It’s technically been out since November 20th, but whatever. Frank “Blackfire” Gosdzik is best known in the metal world for performing with Sodom and Kreator – both of which managed to exert a major influence on death and black metal despite not technically belonging to those genres. His tenures with each seem to have pushed both bands into periods of improved musical technique and more conventional songwriting (Agent Orange is to In The Sign of Evil as Coma of Souls is to Pleasure to Kill). Since then, we haven’t heard much from him until now. Interestingly enough, the samples provided for Back on Fire suggest a simpler approach more reminiscent of the former than the latter.
Black metal emerged as a reaction to the trend of death metal which had already established a musical vocabulary and through that achieved a higher degree of technicality as well as abstraction.
These bands took inspiration from the proto-black Hellhammer, Venom, Bathory and Sodom. The music of these early hybrid bands was quite unlike what became the second wave of black metal or death metal in that its motifs were simple yet concrete; overlaid onto a structure which juxtaposes seemingly unrelated motifs next to one another in an uncomplicated and often superficially nonsensical form. Yet, the result was surprisingly successful as a visceral and chaotic experience of raw, concrete, sensory imagery.
The black metal to follow refined this approach through retaining much of the simplicity and visceral nature of the earlier music while placing the motifs in a more logical format through phrasal composition, in which each riff has a shape created by its phrase and these form a language within each song. This and the trademark atmospheric riffs driven by waves of reverb and tremolo picking – largely invented by the Norwegian bands of note – came to define the public perception of black metal as a genre. Consequently, the Norwegian sound moved away from the rhythmic lineage of rock to music to something closer to the traditional western sensibility: harmony and melody over static, invariant rhythm as famously codified by the experimental gothic sensibilities of Transilvanian Hunger.
Profanatica, from what can be intuited from rare interviews, had strong reactions towards both the Norwegian sound and death metal itself. As such their music took on a different character which has not garnered the band near as much acclaim. The Norwegian sound is, after all, is the standard against which all black metal music is held. Given the fact that all genres are imposed by observation after the fact, it seems that the difference between Profanatica and the Norwegian giants is not one of quality, but of a band not fitting within the aesthetic boundaries of a genre that the audience expects. That and the mad rush for Norwegian black metal pushed Profanatica to the boundaries of the black metal movement where its influence on artists and hardcore fans tells a different story of its importance.
Much like the Norwegians, Profanatica refined the approach of its influences by emphasizing an incoherent structure and seemingly random construction. The motifs themselves are anything but abstract; often sounding vaguely familiar if not recycled both literally and intuitively. The listener will detect a clear sense of familiarity with the image of a particular motif, yet its contextual placement is such that it reveals a new perspective on something familiar. To draw a metaphor, it is as if one obtains a view of the same landscape from the peak of different mountains. This freedom of association allows a particular feeling, idea or image to be used as appropriate, anywhere in a song without sounding out of place. That particular innovation is unique to this band alone.
Structurally, Profanatica develop the proto-black method by emphasizing its motif contrast and non-rational composition. The infamous “Weeping in Heaven” demonstrates this technique through a collection of riff ideas which bears little relationship to one another, nor are treated in such a way that might cause the music to blend seamlessly. The contrast is emphasized which leaves the listener in a position to experience the music on an intuitive level. The result speaks to the body and it speaks towards the id. Logical progression, causality and abstract musical language are rejected abjectly. Profanatica embraces the rhythmic tradition of non-Western forms; using it to give meaning to chaos and incoherence of raw experience. Where one might perceive conceptual weakness and compositional immaturity in the early black metal music, Profanatica matured their approach to the point of strength.
The greatest contrast between the Norwegian sound and their influences lay at the relationship between the subject and the perceiver. The musical component of the proto-black bands described the emotional reactions to a phenomenon portrayed, resulting in the internal discourse one expects when reacting to the representations given to them by their nervous system. The Norwegian sound attempts to paint the external world through its musical discourse. The valuations of the perceiver are never absent quite absent and serve to describe the relationship of the internal world to the external. It asks the question, “where do we fit in the image of the world as presented?”
