Satan – Atom by Atom (2015)

Satan - Atom by Atom (2015)

A good legacy and a promising single can do much to build up expectations for any album. Atom by Atom was shaping up to be a textbook example of this axiom back in September, when I first became aware of it. Having listened to the end result, I can confidently say that the band’s reformation continues to pay dividends to those who pay attention (and/or cash).

The general formula hasn’t changed since Life Sentence – Satan plays the same sort of NWOBHM/early speed metal style that they became famous for, but in a more musically adventurous fashion than they favored 30 years ago. This sort of path leads many a band to neglect the coherence and intelligibility of their songwriting, but that doesn’t turn out to be the case here. The guitarists are particularly inventive here – the melodic and consonant style they perform in belies the wide variety of riff construction techniques they’ve incorporated into these tracks. They’re particularly good at the harmonized ‘dueling leads’ that so many similar bands have adopted; lesser bands would find their musical language shackled by overuse of one mode or otherwise limited.

This power would be strong enough to draw in many a listener, but Satan’s strengths on Atom by Atom go beyond mere creative guitar wizardry, although they are still unified by an emphasis on mastering a subgenre. For instance, the vocals (which are pseudo-operatic in style) remind me somewhat of James Rivera’s contributions to Helstar in their sonority and dynamic range, although Brian Ross sings closer to the guitar lines than many similar vocalists. However, this applies most to the song structures – while Atom by Atom tends towards typical pop verse-chorus structures like so many albums before it, these songs notably don’t rely on any one specific technique to cloak this or elaborate on their musical ideas. It should not escape your notice that in doing this, Satan otherwise consistently sticks to the limits of their musical language; while the way they vary it suggests to me that they could successfully execute a major genre shift if they so desired, I find their success within a genre to be a good outcome as well.

Musically skilled, technically proficient metal may be the norm these days, but Atom by Atom also succeeds on the organizational, structural level that is lacking and often completely ignored in so many of its contemporaries. This makes it a highly worthy acquisition.

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Deafheaven – New Bermuda (2015)

Deafheaven - New Bermuda (2015)
On a less rigorous, and slightly looser site, my thoughts on New Bermuda could be expressed as something along the lines of “whatever”. The music here has been performed before by a cavalcade of metal-themed indie acts, each more individual and revolutionary than the last, yet stunningly conformist for their efforts. Deafheaven enjoys rather more media attention at the moment, even sometimes drawing our attention for their little escapades, but they’re pretty much cut from the same fabric – a few hints of loud guitars and blast beats to liven up boring sugary pop stretched far beyond the limits of its songwriting.

The stylistic deception is pretty shallow, to be honest. I found it mildly amusing that the album began with a few minutes of more overtly black metal flavored material, which was then abruptly cast off in favor of the basic rock riffing and reverb textures that Deafheaven seem to so particularly enjoy. It returns every now in then in case you forget you’re supposed to be listening to the future of black metal, but I can confidently say New Bermuda relies more on the band’s rudimentary modality (major-minor ad infinitum) than their rudimentary dynamics to occasionally wake up a sleepy listener when the soothing, inoffensive guitar strumming has lulled them into a dreamless slumber. The drumming in these sections gradually devolves into basic modern rock downbeats and timekeeping, as if to represent your transition towards a drowsy (indie) state of mind. That probably wasn’t the intent, but the idea that it could’ve been is dangerously tempting.

Now, I’m not the kind of person who tries to fall asleep to music, but were I to treat this as a collection of lullabies, it would still be fairly underwhelming. That it has loud sections at all is counterproductive for insomniacs, but even those are rather predictable in how they play out. The straight ahead black metal sections consistently move sluggishly under the blastbeats, with a vocalist who has learned but one type of shriek and a few basic vocal rhythms. Given how Deafheaven is marketed, that these sections sound like an afterthought is problematic. Maybe the album would be better if it was divested of the clearly unwanted black metal, but then you’d be left with just another unwashed (but charmingly patchouli and spice scented) post-rock/emo/indie-pop album essentially indistinguishable from all the others and guaranteed to gather dust after something newer and more exciting comes out.

I slept well last night. What about you?

