Terror Empire – The Empire Strikes Black

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Through the years of scanning endless lists of metal albums one gradually develops an intuition that links band name, album name and artwork to the general nature of what will be heard. Seldom does a tongue-in-cheek name correlate with quality music, since the band designed itself as a stunt. While some serious-sounding names result in pretentious self-important music, most bands with confidence in their ability to produce valuable music choose a straightforward self presentation.

The following question measures heavy metal: what is quality, and how is it measured, including what standard we use? Our answer begins with the often-used but seldom explained (and hence little understood) terms superficial and transcendent as opposite poles in a spectrum. Through the ages philosophers, theorists and artists themselves have made used these terms and in only a handful of instances have they tried to explain them in any way beyong what is deemed self-evident. The young Nietzsche provides us with a useful term and its explanation which can be used to separate the concepts in a way that if not empirical enough at least can be understood as a general concept. The Dionysian, it is said, allows for a connection for the unchanging, eternal oneness. This can mean many things, but guiding ourselves by Nietzsche’s explanation in the context of Greek tragedy and the nature and significance its chorus, we can see that the Dionysian is a subjective measurement requiring the person in question to look beyond the cycles of history and recurring social trends that are a result of the human race constantly altering its surface appearance but not actually “growing” in the sense of improving. Once in touch with this, the artist can represent the essence of things as they always are, not as they appear at this moment in time. On the other hand, being trapped in the temporal interpretation of how something is at this moment, or how it appears to be in its current incarnation is the hallmark of the superficial.

For us to make the distinction between transcendent and superficial in a work of art, we must isolate any insight of human nature that the work expresses. Because all of reality is the same cause, all paths if followed with vigorous examination lead to the same truth. Acquiring the insight that the transcendent artist possess does not mean we ourselves need to have his artistic talents as well. These are abilities of a separate kind altogether. As Nietzsche tells us in the same writing, while the rest of us must use abstractions and complex explanations to arrive at an objective picture of the work of art, in his subjective vision, the artist contemplates the images of his expression clearly and in unexplainable simplicity independently of its degree of superficiality. We can analyze that vision according to what it communicates and whether that address the transcendent, the superficial or the “fake out” of superficial transcendence.

With all this in mind, a first glance at Terror Empire’s album cover and album name is enough to raise some red flags. The cover artwork does not relate to the title. The title further shows a tendency toward cliché and a “cute” manipulation of it. This lack of originality is then reflected in the music itself. The album shows an diversity of approaches ranging from early songs which incorporate related but meaningless constructions with abundant technical acrobatics to late songs which are basically “thrashy” chug-based generic speed metal songs. The former are meaningless in the context that the writers themselves put them in. They make structural premises, but then do not follow them or conclude them structurally. As in many mediocre examples of music, songs end suddenly without being taken to any sort of climax, deviation to a clear point and return. The latter part of the album fails by being an imitation of speed metal (aka “thrash metal”) tropes seen through the modern lenses of retro-thrash.

This book can be judged by its cover, which the band apparently views as attractive to the type of person who will not realize how completely pointless The Empire Strikes Black is as a metal listening experience. Those who seek novelty tend to find it. In the spirit of the master, Bitterman: Vapid. Avoid.

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In-depth analysis: Desecresy – Chasmic Transcendence

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The seed of Desecresy’s music contains a basal melodic notion or two, not without poignant appeal, which then comes to gradual bloom in an unhurried, self-assured manner. Songs on principle do not outstay their welcome but Desecresy’s approach towards writing revolves solely around realizing vehicles for this germ of an initial premise, in the process sublimating the interstitial stuff that goes into the making of a fully-fleshed, narrative piece.

Flirting rarely with outright aggression, Desecresy prove adept at developing the elegant, bittersweet melodies typical of Finnish death metal, using a mid-tempo style reminiscent of Bolt Thrower, Vore, and Ominous Crucifix for these hooks to sink in. The result is an album curiously devoid of visceral thrills but one that will serve perfectly well as amicable background accompaniment.

