Cirith Gorgor – Visions of Exhalted Lucifer (2016)

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Cirith Gorgor bases its music around a strong vocal in the modern metal style of several emphatic syllables which then trail off, and this primary rhythm instrument propels the music forward. Underneath it flow melodic riffs which are not based on unique shape for its own ends, but fit around the rhythm of the vocals, approximating the style of later Emperor.

All of the familiar patterns are here: the sweeps, the gently falling melodic riffs, and the sawing upsurge riffs, and they are ordered in sensible songs. These songs do not particularly distinguish themselves from one another, nor evoke any type of emotion other than a general sense of feelings about the genre, but they are not random and are better assembled than the average. They resemble a sort of ongoing conversation that appears in different forms.

If this band has a weakness, it is reliance on the modern style of “yapping chihuaha” vocals. These are easier to follow than the old way, but place too many demands on the guitars for them to lead songwriting. The melodic hooks are pleasant and the discourse of songs orderly, but this band has a way to go before it expresses something like the power this genre has sleeping within it.

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Insision – Terminal Reckoning (2015)

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Insision take on the dying underground by combining brutal death metal, early technical death metal and adding in mild touches of modern death metal, creating a sound that hammers its listeners with intensity but works melodic leads and song construction into the mix for variety and depth. The result is a cornucopia of charging riffs and melodic turnarounds, in a style similar to later Gorguts mixed with Deeds of Flesh.

The band makes skillful use of dynamics to intensify songs and carefully presents each as a standalone concept. Guttural vocals ride the rhythm riff but break away to freestyle over the more open patterns. This allows Insision to work atmosphere into the blasting and otherwise violent guitar work. Fans of classic German speed metal like Destruction and Kreator will notice similarities as the album goes on; like the best from those bands, Terminal Reckoning uses single chord riffs with chromatic fills for pure rhythm effect.

If this album could improve, it would be in more internal diversity of riff and pace. Its use of melody thrusts aside the modern metal conventions and instead serves to develop songs, which avoids the becalming effect of too much similarity, and the interplay of vocals and guitar follows the mid-80s style instead of trying to constantly contrast the riffs. That and its inherent aggressive attack allows this album to escape the modern metal doldrums and bring back much of what fans adored in old school, technical and brutal death metal.

Thanks to Cátia Cunha from Against PR, Sevared Records and Insision, we can present to you the following streaming track from Terminal Reckoning

You can find out more about Insision at Facebook, YouTube or via Sevared Records.

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Blackdeath – Totentanz (2016)

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Blackdeath is a Russian black metal band that just so happens to perform their lyrics in German. Funny how that works out. I’m not sure what the motivation is, but it’s a mildly interesting bit of trivia that you might get a kick out of. The actual album (which is intended to release on January 1st, 2016, and was provided via promos) was initially released in two parts in 2004, as parts of splits with Mortifera and Leviathan produced in exceedingly small qualities, so while the material is far from new, this may be your first chance to hear what comes off as a competent, but unremarkable and therefore disposable piece of old school black metal. Definitely not “best of 2016” material.

Now, the promo message we were sent claims that Totentanz is “…nothing like you have heard before”, but in my personal experience, there’s not much here that’s particularly novel. Blackdeath’s PR agency was probably listening primarily to the guitar, which showcase a nice mixture of standard melodic black metal phrases with more dissonant, atonal phrases. By not confining themselves to tonal centers, the band has opened up some realms of musical technique that could come in handy. That’s about all I can say in favor of the instrumental end of this album – nothing here is “wrong” or out of place (even the drum machine), but it’s otherwise very standard for its subgenre.

I suppose the specific problem with Totentanz is that it does little to coordinate its individual elements into a coherent whole. Blackdeath seemingly values the “kvlt” side of black metal, and thusly this album is blessed with a stereotypical low fidelity mix. The most prominent issue here is that the percussion is nearly inaudible; this appears to be a constant problem throughout the band’s discography. It’s not really a problem for a more ambient black metal act like Darkthrone or Sorcier des Glaces, but Blackdeath seemingly aspires towards the more violent side of the genre, at least if the rest of their musical elements aren’t misleading me. Totentanz also has the sort of arbitrary songwriting that so many other metal bands fall into. In this case, I find it unusually hard to isolate specific elements for criticism; however, the aesthetic/songwriting mismatch seems to be most responsible for this recording going in one ear and out the other without getting much in the way of proper mental attention.