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A call to arms – How to get published on DMU

"How to be a feisty rock critic" - Matt Groening (1986)
One of our goals here at DMU is to be free of the incessant marketing and gossip that plagues all too many metal music/culture websites. This deprives us of a lot of potential content, and surprisingly, not posting the occasional throwaway video of a photogenic animal ‘enjoying’ metal (or at least moving to a rhythm almost, but not entirely unlike that of the music) costs us some traffic. With that in mind, every now and then one of our readers gives us a hand by contributing an article, a review, or even just a topic they want to see discussed. We’d like to see more of that.

A brief summary of what we are looking for:

  • Intelligent, in-depth articles about various metal related topics – theoretical analysis of the music, cultural analysis, academia, and so forth.
  • Reviews of albums both old and new. I focus on covering major new releases at this point, but there’s always room for everything else. This is to be distinguished from the publication of press releases, or the promotion of your avant-garde neo-traditionalist blackened bedroom death metal project with nearly 3/4ths of a view on their one Youtube video.
  • Did something worthy of our commentary in the land of metal pass unnoticed? This is your opportunity to fix a glaring omission.

If your submissions meet our quality and relevance standards, we will publish them; possibly suggesting some revisions in the process of getting them ready. Ideally, we will get more content and more reader interaction without sacrificing an iota of quality, but that lofty goal depends on you specifically rising up to the challenge. If this interests you, send your submissions to the same email address as always.

P.S: Our ‘lifestyle’ (read: drugs and alcohol) reviewers are looking for someone who can analyze whiskey. If you’re a connoisseur, or at least a gas chromatograph, this might be a good way to get started.

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Firespawn to release Shadow Realms, but don’t bother purchasing it

Firespawn - Shadow Realms (2015)

What do you get when you form a supergroup from members of Entombed, Unleashed, and Necrophobic, all of whom released excellent formative death metal at the beginnings of their careers? Not much, apparently. Firespawn (formerly Fireborn) plays generic modern Swedeath with slight hints of melody and not much else of interest. If you ever needed a reminder that a promising lineup does not automatically translate into a product that is even promising at best, Shadow Realms is there for you – more accurately, you will be able to purchase it on November 13th from Century Media if its banality fails to undermine your interest. In the mean time, you can listen to one of its upcoming tracks (“Ruination”) for a textbook example of how to put together generic deathpop. Particularly notable are the rudimentary vocal rhythms and the exceedingly basic song structure.

Future coverage is possible, but very likely to be sadistic in nature.

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Mercyful Fate members reunite in Denner/Shermann

Denner/Shermann - Satan's Tomb (2015)
Mercyful Fate was one of the high points of traditional heavy metal in the 1980s, exerting huge influence through their over-the-top visual aesthetic and elaborate, theatrical songwriting. They arguably peaked on 1984’s Don’t Break The Oath; later works by both this band and its frontman’s project (King Diamond) varied in their ability to capture such high points.

October 2nd will see yet another effort from the band’s musicians – alumni from the band have united to form Denner/Shermann, and to release Satan’s Tomb, an EP of material in a similar but presumably modernized vein. The release date and album title are probably going to draw comparison to the band Satan’s upcoming album on the same day (Atom by Atom), despite definite differences in style. While our knowledge of Denner/Shermann’s sound and approach is less confirmed at this point, I’m fairly certain they need a better marketer on their side; at least as evidenced by the questionable decisions of the following trailer.

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Abbath’s solo project releases its first official track

Immortal’s ability to consistently release content since has fallen by the wayside since 2002 (although their quality was arguably ailing before that) between periods of legal disputes, side projects from band members, and that time in the 2000s when they were literally split up. Abbath has thrown his efforts into another side/solo project, and Season of Mist has seen fit to give us a sample from upcoming material – a semi-live studio track named “Fenrir Hunts”.

This track sounds more overtly like death/black metal than much of the Immortal members’ recent work, which were generally more oriented towards older forms of metal in songwriting even when their aesthetics were not. “Fenrir Hunts” strikes this reviewer as yet another highly polished, technically sound song with some nods to the need for varied structure in an otherwise fairly standard formula. In short, an acceptable effort, but not one that particularly excites me for this release, or one that compels me to listen to it over previously proven and enshrined classics like Pure Holocaust. I can hope that the full album will be more interesting when it comes out (and the early state of this song suggests room for improvement), but it seems most likely that this will be another soul-crushingly “okay” album.

