Wombbath – Downfall Rising (2015)

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Upon reviewing a comeback album from a band that has been out of action for more than a decade (more than two, in this case) we are given two options. The first is to approach the album in the context of the band’s past work. This is the traditional approach in metal, where bands with more experience are expected to improve while younger bands are judged with more leniency . The second is to see the album as a separate work and judge it by its own merits and the apparent goals it sets for itself from the musical point of view (avoiding ridiculous and absurd logical objections of the “and what if it was there intention to make a piece of shit of an album?” sort). Either way, Downfall Rising is as nonsensical as its cliche and meaningless title.

Generic beyond recognition, the effacing of the band’s voice comes as no surprise as the paper-thin music that Wombbath made as a younger band went little further beyond sticking genre cliches one after another without taking the music anywhere at all. It was a parade of Swedeath groove riffs that sound and feel good as background but that fail under closer inspection. The new album sees the band taking on some aspects from the so-called symphonic metal  (best referred to as metal-like pop) to fill in interludes or intros and a certain variety of retro-isms of the current nostalgia death metal scene. While Internal Caustic Torments was an empty husk made from death metal cliches at all levels (riff style, guitar tone, trademark vocals) that made it the perfect superficial representation of death metal without a voice of its own and without having any actual logical content, Downfall Rising represents an even wider collection of cliches of the new retro death metal scene.

At least the band is consistent in the type of mediocrity that constitutes their music. Sounding not only generic, derivative and content-less but far more tired than in their earlier fiasco, Wombbath come back riding the wave of come-back albums by “classic” bands that extends to any band from back in the day that was part of a scene and that is made possible by the ability of internet marketing and sales to close in the long tail in the distribution of fans of particular kinds of music. Rather than wasting any of your time in a collection of cliches being paraded without any purpose, I suggest spending some time watching adorable Wombat videos.

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Serpent Ascending – The Enigma Unsettled (2011)

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Showing up on the metal radar somewhere between the third Therion album and the single release that Winterwolf put out, The Enigma Unsettled combines Scandinavian death metal with the more nuanced paces of doom metal and the subtler harmonies of instrumentally adept heavy metal. The result creates an atmosphere like a more listener-friendly version of Darkthrone Goatlord, building rhythmic intensity that it discharges through the unraveling of several threads of melody into a final statement of clarity and purpose. Guitars vary between death metal styled tremolo riffing and heavy metal style percussive offbeat riffs, creating a tension like a feral beast racing over land and through water, but these integrate similar rhythmic purpose and avoid the disintegration of song into component parts. Vocals take the hoarse and chanted approach, sounding like the calls of a demonic entity through a wall of distortion; these are probably the immediately recognizable weakest link. Inventive song structures, familiar riffs in new styles, and a tendency to have all parts of the song relate to each other and through multiple layers at the same time make this a well-sought listening experience for underground metal fans.

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Path to Ruin – Path to Ruin (2015)

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Upon reading the tag of “technical death metal”, discerning listeners knows this usually only means “metalcore played with more notes”. Although DMU constantly looks down on genres like metalcore, very few readers understand the understand the underlying reasons for this. Those who identify as more “open-minded” tend to view all genres as simply “different expressions”. Although spiritually more mature, this thinking is based on an ignorance of the nature of music. In their ignorance, they do not understand the limitations and power of certain musical forms and the dangers of unchecked “experimentation”. On the opposite camp we have the die-hards, who may belong to either strict old-school or “true” associations. Most of these believe in the superiority of one style over another as a Catholic fanatic believes the words of the Pope or the Scriptures. In their ignorance, they would be unwilling and unable to acknowledge something as good music if it were to come from one of the vilified, retrograde genres.

Approaching the issue with enough information and without bowing completely to neither prejudice nor morally-supplied egalitarian fallacies  we can find that different music styles bound by different types of expressions not only have different tendencies in the types of emotion they attempt to evoke, but that this intention has a connection to concrete aspects in the composition. This is no news to anyone with at least vague and rudimentary notions of musical composition. The next logical step in this train of thought, which is generally avoided for one reason or another, is to see how these specific choices for delimiters, technique and instrument choice impose limitations on character and direction that affect possibilities in variety if one is to maintain consistency and coherence. These limitations are, of course, constructs of humans, but they are based, at least partially, on human nature — not completely arbitrary rules arising from culture only. We must stress that these limitations are conventions taken up for the sake of attempting a communication as best as possible, conventions that have a mirror in language and grammar– also a proper set of conventions.

