Question – Doomed Passages (2014)

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This review was contributed to Death Metal Underground by Neil Sigmundsson.

The best albums are greater than the sum of their parts and provide the capability for listener immersion due to their length and integration but the song is still generally the most important and most fundamental compositional unit in death metal. Paying too much attention to atmosphere, musicianship, individual riffs, or other aesthetical and shallow (though important) qualities of an album can lead to overlooking compositional shortcomings, especially after the mind starts to fatigue or when listening to dense material. This is the case with Doomed Passages, which feels convincing – and in some aspects it is – but suffers from a number of flaws that might be missed during casual listening. That being said, even though the music of Question is imperfect, it is modest and sincere and at its best moments overflows with contagious vigor and energy that leaps fearlessly towards the abyss, a mark of the upper echelons of death metal artists.

First, praise is due to some of the mechanical and aesthetical elements of this album. The roaring, expressive vocals, replete with various single-syllable exclamations and grunts, are highly enjoyable and benefit from a cavernous quality due to studio-induced reverb. The drums are commendable in their creativity and in demonstrating a subtle understanding of the level of activity that best complements any given situation. Rumbling double bass creates a “rolling” sensation of high momentum at certain tempi. The production is deep and clear, and has a bit of cushion, but more separation between the instruments might have been beneficial.

There are two truly excellent songs on Doomed Passages: the second and fifth tracks. “Nefarious Conclusion” is the most structurally rigorous composition on the album, being basically linear but still having a clear exposition, rising action, climax, and falling action. This results in a rewarding experience. 0:00-0:50 is an example of creating variation, exploration, and motion out of a single phrase. The drum build-up to the invigorating climactic riff is genius; it sounds like transitioning from walking to running. The transitions at 1:15 and 4:34 are somewhat rough, but not enough to harm the composition. “Universal Path of Disgrace” has one of the most memorable riffs on the album, a sprawling eight bar tremolo-picked cycle. After the second occurrence of this riff and its accomplice, the song heads logically into a strange middle section that sounds like being in an unstable, slightly psychedelic limbo. A climax and resolution emerge from there. This song offers an interesting journey but it is slightly less satisfying than “Nefarious Conclusion.”

Aside from these two tracks, the remainder of the material on Doomed Passages shows promise and has shining moments but suffers from various problems. Some of these issues are abrupt transitions (“Mournful Stench” at 3:35), weak conclusions (“Devoured from Within”), and segments that overstay their welcome (the introduction of “…Bitter Gleam of Inexistence”). However, the major recurring problem and the biggest downfall of Question, though it is not immediately apparent due to the large number of riffs (many of which sound similar), is the purposeless, wandering song structures. In their template, Question take a single riff or a small group of riffs that act as an “anchor,” and they dance a bunch of ideas around that anchor before departing in an uncertain, random direction. This resembles a very relaxed version of what Slayer pioneered on tracks like “At Dawn They Sleep,” which completes two verse-chorus cycles and then departs radically from pop structure. The difference – and it’s a significant difference – is that Slayer maintained a strong narrative and a sense of purpose and tension throughout the entirety of their songs, whereas Question is usually content with wandering aimlessly. That Question can string a huge number of riffs together without the result sounding like patchwork is impressive (see “Grey Sorrow”), but cohesion alone does not make death metal of lasting quality, and as a result an appreciable amount of this material feels pointless and is frustrating to endure.

As hinted at above, there are simply too many riffs on Doomed Passages, a large proportion of which are interchangeable and forgettable, appear only once, and serve no vital function. Question demonstrate that they know how to overcome this problem in multiple ways (developing phrases, relating riffs through common or similar phrases, writing highly memorable riffs, returning to previous ideas in different contexts, etc.), but they need to apply these habits more diligently. There are focused passages, and there are highly memorable riffs, but ideally all of the passages should be focused and all of the riffs memorable and necessary. Thus, whereas many death metal bands have simplified their song structures to the detriment of the music, Question can actually benefit from being somewhat more repetitive in order to remove the forgettable and less evocative riffs and develop only their best and darkest ideas. This can be done while retaining the narrative, exploratory song structures. It will occurs more  naturally and easily when the music is written and played with specific purpose and direction. More dynamics might also help in stressing important sections, as the sound sometimes blends into a monotonous stream. The digital, compressed production is of no help.

