsaws and centipedes, Neverlake provides a powerful escapist fantasy.
Death Metal Zombies
Horrorscope Productions, 1995. 90 minutes.
Those of the death metal persuasion tend to value content over surface. This idea emerges from the basic thought of metal: beauty in darkness through structure, social appearance be damned. As such, the death metal audience tends to ignore the differences that millions of dollars of production bring, and focus on the content of a movie.
Death Metal Zombies is (mostly) such a movie. Its entertainment value matches that of films with much larger budget and media support. However, it is a bit of a mess. Filmed on video cameras in the exburbs of Houston, Texas it features continuity mistakes, sometimes amateurish camera work, and of course non-professional actors, so much so that the directors released an anniversary cut a decade later that halved the film length and re-arranged it to make more sense. This was clearly a project in which people learned their craft, and starts with the almost assuredly marijuana-inspired concept that a cassette tape can contain musical programming to turn people into zombies. However, we have all seen films with far dumber premises that made it out of major studios. Gone Girl, The Expendables, Avengers and Star Trek: Into Darkness come to mind as multimillion dollar tributes to idiocy.
The basic idea of this film is that people in the dead-end middle class outer suburbs of a flat, humid and boring major city (which was nowhere on the news in 1995) have little to live for except death metal, and they find a way to hook up with a “special” tape from their favorite band, Living Corpse. This tape contains thirteen minutes of sonic programming that transform them into zombies who promptly return to their normal lives and act out the fantasies of death, gore and retribution that do not fit into the modern world. This review focuses on the original film, not the edit, which has its charm in that despite some filmmaking ineptitude and a possibly ill-advised metal-centric plot, it captures the lives of its filmmakers and actors and amplifies that experience to a supernatural level. It works perfectly in a post-modern sense as not the focal point of an evening, but a topic of commentary, where the real movie is more the conjecture about it and experience of criticizing it than what is on the screen.
The above-average viewer will spend much of this film wondering what exactly is going on. The filmmakers burn through too much tape setting up scenes, and not enough showing action, which makes viewers wonder what to focus on. This is balanced by relatively strong action scenes with creative (and copious but not overblown) gore, quality violence and a genuinely menacing atmosphere. Were I some kind of film critic, I would loathe this because it insults every pretense of that profession, but as a lifelong media hater who finds most movies to be inane, I see this film as less inane although less technically gifted than your average Hollywood flick. In particular, characters are believable, situations are believable, and the plot — once you get past the somewhat handicapped device — moves forward enough to compel an urge to witness its conclusion.
In addition, there is a death metal angle: Relapse Records allowed use of what looks like its full catalog, so bands as diverse as Incantation, Pyogenesis, Winter, Disembowelment and Brutality play in the background in scenes that are half-MTV and the rest a zombie film designed to be watched through a bong while chatting with friends. The music angle in both plot and background is not meant to be convincing, but enjoyable, and seeing familiar tropes from death metal bands in the characters, as well as having what was probably the only “real” chance death metal had at having videos back in the day is gratifying. There is no way to construe this film as competitive with professional efforts, but the grim fact is that it is arguably less dumb and more compelling than what the big studios dump arrogantly on our numbed brains.
Kraftwerk burst into electronic music in a time before the personal computer or the programmable sound chip; instead, they created their early sounds with analog electronic instruments and by modifying their own synthesizers and sequencers to achieve a wider range of sounds than previously thought possible. Their greatest contribution however came through their transportative melodies and alert arrangements, as well as songs that through subject matter peered into the dark heart at the center of the glittering chrome positivism of modernity.
Black metal bands found the dark atmospheres and moral questioning of melancholic, alienated works such as Computer World (1986) to be highly influential, and bands as diverse as Mayhem, Burzum and Darkthrone inherited influence from Kraftwerk and other German-revival “cosmic” bands. Perhaps the greatest observation from Kraftwerk comes from their 1978 hit “The Robots” in which the ideal worker lauds obedience and tractability as a form of victory. Such cynical takes on modern time, coupled with a positive alternative vision of technology, defined the Kraftwerk approach during its classic years.
Puerto Rican death metal band Organic Infest took a new direction with new members and became Organic, which has re-issued its discography and recently unleashed a new track, “The Holocaust,” which shows the direction the band will take upcoming recordings.
As usual defying the conventional method and trends alike, Organic features a drummer, a bassist and… a second bassist. Chew Correa plays a piccolo bass in place of guitar which prompts unconscious fear by metalheads that the music will not have the same crashing intensity as regular death metal. “The Holocaust” puts these fears to rest.
Organic takes an approach to death metal which differs from the more aggressive riff-based attack; this is a layered, spacious and highly melodic vision of death metal without seeping into the sappy land of warmed-over heavy metal made pretty for listening at parties which is essentially what “melodic death metal” has become. Instead, Correa leads his team in an approach more like structured jazz, with deep percussive texture allowing the stringed instrument players time to overlap one another in patterns that do not quite mimic guitar, but push bass in a new direction as well.
“The Holocaust” shows Organic ripping into fast death/speed hybrid riffs with room for melodic touches and rhythmic fills, creating variety between the shredding straight-ahead approach and the more nuanced layering. Complete with roaring vocals that approach a “bestial” side of metal instead of the more uniform barking or riot shouts, Organic use this track to forge a new style based on their strengths and many attributes of classic heavy metal.