Plage – Den Kristne Stank (2015)

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Den Kristne Stank, meaning “Christian Stench” in Danish, is an effort by the band Plague to bring some black metal with occult themes, blasphemy and just the general themes associated with the genre. The music reveals the same intent, applying different approaches to black metal creation but giving preference to the most obviously rock-based instance of it, disguised with intermingled soft blast beats.  In an attempt to bring variety without a clear focus (rather, the focus seems to be the variety of black metal expression) we find ourselves at one point reminded of Kjeld, the next of some pagan folk black metal, but it is the influence of Samael is felt most strongly. The problem here is that the music (obviously as a result of the concept) never zeroes in on a direction — a goal is not necessary, but clear statement and acting out of what you are getting at is important.

On the good side, Plague is actually not wanking or over-indulging themselves. The music creates reasonable structures that connect well-enough with each other flowing smoothly most of the time. The complaint comes from observing its coherence and the picture it reveals. As has been previously stated, the critique is realized in the following manner: first we gather an impression on the whole, from those observations the individual musical elements are investigated and finally a theory rooted in concept is formulated.  Any pair of adjacent steps (1 and 2 or 2 and 3) can be reexamined as many times as is necessary to try and clarify a perspective. Evaluating music as a whole, one should never go from ideology first nor should technical elements be taken as the central aspect. It is always the musical whole that is important. Formulations on intention and ideology are secondary and come as an afterthought and an attempt to explain excellence, focus or deficiencies in the music.

The variety itself is not the problem, of course, but that it is never brought under control by a  higher purpose. Instead of this involved yet forgettable collection of rock black metal techniques and compilation of general themes, I would suggest the reader to imbue himself with this year’s EP release by Necrophor, which presents the same degree of musical variety without the technique-collection effect of the former. Consistently with these observations, one may notice how the lyrical concept (or the concept as a whole) of Necrophor’s EP is much more precise and clear. Empirical evidence shows the importance of clarity of concept for the realization of focused music. Plague give us an example of a metal release that has everything except that.

Pilgrim’s progress

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I thoroughly enjoyed William Pilgrim’s “The postmodern Gorguts” for its list of metal attributes. For many years, writers have attempted to categorize metal and most commonly have ended up with a list of surface traits such as loud distortion, screaming, fast drums and occult lyrics. Pilgrim’s list looks at the compositional tendencies of metal that are consistent from proto-metal through black metal, and bears another analysis as separated from the topic of Gorguts, which is only ancillary to the question of metal itself. Thus follows his list:

The original idea, as metal goes, is as much structural as it is ideological. There are a few qualities that are common to how all true metal should be constructed.

  1. Melodic contiguity: All forms of metal, even the harshest strains, are inherently and recognizably melodic in nature. This means that the individual phrases that make up a metal song obey cohesiveness, as tenuous as it may seem at times. Though individual phrases are often in different keys, it is paramount that they share the same musical space.
  2. Movement towards a discernible and logical conclusion: This is the will to motion previously outlined in these pages. Metal’s roots in traditional story-telling with a beginning, a middle, and an end, are not to be forgotten in eager exchange of a need to experiment. There has to be a gradual ascent, or a plummet as it were, towards an ultimate punctuation. Though various approaches can be used towards achieving this, playing for time in false hope of creating mood, while using ideas containing little intrinsic worth, is anathema to metal.
  3. Rhythm section to assume a strong yet only supporting role: Metal is a predominantly lead-melody oriented form of music. Bass and drums are integral to creating a fuller sound but should only be viewed as swells on an ocean on top of which riffs and songs float. Often, swells rise and raise their load with them, but this hierarchy in relations is crucial and is to be preserved.
  4. Atmosphere created not through textural embellishments and quirks but as a by product of composition: All claim to that shady word “atmosphere” should come from immanent qualities in the way the music is written. Metal does not need overt experimentation with harmonics or tone if these asides are incapable of holding together on isolated inspection.
  5. Awareness that all forms of groove play to a far baser inclination in the mind’s analytical apparatus. They can be enjoyed on a case-by-case basis but are not something to be eagerly sought out or encouraged in metal.
  6. A keen comprehension of repetition as device: Repetition is to be used as steadily outward-growing eddies that take a song to a different place, yes, but one that maintains a tangible relation to the place left behind. Individual components within the repeating phrase should have some emotional consonance and not serve as mere padding.
  7. Conscious realization that metal is in fact composed music and not free jazz.

