On Well-Defined Genres

On Well-Defined Genres

Article by David Rosales.

I. The Myth of Progress

Each epoch in human history is affected by the myths that define its own attitude; myths that could be defined as foundational illusions on which the dogmas of the time are based. For us, that myth is progress itself and the consequent air of superiority that comes with it. Having arrived at a postmodernist stage, this criticism of modernity is nothing new, but at the same time, nothing has been done about it so that we still suffer the same symptoms. This is one of the maladies of postmodernism: an even greater contempt for other epochs in its supposed abstraction from prejudices, which creates an illusory special place whence a new prejudice against everything and all is provisioned, whence nothing is actually properly addressed or solved only haphazardly patched over.

We call it the myth of progress not because we believe that improvement is impossible, but because the word has become so much a staple of modernity that it is assumed that our “progress” applies to many more areas than it actually does. The only clear advantage we have over humanity in the past is our clear technological advantage, summarized in more precise knowledge of scientific mechanics1. We have a bigger sword in hand and know how to use it.

The average, modern man also considers we have a moral advantage over the barbarism and superstition of the past. He does not consider his own moral assumptions as spurious. That is always reserved for the other. This contradiction is especially obvious in the secular humanist values that currently dominate the sphere of Western politics and popular opinion. Religion (by which they are usually referring to Christianity and sometimes to Islam if the critics themselves be Christian) is vilified as leading to a dulling of the senses; Catch phrases originally belonging to the Marxist left (“opium of the masses”) are embedded into popular consciousness.

Both the left and right base their ideologies on different interpretations of the modern myth of progress and the false sense of moral superiority thereof. The humanist values that both presume to uphold were born out of Christian Reformist philosophy. Consequently Aristotelianism (philosophy for those not philosophically inclined) plays a prominent role in modernist attitudes, contributing a materialist kind of Naturalism. All this is patched up with some apparently arbitrary morality (actually completely arising from popular Judeo-Christian thought) designed to make individuals feel safe and good about themselves independently of reality. This is secular humanism.

II. Predestination and Inevitability

What we may take from this realization is that no matter how much we learn, possess or discover, we are still products of the most recent past. We are the result of the uninterrupted flow of historical events, from a hypothetical primordial cause or an infinite set of cycles, to the present. The degree and the nature of success of independent enterprise of any kind is wholly dependent on the variable states at that point in time within the cosmic flow of events due to the immensity of the world with respect to a single human being and the fact that individual wills reside within individuals only.

The degree of success obviously refers to the magnitude of the same: its overall effect throughout the course of time. The nature of success depends on how success is defined. Whether you judge it by its popular acceptance, its practical application by the rulers irrespective of the opinion of the masses, by its effects correlation with the original goals of the enterprise. Quantization of success leads to lossy reductionism so an integral assessment of degree of success is based on relatively arbitrary judgements. In parallel, the judgement of the nature of success is based on ideology, itself dependent on how individuals choose to interpret reality and to what degree that interpretation follows logically from that reality. This interpretation is applied to a perception of reality, not to reality itself. This is a distinction too few make, unfortunately leading to grave misconceptions where perception and interpretation are confounded

Words may provide false solace in that colloquial language expressions seldom express what we mean precisely. Words are misleading. The statement “We are products of our past” may be taken far more lightly than it ought to be. Many take it to mean that our present physical conditions result from the decisions of our predecessors, which is true. However, a popular belief is that our minds may roam completely free and that our freedom of choice and thought (supposedly superior that of animals) grants us the power to change the current tide of events. What is not often mentioned is that the force necessary to break this tide of social developments is proportional to the degree of change to be implemented.

This struggle between established flow and forced change occurs not only on the physical plane but on the mental one as well. The state of thoughts and conceived possibilities are wholly dependent on both social exposure (all-around learning) and genetic proclivity2. Our thoughts are dependent on the past and subject to it. In opposition to this naturalist point of view stands the idea of our minds arising from an immortal spirit emanating from a divine source standing outside the universe. Modernism is against anything supernatural, so it arrives silently this contradiction only to casually avert its eyes from it.

III. Innovation and Establishment in Metal

Most of us understand metal as a non-complacent artistic movement that tends towards innovation in order to reformulate itself so that it is never trapped by convention. This reluctance the genre displays to entrapment by academic stiffness has worked miracles and produced true masterpieces of contemporary art, unrecognized as such by the public at large and masturbatory academia. Nevertheless we must be on guard, since that same rebelliousness may hinder the movement and ground it in something that is more of a childish rejection of discipline. Childish as Metal has moved well beyond its birth rites and is now rather well-defined in its limits, even though these cannot be formulated in a scientific manner.

The impetus towards forward movement coupled with an ignorance of true artistic relevance results in an exaggerated attention toward overtly “progressive” outfits and a dismissal of those which seem aesthetically grounded in tradition. Logic plays little role in this ideological and emotional thought process. While it should be easy to conclude that traditional aesthetics are surer to produce higher quality results given the collectively accumulated experience they embody, there is a tendency to think that what is of the past belongs to the past and that today needs an “updated” version. There is an Apple product consumerism applied to the general expectation of artistic expression here.

Metalheads arbitrarily select contradictory dogmas by which to shape their judgement of the art, reflecting the values of the modern and post-modernist contexts up-to-date headbangers inhabit. According to these “progressive” revisionists, genre guidelines and ideology must evolve and evolution means progress. Progress must lead to secular value. Music, furthermore, must reflect this openness and disavowal of encumbering tradition. In opposition to them stand the masses of staunch metalheads that may not complicate themselves with artsy wordiness, but who are intuitively connected to the deeper nature of metal, and defend its traditions through emotion.

