In 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.
The assault of the form-over-function bands continues. You hear a song, and it lights up all those fat neural pathways in your brain made to appreciate the originals. Nostalgia surges in: you can smell the smoke, taste the beer, hear the laughter of a girl you were with. But like Cinderella’s carriage, at mid-album the illusion goes poof and you are left with an emptiness.
Thus it is with Speedwolf Ride with Death. Here is what — and this i the sum total — you need to know: they named this album to convey what they hope to deliver, which is Motorhead-styled antics plus some indie rock guitar band noodling. What you get instead is alarming close to a later punk band doing a night of Motorhead covers. These songs sound metallish, sure, but they’re built on punk frames. As a result, the album resembles less a collection of songs than a stream of Motorheadness coming from a server in the sky.
What starts as a catchy and promising album fades quickly when you realize that all that’s behind this album is the desire to be a punkier Motorhead with more heavy metal flash. Other than that, it’s riff practice. You will have heard most of these before in the 1975-1985 era, but here they’re flattened out and made rhythmically simpler to keep up the drone. It could be that Speedwolf is trying to artistically emulate the sound of a motorcycle on a highway, and if so, they’ve succeeded. But otherwise, they’re pushing an awful lot of airtime with no payoff except nostalgia.
Deeds 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.
At some point, every artist must ask themselves who their audience is. For some, it’s the inexperienced. Cursed 13 would be OK as your first metal band, the one you listen to and swear is really cool and then you get distracted by something like a fishing trip and when you come back you just forget to listen to it ever again. This is metalcore: it uses late hardcore pacing, emphasizes the vocalist as the individual listener, keeps a groove to its riffs and uses them as contrast rather than motifs. No narrative evolves from this. It’s verse-chorus in the minor key bittersweet sounds of indie rock, but with death metal vocals and heavy distortion. Why not just be a shoegaze band instead? That way, at least you’d be aesthetically pleasant. As it is, this is just boring.
Vasaeleth – Crypt Born & Tethered to Ruin
Marshal McLuhan said that in our postmodern time, the medium is the message. To a large degree that’s true, and sometimes you just want old school death metal to blast at the neighbors to fly the flag of an eternal truth discovered with particular insight during the underground days. However, Vasaeleth is something boring. They rely on very primitive riffs in very predictable ways, which doesn’t create the awesome assault of randomness or idiosyncrasy that many old school bands fostered, but instead a sense of plodding. We know, for example, that a riff designed to emulate old Demoncy and Incantation will cycle between two chords, and Vasaeleth have picked two a third or a fifth apart, and beyond that the riff is essentially an extended chromatic fill. Because it is so focused on upholding the past, it loses much of the ability to use that chromatic fill toward a phrasal end, so we hear the thudding drums alternating between two chords with some guitar stuff fuzzing around in-between. It’s a shame; I like this, and I’d like to really like it, but it’s getting filed with Mortician and Six Feet Under as too musically obvious to stand up to repeated listening.
Corrections House – Last City Zero
Everybody’s jumping on the doom metal bandwagon. The metalcore bandwagon popped a spoke, then the retro wagon hit a pothole and the stoner doom/sludge bandwagon got stopped by small town police. What’s left? Take the exact same watered-down 1980s-indie/1980s-late-hardcore mix and turn it into doom metal. Corrections House is basically rock with some doom riffs, a whole lot of Gothic atmosphere and an energetic punk vibe, but wrapped around the exact same songs they would have puked out as an indie-rock, alternative-rock, post-metal, etc. etc. all these genres are the same, etc. band. What they do well is make doomish metal catchy by letting the aforementioned Gothic elements ride over everything else. If you ever wondered with a Paradise Lost/Type O Negative crossover would sound like, here’s your answer.
