Grave – Necropsy: The Complete Demo Recordings 1986-1991

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Back around 1991 or so, Grave Into the Grave lived in every Hessian room across the land. It combined an intense rhythmic attack with a type of accessibility that did not on the surface resemble the pop music — generally downtempo bittersweet wailing indie-rock — of the age. Then the band seemed to drop out of reality.

Listening to Necropsy: The Complete Demo Recordings 1986-1991 has clarified for me exactly what I like and detest about this band. Unlike most bands of that era, Grave understood the concept of hook, in this case a rhythm that is fascinating enough to be instantly memorable. On the downside, the hook swims in what are ultimately predictable song structures borrowed from the lower echelons of 1980s speed metal. These demos show Grave developing its style from an early Possessed/Kreator hybrid into full-fledged death metal, yet the band never really breaks into what made death metal powerful. These songs cycle through verse-chorus with exceptions made to fit in some transitional riffs, but never construct themselves around an idea expressed in both riff and song. As a result, they come across as random outside of the one moment of clarity for the hook, at which point the brain goes to sleep waiting for the random power chord slamming to end and the hook to come around again.

The good parts of Grave should not be understated. At a time when most bands were trying to make themselves presentable to the average music listener by reining in their extreme tendencies, Grave leaped howling into the abyss with rigid and abrupt riffs that slammed home with the intensity of the big American bands. Much like style-mates Seance and Hypocrisy, Grave took Swedish death metal away from the melodic riffs and restraint into full-on textural assault with primitive rhythm as its guide. And yet listening back over this, one might wish for a little bit more of Carnage and Entombed in with the Malevolent Creation style riffs. The song structures are too simple to give these riffs room to breathe, so they just cycle, which is to say raw repetition “one removed” by introduction of a contrary or at least different theme. If tied together with some melody, more structure, or even a greater sense of internal dialogue between the songs, the early work from Grave would have been legendary and far surpassed Entombed and others who made big names for themselves in Swedish metal.

These demos progress from the prescient in style works of the 1986-1988 period in which bands were still figuring out how to work with the fertile ferment of Bathory, Hellhammer, Possessed, Sepultura, Sodom and Slayer. The Grave tracks from this era sound like a second-rate speed metal band imitating Possessed as death vocals ring out around clumsier versions of riff patterns you might find on a Heathen or Dark Angel album. As time goes on, the riffs pick up more technique and the clumsiness becomes an aggressive slamming rhythm mated to an adroit sense of pick-up rhythm that conserves and intensifies the energy of each riff. But, much as with Kreator, the riff is the hook and the “sweet spot” in the midst of relatively unrelated material, which means songs keep clunking along on the rhythm of the drums and vocals while the guitars do random stuff. It’s as if these bands never fully come together and are just too individualistic for their own good, Kreator especially. As the demos accelerate toward 1991, the technique streamlines into recognizable full death metal, but the song structures revert to the 1986 styles and despite increased proficiency remain just as clumsy in end result.

What emerges from these demos as a result is a crash-course in how to write great death metal riffs without writing great death metal. Grave faded before its time because it never knitted these power riffs into full songs, and went after the German model of a friendly rhythm with great hook in a song where everything else is essentially linear. This makes the listener fade in for the hook, then fade out, and end the listening session with no sense of continuity or overall impression of an event, emotion or attitude. In this, Grave — despite having mastered the science of death metal riffcraft — missed the boat on the innovation that death metal brought to the wider world of heavy music, and this explains why their work has not obtained the staying power assigned easily to bands with less-powerful riffing but more focus on integrative songwriting.

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Gorement – The Ending Quest

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Gorement could send a thank-you letter to Amorphis and the funeral doom movement for popularizing its riffs over the years, since despite a large amount of raw promise this release was never going anywhere. The Ending Quest is like a book of ideas, raw riffs of great potential floating in a background of poor ideas and randomness.

Often reasons exist for why underground treasures never made it to the surface back in the day. In the case of The Ending Quest, the reason is that it is a boring and frustrating listen, for two reasons. The band does not know how to develop songs, and thus its greatest ideas either go nowhere or run somewhere pointless, and its songwriting duties seem divided between a genius at melodic riffs and a guy who likes to write chromatic skim fills to keep those riffs from getting ahead of themselves.

Only two years after this album came out, a band named Skepticism took this aesthetic and brought it to a better place: crashing glacial riffs, slow bass-intense vocals, and a melodic basis. They dropped the death metal influences that required those melodic riffs to move quickly, and the guitar solos, which meant that they made their music in more of an ambient capacity. Gorement instead try to make death metal and so they piece it together, two boring riffs for every melodic sweet spot, and a sense of rhythm that often disconnects the needs of the riff from the needs of the song.