IV. The Value of Well-Established Genres

As previously mentioned, the value of tradition is the collective experiences it represents. It is the result of trial and error, the remembrance of individual illumination, and the time-tested efficiency of its connection to human nature3. Tradition is a powerful weapon on which greatness is built but it is also only wealth and potential. Each generation and individual must utilize it to manifested their energy in motion.

That genres and movements decay is not an effect of tradition, but of what Prozak likes to call “crowdism“. In attacking tradition and glorifying the scene, we would only be achieving exactly the opposite effect of what we presume to. This follows directly from a reluctance to place responsibility on individuals and instead blame abstract concepts such as institutions, ideologies, and traditions. Tradition blossoms into works of great beauty when well-tended and lovingly nurtured, showcasing a wondrously creative fecundity possible only at higher levels of development.

The quality in fertility of worthy traditions may be obfuscated from common understanding as to understand higher-level concepts and representations, one has to have grasped the basics. Most people do not have the disposition towards investing effort to perceive and appropriately receive these higher qualities. Instead, they opt for superficial variations of what they can already understand. Artists that have been forgotten given such a short-sighted mentality include classical and romantic Nordic composers such as Franz Berwald, whose emotionally-stirring symphonies are virtually unmatched in their compact efficiency and inconspicuously thorough treatment of emotions.

In metal, the false dichotomy between traditional stagnation and innovative flare has wreaked havoc: only a handful of people seem to appreciate quality and creativity irrespective of the degree of adherence to traditional aesthetics. Tradition is best appreciated as a more abstract concept that can be traced from the aesthetics. Judgement of quality should not be independent of either, but flexible in taking account of an overall context. The following are a few albums whose adherence to a traditionalist but creative paradigm has won them little love from the masses. These have remained in relative obscurity despite their meaningful contributions to metal:

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Divine EveVengeful and Obstinate (2010)

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ProfanacticaThy Kingdom Come (2013)

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Serpent Ascending – The Enigma Unsettled (2011)

atlantean kodex the golden bough
Atlantean Kodex – The Golden Bough (2010)

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EmpyriumInto the Pantheon (2013)

Written on the morning of the 22nd, April 2016, close to the land where the sun rises, while listening to Iron Maiden’s ‘Somewhere in Time’.

Notes
1 Theories on the origin and underlying nature of reality in physics and chemistry continue to remain metaphysical even if supported and represented in equations. This is an important point towards realizing the limitations of quantification-based science and the illogical idea that if one cannot measure something visually with a ruler then it isn’t relevant.

2 The idea of genetically-based mental faculties is ignored and frowned upon by modern dogma. It is detested and rejected despite severely inconclusive experimental data demonstrating natural differences, not a lack of them. An emotional vilification ensues because the idea of inherent (and therefore beyond our control) differences in capacity does not bide well with the religious commandment that “All men are created equal.” This same idea has been upheld by pseduo-scientific theories produced under both democracy and communism, political paradigms that are themselves entirely dependent on the truthfulness of this concept. It is difficult to avoid seeing a clear conflict of interests here; an out-of-hand scientific protectionism of dogma through sponsored and biased logistic and political support is the rule.

3 The perception of patterns and the effects of music through their interaction with our biological make-up in the ever-moving sequence of its unique states in time.

Pureblood Albums – A 2013 Recap

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Article by David Rosales

As another year ends and a new one begins, many “best of” lists pop up here and there, among them our own here at DMU. While others may be eager to know about what is ever new, we are more interested in what stands the test of time. Today we will look at some albums that were highlighted here as the foremost products of the year 2013, which was a year of renewal, great comebacks, startling discoveries and a general wellspring of inspiration. In the opinion of this writer, 2013 has been the best year for metal in the 21st century.


To start off, we shall pay respects to long-lasting acts with a black metal background, namely Graveland, Summoning and Burzum. While the last has left the metal camp for good, its approach and spirit is still very much enriched by the essence of the deepest metal infused with transcendental values. Summoning is still doing their thing, ever evolving, trying a different permutation of their unique style. Fudali’s project has become the warrior at the frontlines of the strongest nationalism grounded in music that uplifts the heart with an authentic battle feeling (as opposed to those other bands playing funny-jumpy rock and acting all “dangerous”).

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Sôl austan, Mâni vestan is an ambient affair that uses short loops which revolve around clear themes in each track. The approach is a little formulaic, thereby limiting the experience with a feeling of repetition. However, as with many good works of art, this self-imposed canalization serves to speed the result in a direction. As with a lot of Burzum’s work, this is a concept album that must be listened to as a whole. When this is followed and one stops looking for novelty and instead concentrates on the details that bring variation within the familiar landscape, the somewhat arduous experience brings great rewards once the summit is reached and the journey is taken more than once.

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Something similar can be said of the slightly pop-minded Old Mornings Dawn. This effort by Summoning certainly lacks the density of their masterpiece, Dol Guldur, but is no less effective, although perhaps shallow. But what isn’t shallow when compared to that masterpiece? As with every Summoning album, Old Mornings Dawn has a very separate personality, and in this case, it is one of heroism, light, regeneration and hope. Something that will never leave the band’s trademark sound is the deep feeling of melancholy and longing for ruins.

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Graveland materializes in Thunderbolts of the Gods one of their most warlike efforts to date in a smooth trajectory that has gone from rough-pagan to long-winded and epic to heroic war music. What raises this offering above others in Fudali’s current trend is the awesome bringing forth of destructive energies mustered in the imposing drumwork. Gone are the clumsy rhythms of Cold Winter Blades and the redneckish tone of the (nonetheless great) album Following the Voice of Blood. This is the technically polished and spirit-infused summit of this face of Graveland.

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One of the most deserving releases of 2013 was Black Sabbath’s 13. More expectations could not have been placed on anyone else. Yet the godfathers of metal delivered like the monarchs they are: with original style, enviable grace, magnificent strength and latent power. Along with the last three albums just mentioned, this album shows itself timeless in the present metal landscape. It encompasses all that it is metal, and brings it back to its origin. This is an absolute grower which will age like the finest wine and is, in my opinion, the album of the year of 2013.

