Fanisk – Noontide

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Normally I refuse to review NSBM because in my view, if your politics must be understood to like the music, the art has failed and we have ventured into propaganda. Nonetheless I attempted to listen to Fanisk because so many people swore by its value, including those I respected.

Let me quickly set your fears to rest: this is a band endorsing Nazi sympathies which can be entirely forgotten for reasons of artistic content, independent of any message it may carry. Unlike Darkthrone, Burzum, Morbid Angel, Incantation, Infester, Graveland, Mayhem and other bands which have flirted with the triskelion, Fanisk is a proficient form of terrible that combines post-metal, excellent neofolk keyboards, and boring droning black metal with chromatic fills elevated to the level of riffing as happened on later Gorgoroth albums. In many ways, this is like neo-Nazism itself: a backdoor by which low-quality material can declare itself faithful to The Cause and achieve inclusion to social circles that were denied to it before.

The best part of this release are the keyboard intros and background Summoning-style keys which accompany the slighter guitar riffs to fill out the atmosphere, although sometimes these mistake the mood are come across as inappropriately cheerful in the style of Master’s Hammer. If Fanisk stitched together the keyboard-heavy parts of this album they would have a killer 15-minute song, but as it is you have to listen to post-metal melodies set to black metal textures, which establish a good energy and atmosphere then fail to figure out where to take it, and substitute chromatic fills and bouncy crowd-pleaser riffs to try to take it home. Obviously the Deathspell Omega style has had a huge influence here but it is similarly directionless.

The only way to fight politics in metal is to call out these bands on their garbage. Christian metal is garbage, SJW post-hardcore “enlightened metal” is boring and directionless, and this festival of NS fidelity and love lacks a purpose as well. With Burzum, the Nazism came out of the art and a hatred for the mediocrity and cowardice of humanity; here, the band heads the opposite direction, and tries to invent the art out of the Nazism and collected impressions of what is hip. The result is uninspiring.

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Destroying Divinity – Hollow Dominion

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Cross Immolation Here in After with a modern brutal technical death band like Deeds of Flesh and you have arrived at the starting point for Destroying Divinity, who specialize in a barely controlled chaos of exuberant ripping and high-speed charging Krisiun-style riffs channeled into violent and athletic songs. Hollow Dominion clocks in at just over 33 minutes but packs in at least two albums of riffs.

Like most percussive metal bands, a great deal of the focus on Hollow Dominion involves use of choppy muted chords to emphasize a riff pattern and then varying that texture to create a kind of parallax shift sensation, allowing a melody to slowly emerge. Where this band excels is in packing together these riffs so that each change relates to the riff before it, and every riff fits in the song, but the song still makes sense with enough variation to avoid trope. If they have a failing, it is that many of the chord progressions used in these riffs are rather linear, which creates a heavy chromatic effect but also some predictability. Generally however the band manages to introduce its songs with the more obvious riffs and work deeper until it has subverted them with more interesting patterns.

Brutal death metal will not find a fan in every listener. It relies on cadence, trope, repetition and basically pounding the listener into her chair with solid slamming percussive riff after riff. In addition, Destroying Divinity pick up a number of techniques from Immolation such as the guitar squeal, recursive rhythms that simultaneously relax, and a tendency to use higher-string chords to offset the guttural vocals and pounding bass-intense riffs. In combination these two forms show metal as more of a series of patterns than a convention sense of riff-chorus, which makes this album a welcome antidote to the highly repetitive and circular songwriting of modern metal. With great intensity Hollow Dominion creates a world of vast internal diversity and then populates it with conflict, delivering death metal satisfaction with brutal death metal rigor.

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Digging further into Abscession Grave Offerings

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As the title suggests, Grave Offerings has a lot to give. In a metal world bloated with copycats, have-beens, hipsters, cultural appropriators invading the genre, imitators and true-blue kvlt types, it is rare to hear an album that is not only competent but has its own personality.

While most metal musicians focus exclusively on having memorized the major and minor scale shapes on the guitar neck, knowing the most common chord progressions and understanding the concepts of modulation and time signatures, the art of songwriting requires a different kind of technicality. Abscession rises above the herd in knowing the genre, having technical skills, and being able to write songs, but above that their repertoire is strained.

