Oppression – Sociopathie & Glorie

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Punk music, in all of its myriad strains, was an integral foundation of black metal. The sense of strong alienation coupled with a conflicted youthful exuberance towards the future was shared between both genres, in addition to technical specificities. As black metal burned through its trajectory and splintered into its various initiatory parts, it became clear that a punk foundation to the genre would be a logical ground for renewal.

It’s here that we find French-Canadian band Oppression. 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. This is a solid debut, which bodes well for the band as they refine their craft into the future. 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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6l5DzNDgiFE

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Codex Obscurum – Issue Four

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Many of us old school death metal fans watched the rise of zine Codex Obscurum with growing interest because it, like Glorious Times and Underground Never Dies!, represents an attempt to look back at the underground and figure out what made it as powerful as it was. Part of the answer is selectivity, which is a gentle person’s form of “elitism,” meaning that one selects quality over quantity and vigorously promotes and defends the quality. This is what zines did, what radio shows did, and what labels did, back in the day, by choosing some bands over others. The vague smell of blood in the air is the shadow of long-forgotten predation and natural selection that also shaped us as humans, which means not so much “survival of the fittest” but that all who make a meaningful contribution get kicked upstairs and everyone else is forgotten.

Codex Obscurum represents the best kind of selectivity because it targets bands of note but does so broadly, thus you avoid both the “hey kids, everything’s great!” attitude of the commercial providers and the narrow perceptual slot of the kvlt vndergrovnd. This issue advertises swamp death metal band Autopsy, second-wave crust band Doom, cavernous old school death metal band Blaspherian, multifaceted heavy metal/folk band Primordial, melodic drone metal band Sacriphyx, abrasive occult death metal band Father Befouled, Icelandic modern black metal act Svartidaudi, and several more. While not everyone may like (or admit to liking…) these acts, the spread makes it clear that both broad-minded attention to music itself and a high level of standards apply here. This explains why the editors of such a zine might want to go underground and stay there, where they are not beholden to the ugly cycle of advertising revenues and thus being asked to pimp the latest platter of re-heated Carpenters tunes spray-painted with the vaguest appearance of “metal.” Indeed, Codex Obscurum is funded entirely by user purchase price, which is why for $5 or so this arrives at your door with no ads.

For the uninitiated, this zine presents the old school zine style in every detail, which is both practical and a nice atmospheric touch. The hand-numbered issues, the xeroxed pages complete with copy artifacts, occasional typos and sometimes surly answers to perfectly reasonable questions by bands who clearly have done too much press lately, all factor in to the appeal. Use of cardstock for the cover gives this issue a more permanent feel than older photocopied heap zines had, which shows a positive advance of technology. Similarly, quite a few of these interviews seem to have occurred through email, and the use of office software to lay out the zine makes it more readable. The rest is pure old school, from the writing style which is both personal and projected into the mind of an idealized metalhead, looking for that nearly indefinable quality that makes a metal band distinguish itself as a classic in the making rather than news of the week.

The primary content for Codex Obscurum is provided by its abundant interviews, which are conducted in a familiar yet inquisitive style, like the best of Joan Didion-influenced hip journalism before it forgot the word “investigative” in its title. These questions aren’t all softballs like you would expect in a mainstream magazine, but sometimes force bands to confront their own internal struggles for self-definition. To their credit, most of the bands here rise to the occasion and reveal their thinking and intentions in the actions they have taken. The Doom interview is particularly revelatory as the interviewer walks the band through the past and makes connections to consistent patterns across their career. The Autopsy interview makes for a stunning read since it is Eric Cutler giving a candid and somewhat aggressive portrayal of where the band is and how past events shaped their present outlook. The Svartidaudi interview goes in-depth into how this band is struggling to find its own voice while under onslaught from the many trends of current black metal, despite being inspired by the best of the past (which is different from being inspired by the past alone). One oddity that would be called a “quirk” in any less just-the-music-ma’am magazine is the lengthy interview with the creator of the RPG Cave Evil, which accompanies the amazing artwork from that game with a nearly existential exploration of the purpose of RPGs themselves.