In a sense it attempts to categorize a dark forest in nonverbal symbols. Profanatica, resting firmly in the proto-black tradition, presents the terror of a solitary human being in a forest without describing the forest itself through its musical symbols. The dialogue then, becomes a matter of internal sensation which is untamed and instinctual. In terms of artistry, that innovation ultimately expanded the initial range of expression without reasoning categorically about it.
The effectiveness of this particular approach may be observed on the medley from the Grand Masters Sessions release. The track consists of portions of the band’s demo material stitched together to form a single track. A listener familiar with Profanatica’s back catalog will no doubt sense the familiarity of the material yet what is most striking is the functionality of the piece as a whole. Despite being composed from entirely different songs, the song involves juxtaposition of each motif and its partial ordering, and as a result manages a level of unity as a stream of consciousness which reveals new perspectives on the material through context.
Profanatitas de Domonatia (2007) distills the familiar Incantation sound made famous on their debut record Onward to Golgotha – which Paul Ledney had a strong hand in developing – by stripping the material down to its most basic instincts. The result is a fierce and destructive force of will whose aim is deconstruction. The follow up Disgusting Blasphemies Against God saw the band barbarizing the famous emotional sensitivity of black metal’s melodic heritage and assembling those remains into hideous totems. The record’s defining characteristic is, after all, something of a crescendo implying the process of construction, perhaps out of the remains of that which its predecessor tore down. The latest record, Thy Kingdom Cum, lays siege to its two previous approaches by simplifying its rhythms to the point of idiocy while contorting its melodic forms to the point of mockery. The defining character of its predominant motifs is laughter which can be gleaned easily in the opening moments of the track “False Doctrina.” The aforementioned qualities are not something which need to be abstracted from the music; they are clear and obvious.
Profanatica’s approach is much like an uncivilized warband conducting raids on the civilized. Such groups are as much a tribal patchwork out of violent young men as they are a patchwork of the spoils of their activities: contradictory compositions of the basic human and technological components of a greater civilization whose assemblage is entirely pragmatic and allows for them to serve functions other than intended, but no less effective than their original purpose. Out of elements bound tenuously is something effective, something purposeful, something deadly. The world this music operates in is one which is defined almost entirely by nature rather than one defined by humans.
Where proto-black metal is defined by its visceral nature and deconstructive character, Profanatica embrace the ignorance in a brash display of unconcern for the perfume-soaked intellectuals which decry those outside their borders. Dwelling within the primitive backwater fringe has its advantages by bearing immunity to the abstract and desperate silliness of the rest of the genre. The similarly-goaled war metal attempts to reach back into black metal’s foundations but does so in a way which reduces the motif as an objectified emotion or image into pure texture reducing its communicative efficacy. The work of Ledney and company retains the concrete sensory experiences which drove metal in each of its original incarnations and were later given musical scrutiny before completely fossilizing, allowing their art to pick the last of the low-hanging fruit of metal as a form while others languish in petty revivalism, soulless displays of technical mastery, or vapid experimentation that desperately seeks revitalization by looking to external music genres; copying but not transforming its clichés.
How many people listen to Hellhammer’s Death Fiend? What about Sodom’s 1982 Witching Metal? How popular are Death’s earliest demos? When it comes to early proto-underground bands, these earliest demos probably don’t get the listening attention they used to in the deep past, even from people who would rush to their defense on the internet. Part of this could be that they’re still harder to obtain, which theoretically makes this repressing of Sarcofago’s demos quite helpful. This joint effort between Cogumelo and Grayhaze Records claims to go beyond making the band’s early demos officially available by also doing the typical “release more rarities” trick, notably including demos from the Rotting EP and The Laws of Scourge. It probably won’t replace INRI or Sarcofago’s other studio albums in your rotation, but it’s another way to give Wagner Lamounier money in case you’re worried he isn’t making enough teaching economics.
