Incantation – Dirges of Elysium

incantion-dirges_of_elysium

For over two decades, Incantation has been one of the leading innovators of death metal. Although it never received the public accolades worthy of its contributions, Incantation represented a titanic figure in the underground scene that created works of more consistent quality than that of its contemporaries, although as with all bands from metal’s golden age there’s been a noticeable tiredness creeping into its work.

On Incantation‘s latest album Dirges of Elysium the tiredness reveals how it has spread to composition. While the traditional core of recognizable Incantation shines through at times, audible indications of decline present themselves on every track. The band did not attempt to create something to move either upwards or forwards, but instead sullenly sinks back into uninspired riffs and concessions to the contemporary marketplace.

Incantation displayed willingness from its very beginning to stretch the realms of death metal, particularly with slowed-down tempos of doom metal; however, when the band did this it was well-placed within the order of the present track and was synonymous with the expression of the blistering assault book-ending it on either side. On this album, this expert sense of structure is greatly reduced. Rather than being weaved together in an organic whole, riffs are placed parallel to each other with little to bind them together. While some riffs are competent, the lack of any unifying cohesion to the album leaves them stranded as brief moments of interest.

Although the core of the album remains as death metal, there are also hints where the veneer cracks: straightforward speed metal riff fragments signify the lack of imagination present and the simplistic pounding of palm-muted riffs occasionally approaches the knuckleheadedness of post-hardcore bands. The speed metal influence as inherited through its hybrid with jazz-lite and math metal in metalcore presents a subtle but pervasive decline to the integrity of the palette Incantation uses. When throwaway riffs and foot-tapping crowd pleasers become acceptable random h’ors d’ouvres among the meatier riffs, chaos has overcome order.

It is also worth mentioning the final track as a case study in decline. Clocking in at almost 17 minutes in length, this song completely dominates the album in terms of proportion. While this author was excited to hear this composition, the fact is that this track is extraordinarily difficult to listen to. It is the entropic decline of the entire genre expressed: a reduction of everything to faux-angst, lazy generalities that signify no individual artistic direction. A modern mess and doom/speed metal disaster, it is very hard to imagine that this track (and album) was composed by the same band that released some of the best death metal albums of all time.

Readers are advised to temper their expectations before listening. Dirges of Elysium will be released on June 24th via Listenable Records.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OJXUQFDOb1I

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Codex Obscurum – Issue Four

codex_obscurum-issue_four

Many of us old school death metal fans watched the rise of zine Codex Obscurum with growing interest because it, like Glorious Times and Underground Never Dies!, represents an attempt to look back at the underground and figure out what made it as powerful as it was. Part of the answer is selectivity, which is a gentle person’s form of “elitism,” meaning that one selects quality over quantity and vigorously promotes and defends the quality. This is what zines did, what radio shows did, and what labels did, back in the day, by choosing some bands over others. The vague smell of blood in the air is the shadow of long-forgotten predation and natural selection that also shaped us as humans, which means not so much “survival of the fittest” but that all who make a meaningful contribution get kicked upstairs and everyone else is forgotten.

Codex Obscurum represents the best kind of selectivity because it targets bands of note but does so broadly, thus you avoid both the “hey kids, everything’s great!” attitude of the commercial providers and the narrow perceptual slot of the kvlt vndergrovnd. This issue advertises swamp death metal band Autopsy, second-wave crust band Doom, cavernous old school death metal band Blaspherian, multifaceted heavy metal/folk band Primordial, melodic drone metal band Sacriphyx, abrasive occult death metal band Father Befouled, Icelandic modern black metal act Svartidaudi, and several more. While not everyone may like (or admit to liking…) these acts, the spread makes it clear that both broad-minded attention to music itself and a high level of standards apply here. This explains why the editors of such a zine might want to go underground and stay there, where they are not beholden to the ugly cycle of advertising revenues and thus being asked to pimp the latest platter of re-heated Carpenters tunes spray-painted with the vaguest appearance of “metal.” Indeed, Codex Obscurum is funded entirely by user purchase price, which is why for $5 or so this arrives at your door with no ads.

For the uninitiated, this zine presents the old school zine style in every detail, which is both practical and a nice atmospheric touch. The hand-numbered issues, the xeroxed pages complete with copy artifacts, occasional typos and sometimes surly answers to perfectly reasonable questions by bands who clearly have done too much press lately, all factor in to the appeal. Use of cardstock for the cover gives this issue a more permanent feel than older photocopied heap zines had, which shows a positive advance of technology. Similarly, quite a few of these interviews seem to have occurred through email, and the use of office software to lay out the zine makes it more readable. The rest is pure old school, from the writing style which is both personal and projected into the mind of an idealized metalhead, looking for that nearly indefinable quality that makes a metal band distinguish itself as a classic in the making rather than news of the week.

