On The Music of Demilich

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Article by David Rosales; get more perspective by also reading his article on Timeghoul

Much has been said about Demilich here and elsewhere, but remarkably little has been written about the potential of their music as ground for future bands to elaborate. For starters, the fact that Demilich has a solid fanbase and many admirers among professional musicians, but very few bands produce music in the same vein tells us that it is no easy task. This may also be due to the fact that most people tend to confuse appearances with mechanics, and mechanics in turn with character and essence. It seems to me that there is very little to elaborate, since Demilich is only distinctive at its very surface, in a very similar case to Immolation’s. Anything anybody may take from them besides this sort of surface plagiarism are the abstract concepts of loosening and playing with rhythm and mode consistently to achieve a distinctive sound. Perhaps even taking cues from their distinctive style could yield the foundation for the trademark sound of a younger band.

First, what makes Demilich stand out is their idiomatic approach to death metal that takes the best out of playing with tritones and off-putting harmonies in the context of the gore-flavored aura strand of the genre. Where Immolation goes for uncomfortable and dissonant, Demilich takes the modal/harmonic and rhythmic aspects of death metal to the extreme of this aural potential without incurring in the surface character deconstruction of Immolation’s coloring. Both of these bands, however, make use of standard death metal song-wide structuring techniques of the riff-salad kind with motific liaisons.

This surface extravagance coupled with an inner orthodoxy makes it very tricky for anyone to successfully extract the core of their teachings. In the case of Demilich even more so, since it is the silly side of their music’s character that stands out the most, making it particularly difficult to emulate them without producing obvious imitations. This may lead younger bands to think that a particularly derivative passage’s conspicuous appearance might be mitigated by mixing it into a hodgepodge of different styles and sounds. But to the perceptive listeners out there this will only sound like a motley fabric, a bag o’ tricks on display intended to fill in for actual content (Editor’s note: Have we told you about carnival music?).

Finally, superficial appreciation of the music of Demilich often leads fans to single out their music as “progressive”, as “opposed to traditional death metal”. Frequent readers of this site should immediately identify the grave mistake in this. Be that as it may, when you take the misunderstanding how progressive death metal in general is, and you put it together with the common metalhead’s idea of what progressive rock or metal is, you may begin to envision the monumental blunders that might come as a result.

Rather than insert Demilich-sounding passages into modern Dream Theater soundtracks, the young death metal musician might take head from the way Demilich balances out their outlandish sound. Demilich’s music, when seen at an abstract and aural level, can be divided into passages that are either more pounding, more syncopated or what we now call doom-laden (Demilich never stops too much in these power chord phrasal statements, though, so they do not really stand out). The emphasis on groove and the goofy-gore character is a constant that gives them their trademark sound.

The value of these concepts lies in learning how to produce sections that create variety within a narrative, with a distinctive and constant language that lends a personality of its own to the music. The narrative is produced through the equivalent of formal statements, developments, pauses for air, retaking of the topic, etc, in their musical manifestations. This is the greatest value of the best classic death metal bands: their outstanding ability to articulate.

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What thrived and what died from the 1990s (Part I)

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While the new last.fm redesign seems to me another exercise in pointless self-justification by middle management, the ability to see statistics on my listening has entirely changed how I view the music held closest to my heart. Seeing the numbers has shown me how it is one thing to list a band as a favorite or recommendation, and one far different animal to listen to it on a monthly basis. One is assessment alone, as if listening were your sole task, and the other utility, showing that this piece of music has a place in your life of many tasks and goals.

This assessment filters among the upper level of the highest echelon of metal. The assessment itself filters out the nonsense, all of which suffers from a single sin — disorganization — which takes many different forms but reveals a lack of will, purpose and principle in constructing art and always red-flags a directionless listen. But among those bands who have escaped the madness, there is no equality in listening. Some have risen and some have fallen over 20 years of pounding out metal from my speakers as I work or relax at home. In most cases, the reaction was first shock and then realization that the seeds of this knowledge were there all along. Let us look at a few pairs where listening habits elevated one album over a similar one…

