Sacrilege – Turn Back, Trilobite

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During the 1980s, multiple metal movements existed in parallel. The genre birthed itself a decade before and almost immediately got merged with hard rock, only waking itself up with the NWOBHM in time to avoid total assimilation. In the next decade, it diversified.

Sacrilege emerged from the UK proto-crust scene and transitioned slowly into metal as most of these bands did when, musical basics familiar, they sought to use their new artistic powers for more precise communication. The band put out a trio of albums before lapsing in the early 1990s. Turn Back, Trilobite was the third of these and showed the band leaving its punk roots behind entirely to explore a doom metal style. This release prompts comparisons to Candlemass because in its pacing, use of percussion and even vocal melodies it evokes that long-standing doom band.

The notable differences here are that Sacrilege sometimes slides into ludicrous hard-rock riffing that immediately pushes it into the background, and that one of these guitarists clearly listens to quite a bit of Metallica Ride the Lightning which shows up in some of the muted-strum double downstroke work here as well as in the Hammett-inspired lead guitars which use falling scales to produce lengthy solos from relatively consistent structures. This effect works better with the shorter solos on Metallica but here often becomes too symmetrical and rambling, but otherwise, adds a greater efficiency to some of these songs.

People like this album, and it is hard not to, because it is ambitious. It touches on tropes from jazz, rock, folk and hard rock in addition to its basis in heavy metal, and by using doom metal pacing, allows itself more space over which to stretch out vocals and riffs, installing a greater range of rhythms. The problems with this approach are that in many ways the band were not ready for it. Too much of this album is comped in with 1970s hard rock riffs, the vocalist for all of her range tends toward very similar patterns (which fits with the Ozzy-Marcolin range of vocals), and too many of the rhythms and riff shapes are similar, causing navigational difficulties for the casual listener.

As a random find in a record store on a rainy Saturday, this album provides some good listening because its ambition creates a world our brains can explore despite its failings. Like most doom metal, Turn Back, Trilobite relies too much on predictable and repeated tropes for enjoyable regular listening. The greater emphasis on “emotion” in doom metal tends to mean a narrower range of mood, and as a result the album flows past like tapwater more than distinguishing itself with the cornucopia of tropes it applies. That and the obvious Metallica derivations paired up with mediocre riff patterns excluded this one from running for the big time and shortly afterward, the band members excluded themselves to do other things. With the right producer to enforce some editing and variety, this could have been a massive release.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BOqcF2-41fc

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Slayer – Show No Mercy

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On December 3, 1983, a force of unparalleled musical terror was unleashed upon a more innocent world. Combining the high speed strum detached from percussion used by Discharge with the architectural riffing of Judas Priest and the melodic understructure used by Iron Maiden, Slayer created a new style of heavy metal which exceeded all previous efforts.

While Show No Mercy sounds tame compared to later Slayer effort Reign in Blood (1986), for the time it revolutionized metal and punk alike. Most metal of the era was still recovering from the mid-1970s slump that occurred when Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin were hybridized into a new rock-based style, manifesting after a brief revolution in the NWOBHM as the usual lowest-common-denominator crowd pleaser in acts like Motley Crue. Slayer brought back the longer phrasal riffs used by Black Sabbath and through the tremolo strum added greater flexibility and detached chord changes from the beat of the snare, which allowed the guitar to dominate composition and relegated drums to timekeeping. This in turn gave the band more options for varying riffs within a phrase and escaping the verse-chorus pop radio song format that had infected metal in the previous years.

Even outdoing other hardcore punk/NWOBHM hybrids like speed metal bands (Metallica) and thrash (DRI), Slayer created a fury that could also be beautiful. To this they added a mythological view of humanity and the ongoing collapse of Western civilization, placing us into a mode of viewing it as a conflict between good and evil with the prize being survival more than a spiritual state of obedience. In doing so, Slayer laid the foundation both musically and topically for the future death metal genre, while also spurring speed metal on to greater intensity. Most of what we cover on this site would not have existed when it did without Slayer and contemporaries such as Bathory, Hellhammer and Sodom who opened the gates to this new style.

