Martyr – Extracting the Core: Live 2001

January 16, 2015 –

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Coming from the French-Canadian progressive metal powerhouse that later loaned members to Gorguts, Extracting the Core shows us Martyr playing a live set of their classic works. Before you wince: this is one of the better-produced live albums available such that it is indiscernible from a good but not excellent studio job; all instruments are clear and mixed in a way that fits expectations of studio recordings, and crowd noise is minimal. As a live album, it preserves everything you might want to hear from a band on record or live with a bit of extra energy in the vocals as musicians trying to cram ten thousand notes into six-minute songs howl at the audience with a high rate of exertion. The real question regards the style of this musically-erudite band, which brings up the question of poetry versus burritos.

A burrito, as you may know, is one of nature’s most perfect foods. A wrap of flour and lard encloses ingredients ranging from guacamole, pico de gallo, and carne asada to Spanish rice, sour cream and refried beans, and the whole thing is then consumed with the aid of delicious picante and verde sauces. What makes a burrito excellent is that instead of choosing what to have for dinner, you have everything, but in a form more convenient even than a sandwich. One cannot praise this Mexican-Spanish-Texican-Californian dish enough. But when composing metal, it becomes a brutal force. As Socrates tells us, all events have causes. What is the cause of a song? One either intends it to tell a story, or assembles a few musical theories into contrasting elements and makes a burrito of it. As with the burrito, uniqueness is lost in favor of a kind of sameness of differentness, where each song has everything and the kitchen sink, but over time — much like the constant pounding brutality of early Napalm Death or later Suffocation-inspired bands — it all starts to become the same, different variants of essentially an identical idea. With a poem, the form of the song and techniques used reflect the content; with a burrito, the content of the song reflects the need to include many different things in the form. You can analogize to variety shows, pluralism, unitarianism, and even Christianity itself — a compilation of a dozen religions, mostly Greek, Hindu, Jewish, Nordic, Babylonian and Egyptian — if you feel the need. But the point is that while the burrito pleases everyone, it does not achieve the distinctive expression that makes a song evocative of experience, thought or perception, which is what makes a poem or song stand out. It feels like something you have encountered, or something you wish to, and more than creating a solid impression it creates a space of balanced parts ambiguity and clarity, which makes you want to launch into it and battle for the beautiful to win out over the mundane, boring, pointless, directionless and entropic. In a burrito, this space does not exist because it is being used to hold all those delicious ingredients together.

Extracting the Core overflows with delicious ingredients. Head shredder Daniel Mongrain may be one of the most interesting guitarists in popular music. His jazz-influenced leads — this means dialing back the simplicity of rock music and accepting more complex harmony and corresponding technique — both display impressive technique and the ability to write a melodic solo with multiple emotions. All instruments show great proficiency, from the adept technical drumming that avoids overshadowing other instruments, to a subtle but present bass and complex riffing with difficult time signatures all nailed perfectly. The problem is the means by which this band composes: requiring a burrito means that a band must default to, at the core of each song, the simplest possible construction which can include all of its elements. When the randomness is removed, what remains is a simple speed metal song, with Meshuggah-style abrupt off-beat (as opposed to cadenced, like Metallica) speed metal riffing that alternates with hard rock and thinly-disguised jazz fusion riffs.

Essentially, this album is Pantera after music graduate school, much as Meshuggah simplified Suffocation and Exhorder and then amplified the degree of texture at oddball timings to produce their overrated material. While it is mournful to admit this, it kills the album and makes the listening experience one of tuning out the over-dramatic and busy riffing to get to the solos. In addition, in order to support the burrito, Martyr adopt many different voices of composition, from Supuration-style alternative-progressive metal to nearly hardcore, and the result injects further randomness. It would be better, as Gorguts did, to give this band a song template varied enough to tempt them but purposeful enough to channel these energies toward more musical profundity through instantial contrast in a prolonged and developing narrative.

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Stargazer – A Merging to the Boundless

December 20, 2014 –

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One of the great divides in metal music separates those who approach album making as holistic artworks in the tradition of European classical music, and those who view an album as a collection of songs in the tradition of old and new popular musics. If one takes the former route a certain artistic liberty is acquired that allows the artist to leave songs that occur in the middle of the album open to the possibility of continuation through incomplete conclusions.