Urna – Mors Principium Est
This is a band playing a psychedelic hybrid with funeral doom, using extensive variety of riffs within their songs, but shying away from the metal style of riffcraft for a more static style. This approach, like Djent or many Nile tracks, relies less on creating riff phrases than to use rhythm to chop up a few chords into an interesting texture. Here, the texture is less important than using the chords to sketch out a basic progression for harmonizing, and while many of these progressions are doomy most show some influence by indie rock and approximate a cross between Skepticism, My Bloody Valentine and Catherine Wheel. The result is sensitive and has depth, just as its riffs develop a theme, but it is ultimately not convincing beyond aesthetics and so will not stand out as a classic of this genre.
Deprecated – Deriding His Creation
If you want to talk about a band that brings out mixed emotions, Deprecated is it. Listen to my two-word assessment: excellent deathgrind. That means this is excellent, but also, that it’s deathgrind. You can’t have one without the other. Thus we have to talk about deathgrind. Death metal focuses on the relationship between riffs; deathgrind focuses on forcing the listener into a strict rhythmic pattern and making them expect the consistency of it so it can be fragment. It’s sort of like Stalinist propaganda; you’re supposed to chant “All Glory to Mother HypnoRussia!” until the officials in charge announce that something has gone wrong, at which point you must call for the blood of Emmanuel Goldstein or Julian Assange or whoever else is the official enemy that afternoon. The result is that deathgrind is excruciating at least for this music-reviewer to listen to. For one thing, all the neat interplay between riffs that changed the context of choruses is gone; instead, the verse builds up a rhythm and the chorus breaks it, then affirms it. And the rhythms are brutally basic, very familiar in that we could assign them to common tasks: chopping wood, loosening the transmission case, beating a recalcitrant child, etc. Add to that the detuned chromatic “first five” use of the fretboard, and the result sounds like listening to “America’s Best Landslides” on an old TV with blown speakers. It’s good, but I really hate this style and can’t get past that.
Axegrinder – Rise of the Serpent Men
I thoroughly enjoyed this release but, as with much of punk, wonder how often I would repeat listen. Axegrinder is like a cross between later Amebix and earlier Amebix, so it has the rawness of Arise! with the more comfortable song structures of Monolith. The best way to describe Rise of the Serpent Men is accommodating. It has all the aesthetic elements of crustcore that we’ve come to expect, uses very familiar chord progressions in slightly unusual ways, and has a good sense of rhythm. Each song is reasonable distinct and very listenable. The only challenge is whether that’s enough to get over the boredom valley.
Baptists – Bushcraft
Sounding very much like late-1980s hardcore with the precision techniques that came about in the 1990s, Bushcraft is a punk album that mixes raw riffs with quirky dissonant hooks and open chords. The result is a ranting tirade that ends in an ornament and thus sticks in your mind like a pop song, such that you don’t notice how much of this is three-chord riffs under ranting vocals. It’s well-executed but sounds like many other bands and despite the high degree of instrumentalism, doesn’t manage anything more compelling than hook.
Falcon – Frontier
Whether ironic or not, this band is pure retro, combining 1970s progressive rock, hard rock, album-oriented-rock, soft rock and music you would hear at a skating rink. Falcon have no intent to make unique riffs, but rather to borrow riffs, rhythms and conventions and use them to cloak new songs which have more in common with the independent alternative rock of the early 2000s. They’re bittersweet, lost and melancholic songs, full of longing and insecurity with a vast backdrop of sadness at a civilization disintegration from within. If you have ever looked at younger people and spared them a moment of compassion for how lost in nostalgia and emotion they are, this music puts a soundtrack to that feeling. It also pumps out high-energy songs that are distinctive and highly listenable. The only thing that keeps me from listening to this again is that I hate the style, but it’s more competent than 99% of metal and far more musical.
Valgrind – Morning Will Come No More
How you approach a project determines much of the outcome. In this case, the band wanted to entertain, so they made songs with lots of variation, and sacrificed internal cohesion to that aesthetic ideal. The result is like riding a subway through a dream where it stops at random cities where people do random things, and at the end of the line, you remember nothing other than that it took some time. Valgrind have a number of tasty riffs, but inevitably they clown those by following up with chanty nu-core vocals, sweeping jingle-riffs, or comical absurdities of hard rock riffs taken to an extreme. You can appreciate any moment of this album, but when you add it up, it’s not something you want to hear again.
