Finnish label The Sinister Flame is rereleasing the legendary underground Wine of Satan black metal compilation featuring Beherit, Master’s Hammer, and Mortuary Drape! From The Sinister Flame’s Funbook page:
Article by Lance Viggiano.
Burzum and Beherit each represent two summits of black metal’s many perspectives – in particular its looking back to look ahead ethos. The work of Laiho is exploratory and spiritual while the work of Varg is seeking and religious. Each composer followed a similar trajectory of mapping this landscape through metal first, then ambient. Each phase reveals strengths and weakness in each of their aims which results in a somewhat complementary synthesis between two highly individual bodies of work.
Article by Lance Viggiano
Metal, like nearly every form of contemporary western music, carries legacy traits from western classical music. Noting these inherited qualities and their contribution to metal’s identity is a fruitful venture worth study. Yes, some artists such as Emperor created music that may as well have been performed by an orchestra. Nevertheless there is a distinct tendency among metalheads to validate metal through this heritage. The logic behind this is eloquent and simple: Classical maintains an esteemed position and metal retains compositional/artistic characteristics of classical; therefore metal is good (insert adjective for good: High Art, Quality, etc.). This does a disservice to metal however as it forsakes the baroque for the succinct while deriving much of its power from textural aesthetics. Metal needs to be qualified and judged according to its own merits.
Both forms of music arrange motifs according to an underlying narrative. The pathos of western classical music is derived out of experiments in harmony that attempted to imitate a well ordered and intricately planned cosmos. The composer embodies the role of the One God who conceives and executes a nature in which each of its parts cooperate in accordance with divine law or in the case of music: its score and story. Metal however is all about the riff; not just its position in the score but also the way it sounds and the way it feels. Downtuning a guitar, plugging it into a bass amp, and dialing the gain knob to its upper limit are not trivial or accidental decisions. The textural component gives the music body which allows for succinct motifs to achieve significance out of relative simplicity. On the other hand, classical must take on a ”notey” characteristic to give the music weight. The roar of an ensemble is a force of its own, yet it is comparatively tame next to the bludgeoning delivered by an amplifier and a few pedals.
Classical entices the mind with intricate and ornate patterns while metal ignites the heart by delivering an unabashedly barbaric, vitriolic and brash force of will. With each occupying distinct but equally valid dimensions of the human experience – The mind and the heart, respectively – it becomes clear that using one to validate the other does a great disservice to each form of music. Unplug metal and survey its patterns next to classical and one will find that it sounds as if it was composed by intellectually immature children. Plug classical patterns into metal and one finds that the need to make tonal sacrifices to retain clarity while distilling patterns down so as to be performed by fewer instruments results in sterile powerless wank which exists without proper support.
The Romantic movement turned its gaze back to the primacy of nature from the perspective of the civilized man who took all of his habits of thought with him; retaining his clear, distinct abstract patterns and hard mental boundaries. He walks at a distance from the forest so as to keep his boots from the blemishing mud and his coat from the shearing thicket. The Romanticism of metal walks barefooted against the cold soil, barely managing to escape the weather but never the bonds of nature. His damp stone refuge is aerated by a primate musk so thick that the festering gobbets and searing tendons of his kill cannot penetrate it. The civilized man understands nature as an idea from which he is blissful detached and divinely endowed to understand while the uncivilized man understands nature as an irrational outpouring of desire against which his only freedom is attained by projecting his own will against the world. Each vantage point offers a unique view of the same landscape. From that summit the artistry of metal ought to be discussed and ultimately, loved.
According to a source at Blabbermouth, the owners of Candlelight Records in the UK have recently sold their assets to Spinefarm Records in Finland. By doing this, they have consolidated even more label power into Universal Media Group. For now, former Candlelight members keep their previous licensing deals, and the deal has prompted the usual pieces of corporate rhetoric; what becomes of the former label’s assets is really more of a question for the roster. Spinefarm and Candlelight Records have both made indelible marks on metal history by releasing many famous metal recordings. In Spinefarm’s case, this includes formative works by Sentenced and Beherit, while Candlelight brought out Emperor’s studio work, as well as the debuts of Havohej and Opeth. Both went on to even more commercially successful artists.
From a recent interview with our editor:
You and the other reviewers are notorious for having incredibly harsh reviews. What would you say are your favorite metal albums of all time?
These metal albums have stayed in weekly rotation over the years:
- Massacra – Final Holocaust
- Slayer – Show No Mercy
- Incantation – Onward to Golgotha
- Sepultura – Morbid Visions/Bestial Devastation
- Deicide – Legion
- Beherit – Drawing Down the Moon
- Cianide – A Descent Into Hell
- Atheist – Unquestionable Presence
- Demilich – Nespithe
- Demoncy – Joined in Darkness
The reason my analysis is different than that of other metal sites is that populist writers prioritize surface novelty and underlying similarity to mainstream rock, where I look at metal as a form of art in its own right. It should be measured by the quality of its internal organization and ability to artistically represent a vision of power. The popular “best of” lists specialize in bands that will be forgotten in a few years because when the novelty is gone, they are the same old stuff you could get anywhere else.
I keep a copy of Sepultura Morbid Visions/Bestial Devastation in every room in the house. I dislike being too far from one at any given time.
What contemporary bands should we be paying attention to?
In music as in all things, I am an elitist. This means that I want the best music available because time is short and there is no point wasting it on the trivial. Keep an eye on Demoncy, Sammath, Blaspherian, Kjeld, Desecresy, Kaeck, Blood Urn, and Kever.
Some accuse your site of manufacturing a controversy with MetalGate but the SJW infiltration of political correctness in metal has technically been going on since the late 90s. Do you think metal can actually be tamed by leftists and what is your perspective on the attempts to make metal safe?
SJWs are incapable of understanding the aesthetics of metal, which is why all leftist music tends to be metal-flavored riffing wrapped around rock or punk. Metal music sounds the way it does because its outward form represents what its composers wish to communicate. Ignoring lyrics and imagery, which are entirely secondary to composition much as production is, the music itself conveys an abstract and distant sound that makes beauty out of ugliness through a respect for power. In metal, what is powerful creates excellence, and from within that comes the elegance of form and portrayal of reality that makes great art.