Now we come to Path of Ruin’s self titled album, a work arising from the metalcore camp but producing music of the best caliber possible in this genre. Such limitations arise in part from being built around vocals in the manner of hard rock (and consequentially rock). In hard rock the different riffs are meant to be separate sections that say different things in drastically different ways. This is not to say that this music cannot preserve consistency, what it has trouble with is coherence. To keep this partially incoherent expression in check, the power has to be limited to expanded or varied verse-chorus structures. Path of Ruin gives us the variety-bordering-on-incoherence metalcore while tying it up with motif and a very strong consistency and clarity of purpose. The clarity of purpose comes from one more imposition it sets upon itself: that of reusing past riffs as new sections, not necessarily a circularity but a coming back to balance the strangeness.

There is a famous precedent in the most misunderstood Obscura by Gorguts, which uses a very humble, even shy approach to organization that comes to pull back the blurry coherence and wide-range of expression it boasts. To exemplify not the contrary but an also consistent and technically accomplished release that fails to give meaningful variety (tied in coherent expressions) and balance to its music is Ara’s Devourer of Worlds. Both Obscura and this last one can be dizzying yet actually ride a very strong consistency but in the long run tend to stretch, twist, bend  the motif beyond recognition to the point where you have highly contrasting sections. In favor of Ara, Devourer of Worlds‘ songs tend to extend riffs and ideas in longer riff-groups before changing direction or idea, becoming a commendable exercise in riff-variation at a local level. However, while Gorguts pulls the reigns on this crazy roller coaster ride that Obscura is by resorting to simple and straight up re-use of riffs — an approach they used with less pressure or necessity in The Erosion of Sanity, Ara spirals out of control ultimately becoming a collection of snippets and maybes that hold little interest beyond the riff-arrangement, but not the composition as a whole. It is a difference in the ability to see the big picture.

In a genre that by definition introduces heavy incoherence in the music, the safe approach taken in Path to Ruin comes as a wise decision that limits the music with the effect of awarding the album the power and clarity of good and balanced traditional speed metal.

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Codex Obscurum – Issue Seven

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Having watched this zine grow from humble origins to the reliable source of underground metal feature stories that it is today, the metalheads who comprise the underground — including death metal, black metal, grindcore, and some speed metal and doom metal — now expect high-quality on-point content from this zine, and Issue Seven delivers with style. Now possessing the journalistic weight and audience to command high-profile bands, Codex Obscurum returns with wide-ranging interviews, reviews, features and editorials with adventurous literary fiction as well.

Interviews have always pushed this zine above the rest because of their conversational nature but tendency to explore the thinking behind the musical decisions made by the band, with little attention spent on the surface fluff, but some questions that bring out the personalities of the musicians and explain their connection to the art. In this issue, the biggest name in interviews is Deceased, but perhaps the most powerful interview belongs to Thanatos. Covering both Hail of Bullets and Thanatos, this interview with Stephan Gebedi is as detailed and congenial as death metal interviews get, and covers a lot of history. The Deceased interview will strike most as idiosyncratic because it covers much of King Fowley personally and recent news, with less emphasis on background, but this reflects the general abundance of Deceased interviews on the early days. This updates us on the status of the band including information new to most sources. Other interviews with Wastelander, Drug Honkey, FaithXTractor, Crypt Sermon, Magic Circle, Dawn of Demise, Untergang, Slaughtbath and Blood Incantation follow similar patterns of compiling biographical details and consulting on musical intent, with the Untergang and Crypt Sermon being most compelling. All of these are well-executed and constitute the backbone of this zine.

