Ara – The Blessed Sleep

ara-the_blessed_sleepThe metalcore community is aware of your criticisms and attempting to reform itself.

During the past decade, a number of bands have tried to reign in the genre from its Necrophagist-style peak of unrelated technical fireworks to more of the songwriting that made bands like Botch, Human Remains and Rites of Spring influential founders of the genre.

With The Blessed Sleep, Ara steps up to the plate by streamlining the genre and removing the unrelated parts, which keeps a focus on songwriting like Harkonin or Neurosis. This eliminates the biggest problem, but for those who don’t like metalcore, it leaves the tendency to scream out lyrics in a trope of regularity and a fascination with “different” riffs and surprise twists that often leads toward a predictability of being unpredictable. (Imagine a general on the battlefield who maintains an advantage by being unpredictable. After a while, it becomes random, and easier to respond to because there is no expectation otherwise.)

The Blessed Sleep attempts to work around these challenges to the genre by varying tempo and the texture of riffing, stacking subtly melodic arpeggios up against chromatic chugging riffing, and by not using any single technique constantly (except the angry-man-in-a-phone-booth vocals). The result is far more listenable and develops actual songs that, although based on jarring contrast, are able to return to a single pair of themes and develop variation there.

Although Ara are touted by many as technical, nothing here is particularly technical as in specific skills, but putting these songs together without them falling apart and playing them on the nose will be difficult for any but a professional and experienced band. The streamlined songwriting, topicality and focus make The Blessed Sleep one of the more intense tech-deth albums to emerge in recent years.

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Imprecation – Satanae Tenebris Infinita

imprecation-satane_tenebris_infinitaThe long-awaited first real album from Imprecation resembles less their 1995 debut Theurgia Goetia Summa but a more streamlined and moody creation. While the demos compiled into that album revealed a raw understructure of a morbid subconscious arising, the newer work from Imprecation focuses on deliberate and meticulous ritual.

Shifting from a predominantly fast-riffed approach, Imprecation meld 1980s-style speed metal back into their death metal. Satanae Tenebris Infinita use extensive palm-muted downstrumming to carry riffs that are less phrasal than previously, and as a result are less distracting from the vocals and their integration with drums and (occasional) keyboards. IN addition to speed metal influences, riffing reveals the Slayer tendency toward angular riffing and an enmeshment with riff forms from earlier death metal.

While songs break to fast riffs, and vary standard song structure on a regular basis, the majority of the work here is mid-paced death metal with melodic underpinnings. In old school metal style, riffs start out simple and run into contrasting riffs, which fit together by relationship of riff shape and the emotions evoked. Songs later pick up on earlier themes and conclude; this patterning is reminiscent of early Celtic Frost. Lead guitars appear like schools of fish in twisting metallic sounds that dissipate into the dark surroundings.

Satanae Tenebris Infinita shows a band mastering their riff-craft and intensity of their earlier work by adding layers of dark moods, combining several genres of metal to produce a mid-paced death metal epic with the emotional depth of doom metal or early Metallica. The result resembles a ritual descent into an occult netherworld, and achieves the suspension of reality for which death metal is famous, filling the void with a world of grotesque beauty and raging death metal energy.

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Soilwork – The Living Infinite

soilwork-the_living_infiniteIf you ever find yourself wondering why mainstream music produces so many professional and well-produced acts while metal seems pasted-together in comparison, worry no more: Soilwork has invented a new form of radio-friendly metal that competes with the big bands you can hear on the radio.

Much of metal’s heritage is pop. Iron Maiden, Queensryche and even easy-listening death metal like Cannibal Corpse follow the pop formula. What they are not is systematic in listening to their own material, analyzing it, following published research on effective songwriting and thus, consistent. A professional band approaches music like science. Every part of every song must be deliberate, which requires organization and to put it bluntly, work. This anti-hobbyist view threatens metalheads two ways. First, it points out that we could do better, with self-discipline; second, it points out that the world isn’t as simple as “all pop is crap” and “all underground is good.” Pop is musically competent and in many ways surpasses the underground bands.

The Living Infinite manipulates human emotions like a Hollywood mega-movie. All aspects of this work are thoroughly professional. Nothing is left to chance. Every iota is calculated to produce an effect that works together to make a greater whole. Production is also a masterpiece, creating a glassine space that resonates with guitar sound and avoids crowding of the distorted tracks. Every aspect that wants to be heard can be heard, and through the magic of ProTools or an analogue, identical parts are (literally) identical. In itself, the production makes you want to relish this release because it gives it big-radio pop gloss without truly emulsifying the product into uniformity.

