Something lurks in humanity that afflicts all of our best efforts. When we create something, and then start seeing it as a tool or means to an end, the principle of its greatness is lost. It seems to occur because when the object is directed at humanity, it attends to what we think and wish were true instead of what is. Thus metal bands go from creating vast fantasy to creating ludicrous self-prostituting visions of excess to make their audience feel important, and the beauty of the music itself is lost.
This gauntlet looms over every death metal band that makes a “comeback” album two decades on and claims it is returning to the old style. Recently At the Gates made such a claim, and in face of public skepticism and vast anticipation, released a teaser. This contains about 45 seconds of music amidst the visuals and branding, so any assessment of it speaks only to that portion. The album could vary from it, although smart money says that such a turn would be anomalistic given that this snippet is what the band chose to promote the album. Nonetheless, this tiny window into the soul of At the Gates may tell us what to expect, and showcases the phenomenal production and art direction this record has received. Clearly Century Media intend to make this the metal event of the year and have every chance of succeeding.
The excerpt provided shows us At the Gates using the type of melodies they used on Terminal Spirit Disease and the second half of With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness which would be at home on a 1970s jazz-infused stadium rock album but in power chords take on a more sinister mood. However, these are presented with the type of frenetic riffing using internal texture to bolster the otherwise sparse melodic pattern that we see on Slaughter of the Soul and the first album from The Haunted. The result suggests some promise but lacks the developmental depth of Terminal Spirit Disease due to the intensified speed and desire to keep phrases short and hookish in a conventional manner as was used on Slaughter of the Soul.
As noted above, this track shows us only part of the album but it reveals the part that the band, label and management likely think will most appeal to the audience they are targeting. It seems that their attempt is to make a version of Slaughter of the Soul which embraces the rhythmic frenzy of The Haunted and the slightly more musical approach of mid-period At the Gates, which taps into both metalcore and Opeth audiences and should produce a best-seller for this band.
Over the past decade, metal and related genres have shifted toward a highly technical perspective on instrumentalism. Where earlier genres valued the primitive and passionate, bands now tend to begin with a grounding in jazz and progressive rock theory and expand into metal.
This raises the bar for entry into the genre, but on the level of mechanics only. Corresponding, creativity seems to have declined in the genre, perhaps because artists with something to communicate — a.k.a. “content” — now face an uphill path toward technical perfection before that content will be accepted in the genre.
A similar phenomenon occurred in the classical genre as well. Like metal, this niche genre struggles to keep existing fans while making new ones and not becoming “dumbed-down” like everything else in popular culture. As a result, it has become perfectionist on a technical level, perhaps to the detriment of content, notes an article on the evolution in classical music.
Today’s classical musicians are rarely given this choice between expression and perfection. As David Taylor, assistant concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, recently told the Los Angeles Times, “Today, perfection is a requirement. You must have flawless intonation, you must be a machine.” A single missed note or halting phrase could be a musician’s downfall: the end of a job interview, perhaps the end of a career.
This perfectionist culture can crush young musicians’ creativity: they’re too afraid of messing up to take risks. As Thor Eckert Jr. wrote for the Christian Post back in 1982, “the very qualities that made Rubinstein unique have been abandoned in the music world today. Rather than emotion, we now have technical prowess, rather than expressivity and poetry we have accuracy, rather than individuality, we have a bland sameness.”
The article goes on to discuss the impact that technology has had on classical music, namely a lowering of concert attendance and less of a tendency to purchase albums in favor of individual songs. This development threatens the mainstay income of classical musicians, and has driven them toward entrepreneurial ventures including pop music hybrids. While this particular source feels this is a positive development, many of us are not so sure.
When commerce takes over any given form, whether art or music or writing, it tends to increase the tangible factors of quality while decreasing the intangible ones, like content or profundity. This in turn drives artists toward increasing degrees of triviality and novelty in an effort to distinguish themselves, with the result that few focus on quality of expression beyond the technical at all.
Simultaneously, the knowledge of technical precision becomes democratized or spread widely at low cost, which means that soon the genre floods with highly proficient players who may have no ability to compose, improvise or otherwise contribute anything but “new” recombined versions of what previously existed. In metal, this has been a death knell; let us hope that for classical it is not the same.