This is no slant against the band. Desecresy’s intentions are redoubtable but they could conceivably be making more resonant death metal if they gave away their Honour-Valor-Pride CDs and let their collective imaginations take flight. While the lack of variation in speed renders a sameness to much of Chasmic Transcendence, it is obvious that this is of the band’s volition. Desecresy choose to meander along this detourless path, confident in betting the house on the inherent quality of the melancholic nuggets they litter through the album; more than a few of these are thoughtfully crafted, and capable of launching songs on an altogether different trajectory in another band’s hands (see Creepmime or Deathevokation). Unfortunately, for Desecresy, the monotonous, simplistic nature of bridges linking these phrases — usually little more than a muted, open string or rambling, inconsequential power chords — makes these songs a game of waiting for the next cute part.

This, of course, is a caveat of this particular style of droning death metal; the few good bands trawling these waters are able to create a consistent mood on an expansive, album-wide scale. Desecresy can certainly not be accused of striking discordant notes in this respect; Chasmic Transcendence is a relatively seamless experience but that is a low bar to meet when the band’s sense of adventure clings so close to the ground.

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Various Artists – Basic Needs

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The Basic Needs compilation of New England metal and hardcore punk bands can be heard online and purchased on cassette for those who wish to own a physical copy. Promoted by the shadowy forces behind Codex Obscurum zine, Basic Needs contains fourteen tracks of varied material from almost as many different bands, so it makes sense to review them by track.

  1. Sagnus – “Gaspipe”
    This track starts off in a death metal vein but rapidly descends into bluesy heavy metal with updated technique like At the Gates Slaughter of the Soul. Nicely compact with no surprises but also no random or pointless bits, it fades out into noise.
  2. Human Bodies – “Stygian Reverie”
    Very much in the tradition of older hardcore but with black metal styled vocals, this Human Bodies track puts a new face on a familiar riff style and adds a Discharge-like chaotic solo, but otherwise sticks to fairly standard song form but keeps energy high.
  3. PanzerBastard – “Workhorse”
    Essentially d-beat hardcore, complete with broken rhythms and surging double-hit riffs, this song showcases high energy with emphasis on vocalizations.
  4. Sexcrement – “Chemical Handcuffs”
    This track starts off as pounding death metal but detours into a hard rock/heavy metal number that shows the band setting up a groove and more internal harmony, which actually makes the chromatic passages seem less intense.
  5. Suffer on Acid – “Ride the Light”
    Raging high-intensity hardcore from the “blurcore” style that emerged when the punk stalwarts confronted the horror of post-hardcore, Suffer on Acid creates music from fast simple riffs with exasperated shouting over the top. This track begins with a Black Sabbath style introduction riff that sets a mood to be destroyed which it is, amiably, by a thrash-style burst of collisive riffing and a classic hardcore punk extended chorus riff.
  6. Living Void – “Auxiliary Conspiracy”
    Writing in the fast style of death metal that bands like Deteriorate and Nokturnel pioneered before Angelcorpse, Living Void charge ahead with a series of quality riffs but then slow things up for a trudge/groove passage. The former strikes more than the latter.
  7. Suffer on Acid – “Terminal”
    Much in the style of the former track, “Terminal” relies more on vocal rhythmic hook and uses a standoffish groove more than burst but fits in lots of vocal rage and fast classic hardcore riffs to match.
  8. Living Void – “Categorizing Woe”
    This track starts with a doom metal promenade, then drops into trope of muted downstroke before bursting into high energy speeding death metal complete with blast beats and ripping choruses, the detouring into a darker and more black metal styled cycle.
  9. Ramlord – “Distant/Detach”
    At its heart, this track is older speed metal updated with death metal stylings to give it energy and more fluid transitions, but falls back into trope rhythm of vocals/drums in which the guitars drop like an interchangeable part. Some interesting black metal styled melodic work later in the track.
  10. Grue – “All Mortal Greatness is Disease”
    Beginning as a sentimental heavy metal/melodic black metal track in the Eucharist or Dawn variety, but then diverges into a chanted delivery of later Bathory-styled vocals over trudging rhythm riffs alternated with fast melodic hardcore riffing.
  11. Word of Unmaking – “In the Crypt of Dead Values”
    A Tangerine Dream style dronescape peppered with acoustic guitars and vocal samples, this track develops from linear into cyclic and recedes, leaving behind a homeostatic hint of atmosphere, then expands into a funeral doom track with articulated riffs like those from early Ceremonium.
  12. Fórn – “Dasein”
    What’s with all the Heidegger worship recently? This sludgy doom metal track follows the Winter model of slong grinding chord progressions with lots of fills from noise and vocals, changing riffs relatively frequently over this nine-minute track.
  13. Morne – “Coming of Winter”
    Sounding like a heavier version of Pelican, this band creates droning indie-influenced doom metal with heavy stoner doom elements and a hoarse plaintive vocal.

