Crucifyre – Black Magic Fire

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Late entries in the attempt to partake in the retro-Swedish death metal sound, Crucifyre comes with an impressive pedigree of B-level Swedish death metal bands contributing members to this new project. To realize this vision, they combined heavy metal verses with Sodom-style chanted choruses and melodic death metal touches using the Swedish death metal modified d-beat under the skin. The result is not stylistically terrible except that it satisfies none of the cravings associated with its constituent parts, and instead makes a very “modern metal” collage which makes sense linearly but taken as a whole expresses nothing.

In addition, the melodies and vocal rhythms used here are simple in the way radio jingles are (as opposed to the “broken air conditioner that needs oil” way that Cannibal Corpse-derived bands can be) and the combination makes this music simply annoying. Catchy rhythms, sing-song melodies and a jumble of riffs thrown together seemingly both hastily and craftily creates a sensation of being in a Disney ride where each new riff is a new attraction and each represents a general gesture at an idea, not an attempt to unite a theme through all the different parts. This creates a feeling of rotation to the songs as they cycle past.

Making retro death metal is not easy, nor is it usually advisable. Death metal does best when motivated by a strong vision and hence a clear aesthetic voice and thus selective use of the techniques available to it after three generations of metal and punk. What happens with Black Magic Fire is instead the an attempt to make music like one would make a burrito: dump in some death metal asada, top it off with heavy metal cheese, then scatter some d-beat rice and German speed metal lettuce through the mix and wrap it up. Then hope it makes sense. This album does not, and does so in the most brain-liquefying simplistic way possible.

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The Best Underground Metal of 2014

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William Burroughs often wrote about the “edge,” or the liminal threshold between states. The last real edge year for underground metal was 2009 when strong contenders and new voices united to defend extreme metal against the onslaught of imitators making Potemkin village metal from hipster flair and lite-jazz fireworks but underneath it, nothing but disorganized songwriting and an absence of something to express. As the underground has come back with a vengeance, it has begun to displace the imitators because their music simply does not measure up. This has created a backlash as the hipsters defend their territory with guilt, ostentation, pretense and surface-level novelty. On the other hand, the underground has produced some strong contenders. And so we move forward through the past to the future, remembering that what is true is eternal, and trends, novelties, fads, hipsters and other transient moments pass quickly away…

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Blaspherian – Demos (Compilation of Death)

Compilation of Death Records has re-issued the a classic demo and rehearsal from a band of recent vintage but oldschool origins, Blaspherian. Their thunderous death metal sounds like Incantation and Obituary covering Deicide but has a voice of its own and unique perspective. It also carries forward the old school sensibility of building intensity and contrast in a morbid mood that is not self-echoing and redundant. Songwriter Wes Weaver (Imprecation, Infernal Dominion) avoids solos and other adornments to focus on tunneling riffs that are distinctive and create interplay with others in each song to give every song a unique feel within the lexicon of symbol and emotion that death metal addresses. Like the bands that inspire it, Blaspherian aims to create an immersive atmosphere of doom and morbidity in which it can bring forth other emotions in layers, such that the “mixed emotions” feel common to much music is not something achieved at the peak of a song, but is a constant in which the emotions mixed vary like a texture, revealing new combinations under the shifting striations of darkness.

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Blood Urn – …of Gory Sorcery and Death (Terrorghoul)

Death metal of the classic style fascinates this young band who write music much like the early years of death metal but with more of an emphasis on melodic bridging material, avoiding the pitfall of using melody as essentially a production technique and instead causing it to highlight songs that come alive with a ferment of conflicting riffs. Vocals use the old-school method of shadowing riffs and the salad of phrases itself fits together and creates a deepening mood. While on the heavier and slower side of death metal, this demo is varied enough to touch on all areas of the genre, assembling rich textures as a means to develop depth to the emotions in each part of the song. Unlike many newer bands, Blood Urn decided not to follow a single identifiable influence but instead sound like a study of European and American death metal rendered by someone approaching it with a fresh vision.

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Cenotaph – Riding Our Black Oceans (Chaos, re-issue)

A re-issue of this album restores it to its rightful place in the death metal canon. After the immensely powerful Gloomy Reflections of Our Hidden Sorrows, the thunderous Mexican death metal band Cenotaph changed their style to an airier and more intense high-speed melodic death metal sound. Unlike contemporary “melodic death metal” this style embraced the vigor of death metal by expressing it through sequences of tones that added melody without obscuring structure and darker moods, and Cenotaph displayed its customary acumen for songwriting by keeping each track centered around an idea that came forth not only in the whole but in the shape of its riffs. In the years following Sentenced North From Here and At the Gates The Red in the Sky is Ours, many bands attempted this newer style but few made it as vicious and uncompromising as Cenotaph.

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Conquering Dystopia – Conquering Dystopia

Conquering Dystopia creates instrumental mental that hybridizes death metal styles with progressive heavy metal and some of the newer progressive styles like that of At War With Self. The result often sounds a lot like Joe Satriani’s older works in that clear theme is expressed and highly repeated, but varied with other instrumental detours which strengthen it as the song progresses and all the pieces fit together more an in interrupted linear way than the geometries of pure death metal. While this is like most commercial rock indulgently emotional, the underlying music is good and the technique interesting without leaving service to what each song needs, which keeps it not only topical but interesting.

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Dead Congregation – Promulgation of the Fall (Martyrdoom)

Although this band gets mentioned as the foremost in the “Incantclone” series of bands inspired by streaming columnar detuned tremolo underground metal in the style of Incantation, Demoncy and Havohej, Dead Congregation draws influence as well from the subtler structuring of older Immolation in its use of melody to underscore is otherwise a thunderous series of chromatic rhythm riffs needing a center. Although songs vary in completeness throughout the album, generally these storming high-intensity dirges fit together well and produce an encompassing atmosphere which both crushes and awes the listener. If anything, this band could let up on the classic technique and float more of their own aesthetic ideas now that they are established.