Tom G. Warrior is a relentless innovator and amazing composer. As he details in his book Only Death is Real: An Illustrated History of Hellhammer he grew up in an abusive, uncertain environment within a broken home. He also grew up in “perfect” Switzerland, a place that has more rules than people. These events shaped his personality or rather, the limitations that are still imposed upon it.
What happened was that young Tom G’s ego was crushed and doubt was introduced into his mind. Doubt about the purpose of life, or even his own life. Doubt of self-worth. Fear that at any moment he might find himself without a justification for existing, and be truly discarded and alone. That’s a heavy load for a young person to carry, but the sequential success of Hellhammer and then Celtic Frost lifted Tom out of it. It also pushed aside a healing process.
When Celtic Frost evaporated, Tom launched on a series of attempts to find popularity again, but on his own terms. First, his highly inventive industrial music, and later, attempts to be contemporary. The latest two are below, and they are marked by a duality: a great underlying talent, desperately attempting to ingratiate itself with newer metal audiences. Like all things that do not take a clear direction, they are thus lost on both fronts.
This is not a hit piece on Tom G Warrior. Like many metalheads, I hold him in the highest regard. He is one of the great innovators and farseeing minds in metal. However, his tendency to try to adapt to what is current shows what is currently happening in metal: in a dearth of ideas, the genre is recombining past successes that represent the culmination of earlier genres, and is trying to recapture its lead by offering a buffet of different influences. But alas, like the music of Triptykon, these forays are lost causes.
Currently a morass of subgenre names exist. We can call it metalcore, or modern metal, or math metal, or tech-deth, or even djent, but all of it converges on a single goal: to make a form of that great 1980s speed metal — Metallica, Anthrax, Testament, Exodus, Nuclear Assault — that used choppy riffs made up of muted chords to encode complex rhythms into energetic songs. To that, the modern metal bands have added the carnival music tendency to pick entirely unrelated riffs to add variety, the grooves of later speed metal, and the vocals and chord voicings of late hardcore and its transition into emo.
What this represents is not a direction, but lack of one. By combining all known successes from late in these subgenres, modern metal is picking up where the past left off before death metal and black metal blew through and rewrote the book. The problem is that making music that is intense like those underground genres is difficult, and even more, unmarketable. It approaches the issues in life that most of us fear, like mortality and failure in the context of powerlessness and meaninglessness, and thus presents a dark and obscure sound that makes us uncertain about life itself. Like Tom G Warrior living through a shattered marriage of his parents and a society too concerned with order to notice its own boredom and misery, black metal and death metal shatter stability and replace it with alienated existential wandering.
On the other hand, late punk offered ideological certainty and heavy doses of emotion. Late speed metal, which Pantera cooked up out of heaping doses of Exhorder, Prong and Exodus, offers a groove and a sense of a party on the wild side. Inserting bits of death metal, especially its technical parts, and some of the frenetic riffing of Discordance Axis allows these bands to create a new kind of sound. But at its heart, this music is still speed metal. Where death metal played riff Jenga and put it all together in a sense that told a story, modern metal is based in variety and distraction. It exists to jar the mind, explore a thousand directions, and without coming to a conclusion ride out in the comforting emulation of the chaos of society around it.
But at its heart, these bands are speed metal. Like Triptykon who revitalize the E-string noodling and riff texture of more aggressive speed metal bands, with the bounce of Exodus and the groove of Pantera, these bands offer a smorgasbord combined into one. They mix in melodic metal, derived from what Sentenced and later Dissection made popular, to give it a popular edge. However, what they’re really doing is regressing to a mean. This has happened in metal before, when mid-1970s bands recombined Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath into rock-style metal, and in the mid-1980s when glam metal did the same thing but mixed in the gentler sounds of late 1970s guitar rock bands. When metal loses direction, it recombines and comes up with a mellower, less threatening version of itself.