Rock takes the opposite view. It is basically intense repetition with an ironic twist at the end, which means that it differentiates itself through “message.” People love catchy lyrics that embody some idea they find appealing at the time, but these are always experiences based in the individual, which is why almost all of rock music is love songs or “protest music” that wails about how inconvenient it is that some complex idea stands between the individual and a good time. You cannot both be pro-nationalist and listen to rock music.
Metal came about when Black Sabbath wanted to interrupt the hippies — what they called SJWs back when they opposed The Establishment — with some “heavy” (hippie slang for intense, epic and terrifying) realism. The West was falling apart, and the popular movements insisted that if we just focused on peace, love and happiness, all our problems would magically vanish. This focus on reality makes metal appear right-wing to leftists. It embraces consequentialism, worship of the ancient, distrust of the narcissism in the individual, and the idea of conflict itself, so that those who are strongest win. This inherently clashes with the individualist groupthink of the left, which seeks to avoid conflict and manage people indirectly through guilt.
When SJWs make metal, it ends up sounding like punk rock or rock because those forms of “protest music” reflect the individualist and yet group-oriented mentality of the SJW. Like the Christians with their “white metal” in the 1980s and the many times commercial record labels have tried to launch rock bands disguised as metal to capture the metal audience, social justice workers (SJWs) are trying to force entry by liberal ideas into metal so they can take over the space of culture that it dominates, and its audience, and indoctrinate them in leftism. Both media and labels support this because it is cheaper to make rock bands than metal bands.
Metalgate rose to resist this conspiracy and call it what it is, which is an attempt to control our minds through propaganda in music, as well as a gambit to replace what we know of as metal with a “safe” version based in indie rock. Most people do not know it, but metal generates a lot of income because metal fans are loyal to the genre over the course of their lives. Record labels could make a lot of money if they could sell the same old pap with metal flavoring. Luckily metalheads are resisting as they have resisted every attempt to assimilate their genre into rock ‘n roll, break its spirit and make it repeat the same dogma that exists in every other genre of music.
It is a seldom-known fact that you get more of what you allow to exist. In a musical community, this means that whatever albums sell enough to attract some audience will produce imitators.
When a community is thriving, this means that good albums replace bad. When a community is dying, it means that labels pump out thousands of near-duplicates in an effort to reap profit.
The community that proves intolerant of the bad is a good step, but the community must act in the corresponding opposite, which is to celebrate the good. To hold up all that is excellent means that more of it will come, because it is rewarded.
As we pass through the 20th anniversary of the demise of death metal and black metal, which perished in a flood of imitators who pushed the quality material to the periphery, it behooves us to celebrate the excellent and use it to push aside the rest.
What follows is a partial summary of the highlights of the last five years. These are albums that should be played loudly, given to metalheads at Christmas, forced onto MP3 playlists and constantly affirmed as excellent. This is the only path to better metal.
Blaspherian – Infernal Warriors of Death
Underground metal began with Slayer, which mixed hardcore punk and heavy metal to make a new sound, inspiring in the next generation bands like Bathory, Hellhammer and Sodom who made a darker and more detuned sound. By the time the genre flowered in the late 1980s many bands integrated the Hellhammer style of bass-heavy thunderous material alongside the faster Slayer style of tremolo phrasal riffs. Picking up from that era, Blaspherian combines the thunder of Deicide and Immolation with the simplicity of early doom-death, creating songs that simultaneously use primitive parts and arrange them into more than the sum of those parts. A morbid and violent atmosphere emanates from this music as it rolls through a few basic riffs per song, setting up a Possessed-style verse chorus but then like Incantation and other old school acts, expanding on that context to create a ritual atmosphere. This mysticism of thunder and subterranean blackness pervades the resulting metallic onslaught which favors the dark, antisocial and evil side of metal. What defined the underground was this stepping away from the modes of seeing that most people use to look at society, and to instead associate itself with the bestial forces of nature and occultism that array against any form of order that has no goal but itself.
Beherit – Engram
When Beherit makes an album, the result will not only open full throttle on the ears of its listeners, but also change how we think of black metal. Its violent and simplistic early days took the deliberate primitivism of Blasphemy and Sarcofago and made from it violent amalgamation of dark moods and the unleashed human id which wants nothing more than to crush this overgrown, spoiled, decadent and indulgent world of directionless people and purposeless activity. With Drawing Down the Moon, Beherit created a standard that few bands could exceed, which was an album both inventive in its use of occult symbolism and distinct for its memorable, infectious and yet dread-intensifying riffs. After years and permutations later, Beherit returned to the fray with an album that aimed to expand the relationship between black metal and ambient music and operate as an album, moving us from one frame of mind to another through immersion in fragments of idea that add up to a whole picture. This is no trivial task! Engram begins in tribute to Venom and Bathory and ends in an entirely different style where hermetic atmospheres mingle with riffs that seem to use ancient numerology to achieve the balance between ear-addictingly hook-laden and a dark mood like atavism which creates a feral disconnection from the failed mentality of this world and transports us to another. The violence seems subdued at first but emerges in the mindset this album creates. It literally reprograms the mind, much like the thought objects that its title references. Better than most of its critics realized, Engram showed black metal a new way but that set the bar too high for most of the hack ‘n slash three riff crowd. It remains a testament to what this style can achieve even two decades from its foundation.
Sammath – Godless Arrogance
Sammath always made quality black metal that favored the duality of the original work: primitive/barbaric and yet elegant/beautiful. Shocking as it is, black metal appears designed after the dictatorships of Stalin and Hitler, which favored fancy uniforms and grand ceremony as they bombed, murdered, and subjugated their way across the world. If you can imagine a beautiful warplane with graceful curves and an inner beauty, and then visualize it destroying 10,000 enemies without mercy or even a pause for a snack, that is the sound of the new Sammath. It combines the elegant melodies and song structure of the band’s first album with the battering ram war machine approach of their middle works, resulting in an album that has the melodic elegance of early Immortal but the attack speed of Morbid Angel. Not only that, but this album shows across the board upgrades in songwriting for this Dutch band, with no extraneous material and tightly integrated arrangements.
