Thou Shell of Death – Sepulchral Silence

January 3, 2015 –

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Resembling a collision between space-ambient music, doom metal and black metal, Thou Shell of Death creates slow-paced doom metal with the atmosphere of black metal bands — a more melancholic, brooding and existentially nihilistic outlook — but like past doom metal greats Winter, the lead instrument here may well be the keyboards, which in reverb-heavy waves lace melody through crashing guitar chords which gives them both context and foreshadows development. The ethereal and spectral sound of the keyboards conveys simultaneously an otherworldly removal and a soaring sense of possibility, which temples the normal self-indulgence of doom metal into an exploration of wonder in the darkened halls of a fallen world.

Guitars on Sepulchral Silence intelligently vary texture in the background under the keyboards which are more clearly heard both through being louder in the mix and being a clearer sound, which makes their orientation as lead intelligence. The musical role of guitar in this context is to set a basic progression in the background which the keyboards riff against in order to produce a sense of convergence, as if actors were in harmony with their background and role rather than opposed. Often mid-paced, guitars use a variety of technique including fast downstroking and tremolo but just as often fall back to the Black Sabbath/Winter styled power chords played open, or strummed once and allowed to resonate. Behind them drums lag comfortably and minimally, removing what might have been a distraction to a role as timekeeper plus a sound of inexorable time that affirms emptiness. Each progression stands distinct and keyboards take advantage of this to set up a mood that, like ambient music even of the discotheque variety, resonates around the listener while vocals are demoted to speech filling in the gaps with a narrative to center the song. Over this, heavily reverbed vocals hang like shrouds and flags hanging torn above ruins, battered by the winds of history.

Avoiding the dual traps of becoming essentially slowed-down hard rock or slowed-down death metal, Thou Shell of Death renovates funeral doom music with a new variety of emotions and technique that avoids the pitfall of this music, which is that it is often tedious both from its slowness and the resulting relative invariance of its riff texture. While riffs are relatively few compared to death metal in these songs, as in black metal songs, each serves a purpose and riffs tend to change with lyrical progress, creating the sense of a morbid storybook tale narrated by a demon rather than a rock song over which someone is ad libbing Tolkien. From this basic approach, Sepulchral Silence makes a dense liquid atmosphere that provides all of the dread and despair of doom metal but with the adventurous spirit of black metal and the hope of discovery that pervades electronic music, creating a new voice for funeral doom.

Num Skull – Ritually Abused re-issue has fatal flaws

December 27, 2014 –

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The late 80s were an extremely volatile time for metal music. The speed metal movement that had started a handful of years prior was simultaneously peaking and sounding its death rattle. The noises coming from Europe and developing in New England were firing warning shots across the bow of metal as it had been known in full-out, transformational revolution. 1988 saw the release of Bathory Blood Fire Death, Bolt Thrower In Battle There Is No Law, Napalm Death From Enslavement To Obliteration, Carcass Reek Of Putrefaction, and demos from Paradise Lost, Samael, Rotting Christ, Rigor Mortis (pre-Immolation) and Exmortis, just to name a few. One can only imagine that this must have placed tremendous pressure on fledgling speed metal bands as the music world they thought they knew crumbled around them.

Very few of them escaped this period intact. Bands that had issued one or two great albums seemed to perceive that they could not continue as they had been. They saw a fork in the road: either trying to emulate one of the “big four” or struggling to “get harder” to keep up with the tectonic shift death and black metal were creating. Either move alienated the fan base they had built and universally failed as a result. This writer cannot think of one band that consciously changed vocalists and/or styles that got better because of said shift at that time.

This is not a lesson in music history or an album review, but it is important to understand the context of a given release. It is easy today to call up a band, a song, an album, and sample it immediately, piece by piece. Consuming historical output in a vacuum, outside of the understanding of the environment in which it was produced and unleashed, is simply folly. The timeline of modern metal, now at over three solid decades, conveys the idea that there were obvious plateaus and curves, slow and deliberate. However, focusing in closer reveals that there were a great many peaks and valleys along the way, some single high points among a lot of noisy low points.

Focusing on the US, 1988 saw some fine thrash releases from Nuclear Assault, Rigor Mortis, Vio-Lence, Wehrmächt, Wasted Youth, Wargasm, and the subject of this writing, Num Skull. Num Skull’s release of Ritually Abused, while not a game-changer, was significant. It toed the line of death metal; one can hear some hints of Immolation in some of the riffs on this album. The spitting delivery and effects on the vocals were very unique and helped set them apart. And, perhaps most importantly, it remains one of the very few releases from a midwestern-US band at that time. The midwest had the proto-death stylings of Macabre and Impetigo, the progressive metal of Anacrusis, the punk of Life Sentence, and the thrash of Zoetrope, but for thrash that edged closely to death metal, Num Skull were it. Ritually Abused caught them at their peak, before they decided they needed to be yet another poor-to-mediocre “brutal” death metal band to be discarded as also-rans. They were extremely talented, high-energy, and unique in a musical world filling up with same-ness.

Fast-forward to 2014. The original Ritually Abused is criminally difficult to find, with the lone CD pressing fetching triple-digits on eBay and in trading circles. When Relapse announced that finally, after much pleading, they were going to reissue it, complete with bonus track, it seemed time to rejoice. A limited-run of 300 units, pressed on purple vinyl, was promised, along with a CD and new apparel. This was an opportunity for younger listeners to hear what was a peak during the swan song of the US thrash movement with some proto-death metal tendencies, and for the label to pay respect to one of their deceased children, Medusa Records, with a release that helped put them on the map.

