Vexilla Regis Prodeunt Inferni – Vexilla Regis Prodeunt Inferni (2012)

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To make meaningful commentary on a band like Vexilla Regis Prodeunt Inferni, or any other band walking the old death metal tightrope for that matter, one has to hear them in context with the specific niche in time that their sound occupies. Execute a bit of nifty time-travel in the mind and place the band concerned in the august company that it aspires to keep. Observe if it compares favourably with at least the spirit of the originals in terms of aspects like general coherency in songwriting, perpetual will to forward motion, and, above all else, that ineffable, visceral reaction that only the very best are capable of evoking. Originality in this cloistered paradigm is a disingenuous word; what the avid listener hopes for is a transmission of the same vitality that informed the heyday of this music.

Vexilla Regis Prodeunt Inferni posits no claim to innovation but that is no crime in itself. Incantation, the bread n’ butter of modern death metal, is frequently referenced in the use of flowing tremolo lines plucked from the chromatic scale. While there is nothing inherently wrong with the use of atonality in death metal – it indeed comprises much of the bedrock of the genre – it also becomes something of a cop-out in the hands of lazy bands that lack the creativity required to compose tastefully and in accordance with tradition. Vexilla Regis Prodeunt Inferni aren’t an especially lazy band and are perfectly capable of constructing riffs according to harmonic conventions as heard in the more black metal-inspired sections of this album.

Where Vexilla Regis Prodeunt Inferni falls hard is in arrangement. Songs rarely build up to any kind of crescendo, even compromising whatever momentum may have been built up initially. While any topography consists of peaks and troughs, there appears to be no aesthetic meaning to Vexilla Regis Prodeunt Inferni‘s contours. Riffs rise and fall like waves on the ocean but without any of nature’s geometry, and what results is an album that touts itself as Satanic death metal but feels curiously void of life’s irrepressible energy.

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Toxemia – Ancient Demon

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Underneath the trappings of an underground death metal band, Toxemia create 1970s-style doom metal, formed mainly of heavy metal elements but incorporating stylistic influences from a variety of darker shades of underground metal, most notably Autopsy Mental Funeral.

In chord progressions, song structure and lead guitar, this album most closely resembles what might happen if old Saint Vitus crossed over with a primitive proto-death metal band like Master, albeit at the slower tempi necessary for doom metal. Each song features a riff loop for verse and chorus with discursive riffs and use of both freeform lead guitar and rhythmic lead guitar overlays to distinguish the song. Clear themes emerge and while tonally there are few surprises, the arrangement of these familiar elements in forms that fit the particular worldview of this band makes these tracks interesting. While the underground metal influence can be seen in tremolo technique and layering of drums and guitars around a tempo change in the death metal style, the essence of Ancient Demon remains in the hard rock/heavy metal roots of the first generation of doom metal bands.

Experienced listeners may find some kinship here with the first Varathron album which also took a theatrical approach to traditional heavy metal and created dark atmospheres which both fulfilled expectations of that genre and distorted them into outsider commentary on the conventions themselves. The use of doom-death technique accelerates this band past most of the bands heading backward in time in the doom metal genre, but its spirit remains in that ideal and its execution is both faithful and inventive.

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Funeral Bitch – The Demos

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The varied Paul Speckmann projects — Master, Abomination, Funeral Bitch, Death Strike and Speckmann Project — reveal attempts to forge a new genre out of the ashes of speed metal. Roughly combined of metal, punk and 60s rock, the Speckmann approach took several forms which reflected his vision of what was occurring in music at the time.

Funeral Bitch comes to us straight from the 1986-1987 era and reflects the influence of thrash on Speckmann. Not thrash as the teeny-bopper magazines us it to describe Metallica-style speed metal bands, but thrash in the sense of Dirty Rotten Imbeciles, Corrosion of Conformity and Cryptic Slaughter. Funeral Bitch sounds like the first COC album hybridized with the early Sodom demos under the advice of The Mentors.