Of unusually high quality for a local compilation, Basic Needs shows a wide variety of the more promising bands in New England. Living Void, Word of Unmaking and Suffer on Acid strike me as the standouts which interest me in investigating further but there were no complete dead moments.

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Sadistic Metal Reviews 01-19-15

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Why do most people lead lives of quiet desperation, obeying all that they must do, and then choose boring and pointless music on top of it? Nonsense music flatters the ego and requires nothing of the listener. No person of any quality lives that way, so it’s time to force people upward and not outward, with the sweet tears of poseurs, hipsters, scenesters and tryhards occasioned by these Sadistic Metal Reviews

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Moonblood – Blut and Krieg

When black metal died in 1994, it did so by losing sight of its direction. In art, direction takes the form of something which can be communicated only through metaphor, an idea in formation. In part, black metal had given its ideas to the world and was sitting back to watch them spread, but in another sense, the message — a copy of a copy of a copy at that point — simply got lost as bands imitated the form without the substance of those that inspired them. The Moonblood review exists in the last sentence, since this album represents all that is odious in music: an imitation of the surface configuration and emotional tropes of a genre not only while not understanding what the genre and its founders valued, but without even trying to make coherence out of the noise. Most people like this for the vocals which are like a hybrid between Varathron and old Mayhem, and maybe they enjoy the winding minor key riffs, but the fact remains that these songs go nowhere. They set up a sensation, loop through it, and then end with a convenient exit like a hipster suddenly realizing the people at his party not only do not eat quinoa exclusively, but cannot pronounce “artisanal.” Lack of direction is fortunate for Moonblood since these songs wander when attempting to extend themselves because they have no center and no purpose. It is not surprising that shoegaze took over from this weakened form of black metal because this is directionless atmosphere that apes the past but approaches none of its value or even ability to communicate. In comparison, this is incoherent posing.

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Vital Remains – Horrors of Hell

If you see this in a sale or cut-out rack, you will perhaps feel it unjust. But compilations of demos tend to show a learning process, which means they start with the early attempts the band would rather forget (which is why bands tend to put boring covers on demo comps) and slowly work their way up to the ability level and hence material that you are accustomed to hearing. The demo that most are buying this for is “Reduced to Ashes” from 1989 which is the foundation of Vital Remains as a death metal band. This six-song offering shows the nascent death metal genre still emerging from a hybrid of speed metal (Metallica), thrash (DRI) and varied standout influences like Slayer, Sodom and early grindcore. In particular, large parts of this demo sound like they were heavily influenced by Repulsion, from riff style to the tendency to bring songs to a quick peak and then break away to a recapitulation that restates the main theme in coming and going perspectives. Vocals sound like the grim rant of Repulsion with all of its rhythmic power inherited from thrash, rather than the chant of speed metal or the full death metal growl. Riffs could fit on a Possessed or Dark Angel album, generally avoiding the muted down-strum of speed metal but not fully into constant tremolo of death metal, choosing some of the recursive open strumming of heavy metal. Rhythmically however this band does not fit into death metal. As in the first Possessed album, the drummer stays within the speed metal idea of aiming for concrete resolution at the end of each phrase, instead of recognizing that post-Discharge drums follow the guitar and thus must keep a continuous phrase. Although the band clearly knew more music than many of their contemporaries, it’s a stretch to call this “death metal.”