Upon inspection, the colors on the cover appear richer and the back cover has a new layout. Opening it, there is a basic lyrics sheet and plain sleeve. OK, so it’s not a deluxe reissue — this is not ideal but it is forgivable. After all, at least this piece of history was unearthed and given new life. Dropping the needle, fond memories of youth are replaced with jarring incongruity and disjointedness. What was originally a quick, seductive and declarative introduction of “The End” (“The end is near…”) followed by the huge, rhythmic hook of the title track was now the machine gun blast of “Death And Innocence”. Confused, a listener might consult the track listing again. As written, it shows the familiar order with the addition of a bonus track originally written for one of their demos:

  1. The End
  2. Ritually Abused
  3. Death And Innocence
  4. No Morals
  5. Friday’s Child
  6. Off with Your Head
  7. The Henchman
  8. Pirate’s Night
  9. Turn of a Screw
  10. Kiss Me, Kill Me
  11. Rigor Mortis
  12. Murder By The Minister (Bonus Track)

However, the lists of tracks as present on the disc is as follows:

    Side A

  1. Death And Innocence
  2. No Morals
  3. Friday’s Child
  4. Off With Your Head
  5. The Henchman
  6. Pirate’s Night
  7. Side B

  8. Turn Of A Screw
  9. Kiss Me, Kill Me
  10. Rigor Mortis
  11. Murder By The Minister (Bonus Track)
  12. The End
  13. Ritually Abused

The CD is also thus plagued. Such a clear display of “no fucks given” from the label dismantles the flow and intent of the original album and leaves the listener with a much less effective product. The lack of even basic quality control on this, after over a quarter of a century of waiting, demonstrates the fact that Relapse had no respect for this band or this release, a piece of its history. Relapse passed up an opportunity to finally give this release some deserved love and perhaps atone in some small way for the massive ignoring and lack of promotion payed to this upon its original release in favor of a quick cash-grab from their back catalog.

One wonders what little effort it may have taken to reach out to the band and seek their input and involvement on such a reissue. This has been done repeatedly lately to a high degree of success and satisfaction from fans; albums from Sacrifice, Darkthrone, and Bl’ast are prime examples of how to do proper reissues. Alternately, a few sentences from label leaders or peers about what the band meant to them at the time, initial reactions to hearing the album, etc. — anything — would have been a nice inclusion. At absolute minimum, a simple CD-to-vinyl rip using the 2002 disc as source material, while not giving a proper vinyl sound, would have resulted in a correct track listing and required exactly zero effort. It seems Relapse went out of their way to fuck this up, as though they gave the pressing plant some idea that there was a band called Num Skull that once upon a time had an album entitled Ritually Abused and let them figure out how to press it, never once checking any test pressings prior to collecting money and shipping another product about which they are ambivalent.

At their genesis, one likes to think that most record labels start with the idea of giving voice to deserving artists that would otherwise go unheard and unnoticed by other labels. In the mind of the listener, a label also bears the responsibility of curator of a slice of music history. Dear reader, what is the half life of such a fantasy? At what point does a label simply become a business with no artistic integrity left in their empty souls? At what point does churning out album after album of whatever flavor of the day fits best into the accepted formula that will sell enough product to turn a profit become more attractive than unleashing quality, moving music? Some rhetorical questions without answers, but one would think re-issuing a “lost” gem that requires minimal investment of money or time would be a simple feat if the label had one cell of shit-giving left.

Sadistic Metal Reviews 12-27-14

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Nothing is less metal than accepting everyone and everything. Metal discriminates. Fundamentally, we recognize that most people have their head in their clouds and like craven mice prefer comforting illusions to even only moderately disturbing truths. In fact, over 90% of everything is simply disorganized garbage made by distracted mice. For this reason, we unleash our cruelty and separate the music from the squeaking with Sadistic Metal Reviews

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Arkham – “Demo 2014″

It may become necessary to invent a genre for this style because it shows up frequently. It might be called “narrative speed metal” for music that adds heavy metal and death metal into speed metal but fundamentally follows the vocal line for song development, as if narrated as background action by the lyrics. The dominant influence on Arkham seems to be Iron Maiden, whose harmonized riffing and song structures bleed through, but the band has chosen a death metal vocal and a basic speed metal verse-chorus approach with introductory riffs leading to change in the verse riff for each section of the song. Good riffs, and good sense of melody, but this band ends up being too linear in narrative and the chaotic vocals interrupt their melodic songwriting.

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Bloodscribe – Prologue to the Apocalypse

Fairly standard brutal percussive death metal in the post-Internal Bleeding style that is essentially deathcore but with more internal coherence through simplicity. The problem with this genre is that, like Cannibal Corpse and the post-Suffocation clones that inspired it, it requires reducing itself to a catchy guttural vocal phrase and distracting riffs with lots of squeaks and squeals but very little put together into tremolo or complex textures. The result is that this is the musical equivalent of elevator music, just a lot more intense sonically and with far better technique. It misses (however) the mind-blowing aspects of death metal and replaces them with the toe-tapping, head-bouncing and brick-eating mental state of listening to someone force a jackhammer around a sewer line.

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Gnosis – The Third-Eye Gate

This band of some local repute comes to us playing the style that some call shuffle metal. In this genre, the vocalist chants and the drums race to catch up while guitars strobe a two chord riff in the background. It has the gratifying tremolo sound of early Florida death metal but the vocal dominance inevitably makes this combination sing-song and thus the foreboding sense comes apart, replaced by the feeling that one is in a local pub, drinking a warm brew, listening to the local band whose songs are as familiar as backyard dirt at this point and while improving, never seem to get good. Interesting ideas appear on this album but never develop because they are too busy keeping the chanty choruses going for the Budweiser drinkers who are wondering if they should pass out or vomit first. If this band wanted to get good, they would lose the vocal hook and replace it with monotone until the guitars sounded good, then re-write vocals to fit the guitars.

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Nameless One – Thousand Memories and Nameless Sword

Essentially Iron Maiden styled heavy metal with death metal vocals and riffs thrown in for emphasis, Nameless One achieve a reasonable fusion of the genres but cannot hide the sickly sweet pop music underlying their Iron Maiden tribute composition. It is catchy and elegant in the way Iron Maiden is, but everything wraps up too nicely and the result is a sense of listening to one of those pop bands that pop up and vanish overnight in the dance music community. All instruments are executed with aplomb and solos are highly professional, and no song drops into lower-quality riffs, suggesting these guys have good quality control. Riffs are cut from archetypes, and the fusion is a little goofy, but the real sin here is making Iron Maiden into a candy pop band and thus making it as saccharine form of the irritation of nails on a chalk board.

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Winds of Genocide – Usurping the Throne of Disease

This album is hilarious. Imagine taking a standard hard rock album and trying to do it in the style of Blasphemy (yes, the Ross Bay one). Then add vocals which linger past the phrase or lead the vocals much like a pop band, and allow individual musicians to show off in the process. The result is unintentionally comedic as it sounds like Hollywood hired a bunch of Charles Bronson style tough guys to make Poison relevant again. In an attempt to hide the roots of this music, the band play fast and loud and layer it in vocals of several types, including the electronically processed chant and the barking chihuahua howl. For comedy’s sake they throw in citations to Sarcofago, Von and other ultra-basic bands, but no experienced listener will be able to get past the hard rock progressions and bouncy glam metal riffs even if played in detuned, double BOSS HM2 distortion’d power chords. Do not listen when stoned, as you might have a laugh attack.