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Powerlord – The Awakening

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When people want to say something “controversial” but inoffensive about metal, they talk about how great 1980s speed metal was. I beg to differ: that music had a few standouts but for the most part was exceptional only in pulling metal out of its 1970s slump into audience-pleasing hard rock, and most of it was boring and repetitive like the punk on which it was based.

Powerlord create a functional hybrid between Judas Priest and early Metallica with The Awakening, but songs develop more like the middle-of-the-road heavy metal of the 1970s. Like dolphins swimming, songs dive from surface to chorus and resurrect, with perhaps a bridge but often just a break, and then do it again until the end.

Nostalgia for the 80s seems misplaced when listening to this 1986 recording re-mastered for a new generation, or the 40-somethings who want to recapture some of the joy of youth by purchasing things. It completely fails here, because the 1980s were essentially a hybrid time. Caught between the salaryman mentality of the 1950s and the licentious 1970s, with fear of the ugliness of the late 1960s resurrecting, the 1980s showed America pulling itself apart between two extremes, those who wanted to join with the Soviets and those who would rather die by nuclear warfare than yield to them. This created a powerfully unstable social climate but also meant that to stay in the middle, artists had to focus on the trivial. From that you get goodtimes metal like Powerlord which avoids hitting anything too hard, but repetitively tears into known quantities that the audience has been proven to enjoy.

Some say The Awakening helped found the power metal genre. Aside from the fact that power metal means “speed metal,” this statement may be true but does not change the fact that this music owes more to its 1980s backdrop than to heavy metal itself. It repeats itself, goes nowhere, and while not fully random like bad metal, also has no internal dialogue and so seems really pointless unless the sound itself of repetitive downstroke riffing makes you excited.

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Solefald – Norrønasongen Kosmopolis

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Norrønasongen Kosmopolis proves to be a fine album in a style only tangentially related to metal, but fails to rise to the point of making me want to listen to it again. Folk music can be comforting, sometimes interesting, but is usually known for being participatory, that is a group of people around a campfire singing as part of a ritual.

Solefald come to us from the entertainment fringe of folk, which here is a combination between the bands that play in the background at a Renaissance Faire and the kind of music that might be used in a low budget Romantic comedy to establish that the characters are indeed in Norway. Norrønasongen Kosmopolis features songs composed in layers, such that the band sets up a repeating pattern and then other instruments layer within that while vocals between male and female trade off, chanting lyrics of apparently great lutefisk significance.

Then it breaks into this with dinner theater style dramatic breaks where other vocalists join in abrupt transition to another pattern, like the scene has changed or perhaps the lyrics have referenced something terrifying, like a moose roaming free in the local churchyard. All of it is well-executed, with pleasant flutes and string instruments, and the vocals are elegant, but the artistic intention behind this is confused. It tries to organize itself around vocal events which do not work without visual cues, and it specializes in the kind of sing-song rhythms that work best with a “Little Vikings” playset or uncritical audience at the aforementioned Renaissance Faire. When metal guitars intrude, it is as a background instrument that makes the mix louder without adding much of musical note, which makes the vocals even louder.

At the local pub, these songs would be more fun to sing if their parts fit together in a method that allowed people to remember them and have fun experimenting within that known framework. Instead, we get a serial sequence of repetitive frameworks which change randomly for reasons unrelated to the music. That probably qualifies as “progressive” in the dissolved metal scene of today, but in reality, it is the kind of drama that attracts pretentious people looking for something mentally easy to digest. The result guarantees tedium for those who dare notice, and comfortable but random background music for the rest.

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Blaspherian – Upon the Throne​.​.​.​of Eternal Blasphemous Death

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Texas old school death metal (which is to say, “death metal”) band Blaspherian return after the triumphant Allegiance to the Will of Damnation with a two-song EP showcasing a newer style which is both more brooding and more raw, chaotic and abrupt.

