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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Nekro Drunkz – Absolute Filth (2015)

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Intent guide results and results reflect intent in a mirror-like relation akin the blurred causality presented by modern physics where the only ordering factor is time. We get a clear hint from the song names, but should not be hasty towards concluding everything abut a work without inspecting all the evidence. Being a work of music, it is our main interest to examine that, first and foremost, and then try to link our conclusions about the musical part with other observations and in an attempt to sniff out possible originating intentions.

While the likes of Napalm Death sought to shock, surprise or amuse in different ways and with different purposes (from insults and nonsense to social and political issues), their early albums were balanced out as a whole between the different concepts, to form a whole that was both entertaining and full of content while remaining constant in their choice for aesthetics. Grindcore must be strictly appreciated on an album basis, not a song basis. By themselves, many tracks lack any sense, but in the context of the whole work of art (not in the context of an extra-musical agent, which is a different topic) they attain a purpose and/or a meaning.

Napalm Death approached their goal using different techniques in a coherent manner and this gave albums like Scum a wide range of expression to produce a collection of songs of different duration and speed but like character. The technique would accommodate to the character and mold around it as needed. Songs with mid-paced sections are allowed to flesh out the groove before they enter frenetic trance. The tracks that are mini-bursts of demented blasting were also given their place and were not over-extended. In an undeterred flow from primal reactions to sonic expression, the early music of Napalm Death completely forgets about the self and like all great works of authentic art becomes an entity unto itself.

In Nekro Drunkz we see a band bent on projecting an image of disgust and fun. Admittedly a work of comedy, Absolute Filth has little staying power beyond the “catchy” brutality inherent to the grindcore genre. The reason for this lies in the poor and uneventful sections put together to support an ironic expression whose sole purpose is to shock. Musically, what we find in this album is song after of song that pair two or three riffs that do not do anything in particular. They do not escalate, they do not accelerate, they do not twist, riffs do not play on one another. Songs all express the same thing musically and lyrically. The lyrics are intended to tell you how disgusting they are and the music is only recognizably grindcore yet does little else than carry the voice while it blurts out its tired, “shocking” and friendly softcore gore.

While recognizing the intended goal of a work is paramount to understanding it, it is not an excuse for low quality. The argument usually runs along the lines of “And what if they wanted to make a piece of shit of an album?”. This is fallacy that assumes that if something is explained or is voluntary then it is exempt from any quality judgement. I do not see how this is so but it seems to be a popular belief. The fact remains that this album is, whether intentionally or not, a piece of shit.

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Scythian – Hubris in Excelsis (2015)

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Following the example of Kreator in Phantom Antichrist, Scythian unite riffing approaches from different metal subgenres under the banner of traditional heavy metal and growled or barked vocals, with a result along the lines of the so-called melodic death metal.  In contrast with the noteworthy release Thy Black Destiny, by Sacramentum, Hubris in Excelsis does not coalesce into a thing of its own but just floats around as the result of spare parts being put together to form an undefined, impersonal and disparate heavy metal record. In this, and its revolving around the vocals it is more akin to the Iron Maiden – inclined heavy metal which sets one foot on hard-rock land, using disconnected riffs only as rhythm and harmony to carry the voice.

We hear doom metal proceedings and textures typical of black metal, but these are usually encapsulated within sections. These sections are used in conventional rock-song functionality. What determines this rock versus metal approach? Basically, the total relationship of riffs and sections to voice and in between themselves. Rock (and hard rock after it) carries the music after the vocal lines (thus we can see the slight influence of hard rock over Slayer in South of Heaven even though it doesn’t fully give in to the tendency to disqualify it as a metal record). The key tell-tale sign after this is the lack or at least a downplay of motif-relation between parts of the song, the support for main melody or vocal line becoming the most important and prominent element. The effect of this often results in something similar but in the end different from metalcore: disparate parts tied loosely by a certain background consistency (usually harmony for rock and rhythms or motifs drowned in an ocean of contrasts for metalcore).

The plentiful references to many different genres extending all the way to cliche-ridden pagan black metal may throw off the attempts of most to nail down what Hubris in Excelsis actually is, what it consists of and what its essence ultimately is. Hubris in Excelsis is indeed a title that reflects this album beyond their intended concept. Hubris, an excess of self-confidence, often at the expense of prudence and seemliness, is placed in a position of glory, giving way to veiled expressions of ego that disregard any sense of coherence and little consistency beyond the most superficial.

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Overtorture – A Trail of Death (2015)

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Swedish Death Metal has stayed popular ever since the early days for a number of reasons. Mostly it is because it allows for the music to be catchy, “brutal” and flexible (although few bands exercise this power afforded by the fact that in theory this is death metal). The death metal fan will readily associate A Trail of Death with names such as Dismember, Carnage, Nihilist or Entombed and the release lives up to these expectations from the production tone up to the general approach.

A hint of pop-influenced modernity alla Entombed is revealed here in the preference for obvious verse-chorus-bridge structures without venturing even as far as Dismember did in Like an Ever Flowing Stream and appearing like an Entombed going on Arch Enemy in the way the riffs are used: they have the affectations of death metal but underlying them can be seen the Iron Maiden – like NWOBHM chord-by-chord advance.

By this token, a more precise comparison would come of pairing this band with later Dismember and their obsession with riff-oriented music rather than a progress/development-oriented one. The Entombed edge (or should we say lack of edge) in composition is in its conventionality pretending to be extreme (Back in the day, people thought Entombed was extreme or visionary in some way — apparently some of those who understand death metal only superficially still do so even today). In the process of creating this music and never venturing outside or around of what their inspirations did at any level, Overtorture sound like one more of the herd. Nothing more, nothing less.