Graveland – Thunderbolts of the Gods
Later Graveland inhabits the difficult zone between black metal, the Conan soundtrack and ambient neofolk. These albums are harder to distinguish at first listen because songs are based on the interaction and harmonization between different melodies instead of the emergence of a single guitar line melody which then defines the song. Starting with Memory and Destiny, Graveland morphed into its own genre with more in common with Summoning and Empyrium than conventional black metal. As a result, few know how to understand these albums, but it appears the best approach is to listen to them as albums and to fully intend to lose yourself in the sonic environment they create. Most descriptions of Thunderbolts of the Gods will combine “lush” with descriptions of martial power and motivation because true to its name, this is an album not just about war, but the reasons for war that mix sociology and theology in a potent brew that stimulates emotions deep within your average red-blooded metalhead. Like the earliest of Graveland releases, these describe lonely Celtic nights in the frozen Pagan mountains while waging warfare against unnamed unending enemies (like a buffet gone wrong). Not only does Graveland possess the same epic vision as before, but now the band has added epic instrumentation including layers of keyboards, synth instruments, strings and a guitar line that now organizes the other melodies instead of trying to dominate all alone. The result is like being lost in a book more than tapping your foot along to a record.
Profanatica – Profanatitas de Domonatia
Many are turned off by the somewhat amateurish album title but they should stick around for the music, which combines the best complex long-phrase tremolo riffing in the Incantation school with the acerbic and vigorously rhythmic black metal for which Havohej/Profanatica are famous. Before you can say “I vomit on God’s child!” (and you should say this daily) the album tears into its circuitous riffs that give relatively straightforward compositions an air of esoteric bafflement in addition to enjoyment of a good tune with forward momentum and acrobatic guitar work. While this album is not as raw and purely rhythmic as earlier Profanatica, it makes up for that by creating instead an air of mystery and paranoia, like walking into the court of a Satanic adversary and being told to justify oneself. Vocals retain their traditional rasp and as usual, Paul Ledney’s drum playing adds a richness of rhythm that most bands do not have. The result is pure enjoyment of the musical aspects of this band with the constant blasphemy as a garnish. Its inventive riffing and foray into death metal territory adds a depth to black metal that corresponds to the raw aggression this band has always used as the charge behind its warhead of apostatic occultism, and in this album the entirety comes together for a complex series of moods within a similar idea. If anything, this improves on older works which could be too straightforward for repeated listening, where Profanatitas de Domonatia holds up as a musical companion.
Demoncy – Enthroned is the Night
Always an outlier, Demoncy saw its greatest career height when it produced a death metal record with black metal atmosphere in Joined in Darkness. Not content to revisit past victories, Demoncy launch in a melodic direction and mix death metal and black metal influences into a smooth voice by always retaining the black metal atmosphere and refusing to get into the more abrupt stop/start mentality of death metal which loves contrast. Black metal is after all about emergence of ideas instead of discovering them at the end of labyrinth, and so Demoncy creates an album where riffs establish atmosphere and song structure provides gathering mood, creating a momentum of dark emotion which eventually dominates the entire experience. Unlike most black metal bands, Demoncy prefers to create atmosphere through steady application of layers and then selective removal, which avoids the charge into the abyss sensation but instead creates a sense of slowly sinking into the depths of human emotion. Riffs and ideas on this album borrow from the classic years of death metal, specifically the first two albums from Unleashed, but add to it the sense of an arch-predator on vigilant patrol above a wasteland of miserable, helpless souls that Joined in Darkness made so effective. Instead Demoncy lets these riffs ring out and then join simultaneously simpler and more cryptic song structures to create a sense of delight in the possibilities of darkness.
Divine Eve – Vengeful and Obstinate
Divine Eve combine death metal with the newer veins of doom metal, mixing in classic heavy metal and punk to give the genre more of a listenable approach and higher energy. What results is a command to battle that suffuses with the dread and morbidity of doom metal but joins it to a violent but almost boyish delight in the possibilities of music and life itself. As a result despite its doom inclinations and death metal styling, this album more resembles the adventurous explorations of a world falling apart that bands like The Doors embarked upon a generation ago. Guitar work prefers the boxy charging approach of punk bands or minimal acts like Cianide and Motorhead, giving these songs a bounding energy even when they slow down and removing the polish that later death metal used to obscure its dark intent. Although this is an EP and so runs shorter than an album, it gives a vision of Divine Eve joining the style and substance of their 1990s EP As the Angels Weep with the material most of the band released as Crimson Relic and some of its recent appearances. Rumor has it that Divine Eve are currently working on new material for release in the near future, which makes it more exciting that this promising release presages onslaughts which may amplify the promise it unveiled.
Blotted Science – The Animation of Entomology
Modern metal makes itself hard to like, both because it is a hybrid and thus a loss of direction, and because it is fundamentally annoying, being based in the late hardcore style of “carnival music” where the goal is to make each riff dramatically contrasting the rest, resulting in a type of randomness that appeals to lost teenagers in a lost land. Blotted Science take that approach to its logical conclusion by removing the vocals and the randomness, and preferring instead to stack together related riffs that initially do not appear to be so, causing songs to flow together like collapsing buildings where many disparate parts suddenly become a single momentum. Most reviewers will focus on technical ability, which is not lacking here, but the real triumph of this band is using adept songwriting to pull together a mess of a genre and make something better out of it. These songs, like those on Gorguts Obscura, embrace the chaos of life and impose order on it in unconventional ways, much like objects seen through a microscope do not resemble the physical whole seen without magnification. These songs speak to a delight in the power of music itself and the imagination to twist and obscure a message only to bring it out with greater impact after a roller coaster of riffing distorts reality and deranges the senses.
