On The Music of Demilich

demilich-20th-adversary-of-emptiness

Article by David Rosales; get more perspective by also reading his article on Timeghoul

Much has been said about Demilich here and elsewhere, but remarkably little has been written about the potential of their music as ground for future bands to elaborate. For starters, the fact that Demilich has a solid fanbase and many admirers among professional musicians, but very few bands produce music in the same vein tells us that it is no easy task. This may also be due to the fact that most people tend to confuse appearances with mechanics, and mechanics in turn with character and essence. It seems to me that there is very little to elaborate, since Demilich is only distinctive at its very surface, in a very similar case to Immolation’s. Anything anybody may take from them besides this sort of surface plagiarism are the abstract concepts of loosening and playing with rhythm and mode consistently to achieve a distinctive sound. Perhaps even taking cues from their distinctive style could yield the foundation for the trademark sound of a younger band.

First, what makes Demilich stand out is their idiomatic approach to death metal that takes the best out of playing with tritones and off-putting harmonies in the context of the gore-flavored aura strand of the genre. Where Immolation goes for uncomfortable and dissonant, Demilich takes the modal/harmonic and rhythmic aspects of death metal to the extreme of this aural potential without incurring in the surface character deconstruction of Immolation’s coloring. Both of these bands, however, make use of standard death metal song-wide structuring techniques of the riff-salad kind with motific liaisons.

This surface extravagance coupled with an inner orthodoxy makes it very tricky for anyone to successfully extract the core of their teachings. In the case of Demilich even more so, since it is the silly side of their music’s character that stands out the most, making it particularly difficult to emulate them without producing obvious imitations. This may lead younger bands to think that a particularly derivative passage’s conspicuous appearance might be mitigated by mixing it into a hodgepodge of different styles and sounds. But to the perceptive listeners out there this will only sound like a motley fabric, a bag o’ tricks on display intended to fill in for actual content (Editor’s note: Have we told you about carnival music?).

Finally, superficial appreciation of the music of Demilich often leads fans to single out their music as “progressive”, as “opposed to traditional death metal”. Frequent readers of this site should immediately identify the grave mistake in this. Be that as it may, when you take the misunderstanding how progressive death metal in general is, and you put it together with the common metalhead’s idea of what progressive rock or metal is, you may begin to envision the monumental blunders that might come as a result.

Rather than insert Demilich-sounding passages into modern Dream Theater soundtracks, the young death metal musician might take head from the way Demilich balances out their outlandish sound. Demilich’s music, when seen at an abstract and aural level, can be divided into passages that are either more pounding, more syncopated or what we now call doom-laden (Demilich never stops too much in these power chord phrasal statements, though, so they do not really stand out). The emphasis on groove and the goofy-gore character is a constant that gives them their trademark sound.

The value of these concepts lies in learning how to produce sections that create variety within a narrative, with a distinctive and constant language that lends a personality of its own to the music. The narrative is produced through the equivalent of formal statements, developments, pauses for air, retaking of the topic, etc, in their musical manifestations. This is the greatest value of the best classic death metal bands: their outstanding ability to articulate.

Necropsy – Buried in the Woods (2015)

necropsy

Article by Corey M

Finns Necropsy have been plugging away since 1989 but only recently (2011) released their first full-length album. In 2015 they released their second album, Buried in the Woods, showcasing a disciplined, modest, and even joyous approach to death metal. Every time I hear this album I get the sense that Necropsy’s members do not have any type of heady agenda or driving vision; rather they simply enjoy making plain-old death metal, emphasizing straightforward riffs that rely equally on rhythmic adherence and playful-but-conventional melodic deviations.

The actual sonic texture of the album is smooth and clear, taking full advantage of 2015’s recording technology. Both bass and distorted lead guitars are appropriately crunchy but never so deep and fuzzy as to approach the obscure levels of Infester or Incantation; they chug, ring, soar, and sing without losing a trace of clarity. This lucidity of individual tracks allows each instrument to be heard clearly and effortlessly, which is a major benefit since many of these songs shift back and forth between relatively uniform (all instruments playing the same thing) segments to more harmonically complex bits. Drums sit comfortably behind the melody, encompassing the other instruments and filling in the far left and right stereo space with just the right amount of reverb, never intruding on the melody. Meanwhile, the vocals only appear as low pitched roars that are somewhat hard to decipher, and mainly serve to augment the otherwise simple rhythmic interplay that generally features concomitant guitars and drums. During the last song, synthesized organ and string sounds come in to support the closing chord progression, but aside from this final track, the songs are functionally supported exclusively by the guitars, drums, and vocal patterns.