All of this is well and good if we do one single but difficult thing: recognize that what we’re listening to now is a dressed-up version of what metal and punk were doing in the late 1980s. We’re walking backward in history, away from that scary underground death metal and black metal, and looking toward something less disturbing and more fun at parties. It seems no one has come out and said this, so I figured it must be said. Enjoy your weekend.
Coroner occupy a unique place in metal history. Coming from the speed metal camp, they injected their music with technicality and a high art sense that placed them alongside Voivod and Prong as some of the 1980s oddities. (more…)
When too many utterly mindless and pandering bands pile up in the review queue, even life seems washed out and hopeless. At that point, even death metal has lost its power and mystique. When that happens, I throw on Demilich Nespithe and my faith in the genre is restored. This album presents such a creative and yet meaningful interpretation of death metal that it restores faith in a lot more than the genre.
The 20th Adversary of Emptiness reproduces a restored Nespithe complete with original art, adds two songs from the 2006 return of Demilich, and then compiles the demos of this formative band. Svart Records prints these on vinyl and CD formats, with the vinyl option as a box set and the CD for more everyday listening (that way you can have a copy in the car, too). Naturally this adds three areas for study.
The original album remains as powerful as it was back in the 1990s. If any remastering has occurred, it has been slight because the originally subterranean and organic sound has been preserved. There is not much to say about this classic that wasn’t said in the original 1993 review, but for a short introduction, it is a death metal album that uses lead riffing and complex riff-rhythm interaction and development to create an entirely otherworldly sound. Into this it drops doubt, loneliness, and a sense of restoration through imagination. It is from the oldest school of artistry and a work of intensely fine-tuned thinking and musicianship.
Much will be made of the newer tracks. I see these as an attempt to take the classic Demilich sound into the more technical and streamlined death metal of the early 2000s. In fact, two these songs — “of Vanishing” and “of Emptiness” — were written in the early 1990s, while “Faces Right Below the Skin of the Earth” was the only one penned in 2006. The three tracks hold true to the Demilich format but give it more aggression and death metal thrills. “Faces Right Below the Skin of the Earth” starts with a rhythm tear that resembles something Covenant-era Morbid Angel and first album At the Gates might envision if they collaborated, but then drops into a cyclic riff that follows the old Demilich pattern. In developing that riff, the band put it into the more rhythmically challenging format that contemporary metal listeners might desire, but then begin their trademark cyclic polyrhythm while mutating the riff toward a larger pattern. Eventually this becomes the concluding theme and the song drives hard to a conclusion. “of Vanishing” uses a Morbid Angel trope, namely “Immortal Rites,” but gives it the more complex rhythmic and melodic vision of Demilich. This then filters through a full stop and drum roll into Demilich-styled cyclic melodic riffing before returning to theme. Interesting guitar solo on this one. “of Emptiness” uses a throttling melodic riff more like the stuff that Necrovore used to apply, and builds into the most conventional song in this three-track set. It slides into an almost Black Sabbath-styled doomy charging riff and alternates it with lead-picked riffs used to change tempo and add depth, but then returns to its aggressive attack. This track uses a lot of stops and starts and loses some momentum. On the whole, these three tracks show an interesting attempt to modernize Demilich and make it more aggressive, but also show why the band probably did not want to continue going in that direction. Sometimes the past is too distinct to be resurrected as anything but itself, and not everyone may want to do that two decades later.
On to the demos… these are fascinating because they show how deliberate the final Demilich sound really is. These songs are familiar but each has different changes. In particular, different styles of lead guitar were tried as well as attempts to make the riffs fit more into the rhythm styles favored by different subgenres of death metal. The closer demos get to Nespithe chronologically the more they exhibit an intense technicality and unique style, but as one goes back in time they are closer to standard death metal with some unique innovations woven in. As time passes, the weaving becomes more intense and the new style takes over the raw elements. It is fascinating to watch these songs develop and the demo pressing here is entirely worth the price of this album (or even box set). They do not bore and there is always something new to be heard in each of these classic demo tracks.
