Resurrecting the best of the underground

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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

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

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-godless_arrogance-cover_photo 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

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

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

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-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

12 Jacket (3mm Spine) [GDOB-30H3-007} 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.


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The Best Metal of 2011

I’ve just completed reading the 2011 “best of” lists from a number of popular websites. The results are predictably dismal. Are these people incompetent or just deaf?

These lists tend to favor the nu-style of metal, which is to say a mixture of indie rock, post hardcore, shoegaze, emo, alternative rock and popular metal influences.

This new style is especially noisome when disguised as “underground metal” (Krallice) or letting its alt-rock roots hang out (Boris). Since this stuff is not metal at all, but rather a sad old product dressed up like some “new” version of metal, it appeals exclusively to over-educated idiots, and so these pathetic reviewers throw in some “old school” metal, but they invariably pick the one-note derivative ripoffs that ape the past but never come close to its attention span or clarity.

To save you from the fools and their delusion vision of music, we present this year’s list of especially violent music because the metal audience of today needs to experience metal of actual integrity and power, not pretenders of either commercial or faux underground types.

Esoteric – Paragon of Dissonance

Minor key dirge pace lamentation defines this funeral doom album on which Esoteric discover a new exhaustion that enables them to winnow their approach. At the cadence of a nocturnal mausoleum tour, the band alternate between spacious chord progressions with internal harmony, and grinding chromatic intervals. Chords collide and abrade one another slowly, letting distortion hang over the listener like curtains of lead, and then a second guitar fills the space with gentle sweeps to bring in a sense of melody. Semi-circular song structures take frequent detours, providing the most listenable and organized album from this band.

Gridlink – Orphan

Napalm Death deconstructed music by transcending scale, key, tempo and even intelligibility. What cultural purists of the 1950s said about rock ‘n’ roll came true in Scum, but with Brutal Truth grindcore shifted from deconstruction to a postmodern imitation of information overload. Gridlink picks up this mantle by throwing many different influences together into a high-speed stream of sound that mocks modern life by flinging at us an extensive lexicon of riffery in minute-long songs that never relent from their sprint. The ensuing rush holds together because these diverse riffs are variations on a not-immediately-visible common thread, delivering a cryptic but satisfying listening experience.

Death Strike – Fuckin’ Death

For the past 40 years musicians have sought the elusive metal/punk hybrid, but few have come close to the power of Paul Speckmann’s series of bands (Master, Death Strike and Abomination). Merging angry hardcore with streetwise heavy metal, these bands created simple songs with energetic riffs that avoided the rock cliches for the day to become a form of resistance music directed at modern society. This re-issue shows the songwriter at his best. Like punk, these songs construct themselves around simple riffs of a constant rhythm, but like metal the riffs fit together to drive tempo and structural changes. The result is plain-spoken but infectious and captures the spirit of metal in an instant of screaming anger.

Cianide – Gods of Death

Having contributed fundamentals of the doom-death genre, Cianide return with a late career album that shows them casting aside expectations to make the metal they enjoy, which is a cross between Hellhammer and Motorhead that thunders through the skull like an avalanche. They keep their riffs bold and simple so the resonating repetition can change over the course of each song as transitions change the nature of each song. Unlike most old school revivals, this album comprises changing moods that are startingly “mature” in that they are not polarized anger but moral ambiguity and relish for the morbid and aggressive. By escaping the self-conscious nature of most retroactive metal, Cianide land a slab of explosive power.

Deceased – Surreal Overdose

People want speed metal back and Deceased have listened. They replaced death vocals with a hoarse shout and upped the pace but otherwise this album comes straight from the days of Metallica and Rigor Mortis. Riffcraft shows familiarity with forty years of metal but for every couple of driving riffs, Deceased have thrown in something sweet like the candied fruit in a fruitcake: melodic interludes, doomy detours and passages of mixed emotion wrought in adroit lead guitar. If they want to take it to the next level, they can slow it down like Doomstone and make better use of dynamics, but as it is, this album is both more musical and more powerful than most of contemporary metal.

Heresiarch – Hammer of Intransigence

If you crossed an old school death metal band like Morpheus Descends with an energetic blasting terror like Angelcorpse, you might have something like Heresiarch. Chromatic riffs hammer you while war metal drumming races to keep up. Each song stays focused on a throbbingly catchy rhythm which it counterpoints with oppositional textures. Like a constant counterattack, this album is as primitive and amusical as possible, verging on the relativity that defined free jazz and noise. Rhythmic hooks and a pounding intensity make this EP a compelling effort from a newer band.

Morbus 666 – Mortuus Cultus

Going back to the roots of black metal, this album attempts to unify the melodic sound with the feral atavism of rhythmic violence that defined the birth of the genre. Showing familiarity with the wide range of melodic black metal riffs from the past, Morbus 666 nevertheless veer away from the noodly “Iron Maiden” style riffs for the kind of austere rigid blasting that early Gorgoroth and Impaled Nazarene made fly. Vocals vary from rasps, to shouts and Attila Csihar-inspired operatic singing with possible inspirations from Benedictine chants. Nothing too complex occurs here but it organizes itself around a singular intent, giving it a power most music lacks.