Profanatica “Thy Kingdom Cum” (Hell’s Headbangers)
Disingenuous.
You cannot defile nuns
While wearing sweatpants.

The sizeable block of reviews at the back of Codex Obscurum show where this zine is determined to keep its hand in the current music industry. Any band that is roughly connected to old school death metal and black metal, with a wide spread because of open-mindedness, qualifies for inclusion here. These reviews take a conversational outlook which seems too removed from the music at first except when you realize that it’s gonzo journalism of the first order. When writing about metal, don’t pretend you are not a metalhead; it’s a lie. Further, think of what you like and then extrapolate to what others like. It helps them shop for music. It also avoids troubling pretense and complications as reviewers try to get more “in depth” and end up producing thousand-word inspections that result in no clear conclusions. Here, the conclusions are clear — in fact, one section even puts them in Haiku form — and give roughly the kind of synopsis one would get from an experienced record store owner, label head or producer, issuing forth a rough summary of the band, its importance and its staying power and audience, in about a sentence each.

For the past several issues, Codex Obscurum has reserved its final pages for experimental content. In this case, it is facially an inspection of why a famous metal musician flaked on an interview… and beneath the waves, a deft revelation of the disintegration of the underground into warring self-interested parties while no one keeps their eye on the wheel or the road. That leaves the future of the genre up in the air, since everyone is too busy cashing in to steer, and the results are about as you might expect: all the has-beens in warmed over hardcore, emo and indie rock bands have rushed through the breach and set up shop making parasitic versions of the older material, except nowhere near as good. Codex Obscurum shows a good way to reclaim the past of the underground for the future, namely to start paying attention to the steering again and to be unafraid to be selective and to not give reasons why some bands simply suck. Just be honest. The editors and writers here have given it their best shot and it makes for not only informative and entertaining reading, but a glimpse into the old days without the smarmy fug of solicitous nostalgia for marketing purposes that normally hangs around such ventures.

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Twilight – III: Beneath Trident’s Tomb

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Commercial black metal. Oh dear.

Advertising agencies would like us to believe that Twilight is a “black metal supergroup”; but looking at the list of musicians involved, there isn’t much to do with black metal, let alone a noteworthy record within that genre. If there was a desire to be accurate, the band would be billed as “a group of musicians without much in common, to whom we rented a studio and told them to make something that we could promote”. It’s here the band succeeds…but not anywhere else.

The only thing (fit for print) in my mind while listening to this was: “How long does it take for something experimental to become established and lethargic?” Really, there is nothing new on this album. Noise rock was done in the 80s, stoner rock spawned as well, caveman moshcore flourished in the 90s, and linear, monotonous, American “black metal” has insulted eardrums for over a decade. We all know what these genres sound like. Mashing them together and adding constipated vocals does not constitute a new art form. It is not experimental or new. Nor is it worth releasing.

The most disheartening aspect of this release is that most of the musicians involved are talented to above-average degrees. Unfortunately, none of it comes through on this release. They (and us) would be better served heightening their unique take on their own art form, instead of limply moving to this unremarkable, bland middle-ground…but that doesn’t pay the bills.

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Dead Infection – A Chapter of Accidents

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The simpler the music is, the harder it is to execute in an interesting way. The best of grindcore rises to this challenge by inventing ways of making texture expand upon a simple riff idea. Like grandmasters Carcass before them, Dead Infection use a gurgling bass deluge to convey a hidden complexity.

A Chapter of Accidents benefits from its concept, which is anchored in lyrics, and gives to each song a different set of needs because each is a short narrative or story relating an unfortunate and often miserably ironic incident. This bends the song structure to the story, which consists of a setup, a quandary, a revelation and a conclusion, and thus allows the band to adapt its grinding riffs to a simple but not simplistic process of development. As in most grindcore, the main riff repeats with interruptions; some of these are offsets, which are like counterpoints formed of different shapes or rhythms, but others are deviations to small motifs which represent parts of the story. As a result, most of what you hear when listening to Dead Infection is one powerful, thunderous and bounding riff that breaks for contrary views, thought-detours and development by layering, where drums or guitars either double-time or vary texture to add complexity.