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In 2013, Profanatica finally achieved amazing distinction with Thy Kingdom Cum, which can be considered the fully developed potential of what Ledney presented in the thoroughly enjoyable Dethrone the Son of God under the Havohej moniker. To say this is the natural outcome of Profanatica’s past work is as true as it is misleading in its implications. This is not just a continuation of what the band was doing before, but a deliberate step, a clear decision in the clear change in texture quality that means the world in such minimalist music where a simple shift in technique or modal approach defines most of the character of the music.

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Cóndor’s Nadia was probably the hidden pearl of the year. Never mind the metaphor of the “diamond in the rough”, there is nothing rough about this. It is polished, but it is hidden. The shy face of this beautiful lady is covered by a veil that turns away the unworthy, the profane! This is immortal metal artwork which to uninitiated eyes and ears seems but like the simple, perhaps even amateur, collection of Sabbathian cliches and tremolo excuses of an unexperienced band. The knowledgeable and contemplating metal thinker recognizes the Platonic forms under the disfigured shapes.

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Imprecation’s Satanae Tenebris Infinita and Blood Dawn by Warmaster draw our attention to the strong presence of a more humble but profoundly (though not obviously) memorable album and EP. These will stand the chance of time, but will not necessarily remain strong in the mind of a listener in a way that he feels compelled to come back to them often.

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Dark Gods, Seven Billion Slaves by VON seemed more enticing at the time. It’s definitely a solid release, but it is however a very thinly populated album with more airtime than content. Whatever content it has is also not particularly engaging. The enjoyability of this one is a much more subjective affair and like a soundtrack is more dependent on extra-musical input from the listener’s imagination.

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As delightful as the three heavy metal albums Argus Beyond The Martyrs, Blitzkrieg Back From Hell and Satan are, the intrinsic qualities of their selected subgenres makes them a difficult candidate for long-lasting and profound impact. That is not to say they have no lasting value. If anything, these are albums one can come back a thousand times and perhaps they will not grow that much, but they will never truly grow old.

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Autopsy’s Headless Ritual is one of the strongest yet most understated albums of the year. The extremely rough character of the music may contribute to how it carelessly it can be left behind. Fans of brutal music will find it little different from the rest and will quickly forget it. Fans of wider expressions and deeper thoughts will pass it by with little interest. Such is the tragedy of this very respectable album.

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A few stragglers in this group; Master’s The Witchhunt, Centurian’s Contra Rationem, Derogatory’s Above All Else, and Rudra’s RTA proved to be more impact and potential than manifest presence. These will remain fun and quaint for a very occasional listen, perhaps even a sort of throwback feeling, but lacking the long-lasting impact of others in this list.

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A special mention is deserved by Into the Pantheon, the essential synthesis of Empyrium, being their most revealing, powerful and clear release. While not outwardly metal, this live recording everything that is to be metal at the level of character and spirit. As such it is the perfect closing note for this recapitulation and reevaluation of past selections.

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.

The Best of Underground Metal of 2013

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I used to loathe end-of-year lists. They struck me as a pointless chance to advertise what should have been obvious before. Over the years they have risen in my estimation as a way not only to mark the year, but to bring up the gold that gets lost in the chaos of everyday life. And yes, they’re also shopping lists for the metalhead in your life.

This year our list is surprising even to hardened cynics. At a time when metal is bragging up and down the Williamsburg alleys about how “innovative” and “ground-breaking” it is, that novelty turns out to be the remnants of the 1980s: emo, pop punk, shoegaze and indie. The real innovation is as always underground, because to get out of the hive mind one must first remove oneself from participation in normalcy.

Thus what you will find here is not what you will see in either (a) the big-label-financed slick magazines and web sites or (b) the majority of small zines and websites out there. That is because the genre as a whole has shifted from creation towards an idea to emulation of the past, or reaction to the past by trying to adulterate it with outside influences. Neither approach succeeds.

When a reviewer chooses an album, he should pick one that will last in your collection. Your time is limited, as is your money. Thus we look only for works that you can purchase and enjoy over the years, and can return to with a sense of wonder and discovery as new angles and nuances emerge. This standard seems high, so they call us elitists. What we really are is people who love metal and want it to be strengthened by its best, not weakened by accepting its worst.

The following albums are those that merit such a standard:

argus-beyond_the_martyrsArgus – Beyond The Martyrs

Rejecting the notion of newness in itself, Argus returns to fundamental influences from the 1980s and makes a band that sounds like a fusion between Mercyful Fate, Iron Maiden and Candlemass. Guitar riffery is designed to be inventive and interesting in its own right but is trimmed down to what fits the function of each song. As a result, these songs “sound like” the classics in more ways than one. They are thoughtful and deliberate, purposeful and driven. Classic heavy metal riffs merge with meandering leads that somehow pull it all together, under the mournful voice of a vocalist who clearly enjoys classic Candlemass both in vocal delivery and sense of melody. See full review / interview.

autopsy-the_headless_ritualAutopsy – The Headless Ritual

Autopsy are famous for their contributions to death metal which notably peaked in Mental Funeral where their chaotic tendencies got wrapped up in their sense of atmosphere and produced a dark ambling journey into the subconscious. Of their later works, The Headless Ritual gets close to such a balance although it aims for something more everyday. This is an album that wants to deliver classic death metal thrills, and it does so with moderately paced songs that balance melody and savage chromatic riffing. Chris Reifert’s drumming pirouttes and grapples through vicious tempo changes as riffs unlock a Lament Configuration that is equal parts nostalgia and invention.