The primary content for Codex Obscurum is provided by its abundant interviews, which are conducted in a familiar yet inquisitive style, like the best of Joan Didion-influenced hip journalism before it forgot the word “investigative” in its title. These questions aren’t all softballs like you would expect in a mainstream magazine, but sometimes force bands to confront their own internal struggles for self-definition. To their credit, most of the bands here rise to the occasion and reveal their thinking and intentions in the actions they have taken. The Doom interview is particularly revelatory as the interviewer walks the band through the past and makes connections to consistent patterns across their career. The Autopsy interview makes for a stunning read since it is Eric Cutler giving a candid and somewhat aggressive portrayal of where the band is and how past events shaped their present outlook. The Svartidaudi interview goes in-depth into how this band is struggling to find its own voice while under onslaught from the many trends of current black metal, despite being inspired by the best of the past (which is different from being inspired by the past alone). One oddity that would be called a “quirk” in any less just-the-music-ma’am magazine is the lengthy interview with the creator of the RPG Cave Evil, which accompanies the amazing artwork from that game with a nearly existential exploration of the purpose of RPGs themselves.

Profanatica “Thy Kingdom Cum” (Hell’s Headbangers)
Disingenuous.
You cannot defile nuns
While wearing sweatpants.

The sizeable block of reviews at the back of Codex Obscurum show where this zine is determined to keep its hand in the current music industry. Any band that is roughly connected to old school death metal and black metal, with a wide spread because of open-mindedness, qualifies for inclusion here. These reviews take a conversational outlook which seems too removed from the music at first except when you realize that it’s gonzo journalism of the first order. When writing about metal, don’t pretend you are not a metalhead; it’s a lie. Further, think of what you like and then extrapolate to what others like. It helps them shop for music. It also avoids troubling pretense and complications as reviewers try to get more “in depth” and end up producing thousand-word inspections that result in no clear conclusions. Here, the conclusions are clear — in fact, one section even puts them in Haiku form — and give roughly the kind of synopsis one would get from an experienced record store owner, label head or producer, issuing forth a rough summary of the band, its importance and its staying power and audience, in about a sentence each.

For the past several issues, Codex Obscurum has reserved its final pages for experimental content. In this case, it is facially an inspection of why a famous metal musician flaked on an interview… and beneath the waves, a deft revelation of the disintegration of the underground into warring self-interested parties while no one keeps their eye on the wheel or the road. That leaves the future of the genre up in the air, since everyone is too busy cashing in to steer, and the results are about as you might expect: all the has-beens in warmed over hardcore, emo and indie rock bands have rushed through the breach and set up shop making parasitic versions of the older material, except nowhere near as good. Codex Obscurum shows a good way to reclaim the past of the underground for the future, namely to start paying attention to the steering again and to be unafraid to be selective and to not give reasons why some bands simply suck. Just be honest. The editors and writers here have given it their best shot and it makes for not only informative and entertaining reading, but a glimpse into the old days without the smarmy fug of solicitous nostalgia for marketing purposes that normally hangs around such ventures.

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Dead Infection – A Chapter of Accidents (2002)

dead-infection-a-chapter-of-accidents

The simpler the music is, the harder it is to execute in an interesting way. The best of grindcore rises to this challenge by inventing ways of making texture expand upon a simple riff idea. Like grandmasters Carcass before them, Dead Infection use a gurgling bass deluge to convey a hidden complexity.

A Chapter of Accidents benefits from its concept, which is anchored in lyrics, and gives to each song a different set of needs because each is a short narrative or story relating an unfortunate and often miserably ironic incident. This bends the song structure to the story, which consists of a setup, a quandary, a revelation and a conclusion, and thus allows the band to adapt its grinding riffs to a simple but not simplistic process of development. As in most grindcore, the main riff repeats with interruptions; some of these are offsets, which are like counterpoints formed of different shapes or rhythms, but others are deviations to small motifs which represent parts of the story. As a result, most of what you hear when listening to Dead Infection is one powerful, thunderous and bounding riff that breaks for contrary views, thought-detours and development by layering, where drums or guitars either double-time or vary texture to add complexity.