I guess it’s a dubious honor that the first upcoming release of 2016 I’ve reviewed avoids the Sadistic Metal Reviews pile, but honestly, the best thing I can say about Totentanz is that it’s surrounded by mildly interesting circumstances.

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Dodheimsgard – Kronet til Konge (1995)

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Kronet til Konge shows what happens when a genre overshoots its inertia. Everything labeled “Norwegian black metal” with “that sound” was selling like hotcakes, which is a rare position for metal to find itself in. The fans, labels and magazines howled for more, which is always a sign that the quantity-over-quality groupthink has arrived. This band pasted together a bunch of riffs and called it an album.

The result shows us how important metal songwriting is: it’s not just about the riffs. Good metal comes from arranging riffs so they talk to each other to create “heavy” moments which feel like realizations (or provoke them). Normal rock is designed to distract you or get you lost in a sea of bittersweet conflicting emotions. Metal builds up illusions and tears them down, then inverts the whole structure to show you a hidden truth. This is the mythological nature of metal.

Dodheimsgard are talented musicians. They have about one good riff idea per song, and are musically adept enough to cook up the other riffs and bits necessary to tie it together into a song, but these are addressing the riff itself and not some underlying topic or feeling for the song. As a result, these songs feel random and convey nothing, although it’s hard to come to this conclusion when caught in a quality riff. But the sum has to be more than the total of its parts and that leap to greatness is not made here.

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Abigail Williams – The Accuser (2015)

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I had high hopes for The Accuser… of a sort. I was expecting an ungainly, melodramatic symphonic black metal ala Dimmu Borgir. Unfortunately, Dimmu Borgir hasn’t released an album for Abigail Williams to ape in over five years!  Cue the necessary stylistic shift, and the dashing of my admittedly dubious hopes, founded on information about this band that was similarly out of date. The Accuser is one of those indie-darling post-black metal albums, and while it’s usually not as blatant about its weepy, depressive influences as Deafheaven or Myrkur (whom I always seem to mention in pairs), it’s still a pretty flat and bland experience.

Abigail Williams’ latest actually pulls on a fairly wide mixture of post-black approaches, although they are generally united by a consistent production. The production team decided to portray this band as just fuzzy and indistinct enough to possibly pass as ‘true’ for a moment, but not enough that the intended audience would complain about a garbled aesthetic. There’s also the occasional awkward high pitched scream strewn in the mix, but it’s an otherwise standard sound. Within this, Abigail Williams explores such things as jangling consonant guitar leads, lengthy drone sections, start-stop riffing, and so forth. Now, there is nothing innately anything about musical techniques, and this is especially the case on this album, where the songwriting is haphazard at best. The difficulty that you often run into with this sort of musical language is that it’s difficult to build off these ideas in any way, whether it be the standard theme and development shtick we advocate around here, a more ambient approach, or much of anything, really. In general, Abigail Williams has a serious problem gluing things together and seemingly tries to hide it with minor stylistic shifts within and between tracks; regardless of their intent they don’t manage to pull off such subterfuge.

For whatever small reasons, I don’t find this album quite as annoying as many of its genre contemporaries. It still is, however, a boring listen that does little of interest with the hand of tricks it’s taken.

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Smoking with Tolkien: Capstan – Original Navy Cut

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J.R.R. Tolkien wrote without an outline using only the thoughts gathered in his head over long hours of smoking his pipe and staring into a fireplace. Sitting at his typewriter, head wreathed in smoke, he pounded out a first draft of the Lord of the Rings mythos, and then discarded it, beginning again from scratch. As the story took form, it left behind a litter of empty blue-painted cans of tobacco.