birth_a_d-i_blame_youBirth A.D. – I Blame You

What happened to real thrash, like DRI and Cryptic Slaughter? In much the same vein as hardcore punk before it, thrash was so intense that it burned out after only four years of real presence. Birth A.D. wisely choose not to “bring it back” but rather to pick up as if thrash were a party and the next day, the hung over participants awaken among the ruins. They’ve sharpened its message, which merged the anarchy of punk with the search for societal purpose of metal, and given its riffs the S.O.D. speed metal infusion without unduly modernizing them. As a result, these two-minute songs hit hard and retreat into the jungle, leaving behind their sardonic lyrics mocking society for being so stupid. When the record stops playing, there is a sense of both having received too much information to process, and a sadness that there isn’t more. See full review.

black_sabbath-13Black Sabbath – 13

Realizing what Black Sabbath meant to fans not just as a named entity but as a phenomenon, Black Sabbath integrate the sounds of vocalist Ozzy Osbourne’s solo years into their later, more refined music, with citations to Master of Reality as well. The result is a powerful album that is more pop than their original works but, in a time when nu-metal rages on the radio, reclaims heavy metal as having a voice of its own. It also pushes controversy, affirming a presence of God in this world for good or ill at a time when most people want to get polemic one way or the other. A supporting cast of sprawling but hard-hitting songs make this a great immersive lesson and transition from regular rock to metal for new listeners. See full review.

blitzkrieg-back_from_hellBlitzkrieg – Back From Hell

This band shares members with Satan, who also re-entered the fray with an album of strong tunes. Like Satan, Blitzkrieg know how to simultaneously avoid “changing” for change’s sake (inevitably a lateral move to other contemporarily popular genres) and nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, making instead an album that fits into their catalogue but doesn’t deny the older, wiser status of its members. These are mostly straightforward songs with melodic choruses and driving, riff-centric verses, plus nimble-fingered and harmonically-aggressive soloing. See full review.

burzum-sol_austan_mani_vestanBurzum – Sôl Austan, Mâni Vestan

People said they wanted old Burzum back. The spirit of old Burzum comes back in this ambient album. It’s a bit more hasty and less refined by fanatical attention to detail than his previous works, but it creates the same world, only zoomed forward in time. It is both a practical and imaginative album. In style, it resembles a cross between Tangerine Dream, William Orbit and the Scandinavian folk music of Grieg, Hedningarna or Wardruna. Strongly ritualized, it unfolds like a descent through mythical worlds and finds its own balance. One of the best offerings in this field. See full review / interview.

centurian-contra_rationemCenturian – Contra Rationem

For years many of us have wanted this Dutch band to catch a break. They have written several albums of relentlessly pounding, rhythmically intense riffing that somehow doesn’t add up. First, writing the whole album at high speed means that soon it backgrounds itself; second, there was always a lack of melody or song structure to hold it together. Centurian have improved on the latter two and toned down the former to a great degree, such that this is no longer trying to be Krisiun but more like a more Angelcorpse/Fallen Christ approach to Consuming Impulse. The result showcases this band’s dexterity with riffcraft and creates an intense atmosphere of violence. See full review.

condor-nadiaCóndor – Nadia

This entry album by a new band shows a lot of promise in tackling the power metal format and trying to give it the balls of death metal and funeral doom metal. This contemplative, mostly mid-paced album shows a sense of atmosphere as manipulated by riff, in the death metal sense, given a somewhat upward curve and heroic spin in the best tradition of power metal. Although it’s a new act, and still organizing itself, Cóndor shows that life remains in true metal that can be explored by revisiting its motivations. See full review / interview.

derogatory-above_all_elseDerogatory – Above All Else

In the tradition of Vader, Mortuary and other fast phrasal death metal bands, Derogatory invoke the classic death metal form with an album of nicely interlocking riffs that reveal a basic but distinctive structure beneath each song. This album is not self-consciously “retro” so much as it is using the voice of the older style, and while it doesn’t expand stylistically, it has found a voice of its own. See full review/interview.

empyrium-into_the_pantheon-coverEmpyrium – Into the Pantheon

Combining funeral doom metal with European folk music creates for Empyrium a fertile style that is showcased here in a retrospective of the best of their career presented in a rare live setting. Expect plenty of use of silence and resonance to build up these songs, which start slowly and then become engaging before evaporating into more esoteric conclusions. While most funeral doom aims to be dark, Empyrium creates an emotional contrast like a Gothic band, with beauty arising from chaos only to be strangled by inevitability and fall again. See full review / interview.

graveland-thunderbolts_of_the_godsGraveland – Thunderbolts of the Gods

Following up on 2012’s Lord Wind release, Polish/Italian artist Rob Darken unleashes a new work under his black metal brand Graveland. Like the band’s second career-defining Memory and Destiny, this release features Bathory Hammerheart-style guitars which mix speed metal and black metal to produce rhythmic riffing as a backdrop for keyboards and vocals, now featuring also human female vocals and violin. The result is a collision between heavy metal, neofolk and epic movie soundtracks that evokes the glory of the ancient past.

master-the_witchhuntMaster – The Witchhunt

Paul Speckmann is a metal institution who has stayed with death metal from its genesis in the early 1980s through the presence. His latest, The Witchhunt, showcases the stable lineup he has used for recent releases but tones down the overall intensity to focus on songwriting. Fast riffs blend together with touches of melody and the classic Speckmann vocal patterns which resemble the struggles of daily life turned up to eleven. Where previous Master works of recent vintage tended to blend together, on this one each song is distinct. See full review / interview.

profanatica-thy_kingdom_cumProfanatica – Thy Kingdom Cum

Taking a hint from Necrovore and intensifying it through technical prowess, Profanatica step back from the longer melodic riffs of Profanatitas de Domonatia and instead write short, cyclic phrases within compact rhythms in the style of the ancient Texas death metal cult. The result is like a primitive album with complexity embedded in it as melodies expand within fixed riff forms, uniting savagery and beauty in the service of blasphemy. As with all Profanatica works, this is experimental to the extreme, but Thy Kingdom Cum ranks among their most listenable releases. See full review /interview.