Where Carcass is slower and is based on what sounds like 1930s-1950s music translated into power chords and made ironic with grotesque lyrics, Dead Infection is more like a troupe of mercenaries backpacking through the mountains on their way to set up an assassination or coup in that it is self-contained and for its own purposes only. It sometimes plays with riff motifs from the past, like heavy metal riffs reduced to their simplest essence, but essentially it is its own thing: a vocabulary of grindcore adapted to this type of worldview. Combine that with the vocals that sound like a dog guarding the gates of hell, and you have a formidable but thought-provoking package.

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Mortuary Drape – All The Witches Dance

mortuary_drape-all_the_witches_dance

Mortuary Drape resembles Emperor in its focus on the more bombastic elements of black metal. Mortuary Drape takes a more heavy metal flavored take on the genre, similar to Root or Master’s Hammer.

The speed metal influenced riffing which dominates most of this album lends further credence to that comparison. The mix is unusual for the time as well, in that it de­emphasizes the guitars in favor of the bass and vocals. Guitars are still present, but thinner than one would expect from speed metal and not trebly enough to make one think of black metal.

Church bells, a pipe organ, female vocals, and other unconventional elements are implemented, but not for the sake of these things; Mortuary Drape attempt to weave these elements into their music honestly. For the most part it works, though sometimes there are confused sections which are blatant (building/releasing tension at awkward times, staying on a particular riff a bit too long, the intro “My Soul” which goes on for a minute or so more than it should)….then again this album derives some of its charm for those very reasons.

An interesting influence appears to be movies such as Susperia when listening to the orchestral intros and interludes. This contrasts well with the theatrical atmosphere of the songs, giving the feeling of a sort of morbid operetta. Though not as essential as the Norwegian classics, this is still a strong, if not somewhat peculiar, album that while sometimes shaky is a good choice for those interested in the different angles of second wave black metal.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CuKmGAK0U48

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Profanatica – Sickened by Holy Host / The Grand Masters Session


Profanatica
Sickened by Holy Host / The Grand Masters Session
81 min, Hells Headbangers, $12

profanatica-sickened_by_holy_host-the_grand_masters_sessionFor those new to Profanatica, this is the album to get. Like the band, it is baffling, organic, unsystematic, arcane and labyrinthine. It resembles its own hybrid of occultism, blasphemy and feral Jack London/Fred Nietzsche style absurdist feral Darwinism. It is ungovernable, down to the 7″-sized packaging for a relatively plain CD.

Sickened by Holy Host shows Profanatica at two extremes. The first is Paul Ledney, the percussionist and conceptual designer of the band, with an unnamed collaborator on guitar. The second is the same drum track with contemporary Profanatica guitarist John Gelso riffing along on guitar. The idea is that the first side shows us Profanatica as it might have been in the early 1990s, while the second side shows us Profanatica now as it evolves.

The Grand Masters Session on the other hand is a CD recording of the material Profanatica unleashed as a 7″ box set, and is essentially the band in the studio covering some old classics with updated musicianship and production. This serves as a continuity for the two parts and unites the album at full strength.

Together, Sickened by Holy Host / The Grand Masters Session reveals this atavistic American black metal band in all of their glory. The motivic force is undoubtedly Ledney’s (Revenant, Incantation, Havohej) impulsive but controlled drumming, which like a ritual dance of knives lures our listening minds closer to the core of each song. Gelso holds his own with an ability to make classic and new Profanatica riffs both simultaneously awkward and unearthly and also surprisingly difficult to pull off at speed. The result is an untameable surge of raw ideas guided by the torn-silk vocals of Ledney.

This album provides an ideal introduction to Profanatica because it captures its extremes through its most evolved material, giving a quick but deep plunge into the psyche of this sonic terrorism against the civilizing forces of religion and sociability. Soon you too will be chanting blasphemies against the highest holy while engaging in ceremonial defiance.

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Profanatica – Thy Kingdom Cum

profanatica-thy_kingdom_cumThe wizards of Profanatica/Havohej experiment extensively with their music in both form and content, and as a result, their releases are widely varied with differing degrees of success as listening (as opposed to “theoretical”) experiences.

Thy Kingdom Cum, the most recent offering which will be unleashed by Hells Headbangers Records on November 26, unifies the threads of Profanatica by being noisy and avantgarde in its blasphemy and song structures while keeping focus on fast-paced black metal with melodic undertones and creative riffing.

Like Impaled Nazarene’s Rapture, Thy Kingdom Cum re-interprets black metal in the late-1980s ideal of fast single-string riffs which combine hints of melody with unrelenting energy. The result is like a hybrid between industrial music, punk and Wagnerian classical: great towering themes emerge from riffs that resemble bent bits of wire or the symbols on schematic diagrams. You may notice similarities to proto-black metal like Sarcofago here.