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Demilich – 20th Adversary of Emptiness (Svart, re-issue)

Back when death metal was viewed by just about everyone as an incompetent genre of malcontent losers who would go nowhere and who were complaining about our new consumer+hippie paradise, a few bands emerged who saw the emerging genre not as a style but as an artistic voice with unlimited possibilities. One of these, Finland’s Demilich, created an album so circuitous and bizarre that the metal press basically dropped it and ran in fear, as did many fans. For those who discovered it however, Nespithe presented unlimited potential as to how death metal could adopt technicality and yet not be mastered by it and forced into the type of generic jazz-blues-rock theory that served to actually limit what musicians could conceive of and execute. With its twisted passages and seemingly erratic rhythms, Nespithe resembled a strange machine risen from the bowels of earth to conquer humankind. Instead, it inspired generations of fans and musicians to visualize death metal as a broader language than many wanted it to be. This re-issue pairs up older works with a handful of newer songs to make for a complete experience of this distinct voice and its concept.

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Desecresy – Chasmic Transcendence (Xtreem)

Desecresy combine Swedish death metal, doom-death metal and atmospheric influences from black metal to create towerlike scenes of dark moods in collision. With Chasmic Transcendence, the band update the formula with more easily separable rhythms to riffs and use of melodic transitions to intensify the building sense of doom. It builds grinding tension and discharges it in lengthy melodic passages which expand beyond their origins into new landscapes. Add to this a tendency to use lead melodic rhythm guitars over its power chord riffs and this makes for a haunting listen that resembles a descent into the underworld. With this third album, the band shows not only its staying power but the depths of the well of its creativity in not just re-inventing older styles but finding a new combination of them and using that to express a perspective which elaborates upon the basics of the genre and gives them new elegance and power.

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Enthroned – Sovereigns (Agonia)

Famed for their high-speed melodic black metal, Enthroned take the populist approach of middle-period Dimmu Borgir — before it went into its final stage as warmed-over hard rock — and craft it with greater urgency and the instrumental approach of older black metal. The result more resembles the later Bathory albums where heavy metal, proto-black metal and post-Slayer death metal influences merged to create a potent ferment. Sovereigns does not achieve the vast contrasts and epic sense of loss of earlier black metal, but upholds a battle-spirit and pushes it into song with strong melodies that do not lapse into the cloying saccharine world of “feelings” — personal observations based on personal perspective — but instead appeal to emotions, or the shared sense of importance and value to certain things which might be eternal. This album breaks up the formula slightly with slower songs as the album expands, in the style of Hypocrisy Penetralia.

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Entrench – Violent Procreation (War Anthem)

Following in the steps of Merciless, who could be seen as the stylistic ancestor of this band, Entrench craft speed/death metal with melodic underpinnings and a frantic but strident voice which guides riffs much in the way Dio narrated his own songs. To the Merciless formula of adroit ripping riffs concluding in both ambiguity and alignment, Entrench adds a Kreator style of finality to both vocal and guitar phrase, making these songs less emotional but more solidly violent. While speed/death hybridization usually ends badly, here the essence is speed metal riffs played as if by a death metal band in the context of a rhythm more like that of death metal. The result is satisfyingly impact-oriented but for it to take the next step to where Merciless is, it will have to coordinate its melodies and cultivate ambiguity both for it to resolve and preserve to keep the dark sensation produced by the riff-style of death metal, minor key melodies and mentalities outside those of the herd.

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Heresiarch – Wælwulf (EP, Dark Descent)

Attempting to forge a niche for itself in the Incantation/Blasphemy inspired style that has become a de facto underground currency during the past few years, Heresiarch create a muddier and more obscure version of their previous works, focusing less on tunneling riffs and more on simple two-chord riffs introducing songs that expand to greater degrees of structure with the slightest hints of melody. The band, in hoping to take war metal to the next dimension, probably consider their work to be unstudied and arising on impulse, but these songs show a clear pattern of development from the grinding to the structural and as a result, take the listeners with them on a journey of finding beauty in darkness and coherence in chaos. The violent slamming intensity remains but by lessening its consistency the band achieves a greater sense of contrast, like raising a sacred object higher above the marble floor to ensure that when it shatters the pieces are irreducible.

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Kever – Eon of Cycling Death (Dark Descent)

Perhaps one of the most inspiring releases this year, Eon of Cycling Death wears its old school influences in Suffocation and Morbid Angel on its sleeve but without imitating them in pale imprint of their technique without understanding their essence. Instead this band forges on with a kind of fantasy death metal that shows them living an alternative and parallel timeline to these bands, developing the basics they innovated with a voice specific to these individuals regardless of what time they are born into. Percussive riffs give way to an ensemble of death metal styles united by rhythm and space which convincingly outline the ideas of each song and then give them depth through internal dialogue. On top of it, an abrupt and croaking vocal gives new life to a very familiar technique with its guttural but carefully sculpted sonic enunciation.

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Massacra – Enjoy the Violence (Century Media, re-issue)

One of the great classics of death metal, long passed-over for more dramatic acts, gained new life with this re-issue. Massacra created their early music in the style which stretches from Slayer through Morbid Angel and emphasizes fast strumming of rapidly-colliding riffs which emphasize ambiguity and openness over the kind of certainty that works well with more percussive styles. Enjoy the Violence is like a rollercoaster between extremes where all things lead back to the same point, but the experience is changing enough that it is almost unrecognizable as the same. With the remaster, some of the weaker sound from the earlier recording is corrected and bonus tracks are added, giving new life to this under-recognized classic of the genre that was more highly influential among musicians than fans, and took on new life in the bands it influenced.