Empire of Rats – Empire of Rats
Did you ever wonder about the reason they had warning stickers telling you not to drink the rat poison, etching fluid or platen cleaner? That’s because some kids would chug it right on down without sniffing it first, or even wondering why anyone would drink something from a filthy bottle under the sink. The point of that factoid is that everyone needs different music. Empire of Rats is metalcore from the 1980s definition which means that it uses punk riffs with metal pacing and standoffish vocal rhythms in the style of Pantera or other hip-hop influenced bands. Thus what you have is good hardcore with the worst stylistic aspects of tough guy mainstream metal and punk. On numerous moments, I wanted to like this, but it wore me down through simple loudness and simple dumbness, much the way no amount of Fer-Dime’s candybag leads could sweeten up the fundamental skull-throbbing monotony of Pantera.
Long known as the adroit-fingered riffman for punk-black metal band Darkthrone, Nocturno Culto was once seen as a dark, mysterious and threatening figure but has adopted a more open public persona over the last decade.
As part of this, he is launching a re-vamped heavy metal style band named Gift of Gods which will be entirely his music separate from Darkthrone. The music sounds like Celtic Frost’s Cold Lake given a speed metal treatment and with the more complex riff transitions of earlier Celtic Frost.
We got a promo pack of these over the weekend, so I’ve been tossing the tracks onto the playlist and picked a few favorites.
Tempestuous Fall – Converge, Rivers of Hell
This CD compiles different doom metal bands. Tempestuous Fall is funeral doom with folk metal touches, like Skepticism crossed with Green Carnation or Falkenbach. The result is really elegant passages of slow guitars over which keyboards play a faster, almost medieval melody, while vocals chant and drums provide dramatic emphasis. Aesthetically this is a promising approach and Tempestuous Fall craft pleasant but melancholy melodies to fit it.
Sartegos – As Fontes Do Negrume
If you can imagine a black metal band with the technique of a primitive band like Mystifier or early Rotting Christ, but that used melodic progressions more like Ancient or Enslaved, Sartegos is a reasonable approximation. These are often winding songs that bring out the melody in their riffs, but not before sliding into some mid-paced aggression. Vocals are disturbingly grim as well.
The Wakedead Gathering – The Gate and the Key
This is old school death metal but of a faster variety, with riffs like Unleashed but more in an American style, such that momentum is conserved and transferred. Deep bassy guttural vocals accompany faster riffs like mid-period Incantation or Malevolent Creation but these are fragmented by extensive doomy, melodic parts that create contrast. This band does a lot well, but some of their shorter riffs are too predictable, and the result delves too deeply into the repetitive part of old school death metal.
Midnight Odyssey – Converge, Rivers of Hell
This song (from the Converge, Rivers of Hell compilation) alternates between extended phrase atmospheric black metal and acoustic-y stuff that sounds a lot like Craig Pillard’s Methadrone. This lengthy track mostly features the latter, which tends to operate in cyclic patterns with layers induced by using background keyboard tones to complement the foreground guitar. Using relatively few themes, it spins each off into melodies and then applies those in a variety of forms, some blasting and aggressive and others slowed-down and mellow. The result is similar to the longer tracks on Enslaved’s Frost but with more of a spacey vibe like that found on the early Manes material.
If you approached Slaughter of the Soul with the stylistic outlook of Left Hand Path, you would follow the path that Abscession travel on Death Incarnate. These are short, melodic songs that understand the dramatic nature of successful Swedish death metal.
Easily imitated, Swedish death metal is hard to master. The basics are simple: play d-beat drums under riffs adapted from the vocal melodies of 1970s horror film music and American guitar rock bands, then stack those against faster Black Sabbath-styled chromatic rhythm riffs. Is there really such a void between “Symptom of the Universe” and “Crawl,” or the soundtrack to Carnival of Souls and Clandestine? Not if you listen to them side-by-side.
Thus, by combining Discharge and heavy metal with horror soundtracks, the Swedes invented a new style and kicked it into high-gear with that buzzsaw dimed-Boss distortion. But while qualification in this style is easy, it quickly becomes generic. That is because to take riffs out of context, one must build up a next dramatic context to give them framing, such that the change in riff (and tempo) is symbolically and aesthetically significant to the listener.