Almost every embellishment such as drum fills or guitar solos is fitting and never overbearing despite the obvious proficiency of the performers. This is not altogether uncommon but it is something that is appreciated by fans of proper music, as opposed to what my good friend Dionysus would refer to as “guitar-shop metal” or the kind of guitar tricks you show your friends but that get old really fast on an album. Grave Offerings displays a variety of Svenska Dödsmetal influences which range from the early foundational bands like Nihilist, going through Carnage, stopping by Entombed for an infusion of Death n’ Roll inclinations and all the way to fully-fledged Gothenburg sound while avoiding sounding like any one of them all the time and occasionally bringing out a voice of its own, although not often enough.

Abscession have the artistic sense to make the songs stay within an idea without wandering off topic. At the same time they do this too zealously and the music always remains so close to the germinating idea that it seems to shy away from any great variations lest they be seen as foreign. Since the songs are, on a general level, verse-chorus pop songs, there is a need for subtle ventures outside the strictly familiar to distinguish each song with a purpose unique to that song. It must effectively convey that purpose through its free expression (the previously mentioned ventures) parting from its stable basis (what was referred to as established idea and “known territory”, not foreign) as one needs a vector to have two points and a direction to effectively communicate information.

When a more distinctive idea does surface it often does so with scherzando overtones — playful, bouncy, not grim — which I find unpalatable in the context of the rigid intensity of death metal and especially in the context of Swedish death metal. This aura has traditionally replicated that of old school horror films in the best of cases and at worse has been borderline cartoonish. By indulging in the more humoresque-like passages Abscession ends up crossing the line into explicitly comic territory. This usually happens when the Death n’ Roll facet of Swedeath is explored as exemplified by the fifth track on the album: Blowtorch Blues.

Both while listening to Grave Offerings for the first time and after having listened to it seven times at the time of this writing, I had the strong feeling that the first four tracks were more than enough: there’s virtually nothing else added by the rest of the album. All in all, if we are going to allow ourselves to give safe mainstream metal from Scandinavia praise for some originality and inventiveness within their miserable sellout constraints, I would be much more inclined to extend this courtesy to the latest album by Björler’s At the Gates (as opposed to Svensson’s At the Gates): At War with Reality.

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Warfather – Orchestrating the Apocalypse

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We can look at objects as their surface traits, or attributes they have in different categories at different times, or look at them as shapes (or even forms) which manifest themselves in those attributes. When this logic is applied to genres, we quickly see how complex the term “death metal” can be.

If you ask your average journalist about death metal, s/he will start listing off descriptors, like heavy distortion, guttural vocals, intense riffs, blasphemic and occult topics. The implication will be made that all of these things together make death metal and yet, four average musicians could bash out an album of Dolly Parton covers using those attributes in an afternoon and it would be no more like death metal than the original.

What holds death metal together is its internal language where riffs correspond to structure. The process of assembly, called “riff-gluing” by Bob Bacchus of Soulburn/Asphyx, means knitting those riffs into a narrative where they both comment on one another and lead to a series of mood or atmosphere changes in the whole which suggest some kind of event, realization, journey or gesture. With this approach, the death metal style of riffing is inevitably invented, as is the need to have vocals take a background role and guitars to lead and dominate over drums, bass and vocals. Even if death metal had zero influences before it, if people set out to reinvent it based on that idea alone they would end up with something a lot like underground death metal.

Warfather combines the charging high-speed riffs of Angelcorpse, the abrupt transitions and chanted choruses of Hate Eternal, and the love of sweeps and odd melodic twists of post-metal and metalcore. In doing so, it loses sight of what makes death metal a whole, and instead takes the pieces it finds most convenient and makes out of them something else. Because this something else lacks a centrality, it must choose between being so chaotic it becomes boring or so repetitive that it becomes boring. Warfather choose the latter and pound out catchy choruses and verses with strident rage guiding the vocals, but have nothing to unite them while seeking to break them up with flourishes to disguise the lack of development. Songs do not ramble, but charge in different directions and then resume back at the starting point before fading away. While there are some good riffs on here they are lost in a void of context. The end result is organized disorganization where all the pieces fit together and mean nothing.

On paper, Orchestrating the Apocalypse seems like it would offer everything a journalist uses to describe death metal: the riffs, the vocals, the loudness and perhaps even the blasphemy. As a listening experience it misses the intensity of death metal by a mile through focusing on these surface traits and missing the motivation to put them in a meaningful order that made death metal so terrifying, mindblowing and vertiginously exciting. All that remains is to finish this review and move on.

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Empyrium – The Turn of the Tides

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Empyrium started as a metal band, but they have become a band with its own voice that uses many styles including metal where they fit in each song, much like it might use a technique. Elements of traditional European bard styles, Gothic, neofolk, ambient, neoclassical and metal meld in this emotional but dark atmospheric band.