Short songs weighing in at around two and a half minutes or less use the infectious vocals Speckmann borrowed from 60s rock, the buoyant energy from punk, and the shaped phrasal riffs of metal but deliver the punch quickly. Versions of “The Truth” and “Funeral Bitch” from other Speckmann projects reveal how these songs were sped up and the vocals simplified to a single cyclic hook for this rendition. The result is in many ways more compelling, because the extreme speed and thrashing drum aggression of Funeral Bitch requires simplification and removes many of the excesses inherited from rock that made Master and Abomination releases confused at times. Like commando raids in the night, these short songs leap in to the fray, speak their piece, bash down the opposition and then disappear into the jungle.

These two demos provide different views of the same idea. The earlier one shows more of a punk influence, while the later shows the marks of actual thrash and perhaps influences from the rising grindcore scene. On this re-issue they are at radically different volume levels which makes regular listening difficult, but these historical recordings fit another piece in the puzzle of the evolution of underground metal and provide a punchier, more effective version of the Speckmann vision.

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Infamous – Abisso

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Much like Nordic pioneers Ildjarn, Infamous combines the sounds of Oi and hardcore punk with black metal, but takes an approach similar to that of the Southern European black metal scene: longer melodies and song constructions building up to a triumphant explosion of rage.

Infamous uses longer melodies in the recursive style of RAC bands, which builds off a simple series of intervals a phrase with quite a bit of range, achieving an effect that inverts the drone of rock/blues into a diminishing melodic interval that expands into the stronger whole note and chromatic scales. Adding to this the band dig into a vast lexicon of black metal styles and produce a language all their own, choosing one progression (much like Enslaved) to guide the song and then branching to variations and oppositional phrases to build tension before a reunion, often with a sentimental lead guitar figure over the top. This creates an immersive sound which is both highly emotional and devoid of association with the comfortable sounds of music centered on humans, sounding more like ancient processionals filtered through violent punk bands and translated into black metal. The resulting atmosphere suspends disbelief and creates a fantastic world in which themes come alive as if on a stage.

With Abisso, Infamous improve over their debut Of Suicide and Silence by varying the form of each song more and as a result differentiating melodies through their development. In addition, higher speed drumming and guitar strum gives this EP a greater intensity without falling into sawing chaos. In many ways, it presages the wider changes which were to occur with the next full-length, Rovine e Disperazione, which took the band further into Ildjarn territory. For those who appreciate the pure spirit of black metal as it explores more of one of its foundational influences, this half-hour detour into an unearthly existence will provide savage enjoyment and contemplation.

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Corpse Machine – Depths of the Abyss

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Perhaps you hoped that Venom would put out a technical album without losing the energy of its primitive side. Corpse Machine aims for that gap with a heavy metal album dressed up as death/black metal, using mostly old school heavy metal riffs but concluding its songs in the soaring melodic motions which made black metal a favorite of its audience. Like Fester, Dissection and other heavy metal/black metal hybrids, the result has relatively predictable song structures and high doses of repetition but creates emotional tension through melody and makes songs into little worlds where the listener can cycle through a brief contrast in emotions.

While the stylistic aspects of this album will drive away the purist black metal fan, the underlying melodic composition is good: both compelling rhythmically and harmonically, it creates layered spaces of emotion with simple riffing formed in pairs. When Corpse Machine turn up the intensity the result is more energy behind the music but not a fundamental change in mood. The result seems crushed by its decision to straddle two different worlds, as this would make an amazing heavy metal album but ranks as confused for black metal. In many ways, it represents what Venom should have become if it had chosen to stay current with metal technique, and might fit alongside bands like Gehenna and Dodheimsgard which have a similar approach.