Where Carcass is slower and is based on what sounds like 1930s-1950s music translated into power chords and made ironic with grotesque lyrics, Dead Infection is more like a troupe of mercenaries backpacking through the mountains on their way to set up an assassination or coup in that it is self-contained and for its own purposes only. It sometimes plays with riff motifs from the past, like heavy metal riffs reduced to their simplest essence, but essentially it is its own thing: a vocabulary of grindcore adapted to this type of worldview. Combine that with the vocals that sound like a dog guarding the gates of hell, and you have a formidable but thought-provoking package.

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Mortuary Drape – All The Witches Dance

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Mortuary Drape resembles Emperor in its focus on the more bombastic elements of black metal. Mortuary Drape takes a more heavy metal flavored take on the genre, similar to Root or Master’s Hammer.

The speed metal influenced riffing which dominates most of this album lends further credence to that comparison. The mix is unusual for the time as well, in that it de­emphasizes the guitars in favor of the bass and vocals. Guitars are still present, but thinner than one would expect from speed metal and not trebly enough to make one think of black metal.

Church bells, a pipe organ, female vocals, and other unconventional elements are implemented, but not for the sake of these things; Mortuary Drape attempt to weave these elements into their music honestly. For the most part it works, though sometimes there are confused sections which are blatant (building/releasing tension at awkward times, staying on a particular riff a bit too long, the intro “My Soul” which goes on for a minute or so more than it should)….then again this album derives some of its charm for those very reasons.

An interesting influence appears to be movies such as Susperia when listening to the orchestral intros and interludes. This contrasts well with the theatrical atmosphere of the songs, giving the feeling of a sort of morbid operetta. Though not as essential as the Norwegian classics, this is still a strong, if not somewhat peculiar, album that while sometimes shaky is a good choice for those interested in the different angles of second wave black metal.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CuKmGAK0U48

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War Master – Blood Dawn

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War Master attempt to create a new form of the classic death metal and grindcore that defined the underground metal period. Taking their name from a Bolt Thrower song, the band might be expected to sound like that august act, but the truth is more nuanced. War Master make a language of their own from pieces of the past.

This language can be confusing because many of these pieces of the past are recognizable, although never entire songs, so that War Master tend to pair an old riff archetype with a new riff of their own creation, or use song structure or aesthetic ideas but apply them with new forms. As a result, parts of this are immediately recognizable and it takes some moments to mentally integrate the past with the current version of the same form.

On Blood Dawn, a fifteen-minute EP, War Master drop back from their smoothly integrated style for a rougher, catchier and more Swedish death metal version of their sound. Applying the classic Swedish distortion, War Master also rely heavily on the bounding riffs of the first couple Entombed and Grave releases, producing an urgent and jubilantly violent sound.

The result is a new style for War Master that is both more hasty and, by being more raw, a bit more accessible and yet more fanatically old school. This compares favorably to the latest Autopsy which takes a similar approach. Simplified song forms, although not the verse-chorus loops of pop fame, plus catchy riffs like the most compelling heavy metal at high speed, guide these songs to immediate enjoyment.

While Blood Dawn shows this band with new personnel and new strengths, it loses some of what made Pyramid of the Necropolis so powerful, which was its tight-fitting and intricate structures. If history is any guide, War Master will explore this new direction and slowly work it into form so that they can be more articulate with this new — yet older — voice.

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Sammath – Godless Arrogance

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Sammath combines the dark melodic understructure of black metal with the type of charging full-ahead death metal that Fallen Christ or Angelcorpse pioneered (which might descend from Morbid Angel’s “Thy Kingdom Come”). At this speed, the riff-salad approach of more traditional death metal would become a muddle, so the band focuses on a few ripping riffs per song and uses song structure deviations to incorporate entirely different riffs to create dialogue with the main verse-chorus pair and the Slayer-style introduction/transition riffs that accompany it.

