The challenge of creating relevant but still traditional Heavy Metal in this current age where even the most commercial face of Metal has been changed by the extremity of the underground seems to be an almost insurmountable task. The most recent efforts of mainstream veterans like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest in continuing the genre provides little in and of themselves to enthrall the masses as they did with their once advanced, Romanticist art. There are also the countless Power and Doom Metal bands that have hijacked the older forms and do so with little to none of the magic that possessed the music of the seventies and eighties. Though the secrets of the grand, old tradition have been apparently condemned to obscurity, they can never be lost and befitting the nature of lost wisdom, have turned up in the least likely of places.
Dantesco hail from the small Latin American island of Puerto Rico and through their music, divulge a rich tradition of Spanish music and highly exoteric and vibrant Catholicism. Although chronicling the triumphant Heathen soul at war with Christendom, ‘Pagano’ conjures the sounds of the immanent culture and possesses it with a bestial inflection, as the vocals of Erico that dominate this album resemble a Latin black mass arranged with the magestic sensibilities of an European opera. Infact, the vocal style is as properly operatic as imagineable in Heavy Metal music, putting the high-pitched aspirations of a Rob Halford or Messiah Marcolin in their places, though still conveying a sense of extreme primality and visceral power rivalled only by the demonic throats of Black Metal vocalists. These sermons are conducted exclusively in the native Spanish tongue, which suits the guitars incredibly well, as the melodicism of the riffs is only supplemented by the Doomy heaviness of Candlemass influence, but really crafted with Spanish classical guitars in mind. This is where the music really comes alive, before there’s any chance of hearing the vocals as just a unique ethnic gimmick to fill space with. The compositions are constantly engaging, commanding narratives the scale of the epic title-track to Iron Maiden’s ‘Seventh Son of a Seventh Son‘ with attention to mood dynamics often passed over in favour of an intentionally one-dimensional wallowing by other bands who play this melodic, traditional and Doomy kind of Metal. All the techniques on show have been long perfected, and more recently, have even found their way into the mallcore slang of pre-teen alternative/hard rock bands (via. Gothenburg), but fortunately, it’s all found an orderly, emotive and inspiring expression in ‘Pagano’. The tight but hyperbolic interplay of vocals and guitar is a feast for those that love to follow several strands of ancient melody at once, as if transforming the old Hispanic anthems of Mexico’s Luzbel into rousing, harmonised hymns, tempered and then unleashed to invoke the spirits of pre-Christian warriors. True Heavy Metal, fit for contemporary ears, giving the current crop of extreme-influenced Pagan and Black Metal bands a serious run for their money.
In his cyclical conception of world histories, the German thinker Oswald Spengler likened the phase of decay that all civilizations eventually undergo to the seasonal onset of winter. In the post-Enlightenment western world, this is in part characterised by the rule of materialism and a corresponding inversion of traditional hierarchy, prioritising the dominant, consuming impulses of the era. What band then, could be more aptly named to reflect the cold and bleak visions of a world declining under even more advanced conditions of the organico-cultural decay that Spengler described, than the Death Metal cult of Winter?
Perhaps the slowest Metal music recorded at the time, Winter’s only full-length album is part crushing Doom of Hellhammer/Celtic Frost-inspired power-chord arrangements, and part ambient dirgewaves caught between broken transmissions of a shattered technocratic infrastructure. This distinct choice of pacing is achieved and explained by the guitar, down-tuned to the extent of coalescing with the register of droning bass-chords. Not the reverb-driven, existential heaviness of a diSEMBOWELMENT, Winter’s guitar tone has more of a hollowness to it, enough to let the bass pass through like a dying heart struggling to pump blood around cold-narrowed arteries, a fading will-to-live in an empty and broken world. The exploration of this particular aesthetic also gives rise to more of the ambient sensibilities that are present in the album. Slowly but inevitably shifting compositions open up to vistas of endless wasteland, picking up the ghostly electro-static interference left by a fallen metropolis, as guitars and bass are modulated in a manner more-or-less similar to Cliff Burton’s famous set-up on Metallica’s instrumental song, ‘Call of Ktulu’, and random radio frequencies are tuned in and out of.