For Corpse Machine to rise to the next level, it makes sense for them to clarify this confusion in style and add more internal tension to give the satisfying moments of this release more power and thus to enhance their atmosphere. Depths of the Abyss shows an aptitude for engaging songs but does not rise to the black metal level of intensity despite having a similar approach to melody. Like other experiments in heavy/black like Dissection and Immortal At the Heart of Winter, it has an almost sentimental tint that amplifies its autumnal and post-apocalyptic sensations, but unlike those the darker parts of its composition cannot quite separate themselves from technique. Still there is great promise here that may develop on future works.

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Ancient Wind – The Chosen Slain

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Properly belonging to the power metal camp that hybridized heavy metal with death metal technique, Ancient Wind plays fast melodic songs with conventional structure in a style influenced by melodic death metal favorites like At the Gates Slaughter of the Soul but also takes its influence from higher-energy bands in that style like Unanimated Ancient God of Evil and Merciless Unbound.

Within that context, this band is highly competent but it is possible to win the battle and lose the war, and unfortunately by managing their technique so carefully Ancient Wind have created the most unfortunate of all metal mis-steps, which is the album of constant intensity. This same disadvantage plagues bands like Perdition Temple and Fallen Christ with an energy that is so incessant it causes the music to fade into the background because of its invariant nature. That being said, there is some quality riffing here although nothing all that surprising, much of which recycles the 1980s era of heavy metal with a focus on Iron Maiden. Bluesy leads with staggered tonal center shifts complete that part of the picture. With all of that considered, it begs the question whether Ancient Wind should keep up the death metal front at all because with more internal tempo changes and a classic Hetfield-style strong male vocal, they could be on the edge of a speed metal revival which not only is a less crowded field than melodic “death metal” — put in quotations because at its heart this is heavy metal or speed metal with death metal technique but not composition — but more accurately represents the inclinations of this band. Liking classic heavy metal has never been a bad thing, but a modern tribute to that style will have to achieve the same distinction that the original had or it fades into the stylistic background much like constant high intensity and similar song structures causes it to flow past like a faucet on “high.”

The Chosen Slain displays many strong attributes including impeccable musicianship through riffs that demand not just precision siting of chords in the technical heavy metal style, but accurate textural strumming in the death metal method. Clearly a lot of effort went into this release. With more tempo changes, song structures that wait to present conclusions until they culminate tension in the music, and a few stylistic adjustments, this could be a really excellent record. As it is now, it faces a difficult struggle differentiating itself in the melodic death metal field despite being better than most contenders. As this band gains more confidence and listens more to their own material, it is likely these changes will come naturally, and an album which strikes the listener as competent but not memorable like The Chosen Slain will give way to something more like its inspiration in Merciless and Unanimated and less like the immensely popular but saccharine and uninspiring drivel that At the Gates put out after giving up on their own art and wanting metal to be a day job instead.

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First impressions: Kaeck (NL)

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Composed of members of Kjeld, Noordelingen and Sammath, Kaeck is a new style of black metal that upholds the intensity of war metal but infuses it with the elegant melody of classic black metal. The result is a surging malevolence on the surface with an inner core of transcendent beauty.

To the experienced ear, comparisons arise immediately to Impaled Nazarene and Zyklon-B, both of whom used the blasting full-speed attack with undertones of melody to its advantage. A more bestial presence occurs here, taking influence from both the death metal crossover of later black metal and the burly high-intensity rhythm and noisy attack of war metal. The result melds sawing riffs with rising hints of melody and then runs that violence into archly ascending phrases which emphasize a union of the aggression and the beauty into a rejection of all but the pure feral naturalism of both beast and forest.

Although Kaeck is in its earliest stages, the band has material currently being mastered which will unleash itself within the week. Several labels have shown interest and one will probably snap up this promising new take on older sounds because it achieves the rhythmic intensity of current metal in concert with the elements of black metal that made it the most enduring underground metal genre, namely its ability to find purpose in nature and alienation from the corrupted mess that is our society. Both listenable and true to its genre roots, Kaeck opens a door to new possibilities in black metal.