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Massacra – Final Holocaust (Century Media, re-issue)

This foundational album of death metal by Massacra has been re-issued by Century Media with bonus tracks and a booklet rich in information. That provides a good introduction to this view of the death metal style, which instead of attempting to be “heavy” aimed for shock and awe with fast riffs and convoluted songs that somehow emerged into an almost peaceful calm after chaos and combat. Massacra derive their strength from the ability to write fast-fingered riffs that capture the thrill and terror of being alive into a single moment and use this to make basic clashes within life into a mythology of trying to conquer empty spaces with the will and sensibility of a warrior wandering a dystopian wasteland. While this album was forgotten in the day mostly due to its mids-heavy (in contrast to bass-heavy) production and relative availability through distribution contracts more circuitous than its riffs, it rides again in new form.

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Massacra – Day of the Massacra (Century Media)

Century Media compiled several early Massacra demos into a single disc, paired it with extensive liner notes and pictures, and remastered everything for an insight into the rise of the Massacra sound while it was recognizable as what would emerge on the first two and most influential Massacra albums. These recordings show the band merging its early influences into a style and then finding its own voice within that beast, allowing it to compose distinctive and evocative songs immediately including several pre-album tracks with some duct tape still visible. While this might appeal most to Massacra maniacs, it also serves as a useful introduction to new fans who may appreciate the heavier production and more aggressive primitive approach here as a means of transitioning to the albums that follow, which focused not so much on slamming impact as a kind of sky architecture of riffery.

CD Booklet

Nausea – Condemned to the System (Willowtip)

Straddling the line between grindcore, crust and old-fashioned hardcore — which are inches apart as it is — Nausea return with this recording of older and newer tracks alike. Carefully pared down to incorporate only necessary elements and keep energy high, Condemned to the System demonstrates the simpler style of punk composition with all of the riff power of early grindcore, including several tracks (and pieces thereof) that later made it to the first Terrorizer album, World Downfall. The listener who can forget that heritage however will discover merely a crushing, efficient and streamlined album of enjoyable but hard-hitting punkish music that will not win awards for extremity or technicality, but shows care applied to songwriting so that a listener does not feel lost in a sea of riffs or drone, but can isolate each song in the mind and appreciate its individual attack.

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Nunslaughter – Angelic Dread (Hells Headbangers)

While some may be tempted to categorize Nunslaughter as dinosaurs, the fact remains that this band takes the raw ingredients of power metal, speed metal and most death metal and makes a stripped-down, hardcore-punk style ripping version of this that remains highly listenable even if not particularly distinguishable on a song-to-song basis. Like other collections of many short songs, such as Dead Infection or Carcass, Angelic Dread operates like many small insights into roughly the same idea. Somehow, what this band creates never gets old, in part because they understand their riffs as a language from the same basic source, and in part because like a thrash band their song format carefully fits the particular clash of the two riffs (with a few budget transitions, and sometimes rhythmic variations, Nunslaughter uses two riffs per song on average) and the need of presenting them in the best light. The result is compelling and enjoyable and upholds the best tradition of riffcraft and expressive violence in underground music.

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Oppression – Sociopathie & Gloire (Preposterous Creations)

Merging Oi!-style punk with some enhancements from black metal, tracks are short (2-3 minute) affairs. Melodies are catchy, yet wistful lines grounded in simple guitar and bass riffs, with vocal alternating between manic shrieks and an idiosyncratic, youthful attempt at melodic singing. Using the more linear style composition of punk, as opposed to the riff-stacking song construction used by much of black metal, each song contributes a sense of motion that builds the album up over successive tracks. Production values are what one would expect for this style of music; clear enough to make out each instrument, but raw enough to preserve low-budget ethos. This is a release that is not attempting to invent a new genre, but rather one which seeks to renew genres that had collapsed under their own entropy. The strange aesthetics may be off-putting to some, but if those can be sublimated into the spirit of this album, a refreshingly honest work will open itself for enjoyment.

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Personal Device – Microorganismos del Mal

First there was the faux 80s crossover thrash revival with party retro-thrash bands like Toxic Holocaust and Municipal Waste, then bands like Birth A.D. bounced back with actual thrash and reformed the genre. Now Personal Device take it a step both further and in a different direction by being a classic hardcore band that informs itself with early speed metal like the first Metallica and Nuclear Assault albums. The result is bouncy fast and precise punk like Ratos de Porao or even middle-period Bad Brains that is thoroughly enjoyable with riff breaks that resemble “The Four Horsemen” or maybe even “Live, Suffer, Die.” Their guitars are remarkably precise which creates an unusual sound for punk that by making it mechanistic makes it seem more inexorable than like protest music, and the result is a more testosterone-fueled and warlike approach. Mix that with the surging chord changes of speed metal and the fast repetitive chanted choruses from thrash, and you have a high-energy band. Its flaws are that experienced listeners may find this a bit too transparent, and that many of its rhythms are similar, but the band has administered its style with an editor’s red pen handy, cutting out any lesser parts, which gives it more staying power than all but a few albums in this stylistic range.

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Ripper – Raising the Corpse (Underground Defenders)

Much like Merciless, Ripper know to invoke a melodic hook with a rhythmic hook and gradually bring a song into unity, at which point they hammer home the infectious chorus until the audience is ready to carve it into their own flesh. While some may point out that little new occurs here stylistically, and many of these riff forms can be traced back to Slayer or Destruction, what Ripper does well is keep this music high-intensity without falling into sameness and to streamline into an effective delivery mechanism that outgrows the confused collision of styles that was the mid to late 1980s. This approach fits within the early speed metal model that formed the basis of great hook-laden German bands like Destruction and Sodom, and this tradition continues with Ripper. Where Ripper succeeds is in removing extraneous material and cutting to the core of its music, eliminating some of the distraction and randomness that blighted later work from the German bands.