These melancholic and beautiful songs run longer than average because they focus on creating a mood, generally with piano and lush keyboards as the primary instrument complemented by vocals, and then working through it much as one might take a walk through the Black Forest, looking up into the trees as a new thought becomes familiar and finally fleshed out, then fading away like the dying light of day. Guitars and death metal vocals appear when they create the desired effect of aggression and passionate rage for balancing to what is otherwise a yawning abyss of tragic sadness. Like doom metal bands such as My Dying Bride and Skepticism, Empyrium work hard to balance moods that otherwise would become monolithic and all-encompassing, using variations in mood to strengthen the theme of each song much as Dead Can Dance do in their longer epics. The result is a mellow and gentle sound from which the bottom falls out and a void emerges, only to become absorbed by a general sense of narrative and development. This album is both easy to listen to and a hard place to want to go, but provides the perfect background to certain acts like driving in the rain, contemplating old pictures or burying an entire family.

While the metal content shrinks with every Empyrium album, the use of metal as a voice strengthens because it appears only when crashing guitars and guttural distorted vocals give presence to an idea within the song, possibly showing us where metal will be in another decade if it continues abolishing itself. What makes The Turn of the Tides of interest to metalheads is that these songs reflect many of the same emotional journeys you might find on a Summoning or Graveland album but are taken to a more expansive viewpoint through the use of other techniques as well. Fans of atmospheric black metal and doom metal alike will find Empyrium interesting, as will any who find the manipulation of mood in layers of atmosphere to provide a compelling listen.

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Phlebotomized – Immense Intense Surprise & Skycontact

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People forget that the 90s were among other things a pervasively trivial time, which was one of the things that death metal was rebelling against. We finally got over the terror of the Republican 1980s, and the ex-hippies took over and that meant we were due for some good times. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure satirizes this best with its view of adult society in Southern California as completely oblivious, obsessed with the inconsequential and generally wrapped up in itself without any purpose or direction to life beyond consumer glory.

Immense Intense Surprise reveals this mentality of triviality, which is the concept that you can take something very ordinary and cover it with shiny objects and unique, ironic and different (UID) adornments and somehow it will be transformed into a revolutionary idea. This is not so: the underlying idea remains in control. In the case of Immense Intense Surprise the underlying idea is that same alternative rock that everyone else was pimping back then, but they have dressed it up as bouncy technical death metal of the Afflicted school, meaning that you will not find any epic or amazing melodies or song constructions here, only technical tricks on guitar and keyboard.

To keep us distracted, Phlebotomized constantly change layers of vocals, synths, drums and lead guitar that sounds almost plasticine in its tendency toward “chaotically” repeated similar structures. And underneath? Quite a few hard rock and classic heavy metal riffs reborn, some influences from 70s rock, and a bit of death metal that as with all ill-conceived hybrids, builds itself around the vocals. Notice also the novelty song structures. This release distracts from a missing core with a surface level of weird, much like so many people distract from their absence of soul with “interesting” personalities.

Not all of Immense Intense Surprise & Skycontact — a combination release of two late 1990s albums — is bad. Much of this material shows insight in songwriting and an ability to craft a good tune. Phlebotomized interrupt themselves on the way to a good song by instead of finding a voice for their many influences, trotting them out in serial fashion, creating the kind of “variety plate” music that fails to endure over time. Think, people: there is a reason these albums went out of print in the first place after haunting the sale bins of used record stores across the world. Surface-based music does not endure. They were not alone in their quest for experimentation. Bands like Disharmonic Orchestra, Supuration and Mordred were each trying to re-invent death metal by mixing in influences from previous genres. The problem with such a conflicted approach is that it destroys the voice of the genre which had achieved clarity, and replace it with the usual modern grab-bag of options unrelated to a purpose.

Phlebotomized put out an earlier album, Preach Eternal Gospels, which spent quite a bit of time in my CD player during the 90s because it was good, solid B-level boxy death metal. Bands at that level either accepted second-tier status and moved on, or became consumed with the desire to be the next Dismember or Morbid Angel and so embarked on a path of accessorizing their music to make it stand out. Their only real problem was that the mainstream rock discovered that tactic long before they did, and they were better at it.

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Abscession – Grave Offerings

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Abscession appeared on the metal scene with a mission to bring the power of Swedish death metal to a stagnant scene. After a promising demo, “Death Incarnate,” Abscession return with a full-length Grave Offerings that expands upon their earlier strengths to make a solid Swedish death metal album with melodic touches but a few weaknesses that could sabotage its enjoyment by others.

