Strangelight – 9 Days

strangelight-9_daysThe spin on this one is that it was recorded in nine days, so they gave it the mentally catchy title. Sounds very indie rock, no? That’s exactly what this is. Strangelight sounds like a more technical cross between Mudhoney and Sonic Youth.

In fact, I’m baffled as to how this made it into a metal distribution list. It’s indie rock. There’s not even appreciably more distortion. It’s nicely done, with reasonable guitar melodies and vocal support, but it’s highly repetitive.

9 Days also illustrates another problem with indie rock which is that all of it expresses a single mood, which is a kind of depression mixed with wistfulness. I guess it seems profound to Tori Amos fans, but to me it just sounds like people who haven’t yet learned to approach life like they’re alive.

Strangelight do have some interesting influences. In particular, there seems to be an affinity for both British electro-pop and the stream of guitar bands from the 1970s that predated the hard rock and metal explosion. Nothing here is bad, just not particularly relevant.

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Azure Emote – The Gravity of Impermanence

azure_emote-the_gravity_of_impermanenceAlthough there’s a very noodly and “progressive” surface to Azure Emote, what lies beneath the skin is a mixture of speed metal and alternative rock. That gets layered in metal riffs, jazzy guitars, industrial-style vocals and complex percussion.

The Gravity of Impermanence despite having a cool-sounding name delivers almost nothing of what we want from progressive metal, which is puzzles. Games. Brain witchcraft. Interesting twists and turns that make us look forward to another day of being alive, again.

Instead, Azure Emote deliver relatively consistent surges of volume in vocals and drums, and “unpredictability” that’s so predictable it’s like watching a dancer so bad she lunges in exactly the wrong direction at the wrong time. As if sensing this is paltry, the band experiments with extensive vocal weirdness and frequent build-up/break-down types structures.

Perhaps looking for some underground cred, Azure Emote throw in every third riff as something vaguely death metallish in the Nocturnus-Obliveon spectrum of technical riffs. However, without the context to support it, it becomes random instead of interesting.

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Convulse – Evil Prevails

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

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

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

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

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

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Gnaw – Horrible Chamber

6_Panel_DigipakPowerviolence is a con. It’s pitched to us as the most extreme possible version of punk-based music, but under an affinity for noise, it’s a cross between sloppy hardcore and noise interludes with emo-derived vocals. There’s nothing new here or any particularity extremity.

The trick with extremity, by the way, is to make it musical. Any dunce can make droning ear pain. Very few can structure it in a way such that it becomes a meaningful listening experience. And if you don’t want a meaningful listening experience, you’re basically listening to Justin Bieber, even if you trick it out as noisecore.

Horrible Chamber isn’t horrible (heh) but it’s boring. The vocals require long decay, so there’s a process of syllables surging forth and then fading out, which requires slower tempi on the drums which in turn requires a certain amount of oversimplification. The percussion isn’t like metal, cadence-based, but tries to keep some bop under the rant and noise.

Riff-wise, there’s nothing in Gnaw we didn’t hear in the past thirty years of grindcore, hardcore and punk rock. Many of these riffs in fact sound more like rock hybrids, where the simplified punk version of a riff is gradually shaped back toward its pentatonic-friendly cousins. Nothing other than aesthetics distinguishes this.

And while Horrible Chamber achieves a good balance of noise to catchy parts, it also doesn’t really add anything to the life of anyone who has experienced more than entry-level punk music. Thus it gets the most damning of all record reviews, which is the default: it does little wrong, but not enough right, to stay relevant for long.

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Gorguts – Colored Sands

gorguts-colored_sandsTwo of the worst fates in the world: to not know why people like what you do, and to get thrown into the big bin marked “not bad” that contains 99% of human endeavors which are quickly forgotten.

Colored Sands, which sees release today, attempts to recapture the magic of Obscura and From Wisdom to Hate. On the surface, one would see these as a collection of techniques: off-time riffs, odd chord voicings, “deep” lyrics and an affinity for classical music.

Unfortunately, that’s all Gorguts took from their back catalog.

As said above, this reviews damns this CD with the faint praise of “not bad.” It’s much better than the rest of the tek-deth genre, but that’s sort of like saying that chainsaw dismemberment is better than Evola. The real problem with Colored Sands is that it’s transparent.

You can imagine a group of guys sitting in a room thinking, “How do we make a death metal album edgy?” For starters, they throw in the list of techniques I mentioned. But then they use very similar rhythms, song structures, riff types and even sequence of chord voicings.

We could call this “the Opeth effect”: for an instant audience, make music that sounds difficult but in fact is moron-simple and predictable, because it allows people to pose at being elite. It’s in full effect here, as bad as on the second Cynic album. It’s progressive music for pop fans.

Most of us had higher expectations because Gorguts traditionally held themselves to a higher standard. But what’s here is 50% traditional death metal and 50% tech-deth dressed up as prog, and it’s boring. The best part is the brief classical piece in the style of the Russians, which is both populist and not all that exciting in the convention of that style.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=igkV8F4-fc0

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ALRfZPBj4iY

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

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

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fWe8gkBRiJM

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Woe – Withdrawal

woe-withdrawalYour average person perceives music as good and bad, with a whole lot of bad and some good. The truth is more shocking: truly bad is rare like truly good, but the vast majority is just so-so.