The movement that some are calling “neoambient” — a fusion of dark ambient, Conan soundtracks, and neofolk — generally arose out of the metal community. The classics of the genre converge on Lord Wind (Graveland), Burzum and Black Aria (Glenn Danzig). In addition, metal bands contributed to related forms of epic ambient, like Beherit (Electric Doom Synthesis) and Neptune Towers (Darkthrone). Newer entrants like Winglord and Hammemit explore different paths along similar directions.
But how do we trace the influences and evolution of this genre? Glenn Danzig (Misfits, Samhain, Danzig) launched a partial revolution in 1992 with his Conan-inspired Black Aria. Several years later, Burzum followed this with Daudi Baldrs and Hlidskjalf, both of which used Dead Can Dance-themed ancient world music to frame the epic nature of its compositions, giving it a feel not just of Conan-styled epic conflict, but of a cultural basis.
There’s another influence lurking just a few years before Danzig — affirmed by Rob Darken as an influence on his music in Lord Wind — which was the music of Clannad as used in the BBC series Robin of Sherwood:
Like Justin Broadrick project Final, or post-Napalm Death project Lull, Suuri Shamaani attempts to shape sound itself using overlapping drones and ambient noises to create internal harmonies. Mysteerien Maailma (commonly called the “mysterious mailman” album for its resemblance to that phrase in English) represents a more ritualistic and ordered vision of that approach.
Those who enjoy the later music of Beherit, especially Electric Doom Synthesis, may appreciate the extension of ideas here. Like other post-black metal ambient project Neptune Towers, Suuri Shamaani discards what we recognize as music to shape an adventure or topography out of sound.
It is more like poetry made with discovered noise organized into a music-like language than it is composed music as we know it. Because its sonic texture is lighter than that of booming guitars or bright keyboards, Mysteerien Maailma requires a quieter listening environment and more investment of attention from the listener.
Limited to 300 copies.
- I (3:52)
- Valve (14:32)
- Tähdet Ja Avaruus (9:58)
- IV (4:24)
- A17 (4:39)
- Jännite (3:33)
- Säde1 (3:03)
- VIII (3:21)
- IX (7:39)
- Okkultismi (4:44)
In the mainstream press, black metal has a reputation for being solely misanthropic, heavily distorted anthems of aggression and despair that are defined by their primitive minimalism.
While this may hold true for the majority of contemporary bands, this view overlooks the foundational bands of the genre, who possessed a deft sense of melody and the focus to create longer compositions that allowed for more introspection.
Just as black metal musicians created a more minimalistic form of death metal, some were able to apply the same approach to the ambient and neoclassical genres, crafting tracks that through the use of repetition, stirring melodies, and tonal variation reveal the genre’s primal elegance without need of layers of distortion.
Given the news that Neptune Towers is being released on vinyl and Burzum is releasing an album comprised entirely of electronic music, now seems a fitting time to investigate this interesting subgenre and how it arose from black metal in several instances.
Favoring simple but expansive compositions, contemplative melodies soar over mild arpeggios; in addition to a few tracks of industrial nihilistic deconstruction. Through the utilization of modern technology, Burzum makes narrative and meditative music that like its inspiration Tolkien, takes the participant on an internal journey to another realm.
A side project of Darkthrone‘s Fenriz, in Neptune Towers haunting melodies glide over dark drones while otherworldly noises color the backdrop. Evocative tracks signal the coming to Earth of a yet-unknown alien species or perhaps the future evolution of humanity, the soundtrack to the future.
This band fuses its earlier black metal style with the industrial, pop, and ambient genres, featuring melodies that would not be out of place on a metal album, but pairs them with repetitive trance-like drums, synths, and found sounds that coalesce into epic moments before fading away like the rays of a burned out sun. Fans of multiple genres should appreciate this one.
Elegant and skillfully composed tracks celebrating the beauty of nature in their simplicity reveal a greater depth of expression than would be possible with over-produced tracks. Just as he did with black metal, Ildjarn with compatriot Nidhogg reduces neoclassical music to its most basic form and builds from it an enchanting structure.
A side project of Graveland, with Lord Wind martial drumming and heroic melodies bring to mind the battles of old, while synths and choruses expand the project’s horizons, providing reach to contrast with the grounded and earthy rhythms. Well-crafted neoclassic folk music, this is the further continuation of Graveland‘s second stage.
The year is done. It brought many things: a new wave of hipster metal that blipped and died, an old school revival that’s been percolating for years, drama and sadness with the recent death of Rigor Mortis’ Mike Scaccia. Above all else, however, it brought us some quality music, some of which is heavy metal and some of which is metal in spirit only. Enjoy this survey of the best of 2012.
The Best Metal (and related) of 2012
- Abhorrence – Completely VulgarThis legendary band existed before Amorphis and plays a grittier style of the bold, warlike and heavy yet melodic music that graced Amorphis’ first album, The Karelian Isthmus. These Abhorrence tracks show the band that would later write that album as they emerge from early grind/death stylings and gradually work more melody into their work. This is metal’s holy grail: how to be both epic and amoral in the nihilistic sense of worshipping power, darkness and nature, but also use melody and harmony to give the works some staying power. As this collection of re-released demos progresses, the fusion of the two gets more confident and deft, leading us up to the point where the greatness of the first Amorphis album was inevitable.
- Angel Witch – As Above, So BelowAfter a lengthy absence, this classic NWOBHM band returns with an album that shows integration of more recent influences, specifically American heavy metal and progressive metal, but still keeps up the power. These songs are not as distinctive or as oddball as the heavily personalitied offerings from their self-titled album, but As Above, So Below is important because it takes disparate influences and places them under the control of one voice and style, which gives others room to build on. The oil-on-water aspect of bands switching between influences is gone and replaced by a smooth enwrapping of these styles into the substrate of Angel Witch’s lauded and learned evil heavy metal.