Issue Seven contains a number of features, one of which takes the form of an interview. Artist Tony Cosgrove gives his points of view in a story which interweaves his images with his words, creating the sensation of being a museum exhibit with slightly longer detail cards. A feature on asymmetrical board games offers a glimpse into a world that overlaps with metal but is too nerdly for the mainstream tuffguy websites to cover. A lengthy write-up of the Kill-Town death fest in Denmark follows, which captures much of the atmosphere without excessive detail, but also skimps on a few vital points and may be the least powerful part of the zine. Then again, fest writeups are nearly impossible because everyone is tired and/or drunk (and stoned) so what remains are hazy recollections and the ability to look through the heaps of scored merch. Possibly my favorite features lurks at the rear of the zine, which is a malevolent and tongue-in-cheek editorial about the nature of battle jackets and how they should be worn. This piece reminds me of the 1980s text-files that hackers used to pass around: it has an off-the-cuff feel to the writing, but the thinking seems refined over time, which creates an interesting casual intensity. One intriguing feature, to my knowledge unique among current zines, comes in the form of a short story. Like a condensed zombie sci-fi horror movie, “Evil Seed” (named for the Morbid Angel tune?) efficiently whips through a haunting mystery of an experience with a powerful organic metaphor. This story not only adds to the zine, but its placement dead in the middle creates a break like that when flipping over a vinyl album to hear side two.

Toward the rear of the zine festers another important section: reviews. For metalheads without much time to wade through the mountains of spurious and often spiteful opinions in online comments, or the completely idiotic sales jobs that mainstream zines and web sites put out in place of reviews, where every release is the greatest ever and will tear your head off or make you look intellectual to the girlies, zine reviews offer peace of mind in purchasing by offering better than even chances that a given release will be a match. This occurs both through qualitative assessment, and quantitative description, both of which are featured here. These take a conversational tone but know when to drop the one or two lines of most vital description, and then an assessment, separating observations from judgments enough that the reader can shop by the relative distance between the taste of the reviewer and their own. In this issue, the selection of reviews is a lot more strategic and covers all of the vital ground for what was released during the press period of this issue.

As Codex Obscurum has grown, so has its proficiency in layout. This is the most readable issue yet, generally sticking a band logo at the start of an interview and then being sparse with other images and keeping the text high-contrast usually of a light grey on black variety. This format works well and the use of distinctly shaped fonts also keeps this from falling into the trap of the illegible muddy blur of a xerox disaster that many zines are. Reviews are black text on grey background for added readability, and whether from rush or deliberation, the black-on-white table of contents is if nothing else clear as a bell. Writing standards have inched upward, too, with tightly edited pieces and almost no typos and spelling errors. All of the above make it easy to pick up this zine, which at half-page size can be handily carried anywhere you would take a paperback, and to relax and absorb the content. It would not be surprising to see someone whip this out at a university library, transhumanist rally or on the international space station, because it has that kind of density of information and yet casual enjoyment factor. It is good to see this zine getting the recognition it deserves and its growth both in size and technique for an intensely professional and yet familiar metal reading experience.

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Rito Profanatorio – Grimorios e Invocaciones desde el Templo de la Perversión (2015)

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Contrary to the modern northern predilection to either go with the “intellectual” or “sentimental” strain of black metal expression, Latin American bands seem more inclined to follow Sarcófago. Many of these, in my opinion, retain the “authenticity” while actually improving on the music of the Brazilian punk-minded godfathers. Following the comparison with the northerners, while these try to create “the atmosphere” itself, actually trying to force the music to become the effect or the feeling itself (something advised against through the Common Practice Period all the way to the end of the Romantic musical era as it destroys the music), the grind/punk primitive black metal bands like Rito Profanatorio focus on punching songs that make use of short melodic motifs, and concentrate on the continuity of the riffs, letting the music do its job and create atmosphere and evoke feeling in the listener.

That being said, the music on Grimorios e Invocaciones desde el Templo de la Perversión is not the best of its kind. While it nails powerful riffs and have clear “melodic contiguity” (thanks for the descriptive term, ODB), the main problem lies in where they take the songs. Development is smooth, sliding deliciously into different ideas that carry follow “logically” from the point of departure. But after this, the band starts to lose a bit of control, the song keeps going forward without an ending in view, and then it suddenly stops. What makes these endings more offensive is that they are cliche metal endings inserted haphazard manner.

While this is not particularly original and the transgressions are great, it would be worthy to highlight their name and keep an eye on Rito Profanatorio’s development.  Long live Peruan metal! May it develop and refine itself into something that contributes to a worthy future of metal as it has the authentic feel and musical (rather than technical) inclinations that seem so absent from the northern countries these days.