The Best Underground Metal of 2014

December 26, 2014 –

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William Burroughs often wrote about the “edge,” or the liminal threshold between states. The last real edge year for underground metal was 2009 when strong contenders and new voices united to defend extreme metal against the onslaught of imitators making Potemkin village metal from hipster flair and lite-jazz fireworks but underneath it, nothing but disorganized songwriting and an absence of something to express. As the underground has come back with a vengeance, it has begun to displace the imitators because their music simply does not measure up. This has created a backlash as the hipsters defend their territory with guilt, ostentation, pretense and surface-level novelty. On the other hand, the underground has produced some strong contenders. And so we move forward through the past to the future, remembering that what is true is eternal, and trends, novelties, fads, hipsters and other transient moments pass quickly away…

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Blaspherian – Demos (Compilation of Death)

Compilation of Death Records has re-issued the a classic demo and rehearsal from a band of recent vintage but oldschool origins, Blaspherian. Their thunderous death metal sounds like Incantation and Obituary covering Deicide but has a voice of its own and unique perspective. It also carries forward the old school sensibility of building intensity and contrast in a morbid mood that is not self-echoing and redundant. Songwriter Wes Weaver (Imprecation, Infernal Dominion) avoids solos and other adornments to focus on tunneling riffs that are distinctive and create interplay with others in each song to give every song a unique feel within the lexicon of symbol and emotion that death metal addresses. Like the bands that inspire it, Blaspherian aims to create an immersive atmosphere of doom and morbidity in which it can bring forth other emotions in layers, such that the “mixed emotions” feel common to much music is not something achieved at the peak of a song, but is a constant in which the emotions mixed vary like a texture, revealing new combinations under the shifting striations of darkness.

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Blood Urn – …of Gory Sorcery and Death (Terrorghoul)

Death metal of the classic style fascinates this young band who write music much like the early years of death metal but with more of an emphasis on melodic bridging material, avoiding the pitfall of using melody as essentially a production technique and instead causing it to highlight songs that come alive with a ferment of conflicting riffs. Vocals use the old-school method of shadowing riffs and the salad of phrases itself fits together and creates a deepening mood. While on the heavier and slower side of death metal, this demo is varied enough to touch on all areas of the genre, assembling rich textures as a means to develop depth to the emotions in each part of the song. Unlike many newer bands, Blood Urn decided not to follow a single identifiable influence but instead sound like a study of European and American death metal rendered by someone approaching it with a fresh vision.

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Cenotaph – Riding Our Black Oceans (Chaos, re-issue)

A re-issue of this album restores it to its rightful place in the death metal canon. After the immensely powerful Gloomy Reflections of Our Hidden Sorrows, the thunderous Mexican death metal band Cenotaph changed their style to an airier and more intense high-speed melodic death metal sound. Unlike contemporary “melodic death metal” this style embraced the vigor of death metal by expressing it through sequences of tones that added melody without obscuring structure and darker moods, and Cenotaph displayed its customary acumen for songwriting by keeping each track centered around an idea that came forth not only in the whole but in the shape of its riffs. In the years following Sentenced North From Here and At the Gates The Red in the Sky is Ours, many bands attempted this newer style but few made it as vicious and uncompromising as Cenotaph.

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Conquering Dystopia – Conquering Dystopia

Conquering Dystopia creates instrumental mental that hybridizes death metal styles with progressive heavy metal and some of the newer progressive styles like that of At War With Self. The result often sounds a lot like Joe Satriani’s older works in that clear theme is expressed and highly repeated, but varied with other instrumental detours which strengthen it as the song progresses and all the pieces fit together more an in interrupted linear way than the geometries of pure death metal. While this is like most commercial rock indulgently emotional, the underlying music is good and the technique interesting without leaving service to what each song needs, which keeps it not only topical but interesting.

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Dead Congregation – Promulgation of the Fall (Martyrdoom)

Although this band gets mentioned as the foremost in the “Incantclone” series of bands inspired by streaming columnar detuned tremolo underground metal in the style of Incantation, Demoncy and Havohej, Dead Congregation draws influence as well from the subtler structuring of older Immolation in its use of melody to underscore is otherwise a thunderous series of chromatic rhythm riffs needing a center. Although songs vary in completeness throughout the album, generally these storming high-intensity dirges fit together well and produce an encompassing atmosphere which both crushes and awes the listener. If anything, this band could let up on the classic technique and float more of their own aesthetic ideas now that they are established.

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Demilich – 20th Adversary of Emptiness (Svart, re-issue)

Back when death metal was viewed by just about everyone as an incompetent genre of malcontent losers who would go nowhere and who were complaining about our new consumer+hippie paradise, a few bands emerged who saw the emerging genre not as a style but as an artistic voice with unlimited possibilities. One of these, Finland’s Demilich, created an album so circuitous and bizarre that the metal press basically dropped it and ran in fear, as did many fans. For those who discovered it however, Nespithe presented unlimited potential as to how death metal could adopt technicality and yet not be mastered by it and forced into the type of generic jazz-blues-rock theory that served to actually limit what musicians could conceive of and execute. With its twisted passages and seemingly erratic rhythms, Nespithe resembled a strange machine risen from the bowels of earth to conquer humankind. Instead, it inspired generations of fans and musicians to visualize death metal as a broader language than many wanted it to be. This re-issue pairs up older works with a handful of newer songs to make for a complete experience of this distinct voice and its concept.

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Desecresy – Chasmic Transcendence (Xtreem)

Desecresy combine Swedish death metal, doom-death metal and atmospheric influences from black metal to create towerlike scenes of dark moods in collision. With Chasmic Transcendence, the band update the formula with more easily separable rhythms to riffs and use of melodic transitions to intensify the building sense of doom. It builds grinding tension and discharges it in lengthy melodic passages which expand beyond their origins into new landscapes. Add to this a tendency to use lead melodic rhythm guitars over its power chord riffs and this makes for a haunting listen that resembles a descent into the underworld. With this third album, the band shows not only its staying power but the depths of the well of its creativity in not just re-inventing older styles but finding a new combination of them and using that to express a perspective which elaborates upon the basics of the genre and gives them new elegance and power.