- Beherit – Celebrate the DeadIf death metal was modernism, with its emphasis on structure, black metal was postmodernism, or an attempt to show through atmosphere the many facets of an idea in a clarity which could not be confined to a single statement. This was a quest as old as humanity, which is how to communicate in such a way that people who do not understand it do not simply imitate it from the outside-in and make something that looks about like it, fooling most people. Since the late 1990s Beherit have been at work inventing the next wave or movement of metal, one in which multiple statements co-exist in contradictory opposites that reveal the shadow or silhouette of an underlying truth. Two forms are in tension here: the “loop” form of traditional ambient music, in which layers are poured on top of a basic dub to create a simple sonic tapestry, and the pure narrative form which electro-acoustic music (and even some dubstep) touches on, in which a story is told through the change of riffs. This is closer to the original death metal idea of structure, but it is structure created through atmosphere, like old Tangerine Dream and Brian Eno albums, or even classical music. To this end, Beherit has re-released two demo songs from Engram which are ambitious longer (13- and 15-minute) works which show a deepening and changing of atmosphere, using both looping and narrative constructs at the same time. This is a valiant and clear-headed attempt to resurrect black metal, which has fallen into the hands of those who imitate the “external” aspects of the early classics like simple riffs and fast songs, but understand none of the underlying ideas or songwriting methods. While it seems unconventional at first, Celebrate the Dead is a return to the truest form of black metal by expanding its orthodoxy to include the transcendental narrative of those more experienced in both this world, and the realms beyond. Be not fooled — evil pervades this release, so subtly that you will not know until it has seized your soul.
- Dead Can Dance – AnastasisFor their return after some absence, Dead Can Dance have taken the style on Spiritchaser and refined it even more with the sensibility of modern club music and soundtrack influences. Rhythms and tempo work like you might expect a big label ambient album to work, fitting very much into the slightly picked up chill-out range with gentle backing beats that are still identifiable enough to make it easy to listen to. Consistent with even earlier work, songs use extended structures, but they fit the pattern of an early MTV video or short film more than a musical one. The result is that these are immersive little sonic ventures that are both easy to hear and not surprising, and also, rewarding in their consistency and adept arrangements. Melodies themselves are not as adventurous or period/locale-specific as older Dead Can Dance, and in fact more lifts from earlier influences can be heard (check out the Doors “The end” inspirations on the first track). For a purist, this will not be the best Dead Can Dance album, but for something that has stepped into the Loreena McKennit or Enya range of “accessible,” this is far beyond what most would encounter otherwise and makes for a pleasant listen on its own.
- Demoncy – Enthroned is the NightAlong with Beherit, this shares the top spot as album of the year. In 2012, a wave of bands like Cruciamentum and Heresiarch rediscovered the sound of classic Incantation from the Onward to Golgotha area. Having come from the same school, joined to Incantation by Ixithra’s former band Havohej’s primary composer, Paul Ledney, having been an original member of Incantation, Demoncy launched into the same by creating a faithful followup to 1996’s Joined in Darkness. In this case, Demoncy add a bit of melody and atmosphere, channeling from first album Unleashed and other Swedish death metal classics, thus combining the two most intense areas of death metal into what is really a death metal album with a black metal sense of atmosphere. The result is a descent into a dark and primal place in which occult spiritual warfare transpires through the battling of motifs in this complex album made of simple parts. Like Joined in Darkness, it is otherworldly and foreboding, but a bit less purely alienated; instead, this album creates a sense of symbolic significance emerging like melody from the clouded obscure. Very little black metal of this intensity has been made since the mid-1990s which makes this both faithful to the spirit and pushing the boundaries of the genre, a simultaneous advancement that eludes most musicians and fans alike.
- Derkéta – In Death We MeetArising from the ashes of Mythic, the all-female doom-death band from the early 1990s, Derkéta follows in a more purely doom metal path including some of the juicy 1970s heavy metal style doom metal that audiences enjoy with bands like Pentagram and Witchfinder General. 24 years later, this album is the first for this promising band, and holds back nothing. Like Mythic, the music is formed of giant bolsters of tunneling power chords colliding slowly over a changing melodic landscape. Atmosphere emerges from within. The simplicity of it removes the glitz and contentless enhancement of current doom metal bands, and takes the listeners back to the essence of the genre, which is an unsettling sense of pervasive dread. A prominent Candlemass Ancient Dreams influence seems to be present in these compact and droning songs.
- Desecresy – The Doom SkeptronDesecresy approach Finnish death metal the way others might approach doom metal, using melody and abstract song structures to convey an experience not unlike watching the helmet camera of a pilot flying through a vast and ancient underground cave in which demons seem to lurk behind every stalagtite. Comparable to a hybrid between Amorphis and Skepticism, this album nonetheless keeps up the umptempo riffing and lets its melodies emerge to construct an emanating atmosphere. The result is both aggressive and enjoyable from a purely death metal perspective, but where appropriate, it uses the moods of doom metal to complete that raging insanity to produce an experience that is like a journey. There are doubts, fears, joys, rage and sadness, but pervading all of it is a sonorous melancholy which indicates a change in viewing life from orientation toward what is safe, to prizing what is adventurous and as such being alone on a planet of people concerned with safety labels and microwave cooking.
- Drawn and Quartered – Feeding Hell’s FurnaceImagine a hybrid between Angelcorpse and Num Skull. These songs are extremely basic, like the melodies of horror movies, but are put together with interlocking rhythms that propel them forward and give them atmosphere. As a result, their themes feel intuitive like paths through a forest remembered from a childhood story. There will not be surprise at the ways these tunes twist and bend, but appreciation for a well-done interpretation on a necessary idea. In the same way you might appreciate an excellent sword or well-executed painting of a familiar subject, these songs will be appreciated for how well they do what they love. Just as most musicians make their best work when they design it to be enjoyed repeatedly by people with their own tastes, this faithful and yet creative interpretation of the old school death metal genre will be shared among those who can appreciate it, for taking the past and making it live on by keeping it current to itself and through inventiveness, an enjoyable listen.