The style of the music is designed based on what has become highly popular for metal over the past two decades. If you can imagine Iron Maiden, The Haunted, Rammstein and Amon Amarth in a blender, you can see where Soilwork get their influences. It mixes the sweet dual lead guitar work of NWOBHM with the bouncing riffs and “carnival music” detours of metalcore. You will hear a Blind Guardian influence in the surging choruses and sparkly bright major key vocal melodies, and you could detect later Queensryche’s hybrid of indie rock, glam metal and power metal in its use of vocal hooks and interwoven rhythm lines. There are no ballads, per se; the ballad effect has been swept up in the metal effect, which is itself subsumed in the rock effect.

Soilwork target the audience for guitar-heavy bands like Dire Straights or Rush with the appeal of melodic metal and the positivity of power metal (which has a lot in common with modern Christian rock in this respect). While The Living Infinite may not satisfy the underground or true metal palate, its goal is not to appeal to that audience, but the people out there listening to mainstream rock who are looking for something that goes a bit further without going to a truly dark place. For that purpose, this heavily guitar-oriented band serves as an introduction and baptism into what could eventually become a dangerous metal habit.

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Satan – Life Sentence

satan-life_sentenceBack in the 1980s, the wisdom was that Satan had something to do with the founding of speed metal, along with Blitzkrieg and a few others who got into the choppier, more muted strum side of NWOBHM.

Having two members go on to avant-progressive speed metal act Skyclad did not hurt the legend. Thirty years later, Satan return with Life Sentence, an album that is musical enough for power metallers but uses the same efficient mix of speed and classic riffing that made Judas Priests’s Painkiller such an enduring favorite.

In addition, this band has internal quality control, which is something that seemed to go out the window with the rise of MP3s. This album fits together as an album, not as a concept album but as enough and varied interpretations of a style to make a consistent but not repetitive package.

Riffs on Life Sentence are of known general types but are not recognizably derived from anything else, and while they are generally used in pop-style song structures, tend to illustrate the theme of each song in sound. In addition, Satan use riffs as archetypes and vary them for fills or changes in song direction. This distinguishes them from many of the more template-based heavy metal bands.

The strong underpinning of riffs supports a subtly jazz-influenced percussion that mimics the guitar while trying to stay as much in the background as possible until it is time for a strategically interesting fill, at which point it explodes. Over this the melodic vocals of Brian Ross, who also sang in Blitzkrieg, surge in both full operatic style and a more surly half-chant.

Lead guitar fireworks are minimized but like everything else on this album, appear when it helps push the song along. However, songwriting on its own is strong, with each song having a clear theme that is played out in the tension between verse and chorus riffs. Nothing sounds hasty or ill-thought; it all fits together and moves as one.

For metalheads who like musicality but might want something more aggressive than your average power metal band, Satan offer a powerful competitor that does not fall into excesses, but keeps its own spirit alive. Life Sentence does not sound like it came out in the 1980s, but also, evokes much of the strength and beauty of the music of that era. This should be a major contender for the thinking metalhead vote in 2013.

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Darkthrone – The Underground Resistance (reconsidered)

darkthrone-the_underground_resistanceA few days ago, we published a controversial review of the new Darkthrone album, The Underground Resistance. Wherever this has been mentioned, it has generated quite a backlash from people who want to assure us that they indeed do not find it so devoid of benefit, and want to remind us that we’re simply dour sourpusses who hate anything except the avantgarde.

I am aware that human beings specialize in denial, and that our method of handling denial is transference and projection, by which we invert accountability and place it on those who do not conform to social expectations, which is a vast tolerance of everything and anything that some living breathing human has put out. As a result, I don’t expect much from the first wave of reviews anywhere, but I’m also not the kind of jerkoff editor who will cut his writers off at the knees.

This left only one solution: listen to The Underground Resistance myself.