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Enthroned – Sovereigns (Agonia)

Famed for their high-speed melodic black metal, Enthroned take the populist approach of middle-period Dimmu Borgir — before it went into its final stage as warmed-over hard rock — and craft it with greater urgency and the instrumental approach of older black metal. The result more resembles the later Bathory albums where heavy metal, proto-black metal and post-Slayer death metal influences merged to create a potent ferment. Sovereigns does not achieve the vast contrasts and epic sense of loss of earlier black metal, but upholds a battle-spirit and pushes it into song with strong melodies that do not lapse into the cloying saccharine world of “feelings” — personal observations based on personal perspective — but instead appeal to emotions, or the shared sense of importance and value to certain things which might be eternal. This album breaks up the formula slightly with slower songs as the album expands, in the style of Hypocrisy Penetralia.

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Entrench – Violent Procreation (War Anthem)

Following in the steps of Merciless, who could be seen as the stylistic ancestor of this band, Entrench craft speed/death metal with melodic underpinnings and a frantic but strident voice which guides riffs much in the way Dio narrated his own songs. To the Merciless formula of adroit ripping riffs concluding in both ambiguity and alignment, Entrench adds a Kreator style of finality to both vocal and guitar phrase, making these songs less emotional but more solidly violent. While speed/death hybridization usually ends badly, here the essence is speed metal riffs played as if by a death metal band in the context of a rhythm more like that of death metal. The result is satisfyingly impact-oriented but for it to take the next step to where Merciless is, it will have to coordinate its melodies and cultivate ambiguity both for it to resolve and preserve to keep the dark sensation produced by the riff-style of death metal, minor key melodies and mentalities outside those of the herd.

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Heresiarch – Wælwulf (EP, Dark Descent)

Attempting to forge a niche for itself in the Incantation/Blasphemy inspired style that has become a de facto underground currency during the past few years, Heresiarch create a muddier and more obscure version of their previous works, focusing less on tunneling riffs and more on simple two-chord riffs introducing songs that expand to greater degrees of structure with the slightest hints of melody. The band, in hoping to take war metal to the next dimension, probably consider their work to be unstudied and arising on impulse, but these songs show a clear pattern of development from the grinding to the structural and as a result, take the listeners with them on a journey of finding beauty in darkness and coherence in chaos. The violent slamming intensity remains but by lessening its consistency the band achieves a greater sense of contrast, like raising a sacred object higher above the marble floor to ensure that when it shatters the pieces are irreducible.

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Kever – Eon of Cycling Death (Dark Descent)

Perhaps one of the most inspiring releases this year, Eon of Cycling Death wears its old school influences in Suffocation and Morbid Angel on its sleeve but without imitating them in pale imprint of their technique without understanding their essence. Instead this band forges on with a kind of fantasy death metal that shows them living an alternative and parallel timeline to these bands, developing the basics they innovated with a voice specific to these individuals regardless of what time they are born into. Percussive riffs give way to an ensemble of death metal styles united by rhythm and space which convincingly outline the ideas of each song and then give them depth through internal dialogue. On top of it, an abrupt and croaking vocal gives new life to a very familiar technique with its guttural but carefully sculpted sonic enunciation.

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Massacra – Enjoy the Violence (Century Media, re-issue)

One of the great classics of death metal, long passed-over for more dramatic acts, gained new life with this re-issue. Massacra created their early music in the style which stretches from Slayer through Morbid Angel and emphasizes fast strumming of rapidly-colliding riffs which emphasize ambiguity and openness over the kind of certainty that works well with more percussive styles. Enjoy the Violence is like a rollercoaster between extremes where all things lead back to the same point, but the experience is changing enough that it is almost unrecognizable as the same. With the remaster, some of the weaker sound from the earlier recording is corrected and bonus tracks are added, giving new life to this under-recognized classic of the genre that was more highly influential among musicians than fans, and took on new life in the bands it influenced.

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Massacra – Final Holocaust (Century Media, re-issue)

This foundational album of death metal by Massacra has been re-issued by Century Media with bonus tracks and a booklet rich in information. That provides a good introduction to this view of the death metal style, which instead of attempting to be “heavy” aimed for shock and awe with fast riffs and convoluted songs that somehow emerged into an almost peaceful calm after chaos and combat. Massacra derive their strength from the ability to write fast-fingered riffs that capture the thrill and terror of being alive into a single moment and use this to make basic clashes within life into a mythology of trying to conquer empty spaces with the will and sensibility of a warrior wandering a dystopian wasteland. While this album was forgotten in the day mostly due to its mids-heavy (in contrast to bass-heavy) production and relative availability through distribution contracts more circuitous than its riffs, it rides again in new form.

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Massacra – Day of the Massacra (Century Media)

Century Media compiled several early Massacra demos into a single disc, paired it with extensive liner notes and pictures, and remastered everything for an insight into the rise of the Massacra sound while it was recognizable as what would emerge on the first two and most influential Massacra albums. These recordings show the band merging its early influences into a style and then finding its own voice within that beast, allowing it to compose distinctive and evocative songs immediately including several pre-album tracks with some duct tape still visible. While this might appeal most to Massacra maniacs, it also serves as a useful introduction to new fans who may appreciate the heavier production and more aggressive primitive approach here as a means of transitioning to the albums that follow, which focused not so much on slamming impact as a kind of sky architecture of riffery.

CD Booklet

Nausea – Condemned to the System (Willowtip)

Straddling the line between grindcore, crust and old-fashioned hardcore — which are inches apart as it is — Nausea return with this recording of older and newer tracks alike. Carefully pared down to incorporate only necessary elements and keep energy high, Condemned to the System demonstrates the simpler style of punk composition with all of the riff power of early grindcore, including several tracks (and pieces thereof) that later made it to the first Terrorizer album, World Downfall. The listener who can forget that heritage however will discover merely a crushing, efficient and streamlined album of enjoyable but hard-hitting punkish music that will not win awards for extremity or technicality, but shows care applied to songwriting so that a listener does not feel lost in a sea of riffs or drone, but can isolate each song in the mind and appreciate its individual attack.