Material of stunning insight, foresight and promise fills this disc. Many of these riffs are cognizable from the albums of bands that went on to more success, and some of these ideas far exceed the substitutes that came in their place. The unique low and slow bass-intense vocals were an innovation, as was the tendency — later exploited by bands like Amorphis, Dissection, Sentenced, Bolt Thrower and Sacramentum — to stitch a fast melodic lead over a vermicular riff and slow partial groove. Gorement also know how to create a dramatic transition through simultaneous tempo and riff shift. The problem is that so many of these riffs fall into predictable patterns, and so many of these songs fail to organize their elements into any expression, so we end up with the curse of all early death metal: the album of good riffs that goes nowhere.

Our ex-editor Kontinual, who died suddenly of AIDS in 2010, wrote fondly of this band. But this is ultimately where we differ: death metal is propelled by structure, with each song forming a kind of “riff-poem” in which emotion is derived from how the riffs fit together, not the particular key and mode in which they are written. Riff-poems fail when they stop making sense, or when there is blathering nonsense that should have been edited out inserted just after a phrase of great profundity. The Ending Quest inspired legions of bands and imitators, is partially responsible for the first “melodic doom” explosion that tried to make death metal for rock music fans with Tiamat and later Opeth, and clearly gave many bands a riff book to use in their own projects. But as a listening experience, it resembles a speech by a distracted professor: moments of brilliance, surrounded by confusion.

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Cóndor announces new album Duin will be released January 27, 2015

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South American death metal and progressive band Cóndor will release its second album, Duin, on January 27. This band takes an approach more like that of classical guitarists toward melding death metal with progressive rock, blues, folk and other influences: it mixes them in serially and adopts them within the style, rather than hybridizing the two styles.

In other words, most bands that try to sound like progressive death metal try to act like a progressive rock band playing death metal, or a death metal band playing progressive rock. Cóndor takes an approach more like that of musicians in the past, which is to adopt other voices within its style, so that it creates essentially the same material but works in passages that show the influence of other thought.

Cóndor‘s first album Nadia made our best of 2013 for its mix between primal death metal and other guitar-oriented styles. It will be interesting to see how much the band matured and developed during the past two years and how it will handle what are undoubtedly new influences.

The tracklist is as follows:

  1. Río frío
  2. El lamento de Penélope
  3. La gran laguna
  4. Coeur-de-lion
  5. Condordäle
  6. Helle gemundon in mod-sefan
  7. Adagio
  8. Duin
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Robert Walser Running With the Devil re-editioned

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One of the first-wave works of heavy metal academia will see a new edition in the coming weeks as Robert Walser Running With the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music sees a re-issue with an expanded introduction by Harris M. Berger, co-editor of Metal Rules the Globe.

While its research focus is on gender, which was the most popular topic of music study in the decade in which it emerged, the 1993 first edition of this book shocked the world awake to the possibilities of heavy metal by drawing connections to other social movements, classical music and extremist political movements. Its strength is an understanding of the metal spirit and its implications both socially and in the individual. Walser writes convincingly and sparsely, understanding the root of good academic writing to be clarity and not a posturing of vocabulary and prose conventions.

It will be interesting to see how this book is updated over time. Many of the tropes of gender from the 1990s have themselves been updated, whether for better or worse being left as an exercise to the reader, and much of heavy metal has evolved. As with most books from that decade, Walser’s first edition does not distinguish between hard rock and heavy metal, leading to a bleedover of commercial heavy metal with the separate genre itself. This is a minor quibble, as Walser sees with insight into several areas that every other book at the time missed, which made Running With the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music 1.0 the ideal starting point for academics in its time.

Copies are shipping now from University Press of New England with copies showing up on Amazon and in e-Book form shortly.

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Isten zine compilation Isten Fanzine: Don’t Break the Ghost released December 12, 2014

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Svart Records will release a compilation of Isten zine from 1984-2014 on December 12, 2014. Entitled Isten Fanzine: Don’t Break the Ghost, the anthology will be published in hardcover and contain 800 pages of all things published and unpublished by Isten during those years.

Isten creator Mikko Mattila, who began the zine in his hometown of Tampere, Finland three decades ago, said, “Isten has always been characterized by murkiness and a lingering quality. Indeed, it took us nearly five years to do this anthology. It truly is a treasure chest, a time machine, and an open grave.”

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Forward into the past

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Revolver published its list of metal bands who define the future of metal, and naturally people are a bit taken aback. The dominant trend on the list: metal bands that look like 90s bands who play with more distortion.

They come in several types: Marilyn Manson style hard rock goth, lite-jazz merged with Dream Theater riffing made technical in the math-metal style, black metal hybridized with shoe-gazing soul-searching solipsistic indie rock, tepid stoner rock, and the descendants of nu-metal who have mixed elements of the above in to hide their rip-off of hip-hop melded with bouncy radio rock.

