Agalloch – The Mantle (2002)

Agalloch the mantle

This article was contributed to Death Metal Underground by Ludvig Boysen.

A lot of music claims to be metal without actually being metal these days. This music placed on equal footing with the classic metal masterpieces generates hostile reactions. But what if no one claimed that it was metal? How would we think of the music then? Would it be mislabeled good music or mere crap? That is what I try to find out with this review of The Mantle by Agalloch. I had a neutral and open mind while listening to it, not concerning myself with anything but the music itself.

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Kawir – Isotheos (2012)

Kawir Isotheos

Article by David Rosales

Kawir is a band that belongs to that side of metal whose discussion allows the true metal nihilist to distinguish between free minds who embrace the spirit of metal’s independence from political or religious doctrine. Metal has been characterized by its portrayals of power, courage and strength, while looking down on sheepish behavior, compliance with the system and general cowardice. When bands who openly express musical worship of Pagan ideals as a source for racial/national power, it gives one the opportunity to weed out the sheep in metal guise. The metal nihilist will find in the concept of the pagan theme in metal yet another expression of pride and power apt for the narrative of timeless natural struggle. He may dispassionately nod its head to the idea without necessarily embracing it as something that speaks to him, personally. He holds the burning flame of life in front of him, observing the destroying consumption that drives action in eternal co-dependence with passive materia. He stares at it directly without fear of having the miserable protective borders of human-society constructs burn away, nay, welcoming this removal of the illusory.

But the infiltrator will often reveal himself by expressing typical modern-urban discomfort in the face of the tribal roots of these ideas, deeming them not sophisticated enough and the product of ignorant naturalists and superstitious people– because they have obviously never even read Karl Marx, let alone Michel Foucault or Noam Chomsky. We also find the majority of undecided metal fans who can guiltily accept these “rash” ideas in the context of artistic expression, although not without signs of rubor on their cheeks and heavy perspiration on trembling hands, more characteristic of virtuous maidens than courageous warriors. Yes, metal is masculine, and no, it does not imply misogyny. These last at least exhibit the intellectual honesty towards which metal tends to gravitate, even if the shackles of their own societies and times can still be felt as they adopt a tongue-in-cheek disposition and keep their fingers crossed behind their backs in a sort of secular modern superstitious fear. One may still find them making quick apologies for the band or comical quips that prove their allegiance to their in-time, humanist ideals, putting their puny minds at rest that they have not incurred in heresy.

Isotheos (ίσο – θεος, ‘equal [to] god’ — Godlike) is the Apollonian in-time expression through metal and minimalist Hellenic elements of Dionysian timelessness, the underlying human genetic memory of survival that Nietzsche wisely derived and intuited and that Jung demonstrated empirically. This collective unconscious speaks to us in mental images, flashes of emotion and conceptual ephemeral . A sign that Kawir places utmost importance on the core and significance, rather than on the temporary expression of these, is that although there is a clear embracing of the products of Greek pre-classical antiquity as the heritage of its nation and people, references to both pre-Hellenic and Roman outward manifestations are admitted into the concept of the album. The album deals with the transcendental aspect of Greek symbology, not as temporary and superficial expressions of this or that period, but as evidence to the unique evolutionary path of Greek survival arising as fumes from boiling blood.

Musically, Isotheos revolves completely around simple, modal themes, which in no moment cede to any other element. While there are vocals, rhythm guitars and often more than one melody line, the centrality of the theme is never, even for one moment, lost. Kawir simultaneously achieves the high-energy, dense locomotive character of metal that rides on thundering drums, as well as the melodious, inspiring horizon-gazing sounds of primeval Greece. These, we have now come to associate with the ancient temples and oracles through reconstructions of that ancient European music. Rhythm depends on power chord phrases closer to the approach of Witchfinder General than Iron Maiden, thus a stronger backbone and less distraction. Despite this adherence to simplicity (the beautiful simplicity, the ‘good simplicity’ of Plato’s Socrates), there is no lack of variety, and through smart use of economical and effective use of a close-style repertoire of techniques achieves a strong and fluent expression.

Particularly stamped on the capable listener’s mind will be the natural consistency with which themes are treated, the healthy growth of variations without even the slightest hint of pretension. In no moment does technique supersede communication and structure, a balanced sort of modest beauty that maintains its worth by carefully and sparingly choosing climaxes that never come beforehand. This is achieved through gradually evolving the theme, so that a structure of cyclic transformation is represented. Each song makes use of one theme only, usually, tying it poetically with the concept, and making absolutely revolve around it. This is not a theme on a melody dancing above moving harmony with an occasional quote and echo, but rather the whole of the music adds a grain to the theme itself, as it assumes no definite form and all forms. While the classical variation starts from a primordial seed that is represented in increasingly complex forms, the ancient spirit of Kawir’s music lends no particular importance to any of the manifold incarnations of Dionysian memory. To be more precise, what we find on Isotheos are not the strict romantic themes, but motific variations that are kept at relatively close Levenshtein distances, thereby guarding them from disfiguration.