Nunslaughter – Demoslaughter

This two-disc retrospective reviews the career of this immensely prolific and influential band. This is primitive, rhythmic music that barely touches on concepts of key or harmony. Nonetheless, it uses vocal rhythm and riff to create strong themes that are distinct between each of the many songs from this band. If you like shades of grey in your riffcraft and emotions in the range of terror and despair, this highly creative band offer what are like horror movie soundtracks distilled to the barest of elements and infused with a rage for order that no human civilization can tame.

Ungod – Cloaked in Eternal Darkness

Back in the 1990s Ungod crafted primitive black metal from elementary guitar riffs and catchy choruses. Twenty years later and they return to do exactly the same thing. While guitar playing has improved, using more awareness of harmony and some influences from other metal subgenres, the basics remain unchanged. These songs are like the whispers of a devil who knows the simple self-referential phrases will stay in your mind and corrupt it. Songs emerge from a basic verse-chorus idea to mutate and discover new territory before returning to form, packing a lot of complexity into what seems like a basic form. The result is compelling.

Apocalypse Command – Damnation Scythes of Invincible Abomination

The approach of this high-energy outfit may be familiar to Angelcorpse fans since with songwriter Gene Palublicki is a founding member. If you combined early Bathory and early Slayer, you might have this constant stream of fluid riffs strummed at humingbird pace over drums which clatter to catch up. Songs charge through several interludes on top of the a circular structure of paired riffs, creating a discourse that is overwhelming by sheer energy and singular purpose. If you found yourself wishing that Fallen Christ would make a new album, and stretch out those hard-hitting riffs into pure ripping rhythm textures, then this will appeal.

Blotted Science – The Animation of Entomology

Despite the recent influence of faux progressive and technical death metal in the form of warmed over post-hardcore, Blotted Science start with later King Crimson-styled musically literate rock and add to it the ability to weave seeminly unrelated riffs into a narrative that made death metal great. Like Jarzombek’s other projects, Blotted Science use counterpoint and diatonic melodies to create a broad spectrum of emotions that transition through the course of each song. Aesthetically, the band eschew vocals and like to have a “kitchen sink” approach, but underlying that seeming chaos is strong technique. As they do not forget the metal soul in doing so, this band remains a favorite for those who seek additional dimensions of musicality in their metal.

Bahimiron – Rebel Hymns of Left-Handed Terror

After starting out as a band attempting to make black metal both feral and melodic in the style of Gorgoroth or Zyklon-B, Bahimiron detoured through a series of new sounds — swamp metal, raw and fast war metal, and chaotic rising of the Id — before finding their voice again with this most recent album. These songs are composed of only a few riffs, some variations of each other, but each has a topic idea that it expresses fully, giving this album a pleasant sense of being whole. Despite having a rushed second half that holds together less palpably, this album possesses songs that have a sense of being about something, even if an undefinable emotion. The result combines technique from the different eras of this band into a hard-hitting, ripping package.

Vallenfyre – A Fragile King

Using songwriting techniques from melodic doom metal, this band up the tempo and make a Swedish-style old school death metal band. Crude-hewn riffs are boxy and sparse but capture the death metal style of phrasal composition with a tantalizing melody buried within and emerging through hints, creating powerful mood pieces. While the riff tropes are simpler and fewer riffs are used than in proper death metal, if you view this album as sped-up doom metal it becomes a new experiment in mood music using old school death metal as a tapestry. It is more interesting than the death metal revivals which use nothing but disorganized rhythm riffs, and at times refreshingly beautiful.

Cruciamentum – Engulfed in Desolation

Working in the style of continuous long-phrase old school death metal like early Incantation, this newer band craft riffs of great potential energy and for the most part triumph into making them into onrushing apocalyptic songs. If they want to make it to the next level, they will drop some vestiges of pre-death metal genres — to be supreme in this form of music one must sound inhuman, arch, abstract and disinterested in petty human concerns like foot-tapping rhythms — but at present, the band create a reality distortion field that allows the listener to see past the ruined industrial horizon into the dark forces gathering in the future. Ominous, this release thrives on powerful riffcraft and vocals that sound like occult rage shouted from the depths of a funeral shaft, and portends great things from this UK band.

Rudra – Brahmavidya: Immortal I

Unlike most underground bands, Rudra embrace a highly musical approach as exemplified by their construction of riffs with a melodic basis to their structure yet without the surface element of “melodic” caused by overuse of fast strum and certain repetitive intervals on the higher strings. Over the course of songs, simple riffs develop into themes which then subdivide and evolve in linear progressions within the overall cycle of each song. Vocals are higher-pitched like black metal, but riffing is reminiscent of Demigod as fused with Afflicted’s first album. On the whole, this is an impressive work of music that includes some influences from progressive alternative rock within its death metal but never loses its direction and perhaps as a result makes more interesting music than all the “top ten” lists of commercial sites combined.