Judging by the description in the preceding paragraph, we should have all the ingredients necessary for a good death metal album. But, just as we find in actual food recipes, the order of ingredient addition, and time spent baking, are just as crucial to the final product as the ingredients themselves. Buried in the Woods is a smooth listen from front to back, as the creators probably intended. The casual listener may stop their analysis there; the more attentive listener may find that the conservative nature of the songs lend themselves to a relatively shallow range of dynamics. But this criticism is mainly aimed toward the album as a whole; the songs themselves move effortlessly between sections that slowly change in feel until making a satisfying shift back toward the introductory riffs. Nevertheless, by the fifth song you’ll have heard the band’s whole lexicon of riffs, which range from the derivative (mainly Grave-ish Swedeath and Sinister-ish NYDM) to the interesting-but-uninspired.

Finnish bands like Demilich and Demigod generated some bizarre death metal that, while unconventional by even death metal standards, was nevertheless intuitively relatable because the music presented a vision of horror that was spiritual-arising-from-the-biological. The songs expressed such extreme and severe experiences through a human lens that we as listeners were lead to question and explore our own peripheries of personal experience, and push our imaginations toward the impossible; that is the special territory of death metal. With this in mind, the generic horror concepts of Necropsy relate only to the biological and immediate sensations, falling short of that ability to breach into the “imaginal”; that territory in which we can experience events through the potency of imagination alone, affecting our feelings/biological chemistry on a profound scale.

Listen to Buried in the Woods because it illustrates several examples of a decently transparent and reliable template that can be used in constructing songs in a style as unorthodox as death metal. While you listen, you will probably find that such formulaic methods of song structure only work if there is a balance between surprise and rationality in the shifts between riffs. If the focus is too close toward surprise, the result is like metalcore, which lacks melodic structure and relies on rapid and unexpected dynamic shifts in rhythm and overall feel. If the focus is too close toward rationality, then you get something like Buried in the Woods, which is written skillfully enough to not be boring, but too conventionally to be exciting. Personally, I listened through it several times and developed fond feelings toward a few songs, but I won’t be listening to it again any time soon.

A Playlist: Horror

horror

Article by David Rosales

The eighties, as any other decade, had its own particular flavor, and popular culture had turned to fantasy and horror as a sort of addictive drug. The most grueling slasher films with fake yet more tangible appearances than the digitized reproductions directed at desensitized audiences that we have today. It may be guessed that a lot of this was an outlet for repressed feelings of hopelessness towards the end of the Cold War, in the midst of death squad strikes and political assassinations throughout the world by the very pseudo protectors of liberty.

The menace of a nuclear holocaust made the idea of a post-apocalyptic scenario not so much the stuff of dreams but a possible (and plausible) future not more than a few decades ahead. There was terror in the air, as desperation and fear had already become the habit of a whole generation raised in the shadow of the fairy tales of the great wars and disarmed through the enhancing of shadows on the wall as their very protectors backstabbed them.

The kids born of this former failed generation of proper workmen and citizens grew to distrust all the bullshit thrown at them. Growing up in this era of tension and constant threats outside a bubble of hypocrisy and bigotry made young men of a more realist mentality long for the collapse of the system of lies built by the ‘mature and responsible’. This is the world that gave us death metal as Slayer’s lessons were ran through hardcore punk and then grindcore.