I had high hopes for The Accuser… of a sort. I was expecting an ungainly, melodramatic symphonic black metal ala Dimmu Borgir. Unfortunately, Dimmu Borgir hasn’t released an album for Abigail Williams to ape in over five years! Cue the necessary stylistic shift, and the dashing of my admittedly dubious hopes, founded on information about this band that was similarly out of date. The Accuser is one of those indie-darling post-black metal albums, and while it’s usually not as blatant about its weepy, depressive influences as Deafheaven or Myrkur (whom I always seem to mention in pairs), it’s still a pretty flat and bland experience.
Abigail Williams’ latest actually pulls on a fairly wide mixture of post-black approaches, although they are generally united by a consistent production. The production team decided to portray this band as just fuzzy and indistinct enough to possibly pass as ‘true’ for a moment, but not enough that the intended audience would complain about a garbled aesthetic. There’s also the occasional awkward high pitched scream strewn in the mix, but it’s an otherwise standard sound. Within this, Abigail Williams explores such things as jangling consonant guitar leads, lengthy drone sections, start-stop riffing, and so forth. Now, there is nothing innately anything about musical techniques, and this is especially the case on this album, where the songwriting is haphazard at best. The difficulty that you often run into with this sort of musical language is that it’s difficult to build off these ideas in any way, whether it be the standard theme and development shtick we advocate around here, a more ambient approach, or much of anything, really. In general, Abigail Williams has a serious problem gluing things together and seemingly tries to hide it with minor stylistic shifts within and between tracks; regardless of their intent they don’t manage to pull off such subterfuge.
For whatever small reasons, I don’t find this album quite as annoying as many of its genre contemporaries. It still is, however, a boring listen that does little of interest with the hand of tricks it’s taken.
Part of me still wants to like Gud. Isvind’s 4th studio album is a textbook example of how to sound like black metal, for sure, but the specific emphasis on consonant melody (mixed with some primitive and ambient elements ala Darkthrone) make for a substyle that at least can be done well in the right hands. Under this admittedly pleasing exterior, though, lies a heart of incoherence and confusion. Isvind, at least in 2015, is random to the core, and their inability to properly organize their songs makes for a tedious 45 minutes.
While this pervasive failure makes it more difficult to zero in on any one flaw, a few are at least more prominent and demanding of attention. One thing I immediately noticed were the presence of gimmicky female vocals – after the short but dissonant prelude at the beginning of the first track, they are scattered very sparsely throughout the rest of the tracks. They fail to add much beyond the occasional peak of shrill dissonance. As I kept analyzing Gud‘s tracks, I found that the tracks were full of these distractions in various forms, whether it was extra instrumentation, or stark shifts in tempo or tonality or other aspects of the songwriting. Each one of these is the musicological equivalent of being constantly pestered by a small child who demands your attention; eventually you get used to it, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating. To their credit, Isvind manages to incorporate a great deal of dissonance into what is primarily a melodic and consonant style, which makes for some interesting isolated riffs, but since they can’t string the sections of their songs together properly, it almost doesn’t matter. To be fair, I don’t think this problem is caused specifically by the musical exploration, since other black metal bands (read: Averse Sefira) have written far more coherent and therefore interesting songs than are present on display here.
Still, I can’t recommend this in good conscience. It’s not quite as nonsensically random as Myrkur or a Krallice, but it’s a lot closer in spirit to those albums than what its aesthetics may lead you to believe on your initial listen.
P.S:I almost pluralized listens, but you shouldn’t give this album that much attention.
Back in the day, Vader earned a bit of extra notoriety by releasing the original Future of the Past and presumably documenting their influences (and their taste for Depeche Mode) through cover songs. Nearly 20 years later, they’re doing it again. Future of the Past II: Hell in the East showcases a set of somewhat more obscure bands, trading in familiar speed/thrash acts for the Polish underground of the 1980s, as well as a few outliers like Krabathor from the Czech Republic. This cover compilation will be released on December 14th, along with another separate pressing of Vader’s demos and a re-release of Future of the Past [I]. I do not know why Poland produced such a disproportionate amount of metal during its last years under communism; Vader, having lived through it may very well have a better grasp on the causes.
