Children of Bodom – I Worship Chaos (2015)

Children of Bodom - I Worship Chaos (2015)
I think I missed this band’s big moment in the limelight. By the time I became aware of underground metal in any fashion, they’d already received a lot of flak for not playing the same style of vaguely neoclassical themed pop melodeath that they started their career with, and I steered my musical inquiries away. Apparently they’ve metamorphosed into some sort of bizarre fusion of such with overt Pantera style groove party rock, which sounds like an obvious awful, misguided idea that even the more mainstream-leaning metalheads would reject out of hand. That I Worship Chaos often juxtaposes various styles of former pop metal tends to support this hypothesis.
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Satan – Atom by Atom (2015)

Satan - Atom by Atom (2015)

A good legacy and a promising single can do much to build up expectations for any album. Atom by Atom was shaping up to be a textbook example of this axiom back in September, when I first became aware of it. Having listened to the end result, I can confidently say that the band’s reformation continues to pay dividends to those who pay attention (and/or cash).

The general formula hasn’t changed since Life Sentence – Satan plays the same sort of NWOBHM/early speed metal style that they became famous for, but in a more musically adventurous fashion than they favored 30 years ago. This sort of path leads many a band to neglect the coherence and intelligibility of their songwriting, but that doesn’t turn out to be the case here. The guitarists are particularly inventive here – the melodic and consonant style they perform in belies the wide variety of riff construction techniques they’ve incorporated into these tracks. They’re particularly good at the harmonized ‘dueling leads’ that so many similar bands have adopted; lesser bands would find their musical language shackled by overuse of one mode or otherwise limited.

This power would be strong enough to draw in many a listener, but Satan’s strengths on Atom by Atom go beyond mere creative guitar wizardry, although they are still unified by an emphasis on mastering a subgenre. For instance, the vocals (which are pseudo-operatic in style) remind me somewhat of James Rivera’s contributions to Helstar in their sonority and dynamic range, although Brian Ross sings closer to the guitar lines than many similar vocalists. However, this applies most to the song structures – while Atom by Atom tends towards typical pop verse-chorus structures like so many albums before it, these songs notably don’t rely on any one specific technique to cloak this or elaborate on their musical ideas. It should not escape your notice that in doing this, Satan otherwise consistently sticks to the limits of their musical language; while the way they vary it suggests to me that they could successfully execute a major genre shift if they so desired, I find their success within a genre to be a good outcome as well.

Musically skilled, technically proficient metal may be the norm these days, but Atom by Atom also succeeds on the organizational, structural level that is lacking and often completely ignored in so many of its contemporaries. This makes it a highly worthy acquisition.

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Deafheaven – New Bermuda (2015)

Deafheaven - New Bermuda (2015)
On a less rigorous, and slightly looser site, my thoughts on New Bermuda could be expressed as something along the lines of “whatever”. The music here has been performed before by a cavalcade of metal-themed indie acts, each more individual and revolutionary than the last, yet stunningly conformist for their efforts. Deafheaven enjoys rather more media attention at the moment, even sometimes drawing our attention for their little escapades, but they’re pretty much cut from the same fabric – a few hints of loud guitars and blast beats to liven up boring sugary pop stretched far beyond the limits of its songwriting.

The stylistic deception is pretty shallow, to be honest. I found it mildly amusing that the album began with a few minutes of more overtly black metal flavored material, which was then abruptly cast off in favor of the basic rock riffing and reverb textures that Deafheaven seem to so particularly enjoy. It returns every now in then in case you forget you’re supposed to be listening to the future of black metal, but I can confidently say New Bermuda relies more on the band’s rudimentary modality (major-minor ad infinitum) than their rudimentary dynamics to occasionally wake up a sleepy listener when the soothing, inoffensive guitar strumming has lulled them into a dreamless slumber. The drumming in these sections gradually devolves into basic modern rock downbeats and timekeeping, as if to represent your transition towards a drowsy (indie) state of mind. That probably wasn’t the intent, but the idea that it could’ve been is dangerously tempting.