Remarkably, Sammath has been consistent in this approach but have not found a voice for it until now. 1999’s Strijd showed an archly elegant melodic sense and underlying violence, but switched between the two much like later Entombed varied between pounding d-beat ambient riffs and architectures derived from John Carpenter soundtracks that showcased a spatial element to the music. During the early 2000s, two transitional albums Verwoesting/Devastation and Dodengang showed the band refining its rhythmic attack. Building on that past, Sammath went for guitar technicality and a more death metal approach to riffs on Triumph in Hatred but ended up losing the tendency to create an expansive spatial feel with complementary but radically different melodies in the death metal style, which uses riff to define context and then alters context for a type of continually evolving surprise ending.

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.

“Godless Arrogance” will be released February 3, 2014 on Hammerheart Records.

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Bathory – Blood Fire Death

bathory-blood_fire_deathIn 1984, the unholy triad of underground metal were born: Bathory, Hellhammer and Slayer laid out a formula that, taken together, would create the basis for all of the extreme metal genres to follow.

With first album Bathory, mastermind Quorthon and an ever-shifting cast of musicians took the lead in creating fast and chaotic music that nonetheless exhibited structure and a sense of Wagnerian melodic evolution. In early Bathory, thrashing riffs gave rise to a sense of order, instead of a flat timeline of circular repetition like the (at that time) bad speed metal imitators.

Many point to Under the Sign of the Black Mark, but others of us point to The Return as a clear departure point. A cynic could have written off the first Bathory album as imitation of Slayer and Venom, although it’s not clear Quorthon had heard Venom at the time, but with the second, it was clear a new genre was born. Quorthon then spent the next dozen years trying to re-interpret that genre so that he could make sense of the vast lead he’d taken over others.

Where Under the Sign of the Black Mark showed a more structured approach to songwriting in a mid-tempo, organized style that used the aesthetics of The Return but aimed for more easily grasped songs, the fourth Bathory album used Quorthon’s improved musical abilities to expand the black metal vocabulary to include the genres before it. Blood Fire Death incorporated speed metal influences, and with them, imported heavy metal and NWOBHM motifs. However, it did so without losing the underground metal-ness of the record.

As a result, Blood Fire Death served as a bridge between the past and future of metal. Its fast and ripping songs combined the power of Slayer and the technical guitar virtuosity of bands like Metallica and Judas Priest with the style of songwriting exhibited on The Return, where songwriting was not just rotational verse-chorus material in which the end result was the same as the beginning, but a type of narrative where the major themes arose from seemingly disordered and chaotic lesser motifs.

In addition, Bathory’s finest hour on Blood Fire Death was its Wagnerian sense of drama. Every moment of the album breathes with a sense of epic purpose, from a slow organic arising to its febrile and aggressive warlike thrashing, to a gradual sort of data into epic tracks which combined acoustic guitar with a sense of purpose and meaning returning to a modern wasteland. Thematically, it developed riffs that echoed its concepts, which were a fusion of the mythological occultism of Slayer with the Nordicism of Wagner or Nietzsche. This created a worldview in which the Christian, modern and commercial were tied together as the needs of a mindless crowd, and a naturalistic, organic and Romantic side of life was brought forth as an alternative.

25 years later we mark the anniversary of this album in the current month, but its influence is hard to track since so many have absorbed its meaning and borrowed plentifully from it. Bathory’s finest hour perhaps occurred on Blood Fire Death, but this is in the context of a discography that is one of metal history’s nodal points in which must of the past is summarized and taken to the next level. For that reason, it’s essential to appreciate this album out of context before returning it to its place within the legend and pantheon of metal.

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Deeds of Flesh – Portals to Canaan

deeds_of_flesh-portals_to_canaanDeeds of Flesh pioneered the West coast version of the percussive death metal innovated in New York by bands like Suffocation and Morpheus Descends, itself a derivative of the more textured muted-chord riffing of speed metal bands like Prong, Vio-lence, Exhorder and Exodus. With Portals to Canaan, Deeds of Flesh hope to expand their style into the future.