This is more difficult than it seems. I do not believe youth is the sweetest time of life; in fact, I hate nostalgia. But when I was developing (or clarifying) the most important ideas and truths I have found in this life, it was a reasonable guess that Darkthrone might have been on the stereo (back then, we used big hulking stereo amplifiers with CD players to reproduce sound from a primitive form of MP3 file stored on a physical medium with reflective bits). In fact, I can remember a number of important discoveries in which Darkthrone featured prominently by being the soundtrack to some dark and some light realizations, and at least one Darkthrone tape (ah yes, youngsters; unless you were rich, you had a “cassette tape player” in your car, to which you dubbed CDs using your big hulking stereo, and then played primitive analogues of MP3 files using magnetic flipped bits on chromium dioxide-covered plastic tape) that lived in my car during a dark era when I drove many miles at night under the threat of an uncertain future.

When I had triumphs, I threw on Transilvanian Hunger, which was a cry to war for a generation. When I studied late at night, Soulside Journey was often on the stereo (low volume, using an anachronistic physical volume knob — crazy shit, man). I remember first “getting” the black metal ideal when listening to Under a Funeral Moon, and realizing this was the revenge of the naturalists. It wasn’t bad production; it was organic sound, a blaze of it, in which the message hid like a signal/noise ratio refinement experiment. It was deliberately obscured, esoteric music in which one could hide the truths that a dying society could no longer face. I loved it, and still do, but I really hate nostalgia. Nostalgia says the best days were past; that’s nonsense, since we learn every day and constantly get better at being who we are. That last sentence contained the main point of this article.

The context in which Darkthrone exists for its longtime listeners is hard to express, however. It’s somewhere aligned with worship and built on trust. We entrusted our hopes, fears, terrors and anger to Darkthrone back in the day, and in exchange vested in them a belief in them as musicians and people. They were no longer just a bunch of guys bashing on guitars, but sages, deliverers of wisdom. Maybe this is wrong, but black metal is a somewhat messianic genre to which children run when they start to realize that the modern world is not a train to Utopia, but a train wreck of false illusions and trends which the majority of people are too zombie-drugged on consumerism and ideology to notice. We the children of this dead world were seeking some reason to keep going and to thrive, and Darkthrone gave us those reasons among other black metal sages.

As a result, it’s impossible (think of Heisenberg) to simply listen to a Darkthrone album. Too much comes with it: history, context, emotion. For many artists, this is good. For example, Robert Fripp and Brian Eno are still making ambient music and their faithful buy up each one and revel in the new space discovered. Some bands find niches and are able to keep improving. Others flatten out, having lost the point of what they were doing, and instead try to become inclusive and patch together all their influences and all the stuff they know makes people happy to listen to their songs. The result is like a hotel room, in that it fits everyone’s specifications but no one’s needs.

When I first listened to The Underground Resistance, I was tempted to consider Jon Wild’s piece inaccurate. Darkthrone have made an album of pleasant music that is equal parts Iron Maiden, Celtic Frost and random death metal and speed metal era influences. I caught Slayer references, something that sounded like a Destruction cadence, and many riff types from the last four decades of metal. I doubt any of this is wholly and completely lifted, but I could be wrong. The fact is that they’re of the same archetypes. However, that has no bearing on whether the album is good or not. If someone were to assemble songs of classic riffs, and give those riffs new life by putting them together in a song which was evocative of some emotion or concept, then that would be a victory. Originality doesn’t matter, because no matter what you’re doing, Haydn did it four centuries ago, or Mozart slightly later. That’s the great farce of music. It’s not about discovering some new theory about making music, but about making music, and much as you’d write a story or sculpt a figurine, using those skills to shape raw material into something which reminds us of something truthful in life. The best art becomes “classic” because it did that better than anyone else.

However, as time went on, I realized Jon is both far off — and dead on. The problem with this album is not the recycled riffs, or the style, or the goofy vocals. It’s that it has nothing to express except that a metal band made an album out of things they knew would work. We know Fenriz and Nocturno Culto can put together a great catchy album in their sleep, and have it humming it all year if they want. Here, they seem exhausted, a couple of old buddies who got together on the weekend to jam and when it was done, cut the tape and mailed it off. This tendency is most clear in the fills that connect riffs to one another. They are obvious in the sense of being very basically musically, not adapted to the song, not possessed of grace. They just tie together some riffs and do an adequate job, and that’s apparently all that’s required.