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Maanes – Under Ein Blodraud Maane

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When a genre performs a postmortem on itself as black metal is about to do, it looks back through the years not only to find its peaks, but to find its forgeries. Like the first real black metal forgery, Ulver Nattens Madrigal, Maanes is an artistic fraud that uses the technique of black metal for its own sake, without having any idea of the underlying expression. It does not matter what that expression is because it cannot be policed with a list of rules, but the fact that it exists in actual black metal and not here is a matter of historical record.

“Sensitive guy” metal was nothing new when this was released. Opeth had already been mincing around the edges of the underground for a few years, following up on melodic softer death metal from Tiamat and Cemetary. Paradise Lost was huge and so was the idea of “crossover,” since everyone and their dog realized black metal had a narrow set of ideas that required exceptional people to implement, and that with those exhausted there was now a market for imitators. Maanes starts with the proposition that Burzum can be cloned, and to make that clone palatable to the kids emerging from the suburbs like spores from fungus, this clone could be hybridized with light progressive rock like Pink Floyd. The result is 90% black metal tropes laid out in mellow songs that develop seemingly independently of the melodic and corresponding artistic implications of the riffs, making an experience that is pleasant on the surface but leaves a gnawing emptiness from its failure to deliver the kind of profound transport and insightful revelation that black metal provided.

What makes this release hard to attack is that it is well-executed, well-produced and carefully concealed. Maanes are not amateurs; more likely, they are guys who got tired of having no success in other genres despite being better musicians than the people who were making the big bucks and getting their names in the newspapers. Like other Burzum clones of the era, most notably Abyssic Hate, Maanes make good use of Burzum sweep technique and even give a nod to Filosofem with the production. Using grandiose keyboards alongside somewhat obvious riffs capitalizing on known black metal patterns, Maanes keep up the black metal “sound” but these songs never go through the emotional process of discovering what lies beneath and so rapidly the listening experience becomes like hearing a front-loading washer finish up a duvet cover, if the washer had a good background in rock guitar.

The tragedy of black metal is that while it cannot be cloned it can be imitated, and so bands like Ulver and Maanes emerged to put a black metal surface on the same stuff they would have done with their Oingo Boingo cover bands a few years before. Interestingly, the technical competence as songwriters of these bands has declined over the years as nu-black has set its sights more on punk than on progressive rock. The approach remains the same and the effect similarly hollow, leaving listeners wanting more but not sure they want more of this. These sprawling songs carefully disguise how much they repeat their themes, often for seven minutes at a time, in what is essentially verse chorus songwriting that every two repetitions interrupts itself with a brief divergence. Newer bands do not even bother to do that, but make straight-up pop songs with black metal distortion and a few riff archetypes. Nods to Burzum, Darkthrone and Mayhem bubble to the surface throughout this release but it is unable to build context for its riffs to create the kind of atmosphere that those founding bands manipulated so well. The result is like every other aspect of modern society, ultra-competent on the surface and directionless within.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JbYP0mK9xVU

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Remains – Evoking Darkness

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Old school death metal band Remains returns with its fourth release Evoking Darkness which shows inspiration from the Swedish and American greats of mid-90s death metal merged with the type of bluesy and infectious integration of classic heavy metal that made Clandestine a powerful album, albeit placed in a style that is closer to a cross between older Dismember and Unleashed. The band does not attempt to innovate in aesthetics but creates a sonic charge with the energy and unsettling corruption of mainstream archetypes which defined death metal during its heyday.

The band produced an impressive body of work with its 2012 demo “The True Essence,” the …Of Death EP the following year and Angels Burned in 2014, and follows up on those with simpler, tighter songs that eschew pure grinding in favor of a well-blended integration of metal styles designed to be both audially compelling and unnerving in the method of classic death metal. Songs rotate around a central break from the verse/chorus pairings, repeating themselves in both introduction and egress from that core confrontation. Lead guitars drop in with a variety of styles integrated into organic but energetic explosions of clusters of notes and lengthy fret runs. Vocals take on the gruff exhortations of older Dismember and give it the percussive rhythm of American death metal like Malevolent Creation, crafting a narrative of violence with a lining of excited morbidity. Remains shy away from the melancholic and dark side of death metal and instead converge on its region of pure energy, with music that delights in the finely-picked textures of Swedish death metal alongside the percussive power of Florida death metal. Herein lies where Remains can improve this work, which is that the hard rock/heavy metal integration into the death metal does not always emerge triumphant and often consumes the death metal portion, and extremely basic chord progressions which do not give songs much room to expand in structure or melody. The aesthetic, energy and atmosphere remain perfect and can expand over time as this band matures.

