Moloch – Verwüstung (2015)

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While most records can be dismissed by finding commonplace music-making missteps, some records seem to do everything competently and yet still manage to lack something vital to music. This is precisely the case with Moloch’s Verwüstung, which makes it a difficult album to assess justly. Fulfilling all that you can expect from a mid-paced, melodic black metal album to the letter, the result is monotonous and surprisingly empty-sounding despite the density of the content.

We must start by handing out the praises the album deserves. The consistency in style, the balance between repetition and the timing to bring in the next idea as well as the breaks in dynamics and texture that produce elegant caesuras in the music. Style is clear and while not completely original, is distinctive (in the sense that we are not left trying to figure out what they are trying to do as a result of any contradiction or meandering of the style) and gets to the point clearly. What Verwüstung can be compared to is a stout robotic armor that moves on its own and can handle tasks effectively but lacks a heart and life of its own so that, when questioned directly, is unable to respond with anything beyond the most mundane observations. What is missing is not the organizing agency that the composer is, but the vision that builds music not only coherently but assembling it in ridges, plains, and other geographical variations that make it a text to be traveled through, and not just a sequence of technically-convincing patterns.

(…) the natural world cannot be grasped in the same way that natural science grasps things, that it requires a fundamental change of attitude, an orientation that focuses no longer on things but on their phenomenal nature, the way they manifest themselves. Thus, it turned out further, the question is not one of the world and its structures but of the phenomenon of the world; that it has to do, first of all, with a description and an analysis of the way in which the world presents itself, then with an explanation of why it presents itself this way.

— Jan Patočka

This vital je ne sais quoi lies on the spiritual dimension of music.  It is both its motivator and its end product. The alpha and the omega of the creative process, it comes to the artist that would have it and through the singular vision, the particular abilities and the subjective filter of the individual surfaces again in reborn form from the composition and execution stages. Music, then, if it is indeed the output of this flow, should feel like a living organism. Moving together and in harmony with all its parts, first of all, but also displaying an independent thinking, a freedom of thought of sorts. This creature may or may not be crippled by the creative power of the human mind through which it flows to be transformed and born again, but its qualities as living spirit cannot be questioned.

When the music process does not flow from a strong inspiration — from a commanding apparition that would ask cooperation of the perceptive human being that is to bring this entity from the highest layer of existence, that of the divine mind, and into the physical one we perceive every day — then no such life is perceived in the music. The most refined techniques and calculated relations become the exercise of uninspired composers. Although this may be difficult to grasp for the average reader, there is a direct link between these explanations and the actual musical elements: beyond the coherence and balance of elements, one finds life in the vivid dynamics, pulsating textures and varying relations that come after the previous requirements (the order is important as some would have only a messy variation without them being the result of the necessary sacred union between coherence, clarity and inspiration). At the expense of using descriptions bordering on the religious, the accusation leveled against Moloch is that of having produced a soulless abomination.

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Detention – Marginal (2015)

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Reviewing promos sometimes entails reviewing albums that to the general public may pass as metal but to us they are not. In fact, this happens more often than not, especially with the tons of third-rate atmospheric music of all stripes trying to pass as black metal, as if the genre did not have enough bland imitators as it is. In this case, we have a female fronted alternative rock album with heavy guitars that somehow made its way into a metal promo stack. Not being our standard fare here for obvious reasons, this review will serve as an example to show not that we do not “like” this style, but rather, why these pop rock styles are, as a whole, musical failures.

The formula used by Detention is pretty common place, use easy, jumpy rhythms that work to keep the listeners attention while a soft female voice keeps throwing simple melodic hooks to serve as the initial pull. None of this is outstanding in the least, in fact, many individual sections may make one cringe as simple passages are squandered in an attempt to create a slightly eerie deviation which one cannot be sure was intentional or not. Songs consist of the usual intro-verse-chorus-bridge organization with some small deviations to create interest. This is the only place where one can tip the hat to Detention: theirs is a sincere attempt at creating music. As with many other bands, it is the pop encasing that limits them and the overall result is found naturally wanting. The belief that a catchy rhythm and nice melodies are the bases of good music. Unfortunately, this is the prevalent belief even in metal circles, which only add the “aggressive” tag to that list.