Now, I’m not the kind of person who tries to fall asleep to music, but were I to treat this as a collection of lullabies, it would still be fairly underwhelming. That it has loud sections at all is counterproductive for insomniacs, but even those are rather predictable in how they play out. The straight ahead black metal sections consistently move sluggishly under the blastbeats, with a vocalist who has learned but one type of shriek and a few basic vocal rhythms. Given how Deafheaven is marketed, that these sections sound like an afterthought is problematic. Maybe the album would be better if it was divested of the clearly unwanted black metal, but then you’d be left with just another unwashed (but charmingly patchouli and spice scented) post-rock/emo/indie-pop album essentially indistinguishable from all the others and guaranteed to gather dust after something newer and more exciting comes out.

I slept well last night. What about you?

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Causality in music

Domino cascade (Image by aussiegall on Wikimedia Commons)
Guest post by William Pilgrim

Causality is the interplay between cause and effect. Infinite regress, or reduction till singularity, is of little practical use to our daily affairs, but when you pause to think about it, everything you do today has its roots in what you did yesterday. Today and yesterday might seem like two altogether discrete entities when considered in this fashion, but cause and effect work against the backdrop of time, and as such entail an infinite number of degrees or gradations between each other. Introduce a sufficiently large number of minute increments between the succession of two events, and this line of regression can be stretched all the way back to the point of our birth, and based on modern prenatal research, even beyond. This is the same principle that Buddhist philosophy talks about, the same premise on which Isaac Asimov’s Hari Seldon created his discipline of psychohistory in the Foundation books, and the same concept on which current market trends and data are analyzed.

There shouldn’t be complaints of determinism leveled against this line of thinking, simply a greater accountability for our actions, in both conscious and unconscious states. And, in any case, life cannot be lived with any kind of energy while constantly tracing our footsteps into the distant past; we can learn from our past but the power to affect change in our present and, more importantly, in our future rests entirely with us. How then does causality influence music? In the post on old and new extreme metal, I briefly mentioned how an idea arises in the mind and has to be persisted with for the entirety of a song for it to be logically, and emotionally, coherent. The following is a comment I made on the same post on DMU:

“A point I would’ve liked to touch on in this post is that in the case of most good extreme metal songs, you can trace a way back to the overall theme of the song from whichever point in its trajectory you may currently be occupying. David Rosales had a post on something related to this under the heading Developmental Variation, and it goes beyond simply staying in the same key, following chords, etc. “Vetteneter” is a good example of this, despite the significant change towards the end; so is Gorgoroth’s “Måneskyggens slave”. The cause needs to inhere in the effect, tenuous though it may seem, for a song to be coherent.”

The property of inherence means for a certain quality to be endemic or inherent in a substance. By the same token, it can also be taken to mean that this quality is permanent in the substance, and that the substance ceases to remain what it was once it loses this self-same quality. Often, effects bears little to no outward resemblance to the causes that led to them, but by the very nature of causality, all causes are germane in proceeding effects.

Music presents a peculiar example of causality in action. Songs have themes; the good ones do anyway. Every moment in a song exists in a chain with every other moment in the song, sharing an intimate bond with its neighbours. Good songs ensure that these bonds remain embedded in the listener’s consciousness, whether he realizes it then or not, and however strained their “valency” might initially appear. Simple rock music and rock-derived metal have it easier in this respect than architecturally intricate and harmonically ambivalent genres like death metal and black metal where songs are generally built on floating relationships between notes and modes.

Nevertheless, the point made above regarding a song’s trajectory holds, and that is this: the essence of a song has to suffuse its entire body, as impermeable as the body itself may seem. We can refer to this aspect of songwriting as logical dialogue and internal coherence between parts and of the parts themselves; the idea behind the song, wherever it may come from, needs to inhere throughout the length of the song, and maintain a trail of crumbs back to a relative first cause, as disparate as the effects that follow in its wake may seem.

The three songs below are from distinctly different extreme metal genres but they illustrate this point well. They use different techniques to realize these ideas but what initially appears as a jarring, irreconcilable severance from the core of the song is eventually subsumed into the greater idea. Subsumed, in fact, is the wrong word to use in this context, because the change, by everything that has been written above, would have had to naturally subsist in the initial idea.