Most people will be floored by how Evoking Darkness not only stays true to the old school sound but gives it life through a voice of its own which is not expressed in style but in these songs themselves and their unique takes on the riff forms from the past forty years of metal. Where Remains shows its power is in the fitting together of these meticulously crafted rhythms so that riffs both flow and contrast one another; while greater harmonic or melodic death would enhance this, it alone makes Evoking Darkness more listenable than all but a few of the retro-death albums which fit together blockily or unevenly. These riffs balance each other in dissymmetry and create a sense of an evolving lacuna which propels the listener forward to see what comes next. Not only do riffs counterpart each other well, but their internal rhythms show a study of the power of the riff itself, and the album flows past without lapses or discontinuities. It shows vast improvement over the previous album from this band and signals a path to their future, since Remains has built a framework upon which more complexity, both in complexity of structure and use of tone, can be built.

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Infernal Dominion – Salvation Through Infinite Suffering

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The late 1990s belonged to bands of the Suffocation style of percussive death metal which derived its essential technique, the muted-strum power chord, from speed metal, but worked riffs into mazes with high dynamic variation but consistent narrative in the death metal style. This balance proves difficult to maintain as choppy riffing lends itself too easily to simply circular riff patterns and the resulting patchwork song structures. Starting with Sinister Hate in 1996, the subgenre experienced a revitalization through the injection of melody and the more theatrical song structures of mid-paced death metal. With the rise of Unique Leader bands in the early 2000s, the percussive brutal death metal sub-sub-genre exploded, and into that environment Infernal Dominion dropped its only album.

Salvation Through Infinite Suffering dwells within that narrow musical range but derives most of its influence from bands like Incantation (specifically 1997’s Forsaken Mourning of Angelic Anguish) and Immolation, although it applies these within the percussive blasting style. Bands of this era struggled to balance the need for compelling rhythm in vocals and verse riffs with the more fluid and aggressive choruses and other riffs designed to support the developing song structure. Any greatest strength is a greatest weakness, and in percussive death metal the same type of sound that makes it compelling also can take over composition and result in boring songs that repeat too much of the same stuff and go nowhere.

Infernal Dominion interpret this style as having a high dynamic intensity in song structure but built around loops that emphasize the verses and allow vocals and percussive strumming to take center stage. Onto that they add complex lead guitars that while jazz and rock influenced stay out of entirely cloning those styles. Many excellent riffs, some of the archetypes that later appear in guitarist Wes Weaver’s more recent band Blaspherian, go into this release as does a violent and compelling performance by the vocalist and other instrumentalists. The challenge remains allowing both influences to breathe, both the guttural blasting death metal that occupies the surface style and the underlying fascination with the darker doom-death and cavernous death metal styles. Sometimes the styles emerge and separate like two heads of a dragon fighting one another, and by the law of compromise the band defaults to the simpler elements.

While Salvation Through Infinite Suffering offers many moments of greatness, it possesses more potential than was ultimately delivered. It relies too much on its great strength, trying to make the vocals lead songs where guitar needs to lead, and then packing too much into each song. As the inclusion of several tracks from 2004 show on this release, over time the band streamlined its material and achieved greater clarity while still keeping the terrifying guttural vocals and perhaps making them even more violent. While this album may have attempted a grand vision that never quite realized itself, in part because of stylistic or personality conflicts in the band, it also provides a grimoire of great musical ideas which await development by future death metal musicians.

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