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Bloodhunter – Bloodhunter

Imagine the melodic style of At the Gates Slaughter of the Soul that did not attempt to hide its roots in heavy metal and some speed metal, instead of death metal. Bloodhunter has the same strident emo death vocals that At the Gates and The Haunted put to good use, but the underlying music comes from the melodic heavy metal camp with some of the technique of speed metal filtered through power metal. This means for the most part that songs follow the intro-verse-chorus format but that the band will double riffs with a melodic guitar attack and break songs for lengthy solos or other classic heav metal tropes. As a result, this album flows easily and abandons much of the pretense of profundity that flows from the more metalcore offerings, preferring instead to be heavy metal with a few observations of life and a triumphant attitude. Nothing here will surprise the experienced heavy metal listener but most will appreciate its competent musicality and ear for songs that are enjoyable to listen to as well as hard-hitting within the range that this style can achieve. Riff diversity is high, spanning a wide range of tempi and styles including NWOBHM, all updated with the newer approach to rhythm that emphasizes constant forward motion in the speed metal style. Where this band falls down is in trying to distinguish itself with whispered vocals and (excruciating cliche of cliches) a sampled intro from a Tarantino movie. Bloodhunter does best when it sticks to its strengths. This album will not be varied enough internally for death metal fans but should delight power metal and classic heavy metal appreciators.

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Sargeist – Satanic Black Devotion

Experienced reviewers wince at tryhard titles like “Satanic Black Devotion” because they indicate advertising, not a coherent statement from the band. Satanic Black Devotion might as well be a can of pureed, processed, sugar and salt added, preservative enhanced black metalTM. Imitating the style of later Gorgoroth and droning melodic black metal like Ancient or Marduk but with the chaotic approach of the first Krieg album, Sargeist is long on vocals and short on song construction. They hit on a few good riffs here and there and deliver those like Christmas presents, then repeat them ad nauseam. Most riffs show a tendency to cycle between symmetrical extremes and so fall into the same boring tropes as later hardcore did. Plenty of sawing guitar adorns this album as do riff patterns from past black metal albums but these are arranged in pleasant repeating rings that do not develop in any particular direction, leading to the listener’s brain grasping a bunch of droning minimalist guitar with an occasional melodic hook. Songs express nothing other than participation, and the inclusion of local band B- riffs alongside more developed ones leads the reviewer to wonder if the band has cribbed its best moments. Several patterns are note-removed from essential parts of Gorgoroth songs, but without the strong buildup, the Christmas riff drops in as a sudden variation and not a culmination or enhancement. This album does better than most because the band keeps the energy high and is smart enough to use the same song structure again and again to present its few powerful riffs, but the result of this randomness is more of what black metal wanted to escape, not create.

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Watain – Lawless Darkness

Pretense is the fundamental state of humankind. As apes with linguistic brains, we rage against our impotence and insignificance and come up with poses: “I am important because I am good, smart, rich, sexy, hip, unique, different, wise, etc.” For some, the pretense is more or less accurate. These we call arrogant instead of pretentious. For others, in fact for over 99.98% of humanity, the pretense is merely self-important vaingloriousness backed up by nothing other than some hipster friends, a few possessions, or maybe a claim to fame like having punched out a local celebrity. Watain launched themselves with Rabid Death’s Curse, a pop black metal album in the style of The Other Side from The Abyss which won fans for its simple direct melodic songs. Several albums later, it becomes clear these guys do better giving interviews on metal theory (where they exceed almost all others) than writing music. Lawless Darkness resembles the kids show at the circus where as soon as one act fades another takes its place in relatively random order with the goal being to distract the audience so they eat up more of that popcorn and cotton candy. The album opens with dramatic violin, but then drops into disorganized metal music where riffs are joined through energetic flourishes of drum and Pantera-style bounce riffs. These songs make “sense” in that they follow a basic rhythm but most of what is written here is closer to the technical speed/death riffing of Behemoth than black metal, and none of it serves to build an atmosphere other than constant distraction. It is in fact comically random and empty of message. Presumably the ringmaster coems out and doffs his top hat and juggles live frogs somewhere in here to keep our attention but the music utterly fails to do so.