Abscession kick off this mini-album (EP) with a lengthy intro that, while funny at a first listen as it reveals death metal obliterating the music of normals, probably isn’t going to be fun past the first couple of listens. After that, it’s into what they do best: buzz-saw rhythm riffs which give way to lengthier melodic riffs which are played in power chords instead of single-string-picked like the first At the Gates.
The result captures much of the mood from Clandestine with big bristly clouds of buzzing distortion cushioning us as a melody emerges from within, like flying through clouds and seeing the moon emerge above. Once we’ve settled into the feel of the fully mature song, Abscession give it a kick or otherwise challenge it with a dramatic transition, which requires guitarwork to wrangle the song back toward its final state of affirming order.
What makes this release stand out is how well-composed the melodies are and how the band is able to arrange riffs in a meaningful manner, even if a simple “meaning” like the sensation of a walk through a dangerous forest at night and a confrontation with mortality as the blade of a foe emerges. Riffcraft is good and focuses on the longer melodies that distinguish the professionals from the “Garage Band” weekend activists in metal at this point, and all musicianship is good, but it is the content and composition of these songs that sets Abscession ahead of the Swe-death pack.
Texan mythological occult heavy metal band Absu, who began life as a death metal band and ventured into NWOBHM-tinged black metal before arriving at their current hybrid of Mercyful Fate and modern progressive metal, have extended their North American tour dates through the end of the year.
If you have been aching to see these highly technically skilled musicians live and live in the eastern half of the United States, look toward these dates to tell you when to cancel all prior engagements and head to the club.
Much as we all admire the ex-Emperor axeslinger, he’s fallen into the pit of what happens to musicians once they’ve blasted out their most vital creative material: they become masters of interesting details, but this means that they fit into the dominant paradigm. In this case, Ihsahn is basically progressive indie rock with a tendency to launch off on flights of fancy that sometimes involve metally riffs. But for the most part, he’s playing with the same pieces and riding in the same channel that everyone else has been cruising for the last 70 years. This doesn’t showcase the legendary creativity that propels this artist toward his best work, and also doesn’t make for great listening, since it’s a collection of mixed moods that never really pick up a direction anywhere but into themselves.
Falkenbach – Asa
Folk metal isn’t a genre; it’s an approach to any number of genres. Falkenbach is heavy metal with some black metal influences but is approached in a “folk” way that resembles jaunty pirate and epic Viking songs from Hollywood movies, thus continuing metal’s infatuation with the soundtrack. The music isn’t bad, but cycles verse-chorus and develops very marginally so there’s not much of a vertiginous sense of revelation. Further, either this dude has a sinus infection or they autotuned these vocals, which is somewhat repellent if your music is naturalistic. Thus this gets filed in the pile of stuff I’d like to like, but can’t have faith in, and find aesthetically irritating.
Beastmilk – Climax
When we run out of ideas, we run to the past. So it is with Beastmilk, who resurrect 1980s indie rock with a slightly more intense guitar focus, like R.E.M. crossed with Dave Mathews and grafted into Journey. This isn’t bad, but not so exceptional we must cover it on a death metal site.
Inferno – Omniabsence Filled by His Greatness
Strongly reminiscent of early Dark Funeral with lower tuning, Inferno provide charging black metal with strong concluding themes and high energy. None of these riffs will really strike you as all that unusual, but they knit together well into songs. To flesh things out, Inferno use fills of sweeps or lead picking between the rushing power chord riffs. This release really doesn’t have enough character to distinguish itself for the ages, but is more refreshingly clear about what it likes than most of the kvltists or hybrid-bands that wander through our review stack these days.
Blizaro – Strange Doorways
Sometimes we confuse having a lot of material with having something epic. This 2CD is a fusion of doom metal in the style of Confessor/Candlemass and a lot of random 70s influences from Hawkwind to Yes. These guys like to jam, and this music seems like someone recorded jams for a year, patched ’em up so they stuck together as songs, and worked them into an epic format. They’d do better to distill this to an EP of their best thoughts.