The tobacco was Capstan Original Navy Cut. Members of his family remember the tins proliferating around the house and being used to store household items. When Tolkien and other members of his literary group The Inklings met, nicotine burned in abundance, and they could be found by following the trail of smoke. In his books, Tolkien inserted characters finding great comfort and wisdom in their pipes much as he did in his.

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As part of a recent binge of writings by Tolkien and fellow Inkling C.S. Lewis, this writer has indulged in their favorite tobaccos. Capstan Original Navy Cut comes in “flake” form, having been pressed into table-sized cakes and then sliced into wafers about a third the size of a playing card. These are either stuffed into the pipe or “rubbed out” which converts them into ribbons of tobacco. Throughout this experiment, the thought lingers at the back of the mind: why this tobacco, and does it resemble the Longbottom Leaf or Old Toby of his legends?

Original Navy Cut is composed of pure Virginias, but the pressing and aging has converted some of their sugar and acid into a more hay-like flavor, the partial decomposition of the leaf having released its most irksome elements. What remains is a sweet smoke, with slightly more Nicotine (PBUH) than the average medium smoke, which burns evenly and rewards small “sips” or short slow puffs, as one might take while hammering out words on a typewriter. It also admirably complements the smell of typewriter ribbon, for whatever that is worth.

Virginia flakes such as this tend to appeal to either new smokers who want a blend that is sweet and strong like a cigarette, or to the experienced who can nurse a pipe for hours. Since Tolkien was a master pipe smoker, he fit the latter category, and apparently always kept a pipe going with this and other blends to power himself through late-night endurance test writing sessions. And we can enjoy the results, and the metal inspired by them.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B8IC4aSq-Mg

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3oNVGi-dZ_E

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pq1JrJHQlAc

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Isvind – Gud (2015)

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Part of me still wants to like Gud. Isvind’s 4th studio album is a textbook example of how to sound like black metal, for sure, but the specific emphasis on consonant melody (mixed with some primitive and ambient elements ala Darkthrone) make for a substyle that at least can be done well in the right hands. Under this admittedly pleasing exterior, though, lies a heart of incoherence and confusion. Isvind, at least in 2015, is random to the core, and their inability to properly organize their songs makes for a tedious 45 minutes.

While this pervasive failure makes it more difficult to zero in on any one flaw, a few are at least more prominent and demanding of attention. One thing I immediately noticed were the presence of gimmicky female vocals – after the short but dissonant prelude at the beginning of the first track, they are scattered very sparsely throughout the rest of the tracks. They fail to add much beyond the occasional peak of shrill dissonance. As I kept analyzing Gud‘s tracks, I found that the tracks were full of these distractions in various forms, whether it was extra instrumentation, or stark shifts in tempo or tonality or other aspects of the songwriting. Each one of these is the musicological equivalent of being constantly pestered by a small child who demands your attention; eventually you get used to it, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating. To their credit, Isvind manages to incorporate a great deal of dissonance into what is primarily a melodic and consonant style, which makes for some interesting isolated riffs, but since they can’t string the sections of their songs together properly, it almost doesn’t matter. To be fair, I don’t think this problem is caused specifically by the musical exploration, since other black metal bands (read: Averse Sefira) have written far more coherent and therefore interesting songs than are present on display here.

Still, I can’t recommend this in good conscience. It’s not quite as nonsensically random as Myrkur or a Krallice, but it’s a lot closer in spirit to those albums than what its aesthetics may lead you to believe on your initial listen.

P.S: I almost pluralized listens, but you shouldn’t give this album that much attention.

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Crushing the sacred idols – Transylvanian Hunger (1994)

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Article by Lance Viggiano, read the more positive DLA review here

1993’s Under a Funeral Moon displays Darkthrone at their peak of creativity with a depth of vision that is initially challenging and abrasive yet contains a high degree of musically which constructs an experience out of relatively simple components and nuance whose reward is inexhaustible. Many place the decline of the band somewhere between 1995’s Panzerfaust and its follow up Total Death; in truth, Darkthrone as a creative force reached its nadir on 1994’s Transilvanian Hunger.