- Faustcoven – Hellfire and Funeral BellsThis release is not particularly metal, or at least underground metal, even though it aspires to the aesthetics of it. Rather, this is like Marilyn Manson interpreting classic heavy metal in a gothic doom metal context as informed by death metal aesthetics but not technique. It’s basically blues rock with short phrase power chord riffs and highly compelling rhythm, underneath leads that are reminiscent of a friendlier version of St. Vitus. Good use of theme allows this release to be a faithful listen and also have some staying power for those who like this style. Like most doom metal, it is designed to build a repetitive atmosphere that is part curl of enjoyment, and part linear path of a melancholic mood. The death metal vocals would normally be out of place here but with the heavy reverb they take a backseat and let the guitars talk, which is the point of this band. It will probably not delight those who like underground metal, but if you’re looking for someplace to go for your next Cathedral or Sleep fix, this furry doom band holds the ticket.
- Grave – Endless Procession of SoulsGrave return to the Swedish style which they helped make famous. Like later Fleshcrawl, this music is simplified from the original riff-salad which was reverse-assembled to make a journey into darkness emerge from thin air, but although it uses plenty of verse-chorus segments, they are not the entirety of each song. There are enough labyrinthine twists and turns to be fun, a good motivational rhythm, and an atmosphere of darkness and aggressive that is also (oddly) comforting and natural. Although musically this is fairly basic, like early Grave, it shows more use of melody and harmony, which adds an appreciable dimension of compactness and centering without falling into standard rock music. The result is easy to listen to and yet brings out its power in moments of sudden clarity which, as in life, make the listener think there might be more afoot than the obvious.
- Imprecation – Jehovah DeniedThis four-song EP shows the resurrected Imprecation: more consistent in its songwriting, slightly less manic, and more inclined to create a pervasive atmosphere of darkness. The occult death metal founders from Houston originally shone in the early 1990s, when their demos and later CD were released, but returned after inaction and the lending of band members to other acts. Their earlier material had more of a Morbid Angel influence and presented itself as clear occultism, where the newer material goes back more toward where Possessed and early old school death metal (Morpheus Descends, Massacre) were headed back in their day. Mood-enhancing use of background keyboards gives an aura of the mysterious to these dark melodies and the organic rhythms which suffuse them. Influences on this music span from pre-death metal, through the walking and stalking rhythms of speed metal, to the later black metal works in song structure and atmosphere. This EP presages a killer full-length but stands on its own as quality music with a voice particular to its worldview.
- Incantation – Vanquish in VengeanceWith new personnel and possibly the strongest sense of unity in a long time, Incantation very sensibly took influences deliberately from their own two greatest successes: Onward to Golgotha and Diabolical Conquest. The result is an album that self-consciously borrows from those albums in style but tries to create new songs to wrap in that style, and with the aid of new guitarist Alex Bouks (ex-Goreaphobia) shapes its works around melodic shapes but does not adorn them in melodic riffing, creating a sense of an inner region of hidden energy within the exterior of rugged chromatic shapes. The result is one of Incantation’s most conventional albums but also a festival of the methods that made early Incantation so distinctive and powerful, which combined makes for a good later death metal listen.
- Legion of Doom – The Summoning of ShadowsThis oddity of an album begins with some form of sung prayer and launches into songs that are both adorned in the harmonic glaze of melodic playing and also possessed of the manic simplicity of early black metal. Like the primitive era of black metal, these songs are specific structures fitting the content of each song, with droning riffs that interact and build to a culmination before dissipating. On this album, Legion of Doom use more death metal and speed metal technique in with their Burzum-inspired black metal, ending in a result that sounds more like an ornate and elegant version of Gorgoroth’s Destroyer. Like all Legion of Doom releases, The Summoning of Shadows features songs that accelerate thematic intensity in layers and produce an immerse, ambient experience that suspends reality through the sheer dominating power of its riffs. This album is more efficient than the last couple of releases of this band, and by embracing a listenable style, makes the type of outsider album that Marduk or Watain wish they could.
- Lord Wind – Ales StenarIf you want to immerse yourself in ancient sensation, Graveland axeman Rob Darken’s ambient/neofolk/soundtrack project Lord Wind is a good place to start. Unlike previous Lord Wind efforts, Ales Stenar mixes real vocals and violin with electronic music that is roughly inspired by the Conan and Red Sonja soundtracks. The goal however is less like the rock-ish folk songs of neofolk, or the grand accompaniment for cinema provided by soundtracks; this is music like Burzum or Graveland that is designed for the listener to lose themselves in its repetitive hypnotic surges, like a catechism or mantra. Its soaring melodies and plunging dynamics give it a familiarity like the rush of blood through veins in the ears, and the result feels natural and yet inspired to rise above the mundane at the same time. Like entering a forest, the songs open up to repeated listens and soon each part is distinct, but our natural way is to hear it all at once and derive a sentimental feeling, perhaps warlike, from it. This is the most proficient and perhaps most profound of the Lord Wind albums, proffering a complete escape from reality to a world that is both fantasy and more real than the stuporous dream of modernity.
- Master – The New EliteOver the past few albums, punk/heavy metal hybrid Master has steadily been migrating toward late-1990s death metal. This new album presents a more technical view than the verse-chorus-exposition songs that Master (and related Speckmann projects) evolved from. Much like On the Seventh Day God Created…Master, riffs are strummed with precision at high speed and tend to lead away from stable grouping by adding riffs to the existing loop. These riffs use longer progressions and more chromatic fills, giving the music a mechanical terror that makes it sound like technocracy taking over. Speckmann’s vocals are tighter than in the past and urge the music along, but somewhere in this musical process of evolution, his overall tone has started sounding less like protest music and more like a cheering of the coming conflagration. Seeing that Master keep improving over time provides a great incentive to follow this band as they evolve further.