Although comparisons may be made to a host of different female-fronted so-called symphonic metal or alternative “metal” outfits, in Marginal we see yet another group trying to emulate the sound of early The Gathering and becoming little more than a less competent clone. The Gathering is another one of those groups that in being a “people’s music” and casual feel to it, understate the expertise and talent of the band members, luring many a clueless imitator into trying their underdeveloped talents at this “easy” style.  The greatest failure of this, as that of other minimalist music, lies in not knowing that the power of the original pioneers who pulled these styles off was that of excellence in the details, and an attention to relations and balance that even experienced musicians struggle to grasp and that amateur-level pop bands like Detention are unlikely to ever achieve.

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Urðun – Horror & Gore (2015)

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Urðun play a form of primitive death metal that is sufficiently competent to be pleasing to the fan of the style yet be utterly forgettable by virtue of its being both indistinguishable from its peers. But credit should be given where it is due. The band knows how to make clear beginnings, how to turn riffs on their head, create breaks, twists and introduce new ideas without destroying the continuity of the music. The coherence of the song is reinforced by bringing back main riffs in later parts of the songs even if for shorter spans of time than earlier in the songs.

Horror and Gore is the old school tremolo heavy-groove riff procession you might expect from a band like Urðun, but the songs are far from being riff salads. While some contrasting riffs are introduced as new ideas, most riffs obviously proceed from each other evolving in proper motif forms by maintaining one or more dimensions and altering others. Differing enough to be considered separate riffs (you would not consider them as derived from each other right away) but being similar enough that the idea is not broken.

As a demo, Horror and Gore is a modest triumph, but Urðun must, for a future full-length release, be able to refine their style, bringing out a distinctive identity in order to stand out. The way to find this identity is to start thinking about the riffs and this style is the end goal itself and rather to think of them as the tools for them to express what they want. Once they become a means to an end, the conceptual picture of something beyond the music can become the band’s focus, and when the listener experiences the music, he will be able to fall through the music, piercing layer after layer in subsequent repetitions of an album that is more than the sum of its parts and more than its musical structures.

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Organ Dealer – Visceral Infection (2015)

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Organ dealer play a brand of metalcore influenced by the sound of those in that genre who call themselves “technical death metal”, but excuse themselves from any responsibility to make complete songs or to make them coherent at all by claiming to be playing grindcore. While at some level there is a reason for this claim, Organ Dealer only fulfills the requirements of a grindcore outfit on the superficial level. That is, if one asked the general public to describe grindcore, Organ Dealer would meet the “requirements”. It is in the details, the realization and what we read in between the lines of music that the deception is identified.

While grindcore does introduce a mixture of frenetic passages and mid-pace groove that do not necessarily have concrete links between them, the emphasis of grindcore has traditionally been on the strength and trance that each section evokes arising from a certain clarity of expression, the modern metal nature of Visceral Infection place the emphasis on the contrast between them. Each individual section is more forgettable, usually lacking a clear image, the emphasis being on the brutality as a whole and their form usually channeling into the next incredibly contrasting section. In the first one is pulled towards each riff, in the latter one is led towards the intersections between riffs. The nature of grindcore is replaced by that of carnival modern metal.

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Iron Kingdom – Ride for Glory (2015)

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Sounding like an Iron Maiden with the annoying voice from Queensryche’s vocalist from back in the day, Iron Kingdom make melodic heavy metal with the flexibility and propriety of conscious progressive rock. A very clear image of the character, lyrical theme and direction of the music arises through discrete but carefully-considered decisions to express the next clause with a literal musical change to match its change in words.