To insert a minor quibble, I disagree that metal is “ideological.” If anything, it is anti-ideological, being based in a harsh realism rather than a set of platitudes about Utopia, which seems to be the basis of all ideology to me. Metal is intensely artistic, and artists tend to have strong opinions, and from a distance this may look like ideology or even count as an ideology of sorts, but not in the modern sense, which means a series of appealing thoughts designed to mobilize mass approval and thus, political power. If metal has an ideology, it is an artistic outlook of a very general nature and not directed toward specific manipulations resulting in immediate real-world changes; rather, it hopes to condition the outlook of those who participate in it with the most general philosophies toward life itself.

By the same token, metal seems to me to less succumb to lists than a spirit which reflects this philosophy. Technique is a means to that end, and that we now live in an age when power chords and heavy distortion create a sense of foreboding of doom and insurgent power determines that these become the primal technique that unites all the others, like a drawstring bag around otherwise random artistic implements. Metal focuses on the union of harsh realism and intense mythology, because metal is fundamentally a worship of power and these are the greatest powers in human life. Only death is real, and yet people follow religions and hail the ancient stories. If metal has a goal, it is making realism into a kind of poetry, and it uses a series of techniques to that end that form its most visible component, but they are not in and of themselves the goal of the genre.

Let me then add my components of metal:

  1. Nihilism. The music must use the simplest and most gutter-level techniques possible when they are powerful.
  2. Through-composed. From Black Sabbath onward, metal bands have been stacking riffs to explode melodies.
  3. Guitar is lead rhythm. Songs are advanced by guitars, with drums/bass/vocals in supporting role.
  4. Phrasal riffs. Riffs use fills as main body of riff in order to create shapes which interact across key, time and form.
  5. Immanent meaning. No riff or part is the meaning, but the progression of the whole “reveals” meaning.

Any sensible observer will note that the above are simply less specific and more distilled versions of Pilgrim’s seven points above. His focus is more on specificity; mine more on spirit. And yet the two overlap and somehow hash out the same realistic truths about heavy metal. Metal is fundamentally anti-social music, in that it rejects “what everyone thinks” and experiences a downfall instead as it reverts to a nihilistic, literal, organic, materialistic and naturalistic level of reality. It rejects human society and all of its ideas, which are essentially pretense, in favor of harsh realism and mythological aims like beauty, truth, eternal love and eternal hate. I would argue that metal is conservative except for its constant forward focus, not toward “progress” but adventure.

As a result, I would argue that metal is impervious to both ideology and trends, since it consists solely of spirit and the aforementioned method. In fact, it takes no particular point of view, since its method must appear in all that it does. Thus metal is “spirit,” and will adapt to any developments in music, but since there have been none, it howevers around the intersection of the best humanity has produced so far — classical, modernist and baroque — using the techniques available to four guys, guitars, microphone and drums. This then leads us to a more vital question when examining metal, which is whether a band adopts this outlook and method through the question of what an adaptation of that method to the particular style of the band would look like. With post-metal, nu-metal, tech-death, metalcore and other modern metal, we find that missing and its opposite principle, the looping narrative of rock, instead.

Codex Obscurum – Issue Seven

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Having watched this zine grow from humble origins to the reliable source of underground metal feature stories that it is today, the metalheads who comprise the underground — including death metal, black metal, grindcore, and some speed metal and doom metal — now expect high-quality on-point content from this zine, and Issue Seven delivers with style. Now possessing the journalistic weight and audience to command high-profile bands, Codex Obscurum returns with wide-ranging interviews, reviews, features and editorials with adventurous literary fiction as well.