rudra-rtaRudra – RTA

The Singaporean maniacs return with an album that uses more traditional melodic death metal riffing but retains its rhythmic structure based on speed metal and possibly the Hindu rituals described in its lyrics. As with most Rudra releases, RTA does not aim for the pop song idea of hitting a sweet spot and luring in your ears. It is the construction of an experience, in this case a dark descent that forges a resolve to continue through warfare and a martial stilling of the reckless personality through militant silence of the soul.

satan-life_sentenceSatan – Life Sentence

The rougher edge of NWOBHM that was a kissing cousin to speed metal emerges again in this highly musical album from Satan. Like their groundbreaking early 1980s works which presaged the debut of Metallica and birth of speed metal, Life Sentence features inventive riffs in classic song format in which melodic development in the vocals harmonizes riffs to bring songs to a conclusion. Shy of speed metal mostly because it relies on relatively fixed song format which emphasizes verse-chorus riff pairs, this album nonetheless reveals both the greatness of NWOBHM and its continuing relevance in a time of tuneless songs and random song structure. See full review / interview.

summoning-old_mornings_dawnSummoning – Old Mornings Dawn

After black metal fully constituted itself in the early 1990s in Scandinavia, people looked for the next development along these lines. Some went to dark ambient, but others like Summoning and Graveland instead explored longer melodies and more drawn-out, atmospheric songs. Summoning take a medieval and Tolkien-inspired approach in contrast to the more martial outlook of other bands, and produce as a result immersive waves of melody that evoke a more organic society. With Old Mornings Dawn, these Austrian metal maniacs build on the emotion of Oath Bound but exploit it in more compact and separable songs, making one of the more intense metal statements of the year. See full review.

von-dark_gods_seven_billion_slavesVon – Dark Gods, Seven Billion Slaves

Following up on Von’s early career material like Satanic Blood is not easy; in fact, it’s impossible. A band would either have to re-create that minimalist style and risk irrelevance, or embark on a campaign to dress it up as something it is not. Von has opted for something else entirely which is to create a minimalistic core within a rock opera style of black metal, producing one of the more puzzling but satisfying releases in the underground metal world this year. See full review.

wardruna-runaljod-yggdrasilWardruna – Runaljod – Yggdrasil

Combining folk music, world music, droning found noises and the type of ritualistic dark ambient that emerged from the end days of black metal, Wardruna is a black metal side project that offers a different vision of music. While earlier works seemed detached from the end listener, Runaljod – Yggdrasil embeds the listener within a wave of ceremonial sound that aims not to be forebrain listening as Western rock is, but a mentally ambient experience that overwhelms by addressing all of the senses and channeling that experience toward a realization.

warmaster-blood_dawnWar Master – Blood Dawn

Underground death metal continuation act War Master released a four-track EP, Blood Dawn, amidst personnel changes and other upheavals this year. Like the previous Pyramid of the Necropolis, Blood Dawn focuses on futuristic and yet ancient concepts, almost like Voivod taking on Robert E. Howard or Edgar Rice Burroughs. From this vast concept come songs that both grind their way to nihilism and implement the death metal method of matching riffs into an internal dialogue from which a conclusion emerges, creating a pocket of mystery which is filled with wonder and violence.

Album of the year:

imprecation-satane_tenebris_infinitaImprecation – Satanae Tenebris Infinita

There is no completely fair way to pick an album of the year from a list with this many strong contenders, but Imprecation win this one on both substance and situation. For substance, this is a solid album that combines a black metal sense of ritualistic song development with the death metal tendency to make abstract riffs into an organic whole. For situation, Satanae Tenebris Infinita sees a band that started in 1991 and is famous for releasing its discography of demos in 1995 finally reach a stage where it can release a full-length album independent of any past influences. In addition, Satanae Tenebris Infinita hits hard and does not relent. Each element serves a purpose toward creating a transition in moods, like a perpetual parallax as continents shift. If death metal was waiting for a direction forward, Imprecation have opened that gate to a new occult science and art of subversive metal. See full review / interview.

The following were considered, and then not so much considered:

  • Morbosidad – Muerte De Cristo En Golgota. This is like Krisiun or Impiety rendered in the style of Mystifier, or like any of the war metal bands that imitated Blasphemy but with a dose of downtuned Sarcofago. It’s not bad, but aside from high intensity rhythm, it doesn’t have much to offer. Thus think of it as Satanic death techno performed on muddy guitars.
  • Fates Warning – Darkness in a Different Light. Bands: don’t try to roll with the trends. You were good at something else for a reason. This album has strong smary indie rock influences on its vocals and the result is embarrassing to be caught listening to. Riffs are reasonable, but don’t particularly develop, and emphasize space and consistency more than something with a personality.
  • Grave Upheaval – Untitled. Not bad; mostly rumbling noises, very true to form. Unfortunately, also doesn’t go anywhere. It’s an atmosphere piece of one dimension.
  • Warlord – The Holy Empire. Some sort of rock-metal hybrid from back in the day, this form of power metal uses mostly lead riffing anchored by static open chording. The dominant instrument is the voice, more like Rush or Asia than most metal. It’s pleasant but lullabye and too close to rock music.
  • Hell – Curse and Chapter. Do you know how far I would have run to get away from this back in the 1980s? It’s NWOBHM/early power metal without much melodic movement in the riff, so there’s a lot of chugging and shifting but not much actual motion. Nor will you have much actual motion as you listen to this… in fact, you might find yourself immobile and snoring.
  • Battlecross – War of Will. This is traditional metal affected by metalcore aesthetics. The vocals follow the surge pattern of later hardcore, and the melodic riffs use rhythmic “chasing” to accelerate patterns older than Chuck Berry. The result is so distracting the band can’t compose a song, but instead write a riff pair and then leap into a blast beat to transition.
  • Enforcer – Death by Fire. Here we have another band from Scandinavia creating highly musically-literate, catchy and otherwise perfect music. The problems are twofold: (1) it is a clone of 1970s styles that are liked for their innocent pop cheeze (2) while it is emotive, and aesthetically appealing, it is also empty.
  • Queensryche – Queensryche. Since the band went legal on each other, there’s now two Queensryches… this one sounds like Coldplay. The same posi-pop vibe and expansive chorus feel drives this work, and it has a similar outlook on the world, which is a sort of pathological compulsion to make things beautiful instead of finding beauty where it is rare. Unsettling.
  • Leprous – Coal. If this Queen-slash-bad-indie band gets anywhere in metal, it’s time to bury the genre under warm ruminant feces. Power metal mixed with dramatic English pop. The result is bracingly twee with metal riffs batting about in the background.
  • Iggy and the Stooges – Ready to Die. Almost all reviews of this album will waffle, because it is good, but it’s not distinctive. It all kind of flows together, as if the band paid more attention to the aesthetics of sounding like themselves than whatever’s driving them. But how do you “be punk” when you have a paid up retirement plan and health insurance?
  • Abyssal – Novit Enim Dominus Qui Sunt Eius. This was the hip thing for a few weeks, but shows you that you cannot revive a genre by imitating it through outward form. These songs use all the right pieces, but in a random order, and thus create no mood except nostalgia. And I piss on nostalgia’s grave.
  • Tyrant’s Blood – Into the Kingdom of Graves. Great title, has a Blasphemy ex-member, can’t go wrong… right? There’s a lot to like about this, but it doesn’t hold together. It embraces the “hotel buffet” style of offering many different riff types in a single song that ends up distorting any coherence. Storming Perdition Temple-style fast metal explodes into melodic mid-paced riffs and then ends up chugging deathgrind, lost and adrift on the seas of making a point.
  • Cultes des Ghoules – Henbane. It’s ludicrous that so many in the underground were fooled by this comical album. It’s a lot of bad heavy metal riffs interrupted by “avantgarde” noise, samples, etc. — the usual cliches — so that you don’t notice it’s bog-standard. This is hipster incarnate.
  • Acerus – The Unreachable Salvation. Galloping uptempo yet mid-paced heavy metal with a lot of Iron Maiden and Mercyful Fate. Not bad, but not particularly expansive to anything more than that aesthetic role.
  • Aosoth – IV: Arrow in Heart. This album, like Immolation, got credit because people expected it should. Its strong point is listenable songs with some technicality; its weakness is that they express nothing strong. It is Participation with an A+ for method and a B- for content.
  • Sodom – Epitome of Torture. This rather sentimental, somewhat modern-metal influenced take on a speed metal album is very catchy and represents Sodom’s most professional work, but also loses the unique perspective this band offered on the world around it. This is more like the heavy metal albums of their youths, heavy on emotion which makes their repetitive, chorus-heavy approach almost too saccharine.
  • Grave Miasma – Odori Sepulcorum. I have wallpaper. It’s named “It’s 1991 again and you can rediscover things you believed in once again.” It sounds like a mishmash of 1990s era death metal and yet, because it’s wallpaper, it never comes to a point. It just creates an atmosphere.
  • Týr – Valkyrja. Power metal of the newer stype seems to me it has a mystery ingredient, and that is devotional music. This sounds like church music, with sweeping choruses and whole-note cadences, and it has an admitted power, but it also loses much of what makes metal powerful: it’s not protest music, nor is it music that tries to cover ugliness with beauty, but music that finds beauty in what is considered ugly.
  • Onslaught – VI. Eager to effect a return to the music business, Onslaught speed up their punk/metal hybrid but adopt the vocal styles and constant driving mechanical rhythm of modern metal. The result is unrelenting but also disconnected and monolithic. The catchy choruses don’t help and seem almost to mock the rest of the music, which sounds like a pilotless threshing machine gone amok in a pumpkin patch…
  • Death Angel – The Dream Calls for Blood. In the 1980s, speed metal bands had a certain annoying rhythm where they tried to be as obnoxiously bouncy as possible while ranting as intensely as possible. With modern metal much of the internal rhythmic interplay has been eliminated, resulting in something that sounds like chanting Stalinist propaganda with guitars strobing in the background.
  • Bölzer – Aura. Like Oranssi Pazuzu, Bölzer experiment in disorganized slowed black/death/heavy metal with mixed-in weirdo alternative rock. Weirdo alternative rock has existed since early rock bands made a name for themselves by being odd. The problem is that it doesn’t connect to form an impression, only a sense of instrumentalism.
  • Coffins – The Fleshland. Doom-death with some quality riffing, Coffins nonetheless manage to inevitably get lost in each of their songs and fill the void with noodly pentatonic leads, distracted tributaries of non-essential riffs, and “atmospheric” repetition.
  • Metal Church – Generation Nothing. This shrill metal band has always struck me as more in the heavy metal camp than speed metal camp, and here it’s borne out. The riffs don’t have form like speed metal riffs do but are mostly static based on rhythmic repetition. Focus is on the voice, which wails. Not bad but annoying and kind of empty. Also, older guys trying to bond with the new generation is awkward when done this way.
  • Malthusian – MMXIII. Like many sonic experiments, this band relies on style to shape content because style is the substance of the experiment. The idea here is to combine the Incantation-clone death metal that is trendy with melodic progressive touches, including some sneakster modern metal influences. The result loses what could have been and fails to transition to what it wants to be.
  • Stratovarius – Nemesis. When did this band get so bad? The first track sounds like a rip of Heart’s “On My Own,” and the rest of the album proceeds in this fashion: combine classic metal riff archetype with classic 1980s vocal melody, add some flourishes and hope it’s good enough. I liked it better when this band was more speed metally and less pop.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HmuHHGfUBEE

Empyrium – Into the Pantheon CD

empyrium-into_the_pantheon-coverEmpyrium recently released a live concert video entitled Into The Pantheon celebrating their recent return to live performances (read our interview with Markus Stock here). They’re releasing the same concert as a CD.