Another lesser issue with Doomed Passages is that consonance sometimes feels out of place when it appears in the midst of the generally dissonant and chromatic music. The interlude “Through the Vacuous River” is the most blatant offender, though the riff at 5:28 of “Universal Path of Disgrace” is questionable as well. While consonance is not vital for this music to express something meaningful, there is potential in its skillful application, as demonstrated by 3:00-3:35 of “Mournful Stench,” a section that arises at an appropriate time but is unfortunately not fully developed. The acoustic final track also works fairly well in context. If Question would hone their skills at incorporating consonance into their musical language, the wider range of expression will provide them with more tools for communication.

The standout songs on this album prove that Question is capable of writing intense and adventurous narrative death metal of the highest caliber. All of the tracks have redeemable and enjoyable qualities and marks of skilled craftsmanship, but most are hampered by the flaws discussed above. To further improve their already above average music, Question need to at least  scrap the forgettable riffs and instead develop more extensively their best ideas while taking  the reins and writing more directed and focused compositions. The second change can be realized either by forcing the songs to move toward clear climaxes and satisfying conclusions or by finding some wisdom and inspiration that can be represented in and communicated through the music. These young musicians are certainly technically proficient but need to write more coherent compositions if they want to inspirit their music instead of joining the ranks of so many other failed techdeath endeavors.

Readers may listen to Doomed Passages on Chaos Record’s Bandcamp page.

Occult Burial – Hideous Obscure (2016)

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Article by Corey M.

Overall satisfying (but not quite inspiring) straightforward songs with equal parts thrash and proto-death metal present. I don’t quite hear the “occult” sound these guys are evidently going for; their music sounds too immediate and, weirdly, fun. The band members clearly enjoy creating this music and therefore their work is free of pretense; no revivalist coat-tail riding here. Expect to hear fairly similar-sounding riffs throughout, without much in the way of dynamics. Compared to their contemporaries in bands like Nifelheim and Aura Noir, Occult Burial are competent and maybe even a step ahead of the more popular bands that mix thrash with modern metal because they aren’t impeded by gimmickry. Their lack of theatrics may work against them because they will probably continue to be overlooked until they learn to cut loose and let their imaginations run a little more wild with their songs. Compared to the more aggressive speed metal classics from Coroner and Razor, parts of Hideous Obscure are downright boring. Even playing a bit faster and cleaning up the recording could do wonders for the effectiveness of these songs. Some parts sound truly terrible. For instance, the snare drum sounds  in the words of my favorite robot puppet “like a bag of sardines thrown up against the side of a pole barn.” Nevertheless there is promise here and I would reserve more judgment until Occult Burial release a proper-sounding album or I can catch them live.

Beer Metal Label Goes Broke, Starts Ponzi Scheme

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Blockheaded beer metal label Witches Brew is bankrupt from releasing beer metal and the owner’s bottom feeding A&R at German beer halls and rethrash bands’ MySpace pages. Many record labels are passion projects or Ponzi schemes. Witches Brew is openly the latter now. Their failure proves that experienced Hessians would rather buy actual beer and Obsessed by Cruelty reissues than sub-Little Caesar’s pizza thrash.

State of the Brewery address 2016. Despite having maintained a super positive attitude since our rebirth in 2013, the current state of Witches Brew is that the label is broke/bankrupt. Having invested nearly 90% of my job income into the label and in the end now being in debt over 7000 EUR, reality has hit me that it’s just not possible to keep going at the level I’ve been trying. Especially not in light of the fact that I will be jobless at the end of this month. I took a lot of chances, invested a lot of money in bands that in the end basically used me for a free ride. Disappointed is how I have felt in the last weeks. I’m NOT stopping the label, I’m just downsizing to a handful of bands and releases will be a few a year, because I’ll need to raise the money from sales in order to pay for the releases since my job money won’t be there anymore. I also have to get myself out of the damn debt somehow.