In this music, every single aspect is important and none of them are. Their preservation in transfomations is immortal, but their temporary forms or manifestations are only suitable for that instant and hold no value in and of themselves. Each moment is distinctive but strongly related to future and past, as water raining on the tops of mountains, running through ravines, precipitating down waterfalls and reinvading the ocean uncountable times as no single drop of water survives but is reincarnated. If there ever was an album that explicitly collects the Nietzschean balance of the Apollonian and Dionysian, it is Isotheos. If there is any place in metal which takes one closer to the Platonic musical ideal through appropriate forms, it is Isotheos.

Isotheos may be purchased from Deathrune Records.

Nokturnal Mortum – The Voice of Steel (2009)

nokturnal mortum the voice of steel

Article by David Rosales.

I. The Cult of Death

During the 10th century A.D., Prince Volodymyr and Queen Olha before him adopted Christianity in a war-torn land with deep-rooted Pagan beliefs. Little could either of them have predicted how hard it would be to impose a foreign philosophy on the yet unbroken Slavic spirit. Over a millennium later, the politically-imposed monotheistic deathcult would be suffering a slow death while the true colors of the Slavic nation would slowly resurface out of the fires of hate.

After all how could they have known that culture and spirit are embedded in the very marrow of bones and hearts of the people? Alas! This ignorance would still be espoused by armchair ideologists until the 19th century and further hammered from above from the second half of the 20th till this day, when true scientific thought is again challenging institutionalized blindness. That is, an ignorance of the logical implications of the lessons of history, psychology and biology, and instead seeing them through the lenses of a secularized Judeo-Christian paradigm. Such a modality of thought still reigns supreme today, even unknowingly among those who would claim allegiance to no supernatural power.

As the land of Ukraine became the collision point for both Asian and European hordes, its brave people soldiered through the intermittent periods of cold desolation and burning brutality. Their spirit weathered the storm, and as a sword forged between the hammer of growing materialism and the anvil of that Middle-Eastern cult of death (administered in a variant especially fostered for European minds, slightly different than that given to the Native Americans), a crude but precious Herculean force arose.

II. Slavic-Pagan Heavy-Black Metal

European nations previously beyond the Iron Curtain have not been known to produce the most accomplished black metal. These usually make prominent use of heavy metal technique while overlaying folk tunes on a poorly-focused progressive structure. These may still win the hearts of the fans of underground metal as honesty and spirit are still highly valued. This ‘best effort’ attitude is endearing, but such obvious naïveté, however authentic, can only take one so far.

Amateur tones characterizing the Slavic underground have meant simultaneously, salvation and bane to the subgenre. On the one hand, its crudeness has effectively forestalled the sellout phase that sooner or later comes about as entropy sets in. On the other, it has deterred a much desired collective coming of age. This is all very much in keeping with the general Slavic spirit: over the top bravado, sincere yet aloof sentimentality, but not the most structured of foundations.

III. The Coming of Age

Nokturnal Mortum’s history stretches back to the time when metal was on its deathbed, the junction at which the rise of parasitic and zombie-minded scenes first came about. The band achieved a certain degree of notoriety in the underground with their sophomore release Lunar Poetry in 1996. After that, the band did not offer much more than a few unconvincing recordings that flirted with pseudo-symphonic stylings: starting out big and epic early in the album and quickly degenerating into slightly comical rock beats and awkward folk tunes.

After five years away from the studio, the band returned with a folk-ambient album speckled with rock metal enhancements here and there. This was the necessary transition that would make the next album after it the most accomplished Slavic black metal album to date. To be more precise, what was achieved in that following album, The Voice of Steel, is an accepting of the full paradigm of black metal without giving up the naturalistic and folk-like tenor unique(in this day and age, at least) to Eastern European metal.

IV. Golos Stali: A Solar Black Metal

In contrast to traditional black metal, the ideological bent of its Slavic counterpart demands a different approach to technique in order to better convey the necessary impression. Instead of outright occult devilry, either through blasphemy or mystic conjuration, we find the remembrance of heroic personalities as well as true active(that is, through expression in the actions of life, ordinary and exceptional) reverence and worship presence of the forces of nature, both seen and unseen. This admiration for heroic prowess that so characterizes the native spirit of the land and people channels the powers of nature itself in their superlative expression at particular points in time according the times themselves.