Blasphemy Fallen Angel of Doom vs. Blood Impulse to Destroy

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Over the years metal has frequently benefited from punk influences because metal, as befits its partially progressive rock heritage, has a tendency to create layers of abstraction and complex musical discourse where punk cuts to the chase. This is both a strength and weakness for each genre; metal is abstract, which makes imitators very obvious but can get lost in muddle-headed musical wanderings, and punk is concrete, which makes it effective but imitation easy. Blasphemy introduced a punk-based genre, grindcore, into black metal. It adopted the aesthetic approach of Sarcofago but underneath applied the percussive lower-five-frets texture musik of grindcore. The result is very effective, and easy to listen to, but also — if you have many other options — kind of boring. In fact, many of these riff patterns are the same ones, albeit simplified, that speed metal bands tried and failed to use to revitalize that genre. As raw motivational material, the music is fantastic, but over time, it fades a bit as one realizes that its strength as low-complexity high impact music also means that its content is one-dimensional. Over the past 20 years, I have thrown this record on five times and apparently terminated it early each time.

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I chose Impulse to Destroy because Germany’s Blood also occupies the narrow space of grindcore bands who think like black metal or death metal bands. Grindcore generally self-reduces to extreme minimums and must, like junk food, reintroduce sugar and salt at the surface to spice up the otherwise one-dimensional utilitarian approach. Death metal on the other hand is not utilitarian, while it is consequentialist (“only death is real” being the ultimate statement of that belief) and yet also has a highly aesthetically-motivated but not aesthetically-expressed transcendental outlook. At its best, grindcore overcomes its utilitarian tendencies for a ludic or playful view of the collapsing world, and from that some of the best material emerges. Blood for example creates a dark and morbid absurdism which brings to light all that our society suppresses with itself, and like Blasphemy, creates it through patterning cut from the chromatic strips of the lower registers of guitar. In this case, however, the textures take on a life of their own, like a three-dimensional house made from flat punch-out cards. Different riffs interact with one another and dramatic pauses and collisions give rise to interesting song structures. Like Disharmonic Orchestra Expositions Prophylaxe, Impulse to Destroy provides a wealth of riff archetypes applied with enough personality and purpose to create unique compositions which may be enjoyed for decades or longer despite their simplicity.

Napalm Death Scum vs. Carbonized For the Security

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This is one of those albums that most people get for the sake of novelty. “But check these guys out, they’ve got one second songs and stuff, it’s just about noise…” — rock music does not get more ironic than that. And ultimately, that was the power of grindcore. Like punk a decade before, it removed all the pretense of rock and boiled it down to simple songs. It then sometimes added in new flourishes of song structure which made those songs more interesting than radio pop, which had been studied by MBAs and PhDs and reduced to a simple formula distinguished only (barely) by rhythm, production, instrumentation and vocals. But once the money men and white lab coats were able to look at rock as a product like any other, they saw that to please enough people in the audience to make it a hit, they did not have to innovate at all. They only needed a new skin for the same basic patterns and they could produce it over and over again with high margins (well, until digital piracy hit). Like the punk rock and then hardcore punk, grindcore stripped away illusion and replaced it with innovation. The problem here is that these songs are very similar themselves because they rely on dramatic confrontation within each song, which like all things “turned up to 11” becomes expected and thus a sort of background noise. Every time I have listened to this album it has made itself into sonic wallpaper before the halfway point.

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Some of the albums which were considered “also-rans” back in the 1990s had more to them than people initially considered. This one has been a favorite for me, along with the second album from Carbonized but not the third, for two decades. I listen to it regularly, finish the whole thing, and sometimes start it over. Record labels tried to shoehorn Carbonized into the “death metal” model despite some clear warning signs, and consequently bungled — the root of all evils is incompetence at some level, starting with the ability to be honest — the career of this promising band, but for those of us who lumped this in with aggressive grindcore like Terrorizer and Repulsion, the similarities outweighed the differences. For the Security expresses paranoia, existential insecurity, melancholic doubt of the future and a desire to explore all that life offers in depth, all within and as part of the same outlook. This is the music of a brighter-than-average teenager who perceives the world honestly and rejects the foolishness but wants to look deeper into the interesting stuff that, because it does not affirm the dominant lie, is rejected by the herd. Chunky riffs alternate with broader rhythms derived from punk and yet are dominated by a desire to make song structure vary with content inherited through metal from progressive rock. Each song forms a sonic sigil to the topic at hand and the response of the artist, making each bursting with personality and reality portrayed in finely-observed ways at the same time. This is a masterful album which will never bore.

