Pact – The Infernal Hierarchies, Penetrating the Threshold of Night

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When black metal first hit the big time, my first thought was that the music industry was going to do to death metal and black metal what it did to hardcore music. When I spoke this out loud, people laughed it off, thinking that nothing that close to their hearts could change. Pact proves me right to such a degree that I doubt these people will even talk to me today.

Simply put, this album reduces black/death metal to formula in the late hardcore punk style, after the music industry came in and sanitized its opinions and enforced institutional-style songwriting. It got “professional.” And here we have a band which writes like a cross between later Gorgoroth, later Mayhem and early Impaled Nazarene. Pact carefully edits its material so that no extra riffs clog this album and each riff is roughly the same quality, which is fairly high but not exceptional. The problem is that all songs are template-cut just like the pop stuff you hear on the radio. Once you have heard five minutes of The Infernal Hierarchies, Penetrating the Threshold of Night, you have effectively heard the whole thing.

Pact like modern metal style vocals but write songs like a more literate hardcore band, using verse-chorus pairs to lead into a bridge that returns to the dominant theme. They vary up the riffing somewhat by using longer riffs and contrapositing them with variations on themes, but essentially this album pounds out the same circular formula per song. Tempi do not vary greatly nor do the changes between them differ, which results in the feeling of being trapped in a procedure like a doctor’s office or traffic court. While there are a few moments of insight on this album, as a whole it serves as a standardization of black metal to the point where it is interchangeable and thus is easily forgotten even while you are listening to it.

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The King is Blind – The Deficiencies of Man

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Of all the modern metal tendencies that can be completely annoying, the insistence of vocals leading the piece takes the cake. Like rap, the music takes a backseat to whatever is being shouted at you like political slogans or advertising offers. Here the band writes a grind-death hybrid distilled to high-energy riffs under a slowly-enunciated cadence of vocals that makes for utter tedium. The problem is that the band is equipped to write two-riff songs and when they go beyond this they sense they are out of their depth and offer instead melodic metal fills.

Like all metalcore, which is as good a container as you will find for “modern metal” which follows hardcore songwriting with metal riffs, The King is Blind comes across as disorganized because it is in metal terms. In rock terms it is highly organized, with verses matching choruses in key and rhythm. The problem is that the riffs are unrelated so they serve the same role as a slow double-strummed open C in a Bruce Springsteen tune: they keep background harmony to the vocals, which are the real focus here. Except these vocals are mostly monotone. Throwing in simplified Slayer riffs just creates a circus atmosphere, as does the use of other metal technique to try to give momentum to this otherwise pointless music.

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Black Anvil – Triumvirate

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Every now and then as you sort through the massive stacks — about 3-5 per day on average — of albums submitted to this site, you find an honest-to-goodness tragedy. There you sigh and think, this could have been quite good, with a few relatively minor adjustments as seen from a decade away. Those adjustments would look major to someone in the year of the album release because they would involve violating what was en vogue in the moment, but aspire instead to songwriting that withstands the years.

Black Anvil, despite the somewhat ridiculous name, write quality death/doom metal in a melodic style that might be described as Dissection attempting to be Goatwhore. It keeps energy high with catchy riffs that vary within verses but keep choruses in pure infectious pop energy. At its heart, Black Anvil thinks like a doom metal band but writes uptempo melodic riffs instead because it aims for an audience with a shorter temporal span. Most of these riffs fit within well-recognized archetypes but are distinct enough not to evoke a specific band. Songs build around simple melodic progressions, under unfortunate vocals which blurt in the modern style but and while riffs do not create a sense of ongoing transfer of knowledge through changing atmosphere through experience, they fit into sensible songs which create a mood and deepen it before leaving it in a different state. Throughout it we get the sense of a rock band writing an album with the late-grindcore surge energy of Napalm Death Fear, Emptiness, Despair and translated into quasi-death metal riffing.

Had someone reached back from 2019 to this band, they would have encouraged them to drop the contemporary vocals and name, and would have encouraged greater variation in tempo and perhaps more aggressive riffs before leading into the Iron Maiden styled sweetness. As the album goes on, the band runs out of ideas and begins to rely more on crowd-pleasing technique than songwriting. Like Goatwhore, this is mostly catchy pop and less content, but here the frequency shifts more toward 80-20. A great album could have emerged from Triumvirate but what stands now is merely a good album which will be forgotten because it fades into the background of now-dead trends and never allowed itself to fully come to a point.

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Algaion – Exthros

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Black metal has been taken over by cocktail parties. I used to be able to say, “You know, everything but black metal is a copy of a copy at this point,” and the point would drop. Now people start digging out their Prada notepads and Christian Dior iPhone cases and rattle off a list of their favorite new (or is that “nu”?) black metal bands. I dutifully make note and brace myself for disappointment.

I was not disappointed with Algaion Exthros. That is, my disappointment was not disappointed: this albums is bad beyond terrible. Its worthy contribution can be found on the first track where the band covers one of those Greek melodies that tourists and tour guides alike recognize that a crowd will recognize as Greeky Greek, and they make it into a ripping black metal tune. It was not excellent, but it far surpasses the absolute desert of songs that one could possibly enjoy in “nowadays black metal.” What follows is an abomination of taste and content.

Taking a page from the At the Gates book, this band write melodic hooks for the verses and then have vocal hooks lead the otherwise straightforward and grinding choruses, but they keep the whole thing in rock harmony — including extensive (yawn) pentatonic leads — so that the power of all of this is muted. The vocal hooks are of the Pantera variety, which is the kind of simple song you sing to yourself when doing the laundry or trying to give your pet an enema, infectious but brain-numbing and here taken to new extremes of repetition and sing-song cadence paced with war metal tempi and modern metal style regular open-throat vocals, as distinct from the closed-throat guttural of death metal or open-throated but sonically-shaped vocals of black metal. Excruciating, this is. I weep for the landfills which have already filled or shortly will fill with this terrible, predictable, mind-destroying disc.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLBjef3ze4I

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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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