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Nunslaughter – Angelic Dread (Hells Headbangers)

While some may be tempted to categorize Nunslaughter as dinosaurs, the fact remains that this band takes the raw ingredients of power metal, speed metal and most death metal and makes a stripped-down, hardcore-punk style ripping version of this that remains highly listenable even if not particularly distinguishable on a song-to-song basis. Like other collections of many short songs, such as Dead Infection or Carcass, Angelic Dread operates like many small insights into roughly the same idea. Somehow, what this band creates never gets old, in part because they understand their riffs as a language from the same basic source, and in part because like a thrash band their song format carefully fits the particular clash of the two riffs (with a few budget transitions, and sometimes rhythmic variations, Nunslaughter uses two riffs per song on average) and the need of presenting them in the best light. The result is compelling and enjoyable and upholds the best tradition of riffcraft and expressive violence in underground music.

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Oppression – Sociopathie & Gloire (Preposterous Creations)

Merging Oi!-style punk with some enhancements from black metal, tracks are short (2-3 minute) affairs. Melodies are catchy, yet wistful lines grounded in simple guitar and bass riffs, with vocal alternating between manic shrieks and an idiosyncratic, youthful attempt at melodic singing. Using the more linear style composition of punk, as opposed to the riff-stacking song construction used by much of black metal, each song contributes a sense of motion that builds the album up over successive tracks. Production values are what one would expect for this style of music; clear enough to make out each instrument, but raw enough to preserve low-budget ethos. This is a release that is not attempting to invent a new genre, but rather one which seeks to renew genres that had collapsed under their own entropy. The strange aesthetics may be off-putting to some, but if those can be sublimated into the spirit of this album, a refreshingly honest work will open itself for enjoyment.

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Personal Device – Microorganismos del Mal

First there was the faux 80s crossover thrash revival with party retro-thrash bands like Toxic Holocaust and Municipal Waste, then bands like Birth A.D. bounced back with actual thrash and reformed the genre. Now Personal Device take it a step both further and in a different direction by being a classic hardcore band that informs itself with early speed metal like the first Metallica and Nuclear Assault albums. The result is bouncy fast and precise punk like Ratos de Porao or even middle-period Bad Brains that is thoroughly enjoyable with riff breaks that resemble “The Four Horsemen” or maybe even “Live, Suffer, Die.” Their guitars are remarkably precise which creates an unusual sound for punk that by making it mechanistic makes it seem more inexorable than like protest music, and the result is a more testosterone-fueled and warlike approach. Mix that with the surging chord changes of speed metal and the fast repetitive chanted choruses from thrash, and you have a high-energy band. Its flaws are that experienced listeners may find this a bit too transparent, and that many of its rhythms are similar, but the band has administered its style with an editor’s red pen handy, cutting out any lesser parts, which gives it more staying power than all but a few albums in this stylistic range.

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Ripper – Raising the Corpse (Underground Defenders)

Much like Merciless, Ripper know to invoke a melodic hook with a rhythmic hook and gradually bring a song into unity, at which point they hammer home the infectious chorus until the audience is ready to carve it into their own flesh. While some may point out that little new occurs here stylistically, and many of these riff forms can be traced back to Slayer or Destruction, what Ripper does well is keep this music high-intensity without falling into sameness and to streamline into an effective delivery mechanism that outgrows the confused collision of styles that was the mid to late 1980s. This approach fits within the early speed metal model that formed the basis of great hook-laden German bands like Destruction and Sodom, and this tradition continues with Ripper. Where Ripper succeeds is in removing extraneous material and cutting to the core of its music, eliminating some of the distraction and randomness that blighted later work from the German bands.

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Sorcier Des Glaces – Ritual Of The End (Obscure Abhorrence)

Flowing dark melodic forest black metal band Sorcier des Glaces burst onto the scene as any appreciation for this style of Graveland and Immortal influenced black metal fully waned as the initial loss of momentum in the genre caught up with its inertia. Since that time, the band has continued its path of making naturalistic long-melody black metal with the distinctive wandering tempo and phrasal development that many of the French bands also explored. With Ritual of the End, Sorcier des Glaces present their vision in a more focused style that nonetheless preserves the inconclusive nature of their earlier music, becoming like a vision of the woods at twilight equal parts promise and ambiguity, revealing the continuous nature of life through its inability to achieve finite endpoints. When metal mistakenly went toward faster/more extreme variants of the past, it lost the majestic beauty which inspired imagination as well as aggression, and Sorcier des Glaces return it.

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Varathron – Untrodden Corridors Of Hades (Agonia)

One of the original Greek black metal bands, Varathron returns with higher speed and more dominant melody in a style that approximates what Borknagar and other later black metal bands tried to do, with some nods to music since but fundamentally a sensibility closer to Rotting Christ Thy Mighty Contract. Keeping energy high with frequent changes but return to theme and focus on a melody or progression at the heart of each song, Varathron expand their repertoie and craft an album that speaks enough of a contemporary language to dominate that style with the vocabulary of the older era, invoking both a return to and a continuation of the past. While the influence of the present time makes itself known, it remains under control of the guiding forces behind this band that seek to open the imagination instead of gratify self-image, and as a result more possibility emerges here than in other contemporary works.

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Witchblood – Hail to Lyderhorn (Aurora Australis)

Attempting to uphold the values of classic black metal while introducing to them some of the more recent developments in tradfolk-inspired music, Witchblood combines the catchy attack of Venom with riff technique from mid-90s black metal and adds its own voice, which consists of equal part narrative bardic style and an idiosyncratic ability to make memory-haunting tunes. The result features a range of techniques from the history of metal, including NWOBHM-inspired riffing right alongside streaming tremolo picked melodic riffs, but this band makes it work by keeping focus on an essential melody in each song paired to a vocal rhythm designed to deliver a foot-tapping chorus, as bands like Sodom or Destruction did years ago. The result takes the Venom school of metal, upgrades it with black metal, and restores it to a 1980s delivery that is both clear and dark and then infuses that with the type of ancestral identity and epic sensation of purpose that arises from folk music. Through this, Witchblood creates its own form of metal that shows clear roots in much older traditions.

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Woodtemple – Forgotten Pride (Sacrilege)

Showing more of an influence from Following the Voice of Blood era Graveland, Woodtemple return with a more focused version of their flowing black metal. In the past, the music more resembled flowing hills in a landscape of vast breadth, but now greater internal contrast makes what is portrayed closer to a mountain range with ragged crags over deep valleys. The addition of floating female vocals and gentle keyboards allow the band to put more aggression into guitars and bass, keeping vocals semi-backgrounded which produces the effect of reducing the “human” feel to the music. As a result, songs come together with more focus, making this the clearest statement from Woodtemple yet made. Like most metal in this style, Forgotten Pride creates an effect of distance from the human world, isolation and a focus on the larger picture through a lens of large leaps in time, but now creates another hypnotic effect in a distancing from humanity itself. This band, while not a Graveland side project, features Graveland composer Rob Darken on bass.

