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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Profanatica – Sickened by Holy Host / The Grand Masters Session


Profanatica
Sickened by Holy Host / The Grand Masters Session
81 min, Hells Headbangers, $12

profanatica-sickened_by_holy_host-the_grand_masters_sessionFor those new to Profanatica, this is the album to get. Like the band, it is baffling, organic, unsystematic, arcane and labyrinthine. It resembles its own hybrid of occultism, blasphemy and feral Jack London/Fred Nietzsche style absurdist feral Darwinism. It is ungovernable, down to the 7″-sized packaging for a relatively plain CD.

Sickened by Holy Host shows Profanatica at two extremes. The first is Paul Ledney, the percussionist and conceptual designer of the band, with an unnamed collaborator on guitar. The second is the same drum track with contemporary Profanatica guitarist John Gelso riffing along on guitar. The idea is that the first side shows us Profanatica as it might have been in the early 1990s, while the second side shows us Profanatica now as it evolves.

The Grand Masters Session on the other hand is a CD recording of the material Profanatica unleashed as a 7″ box set, and is essentially the band in the studio covering some old classics with updated musicianship and production. This serves as a continuity for the two parts and unites the album at full strength.

Together, Sickened by Holy Host / The Grand Masters Session reveals this atavistic American black metal band in all of their glory. The motivic force is undoubtedly Ledney’s (Revenant, Incantation, Havohej) impulsive but controlled drumming, which like a ritual dance of knives lures our listening minds closer to the core of each song. Gelso holds his own with an ability to make classic and new Profanatica riffs both simultaneously awkward and unearthly and also surprisingly difficult to pull off at speed. The result is an untameable surge of raw ideas guided by the torn-silk vocals of Ledney.

This album provides an ideal introduction to Profanatica because it captures its extremes through its most evolved material, giving a quick but deep plunge into the psyche of this sonic terrorism against the civilizing forces of religion and sociability. Soon you too will be chanting blasphemies against the highest holy while engaging in ceremonial defiance.

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Profanatica – Thy Kingdom Cum

profanatica-thy_kingdom_cumThe wizards of Profanatica/Havohej experiment extensively with their music in both form and content, and as a result, their releases are widely varied with differing degrees of success as listening (as opposed to “theoretical”) experiences.

Thy Kingdom Cum, the most recent offering which will be unleashed by Hells Headbangers Records on November 26, unifies the threads of Profanatica by being noisy and avantgarde in its blasphemy and song structures while keeping focus on fast-paced black metal with melodic undertones and creative riffing.

Like Impaled Nazarene’s Rapture, Thy Kingdom Cum re-interprets black metal in the late-1980s ideal of fast single-string riffs which combine hints of melody with unrelenting energy. The result is like a hybrid between industrial music, punk and Wagnerian classical: great towering themes emerge from riffs that resemble bent bits of wire or the symbols on schematic diagrams. You may notice similarities to proto-black metal like Sarcofago here.

Profanatica as usual do not shy away from blasphemy but unlike some past works, on Thy Kingdom Cum they’re not writing protest rock; they are here to enjoy the blasphemy and this demonic relish gives this album the playful sense that made 1991’s Dethrone the Son of God so thoroughly a forbidden pleasure. What you’re hearing is musicians having fun raising hell, even if underneath that humorous pleasure is a deadly serious message.

Like early Havohej, Thy Kingdom Cum is fast and simple and abrades the ears with intense riffs and unique but compressed song structures. Like the band’s musical peak in Profanatitas de Domonatia this newer work shows a dedication to producing depth of music in addition to pure noise and evocative rhythm from the ever-adroit Paul Ledney drumming.

Where Profanatica‘s last album, 2010’s Disgusting Blasphemies Against God, ventured into pure textural rhythm and a grinding atmosphere, this newer incarnation of the band shows more dedication to highly motivational ripping metal riffs and through periodic melody in a shorter version of the style on Profanatitas de Domonatia, an expansion of the relevance of riff structure beyond rhythm.

As the ongoing story of Profanatica/Havohej evolves, Thy Kingdom Cum will likely be remembered as a unification of their more cerebral esoteric black metal with a digestible and intense form that conveys their message like pastoral landscapes carved in flesh. As such, it may re-awakening blackmetal to its roots.

