Obisidian ­ – No Self to Sue (2015)

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The basic sonic template for this album is late-­model melodic hardcore in the vein of Champion or Verse; that means a melodic base of straightforward four-­chord (or less) progressions in a basic minor scale played rhythmically on the guitars, looped for four or eight bars, usually until the progression becomes stale (more common) or the vocals lead to a new riff cycle (less common). Each riff continues until Obisidian see fit (as typical of modern “hardcore”) to abandon the progression altogether and move on to a riff with a completely different feel instead of developing the last riff (through harmonic augmentation rather than plain repetition) and moving toward a new one logically.

Generally, this method of composition would be frowned upon, but in the case of this album, the changes are welcome since the listener is undoubtedly anticipating the next riff with relish since the last one is sure to have become stale after a few cycles. Obsidian avoid this jarring transition sometimes by simply shifting to another rhythmic style (for instance, playing the same (or a similar) chord progression with palm-­muted strokes and a half­-time drum beat). However, this is not always the case; toward the end of the album, we see some interesting melodic progressions that move forward in the style of black metal without the need for vocal embellishment. For the worse, these sections appear too few and ­far between.

The saving grace of this album is Obsidian’s ability to throw in NWOBHM­ style guitar lines which,
although rarely progressing rationally from the last riff, are very cool-­sounding and give a boost of energy to each song. However, the riffs feel generally out ­of ­place since, once they are over, the next section invariably drops back to cliche modern hardcore dime­-a­-dozen riffs. Nevertheless, the guitarist(s) display a refined sense exactly how far they can push the hardcore­ style riffs augmented by vocal rhythm before needing to introduce a more harmonically­ rich dual­ guitar segment. Beyond that, the band seems very comfortable when tying off­-time (usually switching from a 3/4 to 4/4 beat) rhythms together in a way that avoids the typical metalcore­ style riff­ salad style that feels like something you could hear during a tour of a zoo; “And if you look to your left you’ll see our lions as they feed on… oh, look to the right to see the zebras in a galloping herd!”

All ­in ­all, the music achieves its purpose as being something that impels the listener to charge their adrenaline and accomplish something physically demanding. It might make good workout music or something that would be great to experience in a live setting. However, a listener (particularly of the metal persuasion) looking for music that describes a series of situations narratively might find themselves bored by melodies that wear out their welcome before being augmented rhythmically, as this album is chock­full of cool riffs that make just as much sense when listened to at random intervals rather than in a riff­ by ­riff manner.

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The “metal bubble” bursts

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Humanity follows this pattern: someone breaks away from doing the same stuff everyone else is doing, does something different and it resonates with smart people, so everyone else starts doing it but they use it as a new flavor for doing the same stuff everyone else is doing. They think this will let them be both new and familiar at the same time, and it attracts an audience who thinks like them, and then the different thing is destroyed.
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Cult of Endtime – In Charnel Lights (2015)

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Cult of Endtime play a music that is actually both “melodic” and death metal. Taking the road of modified and expanded verse-chorus-bridge approach to music construction, this mid-paced death metal with a clear aftertaste of traditional metal maintains motific links within songs that ride clear phrasal riffs not unlike the manner of the early but already mature Black Sabbath. Although DMU does not usually hand out stars to shiny, mainstream packages because they usually are just uncreative or mediocre turds hidden under slick production, In Charnel Lights has definitely earned theirs.

A very well-performed and accomplished example of this style, the music stays within the boundaries of its chosen paradigm while introducing a variety of ideas without haphazard changes. This does imply a limited variation, a clutch of its chosen pop-format approach, which supports and defines it but cripples its movement at the same time. The nature of the music, then, reduces In Charnel Lights to a collection of songs. The result is pleasing and solid but can be repetitive in terms of musical ideas and in its adherence  to its center it fails to bring enough variety to artistically justify a second half beyond the urge to produce more of the same.

In spite of this, the variation it does introduce is not only used gracefully and properly but is both meaningful and powerful. Each variation of idea or new idea included, each slightly differing approach to a riff was probably very carefully considered and integrated with an attention to detail worthy of praise. Cult of Endtime are extremely consistent in style although they bring different techniques under its umbrella and produce strongly coherent riff-variations with a relatively wide range of character.

Sounding like a Black Sabbath reborn into death metal, Cult of Endtime build their music on phrasal riffs with a basis on heavy-sounding support and featuring melodic passages that emphasize clarity of expression and musicality rather than technique itself, although anyone paying attention to such things would not deny the professional-level musicianship of the band. Probably one of the best, if not the best, we are likely to get out of the mainstream this year, In Charnel Lights is extremely recommended to fans of metal.