In short, the list reveals a dearth of ideas, and instead of forging forward, these bands are heading backward toward past “successful” genres and mixing them together with a few metal riffs to make the claim to be the future of metal. Like the great metalcore revolution, and Napalm Death’s attempt to go indie with Words from the Exit Wound, this will succeed with the audience the industry has cultivated and fail with the wider audience for metal.

Metal thrives when it tackles the forbidden. In any civilization, that excluded taboo is the nihilistic approach of literal reality: the inevitability of death, the vast unknowability of our role in the cosmos, the necessity of war and violence, and the innate hatred that exists in humanity as some individuals break away from the herd and try to rise above. Metal is naturalistic and feral, aggressive and amoral, violent and morbid. It is everything we fear in life.

On the other hand, this new list presents nothing we fear in life. Tattooed hipsters in sweaters and goofy cartoons of uniforms do not induce fear. They induce tolerance and a shrug. They tell us nothing we do not hear from the many media outlets and rock bands of past. Unlike Black Sabbath, who dived bombed the flower power circlejerk with their own dark vision of the evil within us all, and the necessity of conflict, these bands offer us what Good Housekeeping might if dedicated to the quasi-“edgy” urban culture of guys with media jobs looking for a purpose so they can be unique at the local pub.

If you want to find the future of metal, go to its roots. Metal does not change because humans do not change. We fear death and the possibility of it coming for us, so with the aid of social conventions we exclude terror from our language so that we can exclude it from our minds. This is what metal rebels against, and its philosophy originates in rejection of this denial in order to discover what lies beyond the realms of sociability and polite conversation. The future awaits there at that horizon, not safely within the boundaries of existing culture.

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Manilla Road – Out of the Abyss re-issued

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Shadow Kingdom Records will reissue the seventh album from Wichita, Kansas, band Manilla Road, entitled Out of the Abyss on January 13, 2015. Originally release in 1988, this album shows the band in both fully-developed and archetypal form.

Death metal fans coming late to this album may note how it is a prime example of how to do everything right and end up wrong. Manilla Road write speed metal in the style of Judas Priest crossed with the post-Slayer high-speed riffing of bands like Atrophy. They do so with precision picking, a good knowledge of harmony and rhythm, and yet make completely boring music.

Part of reason for this boredom emerges from the style itself. This type of late speed metal emphasizes breaking songs into discrete modules composed of riffs, following the NWOBHM style, but they break rhythm between those which allows little buildup. Instead, it is a series of right angles. Further, in another NWOBHM influence, these riffs are fundamentally static in that they center around a chord and use fills composed of that chord or a matching scale, but do not develop melodically within the riff; as in rock, that is reserved for the vocals. The result feels a lot like a series of riffs in a verse-chorus pattern with a tangent 2/3 of the way through, guided along by vocals. It does not achieve the structural intensity of death metal.

With that being said, it is clear why many bands hail Manilla Road as an influence. Crisp and exact playing gives these riffs a militant technological sound, and whether from this influence or another bands like Deceased, Voivod, DBC and Obliveon have put this technique to good use. Subtle rhythms abound in addition to the obvious toe-tapping speed metal choruses and lead guitar, while very much entrenched in the domain of rock-style soloing, provides an example of technical excellence within that domain. Vocals sound like a more devious Rob Halford. All of these contribute to the power of this release, but it remains enmired in the binary riffing and somewhat static riffs of the speed metal days which were thankfully left behind during the transition to death metal.

This re-issue will give a new generation of metalheads a chance to appreciate the technical ability of this band and the compositional issues raised by this style. For example, should metal go the rock route of static riffs and build on that in the style of mid-period Judas Priest, or should it follow more of the death metal style of phrasal riffs and flexible song structures? Guitarists will enjoy the challenge of playing these riffs at speed and still making the change, and classic metal fans will delight in the whole package. Out of the Abyss does everything right to hit its target, but for those of us who are post-80s, it may be the wrong target.

  1. Whitechapel
  2. Rites of Blood
  3. Out of the Abyss
  4. Return of the Old Ones
  5. Black Cauldron
  6. Midnight Meat Train
  7. War in Heaven
  8. Slaughterhouse
  9. Helicon

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Interview with techno-slam-deathcore band Cuff

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The metal scene is not a static thing. It goes on, and you either participate or accept it as is. For this reason, many of us are looking into newer styles of metal.

Cuff combine Cryptopsy-inspired deathcore with slam and a Voivod-inspired technological fascination. Comprised of only two guys, Bob Shaw (vocals) and Zach Smith (all instruments), this band has bashed out an incredible number of albums.

Zach Smith took the time between beard agriculture and research of tortures to answer our questions:

You’re a two-person band with one person doing all vocals and the other doing all instrumentals. How does that work out? Do you collaborate on the songwriting or contribute roles as you can?