Each element of instrumentation seems to impose itself on the listener in a different way. This is very apparent when being pummeled by Joe Goncalves’ overbearing bass-drumming, which is like Obituary in its restrained tempo but largely detached from such a comparatively conventional sense of tempo. Instead, drum fills cascade out of the distorted noise, as though the foundations upon which modern society were built are gradually crumbling away. The vocals present yet another side to the album, just as imposingly. The rich, guttural voice of John Alman is right in the foreground, sounding full of pure disgust but nevertheless resilient to barren environment in his midst. Lyrics are not complaints of a wounded soul hopelessly trapped within the system that is caving in on him, but observations of a world plunged into darkness and ignorance, in an allegorical, mythologised style that harkens back to an ancient, golden age. If Winter ever did read Spengler, it might be safe to assume that they were greeting a new cycle.
Shall the words not sing of sorrow Leave for others words of lament
The label ‘Funeral Doom Metal’ is used to describe a plethora of bands that share a largely fatalistic ideological outlook in common. This is an extreme interpretation of the inherent misery of Doom Metal as a wider movement that dates back to when 70′s bands such as Pentagram and Pagan Altar, and 80′s bands St. Vitus, Candlemass and Cathedral from the early 90′s carried the baton bearing these surface qualities taken from Black Sabbath. It was, later still, passed on to bands best represented by Paradise Lost, My Dying Bride and Katatonia, who integrated this slow and doleful style with Death Metal techniques, as this movement had reached it’s apex in the remarkable ‘goldmine’ period (1989 – 1993). This style called Doomdeath would eventually become more extreme, spawning suicidal and eschatological Funeral Doom Metal bands such as Mournful Congregation, Paramaecium, Worship and Pantheist. They would claim more of a descent from the band most synonymous with the tag: Finland’s Skepticism, however, whose consistancy and contribution to Metal music as a whole far outweighs their status as the archetypal form of some sub-sub-genre. Emerging almost simultaneously from the South of Finland, both Skepticism and Thergothon were playing music less concerned with the self-obsessed emotions of Doom Metal; infact, they followed more in the footsteps of Death and Black Metal, illustrating their reverence for nature/cosmos, it’s eternal patterns and magestic forces that confront our fragile and often illusory perceptions (and feed the despair of most Doom Metal in it’s fatalism).
This appropriately brings us to the annual ‘Dooomstock’ festival held at the Lepakkomies bar in the Sörnäinen district of Helsinki. More importantly, it brings us to Skepticism’s role not only as headliner, but the most uncompromising example of what has been discussed so far: that Skepticism – who bring the epic spirit of Romantic, nihilistic Metal to the Doom scene – reign supreme in a sea of shit. It’s the second day of the festival, and the opening act – Funeral Planet – amounted to little more than an extremely heavy and slow Rock band, which is the most unfortunate symptom of this kind of Black Sabbath worship. Thanks to the trial-and-error, improvisational nature of Rock composition, one or two riffs could be enjoyed but, without some meaningful musical context, only as a soundtrack to consuming bottles of Karhu – Finland’s premium lager. The Celtic Frost cover was a nice addition to the set but only served to increase the anticipation for Skepticism by hearing the work of another legendary band. Such an honourable title, the Finns in attendance would tell you, couldn’t be more applicable to the country’s original Doom Metal band and second act on the line-up: Spiritus Mortis, now being fronted by Sami Hynninen who is more well-known as Albert Witchfinder from Reverend Bizarre. Their brand of traditional Doom Metal is more competent than the preceding act, in that their sound hybridizes a wider range of influences, from Trouble and St. Vitus to the somehow rousing dirge-anthems of Pagan Altar and post-Nightfall Candlemass. But was there more to the set than a collection of tightly-played tribute songs for a diehard group of Finnish Doom Metal connoisseurs? Beside’s Sami’s enthusiasm for singing to his own band within this lot of fans, in a voice more suited to Spiritus Mortis than to a bizarre cover of Burzum’s ‘Dunkelheit’, the answer would be that there was no more meaning. The next band, Ophis from Germany represented the new generation of Doomdeath bands, and delivered almost as promised, a juvenile set of clichéd tracks that rip-off the approach played first by diSEMBOWELMENT and littered this with token chugging lifted from the cruder moments of Worship’s first album. Ending the set with a cover of a band that nobody had heard of planted Ophis solidly into the grave, but it did feature a lot more of that chugging which is ambrosia for the Doom Metal fan, as shredding is for speed-addicts.