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The Cult of Light – The Cult of Light

Crafted in the style of Meshuggah rather than the metalcore it partially inspired, The Cult of Light creates rhythmic speed metal — similar to Prong, Exodus, Pantera and various proto-prog bands like Anacrusis and Supuration — which installs a jazzy bounce into the speed metal cadence. This approach creates problems in that it makes it difficult to pace together multiple riffs in the speed metal style because the rhythms either conflict or resemble each other too much to distinguish the riffs. On this album, the band chooses instead to have only two major riffs per song but numerous transitions/intros and budget riffs to distract, as if installing turnarounds at each segment of the song before restoring the normal loop order. Vocals are the post-At the Gates rant which aims to complete before the beat and then hold an open-throat growl like a ringing note. Underneath this album lies a heavy metal work pointed toward the art-rock sensibilities that graced the far edge of off-mainstream rock in the 1990s, which means that despite the monotonic growl vocals the aim here is ultimately to set up a dense harmonic space which serves as the hook of the song and provides a space for contrast by other instruments. Unlike most heavy metal bands, The Cult of Light prefer keyboards and what can only be described as aggro-mood-jazz leads which use repeated patterns to serve in more of a lead rhythm guitar role than pure lead. The band builds its songs in layers in order to create spaces for effect, then introduces dramatic changes led by vocals, resulting in a sense of a radio play unfolding before our ears. While this style seems overdone, even on this composition where the need to keep the rigorous bounce and “different” riff styles contorts song structures in several cases, the underlying gentle arty heavy metal is worth appreciating. At the moment of that realization however one begins to wonder why bother with the adornments of style at all, since there is a shortage of arty heavy metal and an audience waiting for it.

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Necros Christos – Nine Graves

Southern fried, bluesy rock/metal hybrid with swinging beats and hookish choruses, the new Down album — oh wait, this is Necros Christos. How did this make it into the underground black metal pile? It has deathy vocals but everything else is a slightly sped up version of Pantera but with more dimestore Satanic cult chanting vocals. Some of the chants come straight out of NWOBHM and many of the melodic riffs resemble those from the technical metal period that lumped itself on top of speed metal, calling to mind Anacrusis or DBC. Songs hold up well but basically express nothing but a vague gesture toward a certain type of experience while drinking beer and feeling sleazy somewhere lost in the modern morass. This could easily be a Ratt side project. Musically competent, it nonetheless expresses no greater mood than confusion and a certain type of teenage grimness which could be summarized as “my French fries are cold, and I suffer for it.” The chanting vocals add a certain unreality to the whole thing but evoke more of a sense of Marilyn Manson trying to rile up the apathetic, bored and directionless than the summoning of evil forces. When the band does force radical change in song dynamics or structure it seems more of a transition to a different seat in the same room than a change in how life or the song is viewed. Doubtless reviewers praise this as a fusion of stoner doom and black metal, but what really emerges here is a careful camouflaging of the same old stuff as the latest evil thing, and the real victims here are those who had to listen to this without getting it for free. Ignore trends, focus on structure and meaning in music. Learn from what Necros Christos has failed to apprehend.