As a result, they’ve brought in some influences. Some come from expected quarters, like the Gorguts Obscura influence visible on many tracks, or the modern “tek-deth” borrowings. Others are more obscure: the use of background drones and electronic effects like Tangerine Dream, for example, or the repeated allusions to tracks from all of the first three Deicide albums. This tendency shows a band in touch with how stale both the old school bands currently and the entire concept of modern metal have become.

Portals to Canaan does one better, which is that it attempts to make these riffs work with another. This leads to a sort of game: how outlandish can we be and still pull it off? As a result, the guitar fireworks immediately dive into almost paranoid riffs that despite being primitive show a delicate sensibility of avoiding predictability. Deeds of Flesh love breakneck tempi, but even more, they love to break up patterns, transition through a series of barely related ideas, and then return to the original. Tempo changes explode, riffs invert themselves, and guitars chase each other oblivion and emerge in harmony.

The primary downside of this album is that it borrows from both deathgrind and tek-deth, which both include tropes that are aesthetically annoying. Deathgrind has the chromatic chugging advance while the vocals chant in double time, and tek-deth has its video-game-sound sweeps and noodly squeal riffs. Deeds of Flesh try to minimize this whenever possible, but rely on it frequently enough that it is hard to overcome. What is great about this album however is that it is able to unite its wide variety with the riffs themselves, like an old school band, and not fall into the nu-death trap of being so divergent that the only unification can be found through return to very standard song forms after short deviations.

Culminating in the epic track “Orphans of Sickness,” Deeds of Flesh Portals to Canaan offers a credible attempt to find a new path through metal. I’d rather they dropped the deathgrind and modern metal and focused solely on inheriting the other techniques they have innovated over the years, but Deeds of Flesh have converted some annoying modern metal tendencies into fertile techniques and shown how old school metal’s approach to gluing riffs together to make sensible songs can overwhelm even the modern metal influence. In addition, the use of ambient sound and innovative song construction makes this release a good listen, even if as I do you wince at the core/grind parts.

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Empyrium – Into the Pantheon

empyrium-into_the_pantheon-coverEmpyrium have cross-bred funeral doom, folk/power metal and 1980s Gothic synthpop but have removed the electronic sounds, producing an organic take on the nascent Romanticism in the modern spirit. This is music for return to the forest, but in a less aggressive form than Ildjarn or Burzum; it’s on the level that power metal fans and even Nine Inch Nails listeners can appreciate.

Into the Pantheon is a live concert in which this reclusive and only sporadically active band picks its most forest-friendly tracks and plays them in a single unified format. With production thus level between them, Into the Pantheon serves as both greatest hits and a modernization of their classic sound.

What is great about Empyrium is how well it meshes. Vocals are dramatic and funereal in the way that Sisters of Mercy and Fad Gadget made famous, but are accompanied by light orchestration and minimal percussion, with acoustic guitars taking the lead. At crucial points however, the full power of the fulminant distorted guitars take over and create a surge of energy but unlike rage, this is directed at a dark and melancholy place like a contemplative forest walk in twilight.

Empyrium win fans over through their musicality and a vision of doom metal that is tasteful and elegant. Unlike Candlemass, vocals do not dominate the music but appear as a complementary effect; unlike more modern doom bands, guitars are not over-active or musically flashy. Instead, here there is the art of classic songwriting, on a subdued pace that emphasizes beauty emerging from within in the clash of darkness and light.

Where a funeral doom band like Skepticism overwhelms with a poignant morbidity, Empyrium is more like the music which has traditionally emerged from popular off-mainstream European artists. It’s heartily personal and heavily emotional, but could easily transition from this genre to an acoustic performance in a pub near a lost mountain path, or in the court of a king. It has an eternal character to it underneath the modern genrification.

Empyrium has not given many public concerts, and we are told that this 2011 recording represents the return of the band to active life. Hearing how emotional and yet violently lusting for life these anthems are, it makes sense to want this band to continue with its renovation of metal. Not all will take this path, but its outlook can be infectious, and improves on the three-notes-to-rage formula that mainstream forces wish it would take.

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