Rather than the modal, riff-heavy construction of traditional underground metal, Nokturnal Mortum takes a harmonic, rock chord strategy. This may deter many a purist of the serious underground, but a little patience when approaching The Voice of Steel will result in a most rewarding experience. Once past the local use of rock aesthetics incorporated into a melody-and-riff riding that is closer to the methods of metal, the longer, repetitive structures of goal-oriented black metal become clearer.

Sections and patterns are allowed to sink in beyond familiarity and to embed themselves inside the mind of the listener. The lighter nature and swinging rhythm of the salient folk tunes are not given to induce a pensive trance-like state, and so the overall effect is used to a different result. Smooth yet significant transitions take place in such stealthy a manner that they may go unperceived by an inattentive audience. These bring a refreshing sense of justified variety to the strict continuity of events. A comparison with Sorcier des Glaces and the French method may not be out of the question in this respect, with the considerable difference that Slavic bands such as Nokturnal Mortum or Drudkh make more frequent and overt display of rock/post-rock textures and musical sensibilities.

To conclude, it feels necessary to point out the outstanding use of ambient techniques that should be part of the repertoire of any black metal band of any worth, whether applied explicitly or otherwise. These, in combination with rock texturing, rhythms and guitar soloing brought to the mind of the writer the late Pink Floyd. The result of the correct fusion of the more popular techniques showcased in the older band with the sharp focus of proper black metal can result in an interesting balance. The strictness of black metal seems to have been what the disconnected, apparently drug-induced passages of Pink Floyd required in order to contribute to the formation of a full music. These elements are humbly utilized in The Voice of Steel, which through the careful and patient working out of little aspects, their interactions and combinations, give birth to a formidable solar metal.

Witchblood – Hail to Lyderhorn(2014)

Cover

Article by David Rosales

Witchblood is a black metal band that falls on the darkest corner of the folky side of the fence. While not specifically minimalist, Hail to Lyderhorn is a very simple and straightforward music that leans completely on the guitars for content and texture. This album may get repetitive or even a little thin at times but its saving grace is its coherent diversity of textures and techniques. The scant but effective use of keyboards is laudable, being effective as it is magnetic.

The guitars function as one only voice most of the time, with a trusty bass for a spinal chord. The meanness of this portion of the instrumentation places great stress over the role of percussion. The drums have now to fill up spaces and act like the second rock in the bolas of an Argentinian gaucho. To Witchblood’s merit, this is accomplished more than satisfactorily, with drums that compliment or mirror the metal strings, rising to the occasion as required.

Comments will be made about the quality of the vocal performance, which is neither deep, rich nor very powerful. Despite this, the overall result of the music in Hail to Lyderhorn does not seem affected negatively noticeably because of this. In part this is because, as with the instrumentation, the vocalizations were performed well within the boundaries of their limits, allowing them to perform effectively, and therefore avoiding the possible blunders of overextension. We may also want to point out that the textures for guitar riffs and their chosen registers stay clear of the space in which the voice moves. When the guitar’s approach changes (for example, arpeggiating chords into higher notes), the vocal approach also changes, sometimes to a haunting witch chant.

Released in 2014, Witchblood Hail to Lyderhorn is a deserving release that might have escaped the radar of most fans who would otherwise have derived much value from it. While it’s no classic or game changer, this album is nonetheless a low-key example of shrewd amateur efficiency and spirit.

Editor’s note: “Hail to Lyderhorn” was briefly covered in our best of 2014.

Enslaved and Wardruna members collaborate in Skjuggsjá

Metal flavored post-rock (modern Enslaved) and ambient folk oriented music (Wardruna) are both established things. I am not so sure the fusion of such in Skjuggsjá, a side project album featuring Ivar Bjørnson and Einar Selvik, is as common. Skjuggsjá does seem to feature all the pretension inherent in either, and was apparently written and first performed for the 200th anniversary of the establishment of the Norwegian constitution of 1814. This studio recording will release on March 11th; the released single does not seem to emphasis the potential metal instrumentation of such a project, although scattered live clips suggest some effort towards this end on other tracks.

Tengger Cavalry frontman to perform at Carnegie Hall

Tengger-Cavalry-live
Our previous editor was not a fan of Tengger Cavalry (accusing them of being simplistic stadium metal dressed up in Mongolian ornamentation), but they’ve managed to score a performance at the prestigious Carnegie Hall. However, if promotional materials are to be believed, this is going to be an ‘unplugged’ performance that emphasizes the folk/world music elements of the band over their rock/metal influences. Viewed in this light, it seems more mundane; Carnegie Hall has presumably seen many distinguished performances from folk music acts throughout its history. This is still a great boon to the band’s fame and a possible boost to the presence of Asian metal bands in society. The concert will be held on December 24th in the Weill Recital Hall.