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Firespawn to release Shadow Realms, but don’t bother purchasing it

Firespawn - Shadow Realms (2015)

What do you get when you form a supergroup from members of Entombed, Unleashed, and Necrophobic, all of whom released excellent formative death metal at the beginnings of their careers? Not much, apparently. Firespawn (formerly Fireborn) plays generic modern Swedeath with slight hints of melody and not much else of interest. If you ever needed a reminder that a promising lineup does not automatically translate into a product that is even promising at best, Shadow Realms is there for you – more accurately, you will be able to purchase it on November 13th from Century Media if its banality fails to undermine your interest. In the mean time, you can listen to one of its upcoming tracks (“Ruination”) for a textbook example of how to put together generic deathpop. Particularly notable are the rudimentary vocal rhythms and the exceedingly basic song structure.

Future coverage is possible, but very likely to be sadistic in nature.

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Extreme metal, old and new

Asteroid impact

Guest post by William Pilgrim

A reader recently posted a comment asking my opinion on modern extreme metal bands like Teitanblood and Ascension. We often take it as an article of faith that modern metal is a fallen genre that parted ways from the aspects that made the heyday of this music so glorious; indeed, it is almost a guarantee that any random second or third tier album from the early years of the genre will compare favourably with the current wave of practitioners.

But why should this be so? Forget about the intangibles for just now; elan vital, vir, passion, and spirit, as much stock as one puts in them, are ultimately amorphous, unquantifiable entities. But to the discerning ear, the very manner in which this music is played contributes greatly to the nurture and propagation of these ideas. But let’s not leave it at that even; the manner in which music is played is the result of an outlook on life and the world around us, a perspective that originates inside the mind with very distinct inspirations and goals assigned for itself. At least it should be so for the genuine musician who is willing to pay tribute to something greater than himself rather than be just another among the flock vying for whatever holds his fancy in the moment. When looked at from this angle, song writing and the musical techniques involved therein become offshoots of a state of mind. The difference between old and new then becomes the difference between states of mind that are separated by time, culture, and upbringing.

On the surface – and this is a broad generalization but it holds for the most part – new extreme metal bands lack definition and detail in riffs. Consider the most recent Teitanblood album Death and contrast it with something as universally unheralded – deservedly so in many quarters – as Krabathor’s debut Only Our Death from 1992. Teitanblood, hugely influenced as they are by the war metal of Blasphemy, attempt to paint broad swathes of atmosphere through repetition as opposed to the many-toothed, serrated approach to songwriting that Krabathor and others from that pocket of time display. The former lulls the unsuspecting listener into a trance-like state by concealing its lack of songwriting virtue through synthetic extremeness, but the second approach usually contains more thought, effort, and dynamics, and mimics the constant upturning and redressal of values that great death metal strives towards.

caspar_david_friedrich-the_wanderer_above_the_sea_of_fog

Old death metal as a combination of romanticism…

Edvard Munch - The Scream (1893)

…and expressionism

Bands like Teitanblood prioritize mood over content and coherence

Bands like Teitanblood prioritize mood over content and coherence

Borrowing terms from the schools of art and retrospectively applying them to metal, we can then say that old death metal is a curious but potent blend of romanticism and a nihilistic expressionism, on more or less equal footing: romantic in self-awareness, expressionist in revealing the horrors of the mind, and nihilistic in rejecting established values in favour of new belief systems. A band like Teitanblood, on the other hand, can be said to belong to an impressionist state of mind, the word impressionist signifying in no way any relation between Teitanblood and purveyors of that stream of thought in the arts. Instead, impressionism is used here merely to suggest the preeminence of mood over content, and the blurring of the music’s outer edges to the point of dissociation.

One might say that even undisputed classics like Darkthrone and Burzum used the repetition mentioned above to make their point, but the important thing to remember in those bands’ cases is that repetition was used as a story telling device to travel between distinctly realized book ends. Many modern bands seem to lack the roughest notion of what it means for a song to have a beginning and an end, and how islands spread across the length of the song can be used as “hooks” to hop from one spot to another, but always with the ultimate aim in mind: the song is God and everything else superfluous. Hear the song posted below from Ascension, a band many supposedly educated fans claim to be the second coming of the genre. Then contrast it with the Kvist song that immediately follows. Hear them back to back so that the dissonance stands out in stark relief.

Hear how the entire body of ‘Vettenetter’ is geared towards safeguarding the primacy of a greater idea, an idea that is directed outwards as opposed to the redundant, self-absorbed mannerisms of the Ascension track. The feelings Kvist induce in the listener can be classified as “romantic” in the truest sense of the word, a mixture of awe, beauty, human insignificance, yes, but also the perpetual struggle to understand and realize a greater meaning to our place in the world. As opposed to Kvist’s romanticism, however, bands like Ascension are entirely hedonistic, which by association implies a pathetic solipsism. The self is greater than the whole, the moment is greater than eternity, live now while you can, however you can, for who knows what tomorrow will bring?