Unlike its predecessor, this record lacks in subtly and nuance. Gone is the inventive call and response of “To Walk the Infernal Fields”. The listener is mistreated by being deprived of the atonal, uncomfortable but highly inventive melody of “Natassja in Eternal Sleep”. Within the first minute, one will have gotten the gist of each track as the songs remain in a static pulse of two or ideas with a third idea serving as a bridge back to the initial thoughts, an interjection or an outro. Any relationship to an underlying narrative is tenuous to the charitable and absent to the honest. This is not a call for novelty in music as over time nothing remains novel; rather, it reveals a lack of dynamic character which offers no reward in a full listening of any track here; especially after the initial novelty fades with repeated listening.

As a piece of minimalism, this record fails abjectly. What is found in the successful minimalism of Eno, Reich – or perhaps Kraftwerk in moments – is the layering of simple ideas composed for multiple instruments in which absolute simplicity is woven together to create evocative if not complex art. Darkthrone instead chose to compose only for the guitar. The bass follows root notes of the guitar in a paltry attempt to give body while the drums meander near ceaselessly on a blastbeat which is only occasionally broken by an uninspired fill or a canned metal pattern. Their inclusion is questionable and unworthy of discussion or serious consideration. Their merit is valuable only to a critic as a display of the artists’ lack of confidence in leaving behind genre tropes to achieve a full realization.

Where the album finds success is by pandering to the overly sentimental via – admittedly – effective melodies and well executed aesthetics. Neither excuse the sheer laziness of construction nor the complete dearth of rhythmic variance and supportive content to fill out the body of the music. Instead what is presented is weightless and immediate music whose significance can only rely on memory of time and place; a sense of nostalgia for the first experience. It is thus difficult to discuss the emotional qualities of this music due to the near loss of artistry on part of its creator(s) which robs the record of any vitality and spirit. The music is heartfelt and bittersweet – with varying degrees of success – but ultimately it exists, at best, as audible candy for the melancholic.

Transilvanian Hunger‘s inability to grow with the listener over time and its misapplication of minimalism, despite containing a strong melodic component, places the record just a slight cut above the bargain bin. 2/10

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Autopsy – Skull Grinder (2015)

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On one hand, this is obviously a descendant of previous Autopsy material, but on the other hand, Skull Grinder is more conventionally structured and musical than the band’s formative work. You could make a case for my hypothesis based on the first single – i.e a lot of older styles of metal seem to be filtering into latter day Autopsy. Around these parts, this usually spells disaster and results in things like At the Gates releasing Slaughter of the Soul. Autopsy manages to avoid this fate by using these otherwise difficult to control elements in a way that actually fits their roots.

In general, Autopsy relies on a fairly simple formula to make their death metal – basic structures (not necessarily pop ones), limited technicality, and so forth. Perhaps the greatest reason Skull Grinder actually benefits from this is that Autopsy’s style always lent itself to having a strong vocal presence. Chris Reifert is on the top of his game here, successfully expanding the variety of vocal techniques he uses while remaining appropriate to the style of music on display. Similar expansions take place in the rest of the ensemble, including a more lead and solo heavy approach to guitarwork and more elaborate usage of melody in the rhythm guitar’s riffs. The downside of this more instrumentally interesting Autopsy is that it comes at expense of the band’s early mastery of song structure. In general, Skull Grinder is subtly, but definitely more haphazard in how it strings riffs together. This loss of organization skill is not drastic enough to ruin the record, but it’s an unfortunate shortcoming, and one that perhaps could have easily been avoided by giving the songwriting process a little more time to cook. Autopsy has certainly been releasing material quite consistently as of late, but I think the fans would tolerate a longer release cycle if it meant that the music was tightened up a bit and some of the more egregious filler was removed.

Despite this, Autopsy has created a better approximation of their early material than your average self-reviving band, and Skull Grinder does have a some material worthy of the band’s legacy in its short duration. There’s also some lessons to be learned here about how to expand your songwriting horizons; the best bands of the next few years will be those who can balance such wisdom with the more conventional truths Autopsy demonstrated in their past.

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