Roundup

As you can see, Dear Reader, these albums are both quite similar on the surface — and quite different underneath. That bands can do so much with a handful of power chords, and have such different outcomes, is endlessly fascinating. Yet not every metal-influenced album is, even among A-listers like these. It may be time for all of us to go back through our listening, search ourselves honestly, and see what has actually stood the test of time.

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Revisiting: Cemetary An Evil Shade Of Grey

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Some albums have an inherently nocturnal mood to them, a form of parent moods to all others; Cemetary combines the sensation of doom metal with a heavy metal twist with the lighter and more ethereal vein of death metal to create an album of suspension of the world to venture into an exploration of nocturnal, ambiguous and excitingly lawless worlds.

Like the primeval forest, the world of thought outside of what Society demands must be true is an unnerving place full of possibility and danger, and Cemetary tempers this with a more traditional heavy metal compositional style but uses some of the death metal method of song structure as a means of emotional conveyance, much like opera does in theater. Songs break to reconstruct themselves, and then burrow deeper into a circular wending of riffs that culminates in a collision of internal forces which forces the dormant mood to the surface, by reflexive contrast relegating the previous sensations of personable melancholy to the background and uncovering a more unsettling feel of indirect, invisible forces at work.

Featuring use of a left-hand technique that seems to achieve a two-note vibrato for a further ghostly sound, these songs betray an Iron Maiden-styled heavy metal background in both progression and harmonic structure, but augment this with extensive internal evolution in the death metal style. Many will recognize this band (and fellow travelers Tiamat) as the inspiration behind Opeth, who realized if they kept the death metal to choruses and added some bouncy self-pitying pretentious folk rock for the verses they could convince the basement NEETs of the world to pompously parade around telling others how Opeth was perhaps too deep for them, by reflex incarnating themselves as agents of profundity. Cemetary avoids that fate with a simple pragmatism in that its destabilizing obscurity and isolated emotion pairs itself with good times heavy metal, converting both so that the familiar becomes self-critical and the darkness warms so that it gains a friendly touch. This gives the album a perfect mental feel for an evening with friends and a pipe of dark tobacco, perhaps Dunhill Nightcap or one of the dark flakes that conceal their high strength behind matured harvest flavors.

As in a good tobacco, the power of An Evil Shade Of Grey blooms from within the darkness, appearing first as a light alternative but then taking on a demonic sense of perverting the familiar into the uncertain. This bloom then matures in its own darkness, and reintegrates with the more friendly sounds, creating a continuum which releases expectations and allows the blended moods of solitary introspection and vigilance against imminent camouflaged threats to become themselves a type of familiarity. Through that device, this simultaneously conventional and oddball album achieves a deep subconscious effect on the listener, like all good death metal unfolding so that past riffs shift context dramatically and create the sense of discovery for the listener.

Most remember this album for its selective use of acoustic guitar in with the death metal riffs, and its parallels of listenability and challenging emptiness, but its surface traits only serve to propel it deeper into its own brooding ambiguity. An Evil Shade Of Grey recently celebrated 23 years since its introduction, and remains as perfect for nighttime perambulation and contemplation as it did then, joining albums like the first Darkthrone and early doom metal in stimulating both the mind and the heart in a study of the dark spaces of existence.

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The Failure of Revival – Pt. I

DEATHEVOKATION – The Chalice of Ages

“Old-school death metal.” What do the claims of revival amount to in this case? A confused conglomeration of tried-and-true technique; everything but the kitchen sink that 1988 through 1993 made use of, plus the whole aesthetic, with none of the unifying spirit. Too many backward glances with no actual thought to show for it. Musically, this is the simple plod of Leprosy-era DEATH at its core, melodically and rhythmically — or is it the massive wall of early GRAVE? The doom-tinged meanderings of ASPHYX? Whatever the flavor, this fails to show even a hint of having learned something from the past, and is fundamentally BORING besides.

I forget — what is it they keep saying about not learning from the past?

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