While the music could be described as progressive upon first impression, the result is closer to an extended and twisted pop-song format in which the pieces and functions are maintained but considerable variety is introduced. While some would object to this description, this is precisely what a progressive music arising from verse-chorus-bridge music should sound like: music that evolves to underpin the lyrical events taking place in the story being told. The vocals are kept within the framework of the music in a unified way through a composition of the melody line that strictly adheres to the moving harmony under it, rather than flying around in opera-like expression that takes a slow-moving support harmony as licence and liberty to stand out on its own. In here, the voice is a melodic instrument working in between the guitars and riding them (see Ozzy Obourne), not jumping on them as if they were trampolines (see Bruce Dickinson, Ronny James Dio).

Succeeding over the grandpa metal with progressive pretensions of post-2000 Iron Maiden by injecting a dose of proper progressive music with the influence of Queensryche, Iron Kingdom give us songs that actually progress and not just long, over-drawn affairs with over-extended bridge sections. While Ride for Glory is undeniably a song collection, the amount of content, its purpose within each song and their consistency track after track in all aspects while giving a distinctive-enough identity to each song give the album a chapters-in-a-story-like feeling of succession that while not altogether literal, can be felt from the music. Obviously an experienced band, Iron Kingdom know exactly what they are doing and more importantly the music is full with purpose, giving Ride for Glory a strong feeling of meaningfulness.

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Aversion – Aversion (2015)

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Aversion play black metal that floats in the area between the tendency of “pagan” bands to use a mid-paced, back-and-forth rhythm with a simple grooves and that of melodic black metal bands that submit every part of the music to the “will” or destiny of a main melody. Aversion also shows a preference for constructing songs in a “progressive” way, that is, looking forward, trying to take the song where it has not been before without looking back. The character of the riffs themselves remain in the general area between happy and slightly serious, while the whole does not feel unified enough to have a solid shape. On the positive side, Aversion keep strictly to one style and produce varied riffs that do not violate their initial proposal.

While that impulse for progression is not taken to the dangerous extreme consequence of jumping between styles or letting the musicality of songs fail through sharp contrasts in texture, it produces problems by becoming the foremost preoccupation of the songwriting process, instead of being the consequence of a deeper need. There are exceptions in which changes are a little forced, but these represent a minority in the album. The problem that Aversion faces from this progressive intent is that they have the tendency to accumulate new material, new events in the song, without necessarily attributing them any meaning. Not that riffs have precise meanings, but while an inside-outside process would produce riffs from a precise flow of feelings and an intended direction, in here, riffs sound good together, the musicians have used a criteria of appropriateness to decide whether or not a next riff should be included or not, but it has come from this outer judgement, and not from the impulse that would produce the riff as necessary from the inside. Thus parts sound good together but are not made indispensable, a common weakness in melodic black metal: the happiness of the melody line becomes ruler.

Aversion’s self-titled is still the result of a vague vision that keeps these musicians from looking beyond the surface while they stay afloat through sheer judgement of their own ideas after they have been produced. I posit that in their writing process, riffs are produced and then are considered for the song, instead of riffs being devised with a specific purpose in mind. This is one of the many subtle differences between producing from the inside or from the outside. It is also worth clarifying that there is no dichotomy, these characteristics are manifest in a gamut of degrees as I am sure Aversion are not oblivious to looking for some kind of character in their riffs, otherwise the constant style and character with which they infuse each section would not be as clear. If Aversion can look deeper and find a motivator, they may well give us a worthwhile black metal album in the future.

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My Hollow – On Borrowed Time (2015)

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Most metal journalism has a knack for identifying two particular things as “progressive”, none of which really are that. The first is incredibly messy music that obfuscates itself so much as to become an illegible carnival-fest of styles. The second is bands with tracks any longer than 3 minutes that deviates from pop format. My Hollow’s On Borrowed Time is a deathcore album that is experiencing the second of these two, using a strict rhythmic concordance as a restrictive chain that allows the rest of the musical dimensions to wander with a carefree liberty.