Abhor – Ab Luna Lucenti, Ab Noctua Protecti

This Italian band combines the open-string drone of Graveland Following the Voice of Blood with a seemingly horror-influenced, frequently melodic older black metal style. Vocals follow the Graveland model but the band alternates this homage with melodic riffs from other areas of melodic metal. As if forecasting a future for black metal, songs specialize in the transition of moods, suspending the listener in the midst of a dreamlike trance state based on more fluid harmonic motion. While not unique in style, this band makes up for it in spirit.

Primordial – Redemption at the Puritan’s Hand

Working in a hybrid between metal and celtic rock, Primordial craft a sound that is not unlike Iron Maiden using slower and more doom-metal style chord progressions for its choruses. Over this, a man bellows and then curves his straight enunciation into singing. This music is thoughtfully not noodly, and while repetitive, gains intensity from the building of a mood through a trope, and knows when to break the verse-chorus with profoundly musical variation. This is what U2 should have been: an emotional appeal to the common sense of land, heritage and history as expressed through dark songs which allude to rather than reveal their soul, which is a maudlin determination to resurrect the energy of creative destruction in all humans.

Beherit – At the Devil’s Studio 1990

For years, Beherit’s first “album” — a collection of noisy demos pressed onto CD by the label — have been a source of contention. Many love their devil-may-care chaotic burst of raw enthusiasm and dark, Blasphemy- and Sarcofago-inspired morbid rage, but others point to later material by the band and show a discontinuity. However, through their career Beherit have shown a fondness for noise, ambience, ambient noise, and highly structured experiences that like Wagnerian mini-operas walk us through a transition of realizations. At the Devil’s Studio 1990 shows us all of these influences in nascent birth from the noise into a more austere, deliberate and subversive vision of evil. This album gives these songs new life and black metal new dark energy.

Sorcier des Glaces – The Puressence of Primeval Forests

This unabashedly sentimental melodic assault creates a melancholic beauty through its two opposition parts, which are dark minor key wanderings and a counterpart in soaring powerful melodies that expand through variation on theme. The result is like Summoning a transition state from black metal in which the verse-chorus grouping has been replaced by a sense of unravelling or a story being told. While this is more polished than early Norsk black metal, it preserves that intensity with some of the lush melodic development of the Greek and French varieties integrated for a new sensation of possibility.

Obsequiae – Suspended in the Brume of Eos

Fortunately, this release replaces two odious variants of contemporary “black metal.” First is the faux progressive style which insists that a series of fast riffs with offtime picking of notes from “unexpected” chord shapes somehow constitutes interesting music. The second is a tendency to milk any boring three-note melody into “folk music” by playing it without distortion while beating on an ox-skin. Obsequia belt out a Celtic music hybrid not unlike what Celtic revivalists did in the 1970s by combining their music with jazz fusion and progressive rock. The songs sound very similar and by their focus on depth of musicality, often obscure the direction of melodic development or song structure, but are technically adept and offer a better vision of Celtic black metal than most of what has come before.

Amebix – Sonic Mass

In their return after two decades of absence, Amebix create a hybrid of their original crustcore, speed metal and shoegaze. If you can imagine Killing Joke, Prong and My Bloody Valentine in some kind of bizarre collision with UK pop, you will be able to envision the style of this album, which varies quite a bit as it tends to be ad hoc adapted in order to express what each song calls for. The hidden influence seems to be an influence as in early 1980s music on making songs that correspond to a visual idea (for an MTV video), much like the ancient Greeks combined poetry, music and theatre. This album wisely does not try to re-live the past. Instead, it gives us tuneful music that can compete with the best from the slick mega-media bands, and replace their quasi-truths with a more insightful vision of reality.

War Master – Pyramid of the Necropolis

The new style of old school death metal that War Master brings to the table wears its influences on its sleeve, from the expected Bolt Thrower influence to other notables like Obituary and Suffocation. The resulting fusion is a thunder of bassy power chords piled on each other in a series of inventive riffs, with song structure following along as best it can. Like a good puzzle or maze, the passages make sense when they connect but not before, and War Master avoid riff salad by judiciously using repetition of several main themes per song, some conforming to verse-chorus and some more abstruse in nature. Purists will appreciate the low end open-throated growl and the warlike percussion, as well as the range of tempi from doom-death to the more energetic grinding of later death metal. The end result is low-tech but powerful and brings a new language to the ancient art of old school death metal composition.

Blaspherian – Infernal Warriors of Death

Among those who still yearn for the epic power of old school death metal, Blaspherian deliver a satisfying cavernous descent into the dark netherlands of the subconscious. Drawing from older Incantation, Deicide and songwriter Wes Weaver’s previous efforts in Imprecation, Blaspherian sculpt songs out of a few chords twisted into protean riffs like bent wire, stringing it together with a sense of inexorable rhythm. Over this roars an unrelenting guttural growl and the decimating battery of militant percussion. No guitar solos mar the insurgent tunnel of destructive sound, but through its internal consistency it creates and then selectively textures a mood, creating a constantly changing experience that like the winding passages of a subterranean fortress leads through confusion to clarity.

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