Interviews have always pushed this zine above the rest because of their conversational nature but tendency to explore the thinking behind the musical decisions made by the band, with little attention spent on the surface fluff, but some questions that bring out the personalities of the musicians and explain their connection to the art. In this issue, the biggest name in interviews is Deceased, but perhaps the most powerful interview belongs to Thanatos. Covering both Hail of Bullets and Thanatos, this interview with Stephan Gebedi is as detailed and congenial as death metal interviews get, and covers a lot of history. The Deceased interview will strike most as idiosyncratic because it covers much of King Fowley personally and recent news, with less emphasis on background, but this reflects the general abundance of Deceased interviews on the early days. This updates us on the status of the band including information new to most sources. Other interviews with Wastelander, Drug Honkey, FaithXTractor, Crypt Sermon, Magic Circle, Dawn of Demise, Untergang, Slaughtbath and Blood Incantation follow similar patterns of compiling biographical details and consulting on musical intent, with the Untergang and Crypt Sermon being most compelling. All of these are well-executed and constitute the backbone of this zine.

Issue Seven contains a number of features, one of which takes the form of an interview. Artist Tony Cosgrove gives his points of view in a story which interweaves his images with his words, creating the sensation of being a museum exhibit with slightly longer detail cards. A feature on asymmetrical board games offers a glimpse into a world that overlaps with metal but is too nerdly for the mainstream tuffguy websites to cover. A lengthy write-up of the Kill-Town death fest in Denmark follows, which captures much of the atmosphere without excessive detail, but also skimps on a few vital points and may be the least powerful part of the zine. Then again, fest writeups are nearly impossible because everyone is tired and/or drunk (and stoned) so what remains are hazy recollections and the ability to look through the heaps of scored merch. Possibly my favorite features lurks at the rear of the zine, which is a malevolent and tongue-in-cheek editorial about the nature of battle jackets and how they should be worn. This piece reminds me of the 1980s text-files that hackers used to pass around: it has an off-the-cuff feel to the writing, but the thinking seems refined over time, which creates an interesting casual intensity. One intriguing feature, to my knowledge unique among current zines, comes in the form of a short story. Like a condensed zombie sci-fi horror movie, “Evil Seed” (named for the Morbid Angel tune?) efficiently whips through a haunting mystery of an experience with a powerful organic metaphor. This story not only adds to the zine, but its placement dead in the middle creates a break like that when flipping over a vinyl album to hear side two.

Toward the rear of the zine festers another important section: reviews. For metalheads without much time to wade through the mountains of spurious and often spiteful opinions in online comments, or the completely idiotic sales jobs that mainstream zines and web sites put out in place of reviews, where every release is the greatest ever and will tear your head off or make you look intellectual to the girlies, zine reviews offer peace of mind in purchasing by offering better than even chances that a given release will be a match. This occurs both through qualitative assessment, and quantitative description, both of which are featured here. These take a conversational tone but know when to drop the one or two lines of most vital description, and then an assessment, separating observations from judgments enough that the reader can shop by the relative distance between the taste of the reviewer and their own. In this issue, the selection of reviews is a lot more strategic and covers all of the vital ground for what was released during the press period of this issue.

As Codex Obscurum has grown, so has its proficiency in layout. This is the most readable issue yet, generally sticking a band logo at the start of an interview and then being sparse with other images and keeping the text high-contrast usually of a light grey on black variety. This format works well and the use of distinctly shaped fonts also keeps this from falling into the trap of the illegible muddy blur of a xerox disaster that many zines are. Reviews are black text on grey background for added readability, and whether from rush or deliberation, the black-on-white table of contents is if nothing else clear as a bell. Writing standards have inched upward, too, with tightly edited pieces and almost no typos and spelling errors. All of the above make it easy to pick up this zine, which at half-page size can be handily carried anywhere you would take a paperback, and to relax and absorb the content. It would not be surprising to see someone whip this out at a university library, transhumanist rally or on the international space station, because it has that kind of density of information and yet casual enjoyment factor. It is good to see this zine getting the recognition it deserves and its growth both in size and technique for an intensely professional and yet familiar metal reading experience.