Cromags

1. Cro-Mags – Age of Quarrel (1986)

Expressing the most bare-bones discontent with society with a sincerity that only the punk spirit can deliver, Cro-Mags adopt metal riff phrasing techniques to give further elaboration to paint pictures of collapse and humanity’s demise that are more grim and nihilistic than the lyrics themselves.

repulsion-horrified

2. Repulsion – Horrified (1989)

While Age of Quarrel is the image of a decadent civilization malfunctioning its way to its own zombification, Repulsion shows us the explosion and its aftermath. The first is fear of impending doom, this latter is terror, desperation and psychotic breakdown in the face of monstrous reality.

carnage

3. Carnage – Dark Recollections (1990)

Beneath the blatant visions of disaster and discomfort, the reveling in what is seen as an unavoidable outcome, or perhaps an already present state, is laughed at with the humor of a cancerous patient that knows no clean escape from his own impossible situation. It takes death metal to come out as the triumphant anti-hero, shotgun in hand, ready to do away with the weakness of modern man.

Sadistic Metal Reviews mini-feature – Alastor – Waldmark (2016)

alastor

Article by David Rosales

Playing a laid back kind of black metal, Alastor’s music supports simple variations of a central melody on drums that range from blast-beating sections to short-lived standard rock beats on thin-sounding drums. At first, Alastor seems to be building on tracks in standard ways, until one realizes that halfway through the song, the music player tells you that the next track has already started. This sounds interesting in concept, but in the case of Waldmark, nothing is coming out of this except the constant stalling of closing sections. Being able to finish songs effectively seems to be the bane of of most musicians.

On the other hand, this might just be a dick move, because songs do seem to “end” in the middle of tracks, only so that a different idea starts and plays through the boundaries of tracks. It might just be a cheap way of trying to make the listener sit through a whole album of samey music with little to none emotional or content variation. It is extremely difficult to distinguish different songs, endings and beginnings, middle sections in a climax-less, conclusion-less flat music, even for a dedicated listener of underground metal music. Variation does happen, mind you, but the close range at which the whole of them remain, and the fact that they do not seem to be structured to take you anywhere, makes breaks and endings appear entirely random. You probably shouldn’t waste your time on something this amorphous.

On The Music Of Timeghoul

timeghoul

Article by David Rosales

Timeghoul’s short lived existence gave us two excellent demos in 1992 and 1994. These both display very distinct facets of the project, each with their own merits and limitations. Even if we see the second as an evolution of the first, the first stands very firmly on its own ground. You could in fact argue that the second is not so much an evolution, as a different overall direction for the band.

The first release, Tumultuous Travelings, had a much more suffocating feeling to it, but already showcasing Timeghoul’s distinct personality, setting it apart from any contemporary. This distinction, however, is one of language and not one of technique; so that the casual onlooker might consider this first work to be a typical release for its time. In reality, once we acknowledge its allegiance to the traditions of death metal, the particular traits of Timeghoul’s music (even on Tumultuous Travelings) are anything but typical.

In 1994 came Panaramic Twilight (sic), which boasted of more explicitly progressive intentions, giving it automatic recognition in the mind of the same simple metalhead who passed off their first demo as standard. Seldom is it recognized that Timeghoul’s “progressive” qualities were already present on the first release, which is a trend that itself fails to stand out as few recognize these leanings in even the most developed death metal of the early 1990s. Timeghoul’s most significant development on Panaramic Twilight was that they stepped up the drama and Wagnerian soundtrack-like constructions, which required longer silences, longer notes and a wider variety of expression.

Now, when constructing music, composers have to strike a balance between intelligibility and variety (a.k.a. outer complexity). Most metal musicians, however, seem totally unaware of this, and this is why bands who, out of a humble degree of proficiency, produce simpler music have a more enduring impression on the audience in general. Aesthetic variety will not keep your interest if the music that underlies it is incoherent, muddy, and lacking in clarity. However, mere clarity is not enough; the image remains blurry if the overall picture has not been built with enough concrete purpose.

This is where Timeghoul excels; coherent and concrete purpose in songwriting is their most meaningful contribution to metal. They have opened this door to a world of possibilities within their paradigm of dramatic and obscure (rather than gory) death metal that does not require a band to clone their approach to follow in their steps. In comparison, trying to learn from Demilich or Immolation often results in blatant plagiarism, unless your efforts and results arise from a detailed technical analysis and are applied only in an abstract manner. Timeghoul compensates for the silences, rapid-fire changes in rhythms, and the use of texture to enhance different feelings in their music by using a very limited range of techniques. This is comparable to what At the Gates did on their own album. The techniques themselves aren’t numerous; nor are they extremely advanced. The band chooses a lexicon of technique, and relies on it consistently within a harmonic/modal framework that lends each song their own “harmonic feel” (arising from the interplay with the vocal’s timbre as well, I presume).