- Profanatica – Sickened by Holy Host / The Grand Masters SessionsSometimes, in order to reach your next aspiration, it is necessary to part with the past. Profanatica have done this in grand style by accumulating old tracks and re-working them in parallel, with one disc containing newer versions done in the early 1990s style, and the other containing older session takes on the same songs, interspersed with acoustic landscapes by Aragorn Amori, the band’s much-admired deceased former guitarist. Through its long history, the entity known as Profanatica/Havohej (or: Paul Ledney and friends) has consistently released material showcasing a truly artistic brilliance. Usually, between moments of brilliance there are experiments and less intense offerings that make it easy to forget that when they are in full swing, these musicians are unstoppable forces creating a unique type of black metal that is closer to ambient death metal but unlike most black metal at this time, possessed of a full mythos and unique view of the world. Like the best of Profanatica/Havohej, these two discs are ripping sonic terror that transcend daily life and divulge the essence of the feral spirit of pre-civilized humanity. In that vision of evil, Profanatica offer us something both inspiring and instructive, and do so through some of the best music of their career.
- Terrorizer – Hordes of ZombiesPeople love change if it is constant and hate it if not. Terrorizer misstepped with their first post-World Downfall album, but came back with a strong contender on Hordes of Zombies. It does not attempt to be World Downfall II which is intelligent since outward-in emulation of the past usually produces hollow shells, and a good many classic bands have gone to their graves in disgrace by doing the same thing. Instead, this aims more at the territory scoped by Napalm Death with Fear, Emptiness, Despair: a modern form of grindcore that is musical and listenable without being commercial, and aims less at creating an atmosphere of terror and misery than creating motivational, energetic and yet literalist/realist music. These songs convey a desire to look at a dangerous situation with hopeless odds, then jump in and fight it out. It’s war music, but music of a normalized war, like going out into a declining civilization and fighting for mundane survival. Hordes of Zombies does this through a somewhat overused metal metaphor, that of the zombie takeover of society, but as a movie/musical trope this theme has remained consistent since the 1960s because it so aptly describes egalitarian society. Consumerism, mass trends, fads, panics, elections, Black Friday sales, save-the-children; it’s all in there. Terrorizer may be brilliant satirists for transforming all of that mass neurosis into a simple symbol and then making these engaging songs about it. Each piece uses a combination of rhythmic and slight melodic hook to lure us in, then pits grinding riffs against one another while fitting them into bounding rhythms that unleash an inner fury in their conflict between the fear and the mundane. The result is a stream of ferocious riffs in songs that hold together as songs in the Terrorizer tradition, creating an experience of immersion in conflict that is both justified and everyday. For a genre such as grindcore, this more stable form is preferable to re-living the past or trying to “innovate” by including outside elements. As a result, Hordes of Zombies is not only a great listening experience but an archetype others will follow.
- Thevetat – Disease to DivideOne of the more interesting entries comes from ex-Ceremonium musician Thomas Pioli who has assembled a new team to make music that sounds like early NYDM mixed with the melodic undertones of heavy but intriguing bands like Montrosity, Malevolent Creation and Gorguts. The result hits hard with a rushing wall of chords and then drops into socketed rhythms that invoke a change in riffs, causing a twisted inner torment to emerge in Protean form. This gives old school death metal a new life without giving it a new form, since the form is the result of the content, which is essentially unchanged but slightly updated since 1992. No concessions to “modernization” (a/k/a mixing death metal with rock, jazz, metalcore, disco, punk, etc.) occur here, which allows this music to be in touch with its own spirit and flow freely from the source of its own inspiration. It is thunderous and yet perceptive, bringing with it the spirit of doom metal and its introspective melancholy. Although a three-song EP, this release beats out most albums released this year for pure death metal intensity.
- Timeghoul – 1992-1994Metal developed its own sense of “progressive” and “technical” music long before it imported jazz-fusion in order to help it. In fact, part of metal’s birth was from the original progressive rock in the 1970s and the soundtracks of horror movies, which gave it a predilection for this direction. “Progressive” itself is a misnomer since nothing new gets discovered in music, but probably more accurately means “complex”: music with unconventional song structures, extensive use of harmony, melody and key; possibly linked to some kind of story outside the music itself and the usual topics (love, sex, drama) of pop songs. These songs craft winding riffs and intricate structures, using embedded melody to transition between more chromatic riffs, and culminate in odd twists of fate that translate them into seemingly the reverse of their initial outlook. Culminating in the epic 10-minute “Occurrence on Mimas,” this collection of early works by this band showcase the enjoyably weird variety of death metal in its early days.
- War Master – Pyramid of the NecropolisThis modern band attempts to revive the death metal style, starting with the deathgrind of its namesake Bolt Thrower and incorporating influences from many of the bands of the era, and succeeds by staying true to its own enjoyment. As a result, it’s working in a style, and not from a template; the band want to create old school death metal, but aren’t doing it by imitating songs or styles, but by writing in that style based on similar inspirations. As a result, this band has its own voice despite being very familiar in technique, and has chosen its own path for subject matter and thus the arrangement of many of these songs and the types of riffs used. Its aesthetic mixes the grinding mid-tempo riffs and repetitive choruses of grindcore with the circuitous riffing of death metal and its tendency to unveil changes in layers of rhythm, guitar and vocals. While the style shows the influences of later death metal, its sensibility is firmly grounded in the early years, which makes this a great old-school death metal experience. However, its most salient factor is that it’s also interesting music. Songs are formed around their topic, with riffs and structure contorting to resemble the object, and riffcraft shows learning from the past but creation of its own new forms. Guttural vocals which maintain an ascetic detachment from the emotional content of the music help to give Pyramid of the Necropolis the ultimate death metal point of view, which is as a dispassionate observer amongs the ruins detailing the conflict that created this mess, and must endure after its collapse.
Disappointments of 2012
Abigor – Quintessence
Apparently this is new and old material. The shift between the new and old is like jumping out of a sauna into the snow. The newer material shapes itself to an expectation, much like the newer Swedishy bands in the style of Watain, that combines melodic punk with raw and random riffing in catchy rhythms. The result is like a painting made of painted dog turds, in that from a distance it is appealing, but as you get closer its mundane nature is revealed. Abigor have always suffered from being too quick-thinking and inventive for their own good, because they can always throw together a bunch of quality riffs and make most people think a song happened, but here that model breaks down. The songs feel more like slide-shows than organic wholes. The older material is good however.