Death Fortress – Deathless March of the Unyielding (2016)

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Article by Corey M.

Death Fortress play a truly bellicose version of black metal but not in the Blasphemy war-metal style aped by pointless tribute acts. Deathless March of the Unyielding is minimalist in that it eschews all excessive instrumentation like all the best black metal. Guitars slash out streams of elegiac tremolo melodies or simply strummed chords (there are no leads or trippy guitar effects). The drums either play blasts or dominant marching rhythms. Vocals orate battle commands or agonizingly recount Pyrrhic victories. The overall theme of the music seems to be battles with no heroes and wars with no victors. It’s a deconstruction of Graveland‘s or Bathory‘s style that brought forth the glorious aspect of defeating and conquering: war is still the object in question but the subject isn’t life; it is sorrowful, lonely death.

The melodies are crafted with a tenuous balance between intense grimness and clouded dejection. This is music about warriors and war but not in the fantastical sense that black metal usually takes: no witchcraft or frozen forests are to be found here, only shredded tank tracks, bent artillery barrels, crushed bodies of hapless infantry infused in twisted heaps of smoldering slag, and blackened holes gouged into the earth itself. A useful comparison would be Sammath‘s mid-period output of Dodengang and Triumph in Hatred, though those albums reveal a deeply heartfelt motivation to illustrate the gruesome carnage of warfare without completely abandoning the near-romantically empathetic ties to the fallen fighter. Death Fortress take a more distant, aloof approach, neither glorifying nor condemning the act or outcome and treating the soldier as another soulless statistic. Both bands approach the horrific topic with a sternly wide-eyed, unflinching resolve, giving us the opportunity to witness visions far more stark and distressing than the cartoonish swords ‘n’ sorcery take on combat that black metal too often peddles.

Yet this album suffers from a major drawback: the musicians share the contemporary tendency to disappear up their own asses in wringing all emotive potential from a line of melody. There aren’t any comically awufil or idiotic chord progressions but some of them are inappropriate and others repeated for far too long. The songs have plenty of breathing room and the band never seem to be at a loss for direction or trying to cram in too many lyrics before their riffs overstay their welcome. At times, it’s too easy to become impatient while waiting for the band to introduce the next segment. No amount of drum fills or effects trickery would fix this; the fat needs to be trimmed and the compositions made more concise. A leaner, more refined Death Fortress could easily rise above the better-than-average position in which they sit now.

Readers may listen to Deathless March of the Unyielding at Death Fortress’s Bandcamp page and purchase a physical copy from Fallen Empire Records.

Sadistic Metal Reviews: Monday Mastications

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Oh here she comes. Watch out boy she’ll chew you up. She’s a maneater. – Darryl Hall and John Oates, 1982.

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Black Tusk – Pillars of Ash (2016)
A fusion of party rock, screamo, and hardcore punk, Pillars of Ash brings a risible contribution to the rock/punk spectrum that many a beginner is prone to confuse with metal. The relevant question here is whether or not Black Tusk have anything worthwhile to offer to the listener that may not be found in higher quality elsewhere. The answer is a resounding NO. The album plays like a tenuous stream of echoes of 1980s hardcore bands rearranged with Mario Paint.

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Tombs – All Empires Fall (2016)
Tombs is described in some places as black or post metal, and while there is some borrowing from black metal techniques in the use of some blast beats and an imitation of traditional black metal vocals, Tombs isn’t isn’t black metal. The post-metal is correctly applied in that this isn’t much more than a poor excuse for pseudo-ambient experiments with haphazardly connected sections being paraded as composition. There are strong references to doom metal, cheap and stompy heavy rock, with post rock being added as the way to get away with 3rd rate writing. All in all, boring, generic, unfocused, and unoriginal background music. Tombs is lounge music.