Great Death Metal albums with work-oriented organizations like At the Gates The Red in the Sky is Ours and Morbid Angel Blessed are the Sick strategically position songs early in the album to serve as introductions to the album as a whole. An excellent and illustrative example outside metal is Ludwig van Beethoven‘s String Quartet Opus 132. Conceptual works also require a strong topical orientation, often including different styles or even wholly different genres which can be united under a topic that is not only general (music has no direct mappings to our mundane world) but also specific (music can evoke precise moods and auras that some might say lie in the world of ideal forms) and clear (so that it is apparent to the listener). Undefeated masterworks in this area are Johann Sebastian Bach‘s Mass in B Minor and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. This can be seen in the barely satisfactory conceptual realization of the otherwise great and inspiring The Voice of Steel by Nokturnal Mortum, more effectively (and miraculously, given the wildly different genres associated) solidified in Peste Noire’s L’Ordure à l’Etat Pur and more recently in the young Colombian effort of a more poetic nature and epic proportions Nadia by Cóndor.

If a band chooses the more simple song-collection method, it must again abide certain rules in order to maintain any semblance of reason because proper music, inspired, must go through the filters of reason to attain their greatest expression. These are born out of the whole of the mind, not just uncontrolled emotion, but rather harnessed emotion. Songs must be self-sufficient. Each song must be brought to satisfactory conclusion by both harmonic and rhythmic means appropriate for the nature of the song and of proportionate dimensions in relation to the rest of the song so that it wraps up the musical content as the ending of an essay brings the topic to a rational resolve. The song must have a parallel relation to that of the holistic conceptual artwork. The simplest way of attaining this independence is by simple Rondo form, or popular verse-chorus song as Iron Maiden does in unforgettable albums such as Powerslave or Slayer in South of Heaven. Epic Power Metal sometimes chooses to borrow a little of the concept-album emphasis of the former approach and effectively come to one type of middle-road arrangement; a good example of this is Rhapsody’s Power of the Dragonflame.

Despite all their technical competence, like many other modern metal bands StarGazer takes neither of these paths and instead attempts to aggregate random elements without linear order. Stylistically within the metal universe, A Merging to the Boundless draws from the old school technical death metal such as Atheist (especially in the way the bass is handled within the jazz-metal framework, although they let it get out of hand into more explicitly jazz-like outbursts) and pre-Covenant Morbid Angel (a stark reference to Morbid Angel’s Brainstorm can be found in the fourth track of this album, Merging to the Boundless). Under the guise of Avant Garde, which is essentially a claimed right to disavow any of the conventions of the genres from which they derive their music, StarGazer use these genres as a container for unrelated, distracting riffing.

What this and other modern bands fail to realize is that certain conventions are in place as essential part of the genre and are inextricably related to the aesthetics that superficially define it, and when you forcefully rip the latter from the former, you end up with a non-functional husk that can only serve as wallpaper. StarGazer still shows much more local-level coherence and sense than most in its neighborhood and certain structuralist conventions of old school death metal are followed, such as the use of a motif to unite a song, although this occurs only in the first two tracks with looser instantiations in other tracks. The band can be credited with generally being able to fuse influences into the the particular Avant-Garde sound they want to reflect, even if to a connoisseur of the genre the influences are a little too obvious, with the jazz and post rock limbs sticking clearly out amidst the clear and separate death metal ones like a Frankenstein monster whose stitches are clearly visible.

The other major genre that surfaces in this album is a form of lite jazz that results from bringing jazz into post-rock/metal. This is unified under the pretense of making progressive music. This progressive element is sometimes pulled out with a hint of the old (late sixties and early seventies, peaking in bands from England) real prog-rock art of smooth, logical transitions and clear progression (as in track five, “The Great Equalizer”) at least in some stretches of the songs. Unlike the old prog-rock art and the classical music it emulates, StarGazer does not make a clear enough division of main and subsidiary material and thus it sometimes feel like it is lost and wandering in its own compositions. “The Great Equalizer” stacks random ideas and unnecessary out-of-hand variations within the post-rock-sludge territory in lieu of composition, joining a long line of poorly realized music that purports to be progressive. A Merging to the Boundless crosses the line into pure jazz with metal overtones in sections of tracks (“Old Tea” features soloing jazz bass), and in this same thought goes beyond that and into post-rock ambiance which consists of strumming or picking chords once and again. In this same spirit the opening of “An Earth Rides its Endless Carous” is very reminiscent of Animals as Leaders in its plain and unrefined yet very affected obvious use of scales and arpeggios in a way that barely describes theme and melody but rather just runs up and down like a kid playing on a flight of stairs. In the last three songs, the more prog-attempted side of the album are rather inconclusive and feel overextended arising from what I can only judge is sloppy high-level design. After the fifth track, a return to simple, late Morbid Angel-style Death Metal with a pseudo prog twist brought on by interpolating Sinister-style riffs feels like going back to something that was already said in the album. If “Ride the Everglade of Reogniroro” were arranged before “The Great Equilizer,” it would probably only sound slightly redundant with what came before. I have this same impression of the last (poor-prog) track, “Incense and Aeolian Chaos,” that makes use Animals as Leaders plainspoken use of scale that morphs into old-styled prog/tech death metal that is wordy (faster notes) yet not more dense in content.