Absurd – Asgardsrei
This remaster of the 1998 album was in theory supposed to improve sound quality. Had they simply done that, this would have been a shining victory. Instead, it has been standardized. The drums have been pumped up to emphasize rhythm, and the guitars doubled and bass-maximized, with vocals shrouded in reverb. Alone that removes much of the distinctive sound, but attempts have also been made to lower the volume on elements that are not orthodox black metal-cum-oi that Absurd makes now. The result is a loss of detail and an emphasis on the simpler parts of each riff, not the interesting interplay of riffs. They’ve made this album sound more like their remakes of earlier material and by pandering to one audience, lost a lot of what made Absurd interesting.
Acephalix – Deathless Master
A highly-praised release, this album purports to combine Swedish death metal and crustcore. What it ends up with is neither, but a mishmash of riffs around a rollicking beat, changing entirely at random. You hear a little bit of old Entombed, some Dismember, and a lot of filler riffing that really goes nowhere. For about three songs, it’s pleasant listening because you can tap your toes to it and it reminds you of Left Hand Path. Then you realize the songs never went anywhere. They’re like wallpaper. And to the horror of any crust fan, this is built on the bouncy beats and song structures of pop-punk. It’s closer to Blink 182 than Entombed or Amebix.
Aura Noir – Out to Die
Once upon a time, I referred to Aura Noir as a black metal Britney Spears because their music is pop dressed up as black metal. However, it’s normally fun pop with high energy and catchy riffs, even if in verse-chorus structures so repetitive that you have to background it. But with this album, they go into the boring zone. This is almost like a drone with a horse galloping in the background to keep up energy. And yet, like the lady that doth protest too much, the more “energy” you need to inject, the less the music is actually compelling. And on that level, this album is basically the same speed metal/Motorhead style riffs that bands were rehashing back in the 1980s, but now revived in an even more exhausted form.
Coffin Texts – The Tomb of Infinite Ritual
The people behind this band are good, and their intentions are good. The result of their efforts however is bog-standard death metal, not so because it imitates anything else, but because it is unreflective of any purpose outside being death metal. It’s predictable in the sense that nothing is surprising, and yet, it doesn’t really gesture at anything more than being death metal itself. I hope these guys stop trying to be whatever they think they should be, and find whatever they actually enjoy instead. Best yardstick for your music: what you enjoy and would listen to on your own, even if you knew no one in the band.
Graf Spee – Reincarnation
Some things should stay in the 1980s. This is prescient in that it emphasizes the kind of bouncy riffing that fits on the spectrum from Anthrax to Meshuggah and onward to metalcore, but it’s disorganized, inconsistent with the vocals, and feels more like a pile of spare parts than a smoothly running engine.
Hellevetron – Death Scroll of Seven Hells and Its Infernal Majesty
2012 was the year everyone rediscovered Onward to Golgotha. I agree, it’s a killer album. There’s nothing wrong with Hellvetron, who seem like competent musicians, but this album attempts to imitate the outward form of Onward to Golgotha without grasping the underlying tension in the music that makes it work. As a result, Hellvetron impose current song structures (loops) and standards onto the aesthetic of the past, which makes for a decent listen until it becomes apparent that it’s not really about anything except itself.
Impiety – Ravage and Conquer
It’s hard not to enjoy this album, which is like a hybrid between Angelcorpse and Mortem with a squidge more melody. However, it is highly repetitive because it doesn’t go much beyond that concept. Like Krisiun before it, the concept is full speed ahead skull-crushing aesthetic, and this is so powerful it squeezes out most artistic content. This leaves you with some creative riffs, some talented use of tempo, but nothing that holds together long enough to listen to for a decade.
Inverloch – Dusk | Subside
These ex-Disembowelment musicians have a bit of a cult formed around themselves. Part of the reason is that unlike almost every other band before black metal, they knew how to write melodic music, which they do here as well, in something that resembles a cross between death-doom like Asphyx and melodic doom like Candlemass or Paradise Lost. Crashing riffs coexist with gentle melodic fills and overlays that create a dense atmosphere of nocturnal wonder. However, beyond that, the direction seems confused, which is appropriate for a re-entry EP but excludes it from this year’s best of.
Mantas – Death by Metal
Before the first Death album, Chuck Schuldiner tried out his riffcraft in Mantas, named in tribute (by educated guess) to Venom. There’s a reason these sort of re-releases are confined to collectors, and that is that these demos show a young band trying to get the order of riffs in its songs correct and at the same time develop an image, sound and voice. The result is great, if you like listening to parts of the same six songs 18 times each. A true-blue die-hard ultra-kvlt collector will put this on the stereo next to “Scream Bloody Gore” and “Spiritual Healing” and start working out each riff until he’s sure how everything works. Then again, with the hindsight of nearly thirty years, we know exactly how it should turn out, which means that for the rest of us, this will sit on the shelf in perpetuity except as a conversation piece.
Maveth – Coils of the Black Elite
This album reminds me of middle period Immolation, in which creative riffing often fell into very similar rhythms and as such, the songs sort of became a continuum which resembled pulled taffy: cut off a length of Immolation, let’s listen to that. Oh look, sliced Immolation! It’s the same way here. Maveth has very creating riffing with excellent right-hand control, but the songs themselves are a muddle because the riffs are the direction and as such, there’s not really a way to put the riffs together that makes sense, so the band converges on a mean and drops into very similar trudge rhythms to make the songs catchy. At first listen, especially the first three tracks, promise is everywhere; by track five, it’s clear that circularity has occurred.
Purtenance – Sacrifice the King
This EP suffers from a primary flaw, which is disorganization. It’s not random, but it’s what happens when you decide to make death metal and so treat that as a container, and then “write to fill” and twist the riffs into place so they work with each other. It’s not about anything, and thus is “random” in the sense that it could mean anything. As a musical experience, it mostly conveys a sense of disorganization and frustration. The best bands mold that sort of raw emotion into something which rises above the confusion and achieves clarity. If not beauty, truth, goodness, etc. at least something that is desired more than it is hated, and so inspires them, even if that goal is hatred itself.