Chthonic frontman running for congressman in Taiwan

By now, metal musicians and fans participating in politics isn’t entirely unheard of; even in Asia you can find such prominent examples as Joko Widodo (president of Indonesia). Freddy Lee, the frontman of the Taiwanese symphonic black/folk metal band Chthonic, is running for a seat in Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan, as reported by Blabbermouth. Lee has participated in his country’s politics for some time and is running as a member of the recently formed New Power Party, which advocates for Taiwanese nationalism. In the past, he’s apparently used his position in Chthonic to promulgate these political views. Part of his campaign includes a free concert in Taipei on December 26th, which admittedly may be a bit difficult for our primarily Western audience to participate in.

Al-Namrood – Diaji Al Joor (2015)

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Al-Namrood is so kvlt that they can’t even turn down their projects’ master levels a few decibels. While simply nudging everything down a bit so it doesn’t clip as much might not be the best way to go about it, the fact that this completely insane brickwalling that’s apparently been dogging the fellows throughout their career goes yet unresolved on Diaji Al Joor does not exactly fill me with hope. As previously mentioned the last time a DMU writer took notice, Al-Namrood’s big gimmick is that they’re from Saudi Arabia and are theoretically risking more to get their content out. Remove their background and the absolute garbage mixing job, and you’re left with an okay but generally underwhelming folk metal album with some black metal influences.

On a scale of Orphaned Land to Melechesh, Al-Namrood leans closer to the latter for keeping a greater amount of metal technique in their formula. For whatever reason, they end up consistently midpaced in all instrumentation and otherwise lean towards a consistent sound. From a musicological perspective, their consistent use of Arabic maqams (a seven tone system of tuning and intonation) makes for a great selling point in the Western world and, amongst other things, leads to some dissonant/microtonal droning sections that I barely hear in metal; I furthermore believe that more ambitious and proficient musicians could do great things with such. On Diaji Al Joor, this potential is squandered and turned into tedious filler that adds little of value. This is best described as more of a vocal-driven album, anyways – the vocalist (who goes by the pseudonym of “Humbaba”) barks and rattles his way through these tracks and seems to have some idea of how to vary up his inflection and pitch to make himself more interesting and prominent. I’m cynical enough to call him a case of wasted potential given the lack of direction that manifests below him.

I’d probably go as far as to say this is, in spite of its clear flaws, ever so slightly better than Melechesh’s recent effort (Enki) was, since it’s a bit less openly streamlined and digs a hint deeper into its respective reservoir of musical ideas. That judgement may, however, be too subjective for your tastes. Even if it isn’t, the fact that Diaji Al Joor fails to rise beyond a basic level of competence makes it an irrelevant comparison.

Melechesh – Enki (2015)

Melechesh - Enki (2015)
Back in 2010, Melechesh’s previous album (The Epigenesis) made its way onto our “Best of 2010” list. I don’t know what to make of that, but this year’s batch of Melechesh doesn’t live up to that hype, despite sticking to the band’s signature mixture of streamlined extreme metal with older substyles and (importantly) a Middle Eastern folk garnish. The problem here is a common one – directionless, flat, almost random songwriting. Whether or not this afflicted previous works by the band is hopefully something someone more versed in their past might be able to shed some light on.

That the structural side of this album is so underwhelming is belied by the good first impression that Melechesh makes with their polished sound. They succeed in combining their three aesthetic streams where many bands stumble with two… or less. For instance, the band constructs almost every riff and phrase they use from vaguely exotic scales like the Phyrgian dominant, the double harmonic (“Arabic”), etc. This indicates greater dedication to the aesthetic than, for instance, Nile, and doing something similar in your own work will probably get you further in the long run than merely tossing in some instruments that are culturally relevant to what you’re trying to imitate. Not to say that Melechesh doesn’t add in extra instrumentation, but it’s skillfully incorporated into their sound to the point that it never seems incongruous. The older metal and rock elements, in comparison, don’t make themselves as immediately apparent, but they imbue this recording with a strong sense of conventional musicality that makes it easy to pick up off the shelves and listen to by the standards of its nominal genre.

The deception this entails means it took me a bit to pick up on how little of the content here was actually making its mark. Enki showcases its share of isolated musical ideas with which one could build a song, but arranges them in an entirely haphazard and arbitrary fashion. The general lack of dynamics also helps in building an environment full of interchangeable content – one entirely folk interlude (“Doorways to Irkala”) and some halfhearted soft sections does not an adequate substitute make. It may be that drone and repetition form an integral part of Melechesh’s songwriting, but the best bands to rely on such techniques don’t simply vary themselves through minor variation, but arrange such in a fashion that allows for actual in-song progression. Melechesh’s failure to do so combined with other aspects of their style make for an experience that decays to irrelevance shockingly fast.