Donning their debut album with a medieval-styled, black-and-white cover that looks more like a qualified sketch than a finished statement, Assesor went into music history as the first underground metal band in Czechoslovakia to score a record deal. Spearhead-status notwithstanding, Invaze stays firmly rooted in 1980 death/thrash extremity rather than tapping into the burgeoning death- and black metal movements. What ultimately makes Invaze a rewarding listen is not so much a question of stylistic preferences, but how the band expand upon an established form in order to transform it qualitatively from within.
Although it might disappoint some readers, it’s probably advisable to begin this review by stating that this is not a lost recording by a well-known Polish musician. However, the music does fall somewhere within the black metal sphere. Darken is a three-track EP released by guitar-virtuoso Toby Knapp, presumably conceived as an attempt at writing and performing music in the language of mid-to-late-1990s melodic black metal. Joining the multi-instrumentalist on vocals and as lyrical contributor is a certain Necrotriton, while drums are obviously computer-generated.
Is it delusional to believe in a revitalization of our much beloved music? Judging by the everflowing stream of nonsense bombarding our ears for the last 20 years or so, it is all too easy to answer the question affirmatively. What ultimately makes it worth hanging around just a little longer are the precious few and often unexpected discoveries that somehow manage to make it to your stereo. Like Zarathustrian Impressions by the debuting epic death/black metal ensemble Polemicist. With a combined assault of evocative melodies, erudite songwriting and conceptual rigeur, these Philadelphians have not only helped restore faith in underground music, but also cleared the path for further exploration in the crossection between black, death and heavy metal.
The Accüsed came to life in 1981 as a punk/metal-act from Seattle who indulge in a self-coined musical style interchangeably referred to as “splatter core” or “splatter rock.” Releasing their debut full-length album in 1985, The Accüsed developed tangentially to thrash luminaries such as D.R.I., C.O.C. and Cryptic Slaughter, with whom they share musical characteristics. Like the latter, the Accüsed applies metallic riffing to rudimentary song structures fueled by the raging intensity of hardcore punk.
With the exception of borderline subgenres such as grindcore and thrash, metal bands generally compose songs that exceed the standard pop-template in terms of longevity – a feat largely inherited from progressive rock, where compositions often reach for the conceptual and/or epic. Therefore, the full-length album comes off as an ideal format for metal. In the case of punk music, things tend to work differently. Punk – especially hardcore punk – thrives on raw energy, purity of expression and a to-the-point manner. This code of conduct produces some of the most intense music around, but also places certain restrictions on its modes of expression.
For us Westerners, many forms Japanese non-traditional music carry an awkward, or even amusing air of exotism. When it comes to metal and punk, this sense of other-ness often stems from the way European-descended musical genres get filtered through a cultural lens largely alien to its original source. Even when it comes to obvious carbon-copy tribute acts, there’s always something strikingly goofy about Japanese metal/punk. Not surprisingly, this makes for a good marketing device because even if the bands suck (and to be frank, many of them do), they still sound “unique”. Relevant cases in point are just too ubiquitous to deserve mentioning. Let’s instead talk about something that does not suck. Like Japan’s premier hardcore punk act and much-overlooked crossover pioneers G.I.S.M. While definitely goofy, G.I.S.M. succeed where most Japanese metal- and punk-acts fail by forging a highly idiosyncratic expression that not only offers something new to the table, but also manage to resonate with the deeper spirit of both punk and metal.
In the past, metal journalism used to function mainly as a filtering device; weeding out the bad so that the good stuff would rise to the top. Nowadays, it’s more likely the other way around. We’re now searching for potential in a seemingly endless flow of “interesting” or pleasant-sounding junk. This task often requires time and patience, because those rare and far between releases will often sound similar to their lesser peers on a surface level. One illuminating example would be the Pennsylvanian epic death/black metal act Polemicist and their debut album Zarathustrian Impressions. Their music may not appear spectacular on casual listen, but repeated and concentrated exposure reveal unexpected qualities.
Like many of us, I discovered black metal as a young teenager. Back then, this relatively new form of music still retained some of its initial mystique and one could sense a scope and magnitude that went beyond previous conceptions of what metal was or should be. What initially won me over was not so much the heavy distortion, Satan/sodomy or spectacular extra-musical activities of individual musicians, but the evocative potential of the music. Its ability to create mental gateways into places normally out of reach, or as Mr. Vikernes once put it: “to stimulate the fantasy of mortals.”
At its most direct and well-calibrated, grindcore is a viciously effective medium for both emotional and corporal catharsis. But, as is often the case with experiential intensity, those equally delightful and terrifying moments seldom endure and will at best leave us grappling with a sensation of unresolved clarity. Whether or not this observation resonates with the reader, it may well be applied as an analogy for the grindcore phenomenon at large. Once a fortuitous offspring of hardcore punk and primordial death metal, early grindcore managed to tap into the deeper recesses of human discontent and paranoia and somehow channel this raw force into musical form. However, it didn’t take long before this short burst of essentially intuitive creativity gave in to rationalization and before anyone had realized it: game over.
The main point in case here would be Carcass. As have been previously chronicled on these pages, early Carcass lifted grindcore out of its self-inflicted musical and ideological circumscriptions with their debut Reek of Putrefaction (1988) —somewhat ironically, given its crude nature and presentation— before embarking on a steady slope into insignificance as the band got caught up with making music to please audiences. Since then, a veritable substyle has been founded upon Carcass’ earliest works reaching up to their third LP. Not surprisingly, the artistic results have been chiefly meagre because most successors have focused on mimicking style rather than the essential qualities of the music. Consider this in parallel to the poignantly limited musical palette of grindcore and a scenario takes form where novelty rather than substance is rewarded; because in a field where everything sound practically identical on the surface, the easiest way to gain notoriety is through aesthetic manipulation. Consequently, discovering worthy material quickly turns into a struggle of Sisyphosian proportions, as it requires extensive and often in-depth digging.
Unanimously forgotten by the metal world at large, Putrid Offal’s 1991 split LP with Exulceration comes across as a seemingly indistinctive affair at first glance. However, a deeper acquaintance with the material reveals this to be one of the more rewarding non-canonical works within the genre. Putrid Offal comfortably operates within a style somewhere between the first and second Carcass album if played with the intense rigidity of an early Napalm Death. Where the band excels is in a conjoinment of Reek of Putrefaction’s playful and frequently destabilizing nature with the more cogent and death metal-oriented riff sequencing witnessed on Symphonies of Sickness (1989). Riffs strive to expand beyond the simple chromatic patterns that has become a staple among grindcore acts. This allows the band not only to apply greater textural nuance to phrases, but also an opportunity to string riffs into sequences that defy binary modes of communication. While intensity remains as main focus throughout the playing time, both structure and riffology implies an undercurrent darker than what is usually expected of such a direct form of music.
Setting aside aspirations of petty “uniqueness”, Putrid Offal ironically enough belongs to the infinitesimal cadre of bands who’ve managed to expand upon the Carcass legacy.