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Sorcier Des Glaces – Ritual Of The End (Obscure Abhorrence)

Flowing dark melodic forest black metal band Sorcier des Glaces burst onto the scene as any appreciation for this style of Graveland and Immortal influenced black metal fully waned as the initial loss of momentum in the genre caught up with its inertia. Since that time, the band has continued its path of making naturalistic long-melody black metal with the distinctive wandering tempo and phrasal development that many of the French bands also explored. With Ritual of the End, Sorcier des Glaces present their vision in a more focused style that nonetheless preserves the inconclusive nature of their earlier music, becoming like a vision of the woods at twilight equal parts promise and ambiguity, revealing the continuous nature of life through its inability to achieve finite endpoints. When metal mistakenly went toward faster/more extreme variants of the past, it lost the majestic beauty which inspired imagination as well as aggression, and Sorcier des Glaces return it.

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Varathron – Untrodden Corridors Of Hades (Agonia)

One of the original Greek black metal bands, Varathron returns with higher speed and more dominant melody in a style that approximates what Borknagar and other later black metal bands tried to do, with some nods to music since but fundamentally a sensibility closer to Rotting Christ Thy Mighty Contract. Keeping energy high with frequent changes but return to theme and focus on a melody or progression at the heart of each song, Varathron expand their repertoie and craft an album that speaks enough of a contemporary language to dominate that style with the vocabulary of the older era, invoking both a return to and a continuation of the past. While the influence of the present time makes itself known, it remains under control of the guiding forces behind this band that seek to open the imagination instead of gratify self-image, and as a result more possibility emerges here than in other contemporary works.

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Witchblood – Hail to Lyderhorn (Aurora Australis)

Attempting to uphold the values of classic black metal while introducing to them some of the more recent developments in tradfolk-inspired music, Witchblood combines the catchy attack of Venom with riff technique from mid-90s black metal and adds its own voice, which consists of equal part narrative bardic style and an idiosyncratic ability to make memory-haunting tunes. The result features a range of techniques from the history of metal, including NWOBHM-inspired riffing right alongside streaming tremolo picked melodic riffs, but this band makes it work by keeping focus on an essential melody in each song paired to a vocal rhythm designed to deliver a foot-tapping chorus, as bands like Sodom or Destruction did years ago. The result takes the Venom school of metal, upgrades it with black metal, and restores it to a 1980s delivery that is both clear and dark and then infuses that with the type of ancestral identity and epic sensation of purpose that arises from folk music. Through this, Witchblood creates its own form of metal that shows clear roots in much older traditions.

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Woodtemple – Forgotten Pride (Sacrilege)

Showing more of an influence from Following the Voice of Blood era Graveland, Woodtemple return with a more focused version of their flowing black metal. In the past, the music more resembled flowing hills in a landscape of vast breadth, but now greater internal contrast makes what is portrayed closer to a mountain range with ragged crags over deep valleys. The addition of floating female vocals and gentle keyboards allow the band to put more aggression into guitars and bass, keeping vocals semi-backgrounded which produces the effect of reducing the “human” feel to the music. As a result, songs come together with more focus, making this the clearest statement from Woodtemple yet made. Like most metal in this style, Forgotten Pride creates an effect of distance from the human world, isolation and a focus on the larger picture through a lens of large leaps in time, but now creates another hypnotic effect in a distancing from humanity itself. This band, while not a Graveland side project, features Graveland composer Rob Darken on bass.

Album of the Year 2014

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Sammath – Godless Arrogance (Hammerheart)

Godless Arrogance features nearly constant high-intensity rhythmic riffing and finally has a production to match which emphasizes internal harmony but projects vocals and guitars to the forefront, creating an enveloping wall of sound. Drumming is violent martial battery without the happy kickbeat tendencies of overly rock-trained drummer; percussion here is more like punk, hard-driving intensity to channel the guitars, which alternate between abrupt chromatic confrontation in the Demoncy style to gentle unfolding melodies much like were found on Strijd. Bass folds into the guitar, and vocals are the high-volume bluster that reduces distorted vocals to a sound like a whisper spoken close to a microphone in high wind. The result is incessant and unrelenting but also has an inner life of melody that gives it depth and allows it to manipulate riff context like a death metal band while evoking ambient atmosphere in the best tradition of black metal. For resurrecting the black metal spirit of great beauty hidden within massive aggression and alienation, Godless Arrogance deserves to be seen as the best album of 2014.

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Atomic Aggressor – Sights of Suffering

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Calling a band “technical” — not to be confused with musicianship as popular circles frequently do — creates general indifference among those accustomed to seeing this term used as a selling point. The industry generally uses the term for bands that cannot compose meaningful songs and so encrust them in adornments of musical acrobatics, creating artistic Potemkin villages which offer a cornucopia of musical fireworks on the surface but emptiness beneath. Many believe that musicality is only valid if the artist consciously intended to give the music a certain technical quality. This could not be further from the truth.

The best music has often comes from technically competent artists, but this does not mean that their music is guided by a handbook of rules, but the other way around: they use technical flair to elaborate on the ideas that motivate their music. When an musician has a superior talent for organizing notes into melodies, aligning melodies into harmonies and building sections that flow and speak to one another as seemingly essential parts of a whole, this process can be reverse-engineered by a clever and knowledgeable analyst. But like software reverse engineering itself, we only arrive at technical explanations about the originating commands that give the result its nature, not the programmer’s feelings, train of thought or the content they hope to communicate through their art.

