Num Skull – Ritually Abused re-issue has fatal flaws

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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.

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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.

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The Best Underground Metal of 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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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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_Lq2WEqj1o

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Remains provide albums …Of Death and Angels Burned for download

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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.

Download here:

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Interview with Abscession

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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!

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Destroying Divinity – Hollow Dominion

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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.

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Empyrium – The Turn of the Tides

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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.

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Phlebotomized – Immense Intense Surprise & Skycontact

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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.

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Abscession – Grave Offerings

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Abscession appeared on the metal scene with a mission to bring the power of Swedish death metal to a stagnant scene. After a promising demo, “Death Incarnate,” Abscession return with a full-length Grave Offerings that expands upon their earlier strengths to make a solid Swedish death metal album with melodic touches but a few weaknesses that could sabotage its enjoyment by others.

On “Death Incarnate,” Abscession offered a great sense of melody and of place within each song, building up riff iterations like scenes in a horror film leading to a dramatic reveal. With their first full-length Abscession demonstrate the ability to write melodic songs that create a sensation of atmosphere and then bring it to a peak, uniting the song in a moment of clarity based on the journey encoded in its prior riffs. They draw from a template of Bolt Thrower, Dismember, Unleashed, Amorphis and early Therion in this ability but expand upon it with their own voice. Each song on this album possesses a point of focus and some form of internal content that guides its development, which avoids the “songs about being songs” problem that many death metal bands have. This radically cuts down on disorganization which can blight a metal album, and creates a sensation of descent into a dark world which deepens as the album progresses. Hardcore death metal fans may find the second half even more interesting than the first.

Where this album falls down is in the tendency to incorporate hard rock and death ‘n roll elements in some of — key point: some of — the riffs. These tend to focus on bouncy riffs like the Pantera style from the 1990s but without the angry bounce, more like a pop-music style that infects the brain but detract from the overall power of the song. Further, the vocals tend to synchronize too closely with riff and especially with chorus rhythm, and unfortunately are produced in such a way that they expand sonically instead of remaining focused; a bit of reverb and a filter on the microphone might help here. These are minor problems which probably keep this album from being an automatic keeper, but nonetheless it remains a powerful musical force that is immediately recognizable as its own entity and not merely derivative and celebrating that fact to recruit an audience as recent “true old school Swedish death metal” albums have done. Notice also what appears to be a Havohej tribute in the first riff of the second-to-final song.

Death metal fans will find this album relevant because this band actually write songs, have a flair for the kind of theatrical yet meaningful atmospheric changes that Celtic Frost pioneered, and demonstrate overall high levels of musicianship and songwriting. Many will be put off by some of the bounce riffs or Motley Crue-styled hard rock riffs, but these are as mentioned above a minority of what is on the album. Amazing for its ability to invoke the past without rehashing it from an outside view, Grave Offerings shows a powerful future for this band and proves itself one of the most memorable releases of 2014.

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