Album of the Year 2014

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Sammath – Godless Arrogance (Hammerheart)

Godless Arrogance features nearly constant high-intensity rhythmic riffing and finally has a production to match which emphasizes internal harmony but projects vocals and guitars to the forefront, creating an enveloping wall of sound. Drumming is violent martial battery without the happy kickbeat tendencies of overly rock-trained drummer; percussion here is more like punk, hard-driving intensity to channel the guitars, which alternate between abrupt chromatic confrontation in the Demoncy style to gentle unfolding melodies much like were found on Strijd. Bass folds into the guitar, and vocals are the high-volume bluster that reduces distorted vocals to a sound like a whisper spoken close to a microphone in high wind. The result is incessant and unrelenting but also has an inner life of melody that gives it depth and allows it to manipulate riff context like a death metal band while evoking ambient atmosphere in the best tradition of black metal. For resurrecting the black metal spirit of great beauty hidden within massive aggression and alienation, Godless Arrogance deserves to be seen as the best album of 2014.

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Atomic Aggressor – Sights of Suffering

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Calling a band “technical” — not to be confused with musicianship as popular circles frequently do — creates general indifference among those accustomed to seeing this term used as a selling point. The industry generally uses the term for bands that cannot compose meaningful songs and so encrust them in adornments of musical acrobatics, creating artistic Potemkin villages which offer a cornucopia of musical fireworks on the surface but emptiness beneath. Many believe that musicality is only valid if the artist consciously intended to give the music a certain technical quality. This could not be further from the truth.

The best music has often comes from technically competent artists, but this does not mean that their music is guided by a handbook of rules, but the other way around: they use technical flair to elaborate on the ideas that motivate their music. When an musician has a superior talent for organizing notes into melodies, aligning melodies into harmonies and building sections that flow and speak to one another as seemingly essential parts of a whole, this process can be reverse-engineered by a clever and knowledgeable analyst. But like software reverse engineering itself, we only arrive at technical explanations about the originating commands that give the result its nature, not the programmer’s feelings, train of thought or the content they hope to communicate through their art.

Morbid Angel Altars of Madness is lauded as as a young genius’ masterpiece born out of raging emotion and unprecedented innovation in the then-young genre of death metal. Only new or superficial fans of the genre are oblivious to the achievements of this album that go well beyond mere historical relevance. Whether or not Trey Azagthoth planned each twist with the implied theoretical knowledge behind them is not important, although we can assume he may not have because such fervor as these pieces present is only possible coming from the deepest well of human emotion. Yet scrutinizing of them at several levels reveal logical explanations for the impact, drive and fluid development that they showcase.

As a short example we may take a look at “Chapel of Ghouls”. The song itself can be explained as using E major as its main or home key. As in classical music it ventures into the parallel minor and uses off-key passing tones for color. The most important of this is the fact that the guitars in the recording are tuned in E-flat standard tuning, which means that the repetitive muted strumming of the open low string consists of strumming the D (enharmonic equivalent of E flat) note, the seventh in the scale of E major. This gives the chugs a malevolent and dissonant feel. Another thing that should be mentioned is that the first two riff clusters in Chapel of Ghouls are quite unstable, each being in period form (antecedent and consequent phrases which mirror each other, but only the second one resolving). These riffs do not resolve convincingly (they do not land on either the tonic or the dominant when the consequent cadences), giving these both a satisfying feel and a need to continue and be completely resolved which appears to the listener as a will forward instead of a complete thought. This resolution is achieved on the third riff which finally leads to the tonic, but does not rest there, avoiding the typical full-stop feeling by switching into the relative minor (thereby using a flattened third and sixth which sound like off-key passing tones in the context of the major setting) and syncopating the rhythm while an atonal solo blazes above. And so the song is carried on with the mark of genius that cannot be now denied even by those who do not share a personal preference for the song. The songs in this album are not even remotely atonal or even overall dissonant; they make heavy use of the latter with striking effect while the atonality is reserved for solos which mark peaks and tornadoes of raw emotion that are never out of place here and which seem to be born out of the depths of this music.

Atomic Aggressor Sights of Suffering presents us with something that would be best described as a tribute to Altars of Madness-era Morbid Angel. But unlike Morbid Angel, Atomic Aggressor’s songs do not show Azagthoth’s structural cleverness and talent for directing and channeling emotion unavoidably towards strategic points in the song where powerful emotion surges. In fact, it is because this band is bent on sounding like early Morbid Angel that they are completely oblivious to the subtlety of the original composition and thus just manage to place riff after riff which sound like a more retro (sounding a little on the speed metal side at times) version of who they are trying to imitate. The vocals make this intention to imitate even more palpable not only in terms of the style of the growls but the way certain passages are emphasized or rounded off by grunts which in this far weaker music only manage to sound comical, especially if one is familiar with the original band. There is not much to say about this album because it is no more and no less than a bland, third-rate imitation.

Remains provide albums …Of Death and Angels Burned for download

December 25, 2014 –

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Mexican death metal band Remains have provided their first two releases, 2013 EP …Of Death and 2014 LP Angels Burned, for free download to fans. The band composes mid-paced death metal with atmosphere derived from the interplay of visceral and evocative riffs.

The band added a simple statement: “Download for free…If you like it… BUY IT!!!” Many longtime observers of the music industry wish others would follow this model, since there are basically two types of people who listen to metal, the day trippers and the lifers, and the lifers tend to buy everything they like if they possibly can. This model will not work for the latest Beyonce album or even the interesting-for-two-weeks-maybe legions of hipster metal, metalcore, indie metal, blackgaze, etc. bands, but it does work for death metal.

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Interview with Abscession

December 22, 2014 –
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We have kept our eye on Swedish death metal style band Abscession who make a somewhat modern version of the classic sound of bands like Entombed and Cemetary. Their first album Grave Offerings touches down early in 2015, and has already generated interest and criticism in the metal community. We were fortunate to be able to chat with the two active members of Abscession, Thomas and Skaldir, about the band and its music.

When did Abscession form? Why did you choose the name that you did?