Morbid Angel Altars of Madness is lauded as as a young genius’ masterpiece born out of raging emotion and unprecedented innovation in the then-young genre of death metal. Only new or superficial fans of the genre are oblivious to the achievements of this album that go well beyond mere historical relevance. Whether or not Trey Azagthoth planned each twist with the implied theoretical knowledge behind them is not important, although we can assume he may not have because such fervor as these pieces present is only possible coming from the deepest well of human emotion. Yet scrutinizing of them at several levels reveal logical explanations for the impact, drive and fluid development that they showcase.

As a short example we may take a look at “Chapel of Ghouls”. The song itself can be explained as using E major as its main or home key. As in classical music it ventures into the parallel minor and uses off-key passing tones for color. The most important of this is the fact that the guitars in the recording are tuned in E-flat standard tuning, which means that the repetitive muted strumming of the open low string consists of strumming the D (enharmonic equivalent of E flat) note, the seventh in the scale of E major. This gives the chugs a malevolent and dissonant feel. Another thing that should be mentioned is that the first two riff clusters in Chapel of Ghouls are quite unstable, each being in period form (antecedent and consequent phrases which mirror each other, but only the second one resolving). These riffs do not resolve convincingly (they do not land on either the tonic or the dominant when the consequent cadences), giving these both a satisfying feel and a need to continue and be completely resolved which appears to the listener as a will forward instead of a complete thought. This resolution is achieved on the third riff which finally leads to the tonic, but does not rest there, avoiding the typical full-stop feeling by switching into the relative minor (thereby using a flattened third and sixth which sound like off-key passing tones in the context of the major setting) and syncopating the rhythm while an atonal solo blazes above. And so the song is carried on with the mark of genius that cannot be now denied even by those who do not share a personal preference for the song. The songs in this album are not even remotely atonal or even overall dissonant; they make heavy use of the latter with striking effect while the atonality is reserved for solos which mark peaks and tornadoes of raw emotion that are never out of place here and which seem to be born out of the depths of this music.

Atomic Aggressor Sights of Suffering presents us with something that would be best described as a tribute to Altars of Madness-era Morbid Angel. But unlike Morbid Angel, Atomic Aggressor’s songs do not show Azagthoth’s structural cleverness and talent for directing and channeling emotion unavoidably towards strategic points in the song where powerful emotion surges. In fact, it is because this band is bent on sounding like early Morbid Angel that they are completely oblivious to the subtlety of the original composition and thus just manage to place riff after riff which sound like a more retro (sounding a little on the speed metal side at times) version of who they are trying to imitate. The vocals make this intention to imitate even more palpable not only in terms of the style of the growls but the way certain passages are emphasized or rounded off by grunts which in this far weaker music only manage to sound comical, especially if one is familiar with the original band. There is not much to say about this album because it is no more and no less than a bland, third-rate imitation.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_Lq2WEqj1o

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Satan’s Host – Pre-Dating God

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Satan’s Host create power metal with death metal influences like a hybrid of Kreator and Blind Guardian creating music in an Iron Maiden mold. Slight death metal influences intrude on riff construction in some of the songs but the majority are good old-fashioned heavy metal with speed metal technique periodically sparkled with some more extreme expressions here and there.

This two-disc set shows wide variety within those influences. Vocal delivery varies between resembling Kreator, especially on the early songs on both discs, and emulating Nevermore while sometimes adding quasi-operatic vocals in the style of Blind Guardian. The latter presents a fairly typical attempt at a democratized concept of this vocal style, which is both clueless to the subtlety in the original and what makes it challenging to compose as music.

This double-disc album displays three types of songs which are distributed evenly, as in a mirror, on both discs. The first group occurs during the earliest two or three songs on either disc and these songs resemble Kreator and in that spirit display an inclination towards riff-oriented writing with little concern to where the narrative of those riffs leads. The second group of songs comprise tracks three and four on both discs as well as track five on the first. These leave the Kreator vibe a bit in order to favor a more typically Iron Maiden feel. Here we can most appreciate the juxtaposition of the speed metal riff with the monolithic heavy metal chorus. This is not a fusion of the two, but a copy-paste of either style to fill in different functions of the same song. The third group of either disc is found on the last two or three tracks and resembles what is commonly called “progressive” heavy metal, most closely approximating post-Powerslave Iron Maiden.

The progressive heavy metal tracks may be where this release loses the most points. Slow intro, blocks of verse-chorus, then soloing-develoment section followed by incessant hammering of one idea with little creativity (like this harmless turd from Iron Maiden). Following this same Steve Harris brand of prog-heavy-metal trend we see a lot of pointless repetition with sing-along chorus (cornholish) abuse (e.g. “We’re blood brothers”). Unlike Iron Maiden who are functioning within one music style, Satan’s Host has a hard time shaping this into something with anything remotely sounding like a build up or a development that encompasses the whole song because they seem to be too busy juggling around with the show-off speed metal riffs and over-the-top Heavy Metal choruses. While riffs and are often developed and moved forward and transitions are always fluid and seldom abrupt there is always a lack of convincing development. It is present, it is just not credible and sounds tired. Songs often sound like they just continue but do not necessarily reach any objective or make a statement of what it all meant.