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Howls of Ebb – Cursus Impasse: The Pendlomic Vows (2016)
Entirely random pastiche of metal clichés loosely held together by psychedelic interludes and a drunk vocalist feigning faux lunacy. If a blend of Voivod, galloping heavy metal, canned black metal and fuzz drenched noise rock wah wah soloing wasn’t pointless enough, the band commands and impressively dissociated catalog of occult vocabulary to match.

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Nucleus – Sentient (2016)
Nucleus have fun in the studio and they want you, dear listener, to have fun at home with them. If you like Demilich but thought it was too strange, too serious, or too weird to play around your sister then Sentience is the record that delivers all the thrills of Finnish extradimensional insectoid death without danger of unthrashability. All the more perfect for fucking your sister behind the dumpster at the skatepark.

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Candelabrum – Necrotelepathy (2016)
Two twenty minute tracks of spooky landscapes, sad vampire vocals, and canned drum patterns. If the goal was to stride the line between hysterical and uncomfortable, this record is a resounding success. Necrotelepathy is more Vampire Diaries metal.

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Abyssus – Once Entombed (2016)
Another pizza thrash band with a veneer of death metal fronted by a Greek John Tardy fan. The album art and song titles make adequate use of Death Metal Band Generator. Perfect comedy for those Saturday mornings when you are drunk with fellow “scene veterans.”

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Clawhammer Abortion – Slaughter Campaign (2016)
This band took every criticism levied against death metal and wrote an album of it. In order to get through, I turned it into a drinking game: Hear a cliché, drink. The only problem is I passed out drunk after three songs and the Editor took over. He heard so many Sodom breakdowns and generic grindcore riffs that he kicked my ghetto blaster into the campfire. Only the most calcified kidneys and fattiest livers prevail in the Eternal War.

Hooded Menace – Darkness Drips Forth (2015)

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Article by David Rosales.

When music is taken as communication, as a nurture of the soul, or even as a kind of magic then small details such as the name a band chooses for itself can forebode promise or ultimate triviality. The reason for this is that music, when taken as an integral enterprise, exudes the intention and capabilities of those who give birth to it. Hooded Menace’s name does not show much imagination but perhaps a rather superficial or commercial line of thinking. The title of their album, Darkness Drips Forth, isn’t much better. These suggest a lack of definition or the non-existence of a deeper wealth of thought.

In any case, the music comes first; prejudices must be set aside so that the stream of notes can dance unhindered. The structural approach of Hooded Menace’s doom metal is actually fairly convincing, and technically speaking, the composer-like qualities of whoever is writing the songs are sharp. The music is flowing, the passages never overstay or pass by too quickly, the dynamics of adjacent sections make sense together and their discourse feels natural enough. Individually, each section is tasteful though none is particularly original or distinctive. At first it may appear as if Hooded Menace may be the exception to the rule that one is supposedly bound to bump into sooner or later. Or are they?

Listening through this release and keeping in mind what has “happened” minutes before in the song, one starts to see that the content kept changing, but somehow hasn’t really gone anywhere. What is the problem then? Intuitive alarms such as this, when justified, must be grounded in concrete causes. The band had effectively avoided the carnival syndrome, it made use of motifs in linking sections — but only locally. This isn’t bad on its own, magnificent works based on the variations template have graced our ears in the past.

The problem is slightly different from song to song. The songs are not bound together by a common aura. They may go from a lethargic groove to a happy melody, but this is minimal. Some to flounder between a nondescript extreme metal counterpoint between the guitars to a Disturbed-like groove, only to return to something more characteristic of typical of doom metal. Far more detrimental to the aura is the relatively static sense of the harmony, constantly returning to the root and never, even for a second, leaving that tonal space  except for overt and obvious effect. This is predictable and even vulgar. When you put these two together — imprecise style and weakly phrased, boring harmony — you have a recipe for subversively monotonous and superficial music.