Rito Profanatorio – Grimorios e Invocaciones desde el Templo de la Perversión (2015)

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Contrary to the modern northern predilection to either go with the “intellectual” or “sentimental” strain of black metal expression, Latin American bands seem more inclined to follow Sarcófago. Many of these, in my opinion, retain the “authenticity” while actually improving on the music of the Brazilian punk-minded godfathers. Following the comparison with the northerners, while these try to create “the atmosphere” itself, actually trying to force the music to become the effect or the feeling itself (something advised against through the Common Practice Period all the way to the end of the Romantic musical era as it destroys the music), the grind/punk primitive black metal bands like Rito Profanatorio focus on punching songs that make use of short melodic motifs, and concentrate on the continuity of the riffs, letting the music do its job and create atmosphere and evoke feeling in the listener.

That being said, the music on Grimorios e Invocaciones desde el Templo de la Perversión is not the best of its kind. While it nails powerful riffs and have clear “melodic contiguity” (thanks for the descriptive term, ODB), the main problem lies in where they take the songs. Development is smooth, sliding deliciously into different ideas that carry follow “logically” from the point of departure. But after this, the band starts to lose a bit of control, the song keeps going forward without an ending in view, and then it suddenly stops. What makes these endings more offensive is that they are cliche metal endings inserted haphazard manner.

While this is not particularly original and the transgressions are great, it would be worthy to highlight their name and keep an eye on Rito Profanatorio’s development.  Long live Peruan metal! May it develop and refine itself into something that contributes to a worthy future of metal as it has the authentic feel and musical (rather than technical) inclinations that seem so absent from the northern countries these days.

Goat Semen – Ego Sum Satana (2015)

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Following in the footsteps of Sarcófago without becoming their clone, Goat Semen play a form of primitive black metal with riffs bordering on grind death. The music here is of consistent style, but its coherence is more metaphorical than literal, advancing more through sequences of sections that make sense together in mood but not necessarily in theme or other basic music element. Good variety while keeping a clear concept and a traditional sense of beginning and ending to the songs balance the previously described loose musical coherence.

While fans of this particular style, such as myself, will enjoy this album thoroughly and will play it on repeat for hours, the loose kinks in its armor will be apparent to the discerning listener. For a more exemplary release in this vein the listener looking for musical excellence is encouraged to take a serious look into Exhumantion’s Opus Death. While Goat Semen’s music is exciting in its juvenile chaos barely harnessed by recognizable traditional gestures of music, Exhumantion’s is a study in solid musical composition with an enviable rigor propelling it to much higher levels of refinement, offering a more layered experience than Ego Sum Satana.

Obsequiae – Aria of Vernal Tombs (2015)

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On their first album, Obsequiae made use of very simple but consistent and creative melodies in a harmony emulating that of early western music from the late medieval period. Under the Brume of Eos consisted of songs that were essentially folk-heavy metal in the vein of Primordial with black metal vocals. Each few songs an interlude played in an acoustic instrument was inserted. The material was fine for the first fifteen minutes, after that it just boiled down to a collection of songs which were merely collections of riffs. Aria of Vernal Tombs unfortunately did not move beyond this same strategy.

It is important to go back to the just-mentioned style of Primordial. Primordial is one of those bands that is really ideology first, aura and image of the band first, and then music. The music itself is flat, only serving to carry a mood while the image that the listener has in mind (given by lyrics and song names — concept) is imprinted on it from the outside. Obsequiae work in a similar way, except that they take it a step further and actually make use of musical patterns that evoke the era they are using as theme. They also surpass Primordial in that in the short-term, songs are far more dynamic and in Aria of Vernal Tombs particularly coordinate wonderfully with the vocal pulse.