While the mixture of styles is both comforting and challenge, it does not quite “gel” in the way it would need to for a first-rate metal album. The Blind Guardian influence brings a penchant for incessant high vocals and accompanying guitar leads which double the intensity of screeching sounds. This can be found throughout the whole album alongside a feeling of everything being cranked up to eleven most of the time, which is precisely what I find unbearable about Blind Guardian (who at least try to introduce unconvincing melodramatic acoustic interludes which only drip with cheap cheese). This is coming from a fan of old Rhapsody (of Fire) and debut-album Pagan’s Mind, bands who knew how to handle cheese with a delicacy which invests a feeling of care and purpose (especially the former at their peak) to the melodramatic work in question. Similarly, many of the “progressive” metal parts fail for the same reason that Iron Maiden has had trouble elongated NWOBHM into epic song structures: the characteristics of the heavy metal genre are assembled to support choruses, the telling of a story and accommodate climaxing solos. When you repeat them ad mortem they lose the impact they are supposed to have because the listener gets exposed to them beyond their utility. And adding a soloing section in the middle which is harmonically stagnant, as per the requirements of the genre, only increments the dreadful sense of sickening bloating. It is thus that the NWOBHM in Satan’s Host fails. This in turn makes the speed metal riff-driven music lose its impact and drive. Finally, the death metal component is not used prominently except to spice up and add to the intensity.

Each music piece must and should be judged on the basis of what it is trying to accomplish. To be more specific, on two different points: first its goal, second its means to that goal. The goal must be distinguishable. A point must be made that genres, as compromises regarding form as reflection of deeper intentions, have natural and intrinsic limitations. Following this train of thought, it seems to me like the main reason for the pointlessness and mendacity of this music lies in the mixing of NWOBHM, speed metal and small amounts of death metal flavor. There is a reason why these are different genres and it isn’t just because “some people like to box and tag everything” like the ignorant rabble who do not understand the concept of form and its purpose would like everybody to believe. These failings leave Satan’s Host short of finding an artistic voice to express what obviously are passionate ideas, causing this listening experience to fall apart half-way and not motivate the hearer to pick up the pieces and try again.

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Mindcage – Our Own Devices

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Heavy metal with melodic vocal lines, Mindcage immediately calls to mind a cross between Queensryche and Candlemass, writing complex guitar leads on top of rock-rhythm classic heavy metal riffs. This allows Mindcage to create verses which showcase the melodic male and female vocals that serve as the lead instrument in these mid-paced songs, but also facilitate the inclusion of more intense metal riffing and soloing that will please fans of middle-period Iron Maiden. The rock-based focus on vocals pulls inside-out the extreme guitar-centric attitude of most metal bands, but with Mindcage, the result stands on its own.

Much of this material resembles 1980s Judas Priest in its mix of hard-rocking verses and metal choruses but song structures mostly stay within a reversed Slayer formula of verse-intro-chorus-bridge, yet vary the length and tempo to fit vocals and so manage to remain interesting. Because of its inclusion of post-speed metal riff styles, this band falls solidly in the “power metal” category but really spans over three decades of metal in a smoothly integrated whole. Those who like the paced vocal delivery of Candlemass and the melodic development of sung lines in the sense of later Queensryche will find some familiar twists and turns interpreted in a new way. While this would not make sense to most doom-metal fans, it maintains a mood that complements the plaintive despair of some doom and despite some fast riffs keeps songs within a reasonable pace.

The strength of power metal closely corresponds to its weakness. It is listenable, energetic and can be playing in the background while conversations happen. This means however that like rock it is intensely repetitive compared to death metal, where riffs vary more frequently and instead of vocals, serve as the lead instrument in composition. Within the framework of hybrid heavy metal and speed metal with death metal technique that is power metal, few are doing as well as Mindcage at keeping musical and emotional interest high without sliding into over-the-top dramatism like nu-metal bands. These songs present themselves in two stages, first appreciating the verse-chorus loop and its variations, and second, recognizing the moment of song development in the bridge or equivalent. This allows the band to keep any radical shifts muted until crucial points in the album, which allows this to be a good listen for being who are not focusing their entire being into the music. You would find it infinitely preferable to hear this at your regular bar than the usual power metal mishmash of theatrics, insistent verses and overly bombastic choruses.

Our Own Devices may not be over-active enough in the dramatic way that power metal has come to be, nor as inspirational and New Age positive as European listeners apparently like, but the solidity of this album lies in, like Queensryche and Candlemass, its ability to build a foundation around the vocals that enhance the mood-sensation of what they present. This creates a space for the kind of epic imagination that metal has always nourished with a touch of the science fiction style of outside narrative reflecting a technology for the soul that has hovered at the edge of power metal for some years now. Although Mindcage offer a different trip than riff-based power metal, Our Own Devices shows that they are one of the higher-quality players in that very specific niche.

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Martyrdöd – Elddop

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Coming from the fusion of d-beat crust, hard rock and melodic heavy metal, Martyrdöd demonstrate a greater ability to write songs than your average underground band, both through musical knowledge and the instinct to know how to complete a song convincingly. The problem that appears out of the chaos is that these are basically all the same song since the band has such a broad approach that making it successful requires narrowing the eventual product.

Songs start over the high-speed Disfear-style modified d-beat that is played more rigidly than its original UK inspiration and so fosters a healthy environment for driving music, which Elddop offers in mixed metal and bluesy hard rock riffs for verses and At the Gates style melodic twists and turns for choruses. Over this the vocalist approximates a decent black metal vocal with varied emphasis except at the end of each phrase where he reverts to hardcore phrasing to emphasize the rhythmic hook. It is not unpleasant to listen to, and thanks to the superior musical abilities of these players is in fact a bit of fun, but it lacks anything to make a listener pick this album up again. Martyrdöd does not nail a certain feeling, a moment, an experience or an idea but rather makes sonic wallpaper of the intersection of ideas in a single experience of vague resistance but basically a desire for some hard rock riffs in a new form.

Naturally this opinion will be controversial because it is hard to argue with the better musical knowledge on this album. But in art, as in music, technical knowledge is a means to an end, and when it becomes an end in itself, it eclipses the purpose of art which is to communicate a profound realization in an aesthetically pleasing way. Elddop nails aesthetically pleasing, but by doing so in the empty aggregate intersection of many styles, creates merely a high-tech form of elevator music with crust and metal flavoring.