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Morbid Angel – Entangled In Chaos (1996)

Morbid Angel - Entangled In Chaos (1996)

With Earache Records promising us a re-release of this live album on vinyl in October, and an otherwise quiet week of upcoming relevant releases, I thought it might be a good idea to give this a more detailed look. Live albums are fundamentally interesting on a few levels – their attempts to capture something of the experience of a concert, their value as documentation of a period in a band’s career, the chance to possibly hear reinterpretations of favored songs, and so forth. Entangled in Chaos came out at the tail end of Morbid Angel’s commercial golden age and before the band tried to reinvent itself with Formulas Fatal to the Flesh. The product is low on references to the previously banal Domination for whatever reason, although whether that’s due to timing or creative reasons is beyond my knowledge.

These rerecordings end up more polished and standardized than the originals for the second time in MA’s discography, as the long holdovers from 1986 already got the Lemon Pledge treatment when they first entered the studios. Sometimes, the end results are rather stripped down; for obvious reasons studio adornments aren’t available, and Trey Azagthoth’s guitar solos are consistently altered from their original forms. Hearing the band’s earliest material with a production closer to Covenant or Domination is mildly interesting, to say the least, although the concessions to a live environment often cost these tracks some of their power and more musically interesting aspects. The performances are otherwise faithful to a fault, as such strict reproductions leave little room for reinterpretation… with the caveat that this is difficult to do successfully in a metal context and in this case might’ve resulted in an undesirable Domination II or similar.

There are not very many essential live albums in the realm of metal, and you can probably do without Entangled in Chaos in most cases. If you absolutely need to hear Morbid Angel playing relatively faithful but not particularly passionate renditions of their first era or are otherwise a collector, though, this rerelease may be to your tastes.

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Varathon to release The Confessional of the Black Penitents

Varathron - The Confessional of the Black Penitents (2015)
One of the most famous voices in the Greek metal scene (along with Rotting Christ, Necromantia, and Septic Flesh), Varathron is continuing their career with a new EP set to release on October 23rd. Containing both new songwriting and live recordings of previous works, it should serve well as a benchmark of the band’s current approach and a future full length. Agonia Records wrote the following press statement:

New seven-track EP from Greek black metal legends, VARATHRON. “The Confessional Of The Black Penitents” precedes the release of the band’s sixth full-length album and features three new exclusive songs along with four classic tracks recorded live in 2015. All together almost 45 minutes running time.

Placed amongst the forefathers of Hellenic black metal scene, VARATHRON has spawned albums that are celebrated as the cornerstones of Greek metal. Alongside Necromantia and Rotting Christ, with whom the group shared members, VARATHRON’s fascination towards early style remains unique and forthright. Since their inception back in 1988, the band’s trademark are mid-paced riffs that have a classic, old-school feel strengthened by a progressive view as well as epic atmospheres that only few can match.

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Malevolent Creation – Dead Man’s Path (2015)

Malevolent Creation - Dead Man's Path (2015)

Malevolent Creation has been in my listening backlog for many, many years on the strength of a few tracks from Retribution. I never got to them, because I was constantly distracted by trendier bands (brands). When I first acquired Dead Man’s Path, I theorized that since the band’s been around for nearly 30 years and retains some of its original members, this was not going to be a major stylistic departure from those past works lest long-time fans abandon them in droves. The flipside of this, as evidenced by my experience with similar types of recent releases such as Repentless, is that I expected that regardless of the final quality, I expected a streamlined version of MC’s past style.

My listening throws this into question. Malevolent Creation’s early works tended towards the ancestral end of death metal, with obvious speed/thrash metal roots poking out of an otherwise standard monophonic, dissonant approach. Dead Man’s Path recalls something of this, but as predicted, it turned out more conventionally musical, with more consonant melody and a denser production (out with Scott Burns and in with Dan Swanö). Add in a somber march of an intro, and a renewed emphasis on vocal patterns, and you have a release that has definitely streamlined itself. It doesn’t rock the boat much, and it does still pass the aesthetic litmus tests that define death metal, but the production and packaging isn’t particularly interesting to write about beyond its most basic qualities.