With all of this noise done and dusted, the stage was set for the mighty Skepticism, and those who seemed to have better understood the significance of what would come made their way to the feet of the masters. Skepticism’s image is about as disparate from their peers’ as their music is, with the band maintaining a strictly non-Metal sartorial code, led by Matti on vocals and his dishevelled conductor’s suit. The set began with an awe-inspiring and trance-inducing rendition of the classic ‘Sign of a Storm’, opener to the debut album. The opening words are growled more chthonically than on record, accompanied by Matti’s gestures as he appears to summon and conduct the elemental forces of nature, explaining his customary choice of attire. His performance as vocalist is in sharp contrast with Sami’s; his actions are erratic extensions of a music which is greater than himself and, though he is aware of the audience, knows his role as mediator at all times. In the basic element of sound, Skepticism sound more like a coherent whole rather than an unbalanced loudspeaker for an isolated riff, some crowd-friendly chugging or double-bass layer. The next song, as the tracklist of the Stormcrowfleet album dictates is ‘Pouring’ and demonstrates the brutal harmony of their sound. None of their coherence is sacrificed as the set enters the classic ’Aether’ from the second album, which creates a lot more ambient space and dynamic demands that are delivered expertly. ‘The Curtain’ and ‘The Arrival’ from the latest album, Alloy follow to demonstrate the quality music that Skepticism is still creating – a very rare phenomenon in the world of Metal. Next came two tracks that, while enjoyable, explain why ’Farmakon’ was such a hit-and-miss affair. The riffs are quite cumbersomely arranged, but with their characteristic power and glimpses of innovation, Skepticism drive them forward regardless. To close, nothing could have been a more fitting choice of song than the epic ‘March October’ as the band returns to ‘Alloy’ one last time. What a gift to leave behind for the audience to be inspired – sonic patterns of the continuum of life. The epic Skepticism transcended the Doom Metal festival in every aspect of their music and performance, and this is what, perhaps paradoxically, makes a Metal band great; by letting the form of the music be shaped and directed by the fundamental impulses that inspire it, like the sea upon the coming of a storm.
Proudly join the tunes sounding Gallant ways the pulse beating Take their place in the Alloy Fortify the compound forming And unite the substance growing And meld matter made for lasting To complete the March October
diSEMBOWELMENT – Transcendence into the Peripheral
Review by Alexis
While the doom metal genre during the early ’90s in general followed the melodic style of bands like Candlemass, Australian Disembowelment pushed the genre forward by concentrating its topics into esoteric territory, in an attempt to re-discover the abstract language behind metal. Traditionally seen as one of the main innovators of the death/doom crossover, this band fused grindcore influences with the technical patterns of death metal, distilled in epic-long compositions.
Transcendence into the Peripheral from 1993 is their only full-length album and marks the height of the band’s career. The first compositions roughly follow a sonata form, with melodic introductions accentuating the main theme, long passages of structural improvisation, and ending with a repetition of the introductory theme, sometimes fading into technical percussive patterns, hailing its death metal language roots.
Often pending between fast paced moments and longer, intricate passages where the symphonic and droning riffs melt in with the cathedral-like sound production, this band adopts the staggering, epic phrases of Black Sabbath, discarding melody in favour of a rhythmic-harmonic aesthetic. This gives the music its spiritual, ritualistic aesthetic, setting this band apart from most other doom metal bands at the time. The droning sound of the bass and guitars, melting with the drums that pound like gigantic timbales for a funeral ceremony, invokes a sound picture of huge reverb, letting each sound slowly die away like space dust in the universe.
The second half of the album somewhat loses the sonata intention and instead builds up 9+ minute improvisational compositions, where the structural changes in the music require full attention from the listener. Not dissimilar from a mental ritual, the language of Disembowelment is both hopelessly beautiful and heroically assertive, expressing in both content and form the Sumerian concept of the tree of life and death, stretching from the ocean of eternal truth (Abzu) to the divine heaven (Anu).
Although lacking in the department of melodic development, and despite a compositional coherence that could have tied the intricate riff salads together into more central harmony from the lead guitarist, Transcendence into the Peripheral stands apart from the rest of the metal clones to date through its direction into the abstract foundation of metal language. Macabre, stylistic, technical and emotionally heavy, this is a musical manual into personal development–and during its heights, transcendence beyond the mundane world of humans.