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Dråpsnatt – Hymner till undergången

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Hymner till undergången just misses being the black metal revivalist album that most fans hope for. Combining the low-fi approach of Ulver with the aesthetics of Windir, Dråpsnatt crafts black metal in the style we might have expected 1996-1998 from a band taking influences from the third wave of bands who broke from the past musically but not aesthetically. As a result, much of this album focuses on open harmonies over which keyboards and guitars interplay to create a sense of a busy but peaceful forest scene.

Where this album falls short — without considering whether this style is great or not — is that many of these phrases are too symmetrical or otherwise evident to provide for enduring listening. In addition, much like Ulver or later Enslaved, this band wants to become Pink Floyd, not Darkthrone or Mayhem. What emerges instead are very spacy jams where extremely obvious simple melodic death metal riffs introduce longer space-rock songs based around three notes, which means that the band repeats itself to achieve atmosphere and then goes crazy with a solo or extended bridge. As the album goes on, it becomes more atmospheric, which is a cool deepening effect sort of like the divergence from society in Journey to the End of the Night. The heavy use of keyboards allows some distraction from the pure drone but this often forces the keyboards into the role of lead instrument for extended passages, which quickly begins to approximate the kind of music they play near fountains in malls.

Much of Hymner till undergången gratifies the old-school metalhead, if that person can filter out the exuberant and sentimental clean vocals, the extended open-strum mood pieces, and the symmetrical paint-by-numbers riffing. Clearly this album gets closer on an aesthetic level than almost anything else recently, in part by understanding how to pace vocals and guitars at offset to avoid the modern metal sound and develop depth. It possesses a familiar texture and rhythm, develops about at the pace a black metal fan would expect, and delivers roughly the right moods. It is unlikely to sustain repeated listens in the way the classics of this genre did, and the transition to atmospheric rock halfway through makes it an unpleasant reminder of the fate of all good, hard and valid music in a world that seeks flattery for the consumer instead.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7XTS_aIlZSQ

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Daed – RaEP

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In metal, the “-core” suffix tends to mean a derivation from the endless stream of hardcore-infused and relative similar styles of music. But in electronic music, “-core” implies something different entirely, and in glitchcore band Daed this term takes on its original meaning as music that adopts the strictest standards for its own integrity and rejects the touchy-feely impositions of what the audience thinks it wants. Would you believe an audience survey? Neither do glitchcore artists.

Like metal, this genre — which sounds roughly like someone tuning an analog radio, switching between stations rapidly — takes an idiosyncratic look at life through music that aims to unsettle, provoke and disturb. Deriving its roots from the rapid pace of drum ‘n bass with the hip-hop penchant for sampling widely and forging it into song, glitchcore makes a collage of existing genres and thrusts them through a filter of someone holding down the fast-forward button. Daed takes on this genre by giving it a unique structuralist mindset where the samples and glitchy patterns seem to represent a voice bleeding through a cognitive barrier and manifesting in different forms, rather than many different voices only incidentally in tune. Sampling wildly from chiptunes, classic techno, hip-hop, found sounds and many electronically mangled raw sonic forms, Daed creates the equivalent of walking through a busy cosmopolitan city and seeing all of the different options and chaotic divergences, but through the same eyes.

What makes RaEP interesting is its tendency to pick up all these bits of scattered music and reinvent them, weaving skeins of other influences through the bunch. The Autechre-inspired tendency to find a place of peace after the chaos through which beauty flows, itself derived from one of the seven ritual stages of a techno set, manifests itself in many of these tracks. Some would compare this to Squarepusher without the reliance on fingers to keep up with the urgent percussion, allowing faster motion and more dramatic tempo changes. No vocals mar this style except those which are sampled, processed, re-sampled and distorted again. Like a high speed inner dialogue, this music deconstructs its world and itself to find commonality between these many bits and its own unique, personality-rich perspective.

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Stargazer – A Merging to the Boundless

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One of the great divides in metal music separates those who approach album making as holistic artworks in the tradition of European classical music, and those who view an album as a collection of songs in the tradition of old and new popular musics. If one takes the former route a certain artistic liberty is acquired that allows the artist to leave songs that occur in the middle of the album open to the possibility of continuation through incomplete conclusions.

Great Death Metal albums with work-oriented organizations like At the Gates The Red in the Sky is Ours and Morbid Angel Blessed are the Sick strategically position songs early in the album to serve as introductions to the album as a whole. An excellent and illustrative example outside metal is Ludwig van Beethoven‘s String Quartet Opus 132. Conceptual works also require a strong topical orientation, often including different styles or even wholly different genres which can be united under a topic that is not only general (music has no direct mappings to our mundane world) but also specific (music can evoke precise moods and auras that some might say lie in the world of ideal forms) and clear (so that it is apparent to the listener). Undefeated masterworks in this area are Johann Sebastian Bach‘s Mass in B Minor and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. This can be seen in the barely satisfactory conceptual realization of the otherwise great and inspiring The Voice of Steel by Nokturnal Mortum, more effectively (and miraculously, given the wildly different genres associated) solidified in Peste Noire’s L’Ordure à l’Etat Pur and more recently in the young Colombian effort of a more poetic nature and epic proportions Nadia by Cóndor.