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Skyforger – Senprusija (2015)

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This Latvian band represents what happens when all of the correct elements are assembled, but the aesthetic takes precedence over songwriting, and so the latter is filled in with random elements to fit the vision of the former. This shows the limits of vision because this framework imprisons musicality within aesthetics, in the converse of technical bands who come up with cool riffs and back-invent a purpose to them. Skyforger combines black metal, speed metal and nascent death metal into something a lot like the early works from Dodheimsgard: compelling rhythm, but a lack of internal connection creates a sense of genericism that clashes with the aesthetic and leaves the listener with a vision of lost objective.

Bouncy speed metal riffs collide with black metal and ripping early death metal style riffs to support the vocals, which apparently say something significant, but owing to the need for vocal predominance force songs into a verse-chorus format that reduces riffs to background sound, which in turn limits their role to bouncing around and providing some contrast to that, but never taking the lead in song development. As a result, Senprusija feels like a platform for the vocals and what stands out most is its speed/death metal roots, which are composed of what is essentially straightforward rhythm riffing partnered with melodic hooks. This makes for a pleasant listen, but one too disunified to stand the test of repetition.

Taking a page from the book of fast speed/death bands like Merciless, Skyforger keep the melodic hook as the center of the song but pair it German speed metal style with a chanted and rhythmically catchy chorus which quickly dominate the rest of the song. The constant chugging riffing, as happened on later Vader and Slayer albums, reduces focus from the interaction between riffs and fails to suspend disbelief because this style fits too easily into the rock framework which requires constant competing internal distractions to advance the song. As a result, consciousness is lost and songs subdivide into parts. There are many good riffs on this album, but the whole does not add up.

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Demigod/Necropsy – Unholy Domain (1992)

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This collection of Scandinavian metal shows these bands migrating beyond their speed/death roots into death metal and struggling to implement their most ambitious ideas. Demigod launches the split with its “Unholy Domain” demo which displays songs that later made it onto Slumber of Sullen Eyes but with more muted-strum riffing, divided syncopation in placement within tempo, and over-active drumming. Like the early works of Possessed, these twin seven-inch recordings show bands emerging from the older paradigm but not yet able to grasp the full implications of the new. Demigod does so on a structural level, where Necropsy assesses the riffing style more accurately. Together these form a historical document of much interest to those who find the separation of death metal from heavy metal as a pivotal moment in the history of the genre.

Demigod leads off the split with its “Unholy Domain” demo which shows later songs in a more downstroke, muted-strum heavy form that consequently has less fluid tempo changes and as a result, misses somewhat on the dark atmosphere which Slumber of Sullen Eyes created. However, the formation of the songs reveals itself through how these riffs interplay, with the strummed riffs occupying space so that others can take the fore, showing which themes are dominant and which are merely supporting. This reveals Demigod without the pervasive atmosphere of enigmatic doom that defined the later album, but instead shows them as a band striving to place interesting riffs into combinations which brought them together as more than the sum of their parts.

Necropsy, on the other hand, unleash what may be the best recording of the band because it lacks the self-consciousness of later releases. It does not attempt to be hard, but resembles a three-way cross between Morgoth, Powermad and Asphyx, plodding through doomy passages and picking up the rhythm with speed metal riffing before building to a classic death metal melodic confrontation between internal themes. Much of this carries the same murky atmosphere as Darkthrone Goatlord, but with more internally-reflective syncopated riffing in the style of the first Deicide album, albeit slower to fit a mid-paced approach much like early Kreator. This recording shows the creativity of this band achieving a result that is not completely formed, yet shows direction more clearly than the more artificed later versions. Together these two recordings make a compelling view into early death metal.

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Goat Semen – Ego Sum Satana (2015)

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Following in the footsteps of Sarcófago without becoming their clone, Goat Semen play a form of primitive black metal with riffs bordering on grind death. The music here is of consistent style, but its coherence is more metaphorical than literal, advancing more through sequences of sections that make sense together in mood but not necessarily in theme or other basic music element. Good variety while keeping a clear concept and a traditional sense of beginning and ending to the songs balance the previously described loose musical coherence.

While fans of this particular style, such as myself, will enjoy this album thoroughly and will play it on repeat for hours, the loose kinks in its armor will be apparent to the discerning listener. For a more exemplary release in this vein the listener looking for musical excellence is encouraged to take a serious look into Exhumantion’s Opus Death. While Goat Semen’s music is exciting in its juvenile chaos barely harnessed by recognizable traditional gestures of music, Exhumantion’s is a study in solid musical composition with an enviable rigor propelling it to much higher levels of refinement, offering a more layered experience than Ego Sum Satana.