In deathcore, a heavily rhythm-based genre, the break-down-like passages lose their original meaning completely in a context that uses them for a completely different purpose than their original context intended them for. In the best moments in On Borrowed Time, My Hollow oddly attains a coherence through maintaining this rhythmic emphasis between different sections that can be either riff-oriented, melody oriented or pure-rhythm-oriented sections, successfully tying together otherwise disparate textures. This strict rhythmic concordance that becomes unbearable in most deathcore is used as an anchoring device that allows My Hollow to lash out with dangerously varied expression variety in the rest of the parameters that borders on the inconsistent.

When this strict rhythmic link is broken, the album degrades into a completely obscure incoherence all-too-common in this genre for pleasure-seekers with no attention span to speak of. When kept in check, the limitation it forces upon itself in its rhythmic component condemns the song to be a series of themes in wildly different landscapes akin to a collage of scenes with corresponding elements but no chronology or elaboration beyond the juxtaposition. Coherent tracks and spans of sections are unfortunately in the minority of On Borrowed Time, most of it descending into chaotic tough-guy feel-good nonsense.

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Cult of Endtime – In Charnel Lights (2015)

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Cult of Endtime play a music that is actually both “melodic” and death metal. Taking the road of modified and expanded verse-chorus-bridge approach to music construction, this mid-paced death metal with a clear aftertaste of traditional metal maintains motific links within songs that ride clear phrasal riffs not unlike the manner of the early but already mature Black Sabbath. Although DMU does not usually hand out stars to shiny, mainstream packages because they usually are just uncreative or mediocre turds hidden under slick production, In Charnel Lights has definitely earned theirs.

A very well-performed and accomplished example of this style, the music stays within the boundaries of its chosen paradigm while introducing a variety of ideas without haphazard changes. This does imply a limited variation, a clutch of its chosen pop-format approach, which supports and defines it but cripples its movement at the same time. The nature of the music, then, reduces In Charnel Lights to a collection of songs. The result is pleasing and solid but can be repetitive in terms of musical ideas and in its adherence  to its center it fails to bring enough variety to artistically justify a second half beyond the urge to produce more of the same.

In spite of this, the variation it does introduce is not only used gracefully and properly but is both meaningful and powerful. Each variation of idea or new idea included, each slightly differing approach to a riff was probably very carefully considered and integrated with an attention to detail worthy of praise. Cult of Endtime are extremely consistent in style although they bring different techniques under its umbrella and produce strongly coherent riff-variations with a relatively wide range of character.

Sounding like a Black Sabbath reborn into death metal, Cult of Endtime build their music on phrasal riffs with a basis on heavy-sounding support and featuring melodic passages that emphasize clarity of expression and musicality rather than technique itself, although anyone paying attention to such things would not deny the professional-level musicianship of the band. Probably one of the best, if not the best, we are likely to get out of the mainstream this year, In Charnel Lights is extremely recommended to fans of metal.

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Ashbringer – Vacant (2015)

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While most modern bands err on the side of so-called experiments and “open-mindedness”, Ashbringer tries to adopt a conservative posture in a manner that kills music with stagnancy. This may be either a product of a skewed appreciation of the classics or simply a good-intentioned but overzealous drive to keep coherence in check that might arise from an ignorance of music-writing procedures. Such procedures can and have been ignored by people with either great experience and understanding, or savants like Varg Vikernes who display an amazing instinctive talent for musical creation. Unfortunately, there is a myth that drives hordes of musicians of average talent (because that is the definition of average) to attempt to emulate the actions of those who are natural geniuses. Such combination of presumption with an unwillingness to educate themselves give us many sincere but ultimately deficient metal records (see early The Chasm).

In Vacant, Ashbringer present us songs which bear the mark of an intention of maintaining coherence by repeating the same idea and only venturing forth to use the same motif played in several different ways, offering carrying a whole song or entire super-sections mostly in this manner. The extent of these variations are limited to texture change and register change. Correctly sensing that this only creates a static picture seen through different-colored lenses, other ideas are introduced, but these do not bear a clear relation between each other beyond the concordance of similar technique, tonality and consistency in style. Akin to a series of unrelated pictures in a row in an album  without a clear history to relate them, variety is forced, taking the songs out of painful and amateur-like stagnation in a forceful manner.