Tracklist:

  1. Ruptureholyhymen
  2. Foul The Air With Blasphemy
  3. Denounce Him
  4. False Doctrina
  5. Definite Atonement
  6. Thy Kingdom Cum
  7. Ropes of Hatred
  8. Water to Blood

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Satyricon – Satyricon

satyricon-satyriconWhat do musicians do when the drive to create has vanished?

When the label is clamoring for something new, does the band bow down and fulfill the request, or do they uphold standards? Black metal in particular has struggled with these questions for over a decade, with a myriad of responses. Some have chosen to retreat completely, seeking refuge in the wild.

Some have become exasperated with the genre, turning to electronic music before returning in glory. Others have waged war on modernity, risking well-being in pursuit of these goals. However, the greatest number have bowed to the wishes of the crowd and released a product that was quickly forgotten, which is where Satyricon’s self-titled album falls.

Embodying all that is lazy and lethargic, Satyricon is an excellent example of modern black metal ethos. Black metal only on the surface, the album is musically a hard rock/heavy metal album designed for max promotional appeal. Simple riffs with obvious sequencing, simple implementation, and solid production produce a well-shaped package that undoubtedly will allow the band to increase its commercial influence.

Sounding like a tribute to Fallen-era Burzum‘s minor-chord noodling but lacking even what little sense of spirit that album possessed, the band chucks in references to pop and blues cliches as if the label funded a study aimed at producing the most cookie-cutter album conceivable, then shared the results to the band…and let’s not delve into the collaboration with Sivert Høyem.

There is nothing here for readers of this site to enjoy, except for the more morbid members among us. This album goes nowhere. It has nothing to impart. And perhaps most damning, it’s not even terrible. It is simply a non-entity.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HPXnnTUl48Q

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Cóndor – Nadia

condor-nadiaOne of the enduring critiques of modern metal bands is their lack of stylistic coherence. The mashing of various genres and influences over the course of an album with no unifying principle produces a product that is difficult to absorb from start to finish.

On their newly released album Nadia, Cóndor attempt to solve this dilemma by creating what may best be described as contemplative metal. Composed with a purpose, the metal sections of the album album consist primarily of low-to-mid-paced riffs ranging the gamut from doom, death, and black metal. These are complimented by influences from progressive rock, in which tonal contrasts add nuance and a way of connecting differing parts within the album.

What this band does well is elegantly shaping this vast array of influences into a package that is understandable and actually enjoyable to listen to. Everything is structured with care and attention, avoiding the “genres in a blender” sensation that many of their contemporaries produce. Throughout the span of a single track, snapshots of each moment lead organically into the next, while low-pitched vocals provide a sturdy framework and induce continuity. At the conclusion of the album, the listener feels as if he experienced something meaningful, which is at the heart of metal and unfortunately is something that often seems missing among contemporary bands.

Curmudgeons (of which the author admittedly is) will initially be put off by the non-metal elements and unorthodox structure. However, when viewed in context of the whole, these fall into place and do achieve meaning within the album, producing something both the strident Hessian and modern metal fan can appreciate.

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The Ruins of Beverast – Blood Vaults

the_ruins_of_beverast-burial_vaultsThe worst reviews are the ones that say a band is right in the middle: “They do a few things well, but there’s not really some unifying theme, so this album is great if you’re a huge fan of those things they do well.”

A better review reflects conflict. This is one of those reviews. Dear Ruins of Beverast: you have potential, but you need to edit your material. In a huge way. In such a huge way that I don’t think most people will finish listening to this album. And change the name. What’s wrong with “Beverast” instead of a sentence-band name?

Many of the ideas on this are great. However, they’re spaced out with filler that amounts to repetition of some very tired ideas. Further, this allows this one-man band to gimmick its way through, so instead of carefully composed songs we get extended interludes that do nothing but dilute the mood. When The Ruins of Beverast decide to shred, the result is bare-bones riffs that build up to a climax.