This isn’t just abstract wool gathering; Ascension’s solipsism manifests itself in the carelessly strewn-about rock star solos, in the abrupt shifts in tone, in the complete absence of a unifying theme, and ultimately in the absurd, conceited belief that what they’re doing is in any way or form of artistic merit. Where Kvist intentionally dwarf themselves in humble tribute to the magnificent life-giving forces of nature, Ascension are like ghosts trapped between worlds, with no sense of who they are or what purpose they presently serve. Their concoction is cynically designed to appeal to Everyman, meaning the lowest common denominator in listener intelligence. A little of this, a little of that, take a potluck lunch home and you’re bound to find a bone to gnaw on. World Terror Committee, indeed.

Which of the two is the greater evil? Teitanblood’s impressionism, cheap and disoriented as it is, can be understood on some level as a honest effort from poor students of the metal genre. That is not to give it more credence than it deserves nor does it mean that it shouldn’t be called out for its many weaknesses or for its fans’ sheep-like mentality. But it’s only a matter of time before these bands are consigned to the dustbin of obscurity because of their self-devouring approach to music.

Bands like Ascension, however, work on the principle of fast-food equality, but through mechanisms subtler than what Cradle Of Filth and Dimmu Borgir employed twenty years ago. On the surface, they appear intoxicating to simpler tastes, shiny exterior, ersatz evil and all. They even go some distance in mimicking the sound of their elders, only to douse jaded listeners with buckets of icy cold water. Most listeners don’t care, however, and these pathetic tidbits are enough to guarantee the Ascensions of the world a name in the “new underground” for the foreseeable future.

The greater tragedy, however, is that these bands signify the death of the mind, and this is evidenced in the class of discussion that occurs around them and their music. To sensitive ears and minds, there is no higher emotion that a plastic, cookie-cutter band like Ascension is capable of eliciting, but by their subversive nature and by being infiltration points into this music for all the wrong elements, bands like these present the greatest danger to metal. That should no longer be considered an exaggeration, because for every new kid that discovers old treasures, ten more will flock to an Ascension and will eventually use the same strategies when they come to make music of their own, not knowing any better. After all, noise when amplified enough will always drown out quality.

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Mercyful Fate members reunite in Denner/Shermann

Denner/Shermann - Satan's Tomb (2015)
Mercyful Fate was one of the high points of traditional heavy metal in the 1980s, exerting huge influence through their over-the-top visual aesthetic and elaborate, theatrical songwriting. They arguably peaked on 1984’s Don’t Break The Oath; later works by both this band and its frontman’s project (King Diamond) varied in their ability to capture such high points.

October 2nd will see yet another effort from the band’s musicians – alumni from the band have united to form Denner/Shermann, and to release Satan’s Tomb, an EP of material in a similar but presumably modernized vein. The release date and album title are probably going to draw comparison to the band Satan’s upcoming album on the same day (Atom by Atom), despite definite differences in style. While our knowledge of Denner/Shermann’s sound and approach is less confirmed at this point, I’m fairly certain they need a better marketer on their side; at least as evidenced by the questionable decisions of the following trailer.

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Abbath’s solo project releases its first official track

Immortal’s ability to consistently release content since has fallen by the wayside since 2002 (although their quality was arguably ailing before that) between periods of legal disputes, side projects from band members, and that time in the 2000s when they were literally split up. Abbath has thrown his efforts into another side/solo project, and Season of Mist has seen fit to give us a sample from upcoming material – a semi-live studio track named “Fenrir Hunts”.

This track sounds more overtly like death/black metal than much of the Immortal members’ recent work, which were generally more oriented towards older forms of metal in songwriting even when their aesthetics were not. “Fenrir Hunts” strikes this reviewer as yet another highly polished, technically sound song with some nods to the need for varied structure in an otherwise fairly standard formula. In short, an acceptable effort, but not one that particularly excites me for this release, or one that compels me to listen to it over previously proven and enshrined classics like Pure Holocaust. I can hope that the full album will be more interesting when it comes out (and the early state of this song suggests room for improvement), but it seems most likely that this will be another soul-crushingly “okay” album.