The wide range of expression is achieved through the types of arrangements and the changes in texture and rhythm, which are not selected at random like we saw in the work of Crematory. Timeghoul is very clearly telling a story and each bit of music, each switch from blast beat to silence, from frenetic power chord torrent to slow, single-note melody lines makes sense as a narrative. Timeghoul’s approach is not one of riff-salad, but rather more akin to that of an opera. In short, the music of Timeghoul provides another healthy avenue for metal musicians to explore. What you can learn from this unfortunately short-lived project on the abstract level is of far more value than what you can imitate by simply trying to emulate their sound. It is their intuitional organization that deserves praise; the powerful narrative element of Timeghoul’s music is a rare gem.

Crematory – Denial (1992)

crematory denial

Article by David Rosales

Crematory’s 1992 EP is the very definition of good, old riff salad death metal, at least from a basic technical stance. Strings of ideas fly by with less-than-optimal riff glue to hold them together, but an intuitive flow is always present. Adjacent riffs may be linked motif-wise, but sharp corner-turns are never too far away. There is a clear emphasis in contrasting rhythms to create interest in the music in the absence of clearer goals. Denial is a good example of why many black metal musicians who were originally playing death metal chose to forgo this style in order to look for more artistically meaningful avenues of expression. Crematory is fun, and there is an obvious emphasis on technical proficiency that although not forgetting entirely about coherence leaves it as a second thought, and any other landscaping is all but forgotten. Concept building is left to the lyrics, while the music is only an engine to carry those words.

Fans of this old school band’s work tag this lazy and faceless approach as ‘Crematory style’, but in truth, it is just run-of-the-mill riff salad without any particular purpose; only remarkable for presenting some technical variation. This can be particularly observed when the band attempts to take rhythm to the edge of what their speed-based approach allows them and creates this ass-shaking syncopation worthy of Brazilian carnivals. This comes out as comical, but perhaps technically ‘interesting’ for drummers. The guitar’s work is completely driven by these frenetic drums that seem more interested in showing off how many different patterns they can cram into half a minute than in contributing to the larger picture. In fact, the whole of the music appears to be an excuse for rhythmic exercises in “fun and gore”. This is an early demonstration of tongue-in-cheek emptiness that lead these musicians to explore technique but reveal nothing to the soul.

Triguna Releases New EP

black-triguna-shirt-letters-e1434046332136

Last year we covered Triguna‘s debut (Embryonic Forms) with some enthusiasm, placing hopes on their amateur form of discernment and enthusiasm in the writing of progressive speed metal. The first album shows a band that is still a little awkward around expression but displays a latent vision for natural development and a holistic consideration of affairs. Their following EP, released officially on February 11, shows work in the same direction with a little more confidence. The evolution of Triguna’s style has not yet reached a stable point, and may still seem a little rushed or incoherent to the average listener, since they still need more practice in inserting their songs’ “progressive” sections. But these interruptions and twists don’t rob the songs of a coherent narrative, and the upcoming content seems worthy of further study and attention.

Embryonic Forms can be purchased at Triguna’s Bandcamp.

Dream Theater – The Astonishing (2016)

dreamtheaterastonishingcovercd

Article by David Rosales

Dream Theater never ceases to surprise you; not in a good way, but in how they can always reach the next level of selling out. Not that they were ever produced honest music, though one might excuse their progressive speed hard rock debut (When Dream and Day Unite), at least a little, I guess. Their brand of messy and random stitching of unrelated ideas in a mixture of hard rock and outright Disney pop has gone through a long series of transformations; a move to fool audiences with the typical “constantly reinventing ourselves” excuse that allows them to keep being random.