Obsequiae could still move beyond this “cool-riff” sequence approach and give us much stronger songs — and perhaps a conceptual album extending beyond the lyrical and well into the music. Inserting interludes is only the easy way to do this.  Metal bands like Blind Guardian, Rhapsody and even Morbid Angel (on Blessed are the Sick) have done this light and easy concept album arranging, each going further in different ways. Obsequiae and any band looking for using relatively simple yet self-contained and solid songs as the bricks for a strong concept album can look up to Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Until now Obsequiae have only given us scattered ideas in an obviously consistent and distinguishable language. And if music is a language of some kind, Aria of Vernal Tombs is one message in a loop of synonyms and like-words drawn from a thesaurus.

Blasphemy – Fallen Angel of Doom (1990, 2015)

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Bringing together the grindcore of Napalm Death and the primitive black metal of Bathory and Sarcófago into a death metal way of thinking, Blasphemy gave the world a solid although juvenile Fallen Angel of Doom. Racing in consisting grinding expression while going beyond the riff and into an atmosphere-inducing state as a result of the progression of riffs that is fitting of that primitive black metal, the songs in this album open a portal through which disturbing visions come to alienate us, inducing a feeling of aloneness, doom and  fear.

That strong evocation is accomplished from the fusion of these two genres, in my opinion, because they are not just smashed together but rather assembled in a different mold, that of death metal and made into one language. The other thing is that you do not hear interleaving riffs in different styles, although we do hear a good deal of flexibility in riff type in terms of rhythm, texture and note length. The riffs themselves are both completely fitting for grindcore, but it is the duration of their repetition and the effect of their arrangement that results in a similarity with primitive black metal. In order to achieve a stronger result coming from goal-oriented development, the structural-minded songwriting of death metal comes to round off and concentrate the raw energy of the other two genres.

Nyseius – De Divinatione Daemonum‏ (2015)

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While not profoundly insulting as most bands pretending to play black metal, Nyseius just plays very boring black metal. Now, this isn’t just an emotional remark, I have concrete reasons linked to the music’s construction to back it up and say what it is relevant. Nyseius is also rooted in the modern misunderstanding of black metal by its outer traits. Thinking that black metal consists in ad nauseam repetition of samey riffs to create atmosphere. And they get stuck in this word, atmosphere, as if it were music itself and not an effect of certain music. And thus they attempt to create that thing itself, mistaking it for music. This is the abysmal trap in which all metal that willingly identifies itself with that word falls into.

Arnold Schoenberg said that variation itself did not need justification, it was a merit on its own. He also said that this variation needed to be harnessed and guided by an equally powerful and balancing restraint and coherence. But in discussing De Divinatione Daemonum the first aspect becomes the most pertinent since this music lacks variation. Bent on forcing the creation and sustaining of this atmosphere, this featureless mass, this wall of same-length notes only seldom breathes in order to continue aimlessly towards oblivion.

The last factor that drives this into a wreck is that they have infected black metal with the superficial craving to be extreme. This is what drives them to this dissonance, and an ignorant use of dissonance at that. Dissonance not as a tool of tonal music, not even a dissonant musical language, it is just the use of single dissonant chords for their own sake, for the momentary and twisted satisfaction that it can bring to the human ear. Exemplifying yet another dead end of metal caused by a superficial appreciation of the classics or of music in general, Nyseius will gradually fade into oblivion as purposelessly as the notes they put together into atmosphere, not music.

Gestalt – Infinite Regress (2015)

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More black metal from the people who do not understand black metal. This is in the now popular style of pseudo black metal that sounds like war metal trying to be progressive. This lot probably new about black metal through the profound music of Michael’s Pink Frothy AIDS. Incoherent as it is flat, Gestalt identifies itself as modern by the insistence on arranging awkward juxtapositions and superimposed elements that do not match in the least. Keyboards that were not there before jump into the fore with no warning only to disappear and never return again in the song. Maniatic blast beats that underscore nothing except the fact that they are trying to play intense music followed by macho man riffs, only to slide into quiet endings or bridges that seem placed there because they simply could not think of anything else to put there.

Even the average metalhead will know to stay away from this circus motley outfit pretending to ironically catch a pulp fantasy sort of occult imagery backed by equally uncompromising profoundness — or so their kind say in this sort of empty words. As the late bitterman (where art thou? we could use you) would say: Vapid. Avoid.