Mostly the songs are written by me, with input from Bob as to where or how the song structures should be. I think it works well the way we do things, at least it’s worked for the last 8 years We both write the lyrics , so it’s pretty equal what we do as a band.

As a Canadian band, you have a rich history to live up to… including both Cryptopsy, for your general musicality, and Voivod or Dead Brain Cells perhaps for the sci-fi lyrics. What made you choose to go in this direction?

It was an obvious choice to us to go with the sci-fi stuff, it felt like it matched the music and tone of the band perfectly.

The French metal scene is amazing, we made a trip out to Montreal last year and were met with open arms by some of the coolest fans/bands on the planet.

As for our influences I think we borrow more from American brutal death metal than anything Canadian, but Cryptopsy is an obvious candidate for an influence.

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Inevitably your album will be compared with West Coast technical gore-grind but other influences seem to be there. I hear Cannibal Corpse, and notice at least one of y’all wearing a Dying Fetus tshirt. Can you tell us what your other influences were?

My influences vary between styles of music, anything from Zeppelin to the Beatles and back to Devourment. It’s a whole mish-mash of interesting things indeed! Bob’s influences include of course Dying Fetus along with Wormed and Jenovavirus.

Transient Suffering Through the Ergosphere is your third album. What were the other two like? Is there a continuing storyline between them? If so, what part does this third album tell?

Well actually it’s our 8th full length and 24th release in total!

The album is a continuation from our last album from Gore House Productions called Forced Human Sacrifice to the New Gods of Earth. We have plans for a third album in the storyline somewhere down the road but try and keep that between us!

With only two men in the band, it doesn’t seem like you would have the advantage of being able to jam on this material. How do you compose? Are mathematical formulas, laser pointers and graph paper involved?

Lots of riffs and demos in the recording process, and we rehearse with our drum machine named Montgomery a few times a month. We’ve played live with a lot of bands as well over the years. Almost played with the legendary Anal Cunt but Seth had to kick the bucket right before the show was drawing near!

How do you describe the music you make?

Our music, to me, is organized chaos. It has a real dark vibe to it that stands out among other little things like sound design and song structure. We’re heavily influenced by Jenovavirus, Dying Fetus and Devourment mostly for their ‘slam’ elements.

Can you tell us about recording this album? Was it a challenge, where did you do it, and did you achieve the sound you wanted? Were there any production hacks necessary to make that come about?

We recorded it in a little building down the street from our houses with a good friend of ours Ken Coul.

The studio is called Black Cloud Recording Studio and we did get the sound we were looking for and more. It’s our best sounding album to date with the most crushing slams and fastest grinds we’ve written. No frilly production was used other than amp presets and some reverb. It’s all natural!

What’s next for Cuff?

An EP, a new full length, new merch and definitely a tour are sometime in the near future. We really need to get out there to our friends across the world (and also to please our label GHP! Haha).

All in all, we’re keeping busy and that’s what matters.

You can check us out on Facebook and our Bigcartel sites.

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Parable of the poseur

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One day, a man decided he wanted to be a lion, so he went to a local costume store and bought a lion suit complete with a mask and gloves that looked like lion’s paws.

The man then went out into the city telling everyone that he was a lion. One citizen approached him and told him that he wasn’t a lion, but a man in a lion’s costume. The man responded in protest: “I am so a lion! I have the paws of a lion, I have the face and body of a lion, and I can roar like a lion too!” The man then let out a roar that attracted pedestrians to the two debaters.

Eleven of the onlookers saw how much attention the man-lion was receiving, and they wanted to be lions too. So, they went to the local costume store and bought lion outfits and masks for themselves. The skeptical citizen was severely annoyed, and issued a challenge to the man-lions: “If you truly are lions, go then and live with them in the wild. Join a pride of them and we shall see who the lions are.”

The man-lions accepted the challenge, and the twelve of them went into the wilderness to live with the lions. They found a pride and wandered towards them on all-fours, imitating lion behavior, but the wild lions snarled at them. One of the man-lions got too close, and was struck by a lions claw. The wounded man-lion ran away, throwing his lion mask into the air as he dashed off. The remaining man-lions approached with caution, but were halted by a whistle a quarter-mile behind them.

The skeptical citizen had been watching them the whole time. He approaches them and reaches behind his head, unzipping and removing his human costume, revealing that he was a lion. He walks over to his pride and is greeted warmly. The eleven man-lions stared wide-eyed at the returning lion as he says:

“I heard word of a lion in the city, so investigated in disguise. I was annoyed to discover this ‘lion’ was a pretender and that others are following in this deception. You are not lions, you are men in lion suits made by men, and you are not welcome here.”

If you are a false, do not entry!

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