Unlike most of the bands that take this approach, however, Malevolent Creation does a good job of applying their musical practice to write better songs. To my understanding, they were never a particularly complex act, and most of these songs rely at least in part on obvious verses and choruses. However, good use of tempo and rhythm shifts in particular keep things from getting too skull-crushingly obvious and predictable. The band members also showcase enough compositional awareness to move integral song elements around between tracks to obfuscate the formulas a bit. I would personally have liked to hear more variation in riff styles, as some of the songs here (“Corporate Weaponry” in particular) suggest that such could be successfully incorporated while retaining the strong points of the band’s approach. That, however, is a small flaw in an otherwise very solid package.

To be fair, I was not expecting the strengths of Dead Man’s Path to be so covert, but they are the sort of elements that take some time to properly dissect and understand. However, this makes it a more valuable and perhaps integral work than most of what passes through the review queue here.

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Doom and the normalization of metal

Main menu from Doom (1993)

The year was 1993, and Western society’s appetite for ultraviolence was steadily growing, as perhaps evidenced by our knowledge of the period’s death metal. Besides the music industry, other forms of entertainment embraced this, including Id Software, which at the time was a small but successful video game developer who increasingly specialized in first person shooters. Doom used much of the same technology as Id’s previous games in the genre, but due to better technology and marketing, it sold enormously more copies and understandably exerted more influence on game culture. Particularly interesting to us at DMU was Id’s decision to incorporate metal music into Doom. This wasn’t the first video game to showcase a straight up heavy metal soundtrack; that honor most likely goes to Rock’n’Roll Racing on the Super Nintendo, six months before the release of Doom. Rock’n’Roll Racing used synthesized covers of several popular heavy metal and hard rock tunes, but Doom arguably went a step further by using nominally original music. Robert Prince’s compositions for the game (and its immediate sequel, Doom II) are split between these ‘metal’ tracks and more ambient, downtempo tracks.

The music of Doom is definitely inspired by contemporary popular metal works to the point of near plagiarism; Prince mentions on the fan site Doomworld that Id initially asked him to do a contemporary metal soundtrack. Other sources mention that Prince relied primarily on the game’s design documents to inform his efforts and had limited contact with Id’s employees during the process. Regardless, tracks here are often just a few notes off from literally being rehashed Slayer or Metallica or one of the other popular bands that inspired this music. Song structures and everything else is understandably simplified, as video game music generally has to loop and can’t afford to be too prominent or obnoxious lest it be muted by an irritated player. It is still a reasonably appropriate backdrop to Doom‘s mixture of gun combat and labyrinthine exploration, although some players here will just use their death metal collections instead.

While streamed, sampled audio was common in video games by 1993, Doom initially used sequenced music, presumably to save on storage space and to avoid locking out potential buyers without access to a CD-ROM drive. The soundtrack was originally composed for General MIDI-compatible devices like Prince’s synthesizers, but on the average computer of the time, it’s most likely the soundtrack’s metal simulacra would play through one of Yamaha’s FM synthesis chips. The main problem with the OPL3 version of this soundtrack is a hardware one – while capable of producing a wide variety of sounds, the OPL3 suffers from severe anemia, particularly because of its weak percussion abilities, and therefore this version belies the music’s instrumentation.

Doom was, however, quickly ported to many other computers and consoles in light of its commercial success, where it would run into all sorts of technical limitations. Everyone involved in the ports handled the soundtrack differently, ranging from the complete omission of music on the Atari Jaguar, to rearrangements of various quality, including the infamously bad Sega 32X version, and even the Playstation port, notable as its main composer (Aubrey Hodges) contributed his own, original soundtrack of dark ambient music instead of using Prince’s work. The most “authentic” way to experience the soundtrack is probably Prince’s Doom Music compilation, which showcases much of the music performed on its original synthesizers; any additions are at least intended by the original author, although I still find the ability of mid-90’s electronics to mimic a distorted guitar underwhelming at best.

I doubt Id was specifically planning to popularize metal music when they released Doom, but they probably did a great deal in that regard, even though by 1993, mainstream metal was on the verge of commercial collapse and/or Pantera. The correspondence between common metal imagery, and the game’s demon-slaughtering violence and hellscapes is too obvious to ignore, though. Doom presumably sold more copies for pushing computers to their limit and being graphically violent, but the soundtrack’s decisions definitely paved the way for more and better-known works to feature metal as a soundtrack. In the process, it’s won such fans as Trey Azagthoth of Morbid Angel, who even made his own content for the game (although unfortunately, he didn’t bother to include his band’s music).

 

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