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Yob – Clearing the Path to Ascend

Someone made Trouble Psalm 9 for idiots, wrapping it up in the 1960s stylings that shows our commercial overlords that we, too, follow the one true path to the light. Because stupidity loves pretense, it contains Cynic-style statements about opening your mind and being a hip groovy 23 skiddoo cat… hasn’t anyone realized this crap is ancient? Other than the periodic death vocals and louder production, this stuff comes to us right from the hippie era. Musically it is not terrible but not terribly interesting either, since it essentially repeats tropes in circularity until ready for a linear withdrawal to equilibrium. The whining vocalist sounds like he is trying too hard to be pacifistic and profound under his patchouli and denim and the riffs fit more in line with jam bands of the 19670s than a heavy metal band. Yob count on the listener being lulled to sleep by the pace and the hypnotically boring vocals so that the person listening forgets what has happened and every riff is new like it fell right out of the sky and exploded. Instead riffs just kind of plod along, barely related to each other, in what might be filler songs on a Bruce Springsteen album if they sped them up and got rid of the posturing. This really has nothing to do with metal but it tries hard to fit in like a bear lost in the coatcheck room. Its pacing and wailing call to mind the albums from Confessor more than the Trouble works, but aesthetically it resembles the early heavy metal doom metal bands like Trouble, Pentagram, and Candlemass but made safe by turning them into warmed-over TV dinner hippie rock. Not surprisingly the music industry gave this a big thumbs up in a nod to the Baby Boomers.

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Martyr – Extracting the Core: Live 2001

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Coming from the French-Canadian progressive metal powerhouse that later loaned members to Gorguts, Extracting the Core shows us Martyr playing a live set of their classic works. Before you wince: this is one of the better-produced live albums available such that it is indiscernible from a good but not excellent studio job; all instruments are clear and mixed in a way that fits expectations of studio recordings, and crowd noise is minimal. As a live album, it preserves everything you might want to hear from a band on record or live with a bit of extra energy in the vocals as musicians trying to cram ten thousand notes into six-minute songs howl at the audience with a high rate of exertion. The real question regards the style of this musically-erudite band, which brings up the question of poetry versus burritos.

A burrito, as you may know, is one of nature’s most perfect foods. A wrap of flour and lard encloses ingredients ranging from guacamole, pico de gallo, and carne asada to Spanish rice, sour cream and refried beans, and the whole thing is then consumed with the aid of delicious picante and verde sauces. What makes a burrito excellent is that instead of choosing what to have for dinner, you have everything, but in a form more convenient even than a sandwich. One cannot praise this Mexican-Spanish-Texican-Californian dish enough. But when composing metal, it becomes a brutal force. As Socrates tells us, all events have causes. What is the cause of a song? One either intends it to tell a story, or assembles a few musical theories into contrasting elements and makes a burrito of it. As with the burrito, uniqueness is lost in favor of a kind of sameness of differentness, where each song has everything and the kitchen sink, but over time — much like the constant pounding brutality of early Napalm Death or later Suffocation-inspired bands — it all starts to become the same, different variants of essentially an identical idea. With a poem, the form of the song and techniques used reflect the content; with a burrito, the content of the song reflects the need to include many different things in the form. You can analogize to variety shows, pluralism, unitarianism, and even Christianity itself — a compilation of a dozen religions, mostly Greek, Hindu, Jewish, Nordic, Babylonian and Egyptian — if you feel the need. But the point is that while the burrito pleases everyone, it does not achieve the distinctive expression that makes a song evocative of experience, thought or perception, which is what makes a poem or song stand out. It feels like something you have encountered, or something you wish to, and more than creating a solid impression it creates a space of balanced parts ambiguity and clarity, which makes you want to launch into it and battle for the beautiful to win out over the mundane, boring, pointless, directionless and entropic. In a burrito, this space does not exist because it is being used to hold all those delicious ingredients together.

Extracting the Core overflows with delicious ingredients. Head shredder Daniel Mongrain may be one of the most interesting guitarists in popular music. His jazz-influenced leads — this means dialing back the simplicity of rock music and accepting more complex harmony and corresponding technique — both display impressive technique and the ability to write a melodic solo with multiple emotions. All instruments show great proficiency, from the adept technical drumming that avoids overshadowing other instruments, to a subtle but present bass and complex riffing with difficult time signatures all nailed perfectly. The problem is the means by which this band composes: requiring a burrito means that a band must default to, at the core of each song, the simplest possible construction which can include all of its elements. When the randomness is removed, what remains is a simple speed metal song, with Meshuggah-style abrupt off-beat (as opposed to cadenced, like Metallica) speed metal riffing that alternates with hard rock and thinly-disguised jazz fusion riffs.