Pestilence’s demos have been repressed at least once before, most notably on some printings of Malleus Malificarum, but this most recent compilation of them may end up being of at least historic value to the band’s fans. The Dysentery Penance combines both of the band’s 1987 demos into one release, showcasing what we described about two months ago as the “formative years” of the band. Possible added value comes from some remastering work provided by Dan Swano, as well as some live material bolted onto the end of the album. Whether or not the remaster ends up enhancing this product, it’s still probably a better purchase than the band’s post-reformation studio albums.
This December, a few notable black metal acts are touring Western/Central Europe. Gorgoroth and Gehenna, at the very least had some fame and notoriety back in the 1990s and are still well known today, although the former has drifted quite far from their best days. On the other hand, I’ve never heard of Kampfar until just now, although a cursory look at Encyclopedia Metallum suggests they’ve existed since the mid-90s. Supporting acts are expected to vary, but in the UK, these three bands will be joined by De Profundis, who is at least tangentially related to the black metal focus this tour has. I’d like to label this a “tour of the fallen” like the recently covered Slayer/Testament/Carcass tour, but it seems less definite than in that case.
On one hand, this is obviously a descendant of previous Autopsy material, but on the other hand, Skull Grinder is more conventionally structured and musical than the band’s formative work. You could make a case for my hypothesis based on the first single – i.e a lot of older styles of metal seem to be filtering into latter day Autopsy. Around these parts, this usually spells disaster and results in things like At the Gates releasing Slaughter of the Soul. Autopsy manages to avoid this fate by using these otherwise difficult to control elements in a way that actually fits their roots.
In general, Autopsy relies on a fairly simple formula to make their death metal – basic structures (not necessarily pop ones), limited technicality, and so forth. Perhaps the greatest reason Skull Grinder actually benefits from this is that Autopsy’s style always lent itself to having a strong vocal presence. Chris Reifert is on the top of his game here, successfully expanding the variety of vocal techniques he uses while remaining appropriate to the style of music on display. Similar expansions take place in the rest of the ensemble, including a more lead and solo heavy approach to guitarwork and more elaborate usage of melody in the rhythm guitar’s riffs. The downside of this more instrumentally interesting Autopsy is that it comes at expense of the band’s early mastery of song structure. In general, Skull Grinder is subtly, but definitely more haphazard in how it strings riffs together. This loss of organization skill is not drastic enough to ruin the record, but it’s an unfortunate shortcoming, and one that perhaps could have easily been avoided by giving the songwriting process a little more time to cook. Autopsy has certainly been releasing material quite consistently as of late, but I think the fans would tolerate a longer release cycle if it meant that the music was tightened up a bit and some of the more egregious filler was removed.
Despite this, Autopsy has created a better approximation of their early material than your average self-reviving band, and Skull Grinder does have a some material worthy of the band’s legacy in its short duration. There’s also some lessons to be learned here about how to expand your songwriting horizons; the best bands of the next few years will be those who can balance such wisdom with the more conventional truths Autopsy demonstrated in their past.
My own experience with Old Funeral went through three quick stages – excitement as I discovered it was home to musicians who would later go on to play in famous black metal bands, disappointment as I learned none of the famous members were in the band at the same time, and finally, cautious appreciation of their interesting but admittedly scatterbrained demos. For whatever reason, the first lineup of the band (featuring Abbath of his own solo project and formerly Immortal) briefly reunited earlier this month to play a quick concert in Bergen. The band played four songs – the Abduction of Limbs demo and a cover of Celtic Frost’s “Procreation of the Wicked”. Most likely, this brief reunion is a historical footnote at best, but I’m sure the locals had a good time. If you want to experience the band’s recordings, seek out either a copy of The Older Ones (a demo compilation) or the more recent Our Condolences (which essentially contains The Older Ones as its second disc).