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Scythian – Hubris in Excelsis (2015)

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Following the example of Kreator in Phantom Antichrist, Scythian unite riffing approaches from different metal subgenres under the banner of traditional heavy metal and growled or barked vocals, with a result along the lines of the so-called melodic death metal.  In contrast with the noteworthy release Thy Black Destiny, by Sacramentum, Hubris in Excelsis does not coalesce into a thing of its own but just floats around as the result of spare parts being put together to form an undefined, impersonal and disparate heavy metal record. In this, and its revolving around the vocals it is more akin to the Iron Maiden – inclined heavy metal which sets one foot on hard-rock land, using disconnected riffs only as rhythm and harmony to carry the voice.

We hear doom metal proceedings and textures typical of black metal, but these are usually encapsulated within sections. These sections are used in conventional rock-song functionality. What determines this rock versus metal approach? Basically, the total relationship of riffs and sections to voice and in between themselves. Rock (and hard rock after it) carries the music after the vocal lines (thus we can see the slight influence of hard rock over Slayer in South of Heaven even though it doesn’t fully give in to the tendency to disqualify it as a metal record). The key tell-tale sign after this is the lack or at least a downplay of motif-relation between parts of the song, the support for main melody or vocal line becoming the most important and prominent element. The effect of this often results in something similar but in the end different from metalcore: disparate parts tied loosely by a certain background consistency (usually harmony for rock and rhythms or motifs drowned in an ocean of contrasts for metalcore).

The plentiful references to many different genres extending all the way to cliche-ridden pagan black metal may throw off the attempts of most to nail down what Hubris in Excelsis actually is, what it consists of and what its essence ultimately is. Hubris in Excelsis is indeed a title that reflects this album beyond their intended concept. Hubris, an excess of self-confidence, often at the expense of prudence and seemliness, is placed in a position of glory, giving way to veiled expressions of ego that disregard any sense of coherence and little consistency beyond the most superficial.

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A Comment on Bardic Tradition in metal

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The terms bardic or minstrel metal have often been used to describe bands that usually sing in a clear voice and with anthemic overtones, often imitate medievalesque motifs and write lyrics in the manner of romanticized ancient legends. Generally, the metal subgenre most readily associated with bardic expression is power metal because they advertise themselves as modern-day minstrels and theirs is the kind of catchy and upbeat music most people can latch on to most easily. The bardic spirit along with the culture it transmits, however, requires a sturdier medium that is able to etch its runes indelibly without detracting from the importance of their message.
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Slayer – Show No Mercy

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On December 3, 1983, a force of unparalleled musical terror was unleashed upon a more innocent world. Combining the high speed strum detached from percussion used by Discharge with the architectural riffing of Judas Priest and the melodic understructure used by Iron Maiden, Slayer created a new style of heavy metal which exceeded all previous efforts.

While Show No Mercy sounds tame compared to later Slayer effort Reign in Blood (1986), for the time it revolutionized metal and punk alike. Most metal of the era was still recovering from the mid-1970s slump that occurred when Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin were hybridized into a new rock-based style, manifesting after a brief revolution in the NWOBHM as the usual lowest-common-denominator crowd pleaser in acts like Motley Crue. Slayer brought back the longer phrasal riffs used by Black Sabbath and through the tremolo strum added greater flexibility and detached chord changes from the beat of the snare, which allowed the guitar to dominate composition and relegated drums to timekeeping. This in turn gave the band more options for varying riffs within a phrase and escaping the verse-chorus pop radio song format that had infected metal in the previous years.

Even outdoing other hardcore punk/NWOBHM hybrids like speed metal bands (Metallica) and thrash (DRI), Slayer created a fury that could also be beautiful. To this they added a mythological view of humanity and the ongoing collapse of Western civilization, placing us into a mode of viewing it as a conflict between good and evil with the prize being survival more than a spiritual state of obedience. In doing so, Slayer laid the foundation both musically and topically for the future death metal genre, while also spurring speed metal on to greater intensity. Most of what we cover on this site would not have existed when it did without Slayer and contemporaries such as Bathory, Hellhammer and Sodom who opened the gates to this new style.

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Witchfinder General – Death Penalty

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After Black Sabbath invented proto-metal, people mixed together hard rock like Led Zeppelin and came up with a new hybrid they called heavy metal, but it lacked the intensity of Black Sabbath. The New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) fused the energy of punk and garage rock back into the music to restore the alienated energy, and Witchfinder General numbered among its strongest arguments.