20th Adversary of Emptiness offers something to just about anyone. If this is your first Demilich experience, stick to the first disk (Nespithe) for a glimpse into classic death metal when it wasn’t afraid to be weird. For dyed-in-the-wool Demilich fans and hardcores, there’s hours of interest to be found in tracking back these older demo pieces and seeing where they go. Both groups will enjoy the three 2006-era tracks which show a more violent and streamlined Demilich. Ultimately, this whole package lives up to its strange title because it is an adversary of emptiness.
This music evokes loneliness and a hollow, achingly empty universe without inherent point, and shows the creation of a mythos within that void that could keep us focused on survival and improvement even through a long and depleting arctic circle winter. Seeing these rare tracks ride again is rewarding as is seeing Nespithe get the credit that it has always deserved but almost missed as people chased death metal trends back in the day. The booklet, featuring both classic art and pictures, comes with a length interview with guitarist Antti Boman and his commentary on each song with lyrics. This is rare and wonderful also. Just make sure you avoid reading the introduction, which is written by some idiot and makes no sense.
Although there’s a very noodly and “progressive” surface to Azure Emote, what lies beneath the skin is a mixture of speed metal and alternative rock. That gets layered in metal riffs, jazzy guitars, industrial-style vocals and complex percussion.
The Gravity of Impermanence despite having a cool-sounding name delivers almost nothing of what we want from progressive metal, which is puzzles. Games. Brain witchcraft. Interesting twists and turns that make us look forward to another day of being alive, again.
Instead, Azure Emote deliver relatively consistent surges of volume in vocals and drums, and “unpredictability” that’s so predictable it’s like watching a dancer so bad she lunges in exactly the wrong direction at the wrong time. As if sensing this is paltry, the band experiments with extensive vocal weirdness and frequent build-up/break-down types structures.
Perhaps looking for some underground cred, Azure Emote throw in every third riff as something vaguely death metallish in the Nocturnus-Obliveon spectrum of technical riffs. However, without the context to support it, it becomes random instead of interesting.
The re-formed Gorguts today released the first substantial sample we have from their new album, Colored Sands, which will be available on September 3 in the United States and August 30 in the rest of the world via Season of Mist. The default medium will be the CD digipak but Colored Sands will also be available on vinyl LP, including black vinyl, yellow in red vinyl (limited to 150 copies), and clear vinyl (limited to 350 copies).
The big question for Hessians is whether Colored Sands will sound like nu-core, either frenetic Gothenburg-styling finger wiggling or breakdown-heavy antsy post-hardcore noise like the tek-deth noodlers. The answer is surprisingly that this band is in a three-way tie between slowed-down droning alternative metal like Gojira, technical death metal of the old school, and the new school of jazz-influenced indie-style progressive metal. Unfortunately, it’s not very exciting because as you can imagine, the focus is on form, and not content.
For example, “Forgotten Arrows” tries to hard to be about something but the music doesn’t match. It’s cut from multiple skeins of metal and alternative/indie rock cloth, but the song never gets a voice of its own. All of it is well-executed, and it avoided the irritating aspects of nu-core, which is commendable. However, it never really gains a spirit, like older Gorguts did.
That being said, this is only one track, and it’s a lot better than expected for the title (which may reflect a Vedic influence) and the addition of people like Colin Marston, who while he was a friendly and articulate fellow when I met him, is forever damned in metal for releasing the droning black metal imitation flavoring turd Krallice. The new guitarist and drummer seem to keep up admirably with grand old metal man Luc Lemay and his adroit fingers.
Every 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.
No one doubts the importance of style, but at the end of the day, style is not what makes one album great and others mundane. Like a technique used in painting, style is essential to convey particular meaning, but its inclusion alone doesn’t make the painting great. Only the skill of the artist and the composition of the painting can do that.
Supuration emerged years before the current alternative metal and progressive metal trends, mixing 1980s dark pop and indie with a strong progressive undercurrent in the style of Rush or Jethro Tull. Their legendary album, The Cube, divided metal listeners because while it had many aspects of off-mainstream rock, it sported death metal vocals and metal riffs. However, it also made them many fans who liked their adventurous use of music and very personal, evocative songwriting.