So-so occurs not because an album has too much bad, but because it doesn’t have enough good. And this isn’t a by-the-pound determination. It needs to be good in a number of ways, including structurally and conceptually, or it devolves into chaos. Randomness. Disorder.

The average album usually has no defects. The instrumentation is good, the production is good, and individual members put in strong performances. They can write songs according to the book, and often have a unique concept. It just doesn’t hold together because it lacks a central idea.

Withdrawal is an example of a truly bad album. It is not bad because it is incompetent, but because it is whore. Woe takes the techniques of orthodox black metal and applies them to hard rock with touches of indie. This produces disorder with a face value different from its content.

On the surface, this album emulates Gorgoroth and Darkthrone’s Transilvanian Hunger; a little bit under the surface, you find Ulver and Taake. Dig down deep enough and you find recycled Def Leppard and Quiet Riot riffs, with repetitive use of black metalTM technique like blast beats, melodic drone, bad production, and so forth.

As a product, Withdrawal is great because it’s open to everyone. On the surface, it’s rebellion; underneath, it’s the same complacent crap your parents were listening to. Maybe it’s a good pop album; I got bored halfway through. But it’s not black metal.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QVgl6J8OC50

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Earthen Grave – Earthen Grave re-issued as double LP/CD

earthen_grave

Former Trouble member Ron Holzner joins celebrated violinist Rachel Barton Pine in Earthen Grave, a doom metal band with heavy metal energy and hard rock groove. It fits in the niche between depressive heavy metal doom like Derketa and stoner doom of the Spirit Caravan variety, but has some of the gravitas and theology of Trouble and other depressive heavy metal doom bands from the 1980s.

Earthen Grave, the band’s debut, has been re-issued as a double-CD or double-LP on the Ripple Music label, appearing in stores and online on July 9, 2013. The completely re-mastered debut release now contains a new song, “death is another word….” with drummer Chris Wozniak (formerly of Lair of the Minotaur).

While Earthen Grave has not gotten the overflowing press attention that has accompanied many other doom metal bands, this band offers more of a pure older-school feel to its doom metal, and does not pander to the me-first mentality that many people want to hear in their music. The result is pure bleakness and self-negation that periodically rocks out and then launches into a series of musically erudite solos. As a result, Earthen Grave may appeal to the musicians among us first, and later spread to the rest of the metal audience.

** – EARTHEN GRAVE featuring Rachael Barton Pine

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Does heavy metal have broader social or political implications?

heavy_metal_and_politicsAs part of my morning ritual, reading the news while half-asleep is important mainly because of the exceptions. Among the usual parade of murder, corruption, incompetence, failure, etc. there’s the occasional article that sends the coffee-cup tumbling over the edge of the table as I gasp and pull the screen closer.

Today, such an article was from the UK and entitled I’m a Conservative who loves heavy metal – here’s why, and made me spit coffee all over the sideboard. But if you read on, the article has some areas of interest.

First, like all good inner activism within politics, it begins by “outing” every single heavy-metal-loving conservative in UK politics. This is on the whole a good thing, as these people won’t be voting against their secret social identity in the future. In fact, they may be forced to actually own up to not only tolerating but enjoying heavy metal.

Next, the article contains this interesting assertion:

[H]ard rock appeals to a certain breed of Conservative. It’s not into navel-gazing; it’s rebellious, anti-authoritarian, full of strength in both the beats and the lyrics.

Although I’m not sure I know exactly what this writer means here, I think I get the general gist. Most of society is a pleasant cloud of mental images based on people selling you stuff, and that includes most politics. You’re afraid of war? I’m selling peace. You’re afraid of poverty? I’ve got a program for that. And so on, building coalitions of voters based on what they fear, and pleasant images of how these things will be fixed by government.

As a full-time cynic of course I don’t believe most problems can be fixed. In fact, if they’ve been around more than a few years and there’s not an explicitly technological solution, they probably can’t be fixed. But that’s my cynical self talking, so don’t let it bother you. I could be wrong. Most days I hope I am.

But that brings us back to the point. Metal affirms all that mankind fears, including war, disease, injustice, violence and murder. It’s not navel-gazing at all. It’s the music of those who are ready to go in there, get covered in blood and banged up, and fix things the old fashioned way, which is by killing the idiots and protecting the good people.

Then again, it may not. It may just be about shreddin’ tunes, a bong hit for the afternoon and drinks until the early hours of the morning. It could just be about hating your parents, like my parents said it was, or about dropping out of society. She has a point with the anarchic but full of strength part. Metal is like a strong leader, maybe not a political or social viewpoint however.

Maybe she has a point or maybe she doesn’t. Maybe this is conservative, although it seems universal to me. Unless you’re an avowed navel-gazer, in which case I apologize and hope you’re not on the board of my HOA. Either way, it’s an interesting question from an oddball article.

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