Remember above how I said the main point of the article was encoded in a sentence about nostalgia? We should always be growing in knowledge and power, and moving toward being better at what we do. Darkthrone still have this in them; for some reason, they’re tired of exercising it. In doing so, they’ve become a cult of their own entropy. There’s nothing wrong with this album except that it has nothing to recommend it. It is competent; it’s fun to listen to; I never want to hear it again. It is people who gave up on their own future and now are doing what the world expects of them, just like going to a job. Our world is broken and failed indeed if it has condemned such talented people to such a fate, but I hope they pull out of this tailspin because they as people and Darkthrone as a concept are worth doing better than this.

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Darkthrone – The Underground Resistance

Production: Static-free, slightly muddy guitar tone. Drums are clear and unremarkable.

darkthrone-the_underground_resistanceReview: Continuing Darkthrone‘s recent series of forcing anachronistic albums, all traces of black metal have been stripped from this album. Fenriz’ tracks consist of the same relentlessly bouncy riffs over which unbearably clean vocals are belted. Nocturno Culto’s are differentiated only by slightly heavier vocals.

Nothing on this album is unique; if you’ve listened to 70s and 80s metal to any extent, you will know these riffs. Devoid of originality, this album could have been recorded by any nameless metal band.

Whatever motivated these musicians to release such toweringly monumental works in their earlier careers has clearly been lost. At a certain point, the creative spark burns out and all that’s left is talent but no sense of urgency or spirit, which is how albums like this are created. Like junk food, at first glance it appears edible but afterwards leaves you feeling slightly nauseous and unfulfilled.

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Malevolent Creation – Unreleased 1987 Album

Malevolent Creation – Unreleased 1987 Album

Production: The first three tracks showcase the studio work of Jim Nickles, and make the latter three, which are awful tape-grade garage production, sound like a middling 1990s studio with moderate volume, good tone, and reasonable bass. For the most part, he’s album to separate the instruments, which avoids the kind of washout frequent in recordings of this era.

Review: Before they were a thunderous death metal band, Malevolent Creation started out as a late speed metal band in the style of Slayer’s “Aggressive Perfector” matured a few years with influences from Metallica, Massacra and Sepultura. Unlike most early death metal bands who sound like primitive chromatic punk making warrior metal, this three-song 1987 garage recording shows us a sound comparable to Artillery, Devastation and Nuclear Assault or any other second-tier bands that lacked the rock sensibilities of Metallica but borrowed their technique to mix into a Slayer/GBH fueled frenzy. Riffs are short and use rhythm more than phrase in the death metal style, and like other speed metal bands, Malevolent Creation use catchy bouncy choruses which repeat the song title multiple times. Their verse riffs are more in the Slayer school, and their choruses more the Metallica style of broad intervals permitting harmonization, which creates space for lead guitar and vocal melody. Had they continued in this direction, Malevolent Creation would be a promising power metal band today. The first track, “Sacrificial Annihilation,” is a pure speed blur that calls to mind early Nuclear Assault; “The Traitor Must Pay” follows with familiar pieces of music from Malevolent Creation’s first album, and sounds like Slayer crashing into Massacra; finally, “Confirmed Kill” borrows a Metallica chord progression and puts it to good use. It’s good to see this historical document riding again so the rest of us can explore the genesis of Malevolent Creation.

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DBC – Dead Brain Cells

The Canadian province of Québec seems to be situated upon some geographically freakish turf that exudes such a phenomenal electromagnetism as to twist and convolute whatever waveforms happen to waft into its borders. Psuedoscientific petrology aside, Dead Brain Cells are one such Canadian faction that reinterpreted the equatorial American sounds of skatethrash and reassembled its raw energy into a hyperborean bizzarerie, with an ambition in expressing the absurd crises symptomatic of a classically Huxleyan, oblivious society lured into the grip of an Orwellian tyranny by the mesmeric attractions of self-pleasure.

Taking aesthetic inspiration from the cruelly intelligent, modern firearms cacophony of Slayer’s ‘Chemical Warfare’ but fashioning riffs over the roguish, bursting structures typified by crossover acts Suicidal Tendencies and Corrosion of Conformity, Dead Brain Cells had paradoxically succeeded in applying scientific methods to truculent vandalism. Vocals, in compliment to the factorial churn and tumble of the instruments, are delivered in a robotic rant like the outcries of a citizen-turned-automaton denigrated by a lifetime of vacuous routine; lyrics are remarkably coherent and incisive considering the band’s Québécois nationality, of course with the mother tongue of French being a perennial obstacle for all aspiring Hessians allied under the fleur-de-lis. However, it is clear from DBC’s rather involved compositional style that their telos was not merely in writing protest music, but in establishing engaging, punkishly dynamic narratives such that every song is represented as its own vignette of dystopia — a sensibility that would be incorporated into the region’s burgeoning death metal movement, with vestiges apparent in such seminal works as Considered Dead and From This Day Forward.