Cube 3 hits the target set by this first album by not imitating the style of the past but instead developing changes to that style naturally and focusing instead on songwriting. This allows Supuration to gratify older fans but not force themselves into acting out the past as remembered from a far off-distance. The style is mostly similar to The Cube, being alternative/indie-rock harmonies mixed in with metal riffs and progressive chord progressions, melodic leads and oddball song structures.
What makes this album work is that each song unites two concepts: first, a pop style hook; second, a theatrical staging of the conflict between two or more tendencies. These songs pull themselves apart between bassy heavy metal riffs, bittersweet vocal melodies, and intricately picked melodic guitar that expands the context of the music and shows a broader context.
These songs are full of musical oddities picked to stimulate, amuse and delight, but what fundamentally drives this band is its songwriting which has a strong connection to the idea of metal. The result is a metal hybrid that keeps the intensity of metal while creating a technical achievement that also has the emotional appeal of negative pop.
Many people, upon reading what we have posted here, assume we’re anti-progressive death metal. People note how much we squirt used nutrients all over Opeth, the latest Cynic or abortions of taste like Origin, and in order to justify their outrage, claim we don’t like prog metal. In fact, the opposite is true: we love prog metal, and go hog wild for bands like Atheist, Obliveon, Voivod, Gorguts and Pestilence. We even love classics of alternative progressive metal like Supuration. But what we don’t like is pose-prog, which is music that “sounds” progressive but is actually at blockhead levels of disorganization. Like Opeth. Like the new Cynic. Fake prog is bad prog, and because anyone who tries fake prog is probably a delusional and deceptive moron, is also usually bad music.
Today’s band isn’t death metal, and it’s “progressive lite” like Rush, in that there are difficult techniques and longer compositions at work, but not as much theoretical squirreling around key signature. From Italy, Sadist are a progressive death-ish metal band who love their keyboards, acoustic interludes and longer songs — just like Opeth. And like Cynic, they incorporate a ton of jazz-fusion technique, most notably in drums and bass.
On the whole, Sadist’s self-titled album is a lot like Obliveon’s Nemesis: beaucoups speed metal, some death metal, a lot of prog, some newer (“nu”) influences and then a sound all their own. What makes them different is that they are working in the genre split between speed metal and death metal where bands like Kreator, Destruction, Rigor Mortis and Slayer exist. Even more interesting is that by going progressive, they’ve approximated a sound halfway between older Sadus and newer Coroner.
The majority of the riffs on this CD are straight out of the speed metal canon, but on its rougher, more experimental edge, like those on Coroner’s “Grin,” and although they later merge with arpeggiated clean playing or lengthy keyboard interludes of a beauty not seen since Dimmu Borgir decided to rip off all that video game music for “Stormblast,” the songs follow a speed metal pattern like early Sadus: riff/chorus with divergences, but ultimately, returning to a fist-pumping foot-stomping chorus rhythm to complement the rhythms of drums and guitar.
The first track seems to me a fusion of the first and third Meshuggah albums, and that influences stretches throughout this album which made me at first want to avoid it, but the underlying music is of quality and fits in among other prog speed/death bands like Coroner, Sadus, Creepmime, later Voivod, etc. Vocals unfortunately show influence from nu-core (or more likely, Meshuggah), or all that metalcore-derived stuff (punk with speed metal pretensions and influences from metal, rock and jazz) that demands a ranting vocal rhythm that recurses every four syllables, causing out-of-the-closet assholes like me to wish we could make the vocal track Go Away for the remaining duration of a song.
These aesthetic concerns aside however, the music is quite good. What it isn’t is simplified enough in core, or theatrical enough, to stand out as well as the songs of, say, Atheist, so it’s less memorable. That isn’t to say less bad or less complex; in fact, it has more detail tied toward its core themes, but the core theme isn’t refracted throughout the details.
On the whole, this is a good album from an undernoticed band that has a better overall sense of metal going for it than its obvious competitive influences — Cynic, Meshuggah, Opeth, and Atheist are all influences here — with more of a sense of musicality than the newer “technical” bands that specialize in blockhead riffs at mind-bending speeds. It makes good rainy day listening, when the listener is already in a quiet state of mind and simply receptive, will find all the good this has to offer behind its somewhat cryptic aesthetic.