Essentially, this album is Pantera after music graduate school, much as Meshuggah simplified Suffocation and Exhorder and then amplified the degree of texture at oddball timings to produce their overrated material. While it is mournful to admit this, it kills the album and makes the listening experience one of tuning out the over-dramatic and busy riffing to get to the solos. In addition, in order to support the burrito, Martyr adopt many different voices of composition, from Supuration-style alternative-progressive metal to nearly hardcore, and the result injects further randomness. It would be better, as Gorguts did, to give this band a song template varied enough to tempt them but purposeful enough to channel these energies toward more musical profundity through instantial contrast in a prolonged and developing narrative.

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Idolatry – Idolatry

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Idolatry creates basic black metal with a flowing melodic inner structure despite its raw exterior. The strikingly morose atmosphere of the music is what appealed to me the most. The mood is sometimes reminiscent of the sounds of Les Légions Noires with hints of early Norwegian Black Metal.

Songs consist of basic structure and interestingly well-executed rhythms evoking the aura of death. The vocals here are throaty rasps displaying the deepest soul-tormenting hate, accompanied with heinous war cries to add to the overall dynamics. Drums set a fluid but standard pattern, yet are skillfully implemented and complement the tempos, mostly going from slow to mid-pace. Idolatry proves that blast beats are not a requirement in creating an intense atmosphere. Nothing here pushes any boundaries but competently executes a variety of black metal at doom metal paces. Of note are the vocals which expand beyond rhythmic and acoustic frame to rage all over the place, sounding more like a commentary on the song itself from a nearby mental ward than an integrated part of the music.

Production creates a “raw” Finnish second wave texture and through some form of sonic sorcery retains a clean delivery of the work despite this acidic texture. Imagine Mütiilation (Vampires of Black Imperial Blood era), Graveland (Carpathian Wolves era), Mayhem (De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas era), involving some more recent touches from the likes of Craft and Pseudogod, melted together into an album with the pace of Samael.

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Idis Örlög – The Spiral Tide of Seasons

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Commanded by Witchblood composer Megan Leo, Idis Örlög creates acoustic folk music with accompaniment by flutes, pipes and other indigenous European instruments, sounding very much like a better version of the Celtic and German pagan folk bands which show up at Renaissance Faires across the United States. What makes The Spiral Tide of Seasons stand out is its capacity for capturing a mood that is less influenced by popular music and more concerned with the timeless and original, expanding on its themes with a perspective that carries forward the eternalist thoughts of black metal into a new genre.

Songs feature guitar as the primary instrument but are guided by Leo’s voice, which is alternatingly soothing and harsh, and uses that variety more in the way a storyteller would than in the flattering methods of bands you hear in bars. Absent are excessively hookish choruses over decorative verses, and in their place songs find a gentle pace of narration which allows lyrics and sound to coexist much as they have in the bardic tradition for centuries. As each song develops, it achieves a different kind of intensity by melding and subtracting the different layers of voice and instrument, shaping not just an atmosphere but a relationship between the vocals and the individual human. Although an acoustic guitar features primarily in this process, the style of playing more resembles the selective picking of unique textures of black metal than the rote application of known crowd-pleaser patterns that you find with coffeehouse ballads. These songs find their own pace and their own destination, which allows the instruments and vocals to follow along like a descriptive chorus, instead of shoving “emotional” moments into our faces repetitively like the kumbaya rockers do.

While many of us are still scarred from the burst of popularity in the 1990s that brought us Jewel and other new age acoustic folk players, Idis Örlög takes a different pace which more resembles the tradition of sung poetry than the popular music tradition of self-based description. Its songwriter knows how to make a phrase not just infectious to the ear, but develop over time into an appreciation within the listener for it and its related musical ideas, crafting a varied and unfolding experience while detaching its audience from the mundanity of everyday existence and immersing them in a different world.