Profanatica as usual do not shy away from blasphemy but unlike some past works, on Thy Kingdom Cum they’re not writing protest rock; they are here to enjoy the blasphemy and this demonic relish gives this album the playful sense that made 1991’s Dethrone the Son of God so thoroughly a forbidden pleasure. What you’re hearing is musicians having fun raising hell, even if underneath that humorous pleasure is a deadly serious message.

Like early Havohej, Thy Kingdom Cum is fast and simple and abrades the ears with intense riffs and unique but compressed song structures. Like the band’s musical peak in Profanatitas de Domonatia this newer work shows a dedication to producing depth of music in addition to pure noise and evocative rhythm from the ever-adroit Paul Ledney drumming.

Where Profanatica‘s last album, 2010’s Disgusting Blasphemies Against God, ventured into pure textural rhythm and a grinding atmosphere, this newer incarnation of the band shows more dedication to highly motivational ripping metal riffs and through periodic melody in a shorter version of the style on Profanatitas de Domonatia, an expansion of the relevance of riff structure beyond rhythm.

As the ongoing story of Profanatica/Havohej evolves, Thy Kingdom Cum will likely be remembered as a unification of their more cerebral esoteric black metal with a digestible and intense form that conveys their message like pastoral landscapes carved in flesh. As such, it may re-awakening blackmetal to its roots.

Tracklist:

  1. Ruptureholyhymen
  2. Foul The Air With Blasphemy
  3. Denounce Him
  4. False Doctrina
  5. Definite Atonement
  6. Thy Kingdom Cum
  7. Ropes of Hatred
  8. Water to Blood

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Satyricon – Satyricon

satyricon-satyriconWhat do musicians do when the drive to create has vanished?

When the label is clamoring for something new, does the band bow down and fulfill the request, or do they uphold standards? Black metal in particular has struggled with these questions for over a decade, with a myriad of responses. Some have chosen to retreat completely, seeking refuge in the wild.

Some have become exasperated with the genre, turning to electronic music before returning in glory. Others have waged war on modernity, risking well-being in pursuit of these goals. However, the greatest number have bowed to the wishes of the crowd and released a product that was quickly forgotten, which is where Satyricon’s self-titled album falls.

Embodying all that is lazy and lethargic, Satyricon is an excellent example of modern black metal ethos. Black metal only on the surface, the album is musically a hard rock/heavy metal album designed for max promotional appeal. Simple riffs with obvious sequencing, simple implementation, and solid production produce a well-shaped package that undoubtedly will allow the band to increase its commercial influence.

Sounding like a tribute to Fallen-era Burzum‘s minor-chord noodling but lacking even what little sense of spirit that album possessed, the band chucks in references to pop and blues cliches as if the label funded a study aimed at producing the most cookie-cutter album conceivable, then shared the results to the band…and let’s not delve into the collaboration with Sivert Høyem.

There is nothing here for readers of this site to enjoy, except for the more morbid members among us. This album goes nowhere. It has nothing to impart. And perhaps most damning, it’s not even terrible. It is simply a non-entity.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HPXnnTUl48Q

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The Ruins of Beverast – Blood Vaults

the_ruins_of_beverast-burial_vaultsThe worst reviews are the ones that say a band is right in the middle: “They do a few things well, but there’s not really some unifying theme, so this album is great if you’re a huge fan of those things they do well.”

A better review reflects conflict. This is one of those reviews. Dear Ruins of Beverast: you have potential, but you need to edit your material. In a huge way. In such a huge way that I don’t think most people will finish listening to this album. And change the name. What’s wrong with “Beverast” instead of a sentence-band name?

Many of the ideas on this are great. However, they’re spaced out with filler that amounts to repetition of some very tired ideas. Further, this allows this one-man band to gimmick its way through, so instead of carefully composed songs we get extended interludes that do nothing but dilute the mood. When The Ruins of Beverast decide to shred, the result is bare-bones riffs that build up to a climax.

After that, confusion reigns, so this composer avoids that point. That in itself is a mistake. Building to a peak requires a snowballing of intensity, and that produces the type of dynamic change that made black metal so much fun. But after that, what must be done — as in any Tolkienesque journey — is to Romanticize the quest and then contrast the end result to the inception.

If songs don’t lead to a path that shows a clear growth process, they become circular. With circularity, the conclusions resemble the precepts. That means that we’re hearing sheer atmosphere pieces with no actual development, since any “development” that is created doesn’t uncover a mystery or lead to new heights, but plunges back into itself.

This composer is afraid of his own work. When he writes a good riff, it takes him to some point where he must go somewhere with it, and that freaks him out. What’s there? It might just be darkness. But in the darkness he does not see romance, only permanence. So he goes back to gimmicks with chanting, distorted voices, interludes, etc. It strips him of his own strengths.