These two songs show the Celtic Frost influence in the way riffs are arranged to contrast one another, as if by competing groups of demons howling blasphemies across a chasm in Hell, each building the intensity of its own blasphemy based on the statements of the others. “Awakened Into Impious Absolvement” starts with a relatively simple charging riff, than breaks into another one and picks up the narrative there by adding textural variation, then creates an interplay between competing riffs that allows a return to the original pattern with greater strength. “Phoenix Of Uncreation” on the other hand shows a fully intense influence of early Incantation (most intensely “Profanation”) by building from a fast riff to an extensive doomy passage which is developed into a series of mid-paced riffs which alternate between the textures already introduced, as if preparing us through a long journey for something revelatory found at the end, which comes through an atmospheric detour into a riff played at the pace of doom metal with the fast death metal strum. That creates an otherworldly atmosphere which is resolved in return to earlier themes which like a snowball build intensity with each break and restatement. The song ends in blazing fury as its contrary impulses collide, culminating in faster and streamlined versions of earlier patterns exploding into a final theme.

Upon the Throne​.​.​.​of Eternal Blasphemous Death shows Blaspherian exploring its roots in more idiosyncratic and chaotic death metal with the application of songwriting principles learned from the last full-length. This creates a more moody sound and one which requires more from the listener, but like the more polished works reflected on the unpolished days of their demos, resurrects the sense of a detached and irrational world manifested through evil intent.

    Tracklist:

  1. Awakened Into Impious Absolvement (5:58)
  2. Phoenix Of Uncreation (5:30)

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Blaspherian – Upon the Throne…of Eternal Blasphemous Death

blaspherian-upon_the_throne_of_eternal_blasphemous_death

Texas old school death metal (which is to say, “death metal”) band Blaspherian return after the triumphant Allegiance to the Will of Damnation with a two-song EP showcasing a newer style which is both more brooding and more raw, chaotic and abrupt.

These two songs show the Celtic Frost influence in the way riffs are arranged to contrast one another, as if by competing groups of demons howling blasphemies across a chasm in Hell, each building the intensity of its own blasphemy based on the statements of the others. “Awakened Into Impious Absolvement” starts with a relatively simple charging riff, than breaks into another one and picks up the narrative there by adding textural variation, then creates an interplay between competing riffs that allows a return to the original pattern with greater strength. “Phoenix Of Uncreation” on the other hand shows a fully intense influence of early Incantation (most intensely “Profanation”) by building from a fast riff to an extensive doomy passage which is developed into a series of mid-paced riffs which alternate between the textures already introduced, as if preparing us through a long journey for something revelatory found at the end, which comes through an atmospheric detour into a riff played at the pace of doom metal with the fast death metal strum. That creates an otherworldly atmosphere which is resolved in return to earlier themes which like a snowball build intensity with each break and restatement. The song ends in blazing fury as its contrary impulses collide, culminating in faster and streamlined versions of earlier patterns exploding into a final theme.

Upon the Throne​.​.​.​of Eternal Blasphemous Death shows Blaspherian exploring its roots in more idiosyncratic and chaotic death metal with the application of songwriting principles learned from the last full-length. This creates a more moody sound and one which requires more from the listener, but like the more polished works reflected on the unpolished days of their demos, resurrects the sense of a detached and irrational world manifested through evil intent.

    Tracklist:

  1. Awakened Into Impious Absolvement (5:58)
  2. Phoenix Of Uncreation (5:30)

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Einherjer – Av Oss, For Oss

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Very few albums are truly horrible in the sense of doing something every moment that repels the senses. Instead, they are just bad, meaning inept at achieving an effect, often to the point where you wonder why no one questioned the attempt somewhere in the process.

Av Oss, For Oss could well be the missing Alestorm album. Its songs always revert to bouncy faux-Nordic style that might fit a Disney ride or guest musicians on a motorized Viking longboat tour of the marshes of Louisiana. Musically, nothing here is incompetent, but it also lacks any inspiration and plods along with nothing to offer and then loses track of itself, and falls back on the same shorthand. There really is no point discussing the album beyond saying that because no album can redeem itself from that point.