After that, confusion reigns, so this composer avoids that point. That in itself is a mistake. Building to a peak requires a snowballing of intensity, and that produces the type of dynamic change that made black metal so much fun. But after that, what must be done — as in any Tolkienesque journey — is to Romanticize the quest and then contrast the end result to the inception.

If songs don’t lead to a path that shows a clear growth process, they become circular. With circularity, the conclusions resemble the precepts. That means that we’re hearing sheer atmosphere pieces with no actual development, since any “development” that is created doesn’t uncover a mystery or lead to new heights, but plunges back into itself.

This composer is afraid of his own work. When he writes a good riff, it takes him to some point where he must go somewhere with it, and that freaks him out. What’s there? It might just be darkness. But in the darkness he does not see romance, only permanence. So he goes back to gimmicks with chanting, distorted voices, interludes, etc. It strips him of his own strengths.

If someone took the twenty minutes of promising material from Blood Vaults and arranged it with some verve, the result would be three to four very powerful songs. Instead we have an extended detour into pointlessness that sacrifices the best abilities of this songwriter to his worst fears.

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Carcass – Surgical Steel

carcass-surgical_steelFrom the opening dual guitar harmonies straight out of 1985 that bring to mind the live intro to a Europe or Stryper set, it’s obvious that this album will be more in line with the guitar hero pop-metal of Arch Enemy than anything from Symphonies of Sickness or Reek of Putrefaction.

To some degree, that’s to be expected. Carcass threw in the towel on forward momentum long ago (1991) and have resorted to playing up their namesake for the purpose of phoning in stadium metal for the aesthetically overblown Wacken age, and Surgical Steel is perhaps their most commercially flexible attempt at filtering late model radio format speed metal through a death metal aesthetic filter, where actual death metal technique is limited to tremolo picking, blast beats, and Jeff Walkers vocals.

Carcass joining an elite cadre of financially successful bands by doing so, starting with At the Gates’s Slaughter of the Soul and even Pantera’s Far Beyond Driven. Let me state it again for those who wish to be millionaires: the appearance of being an outsider to a society nearly universally loathed by its inhabitants, with an underhanded delivery of comfortingly familiar derivative works that by their obedience affirm the social order, will always be a financial success. It allows the appearance of rebellion with none of the actual costs. It’s like artistic insurgency tourism.

Surgical Steel ends up being a mix of Swansong‘s Thin Lizzy-isms applied to the framework of songs like “This Mortal Coil” and “Doctrinal Expletives.” These songs have more to do with Mike Amott’s recent Wacken pandering than anything on Heartwork. “A Congealed Clot of Blood” resembles a “revisited”, more uptempo version of Swansong‘s “Don’t Believe a Word” and the last song, brings to mind the best years of Sanctuary with its sentimental melodic guitar intro, or evokes the Overkill ballads “The Years of Decay” and “Soulitude” with its emotional framing and pacing.

Some tracks like “Cadaver Pouch Conveyor System” attempt aggression by utilizing the same speed metal meets extreme music technique as “Carnal Forge” from Heartwork, but with the obvious “money riff” effect of the dual harmony guitar part that is the focus of these songs. The reversion to old lyrical themes (based off the song titles and album artwork) seems like misdirected fan service as these songs would probably win over more people from the Century Media crowd if the lyrics had the same simple “emotional” topics that songs such as “No Love Lost” had.

While this album may appease the simple appetites of those who merrily purchase Arch Enemy and Children of Bodom albums, many songs try to deviate from the verse-chorus stylings with an overloaded, ill-fitting bridge that detract from their simple nature. This divided nature may keep Surgical Steel from being as successful as recent Hypocrisy or Slaughter of the Soul in the arena of stadium faux-death AOR metal for drunken Wacken attendees.

Again, we say: if your heart is no longer in death metal, don’t bother. Start up a project band and transition into progressive rock, classic rock, or whatever it is that actually appeals to you. Explore your new musical pathways. It’s just as much a sell-out to try to “stay true!” when you no longer care as it is to make Justin Bieber-styled pop because you know ten million teeny boppers from the ‘burbs will buy it. Musicians, chase your dreams. We get the best of your talent that way, even if we have to transition genres to appreciate it.

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