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Malevolent Creation – Dead Man’s Path (2015)

Malevolent Creation - Dead Man's Path (2015)

Malevolent Creation has been in my listening backlog for many, many years on the strength of a few tracks from Retribution. I never got to them, because I was constantly distracted by trendier bands (brands). When I first acquired Dead Man’s Path, I theorized that since the band’s been around for nearly 30 years and retains some of its original members, this was not going to be a major stylistic departure from those past works lest long-time fans abandon them in droves. The flipside of this, as evidenced by my experience with similar types of recent releases such as Repentless, is that I expected that regardless of the final quality, I expected a streamlined version of MC’s past style.

My listening throws this into question. Malevolent Creation’s early works tended towards the ancestral end of death metal, with obvious speed/thrash metal roots poking out of an otherwise standard monophonic, dissonant approach. Dead Man’s Path recalls something of this, but as predicted, it turned out more conventionally musical, with more consonant melody and a denser production (out with Scott Burns and in with Dan Swanö). Add in a somber march of an intro, and a renewed emphasis on vocal patterns, and you have a release that has definitely streamlined itself. It doesn’t rock the boat much, and it does still pass the aesthetic litmus tests that define death metal, but the production and packaging isn’t particularly interesting to write about beyond its most basic qualities.

Unlike most of the bands that take this approach, however, Malevolent Creation does a good job of applying their musical practice to write better songs. To my understanding, they were never a particularly complex act, and most of these songs rely at least in part on obvious verses and choruses. However, good use of tempo and rhythm shifts in particular keep things from getting too skull-crushingly obvious and predictable. The band members also showcase enough compositional awareness to move integral song elements around between tracks to obfuscate the formulas a bit. I would personally have liked to hear more variation in riff styles, as some of the songs here (“Corporate Weaponry” in particular) suggest that such could be successfully incorporated while retaining the strong points of the band’s approach. That, however, is a small flaw in an otherwise very solid package.

To be fair, I was not expecting the strengths of Dead Man’s Path to be so covert, but they are the sort of elements that take some time to properly dissect and understand. However, this makes it a more valuable and perhaps integral work than most of what passes through the review queue here.

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Scale The Summit – V (2015)

Scale The Summit - V (2015)

Everyone has at least one person in their network who is obsessed with “smart” music; your local government will provide you with a complimentary one if you have any doubts. You can tell music is “smart” by the fact it’s either instrumentally complex, aesthetically gimmicky, or even merely composed of band members who agree with some of your socialpolitical opinions. V is not the first to the best of my knowledge, but its ties to the djent and “progressive metal” scenes give Scale the Summit a built in audience full of such people. The relatively clean guitar tones and otherwise frequent moments of gentle strumming make me question the metal label, but I’m not yet the type to judge music solely by its genre. It does mean, however, that I’ve mentally shelved this on the progressive rock shelves along with acts like Camel and Yes, which admittedly are radically different in overall approach, but at least give this album some stern competition which it desperately needs.

V is actually a collection of jazz fusion instrumentals that presumably took some time to practice and learn even for the band’s technically skilled musicians. Much has been written on the idea of jazz-metal fusions, but Scale the Summit seems quite archetypal in that regard, relying on thorough-composed songwriting with distinct sections over improvisation, but favoring lighter, cleaner tones and sounds even at their most intense. One thing that divides me is how rigidly and academically the band approaches song structure – tracks here are full of obvious “We’re going to vary the song by modulating to another key or changing the drum pattern” type moments that probably look well-planned if you consult the corresponding tablature, but don’t work out in practice for being too jarring or too frequently followed by an obvious pause. This might be something to expect from such a rhythm-heavy style, but it still strikes me as a notable weakness, and one that makes some of these songs so self-conscious that it interferes with their overall memorability and impact.

Ultimately, I find Scale the Summit to be aesthetically pleasing, and I can derive some intellectual satisfaction from piecing together the theoretical level of their music, which is more than I can say for a lot of so-called progressive metal. I can’t guarantee that I won’t plunder V for some of these technical ideas. Employing this prowess towards more interesting and less obvious (less formulaic) songwriting is going to be quite a challenge, though. I can’t guarantee you that Scale the Summit will do the same, since they seem pretty content with their current technically proficient but otherwise ephemeral style.

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