I remember acquiring an early Einherjer album which people swore was just the bee’s knees. Hipsters really talked that way in the past but thankfully they’ve moved on to newer phrases like sui generis and “off the chain.” Back then it seemed unfocused but short. Av Oss, For Oss just seems like people sketching out a rough guideline and then writing to fill, and when they get something that qualifies, never looking back. Hit record, then print, and hope some money wanders in the door.

What is really missing here is a sense of proportion and of the parts relating to one another. Instead we get a random flow of boring riffs put together in nonsense order with heavy repetition and when the song goes nowhere, as said above, it falls back on a few patterns these guys really like. Individual parts are well-executed but without energy or flair, which makes me think this band should just break up and donate members to better bands who need competent people to fill basic roles. They are far from alone, since post-1994 black metal generally sucks, but this album just double-underlines the point and then writes it, Bart Simpson style, in endless repetitions down the chalkboard.

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Blodhemn – H7

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Black metal surrendered to a farce back in the mid-1990s. This farce took the surface ideas of black metal and used them to enclose the same old crap that rock music had been passing off for at least two decades at that point. Blodhemn resurrects those glory days with an album that is not just random, but boring, and completely pointless.

H7 consists of songs about songs. That is, these are songs written by someone listening to black metal and trying to make a version of that, instead of attempting to understand the cause-effect relationship that pushed Norwegian musicians in the early 1990s to create some of the most epic and interesting music that heavy metal has ever seen. That is not to say that this album lacks moments of interesting riff, or transition, but that these things are put together into a package that drones through repetition and “unexpected” expected changes, linked up with riffs that are boring because they are predictable.

In these songs, careful attention to what black metal bands did in their glory days shows through in a penchant for certain dramatic riff types and transitions. These do not make the song, and frequently Blodhemn introduce a promising start then take it nowhere, either dropping into paint-by-numbers riffing or the post-Ulver carnival style where riffs do not relate to each other but provide “contrast” which ends up producing a song devoid of emotion or anything else that requires consistency, development and purpose. Vocals fit the trademark late-90s Norsecore rasp and many of these riff archetypes come from the proudest moments of Satyricon and Darkthrone. In particular, percussion shows a diligent understanding of how Fenriz produced a throbbing intensity of sonic force that swept listeners up into its mystery.

Unfortunately, no amount of doing the parts right can save H7 from its destiny, which is as a summary of the techniques of black metal without delving into the content that those bands labored to provide. As a result, even when promise emerges, it soon becomes lost in the flow of random and pointless activity. Blodhemn and H7 are good things to avoid, unless you really adore tedium and bootlicking.

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Decimation – Reign of Ungodly Creation

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Deathcore relies on trope to the point where the style becomes almost all convention with little variation within. Joining other styles like rap and techno, it reduces itself to minor deviations from a norm and so the difference between bands, albums and songs becomes less important than currency.

Decimation attempt to restore deathcore with many of the stylistic methods of later percussive death metal, specifically Suffocation Pierced From Within, and are remarkably successful in doing so but because of their extensive reliance on deathcore passages may not make the threshold for many death metal listeners. When looking through history, we see deathcore arising from the Cannibal Corpse axis where vocals lead the music and guitars exist to blat out rhythmically hook-centric riffs in coordination with drums but in support of vocal rhythms.

Decimation upgrade this to giving the guitars more leeway at the ends of phrases and between verses, where the band use phrasal riffing and open strumming to generate interest. They even write in melodic lead riffing over high-speed strumming in the way Suffocation would, which infuses these songs with a new energy but will probably offend deathcore purists. If you can imagine a hip-hop troupe who broke every other phrase to play full-on bebop, the effect is similar here in that it makes return to the deathcore that much more jarring but puts into play enough for the ears to listen to that the deathcore parts become more like rhythm comping to build up for the sweetness. Deathcore fans will note that the characteristic lack of variation in technique and approach to rhythm is consistent on the deathcore passages.