This eponymous debut remains one of the exceptional examples of quality crossover thrash from outside of the U.S.A. and England; it’s also required listening for any avid scholars of Canadian death metal, in order to better understand the music’s gestation from heavy, quirky progressive rock to complex and sublimely dissonant killing noise.

-Thanatotron-

A planet defaced with death and decay
An atmosphere of hate
Cities destroyed
Their meanings forgotten
And fertile lands lay waste
A planet once prosperous
Its future looked bright
But an immature race had evolved
Given time and the knowledge
They soon could destroy
The planet on which they revolved
 Not one life would be spared
It wouldn’t happen again
Because there is no second chance

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Divine Eve – Vengeful and Obstinate

divine_eve-vengeful_and_obstinate

Divine Eve‘s Vengeful and Obstinate is a three-way cross between Entombed, Motorhead and Cathedral. More technically adept than most doom metal, it alternates between two-chord riffs that are pure surging rhythm and longer, plodding, doom riffs that reduce your soul to ash. On top of the thunderous doom melodic guitar leads both echo and play with the melodies of those long riffs, opening up the sonic space of the album to more possibility.

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Autopsy – Severed Survival

Although Chris Reifert’s work on the now legendary, but perhaps over hyped Scream Bloody Gore was compelling, it is hardly worth mourning the fact that this death metal genius would leave Death and form the mighty Autopsy. On the contrary it remains a blessing, and while Death would continue to churn out a few more solid death metal records, Autopsy would themselves create a few classics whose extreme visions of death would underlie much of the philosophical vision of countless metal bands. Undoubtedly, Autopsy would also influence the worldview of many fans who would learn to eschew the illusion and flight and fantasy of modernity, in favour of a sober glimpse into the workings of reality in all its horrifying and powerful glory.

Autopsy’s barbaric and seminal album Severed Survival offered the listener what would by 1989 arguably represent the nihilistic and amoral apex of the burgeoning death metal genre and thereby cement their place in death metal history. Primitive and raw, the power with which Autopsy frantically bash out these energetic incisions into the human psyche, indicates a desire to transcend and break down the perceived but illusory moral world order and come to terms with the cold harsh realities of existence. On Severed Survival, Autopsy unabashedly presents the listener with a sometimes shocking but nonetheless candid and unmitigated reality, smashing to pieces any presupposition of a cosmic moral world order. As listeners we are forced to come face to face with death, desperation and the unspeakably twisted and cursed elements inherent in the mechanisms of reality and in the collective human consciousness, which Autopsy, like a skilled pathologist expertly dissect and examine. Exhumed are the intense, destructive and “degenerate” elements that are not spoken of in civilized society but which nonetheless drive reality and remain active as motive within the omnipresent but subterranean catacombs of the human mind. Unquestioningly suppressed out fear or an inability to place these depraved realities within the context of our currently constructed, illusory but ubiquitously advocated a priori moral world-view, it is Autopsy who courageously revel in exploring the obscene and who seem bent on destroying illusion in favor of discovering, conforming to and coming to grips with the power of reality.

A bloody pile of discharge flesh

Is what you see as you face death

 On the ground is the lifeless meat

Stillborn child lays at your feet

Musically, Severed Survival is a conceptually flawless album that offers insight, contrast, and dynamic through its expert use of eclectic influences and moreover, succeeds in synthesizing musical and lyrical expression to form a complete experience also made possible through the phrasal composition inherent in the songwriting of all good death metal. Drawing on Celtic Frost and the simple power chord progression that made the latter’s work so completely unified and clear, synthesizing it with heavy metal’s tendency to express impending doom through the use of slower meditative riffs, and drawing on the frantic and schizophrenic lead guitar work of proto-death metal or speed metal giants, such as Slayer, Autopsy on Severed Survival  executed an effectively simple, dynamic and epic work whose elements united  to create a gripping journey that remains to this day, compelling, interesting and perspective altering. Highly recommended!

-TheWaters-

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