The band has suffered several crises, even televised ones that would make any telenovella envy them (Portnoy leaves, Dream Theater holds mock audiences to “choose” a pre-selected drummer). They’ve moved with the waves, going dense and long with Systematic Chaos to entice those fans who like to believe themselves metal, then softening up a little with the influence of overrated poser-band Pink Floyd in Black Clouds and Silver Linings to produce long pop songs with some funny stabs at being metal. After that, 2011’s A Dramatic Turn of Events saw them go for their most retro attempt at imitating real progressive rock, with some interesting ideas and passages but ultimately resulting in the bloated and boring pieces their fans expect from them.

Whenever they aren’t busy putting together one of these Broadway soundtracks structured as carnival music, they will be repackaging previous material into more compilations or stuffing their lobotomized fans with yet another live album. Dream Theater lives the KISS dream, with similar tactics, minus the extreme sexual decadence, making them apt for audiences of all ages. A few weeks ago, they released an album that has taken particularly long in arriving, named The Astonishing for major catchiness and acceptance. This album is a two-disc package divided into thirty-four different tracks,  but this is no The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, and Dream Theater does not even attempt to keep single four-minute songs coherent. They switch from inspirational soundtrack bullshit to gay-pop ballad mode with little to no preparation, only to follow it up by a head-bobbing hard rock groove that is never too aggressive so as to appear actually threatening.

Daddy-rock, Disney-pop and conscious attempts at being as lame as Hans Zimmer have brought Dream Theater to where they are. Sometimes they try to be Pink Floyd, but not too much, lest they be recognized, since Pink Floyd does not have too much they can actually call their own but a lazy syncopated sort of pop rock with bluesy guitar (I really can’t stop laughing when people praise Gilmour as some kind of revolutionary; he was a good guitarist, period). Sometimes they try to go Genesis, but they do not have the consistency, the concentration or the actual creativity, so they resort to disguising their lack of composition talents by attaching whatever they can come up to the latest they wrote down, no matter how nonsensical it is. At this point, Dream Theater sounds like senile Avenged Sevenfold trying to be old Genesis but forgetting about it every other minute as, if they already have Alzheimer’s.

Sacrificium Carmen – Ikuisen Tulen Kammiossa (2015)

sacrificium-carmen

Article by Corey M

Sacrificium Carmen have released some very generic black metal on this album, made up of moderate-to-fast-paced songs with lots of chunky speed metal riffs and admittedly impressive strained-sounding vocals. Overall, my impression of Ikuisen Tulen Kammiossa is negative for two main reasons: Lack of innovation (meaning that the band makes no effort to develop and express their own unique perspective using the black metal template) and a disregard for the necessities that make traditional black metal an engaging listen (hint: it’s more than just grindy distortion and screamed lyrics).

Regarding the album’s merits: Sacrificium Carmen do well by avoiding any “post-black metal” trappings (some examples being forced “prog” tendencies, ominous chanting, and corny sound effects), and they steer clear of any “ambient” influences, which means the music is fairly lean and efficient. Each song begins and ends purposefully, rather than diverging into some ambiguous territory surrounded by extramusical showboating, as many contemporary black metal bands are wont. For this, Sacrificium Carmen deserve credit; the musicians rely on themselves and their instruments only, eschewing digitally-generated sound textures, operatic vocals, “found sounds” and so forth, to achieve their vision. Each song is generally through-composed, and all melodies are readily found in the Official Dogmatic Compendium of Black Metal Minor Chord Sequences™. All of the instruments are played proficiently (and the vocals are exceptionally aggressive), but the level of musical complexity is low throughout the album, so this details neither adds to nor detracts from the album’s quality.

This “less-is-more” approach is usually a good one for bands to take when playing black metal, because the best black metal is minimalist in that it does not have any bits of ornamentation to distract from the purpose of the music, which is to evoke in the imagination visions of spiritual horror in a world dominated by chaotic violence. This is where Sacrificium Carmen’s music falls short – invoking imagination. There is just no darkness or danger to the melodies, only all-too-human frustration, which sounds emotively impotent and discouraging to listen to. Most of the riffs in Ikuisen Tulen Kammiossa would not be out of place on a contemporary punk album; just replace Sacrificium Carmen’s vocalist with some faux-gruff cigarette-smoke-choked burn out and have him sing with self-conscious irony about how stupid religious fundamentalists are, or how much he hates his landlord, and you’d have a product that would sell to clueless teenagers in the suburban Midwestern United States.