Where Decimation excels is in assembling songs around an idea despite surrounding it with a riff salad. These songs sound more composed than your average deathcore song in that they have a center and changing layout to reflect what that is, but less “composed” in that unlike classic deathcore they do not attempt to create a rhythm groove and ride it, alternating with a chorus, into the ground. Bass-intense vocals fall into cadence with guitar during verses, but range free for fills and choruses, allowing the range and texture of vocals to expand. Drums adopt the overactive style of post-Suffocation deathcore but keep an emphasis on varied internal rhythm to produce expectation rather than sheer repetition and breakdown as both techno and deathcore tend to do.

Reign of Ungodly Creation will split death metal purists. If you could listen to Cannibal Corpse alongside Suffocation and Kataklysm, this 37-minute diatribe will appeal and seem to expand on those conventions. If like many you preferred death metal before it started imitating post-hardcore, there may be too much deathcore in here for you. This perspective is entirely understandable, as the deathcore portions of this album use a few common forms in many variations, where the death metal segments vary more widely in form. It is more infectiously rhythmic and disciplined than most deathcore and so could well inject some needed life into that flagging genre.

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Witchfinder General – Death Penalty

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After Black Sabbath invented proto-metal, people mixed together hard rock like Led Zeppelin and came up with a new hybrid they called heavy metal, but it lacked the intensity of Black Sabbath. The New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) fused the energy of punk and garage rock back into the music to restore the alienated energy, and Witchfinder General numbered among its strongest arguments.

Bands making music of this nature face a challenge: the entire rock community is based on making things sound smooth and grandiose in the kind of narcissistic ecstasy that people who want to be the center of attention for their 15 minutes exhibit, and this clashes with the need to sound like a combat unit taking a break to bash out a few tunes. As the Witchfinder General Live ’83 release shows us, this band had great intensity when they could focus their energies in that fashion.

While Death Penalty features the same excellent songwriting, matching vocal melodies that evoke the ambition without regard for convention that made Ozzy Osbourne the favorite Black Sabbath vocalist, and powerful riffing that expanded beyond the rock vocabulary to the side door of speed metal, the more refined production convinced Witchfinder General to play these songs more slowly and to layer on additional lead guitar and production effects to “enhance” the sound. The result is that much of the energy dissipates into a 1970s rock filter, and the production emphasizes a thin guitar tone to which the band adapts. Other than this disadvantage, Death Penalty shows us Witchfinder General at their most powerful.

Like the best of NWOBHM bands, Witchfinder General used shorter riffs than Black Sabbath and focused more on melodic guitar composition that echoed the previous generation of British heavy guitar rock. In addition, the band injected fast rhythmic riffing using a muted strum, and fast lead fills that allowed more flexibility in riff placement, but also borrowed from many of the progressive bands a more flexible sense of song structure. There will be the verse-chorus cycle, but it often transitions with a break that emphasizes some aspect of the song and allows the band to use variants of riffs for great contrast, before returning to the original cycle. To death metal fans, it may seem tame, but in the day it was a revolution against heavy metal convention, and these songs still stand tall with a power that all those artists who wish to be more polished than pugnacious cannot capture.

Much of the focus of songwriting wraps around the vocals which guide each song ably by taking the high register and infusing just enough melody into these riffs to give each passage a hook. Sometimes this limits what the band could spend its energy on, as we can hear through many of the incidental guitar passages such as the fade-out instrumental break in “Death Penalty,” but it also helps hold together these sounds which are bursting with energy and musical creativity. Much of this album sounds like later Black Sabbath with more caffeinated leads, but that is its voice and not its essence, which is a flexible view of songwriting that never loses the need for a charge of the light brigade in power chords against the pleasant illusions of the average rock fan, then or now.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uu-UW7agTkY

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