Polluted Inheritance – Betrayed
When Polluted Inheritance play death metal, they create a type of very familiar and nocturnal music that feels like moving through a darkened battlefield. This is broken up by speed metal riffs and lead-ups which sometimes have Pantera-style roundabout vocals circling the end of each phrase, causing a sense of this battlefield being broken up by machinery. In addition, Polluted Inheritance like to drop in sporadic progressive riffing or extremely noodly guitar, often accompanying some of the speed metal riffs. Reminiscent in many ways of later Adramelech, the band thus “comes into its own” less frequently that it would if some hard stylistic decisions were made and individual members had less freedom to indulge musicianship for musicianship’s sake. It is gratifying however to find a release that actually wants to be metal, and can execute moments of insight in riff form that evoke the best moments of classic death metal.
Boal – Infinite Deprivation
Although from the deathgrind genre, this album represents an attempt to use old school approaches to melody and riff with the “modern technical metal” style of static or harmony-based (sweep) riffs. These riffs are designed to contrast each other toward resolution in the old school way, but ultimately are too linear and rhythmic to develop enough phrase. However, the deathgrind portion of Infinite Deprivation is a breath of fresh air, incorporating groove in a subversive and unnerving way and building up to honest culminations. Obviously it’s too much to ask this band to go all old-school but they’re the closest thing to interesting in deathgrind.
Root – Viginti Quinque Annis In Scaena
This album sounds like Venom covering Cream. It’s basically hard rock and the generation before it, sped up with more precise playing and some hefty fellow bellowing over the top. While none of it is is particularly badly executed, it also sounds dated, like a flashback into the late 1960s which is being resurrected for purposes of nostalgia. The homebrew nature of this band would be appealing if the songs stretched beyond an emulation of that past state in time, but although heavily influenced by the Hellhammer-Bathory first wave of black metal, this music remains in part of that cluster of material that belongs to a time before the underground.
Circle – Incarnation
This seems like “sludge metal,” which is really just slow metalcore, with throw in influences from indie and black metal. Mostly disorganized, it fails from inability to make a point, although there are no other deficits. Like most music in this style, which seems to be people who want doom metal with aggressive open intervals instead of minor key ones, the modus operandi of the listener is to experience drone and forget where he is in the piece, then notice periodic interesting bits before descending again into a rumble of confusion.
Toxic Holocaust – Chemistry of Consciousness
The whole of the human condition is revealed by this album: it is well-executed on the surface, but its independent spirit is bound up in pleasing others with what they already know, in order to get power. As a result, it is a fun listen until you start thinking about hearing it a dozen times. It’s more instrumentally competent than your average retro-thrash band, but strays mostly into speed metal territory, mix and matching riffs from 1980s speed metal bands so that verse and chorus riffs each resemble well-known types but they don’t appear together as in the original song. Most of these songs are repetitive verse-chorus with a break to provide contrast before the reprise. Oddly, the vocals are whispered and distorted like a black metal band but using the rhythms of a late 1980s band like Sodom or Kreator. This is well-executed but I wouldn’t want to hear it again, especially as I heard all of these ideas the first time around — back in the 1980s.
The forthcoming release of Underground Never Dies! on Doomentia Records will be accompanied in its first pressing by a unique LP which features classic tracks from back in the early days of the death metal underground.
Thanks to author Andrés Padilla, editor of Grinder Magazine (CL), the world can now see what’s on the LP. But first, information about the LP itself. There will be several batches, as follows:
Limited to 150 copies
Massive box with custom padding for:
Underground Never Dies! book
LP on colored vinyl
500 x vinyl
150 on black/white HALF/HALF effect
350 on black
500 x CD
200 x MC
500 x Underground Never Dies! book
This means that 500 LPs will go out with the book, and another 500 LPs, 500 CDs and 200 MCs will be available for underground maniacs. There’s going to be a run on these at your local distros, especially the padded box set which is “massive” in form and content if early reports are right.