On “Death Incarnate,” Abscession offered a great sense of melody and of place within each song, building up riff iterations like scenes in a horror film leading to a dramatic reveal. With their first full-length Abscession demonstrate the ability to write melodic songs that create a sensation of atmosphere and then bring it to a peak, uniting the song in a moment of clarity based on the journey encoded in its prior riffs. They draw from a template of Bolt Thrower, Dismember, Unleashed, Amorphis and early Therion in this ability but expand upon it with their own voice. Each song on this album possesses a point of focus and some form of internal content that guides its development, which avoids the “songs about being songs” problem that many death metal bands have. This radically cuts down on disorganization which can blight a metal album, and creates a sensation of descent into a dark world which deepens as the album progresses. Hardcore death metal fans may find the second half even more interesting than the first.

Where this album falls down is in the tendency to incorporate hard rock and death ‘n roll elements in some of — key point: some of — the riffs. These tend to focus on bouncy riffs like the Pantera style from the 1990s but without the angry bounce, more like a pop-music style that infects the brain but detract from the overall power of the song. Further, the vocals tend to synchronize too closely with riff and especially with chorus rhythm, and unfortunately are produced in such a way that they expand sonically instead of remaining focused; a bit of reverb and a filter on the microphone might help here. These are minor problems which probably keep this album from being an automatic keeper, but nonetheless it remains a powerful musical force that is immediately recognizable as its own entity and not merely derivative and celebrating that fact to recruit an audience as recent “true old school Swedish death metal” albums have done. Notice also what appears to be a Havohej tribute in the first riff of the second-to-final song.

Death metal fans will find this album relevant because this band actually write songs, have a flair for the kind of theatrical yet meaningful atmospheric changes that Celtic Frost pioneered, and demonstrate overall high levels of musicianship and songwriting. Many will be put off by some of the bounce riffs or Motley Crue-styled hard rock riffs, but these are as mentioned above a minority of what is on the album. Amazing for its ability to invoke the past without rehashing it from an outside view, Grave Offerings shows a powerful future for this band and proves itself one of the most memorable releases of 2014.

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Sepultura and Les Tambours du Bronx – Metal Veins: Alive at Rock in Rio

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Had Sepultura taken this direction instead of the path they chose on Chaos A.D., they would have receded into rock history as legends and not warmed-over attempts at former glory that got swallowed by their attempts to popularize a form of music that is inherently against all things dictated by popularity and illusion in the heart of the individual.

As every write-up on this band will tell you, Les Tambours du Bronx are a sort of Blue Man Group from New York whose shtick is to have a dozen men banging on samizdat percussion instruments, most visually impressive when made from 55-gallon drums and malleted with baseball bats. Like Crash Worship, on whose fame they surely predicate their own but with an intent for a more public spectacle, Les Tambours du Bronx put on a show that is as much visual as audial. They team up with Sepultura, playing its crowd favorites from Chaos A.D. onward into the post-Max years. The result shows a great deal of promise that with a nudge it might live up to.

To make this a great release, they would have dropped the vocals and given Andreas Kisser more time lacing his lead guitar through the riffs like a jazz player covering an old standard in a new interpretation. They might have allowed Sepultura to do what they do best, which is to write a string of ear-snagging riffs in a riff salad that nonetheless makes sense, and let the rhythm of Les Tambours du Bronx carry the songs entirely. This would have given the music an intense ritual air with primal undertones that belong to no tradition and fuse the modern with the energy of antiquity. Instead, as usual, there are too many chefs stirring the pot, or as it might be said for metal music, too many influences warring for dominance. Random industrial noises and squeals, the ranting pseudo-death vocals of Derrick Green and other attempts to impose rock-style song structure onto this open jam limit its power.

Since leaving speed/death metal behind, Sepultura have sought a way to become a Ramones for heavy metal, playing simple riffs that unite a carnival crowd and bring people to a point of energetic focus. Similarly, the style of percussion on this album creates a massive feeling of unison especially as it internally deviates from the archetypal rhythms it sets up for the audience to follow. Together these make for a spectacle, but the musical intensity is not here mainly owing to the lack of focus on the Sepultura side. Instead of trying to use outside forces to accent their own music, they should adapt their music to complement those forces and through mutuality, achieve something new. Metal Veins: Alive at Rock in Rio as a live album makes for dubious listening owing to the muddy sound, but with this being basically a “we’re different” stunt using nu-Sepultura in unchanged form, it offers little for repeat listens.