Skaldir: We formed in 2009 and it was important to us to choose a one word band name. Since almost every word is taken by some metal band by now, it wasn’t easy. The name also should have a classy feel. Brutal and concise. We all had bands before. Personally I had my first band in 1992, which played some kind of melodic Doom never heard before and after. I started playing piano and then later also tried guitar.

Thomas: I’ve been in various bands since the mid nineties both as a guitarist and as a vocalist. I’m a pretty lousy guitar player though so nowadays I tend to focus on the vocals. I’m also active in blackened death act Throne of Heresy, and have been in Zombie Destrüktion since 2002 together with Markus Porsklev who also plays the drums on Grave Offerings.

Your style runs the gamut from old school heavy metal through 1990s Swedish death metal and perhaps beyond. What are your current influences? Have these changed over time?

Skaldir: For me there are always some records that never get old. The first stuff I liked as a teenager, like DEATH, HELLOWEEN, EDGE OF SANITY. But I listen to a lot of different music from AOR, Progressive Rock to Death metal. And even if I have a lot of favs from the early 90s, there are happily also some new albums that can excite me from time to time.

Thomas: Well, I find it interesting to mix things up a bit and I like lots of different music. My death metal influences are mainly from Swedish style death like EDGE OF SANITY, BLOODBATH etc but I also enjoy more progressive stuff like OPETH. I always like stuff that has hooks in it but which also grows on you with every listen. I think maybe that’s where our death ‘n roll-style influences come from, since I really like that kind of stuff when it’s done in moderation. But then there’s a whole range of bands outside the realm of death metal that influence me in different ways. Everything from classic IRON MAIDEN to FIELDS OF THE NEPHILIM have had a huge impact on the way I write lyrics for example.

Where did you record Grave Offerings and how did you achieve the sound you did? Was it to your satisfaction? Would you do anything differently next time?

Skaldir: Since I am a sound engineer most of the recording was done at Studio Kalthallen.

Thomas recorded his vocals himself, and everything was mixed in my studio in the end. We decided to let Dan Swanö do the mastering.

It is a classic BOSS HM-2 guitar sound. That is a distortion pedal a lot of people will know from ENTOMBED. Actually I used two and combined two different stages of distortion and mic’ed the cabinet with three microphones. I am pretty happy with the sound, but I think next time I will rather mix a “normal” distortion” in to a HM-2 distortion.

Are the members of Abscession full-time musicians, or is this a “spare time” project?

Thomas: We’ve all got other jobs outside of the music since it’s not something we can really live on (yet…). But we’re all dedicated to this art form and see it as something more than a part time project — it’s been a part of all our lives for many years and makes us who we are.

Why, do you think, is Swedish metal 1985-1995 so legendary? Even though that was two decades ago?

Skaldir: I think it was a good time for metal in general. People just did what they liked and a lot of new genres were founded. Those old bands didn’t exactly play perfectly and the sound also wasn’t perfect at all. But it was unique and it was something never heard before. Doing something new these days isn’t so easy.

Thomas: Sweden has been a big music nation for decades with everything from ABBA to Europe paving the way. A lot of people growing up back then learned to play instruments in school and of course it all helped to pave the way for successful metal bands. Even if they didn’t play perfectly there was something experimental and organic over the music from that time which also made it interesting to listen to.

Did you ever consider composing in a newer style of metal, like metalcore or “melodic metal”? What do you think is different between those styles and the classic underground Swedish metal sound?

Skaldir: I would say we are a rather melodic Death Metal band. The style we play at the moment is exactly what we want to play, and maybe the only thing we are good at. It’s not like we want to copy the old bands, but it is just our thing to sound that way. We will develop within the sound.

Thomas: Well, I think it’s always difficult and often unnecessary to brand everything within preconceived genres. I can’t remember a single discussion over the years where we’ve said “we’re gonna play within this or this genre.” We’ve written the songs we’d like to hear ourselves within our own capacity and it’s some kind of death metal. So no, we never sat down and considered writing metalcore or melodic death, even though our songs ended up having some melodies in them. I still wouldn’t brand it melodeath since we’re nowhere in the vicinity of IN FLAMES or other melodic death bands.

How do you compose songs? Do you start with a melody, a riff, an idea, a visual concept or something else?

Skaldir: I wrote a lot of riffs on my classical guitar here when I felt like writing riffs. Then later I thought about which riffs to combine. Normally you start with one riff and the rest just happens and you just know what has to come next and how you arrange it. At least that is how it is for me.

Later Thomas will listen to the song, and the mood of the song will inspire him to write lyrics.

Thomas: Yeah, Skaldir’s music sort of paves the way for the lyrics. I often have themes or ideas in my head that I wanna write about, but I never really know where to start. But usually after a few listens to a song I find a lyric rhythm and just start putting words in there that fit with the theme I want for the song. Sometimes it becomes clear very quickly but other times the lyrics takes on a life of their own.

For example The song “Plague Bearer” on Grave Offerings was supposed to be a really rotten track about a plague victim but ended up being an allegorical and anti-religious text instead. And to be honest, it’s a much better text now than it would have been if I had stuck to the original idea.

Where do you feel your demo “Death Incarnate” and Grave Offerings differ?

Skaldir: I think having a more technical drummer on Grave Offerings is the biggest difference to the demo. The songwriting is still pretty simple with the same trademarks the demo has.

Thomas: I think we’ve sort of found our path. A three track cassette like Death Incarnate can’t show the full range of a band’s sound as well as an album. And Skaldir has worked a lot with the overall production so it all sounds fucking great!

Grave Offerings is your first signing to a label. How is that working out? What do you plan for the future? Is there a tour in the works?

Skaldir: Well the demo tape was also released by a label. Suffer Productions is a small underground label though. Final Gate is a bit bigger, but still underground. We just signed for one album and will see what will happens next. So far we are pretty happy.

Thomas: Even though the current deal is for one album only I feel confident our next release will be a label release as well. We’re actually already working on the next album so no matter if there’s a label or not, ABSCESSION will go on. As far as tours go we’re not planning anything yet, even though we’d like to at some point in the future.

If people like what they hear, where should they go to learn more about Abscession? Are the demos still available? Do you think you’ll ever tour UK or USA?

Thomas: I actually don’t know if there are any demo tapes left, maybe Suffer Productions have a few but I doubt it. There are probably some underground metal webshops that would consider trading or selling it if you look hard enough.

But it’s also available as a digital release on our bandcamp. In this digital world we’re of course also present on facebook/abscession.