If someone took the twenty minutes of promising material from Blood Vaults and arranged it with some verve, the result would be three to four very powerful songs. Instead we have an extended detour into pointlessness that sacrifices the best abilities of this songwriter to his worst fears.

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First in Line: Metallica – Kill ‘Em All

metallica-kill_em_allThirty years ago, a struggling band from California unleashed their first album and changed the world of heavy metal forever. The genre that they may not have invented but certainly formalized was speed metal, and it represented the start of heavy metal’s journey away from verse-chorus rock into the dual worlds of hardcore punk intensity and progressive rock song structures.

At first, these changes were less obvious. Kill ‘Em All owes a huge debt to the heavy metal that came before it, and embraces many of the conventions of rock music as well, but it funneled them through a singular filter and achieved a uniformity of sound. In addition, this new style crept in with a number of innovations, like the use of introductions and instrumentals to change song structure, that presaged where this new subgenre would go.

From a casual observer’s position, the first Metallica album isn’t that far removed from its predecessors. The dual influences of UK heavy metal and hardcore punk are clear, as is the distinctive feature of speed metal: the muted strum that produces a choppy explosive sound from percussive lead rhythm guitar, allowing the construction of more complex riffs by making the power chord a building block instead of a place where the riff rests, as open chords are in rock.

Kill ‘Em All showed a new blueprint for metal that developed the extremity of Motorhead with the intricate riffery of Judas Priest and other NWOBHM bands, making for a brainy album that relied on speed to cram all of its power into songs of a normal length. In addition, the speed kicked it up to a new level of complexity in riffing. Speed reveals the sparseness of a riff, and so the one- and two-note riffs of the past would seem immensely repetitive at a faster pace. Thus the riff itself grew with speed metal.

Conceptually, metal grew up with Kill ‘Em All as well, at least partly. Yes, there were some embarrassing songs that sounded like West Side Story retrofitted for violent Northern California speed metal gangs. But more importantly, there was an epic view of existence. Songs about fate, about the fall of civilization, and dark lore that reveals the topics feared by daylight conversation all gave the album a weight beyond its (merely) heavy riffs. Like hardcore punk, this was the howling voice of the apocalypse at our door.

One of Metallica’s most important contributions was to liberate the riff from the drums, hence the “lead rhythm guitar” designation that appeared with many speed metal bands. Following the lead of UK crust punk bands like Discharge, Metallica viewed the drums as a background timekeeper which framed the riff loosely rather than accentuated it, and thus the riff could change without the drums changing. This allowed the riff to change more frequently without forcing tempo changes, although the band delighted in abrupt and surprising tempo changes as well.

Speed metal took this pattern and ran with it. While its antecedents are clear, such as the proto-speed metal of Satan/Blitzkrieg and Motorhead, and the fast-fingered intricate melodic riffs of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, the new speed metal band from California turned up the intensity and pushed aside conventional song structures. This set metal free from the world of rock, and laid the groundwork for the next generation, which would not only inherit the true lawlessness of hardcore punk, but build up complexity to be closer to the world of progressive rock.

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From the Vault: Miasma Changes

miasma-changesIt’s easy for us looking back on underground metal to see it like a textbook description, where it was ordained that certain bands would become pillars of the underground. In reality, it was more like a place where rivers meet, with currents flowing under and behind each other to weave into a body of water.

Miasma’s Changes never got much distribution, being on tiny and sometimes inconsistent Lethal Records, nor did it fit into what people expected. At a time when European metal was surging ahead with fast melodic material, this Changes combined doom metal with primitive American-style death metal like Morpheus Descends or Baphomet. With its heavy vocals and dark cadenced approach it made stuff like Entombed sound cheerful.

Like German heavyweights Atrocity, Miasma was calibrated incorrectly for what the audience wanted, but the band knew how to make crushing metal, more in the style of Grave and Uncanny than the At the Gates and Therion more delicate fare. Using trudging verses and choruses that seem to be from familiar memories of years past now forgotten, Miasma created music that was both intuitive and surprising. Even more, it worked in melody, but used it more like doom metal bands — think Candlemass here — who use the sweetness and light to accent the morbid and dark and make it all the more real.

Behind the scenes, this album influenced a wide range of people, but most of them were metal musicians. The fans never quite got it, other than a few hipsters in the early 2000s who wanted it for its collectable value. However, those who wanted to know how to make death metal that felt like a subconscious gesture, Changes remains a prized treasure.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9IWVo8-M05s

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