For many, this will be not only the preferred way to experience this live concert, but also the preferred way to experience Empyrium. First, while the video is beautifully shot with professional attention to detail, this concert also lends itself to listening especially while deep in thought. Second, the setlist for this show compiles much of Empyrium’s most interesting material, providing both a best-of and highlight performance reel.

Into the Pantheon shows Empyrium using live acoustic instruments including pianos, strings and twelve-string guitars to create a fully-fleshed version of their sound, including operatic vocals but not the wash of keyboards doubling the guitar riff that is “symphonic metal.” This performance is closer to what Summoning and Enslaved did, which was to combine medieval music — think Dead Can Dance, but even more authentic — with slower atmospheric metal and use the combination to launch into songwriting that has been traditional to their homelands for millennia.

Technically, this is a metal album, and has metal sensibilities, much as Summoning does despite its convoluted take on the style. However, at its heart is the skaldic/bardic tradition of old Europe where singers put epic poems to music and other musicians as could be spared contributed chorus effects. Most of these songs are sung in the main by a single voice, in a less ostentatious version of operatic vocals (closer to the visceral and honest performance that Attila used to crown De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas), but this voice is accompanied by the aforementioned instruments, including a heavily distorted guitar that lays out the darker and more urgent themes using the best techniques of death metal and black metal.

Often however the instrument that leads is the acoustic guitar, plucking simple melodic patterns that are then echoed by violins and piano, and encouraged through harmonization of vocals to urge the melodies on. These develop, and then fragment, with multiple instruments each taking one approach, and as these conflict, a dissonance and sense of longing fills the songs, like wanderlust with fin de siècle wistfulness. The vocals return to guide these home and they do so, dropping from their atmospheric cloud of sound a clear counter-theme which provokes them into resolution.

The songs on Into the Pantheon are memorable, distinct and elegant, all while being metal enough to be of interest to anyone short of war metal fans. Like the dramatic presence of Candlemass with the somber mood of Skepticism, these songs seize the atmosphere and re-shape it in their own image. They then promptly escape any over-consistency by developing within these dark tunes storylines that include the light and beautiful, and many emotions between that and the abyss. The result is the classic European art of telling epic story through lyrics and song.

Since this late-career retrospective gives the ability the ability to both carefully choose songs and update them with all that they’ve learned about music since the early days, Into the Pantheon presents Empyrium in their best light and creates a platform on which they can build if they choose to release future works. But for now, this is a strong contender for inclusion on the list of quality albums released in 2013, and well-crafted enough to last years beyond that as a listening experience.

Empyrium releases Dead Winter Days before live appearance

empyrium-dead_winter_waysSomewhat reclusive epic folk/funeral doom band Empyrium will be playing live in Berlin on November 22, 2013, and in advance of this are releasing Dead Winter Days on 12″ EP.

Dead Winter Days is described as a preview of Empyrium’s 2014 return to form, The Turn of the Tides, following their successful Into the Pantheon live DVD/CD release.

The band will be performing with a high-profile lineup in addition to the two regular band members, including Konstanz (The Vision Bleak), Neige (Alcest), Eviga (Dornenreich), Fursy Teyssier (Les Discrets), Aline Deinert (Neun Welten) and Christoph Kutzer (Remember Twilight).

According to Prophecy Productions, the band’s record label, the live set will involve a grand piano as well as other folk instrumentation and a new selection of classic songs for an intense performance.

Empyrium – Into the Pantheon

empyrium-into_the_pantheon-coverEmpyrium have cross-bred funeral doom, folk/power metal and 1980s Gothic synthpop but have removed the electronic sounds, producing an organic take on the nascent Romanticism in the modern spirit. This is music for return to the forest, but in a less aggressive form than Ildjarn or Burzum; it’s on the level that power metal fans and even Nine Inch Nails listeners can appreciate.

Into the Pantheon is a live concert in which this reclusive and only sporadically active band picks its most forest-friendly tracks and plays them in a single unified format. With production thus level between them, Into the Pantheon serves as both greatest hits and a modernization of their classic sound.

What is great about Empyrium is how well it meshes. Vocals are dramatic and funereal in the way that Sisters of Mercy and Fad Gadget made famous, but are accompanied by light orchestration and minimal percussion, with acoustic guitars taking the lead. At crucial points however, the full power of the fulminant distorted guitars take over and create a surge of energy but unlike rage, this is directed at a dark and melancholy place like a contemplative forest walk in twilight.

Empyrium win fans over through their musicality and a vision of doom metal that is tasteful and elegant. Unlike Candlemass, vocals do not dominate the music but appear as a complementary effect; unlike more modern doom bands, guitars are not over-active or musically flashy. Instead, here there is the art of classic songwriting, on a subdued pace that emphasizes beauty emerging from within in the clash of darkness and light.

Where a funeral doom band like Skepticism overwhelms with a poignant morbidity, Empyrium is more like the music which has traditionally emerged from popular off-mainstream European artists. It’s heartily personal and heavily emotional, but could easily transition from this genre to an acoustic performance in a pub near a lost mountain path, or in the court of a king. It has an eternal character to it underneath the modern genrification.

Empyrium has not given many public concerts, and we are told that this 2011 recording represents the return of the band to active life. Hearing how emotional and yet violently lusting for life these anthems are, it makes sense to want this band to continue with its renovation of metal. Not all will take this path, but its outlook can be infectious, and improves on the three-notes-to-rage formula that mainstream forces wish it would take.