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Triguna – Embryonic Forms (2015)

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Triguna is a band that plays underground metal in that vague intersection between death metal, black metal and the phrasal speed metal of Slayer. Their independently-released Embryonic Forms is both an honest and musically-aware artistic offering that falls short for technical reasons. “Technical reasons” here should not be underestimated. The band’s instrumental skills are just enough to play he music they wrote, but it is the technical side of composition that is loose.

Technique in composition is believed by the populace to mean how many chord progressions and scale names you have memorized or how many contrasting sections you can pair up. In truth, what technical composition ideally affords is an experience and insight into musical forms, elements and their relations and effects along with historical reference points that help the composer distill the purest elements of music. Surely this can be derived by talented and innately perceptive musicians, but they are still building most things from the ground up.

To be fair, given Triguna’s apparent technical level, their decision to make varied yet deliberately dirty, simple and straightforward passages was a realistic one that allowed them to concentrate on the coherence of the pieces as wholes. So while individual sections, riffs or solos are not altogether overwhelming, the songs are solid, enjoyable and meaningful. Creating fulfilling whole music that is not minimalist, Embryonic Forms is a perfect example of the extreme case of a vision superseding technique to achieve a musical triumph. The album garners at least honourable mentions alongside the likes of Manilla Road or early The Chasm (not that I am equating them, just classifying them), and is very much recommended on my part.

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Bhagavat – Annunciazione (2015)

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An example of outstanding musical competence in melody-lead black metal, Bhagavat’s To Burn in a Lair of Snakes give us an initially almost seamless integration of many different elements under a clearly defined personal style. After the first half of the album, though, the album becomes a Planetary Duality-era The Faceless-style tech death tribute with black metal-like cliche connectors and decorations. While the first few songs present a solid and diverse yet uni-colored set of expressions that breathed clarity, as the album progresses, these elements take control over the music. The vision stops being in control and the stylistic expression starts guiding songwriting. In other words rampant cliches ensue.

While musically adept and gifted with a talent for placing together ideas in a flowing and integrated manner, Bhagavat could have focused into making a mention-worthy album. There is enough of that here to make a 3-song EP. But more than half of the album resorts to cliche-riding, while the band’s voice is heard standing beside them. To Burn a Lair of Snakes went from being a contestant to be included in best of the year lists to just another modern metal band trying to appropriate black metal as a disguise.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UD75wvGNEdw

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Goatblood – Adoration of Blasphemy and War (2015)

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Wearing the mantle of blasphemous black metal, Goatblood play metal in the time-honoured tradition of grind-tinged black metal dancing the line between Sarcófago and Blasphemy. As most bands playing this style, Goatblood is automatically benefited by the immediate focus this restricted expression affords: a clarity in direction in accordance to its single-mindedness. Songs are consistent in expression as well as coherent in their narrative, blasphemy overspilling and music driving it — not quite deep enough.

The only obstacle towards excellence faced by Goatblood here is they are too content, or perhaps too shy, about developing songs. Most of them stop after a handful of simple riffs, ending not in a closing gesture a climax or even a complete development but an apparently arbitrary riff after which the band had no idea (or no time?) what to write. Rather than the defilement of Profanatica, Goatblood only half-whispers hidden desires to break free from dogmatic religion. Not brave enough to move forward, Adoration of Blasphemy and War is a collection of half-songs, or ideas for songs that have not yet been completed.

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Plage – Den Kristne Stank (2015)

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Den Kristne Stank, meaning “Christian Stench” in Danish, is an effort by the band Plague to bring some black metal with occult themes, blasphemy and just the general themes associated with the genre. The music reveals the same intent, applying different approaches to black metal creation but giving preference to the most obviously rock-based instance of it, disguised with intermingled soft blast beats.  In an attempt to bring variety without a clear focus (rather, the focus seems to be the variety of black metal expression) we find ourselves at one point reminded of Kjeld, the next of some pagan folk black metal, but it is the influence of Samael is felt most strongly. The problem here is that the music (obviously as a result of the concept) never zeroes in on a direction — a goal is not necessary, but clear statement and acting out of what you are getting at is important.

On the good side, Plague is actually not wanking or over-indulging themselves. The music creates reasonable structures that connect well-enough with each other flowing smoothly most of the time. The complaint comes from observing its coherence and the picture it reveals. As has been previously stated, the critique is realized in the following manner: first we gather an impression on the whole, from those observations the individual musical elements are investigated and finally a theory rooted in concept is formulated.  Any pair of adjacent steps (1 and 2 or 2 and 3) can be reexamined as many times as is necessary to try and clarify a perspective. Evaluating music as a whole, one should never go from ideology first nor should technical elements be taken as the central aspect. It is always the musical whole that is important. Formulations on intention and ideology are secondary and come as an afterthought and an attempt to explain excellence, focus or deficiencies in the music.

The variety itself is not the problem, of course, but that it is never brought under control by a  higher purpose. Instead of this involved yet forgettable collection of rock black metal techniques and compilation of general themes, I would suggest the reader to imbue himself with this year’s EP release by Necrophor, which presents the same degree of musical variety without the technique-collection effect of the former. Consistently with these observations, one may notice how the lyrical concept (or the concept as a whole) of Necrophor’s EP is much more precise and clear. Empirical evidence shows the importance of clarity of concept for the realization of focused music. Plague give us an example of a metal release that has everything except that.

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