Bands making music of this nature face a challenge: the entire rock community is based on making things sound smooth and grandiose in the kind of narcissistic ecstasy that people who want to be the center of attention for their 15 minutes exhibit, and this clashes with the need to sound like a combat unit taking a break to bash out a few tunes. As the Witchfinder General Live ’83 release shows us, this band had great intensity when they could focus their energies in that fashion.

While Death Penalty features the same excellent songwriting, matching vocal melodies that evoke the ambition without regard for convention that made Ozzy Osbourne the favorite Black Sabbath vocalist, and powerful riffing that expanded beyond the rock vocabulary to the side door of speed metal, the more refined production convinced Witchfinder General to play these songs more slowly and to layer on additional lead guitar and production effects to “enhance” the sound. The result is that much of the energy dissipates into a 1970s rock filter, and the production emphasizes a thin guitar tone to which the band adapts. Other than this disadvantage, Death Penalty shows us Witchfinder General at their most powerful.

Like the best of NWOBHM bands, Witchfinder General used shorter riffs than Black Sabbath and focused more on melodic guitar composition that echoed the previous generation of British heavy guitar rock. In addition, the band injected fast rhythmic riffing using a muted strum, and fast lead fills that allowed more flexibility in riff placement, but also borrowed from many of the progressive bands a more flexible sense of song structure. There will be the verse-chorus cycle, but it often transitions with a break that emphasizes some aspect of the song and allows the band to use variants of riffs for great contrast, before returning to the original cycle. To death metal fans, it may seem tame, but in the day it was a revolution against heavy metal convention, and these songs still stand tall with a power that all those artists who wish to be more polished than pugnacious cannot capture.

Much of the focus of songwriting wraps around the vocals which guide each song ably by taking the high register and infusing just enough melody into these riffs to give each passage a hook. Sometimes this limits what the band could spend its energy on, as we can hear through many of the incidental guitar passages such as the fade-out instrumental break in “Death Penalty,” but it also helps hold together these sounds which are bursting with energy and musical creativity. Much of this album sounds like later Black Sabbath with more caffeinated leads, but that is its voice and not its essence, which is a flexible view of songwriting that never loses the need for a charge of the light brigade in power chords against the pleasant illusions of the average rock fan, then or now.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uu-UW7agTkY

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Updated version of The Heavy Metal FAQ published

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Version 2.0 of The Heavy Metal FAQ exists within grasp of your browser. This update and addition to the sprawling work that first began in the early 1990s when a group of die-hard metal fans began writing to each other on USENET, first published in full form in 1996, now contains information on the metal years after the turbulent 1990s.

Running over 100 pages of print in length, The Heavy Metal FAQ covers the origins, history, philosophy and artistic purpose of heavy metal and its many sub-genres including death metal, black metal, NWOBHM, thrash, grindcore, speed metal and proto-metal. Its new and more detailed chronicle of the rise and proliferation of heavy metal reveals the development of this genre and its many offshoots.

Written by a former death metal radio presenter and editor of this site, the document aims to address the common questions that readers and listeners have about heavy metal, and then to go one layer deeper so they can see the motivation behind these artists and the social and historical significance of heavy metal. Not for the faint of heart, much like metal itself, The Heavy Metal FAQ could be a gateway to a lifelong habit of heavy metal reading.

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Happy 63rd birthday, Rob Halford

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The legendary Judas Priest frontman (born 1951) is 63 years old today, August 25, 2014. Introduced to Judas Priest bassist Ian Hill by his sister, Halford became the vocalist for the group and quickly defined his iconic style of singing and found a way to adapt it to the new style.

With Stained Class, Halford adopted what became his trademark visual imagery, which is the leather and studs clothing that spread throughout metal after that time. He later expanded this imagery to include military gear, motorcycles, whips and chains.

Judas Priest defined much of 1970s heavy metal by taking its NWOBHM sound and adding the album-oriented stadium rock feel, giving the music greater accessibility, but simultaneously focusing on strong lead guitar and use of multiple riffs to create a puzzle-piece feel.

Without Halford, Priest might have accomplished this role but not in such an iconic sense or perhaps with such amazingly flexible vocals. Halford joins Ronnie James Dio, Ozzy Osbourne and Tom Arya among others in the category of legendary heavy metal vocalists. Happy Birthday!

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Judas Priest – Redeemer of Souls

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Judas Priest contributed much to the science of metal riffing. Where Black Sabbath strung together power chords into long phrases, Judas Priest and Iron Maiden re-introduced lead picking to this role as well with guitars that harmonized each other; Iron Maiden focused more on melody, where Judas Priest narrowed its exploration to the use of structure in riffs to get around the predictable patterns and rhythms still inherited from rock music. The band straddled the line between rock, hard rock and heavy metal.
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