If a band chooses the more simple song-collection method, it must again abide certain rules in order to maintain any semblance of reason because proper music, inspired, must go through the filters of reason to attain their greatest expression. These are born out of the whole of the mind, not just uncontrolled emotion, but rather harnessed emotion. Songs must be self-sufficient. Each song must be brought to satisfactory conclusion by both harmonic and rhythmic means appropriate for the nature of the song and of proportionate dimensions in relation to the rest of the song so that it wraps up the musical content as the ending of an essay brings the topic to a rational resolve. The song must have a parallel relation to that of the holistic conceptual artwork. The simplest way of attaining this independence is by simple Rondo form, or popular verse-chorus song as Iron Maiden does in unforgettable albums such as Powerslave or Slayer in South of Heaven. Epic Power Metal sometimes chooses to borrow a little of the concept-album emphasis of the former approach and effectively come to one type of middle-road arrangement; a good example of this is Rhapsody’s Power of the Dragonflame.

Despite all their technical competence, like many other modern metal bands StarGazer takes neither of these paths and instead attempts to aggregate random elements without linear order. Stylistically within the metal universe, A Merging to the Boundless draws from the old school technical death metal such as Atheist (especially in the way the bass is handled within the jazz-metal framework, although they let it get out of hand into more explicitly jazz-like outbursts) and pre-Covenant Morbid Angel (a stark reference to Morbid Angel’s Brainstorm can be found in the fourth track of this album, Merging to the Boundless). Under the guise of Avant Garde, which is essentially a claimed right to disavow any of the conventions of the genres from which they derive their music, StarGazer use these genres as a container for unrelated, distracted riffing.

What this and other modern bands fail to realize is that certain conventions are in place as essential part of the genre and are inextricably related to the aesthetics that superficially define it, and when you forcefully rip the latter from the former, you end up with a non-functional husk that can only serve as wallpaper. StarGazer still shows much more local-level coherence and sense than most in its neighborhood and certain structuralist conventions of old school death metal are followed, such as the use of a motif to unite a song, although this occurs only in the first two tracks with looser instantiations in other tracks. The band can be credited with generally being able to fuse influences into the the particular Avant-Garde sound they want to reflect, even if to a connoisseur of the genre the influences are a little too obvious, with the jazz and post rock limbs sticking clearly out amidst the clear and separate death metal ones like a Frankenstein monster whose stitches are clearly visible.

The other major genre that surfaces in this album is a form of lite jazz that results from bringing jazz into post-rock/metal. This is unified under the pretense of making progressive music. This progressive element is sometimes pulled out with a hint of the old (late sixties and early seventies, peaking in bands from England) real prog-rock art of smooth, logical transitions and clear progression (as in track five, “The Great Equalizer”) at least in some stretches of the songs. Unlike the old prog-rock art and the classical music it emulates, StarGazer does not make a clear enough division of main and subsidiary material and thus it sometimes feel like it is lost and wandering in its own compositions. “The Great Equalizer” stacks random ideas and unnecessary out-of-hand variations within the post-rock-sludge territory in lieu of composition, joining a long line of poorly realized music that purports to be progressive. A Merging to the Boundless crosses the line into pure jazz with metal overtones in sections of tracks (“Old Tea” features soloing jazz bass), and in this same thought goes beyond that and into post-rock ambiance which consists of strumming or picking chords once and again. In this same spirit the opening of “An Earth Rides its Endless Carous” is very reminiscent of Animals as Leaders in its plain and unrefined yet very affected obvious use of scales and arpeggios in a way that barely describes theme and melody but rather just runs up and down like a kid playing on a flight of stairs. In the last three songs, the more prog-attempted side of the album are rather inconclusive and feel overextended arising from what I can only judge is sloppy high-level design. After the fifth track, a return to simple, late Morbid Angel-style Death Metal with a pseudo prog twist brought on by interpolating Sinister-style riffs feels like going back to something that was already said in the album. If “Ride the Everglade of Reogniroro” were arranged before “The Great Equilizer,” it would probably only sound slightly redundant with what came before. I have this same impression of the last (poor-prog) track, “Incense and Aeolian Chaos,” that makes use Animals as Leaders plainspoken use of scale that morphs into old-styled prog/tech death metal that is wordy (faster notes) yet not more dense in content.

In the end analysis, A Merging to the Boundless wanders everywhere and thus goes nowhere. Songs suffer from clever low-level (local) arrangement and poor high-level (long distance relations and overall progression) design, which results in their structure being entirely cyclic or not having a clear direction in the long run and being inconclusive. Cyclic songs have rather forced endings while the more prog-oriented ones just dissipate into nothingness. This last thing feels as if someone takes you to a walk in the forest, strays from the past and just disappears, leaving you in the middle of the forest with no purpose or direction.

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Angist – Circle of Suffering

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In theory, Angist play death metal, but in practice it sounds like what would happen if you took a basic 80s glam metal song and dressed it up in brutally distorted power chords and repetitive high-speed rhythms. The essence of this band is droning, insistent rhythms mated to riffs with melodic undertones that spend most of their motion in accidental notes around the basics of the chord progression.

The repetition alone could crush the skull of a listener, but that in itself is not “heavy,” only boring combined with catchy. The result is a feeling of obligation in churning through the repetitive structure and riff styles. The vocals insist on a circular pattern as well which creates a monolithic grinding aura which presents itself well, but then in invariant intransigence proceeds to normalize itself as a backdrone. Fortunately little frippery interrupts the otherwise solid stream of riff but in the end, this acts more like Chinese water torture than death metal: catchy, repetitive, cyclic grinding wears down resistance and then introduces a kind of tedium in which the mind perks up for any variation, only to lose sight of it as it gives way to more of the same.

Were this album to vary its approach to tempo and more selectively use its melody, it might achieve the kind of internal contrast that creates anticipation and release. Instead, it marches onward like the doomed traversing dystopia on their way to some utterly pointless activity. For that feeling, you could just listen to an air conditioner or rough idling engine and get the same effect.

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