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Terrorizer/Nausea – Split Demos (1991)

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For those who did not get a chance to own the original demo tapes, or simply desire them on a newer and more robust medium, this disc consisting of the Terrorizer demo from 1987 and the Nausea demo from the following year reveals the grindcore and punk giants at approximately the time when the classic World Downfall was released. These two bands share personnel, but take radically different approaches: Terrorizer adopts the angular riffing and cadenced percussion of metal, where Nausea keeps the syncopated guitar rhythms and open initial intervals of punk. For those who have heard the Terrorizer release, few surprises await on the demo, which essentially showcases the same tracks in a slightly less focused form with less vocal savagery. However, these songs also have more space to breathe, which makes this demo often a better listening experience than the album, which in the Morbid Angel style concentrates on hard-hitting tight composition and production, at the expense of some of the organic restlessness of the original.

Nausea on the other hand provides simply what every person wishes their punk bands would sound like, much as Slayer did the same for metal. This unruly music spills out of boundaries and transgresses every convention while remaining simple and keeping songs focused around a rhythm and vocal hook that makes them hummable while remaining savage. It sounds more militant than the Euro-punk of the day and more like the Cro-Mags from New York, but like a metal band zeroes in on the changes between riffs to achieve a kind of theatrical-Wagnerian effect, which takes punk from the verse-chorus loop into a kind of presentation that gives depth to its alienation. Full of energy and yet pointed toward a goal that is more personal artistic outrage than ideology, Nausea takes the basic outlook of punk and turns it up while making it more listenable than the spotty, erratic and often haphazard bands of the later punk era, or worse, the “post-hardcore” bands that combined random riffs in carnival music or dinner theater style.

Released as a split demo tape in 1991, these recordings see the light of day again with this 2012 CD re-issue by forces unknown. Sound quality remains good although thankfully the re-issue has not been remastered or had volume fiddled with in any way, which preserves the tone and room sound of these demos. This means the listener must adjust the dial; you suffer (but why?) because this is a better outcome than sterile reproductions which are more convenient but destroy depth of sound. These do not sound like a nostalgia trip, but more a journey inside the inner 17-year-old of every listener that likes intense music that sounds like it came from a garage or backyard party with a message that perhaps few will understand but many will enjoy.

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Obsequiae – Aria of Vernal Tombs (2015)

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On their first album, Obsequiae made use of very simple but consistent and creative melodies in a harmony emulating that of early western music from the late medieval period. Under the Brume of Eos consisted of songs that were essentially folk-heavy metal in the vein of Primordial with black metal vocals. Each few songs an interlude played in an acoustic instrument was inserted. The material was fine for the first fifteen minutes, after that it just boiled down to a collection of songs which were merely collections of riffs. Aria of Vernal Tombs unfortunately did not move beyond this same strategy.

It is important to go back to the just-mentioned style of Primordial. Primordial is one of those bands that is really ideology first, aura and image of the band first, and then music. The music itself is flat, only serving to carry a mood while the image that the listener has in mind (given by lyrics and song names — concept) is imprinted on it from the outside. Obsequiae work in a similar way, except that they take it a step further and actually make use of musical patterns that evoke the era they are using as theme. They also surpass Primordial in that in the short-term, songs are far more dynamic and in Aria of Vernal Tombs particularly coordinate wonderfully with the vocal pulse.

Obsequiae could still move beyond this “cool-riff” sequence approach and give us much stronger songs — and perhaps a conceptual album extending beyond the lyrical and well into the music. Inserting interludes is only the easy way to do this.  Metal bands like Blind Guardian, Rhapsody and even Morbid Angel (on Blessed are the Sick) have done this light and easy concept album arranging, each going further in different ways. Obsequiae and any band looking for using relatively simple yet self-contained and solid songs as the bricks for a strong concept album can look up to Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Until now Obsequiae have only given us scattered ideas in an obviously consistent and distinguishable language. And if music is a language of some kind, Aria of Vernal Tombs is one message in a loop of synonyms and like-words drawn from a thesaurus.

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