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Infamous – Of Solitude and Silence

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Black metal like most underground metal compares to Romantic art because it has a passion for nature, the raw power of the universe and the emotions which are true in the human being. This inherently rejects the false madness of the madding crowd but most fans of Romantic literature never get to that phase and translate its meaning into nature fetishism and self-pity. Infamous restore the Romanticism to metal with a dark nature worship album that preserves the savage beauty of this genre.

Deriving its basic approach from what can only be described as the more ambitious early Ancient compositions applied to the thematic material of early Enslaved, albeit translated to a country far from the frozen north, Of Solitude and Silence drops into a lush series of melodies that maintain distinctive shape and expression in both rhythm and tone, allowing Infamous to weave songs of multiple contrasting themes that conclude in a beautiful rising of mood from within. These are outright sentimental, like work from Graveland, Sorcier des Glaces or Immortal on Pure Holocaust, but if you can get over that vulnerable yet accessible and stately violent emotion, much excellent songwriting is found therein. Infamous primarily rely on the renowned black metal high speed tremolo strum overly slowly changing drum patterns, aided by reverb and closet-muffled production in achieving its atmospheric ends, but the strength of each song comes from the ability to put riffs together in a coherent form which nonetheless maintains internal contrast to create the sensation of motion and change outside the individual, which is where the essence of the black metal sound (and Romantic poetry) originates.

Instrumentation takes a path for simple but effective, with guitars avoiding complex technique in favor of complex riffs of basic power chords and arpeggiated chords at a slower polyrhythmic strum. At some point, this drummer has listened to a fair amount of hardcore or Oi, possibly even verging into Ildjarn-worship. But the essence of this release remains the flowing longer instrumentals of early black metal experimentation, a source of great potential it never followed up on, and by indulging these in a layered sense of emotion Infamous creates an entirely transporting musical journey. While this one fell off the radar for most of us, it presents one of the more capable and visionary concepts of black metal after the first wave from Norway.

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Desolate Shrine – The Heart of the Netherworld

desolate_shrine-the_heart_of_the_netherworld

We all want a powerful underground. The way to achieve that is to be harsh, cruel and unrelenting in our judgment of underground-style bands, or we permit lower quality to become the standard, and then because that is easier, it is what we will get. What we signal we accept becomes the norm. It is essential to be cruel to bullshit releases, and Desolate Shrine The Heart of the Netherworld is tryhard blather that permits introduction of modern metal tropes into old school metal while failing to achieve the power of expression that is the defining factor of old school underground metal.

On its surface, The Heart of the Netherworld is melodic doom-death. Under the surface, it consists of tired chord progressions and techniques worked around utterly repetitive songs which move in a wholly circular fashion and achieve nothing. The vocals pick up the modern metal trope of open-throated riding of the beat, putting the vocal in the lead role and deprecating guitar. That is as well, as no unique or expressive riffs fill this album. Instead, sort of like a slower degraded version of Nile, Desolate Shrine adapt rock riffs and add a few accidentals but tend to focus on a melodic interval accented by a strumming or arpeggiated pattern. The result is a form of churn, both at the riff-level and the song-level, which results in total boredom and directs the focus at the vocals, as if the vocalist were a parasitic organism that took over the brain of this band.

In addition, Desolate Shrine works in a number of modern metal patterns such as the recursive strum, the post-metal drone and (most odious of all) the chromatic ratchet turnaround that bad hardcore bands have been using for what feels like 40 years now. Aesthetically this album is exciting, but once you pop the hood and look inside, you realize it’s not a Mustang but one of those little Fiat microcars that sound like kitchen mixers that have been oiled too frequently. The underground is not a surface flavor; it is a way of composing, and to reach that stage, a way of thinking. Desolate Shrine have not taken the first step on that journey but have stepped off on another route.

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