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Winterfylleth – The Divination of Antiquity

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When something great passes, people stand around wishing for more of those moments of power and beauty that it brought. And so we get the black metal equivalent of Django Wilson and his Electric Band Play the Hits of the Beatles, except that now it is a black metal version which revisits the greatest moments of early Gorgoroth through a filter of Ancient and Graveland. Nothing here is poorly executed but the whole misses the driving spirit of black metal that gave it its profundity and instead works on recombining known tropes that once gave it great intensity.

All of the classic attributes are here: the minor-key trailing melodies, the bombastic resurgent themes, the shifting between riffs conveying a sense of hope and thus returning to a feral despair, but the animating force that holds them together does not appear. Like a musical version of Frankenstein’s monster, The Divination of Antiquity is the most beautiful black metal album ever made from pieces of its best, but it lacks the soul to see beyond the immediate and material and touch the conceptual ground of actual black metal. Winterfylleth make songs with the basic feel and sensation of black metal, but without the intention behind it, they never develop to any conclusion sufficient for black metal and instead detour into the semi-circular wistful feeling that indie-rock and post-metal — both witnesses to the decline of human society in lugubrious ways, but helpless observers and not soul-participants in the counteraction — create that are the artistic equivalent of euthanasia. Like back, watch it happen, relax and let the waves wash over you. It will all be over soon.

As the album progresses, The Divination of Antiquity starts falling back on more rock and jazz tropes to supplement its diminishing store of black metal landmark moments. The result is pleasant to listen to and evokes many of the old feelings, but like uncompleted thoughts they linger in conversation outside the French coffeehouse and dissipate on the car exhaust and cold air of the morning breeze. It would be wonderful to find in this “what once was,” but that would be the equivalent of concluding the recent Star Wars movies will have the impact of the original out of nostalgia, and ignoring the obvious missing elements which, and not its accessories and techniques, made the original so powerful.

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Incantation – Mortal Throne of Nazarene

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When people mention death metal bands, they cite a short canon of Morbid Angel and Deicide. If this album had been of higher quality, Incantation would be the third on that list. Following the immensely powerful Onward to Golgotha, Incantation stood poised to take over American death metal with their unique sound and quality songwriting. On Mortal Throne of Nazarene, the band took a huge dive into a lesser category and were as a result bypassed by many fans.

Many factors may have influenced this decision. Relapse Records was at the time trying to grow large enough to be on par with bigger labels like Earache and Roadrunner. Incantation despite having a stable line-up benefited from the contributions of past members such as Paul Ledney and influences from other East Coast bands. Immense pressure was brought to bear on the band to make another Onward to Golgotha two years after their first album, during a time when rumored internal friction caused lineup changes and the semi-permanent departure of drummer Jim Roe and loss of bassist Ronnie Deo. As a result, those two years may not have represented the length of time the band had to write, incubate and revise this album.

Immediately noticeable is the primal flaw of this album: chord progressions and melodies used in fills are more obvious, or cut more exactly from scale patterns, which gives it an almost sing-song vibe at times. Rhythms are less fully integrated which causes the band to attempt ambitious forms but then fall back on relatively brown-wrapper metal tropes. The band incorporated many of these tracks with rhythm re-written on their followup EP The Forsaken Mourning of Angelic Anguish where changes in pacing and arrangement made them far more effective. This confirms much of what listeners felt, which was that Mortal Throne of Nazarene may have been completely written but it did not undergo the revision, editing and incubation process that mellowed Onward to Golgotha into a finely honed shape where no detail was extraneous and all parts worked together toward the impression conveyed by each song. Relapse promoted this album as more “technical,” back when that buzzword was new, meaning that there are additional chord shapes used and some difficult tempo changes, but it was not as well-integrated nor as purposeful.

Mortal Throne of Nazarene overflows with good ideas but they do not work together toward an end, and parts of it like the last half of Suffocation’s Breeding the Spawn sound like chromatic fills in regular rhythms that the band intended to revise later into full riffs with unique modality and rhythms more carefully enwrapped in the need of each song. Vocals are stunning as usual, production is much clearer, and individual performances show musical maturation and the type of learning that comes from having influences among historically important metal bands. Some songs remain standouts even in their partial form like “The Ibex Moon” and “Abolishment of Immaculate Serenity,” which shows the band perhaps coming together at the end of their song process, or having intended those since the beginning to be the bedrock of this album but having been lacking time to make the rest. But unlike Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, this album is not just unfinished but incomplete, and the result shows in the mixture of random and predictable that obscures otherwise powerful songs.

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