The few exceptions of progressions and and useful transformations are far and in between and should be saved by the band for future reference (the 5th and 6th tracks which should be one song as the first does not have the material to be an interlude but only a first-section to the following one), and Ashbringer could learn something about the use of related but changing and essentially different ideas. These should be related not by style, but by musical structure and patterns. The suggestion is perhaps a little too German-minded, but it is a more concrete beginning that is easier to grasp. Baby-steps before you can actually black metal.

The combination of true humbleness in creating music with a healthy dose of careful ambition is what is necessary here and in metal in general. A cycle of study, practice, introspection and revision in music-writing is what metal most needs as is shown by the limitations of this sincere but incredibly deficient album. These guys obviously have the intention of creating metal that is both elaborate and profound, technically proficient, musically satisfying and spiritually inspiring. They just need to face they aren’t musical geniuses and turn their heads to a more strict study and observation of the greats on the technical side at different levels of music composition.

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Burial Vault – Unity in Pluralism (2015)

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It is easy to recognize that this is a metalcore record. It is also easy for one to point out the problems in the music that arise as a result from the innate flaws of that genre. What is not easy is to understand are the developments that are taking place within some of the current tendencies of underground metal that bubble up even in bands with a metalcore background. From this origin Burial Vault attempts to build songs with strong sense of narrative, linking different sections smoothly with melody and consistent textures and using other devices on the meta-level rather than objective traits in the music structure to built a sort of soundtrack, a landscape to a story. All of this stands both in line and in contrast with the nature of their genre.

Many soundtracks being what they are, background ambience for stories, sometimes take the liberty to place incredibly disparate expressions to the point of incoherence in the music. As a background to the story, this supports the scene and is thus justified as a tool, a means to an end. But when we have music by itself, the music is not (or should not?) be a tool but rather the whole product itself. This is where music like late Dream Theater’s fails as music: it is only a background to a story. This is the pit where Burial Vault falls. In its impetus towards building a conceptual narrative, the concrete musical narrative is placed on a secondary level.

Following the precepts of metalcore, large portions of Unity in Pluralism move towards rhythmic hook introducing sharp contrasts that do not preserve the essence of motif-forms or themes. Even breakdowns with no reason to be except for fun make an appearance. The song-form is preserved and contrasting surprises are eventually placed in the place of priority. Song form is necessary for songs to maintain any semblance of coherence, by re-using ideas, lest they fall in near-total chaos and obliviousness to a coherent musical train of thought.

Going beyond the novel, Unity in Pluralism presents flashes of greatness that could be weaved into the fabric of a work that pushes metal forward. The future development of metal lies in its maturing, in its transcending the current subgenres and giving prominence to musical principles transcending both the adherence to cliche and the cult of novelty. Burial Vault have hinted at something, their sense as composers has guided them to stretch the boundaries of their constrictive genre but in preserving its aesthetics they are bound to the innate incoherence it is comprised of, balancing out the good in this album to make an interesting but ultimately overall wanting experience.

In a tug-of-war against the bases of their music, Burial Vault attempt, in some places, linking verse and bridge or solo sections by way of a smooth melodic transition that become almost imperceptible. In their most lucid moments, Burial Vault approach the aesthetics of a speed metal band with true progressive tendencies (that do not disregard consistency and coherence), but these are torn apart by the eventual advent of modern metal stuttering. The band would do well to take a hint from the likes of early The Chasm and bands they influenced like Cóndor (who have definitely a more whole work of art than the older band) from Colombia and the way they integrated metal into a true unity with different types of expression. But pluralism simply will not do. The work of art must be brought together under an over-arching principle that permeates the part, the whole and the relations.

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