Interview: Markus Stock of Empyrium

markus_stock-empyrium

The mysterious entity known as Empyrium has attracted its share of attention over the years by upholding the strongest nature-mystic tradition in metal, and dark ambient into which it migrated.

Like other nature mystics in metal, Empyrium expand the metal lexicon with lush dark organic soundscapes and dynamics that more represent the whims of nature than the mechanical sounds of city or ideology.

Into the Pantheon shows Empyrium in a live setting, both with a concert DVD and a documentary film made about the band and this event. Eagerly awaited by fans who remain loyal to this publicity-shy act, Into the Pantheon delivers a subtle but powerful live experience.

We were fortunate to be able to catch up with Markus Stock of Empyrium for a quick interview.

Interview with Markus Stock of Empyrium

Interview with Markus Stock of Empyrium

Interview with Markus Stock of Empyrium

markus_stock-empyrium

The mysterious entity known as Empyrium has attracted its share of attention over the years by upholding the strongest nature-mystic tradition in metal, and dark ambient into which it migrated.

Like other nature mystics in metal, Empyrium expand the metal lexicon with lush dark organic soundscapes and dynamics that more represent the whims of nature than the mechanical sounds of city or ideology.

Into the Pantheon shows Empyrium in a live setting, both with a concert DVD and a documentary film made about the band and this event. Eagerly awaited by fans who remain loyal to this publicity-shy act, Into the Pantheon delivers a subtle but powerful live experience.

We were fortunate to be able to catch up with Markus Stock of Empyrium for a quick interview.

How did Empyrium come about? Did you have a concept when you went into this practice, or did it develop naturally?

When we started Empyrium back in 1993 we were just 15 year old kids and didn’t have a detailed plan or concept whatsoever at first. We just followed our heart and made music that came naturally to us…now, 20 years later, we still follow that rule, but of course we are much more experienced and skilled these days.

Were you influenced by past metal bands who’ve used acoustic instruments among the distorted guitars, like Cemetary and Pyogenesis?

Yeah, we were. I loved the first Pyogenesis MCD (on Osmose) when it came out. Big influences also were My Dying Bride, early Paradise Lost, very early Cradle Of Filth, Darkthrone and Emperor (especially their unbelievable split with Enslaved).

Some have hypothesized that metal is in a slump, and for it to break out, it’s going to need to get closer to genres like classical or folk music where there’s a greater range of instrument used, thus more musical possibilities. Did you have a similar idea in your own path?

Actually, no. Today I don’t view Empyrium as a Metal Band anymore. We have influences from many, many genres and styles of music. I think the whole “let’s mix our metal with folk/classical/hip-hop/funk/whatever” went a little overboard and today I enjoy Metal much more when it retains some purity of the genre. Nothin wrong with some classical elements or keyboards but the electric guitar and the pounding drums should be the centerpiece of a Metal Band.

Into the Pantheon is an immaculate concert with high technical performance but also emotional intensity. How did you practice for this? And how much did you just “wing it” to keep the mood strong?

We practiced alot. I wrote a score for each live musician involved so they could prepare themselve at home and then we rehearsed about a week in a smal venue that was rented for us. It was important to me to be well prepared.

Do you see an affinity between yourselves and other atmosphere based metal bands like Summoning?

Oh yes. I loved the whole Summoning stuff. I hear they made a new album I need to check that, though I find it hard to retain this kind of 90ies atmospheric today.

Most would identify your style as some kind of doom metal, like My Dying Bride or Paradise Lost, but at the pace of a funeral doom band, like Skepticism or Winter. What made you choose the tempi at which you play, and what does it suggest, artistically?

Like mentioned earlier I can see influences and similarities to bands like Paradise Lost and My Dying Bride in our very early works but Skepticism or Winter? Definitely no.

Empyrium has a reputation for being secretive. Are you secretive? If so, why?

No I am not. This is because we haven’t played live in more than 15 years of band history. But, I am not lurking in a cave, deep in the woods, pondering in solitude and silence over my future plans.

Metal bands seem to have this life cycle where they start out with fresh ideas, and then become more like their influences, then get big and quality plummets after that. Have you observed this? How will Empyrium beat this cycle?

We have actually finished a new album and with a break between the last album and this one of almost 10 years – believe me, if you follow your heart and do the music that comes out of you it will be fresh again.

In addition to the live concert, there was a DVD made about the band. How did this come about? What did you think of the final product?

I think it’s a nice addition to the live part of the DVD and was a lot of work. Personally I can’t see myself talking over such a long period of time but fans will definitely love the detail and the work that went into this documentay,

Once this DVD and documentary hit the stores, there’s going to be a reaction. How much does it influence you? Will it inspire you to tour, or release more music?

There will be no tour with Empyrium. A few selected live appearances but no tour. As mentioned earlier we have a new album in the pipeline to be released maybe early next year.

What are your non-musical influences? Are there works of art or literature that capture the vision you’re trying to create in sound?

Of course. Movies, literature, paintings – everything I consume inspires me. Nature and landscapes have always been a big influence on Empyrium. Past, present and future.

It must be challenging to integrate so many instruments and voices of such different loudness and timbre into your works. How do you compose your songs? Do you start with an idea, or a melody, or a riff?

It usually starts with just one theme – a small melody or a riff…from there we go and build up a song. With newer Empyrium material it’s is often that a song is based on one single theme and we go from there and build it up, let it collapse again, change small details etc. to make the theme work over the period of the song. You’ll hear that when the new album hits the streets.

In your view, what is heavy metal “about”? Does that change for doom metal?

Heavy Metal is about energy to me. Wild, touching, deep and archaic emotions at the same. As mentioned earlier, I don’t see Empyrium as a Metal band – we are more about the silence and the thoughts that come to you in silence. It’s much more introverted versus the the extroverted spirit of Metal.