In the end analysis, A Merging to the Boundless wanders everywhere and thus goes nowhere. Songs suffer from clever low-level (local) arrangement and poor high-level (long distance relations and overall progression) design, which results in their structure being entirely cyclic or not having a clear direction in the long run and being inconclusive. Cyclic songs have rather forced endings while the more prog-oriented ones just dissipate into nothingness. This last thing feels as if someone takes you to a walk in the forest, strays from the past and just disappears, leaving you in the middle of the forest with no purpose or direction.

Mayhem – Esoteric Warfare

June 30, 2014 –

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Black metal band reformed as nu-metal powerhouse Mayhem released their latest album Esoteric Warfare on June 6, 2014. Much like late-career albums from Triptykon and Massacra, the latest Mayhem shows that as a metal band ages the probability of it becoming Pantera or Southern Fried rock approaches one.

Although the album communicates little to no artistry or depth, it offers a strong example of how to successfully appeal to one’s commercial audience by being both digestible and using lots of hard and heavy sounds the audience recognizes as dangerous… if they came in any other form than a commercial product. Esoteric Warfare creates a blueprint for success by appropriating nu-metal’s populist simplification of the speed metal style of mono-dimensional lower-string muted riffing and sprinkling it with the pixie dust of commercial black metal aesthetics..

The band thus builds its appeal entirely from catchy central riffs which are so reduced in complexity that one is capable of comprehending them on first listen. The rest is garnish: the introductions, acoustic breaks, spoken word sections, black metal fireworks, seemingly random caesuras and even some death metal technique that randomly flares in the midst of the thudding rhythmic hook. This album belongs more to the exoteric, or easily and equally grasped at first contact, than the esoteric like older black metal, which deepened in revelation the more the listener devoted his or her consciousness to exploring it.

With the latest generation, the rock-metal hybrid that industry has always wanted rears its ugly head here. The new innovation is this tendency to break up the monotony with garnish, which allows the monotonic lower register riffs to drone on with strategic breaks to remind the listener that the entirety of an album does not necessarily need to sound indistinguishable however much the band may be seemingly trying to lead it in that direction. Complete sonic pointlessness does not dissolve, but rather mutates into a more friendly and funky exterior, thus allowing the listener an escape from a complete degradation of metal as an art form into a complete degradation of jazz as an art form. Whether that constitutes progress will be left to the view of the reader.

De Profundis – The Emptiness Within

March 22, 2013 –

de_profundis-the_emptiness_withinEvery age has its conventions that set a target for those who aspire to success. When they achieve a fulfillment of those conventions, the aspirants have entered the elite and expect great reward to follow.

In our time, “progressive” rock has returned with a vengeance in the metal/hardcore world. It takes two types; the avant-garde type cycles between radically different riffs in an attempt to open the mind through contrast, while the jazz-type builds on a jam and then breaks it up with contrasting riffs to keep the jam going without becoming circular. De Profundis is of this second type.

What comes to mind when hearing this record is that Cynic and Atheist put their second and third albums into a room and nine months later, out popped De Profundis. This band mixes metal riffs of several different types with a cocktail jazz ambiance and plenty of delicious lead guitar, but builds up tension and release much like a hard rock band from the late 1980s.

The result is very easy to listen to. The jazz format is the most efficient for musicians, as it doesn’t require creation of custom song structures like other prog does, and it absorbs basically anything you can throw at it. De Profundis throw everything in there, from Satriani-esque quick pentatonic runs to dark minor key improvisation, and the result will enthrall people who like a high degree of internal contrast in their layered music.

Like dub or a really free-form jazz jam, De Profundis songs revolve around a central conflict that encounters interruptions which lead back to the theme. It’s the interruptions that are the main course, ironically enough, because these allow extended rhythm leads and leads that showcase the playing skills here.

It’s a slight to this band to call them “metal,” because it’s clearly only one of several dozen ingredients, but a wide diversity of metal riffing can be spotted here, from Swedish melodic to early black metal. All of this fits into a funky, warm, jazzy exterior that fulfills the expectations of its age’s elites.