That’s probably the best way to learn more about us. As for touring the UK or the US, who knows… I guess we’ll have to wait and see how big the demand is once the album is released in early 2015!

Destroying Divinity – Hollow Dominion

December 16, 2014 –

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Cross Immolation Here in After with a modern brutal technical death band like Deeds of Flesh and you have arrived at the starting point for Destroying Divinity, who specialize in a barely controlled chaos of exuberant ripping and high-speed charging Krisiun-style riffs channeled into violent and athletic songs. Hollow Dominion clocks in at just over 33 minutes but packs in at least two albums of riffs.

Like most percussive metal bands, a great deal of the focus on Hollow Dominion involves use of choppy muted chords to emphasize a riff pattern and then varying that texture to create a kind of parallax shift sensation, allowing a melody to slowly emerge. Where this band excels is in packing together these riffs so that each change relates to the riff before it, and every riff fits in the song, but the song still makes sense with enough variation to avoid trope. If they have a failing, it is that many of the chord progressions used in these riffs are rather linear, which creates a heavy chromatic effect but also some predictability. Generally however the band manages to introduce its songs with the more obvious riffs and work deeper until it has subverted them with more interesting patterns.

Brutal death metal will not find a fan in every listener. It relies on cadence, trope, repetition and basically pounding the listener into her chair with solid slamming percussive riff after riff. In addition, Destroying Divinity pick up a number of techniques from Immolation such as the guitar squeal, recursive rhythms that simultaneously relax, and a tendency to use higher-string chords to offset the guttural vocals and pounding bass-intense riffs. In combination these two forms show metal as more of a series of patterns than a convention sense of riff-chorus, which makes this album a welcome antidote to the highly repetitive and circular songwriting of modern metal. With great intensity Hollow Dominion creates a world of vast internal diversity and then populates it with conflict, delivering death metal satisfaction with brutal death metal rigor.

Empyrium – The Turn of the Tides

December 14, 2014 –

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Empyrium started as a metal band, but they have become a band with its own voice that uses many styles including metal where they fit in each song, much like it might use a technique. Elements of traditional European bard styles, Gothic, neofolk, ambient, neoclassical and metal meld in this emotional but dark atmospheric band.

These melancholic and beautiful songs run longer than average because they focus on creating a mood, generally with piano and lush keyboards as the primary instrument complemented by vocals, and then working through it much as one might take a walk through the Black Forest, looking up into the trees as a new thought becomes familiar and finally fleshed out, then fading away like the dying light of day. Guitars and death metal vocals appear when they create the desired effect of aggression and passionate rage for balancing to what is otherwise a yawning abyss of tragic sadness. Like doom metal bands such as My Dying Bride and Skepticism, Empyrium work hard to balance moods that otherwise would become monolithic and all-encompassing, using variations in mood to strengthen the theme of each song much as Dead Can Dance do in their longer epics. The result is a mellow and gentle sound from which the bottom falls out and a void emerges, only to become absorbed by a general sense of narrative and development. This album is both easy to listen to and a hard place to want to go, but provides the perfect background to certain acts like driving in the rain, contemplating old pictures or burying an entire family.

While the metal content shrinks with every Empyrium album, the use of metal as a voice strengthens because it appears only when crashing guitars and guttural distorted vocals give presence to an idea within the song, possibly showing us where metal will be in another decade if it continues abolishing itself. What makes The Turn of the Tides of interest to metalheads is that these songs reflect many of the same emotional journeys you might find on a Summoning or Graveland album but are taken to a more expansive viewpoint through the use of other techniques as well. Fans of atmospheric black metal and doom metal alike will find Empyrium interesting, as will any who find the manipulation of mood in layers of atmosphere to provide a compelling listen.

Phlebotomized – Immense Intense Surprise & Skycontact

December 13, 2014 –

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People forget that the 90s were among other things a pervasively trivial time, which was one of the things that death metal was rebelling against. We finally got over the terror of the Republican 1980s, and the ex-hippies took over and that meant we were due for some good times. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure satirizes this best with its view of adult society in Southern California as completely oblivious, obsessed with the inconsequential and generally wrapped up in itself without any purpose or direction to life beyond consumer glory.

Immense Intense Surprise reveals this mentality of triviality, which is the concept that you can take something very ordinary and cover it with shiny objects and unique, ironic and different (UID) adornments and somehow it will be transformed into a revolutionary idea. This is not so: the underlying idea remains in control. In the case of Immense Intense Surprise the underlying idea is that same alternative rock that everyone else was pimping back then, but they have dressed it up as bouncy technical death metal of the Afflicted school, meaning that you will not find any epic or amazing melodies or song constructions here, only technical tricks on guitar and keyboard.

To keep us distracted, Phlebotomized constantly change layers of vocals, synths, drums and lead guitar that sounds almost plasticine in its tendency toward “chaotically” repeated similar structures. And underneath? Quite a few hard rock and classic heavy metal riffs reborn, some influences from 70s rock, and a bit of death metal that as with all ill-conceived hybrids, builds itself around the vocals. Notice also the novelty song structures. This release distracts from a missing core with a surface level of weird, much like so many people distract from their absence of soul with “interesting” personalities.

Not all of Immense Intense Surprise & Skycontact — a combination release of two late 1990s albums — is bad. Much of this material shows insight in songwriting and an ability to craft a good tune. Phlebotomized interrupt themselves on the way to a good song by instead of finding a voice for their many influences, trotting them out in serial fashion, creating the kind of “variety plate” music that fails to endure over time. Think, people: there is a reason these albums went out of print in the first place after haunting the sale bins of used record stores across the world. Surface-based music does not endure. They were not alone in their quest for experimentation. Bands like Disharmonic Orchestra, Supuration and Mordred were each trying to re-invent death metal by mixing in influences from previous genres. The problem with such a conflicted approach is that it destroys the voice of the genre which had achieved clarity, and replace it with the usual modern grab-bag of options unrelated to a purpose.

Phlebotomized put out an earlier album, Preach Eternal Gospels, which spent quite a bit of time in my CD player during the 90s because it was good, solid B-level boxy death metal. Bands at that level either accepted second-tier status and moved on, or became consumed with the desire to be the next Dismember or Morbid Angel and so embarked on a path of accessorizing their music to make it stand out. Their only real problem was that the mainstream rock discovered that tactic long before they did, and they were better at it.