Melodies in Ikuisen Tulen Kammiossa never reach a high enough level of tension to evoke any visions; they are too direct and sound self-centered. By this, I mean that any song’s series of riffs are actually static, whirlpool-like revolutions around the song’s own rhythmic and melodic center. The riffs anticipate a return to whatever was the last-heard rhythmic hook, rather than communicate through melodic contrast with the riffs that precede and follow. Early (and successful) black metal bands achieved tension by chaining together riffs in such a way that each segment of melody would act to destruct the preceding segment and, simultaneously, enhance the following segment, not granting the listener a chance to dwell on any one particular pleasantly hooky riff, but impelling them to take the current melody at face value and embrace the ephemerality of that melody. Because of this constant dialogue taking place throughout a song, coherence could be maintained, even while the song’s tempo or scale shifts and dynamics may even fluctuate wildly. Meanwhile, every song on Ikuisen Tulen Kammiossa appears focused on a conclusion at all times, diminishing the immediate experience. Possibly as a result of this weakness, the dynamic range of any given song is quite narrow. This does not automatically make any songs bad, but given everything else that is going on (or not) in this album, it makes for a boring listen, unless you’ve always wanted to hear a punk band with a black metal vocalist.

In short, Ikuisen Tulen Kammiossa is not a record that classic black metal fans will want to spend much time with. When judged as rock music in general, the album does not commit any irredeemable sins, and may be a fun listen while pounding beers or taking a drive with your girlfriend who hates Darkthrone. But when judged as black metal and measured against those albums in the black metal canon, you may find that the album has more shortcomings than can be excused.

Catacomb – In the Maze of Kadath (1993)

CATACOMB-The-Lurker-at-the-Threshold-In-the-Maze-of-Kadath-CD

Article by David Rosales

Straight from the peak of the death metal movement comes the French band Catacomb and their 1993 demo / EP In the Maze of Kadath. The production is suitable and enhances the vibe that any death metal band would want, saved from overproduction by the limitations of its time and probably band finances. It is the sort of release that from the time period that has all the right examples of its betters so that it can produce an appropriate atmosphere, but its capacity to create something original and valuable of its own is shaky at best.

Songs are introduced by a monochromatic piano, not unlike that of Goatcraft on All for Naught. After a short passage, the band proceeds to pick motifs from it and move on to a very consciously “progressive” treatment of the music. As I have said before, all good death metal is progressive music, in the sense of the word’s original usage when describing classic and jazz inspired rock bands of the early seventies. Bands that sound more explicitly and intentionally progressive are usually trying something closer to through-composition. The dangers of through-composition, however, can be seen in how acts such as The Chasm meander into nothingness, or in the corners of Timeghoul’s longer explorations, which they barely keep together. Catacomb is an example of a band biting off more than it can chew. While not outright offensive, one gets the feeling that the songs’ storylines get lost, and part of this is because it’s difficult to tell if Catacomb has a clearly defined style or not. It is more like a collection of atmospheric death metal tropes combined with more conventional technique closer to a traditional/speed metal approach, although Catacomb tends to perform at middling tempos.

One strength of this band on In The Maze of Kadath is their haunting use of keyboard, its sound complementing the tone of the guitar as they play in unison. This is a subtlety lost on modern bands who fail to notice how a huge and devouring guitar sound eats up the space where a keyboard would spread to get that truly haunting feeling. Less admirable are the random guitar solos with very little staying power (a lack of correspondence with the music, with which it only shares tonal coherence) and often awkward-sounding arpeggiations. All in all, this is an enjoyable but unimpressive and forgettable work music. If you wanted the progressive ‘chops’ with the dark atmosphere, Timeghoul provides a much better delivery. If that proves too gnarly and the reader only wants that spacey, desolate sound, Thergothon’s Stream from the Heavens would be a far more compelling and potent choice. In the Maze of Kadath may please momentarily and entertain for its cult status, but musically, anything it has to offer has been realized more convincingly in the works of others.